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Keith Leech

On Monday the 16th December 2002, something happened to the Mummers at Cerne Abbas, Dorset, England that made them a national cause celèbre, and turned them into martyrs in the campaign against the English Government's proposed Licencing Bill. Their plight was covered by the national media, including the main broadsheet newspapers, BBC Radio 4, and even the tabloids. Prominent people wrote supporting letters to The TelegraphThe Times and The Guardian, including local celebrity Billy Bragg. Here, Keith Leech explains what the brouhaha was all about, and what happened at Cerne Abbas.

The Need for Legislation

If somebody said to you that there was a law to protect the public when listening to a concert, you would not be surprised and would probably expect that to be the case. After all, if there were a fire or something, you do need to be certain everybody can get out safely. Likewise, you would not lift an eyebrow if you were informed that the venue had some kind of insurance to protect the audience in the event of some unknown occurrence. Neither would anybody be likely to object if they knew that a certain amount of the ticket price went as a ‘royalty’ to the author of the piece. None of this is in the slightest unreasonable, and is all designed to protect both the public and the artist.

One Size Fits All?

Yet for English tradition, legislation become an issue, and far from getting better appears to be getting worse. To play any kind of music in a public building, that building must have both public liability insurance and an entertainment licence. To ‘perform’ any custom or tradition it must have adequate public liability insurance. If neither of these are present the local authority or the police have powers to stop the event happening.

The law applies whether you are running a multi million pound rock enterprise or a pub folk session with three or four musicians sitting in the corner. It applies whether you are running a major sporting fixture or simply trying to raise a village maypole. Usually, if it were a pub session or a maypole, nobody seemed to bother much, or probably even noticed. Unfortunately things have changed as society gets increasingly litigious and solicitors now actively advertise ‘Got injured? We can get you something, no win, no fee.’ The powers that be have began to notice the little traditions and sessions, and (usually covering their own backs) are insisting on insurance and public entertainment licences. The law does not discriminate between the big and the small, the profit-making and those who do it for love and probably make a loss. All are hit in the same way, and it is beginning to have serious consequences for our national culture.

As the law currently stands you may have two musicians or entertainers in a place and not have to pay for an entertainment licence or have any fire checks and so on, but any more and you must have it. Therefore it would be possible for a large pub to put on, say, Simon and Garfunkle and not have to be licenced. But if it were to have the local Morris team it would need one.


Planned English Legislation

Various people in the traditional music world have argued for some years that the current situation is clearly ridiculous, and that the law needed to be looked at again. The answer has been a new bill going through Parliament to make sure that ALL venues providing ANY entertainment must be licenced. On the face of it this looks reasonable, but as you look further it means that the local church carol concert, the school nativity play and of course traditional customs, wherever they may happen will be hit and legislated against. This will not only mean entertainment licences but public liability insurance, risk assessments and all the other things that go with it. The bottom line is that our culture may be swept away.

Effects on Folk Traditions

You may think I am being a little histrionic here, but unfortunately it has already started to happen. It is not uncommon for local authorities to insist on a public liability insurance of ten million pounds. Insurers are naturally reluctant to have such high potential losses and premiums have leapt. The famous Bonfire processions of Sussex are under serious threat. Rye Bonfire with an almost unbroken 400 year old history had to pay four thousand pounds for insurance last year, almost twice its annual budget, and was only saved by a local benefactor. The famous Cheese Rolling at Coopers Hill in Gloucestershire is under threat, and the largest maypole in England at Barwick-in-Elmett was not raised last year because of insurance problems. The well-known music session by the Cutty Sark, where any folk musician who happened to be in London would just drop in was closed because more than two were playing at a time. There is a story that one pub was fined in Westminster for allowing more than two people to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ at a party. [But that may be a legend as efforts to find confirmation have failed. Ed.] So don’t think you can sing when or where you like; you cannot. The assumption is that anybody ‘performing’ must be doing so for profit and therefore is able to pay.

That is not all. The folk play and the Morris dance have also always been events where a certain amount may be collected for the performers efforts, either in cash or in kind. Legislation, (by no means new), exists where to collect on the street a street collection licence is required. This involves numerous forms to fill in, and all money must be collected in sealed boxes numbered to each collector. These usually have to be applied for a year in advance and if another group is collecting on that day you will not be granted a licence. Don't go thinking you can just collect in pubs either. Here you need a house to house collection licence and each collector must by law carry an offcial ID badge and a sealed container. Once again many local authorities turn a blind eye to traditional activities, but can enforce these laws if they wish. Eastbourne is a prime example, the local Morris side rarely now bother to dance in their own town because of an insistance on adhering to every law. The revivied Eastbourne Bonfire was never allowed to happen due to one piece of legislation after another being dragged up. The bottom line is if the local authority don't want you they will make it almost impossible for you to do it. Then there was the time when collecting on a stand somebody came up to me and said 'I am an Inland revenue Inspector. Do we know about this?' I don't even want to go there......!!!

Cock-up at Cerne Abbas

Now any performance of any kind anywhere in England or Wales will have to also be licenced. So why does this need to be a concern of those interested in Folk plays? Just before Christmas the Wessex Morris dancers appeared as they have for many years at a pub - the Red Lion - in Cerne Abbas, Dorset, just below the famous chalk giant to perform their annual mummers play. There waiting for them was the licencing officer of West Dorset District Council. The pub has no public entertainment licence and there are of course more than two in the play. If they went ahead the landlord of the pub would have been fined. Fortunately it was not raining and they did it in the street. Soon it will be illegal to perform it even in the street even with only one man without a licence, or for that matter even in their own home! This is legislation gone mad, well-intentioned but completely over the top. Government of course says that this is not their intention, but once in law, it is law. Other cases have shown that individual police officers are not at liberty to interpret the law, just to uphold it. Are we just going to stand by and after so may years keeping tradition alive allow it to disappear along with our culture over something as silly as this?


Further Reading

The Mudcat Café (2002-2003) "PEL: Mummers stopped Cerne Abbas"
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