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The Licensing Bill - Message 6

Licensing Minister Kim Howells is reported in today's Daily Telegraph as saying that the Musicians' Union has led objectors to the Licensing Bill in a 'pernicious lying campaign'.

In 'Battle over "last orders" for music' [by Colin Randall, p11, Arts & Books section, Saturday, January 18, 2003], Randall writes: '... Howells - and loyal backbenchers - accuse objectors led by the Musicians' Union of scaremongering and, as the minister put it to me this week, running "a pernicious lying campaign".'

Howells is also quoted on the new regime: 'Maybe it won't work...but no one has come up with a better way of doing it.' Truly an extraordinary comment for a culture Minister considering the damage already done by the existing licensing regime. As Randall puts it, the Minister's remarks 'seem to appeal and appal in equal measure'. Indeed they do, considering that many other countries, including Ireland, Scotland, Finland, Germany, Denmark and France seem to have far better ways of 'doing it'.

Howells offers no justification for the 'lying' accusation, merely dismissing out of hand some of the claims made by the MU and others: 'The Bill does not catch church bell-ringing... nor does it license the testing of equipment in a music shop; studio recording sessions; school concerts or nativity plays where the wider public is not admitted; music lessons; singing Happy Birthday to granny in a restaurant; hiring a band for a wedding or the whistling postman.'

The MU does not claim that private music teaching, per se, is licensable, although the government has already stated publicly that master classes where the public can attend would be licensable.

The legal consensus (outside the Department for Culture), including the opinion of the QC advising the MU, flatly contradicts the Minister where private functions are concerned: if musicians charge a fee, the event becomes licensable (see Licensing Bill, Schedule 1, paras 1(4) and 1(5)). On 12 December, during the first Committee debate in the Lords, a clarifying amendment which would have exempted such events was rejected by the government (Amendment 8).

The Minister's other rebuttals concerning church bells, music shops, recording studios, singing Happy Birthday and the whistling postman, are also disputed by the lawyers. This is partly because of the unhappily worded 'entertainment facilities' section (Schedule 1, para 3) or because there are no definitions or exemptions in the Bill for educational, spontaneous or impromptu music-making. As for school concerts or nativity plays, these are licensable, even if private, if the intention is to raise money for charity, or those attending are charged a fee, however small.

Although a Minister's statement may be useful (if made in Parliamentary debate they can be used in court cases), I understand that the provisions of a Bill cannot be disapplied by such a statement, or by published guidance, even if published by the Government. The MU will be responding to the 'pernicious lying campaign' allegation, but I hope others will consider writing to the DT or the Minister. Email letters to the Daily Telegraph, including full name, address and telephone number:

Message 7