The Live Music Forum

Hamish Birchall Circular

Sunday 22nd January 2012 - Live Music Bill - something weird happened

The Live Music Bill, co-sponsored by Lord Clement-Jones and Don Foster MP, cleared its last Commons hurdle on Friday (20th Jan).

It is now on the home straight to becoming law.  Two minor amendments agreed in Commons Committee must be ratified in the Lords, probably within a fortnight, and dates set for Royal Assent. Implementation will require secondary legislation.  A lead-in period of several months is likely to allow time for the live music sections within statutory Licensing Guidance to be rewritten.

The Bill represents a historic shift in the treatment of live music under the law.  The Licensing Act 2003, and many preceding Acts, embodied a presumption against most performances unless first licensed, on pain of criminal law sanctions. This harsh treatment, dating back more than 250 years, will end for performances within certain hours and to a relatively small audience.  The potential risks are already regulated by separate legislation.  While there were and are rational grounds for licensing large events, there is also a puritanical streak in English culture that was amplified by licensing legislation.  The enduring puritanism was expressed in often unreasonable objections to even the mildest live music licence applications, with absurd over-regulation and enforcement by many local authorities.

The Bill could easily have been sunk by a combination of tedious filibustering on Daylight Saving Bill amendments and arcane Parliamentary procedure.  Indeed, it came very close to failing, not because of insufficient numbers in the House to carry a vote (over 130 MPs), but lack of time.

Debate yesterday started at 9.30am and had to finish by 2.30pm.  The end time arrived and MPs were still on the Daylight Saving Bill. Many observers present thought the Live Music Bill had been lost.

Lord Clement-Jones said: 'I was sitting there and I was absolutely, completely confounded. I had no idea what was happening when the Daylight Saving Bill was up.'

Then, as one observer in the public gallery put it, 'something weird happened'.   MP Philip Davies, the last in a succession of honourable members grinding through DSB amendments, suddenly sat down as the Speaker, Nigel Evans, stood up and shouted  'Order, order'.  The remaining private members bills titles were read out. Next up was the Live Music Bill.

There followed a short exchange between the Speaker and Don Foster, and the Bill was passed to a loud chorus of 'Ayes', with no objections. (View on Parliament tv, scroll to 4hrs 55mins: )

The good news flashed quickly around arts and music media:

Jo Dipple, acting chief executive of UK Music, the UK commercial music industry's umbrella body, said:

"This is a great day for music. The Live Music Bill will make a real and positive difference to lives of musicians. There is no doubt that the current Licensing Act has created needless layers of bureaucracy - making it complicated and expensive for pubs and other small venues to host live gigs. The entire industry would like to thank Lord Clement-Jones and Don Foster MP who have made this change possible."

John Smith, Musicians Union General Secretary, added:

"We are delighted that the Live Music Bill has finally made it through Parliament. It is a real achievement for a Private Member's Bill to get through and the MU would like to thank Lord Clement-Jones, Don Foster and all of the other MPs who helped to pass this Bill."

Links to other press coverage:

Heartfelt thanks is certainly due to Lord Clement-Jones, Don Foster, the licensing minister John Penrose, many other MPs and Peers who have tenaciously campaigned within Parliament, especially John Whittingdale, Chair of the Culture Select Committee, also to the civil servants and lawyers who have worked hard behind the scenes on the bill, and indeed to the Coalition government. But the time is not yet ripe to celebrate. That should be saved for the day the new law comes into effect. And it will take many months, perhaps years, for the full benefit to be realised by musicians, venues and the music loving public.

The sharp decline of small gigs in pubs coincided with reform of entertainment licensing in 1982, when local authorities were given powers to set their own fees.  These quickly rose by several hundred percent, and by 2000 the Home Office estimated fewer than 10% of pubs had entertainment licences, although all of them could still have one or two live performers (the 'two in a bar rule').  But even that modest musical provision was abolished by the 2003 Licensing Act, legislation that marks the highwater point of regulation of live music through licensing.  It was under this Act that even providing musical instruments became a potential criminal offence unless licensed.  This ranges from pub pianos to instruments provided by schools for concerts.  The Live Music Bill does away with that requirement.

One long-time campaigner asked me yesterday what I would do next.  I am not against licensing regimes per se. Where there are serious risks to the public, inadequately regulated by separate legislation, prior public consultation may be necessary and proportionate.

To that end, perhaps MPs should be licensed.


Hamish Birchall