The UK Government finally acts on Licensing Act bureaucracy after a barrage of complaints

November 2009

Live events

The ongoing threat to the U.K.’s live music business from bureaucracy introduced by the 2003 Licensing Act was once again the focus of attention at a Music Tank meeting in October held at the PRS for Music building titled ‘Live Music – Licensed to Thrill?’ which is detailed below but the barrage of complaints from across the entertainments industry does seem to finally sparked some Government action.

In July 2009 The Culture Media & Sport Select Committee recommended that venues under 200 capacity be excluded from the need for a licence to put on the performance of live music, that the old ‘two in a bar’ rule be introduced and that the controversial Metropolitan Police form 696 be reviewed. At the time Committee chair John Whitingdale said “Broadly speaking the Licensing Act has in our view been a success. The Act has simplified the licensing system, bringing together a number of different regimes into one licence. There is also a greater diversity of premises on the high street and the Act’s emphasis on partnership working is welcome. However in some areas it is clearly not working. However the licensing requirements are still too bureaucratic and costly – particularly for non-commercial groups such as sports clubs, not-for-profit establishments and organisers of occasional events. We were also particularly concerned to hear of the way the Act may be hampering live music performances especially by young musicians, who often get their first break though performing live at small venues such as pubs. Our Report calls on the Government to relax restrictions in this area, which in some cases are unnecessarily draconian, and in others simply absurd.”

With original keynote speaker Feargal Sharkey struck down with Swine Flu, replacement Tim Clement Jones, a Liberal Democrat peer, said the current licensing situation for small venues was worse that had been in 1899 despite the fact that when the law was adopted in 2003, the current Labour government promised it would help boost the live music business, which yields more than £1 billion ($1.58 billion) a year and exceeded recorded-music sales for the first time last year, according to U.K. collecting society PRS for Music. Lord Clement-Jones said the Licensing Act should be “simplified” because currently the “bureaucratic process” of putting on live music was “completely self-defeating” adding “Live music is the basis of the whole U.K. music industry’s success,” he continued. “Young musicians get their first break in small venues. But things are worse now than in 1899. The government promised to do something about (the Licensing Act) in 2007, in 2008 and in 2009, but not a dickey bird has come out of it.” He also attacked the Act for allowing “everybody and their brother and sister” to object to live music in pubs. Clement-Jones said he wanted to see a licensing exemption for venues with a capacity of 200 or less, but was not set on this figure. A demonstration organised by the Musicians  Union, UK Music and actor’s union Equity is due to be held outside Parliament on October 22 to coincide with a debate in the Commons led by MP John Whittingdale complaint as part of the MU’s “campaign to persuade the Government to rethink the Licensing Act. A number of high profile performers are expected to descend on Parliament to convince the government to undo the damage being done to live entertainment through the current licensing regime.

And remarkably someone seems to have been listening and it now seems the UK government is proposing that small venues such as pubs and wine bars be free to put on live music without a licence and venues with a 100-person capacity or under will be able to put on live music without a licence – although the industry must wait for the outcome of a 12-week public consultation. John Whittingdale, chairman of the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, called the proposals a “step in the right direction” but said they did not go far enough. The government’s new proposal would go further than reintroducing the “two in a bar” exemption – which was in place before the 2003 Act – which allowed non-amplified music by one or two musicians in a venue of any size. The proposed exemption – which will not include venues with DJs – is expected to take “a few months”, but ministers are confident it will be “tight but possible” to do it quickly. That timescale is likely to be met with cynicism from campaigners, who have already taken part in six years of legislation, eight consultations, two government research projects, two national review processes and a parliamentary select committee report.

The meeting also heard about the issue of noise abatement orders, with licensee Kent Davis of Birmingham venue the Rainbow explaining the problems he had faced with his council after a complaint from just one resident.  Despite installing a sound-insulation roof, they were caught up in a year-long legal dispute, because of one complaint. And when they attempted to organise a street event to raise the £30k needed to install the roof, they were denied a licence for that. The seminar heard that there was already a raft of legislation covering noise (including the 2005 Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act and the Environmental Protection Act 1980 as well as the 2003 Antisocial Behaviour Act and the Licensing Act 2003 and whilst most promoters were more than aware of issue, the regeneration of inner city areas and an influx of new residents into areas already housing established (and often successful) music venues almost inevitably lead to clashes and the potential for venue closures – with the possibility that with some Local Authorities a single complaint can effectively close a long established music venue.

