Discussion Forum

John Billingsley

Posted by The Licensing Bill - cause for concern?,
Monday, January 20, 2003

I am very concerned about the effect of the Licensing Bill on public entertainment and popular folk and performance culture generally. The bill proposes that almost all music, song, dance and acting becomes a criminal offence - unless previously licensed by the local authority. This effectively kills spontaneity and performance in any premises that hasn't got itself a licence (which are not cheap). Private events are also affected if any payment is involved - like to raise money for charity, to pay the musicians, or if guests are asked to contribute towards expenses. What happens if you break the law? Up to 20,000 in fines and six months in prison. All for joining in with a chorus or any other audience participation; or if you're a publican without a licence, all for allowing people to do so, for not saying 'shut up you lot' when people are enjoying themselves! And oh by the way, premises isn't just pubs and clubs - being described as 'any place', that means schools, churches, private gardens, public parks, market squares...

Howells says the bill can be amended where there appears to be an unwarranted restriction of public freedom but naively asserts that the spirit of the bill is not as draconian as it might appear - as if lawyers supported the spirit rather than the wording of law. Better in my view is that the Bill is recognised for what it is - a disgraceful attempt to curtail and channel popular culture.

Below I've copied part of a letter I've written to my local MP; though the more pressing concern of today might be the threat of war, behind that curtain may well slip in all kinds of unwelcome developments. Letters to MPs and the Ministry, telling your friends etc., would seem to be in order if you share any of my concern.

I'd like to ask you for your views on Kim Howell's Licensing Bill. As a fan of folk music and custom, a lecturer and writer in folklore, and someone who enjoys a spontaneous song and dance wherever it might occur - and believes that such expressions of vitality are to be encouraged at all costs and not regulated by any means (other than noise nuisance) - I am very concerned indeed that not only folk sessions, but any kind of public music, song, storytelling, party or performance, organised or spontaneous, stands to run foul of the new proposals.

Indeed, it seems to be creating a situation where pubs will be scapegoated rather than those truly responsible, the lawmakers, as it will in the end be premises that have to arrange (and pay for) licences; and if they don't have a licence they then have the responsibility to shut people up or risk punitive action by the local council (who perhaps themselves would rather not have the public role of civic killjoy).

This effect will be particularly hard-felt in rural pubs and establishments all over the country, and will do nothing to reverse the all-too-rapid decline and privatisation of such places. In Calderdale, there has been a lively folk session scene which may be affected. There are also major customary events, notably the Pace Egg Plays and the Rushbearing, which have a knock-on effect of creating spontaneous music (and custom) in pubs. The Hebden Bridge Arts Festival, with its assorted range of venues at which anything may happen, is also liable to be affected. This is just one small area. All over the country there are mummers who perhaps once or twice a year burst into a local pub to perform a folk play, and they will be affected, as well as the traditional carolsingers of South Yorkshire's pubs; and as will all the other establishments in places like Sidmouth, Towersey, Whitby, Otley and so on where folk music festivals are organised. Village fetes will have cause for concern. Storytellers, too, whose performances often require audience participation and music, will be affected, and pubs are and have always been the primary venues for stories! Volunteer associations like morris dancers and carol groups will find it an extra drain upon already slender funds, which will make it even harder to attract new blood into the teams. Indeed, the more I think about it, the more widespread appear the iniquitous effects of these proposals...

In fact, I cannot think of any good reason whatsoever for new laws that try to channel people's expression of fun and pleasure into officially sanctioned bureaucratic channels with officially decreed bureaucratic conditions. I listened to Kim Howells trying to defend his proposals on the Mike Harding Show and his oh-so-reasonable manner could not hide the disgracefully authoritarian nature of his proposals. What was most worrying is that he seemed to think that there is no way any reasonable person could disagree with them, as if another set of nanny-like heightened central authority (already reaching into wider and wider areas of people's life) is in everyone's interest. I have heard him say that if there appears to be something wrong with the Bill, it can be amended - better not to make such amendments necessary, surely, because there are so many ways in which this Bill will limit the freedom of people to enjoy their nights out, often in ways that will only show up when the right to do so is curtailed, that it is surely preferable not to allow it to reach the law books. It is also an inescapable fact that fear of breaking the law and incurring a heavy fine is likely to cause owners of premises to act too cautiously. The implications are that Licensing will too often become in effect Banning.

Spontaneity and the freedom to perform wherever and whenever is at the root of a people's culture, and is surely a fundamental human right. These proposals are not so far away in spirit from laws that prohibit the gathering of people for a common purpose. Whatever Mr Howells may think about his Licensing Bill, it is a conceit that hearkens backwards to Cromwell rather than forwards to the encouragement of distinctive local cultural manifestations.