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Sarah Crofts

Since Keith Leech’s report, English legislators Attack Folk Performance in Traditional Drama Forum No 6, there have been some encouraging developments regarding the proposed Licencing Bill. At the time that Keith was writing in January 2003, he reported that the Wessex Morris men had been prevented from performing their mummers play in Cerne Abbas. This incident received much attention in the press, including a passionate article from Billy Bragg, a supporter of the campaign, in the Daily Telegraph of 30th December 2002.

On 27th January, Mozart’s birthday, there was a well publicised protest outside Parliament, organised by the Musicians’ Union, the English Folk Dance and Song Society [EFDSS] and others, reported widely in the press which carried pictures of musicians and morris dancers with tape over their mouths. Were there any mummers there?

At the same time, the press were reporting the fears of churches that the proposed licensing would make fund raising concerts prohibitively expensive and also criminalise carol concerts. In early February, the Government suddenly announced that live music in churches would be exempt from licensing as public entertainment. There was much rejoicing at that, but it still left the problem of music sessions, morris and mummers being caught by the proposed legislation when they performed in pubs.

Shortly after that, on 10th February the Joint Committee of Human Rights, a committee with members from both Houses, stated that 'There is a significant risk that the blanket licensing regime proposed in the Bill would give rise to an incompatibility with people's right to freedom of expression under ECHR Article 10...’ [European Convention of Human Rights]. Referring to the Government’s decision on churches, the Committee then went on to say 'This apparently random exemption for places of religious worship might tend to undermine the argument for the rationality of the blanket licensing scheme as a whole, and could engage other human rights issues by appearing to discriminate against occupiers and users of non-religious premises.'

Throughout all the discussions and press reports, Kim Howells, who is promoting this Bill, has been attacking the Musicians Union, who he accused of running a `pernicious lying campaign’, and mounting what looks like an increasingly desperate defence of the Bill.

On the 24th February, Opposition Lords, led by Lord Redesdale, won amendments to the Bill which gives exemption to performances of live, amplified or acoustic music so long as the music is 'incidental' to other activities (such as drinking or eating). However, the government made it clear that when the Bill reaches the Commons (this is a Bill which started life in the Lords) they intend to overturn this.

Although this amendment was very helpful, there were still concerns amongst performers because of the word `incidental’ and on 11th March, Opposition Lords won another concession, the exemption for live music and any other regulated entertainments where no more than 250 attend at any one time, and the entertainment ceases by 11.30pm. During the same debate the Government itself introduced two further amendments, one which removes the paragraph that catches private events raising money for charity and the other which inserted a new paragraph exempting the provision of any regulated entertainment or facilities at garden fetes, functions or events 'of a similar character' (provided these are not for 'private gain'). Both of these should help morris and mumming.

The Bill has now completed its time in the Lords and received its 2nd Reading in the Commons on 24th March. Culture Secretary, Tessa Jowell, announced that the Government would accept the Lords’ amendment allowing an exemption for incidental live music but that they would fight the other amendments, notably the proposed exemption of entertainments where no more than 250 attend.

The full debate, which makes entertaining reading, is available on Hansard - see below. David Cameron, MP for Witney, in outlining the problems which the morris dancers at Bampton would have in organising licenses, unwittingly pushed back the history of dancing there a few hundred years when he said `the morris dancers at Bampton in my constituency have been dancing in the pubs there for 600 years—without a break, as they tell me’.

David Heath, MP for Somerton and Frome, also spoke in favour of the exemptions, saying ‘all acoustic performances should be exempt from the provisions, as they are not capable of causing the nuisance that the Bill attempts to remedy’ and was generally very positive about music, dance and other traditional entertainments. It was David Heath who tabled the questions last year which prompted Kim Howells to make his now infamous comments about folk singers making him perhaps `the first person to prompt a fatwa from The Wurzels’!

The Bill now enters the Committee stage, starting on the 1st April and finishing on 20th May with Mr Roger Gale and Mr Joe Benton as Chairmen and sixteen Members to serve on the Committee. The report stage and 3rd reading follow that. If further amendments are introduced, as seems likely, the Bill will then return to the Lords and then finally back to the Commons; the Government is aiming for Royal Assent in July 2003. It is important for all of us to keep up the pressure by writing to our MPs, contacting local press, radio and television. You can fax a letter to your MP from the Fax Your MP website.

Further Reading

Keith Leech (2003) English legislators Attack Folk Performance

Fax Your MP

Musicians’ Union

The campaign against the Bill has been backed and organised by the Musicians’ Union, Equity, British Music Rights, the Arts Council, the English Folk Dance and Song Society, Carlsbro Electronics, and many other organisations. See some of their websites for information on the Campaign. The Musicians Union web site should soon have some suggested wording for letters to MPs.

English Folk Dance and Song Society, see link to Licensing Bill

Hansard: Commons debate of 24th March 2003

Standing Committee Debates on Bills

The Licensing Bill Standing Committee was not shown at the time of writing as it was due to start on 1st April 2003.

Guardian Unlimited

Click on `Archive Search’ and enter `Licensing Bill’ to see articles. As far as I can see the other nationals no longer offer a free archive search service.