The seminar’s second keynote speaker was chief inspector Adrian Studd from The Metropolitan Police’s Club & Vice unit who insisted that a controversial risk-assessment form currently being used by most London Boroughs to assess risk at certain events was not only reasonable but instrumental in reducing crime, including gun crime and that de-regulating would be “a recipe for disaster”.  The form, Form 696, had already been revised and the Met have confirmed they will not longer ask about the genre of music but have said that the form is a very useful tool – something some promoters agree with – and has reduced crime, especially serious violent saying that the form has contributed to a 11% drop in serious violence in venues in 2008.

Studd said that the form is being maligned by misinformation and misunderstanding. “It isn’t a means to prevent live music or events from going ahead, or to close down venues, or to pick on any type of music, event or section of the community,” Studd said. “It’s a way of supporting managers and promoters by sharing information, of supporting communities by reducing violence to ensure events can go ahead”. The form requires promoters to submit personal details, including the addresses and birth dates, of the artists performing (after public opposition, the question on what genre of music would be performed has been dropped, as it was said to unfairly target “urban” music). The Met says it’s “in the interest of public order and the prevention of terrorism”. Studd estimated that of the country’s 175,000 licensed premises, only 270 had submitted forms 696, “and only 70 to 100 premises have had to use the risk-assessment process as a condition of their license”. Studd also argued that 75% of all violence and shootings have victims or perpetrators from the black community. “We don’t have the luxury of ignoring this violence,” he added. The keynote speakers’ co-panellists, however, agreed that the positive aspects of Form 696 should not be ignored. Diane Baxter, the Musicians Union’s national organiser, live performance and teaching, said that the MU now supported Form 696 and felt it now doesn’t primarily discriminate against live musicians and Reg Walker, live events operations director at Iridium Consultancy, demonstrated how it had prevented some serious violence taking place at live shows. Studd argued that the form was part of a “voluntary process” and only around 70-100 venues had it as a condition of their licence adding that “There’s no evidence it is having a negative impact on live music”. However others still insist that at worst Form 696 can be racist as it gives the police ammunition to target artists from ethnic-minority communities, especially black African-Caribbean’s urban-music acts and many have argued that there’s a higher risk of violence at a football match, or when rival teams watch a match on a pub TV – where there is no requirement to submit personal details of the players ahead of live football matches – and pubs don’t need a license to show games. Studd also commented on suggestions that a new “under 200” (or indeed under 100)  capacity system be put in place and Studd said: “If we set a number like that, all venues would claim they have a 199 capacity. And if we exempted jazz, everyone would call themselves jazz musicians.”

At the end of October the Metropolitan Police confirmed they are re-focusing their ‘risk evaluation’ procedures for music events, of which the 696 document is a key part. The Met’s new efforts to reduce crime and violence at music events will specifically focus on “large promoted events between 10pm and 4am which feature MCs and DJs performing to recorded backing tracks”. That would be primarily hip hop clubs then!

So, there have been some positive moves forward – and there has also been a positive reaction to a new guidance from the Government making it easier for managers of community premises to deal with their responsibilities under the Licensing Act. Councillor Brian Watson, chairman of Scarborough Council’s licensing committee, said: “I am delighted the Government acknowledged the problems with the previous legislation and has provided new guidance which will remove an unnecessary burden for managers of community premises, many of whom are volunteers”. The changes specifically relate to community venues such as village halls, parish halls and church halls. It is no longer a requirement that they need to appoint a Designated Premises Supervisor or Personal Licence Holder, and people who run such establishments can also apply for their licence to be amended to remove the named Designated Premises Supervisor on current licences allowing the sale of alcohol. The changes will enable the management committee of community halls and similar venues to make an application collectively for the responsibility of supervision of alcohol sales, instead of a designated person with a personal licence. An additional safeguard has been introduced that in exceptional circumstances the Police for the area can object to an application on crime and disorder grounds. Interested parties and responsible authorities may also apply for the licences to be reviewed, possibly resulting in the requirement for a premises supervisor to be re-imposed.

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