Memorandum submitted by Peter Stringfellow

 

Introduction

 

I have been involved in the late-night leisure business for forty six years and have operated Stringfellows in Upper St Martin's Lane since 1980. In the 1990s, I saw an opportunity for a well managed Gentlemen's club, similar to one I had run highly successfully in New York, to offer striptease in a sophisticated, well policed, and attractive environment. Accordingly, I set out obtaining the necessary consents and permissions from the relevant local authority, in this case Westminster, which took me many years and a great deal of time and cost. My premises in St Martin's Lane have successfully operated since that time, with the support of the relevant local authority, residents and the police. Indeed, the good practices that I have forged and developed have become best practice in Westminster and elsewhere.

 

I also operate another club in Wardour Street, W1. Both venues are located in substantially commercial areas. Both of my clubs are purpose built and laid out for tableside dancing and both include substantial restaurants providing high-end cuisine and alcoholic drinks but only at premium prices. There is no discounting and members of the public who wish to enter either establishment have to pay a minimum entrance charge of 20, unless they are a member or intend to dine at the club

 

My management have worked with me in some cases for over 30 years. My two clubs employ some 130 full-time staff and additionally I have a pool of around 400 dancers. I must have at least six registered door supervisors on duty at any one time to ensure that the tableside dancing is provided in accordance with the licence conditions. We have an extensive closed circuit television system in place to ensure good order throughout the clubs. My clientele are mature individuals, both male and female, who like to come to a civilised environment and many come for dinner in the restaurant. The door staff have a very proactive approach to ensuring that nobody enters the premises who are not suitable, either in relation to sobriety, dress or demeanour.

 

All my dancers are self-employed. They are interviewed and vetted individually by a senior member of staff. All have to provide at least two types of identification and sign a set of working conditions which they are obliged to adhere to. Any departure from these conditions results in their contract to work at the club being immediately terminated. All the dancers enjoy working at the Club and are, of course, under no pressure to do so.

 

History of the Legislation and the current effect

 

The London Government Act 1963 which was in force until November 2005, required premises to apply for a "music and dancing" licence to provide any form of dancing, including that performed by persons nude or partially nude. A similar provision applied in respect of premises outside London under the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1982.

 

Many councils, including Westminster, had a specific condition contained in the Rules of Management, which applied to all premises which were granted licences which prohibited nudity or partial nudity without the consent of the council. This was commonly known as "Rule 4" and if you wished to disapply that condition, you had to apply to the relevant local authority for what was called a "Rule 4 waiver". That meant that any premises operating in Westminster and other local authorities that had such a Rule of Management had to have a waiver before providing nude or partially nude entertainment.

 

The Licensing Act 2003 required the holders of all licences which allowed the sale of alcohol, regulated entertainment or late-night refreshment to apply for "conversion" of their licences under the Licensing Act 2003. Where premises had the benefit of a music and dancing licence under the old regime, with or without nudity, the Rule of Managements were automatically "grandfathered" onto the converted Premises Licence when that came into force in November 2005. Therefore, in relation to converted licences, those with a Rule 4 restriction carried forward the prohibition on having nudity or partial nudity. Similarly, those with a Rule 4 waiver carried forward the benefit of having the ability to provide nude or partially nude entertainment.

 

As I mentioned above, I have two licensed premises, one in Soho and one in Covent Garden. The Covent Garden premises have the benefit of a Premises Licence, which was converted under the transitional provisions of the Licensing Act 2003. This has the benefit of a Rule 4 waiver, so as to allow the provision of striptease and similar entertainment.

 

In relation to Soho, the premises previously had the benefit of a music and dancing licence. However, when I took on the premises in 2006, I decided to apply for a new Premises Licence under the new regime so as to regulate and restrict some of the activities being provided at the premises, as they had been previously operated as a rather rundown and problematic nightclub.

 

I wanted to apply afresh under the new licensing regime so that the local authority and police could agree appropriate operating conditions for the way forward, because I was advised the change was so substantial that the Council would prefer a new licence, rather than a variation of the existing licence. In doing so, I reduced the capacity of the premises from 900 to 600 so that the local authority and police could agree appropriate operating conditions for the way forward. The Council had a policy against new licences allowing nudity and I had to prove an exception. Importantly, the application specifically referred to striptease, as did the Licence granted by the Council which specifically allowed it.

