The Live Music Forum

Hamish Birchall Bulletin


Tuesday 4th July 2006 - Inadequate Licensing Act due to 'arrogant and incompetent ministers'

Responsibility for spinning the benefits of the Licensing Act and ignoring its flaws in the House of Commons yesterday fell not to Tessa Jowell, but to culture ministers David Lammy and Shaun Woodward.

Mr Woodward, who has responsibility for licensing, made perhaps the most significant statement in response to a question from John Gummer about the additional cost and red tape for Punch & Judy shows: '... at the moment, the overwhelming evidence is that - subject to marginal changes that need to be made, and which we have committed ourselves to being prepared to make, if the evidence is there to support making them - the changes brought in by this Act have improved the regulatory regime for those in business and for the consumer.'

Overwhelming evidence? Only a few minutes earlier he said: 'It is too early to determine the full impact of the Licensing Act 2003 on different stakeholders.'

So far there is no evidence that I am aware of that the Licensing Act is 'much better' for live music, or has delivered the 'explosion in live music' as ministers promised. The evidence I have seen suggests that a few bars have started live music as a direct result of the new law, but these are outnumbered by those that have stopped. Remember the context: the 2004 MORI live music survey found that the majority of pubs, restaurants and hotels in England and Wales had no live music. Calculations based on the MORI data suggest that those that had live music averaged just two gigs a month. On this basis the government claimed we had a 'flourishing' live music scene.

Mr Woodward's suggestion that there may be 'marginal changes' to the new legislation will disappoint musicians, many of whom operate as self-employed businesses. And why are ministers apparently incapable of thinking of live music except in business terms?

Read the full debate here (note that the licensing questions are spread among other culture questions):

The first licensing-related question was raised by:

Mr. Robert Goodwill (Con, Scarborough and Whitby): 'What would the Minister say to Steve Dickinson, the proprietor of Mojo's café in Scarborough, who has had to curtail his popular Wednesday afternoon jamming sessions because the two-in-a-bar rule has been abolished? He now faces having to pay for a licence for such events, which allow local bands their first opportunity, and local people to hear music for free at no cost to the taxpayer, unlike the case in Hartlepool.'

Mr. Lammy replied: 'I like a jamming session like anybody else, but we do have licensing provisions. It is clear that small venues have been able to apply for licensing, and that music is going on. We set up, and specifically tasked, the Live Music Forum, which has representatives from the unions and the industry, to look closely at the issue. It will report to us in the autumn so that we can be clear on how, or if, the licensing provisions have affected our live music venues.'

Then, in response to a question from Stephen Pound (Lab, Ealing North) about the study proposed by the government 'into the experience of small venues and the impact of the Licensing Act 2003', Mr Lammy said the government would come back to Parliament on those issues in the autumn.

Malcolm Moss (Con, Northeast Cambridgeshire) then asked: 'If everything is so rosy in the field of live music, why do the results of a recent survey by the Musicians Union reveal that there has been a marked drop in live music in smaller venues, particularly those previously benefiting from the two-in-a-bar rule? If Ministers think that the Licensing Act 2003 is encouraging live music, why are they issuing new guidelines to local authorities? It is not the local authorities' fault; no, it was the Government who passed the inadequate Licensing Act, and the Government who wrote the guidelines, and arrogant and incompetent Ministers who are only now waking up to the situation that we and thousands of musicians predicted over three years ago.

Mr. Lammy's reply: 'The hon. Gentleman made all sorts of spurious predictions on the record that have not stood up to the facts. If there is incompetence, it is on his side, and the Hansard record will show that. The unions are part of the Live Music Forum, which is conducting the research and the survey, and as I have already said, that forum will come back to us with its findings in the autumn.'

Other culture questions were then raised before licensing came to the fore again:

Lynda Waltho (Lab, Stourbridge): What assessment she has made of the impact on consumers, licensees and community groups of the LicensingAct 2003; and if she will make a statement. [81371]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Mr. Shaun Woodward): It is too early to determine the full impact of the Licensing Act 2003 on different stakeholders. However, we know that local people are engaged in the licensing process to an unprecedented level and are confident that the interests of the public, as well as of pubs, clubs, bars, restaurants, theatres, cinemas and other establishments, are better protected by the new regime.

Lynda Waltho: Stourbridge police recommend the introduction of the cumulative impact policy in the centre of my constituency. That will enable local people to have a say in local licensing decisions. There is a committee meeting tonight to discuss the recommendation. If the decision is taken to introduce it, it will be the most wide-ranging in the United Kingdom. Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating local police for their work so far in dealing with what has been a doubling of the number of bars and pubs in my town centre, and also for their foresight and vision in taking full advantage of this consultative process?

Mr. Woodward: I agree with my hon. Friend. In fact, this morning I had the pleasure of reading through the notes on the special meeting of the licensing and safety committee in preparation for this question, which were fully available on the web as part of the open, transparent government that we, of course, now operate. The serious point is that what is most interesting is the way that this provides the opportunity for the police and the council to consider together and in detail evidence to ascertain whether proposals to introduce a special policy should go forward.

That is exactly the kind of discussion that we wanted to happen as a result of the Act. We wanted a balance between the interests of the public who are affected by disorder, nuisance and other problems and those of legitimate businesses and people who enjoy themselves by having a drink, while leaving at the right time and not indulging in binge drinking. The combination of those interests and decisions being made by local communities is what this Act was properly for, and the matter raised demonstrates quintessentially why the Act is working.

Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal) (Con): What does the Minister suggest that I say to the Punch and Judy man on Southwold beach who now has to pay £300 in order to entertain the public? What should I say to the parish councils that run the annual church fete that took place yesterday, given that people now have to fill in a form several inches thick to run a perfectly reasonable charitable operation? Is this not in fact a metropolitan operation dreamt up by a Government who have never run anything in their lives?

Mr. Woodward: I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman would extend his normal courtesies to whomever he met on a beach, or in any other place that he happened to wander around. The fact is that we are conducting are a review of the 2003 Act's implementation, and, as he will be aware, we are consulting widely. But at the moment, the overwhelming evidence is that—subject to marginal changes that need to be made, and which we have committed ourselves to being prepared to make, if the evidence is there to support making them—the changes brought in by this Act have improved the regulatory regime for those in business and for the consumer.

Mrs. Sharon Hodgson (Gateshead, East and Washington, West) (Lab): I have seen the benefits that sensible implementation of the 2003 Act can bring in the north-east. Is my hon. Friend aware that Newcastle-Gateshead has recently topped an influential list of the best nights out in Britain? That is no surprise, given that visitors to the area have a choice of such cultural gems as the Baltic centre for contemporary art and the Sage live music centre. Will my hon. Friend join me in welcoming the success of the Newcastle-Gateshead initiative in helping to establish the north-east as an arena at the forefront of British culture?

Mr. Woodward: Clearly, the Newcastle-Gateshead initiative is an example to us all and I invite all Members, including the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), to pay a visit to that area as soon as possible.

Hamish Birchall