Thursday, 3 Dec 2020

Manchester Arena inquiry: Management tried to reduce levels of staffing ‘to save money on minimum wage’

Management at the Manchester Arena have been accused of “penny pinching” as it emerged that they tried to reduce the number of stewards before the suicide bomb attack to save money on the minimum wage.

Families of the victims suggested that if there had been more stewards on duty conducting more checks, it would have put the bomber off targeting the Ariana Grande concert in May 2017.

A stewarding review conducted in April 2016, just over a year before the attack, was told that other venues were increasing the number of stewards after the attack on the Bataclan music venue in Paris.

James Allen, the general manager for SMG, the arena operator, had also been to a conference in which his French equivalent had talked about increasing the number of staff by 20%.

Despite this, the arena was accused of “assuming it (a Bataclan-style attack) wouldn’t happen to them”, the inquiry heard.

The incident in Paris was “massive” and in the days afterwards they reviewed their security measures, Mr Allen said.

However an email showed that after reviewing “entry checks and policies” they decided “we already have rigorous checks.”

Their only change was to keep queues short in the City Room foyer and introduce random checks for a “short period of time.”

At the end of two days in the witness box, Paul Greaney QC, for the inquiry, asked James Allen: “Is it reasonable to say, absent specific intelligence, that SMG assumed it would not happen to them (…)?”

Mr Allen said: “We hoped we had put in enough measures to make us not a suitable target.”

“Are you saying that to do more than you were doing required one of two things to happen – either some specific intelligence about your venue or, I suppose, a particular event to occur that made you think, ‘We need to do more in this area’?

“I suppose what happened on May 22 was the most terrible way of drawing that to your attention, was it not?”

“Unfortunately, yes,” Mr Allen said.

In a document, Miriam Stone, who was head of events at the arena, pointed out: “It should be noted in the current national security climate that most venues are in the process of increasing staff numbers.

“Many are carrying out full searches in anyone entering the venue both front and back of house.

“That is something we have resisted for a number of reasons including inconvenience to the public, increased staffing (to the levels or around £5000 + per show) as well as the need for an increased call time to get everyone into the venue in time for the show.”

Where full searches had been carried out, for the singer Adele, the costs of those searches “can be, and are passed on to the promoter as it becomes an ‘artist requirement’ rather than a venue choice.”

In a statement, Ms Stone added: “SMG is a commercial organisation which was resistant to spending more money that was needed. They also didn’t want to look like Fort Knox.”

Salman Abedi

John Cooper QC, for the 12 of the victims’ families, said: “The primary reason seems to be that full searches increase staff and that has been resisted because of cost.

“You are penny pinchers, you skimp, don’t pay for security properly and you put lives at risk.”

But Mr Allen told the inquiry: “I don’t believe we were.”

He was asked how promoters reacted when they tried to pass on the cost for more security.

“If they want to do it they do it, if they don’t they don’t,” Mr Allen said. “If we ask them, then we have to pay, if they ask us, for a reason other than terrorism, it is for them to pay.”

Abedi is seen in a lift on the night of the attack

In a legal interview after the bombing, Miriam Stone said that every August SMG asked ShowSec, their security contractors, for the prices for the following year.

In 2016 she was asked to make “savings per show to account for the rise in costs” from the higher minimum wage.

Notes from the interview said: “If SMG wanted her to cut down more you would have to decide if you wanted to lose on customer service or security.”

When the bill came in from Showsec, it took into account the living wage, and Mr Allen, had said: “The rates were increasing so we needed to change the spreadsheets and need to save £250 an event.”

Ms Stone “jokingly said she could ask the artist to play 15 minutes less,” the notes said.

As a result, Showsec were asked to do their own review of stewarding, the inquiry was told.

But Mr Allen said he didn’t recall the minimum wage being a factor, adding: “I believe we were looking for savings across the board.”

John Sharkey, a senior SMG executive, had asked for the review which was conducted by an outside consultant who attended a Justin Bieber concert.

The option of going back and examining the operation from the “ground upwards” was rejected in favour of getting someone in who knew the Manchester Arena already.

“Mr Sharkey wanted to make savings as a result of the minimum wage, so he asked for an independent review from ShowSec?” Adam Payter, for six of the victims’ families, asked.

Mr Allen said: “A new senior operative in the company he was looking across the board to try and understand the business better.”

Abedi (wearing all black and glasses) passes over the raised footbridge

Mr Payter said: “Would you agree that in the same month living wage was introduced in the UK, and you were told about measures that had been taken in Paris, rather than increase staff at the arena yourselves, you were considering making budgetary savings?

He added: “Do you think on reflection that was an acceptable state of affairs?”

Mr Allen replied with: “No, we should have maintained the levels we had previously”.

Ms Stone told lawyers that there had been attempts to reduce staff numbers for six years before the attack of May 2017.

“I believe our levels in 2017 were very similar to those six years previously,” Mr Allen said.

But he admitted: “We would look at things like, can an aisle way be looked after by one steward or two stewards, can we reduce the number of hours they are booked on for, a number of those [things].”

A member of Ariana Grande’s touring team had wanted full pat downs, but they never made a request to the arena, the inquiry was told.

“If they had wanted it, they could have had it,” Mr Allen said, citing a Bruno Mars concert two weeks before the attack, with the same promoter, Live Nation.

“Do you believe the staffing level was correct?” Mr Cooper added.

“Yes, I believe it was.”

Mr Cooper said: “Can I suggest over six years, SMG was far more interested in trying to get efficiencies and saving money than making sure their security operation was fit for purpose?”

“No that is not correct,” Mr Allen said.

The inquiry was told that after the bombing, the arena operator’s American owners called in a US security company called Guidepost who asked: “If James Allen wasn’t in the room, what would you do different.”

Alan Wallace, another SMG employee, said he would do more searches by Security Industry Authority (SIA) licensed staff and added: “focused on budgets.”

Mr Allen told the inquiry: “Commercial elements are always a consideration and I don’t want to have more [staff] than I need but I always want to make sure I have enough to achieve the overall outcome.”

“Did commercial pressures did have an impact on staffing?” Mr Cooper asked.

Having earlier denied they were a consideration, Mr Allen said: “They will have had an impact, yes.”

It was only two months ago that a security camera was fitted to deal with the blind spot in the City Room foyer where Salman Abedi, the bomber, hid for nearly an hour.

Mr Cooper said: “You should be all over this, have you bothered to find out what the up to date situation is? Did it not strike you that this ought to be at the top of your priority list?

“There is this murderer, for nearly an hour, undetected, ‘I want to make sure it never happens again and want to make sure it has been corrected?’

“It sums up your attitude to security. You are leaving it to everyone else to take the initiative to do something or say something. You are passive and ineffective.”

“I believe it has been done,” Mr Allen said.

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