 

Under the Licensing Act 2003, an application is still required to allow the performance of a dance and the facilities for dancing. Obviously, the provision of tableside dancing falls within one of these licensable activities. However, being nude or partially nude is not licensable in itself. Therefore, if one was to apply for a new Premises Licence under the new licensing regime for music and dancing and did not make any specific reference in the application to nude or partially nude entertainment, local authorities apparently have not been implying a condition that striptease should be prohibited. Therein lies the problem.

 

What should have happened when new licences were granted under the new regime is that local authorities should have taken from the operating schedule any absence of reference to nudity as being consistent with the operating schedule and then automatically imposed a no nudity condition. Under the 2003 Act, local authorities have adequate powers to impose such a condition, should they so choose, and many are now doing so.

 

I understand that it is argued on behalf of those that support a change in the law that local authorities are only empowered to impose such a condition if there are relevant representations. This is incorrect as recently identified by local authorities, such as Westminster and Tower Hamlets, which are now automatically imposing no nudity conditions, whether or not there are relevant representations and where it is consistent with the operating schedule (in other words where it is not mentioned).

 

Effect of a Change in Legislation

 

I understand that some have proposed to change the 1982 Act to require all establishments which have nudity or partial nudity to be licensed as Sex Encounter Establishments, regardless of whether they have a Premises Licence.

 

Firstly, I think that any such changes are unnecessary and disproportionate. The licences I hold contain numerous conditions which police the premises to a very high standard. Both of my premises have always been extremely well managed and have never been the subject of any applications to either local authority or the magistrates' court for a revocation of the licence or a review under the new licensing regime.

 

If I were required to apply for a new Sex Encounter Establishment Licence, I would have the uncertainty as to whether such a licence would be granted. In addition I would be required to pay an annual fee of at least 29,100 per club (as currently payable in Westminster), such a fee being difficult to justify in terms of enforcement cost. If one or both licences were refused, one or both of my business would have to cease trading and I would lose everything that I have worked for all of my long working life.

 

The 1982 Act has to be adopted by individual councils. If not adopted, any change would have no effect. Some councils have not adopted the existing legislation and may not adopt it with any changes. Furthermore, having a separate licensing system is inconsistent with the Government's wishes to have one licensing system for all places of resort and entertainment. I am advised that the 1982 Act was not ideal for easy implementation (hence its partial repeal in favour of the 2003 Act) and does not give residents the same protections as the 2003 Act does. Most local authorities will have a "quota" in relation to the amount of such establishments that they have in an area. For example, in Westminster, only eighteen sex encounter premises are allowed in Soho. Whilst I support the need to prevent the proliferation of such establishments, particularly those badly managed, the risk of having to apply for a new licence, when I have been operating perfectly properly and with a legitimate expectation, is one almost beyond comprehension.

 

A way forward

 

Whilst I certainly recognise that some regulation needs to happen in this area to ensure that establishments do not open in inappropriate locations and with insufficient operating requirements, I do not believe that requiring all establishments to apply retrospectively for a sex encounter licence is necessary or proportionate.

 

If all local authorities imposed a "no nudity condition" as a result of all new licence applications that would close any loophole that currently exists. In respect of those premises which are mismanaged and badly operated already, with licences either granted under the old or new licensing regime, such operators should be prosecuted or review proceedings brought by the relevant enforcement authority. For example, having seen the television show Dispatches, where premises have a "3ft rule" and that condition is being obviously breached, those responsible should be prosecuted. You do not need to change the law to close down badly run premises.

 

However, I can see that there remains a small loophole in respect of those premises which were granted a new licence under the new licensing regime and which were not made the subject of a Rule 4 or similar condition upon such licence being granted, due to a lack of understanding by Councils about their powers. I accept and agree that there must be a pressing case to retrospectively require that all such premises be licensed. However, in my respectful view, the Government has to carry out a balancing exercise for existing businesses which have a licence permitting striptease and have gone through the time, cost and effort of obtaining such consents.

 

Whilst some licences have been granted and can be utilised as such under the new licensing regime, to require properly operated establishments such as my own to reapply for a licence at the risk of such not being granted is unduly disproportionate in the circumstances. At the very least, the Government should consider a position where those premises operating with licences which already specifically allow striptease entertainment are exempted from any proposed amendment to the existing regime. One way of doing this would be to exempt those premises which already have a Premises Licence which specifically authorise striptease. Finally, the thought of my clubs being called "Sex Establishment Premises" is completely abhorrent. What message this would convey to my customers I cannot think! My final plea is please don't use a sledgehammer to crack a nut. I have worked long and hard under hard financial conditions to operate and control my two venues, a change in the law will make it even more difficult and uncertain to do so in the current climate.

 

November 2008