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9.51 pm

Mr. Mark Field: It will be a very brief speech indeed, Mr. Speaker. It is lovely to have the last word; I wish it were like that all the time in politics.

I wish to associate myself with many of the comments about the consensus on the Bill. I fear that that is the last word. [Laughter.]

Mr. Speaker: It certainly has been brief.

Question agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.


Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6) (Standing Committees on Delegated Legislation),

Government Trading Funds

Question agreed to.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6) (Standing Committees on Delegated Legislation),

Social Security

Question agreed to.

27 Feb 2002 : Column 805

27 Feb 2002 : Column 807

Public Entertainment Licences

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mrs. McGuire.]

9.52 pm

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): It is a great pleasure to have the opportunity to speak about public entertainment licences. Many archaic parts of the law have somehow survived unrepealed, and some have a sparing connection with reality. Under the Town Police Clauses Act 1847, for instance, it is still illegal to fly a kite or slide on ice in a public place. Happily, it is not often enforced.

The problem with the public entertainment licence laws is that although they are archaic and in many respects foolish, they are vigorously applied by many local authorities. Many hon. Members will be aware of the ridiculous "two in the bar" rule. I spoke about this most recently on 3 December when I asked a question of the Minister for Tourism, Film and Broadcasting and mentioned Madonna duetting with Michael Jackson. Let me give another illustration: if Kylie Minogue and Elvis Presley—if he were still alive, as some believe he is—were to do a gig in a pub, they would not need a public entertainment licence, but three folk singers from Somerset would. I do not believe that the attendance would be comparable, and I put that case to the Minister for Tourism, Film and Broadcasting.

I mean no disrespect to the Minister for Sport—I am delighted that he is to reply to the debate—but I hoped that I could give his colleague an opportunity to redeem himself in the eyes of every good west countryman and every adherent of folk music in the country. His reply on 3 December brought unprecedented opprobrium down on his head from the west country. He may have subsequently regretted his comments, and I should have liked to give him the chance to redeem himself.

Some may believe that I am motivated only by my deep and lasting affection for Adge Cutler. However, although I am interested in and enjoy traditional and contemporary folk music, it is not the only form of entertainment that is affected by the rules. They affect jazz, pop, rock and every form of live music, and public houses and the licensed trade. Restrictions on the ability to perform live music on such premises often have a knock-on effect on tourism.

Not only licensed premises are affected. Many people do not understand that it is a criminal offence for a brass band to play at a village fete in a vicarage garden because it is private land without a public entertainment licence. It is also a criminal offence for morris dancers to perform in a public house car park without such a licence. Last week's court case of the London borough of Southwark v. Sean Toye showed that it is an offence not only for a performance to include more than two people singing or playing at the same time, but for people to perform sequentially. If one person stands up, sings and sits down and is followed by a second and then a third person, that requires a public entertainment licence.

Legal actions show that the "performance" does not even have to be advertised to the public to require a licence. We know that people do not have to pay money for such a licence to be required. However, people indulging in singing on licensed premises also appears to

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need a licence. That was the crux of the case that Weymouth and Portland borough council brought against The Cove inn. I note that the hon. Member for South Dorset (Jim Knight) is in his place. He may know more about that case. The council relied on case law from 1793 to establish that singing on the premises was potentially a criminal offence. For the record, the case was Clarke v. Searle.

Jim Knight (South Dorset): The hon. Gentleman is correct about the case in my constituency. The Cove is a fine pub, which I recommend to hon. Members. It has a superb view over Chesil beach. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is a shame that my constituents and council officers have spent disproportionate amounts of time corresponding with each other and arguing the toss about arcane legislation? As he said, it is a silly law, and everyone appears to be confused about how strictly to enforce it. It is unfortunate that, in the case that we are considering, it was decided to enforce it strictly. That has left everyone, including me, with a huge burden of correspondence.

Mr. Heath: The hon. Gentleman is right, and he has my greatest sympathy for the casework that has been generated. It shows how ridiculous the law is. The guidance that the licensees give recognises that. The British Institute of Innkeeping's "Handbook for the Entertainment Licensee's National Certificate" states:

We might have guessed that. It goes on to say:

If someone gets up in a pub and has the temerity to start singing—it has been known—he is technically in breach of the law. I do not know what the landlord is supposed to do about it: dash out and get a public entertainment—

It being Ten o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. McNulty.]

Mr. Heath: No doubt the publican would be required to call time and close the public house.

Jim Knight: About nine months ago, when I lived in the hon. Gentleman's constituency, everyone in the pub just down the road from me broke spontaneously into song after one or two people turned up who had been rehearsing their musical instruments. I confess that perhaps I broke the law when I joined in. I hope that he will forgive me for doing that in his constituency.

Mr. Heath: The hon. Gentleman was a distinguished member of the local district council and would have had to take action against himself in those circumstances.

There is a large coalition of interests against this nonsensical law. The Minister knows that the Arts Council, the Church of England, hon. Members on both sides of the House, the Musicians Union and publicans want the law changed. Indeed, the Government want it changed, as they have said several times. We need to change it because the rules are archaic and arbitrary. The interpretation and the costs that can be applied to the

27 Feb 2002 : Column 809

person who wants a licence from the local authority are arbitrary. There is a disproportionate penalty for the so-called criminal offence. The fine can be up to £20,000 and it is possible to receive six months in prison for breaking the law. Not only can it criminalise those who hold licences for public houses and other venues and those musicians who may simply be ignorant of the rules, which is often the case with amateur organisations, but it over-regulates many premises that then face huge compliance and regulatory costs.

In addition, the law reduces the amount of live music that is available in this country, which is a great shame. I should like to stimulate the performance of much more live music. Many places used to allow live music performances. Over the past 20 years or so, the number has decreased and less than 5 per cent. of public houses now hold a public entertainment licence, which is regrettable.

The regulations are not in effect because of the number of people who are expected to attend a performance or the capacity of the venue. The rule is simply arbitrary. I would be the last person to argue that there is a case for abolishing the regulations if it meant that public safety was endangered or we risked allowing public disorder, but the authorities have other powers at their disposal in those circumstances.

The Government produced a White Paper in April 2000 in which they said that they wanted to change things. Sadly, since the general election, and despite the famous text messages that we have heard so much about which were sent to young people on the morning of the election, there was nothing in the Queen's Speech to that effect and no such legislation is pending.

There is a crying need for legislation to change the regulations. That does not mean simply abolishing the "two in the bar" rule because it would obviously be more restrictive if we made it a "one in the bar" rule. We need a complete change. If the Minister cannot give a date for when the Government will legislate, will he at least issue guidance to local authorities on how they should exercise the powers at their disposal so that their decisions are not so arbitrary? That would remove the enormous disparity in costs that exists between one local authority and another. Local authorities need to know what they are doing so that the public, event organisers and licensees of premises know what to expect.

The Department, which has been asked to provide information on its website, has not been very helpful in that respect. I have a copy of a letter from Philippa Drew—the Department's director of education, training, arts and sport—to the director of the National Campaign for the Arts. Among other things, it states:

The Department is arguing that it will not give guidance because people might worry that they will face the penalties that they may indeed have to face. That does not seem a credible position for the Government to adopt.

I ask the Minister to reconsider the matter and give a real commitment that legislation will be brought before the House in short order. Irrespective of whether that happens, I ask him to provide proper guidelines for local authorities and the public, so that everybody knows where

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they stand. A less arbitrary and fairer system might stimulate the public, the entertainment industry, live music, licensed premises, tourism and the general well-being of the population.

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