Clause 74 - Prohibited conditions: plays

Licensing Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 5:15 pm on 6th May 2003.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Conservative, Isle of Wight 5:15 pm, 6th May 2003

I beg to move amendment No. 362, in

clause 74, page 43, line 30, at end add 'or to protect children'.

The amendment is self-explanatory. It would add to subsection (2) an additional get-out to subsection (1), which allows the local authority to set a condition for the protection of children in club premises. The licensing authority would be entitled to judge what access children are likely to have to the premises in determining whether it was appropriate to set conditions as to the nature of plays, in exactly the same way as they are entitled to judge on the grounds of public safety.

We can think of several reasons, such as the use of fireworks on a stage, why a local authority may wish to prohibit access unless certain arrangements are made. Similarly, the local authority may wish to take account of the type of play if it felt that there may be access, especially to young children, and it wanted to set conditions concerning access to a premises. I am not suggesting that it may ban a play, but it may, for example, make provision for youngsters to attend only if accompanied by an adult or a club member. There is nothing in the legislation that requires a club member to be over 18. Without such an exemption, a licensing authority would not be able to say that younger children could not attend or participate in activities that are unsuitable for them.

Photo of Kim Howells Kim Howells Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Culture, Media & Sport 5:30 pm, 6th May 2003

Clause 74 is important; it reflects clause 22, which we have already considered in connection with the premises licence. Under the clause, the licensing authority may not attach a condition to a club premises certificate that authorises the performance of a play of any nature, or the manner in which it is performed. I am talking about the content of plays.

The clause does not prevent the licensing authority from attaching conditions that it considers necessary for the promotion of public safety. For example, conditions may refer to the use of pyrotechnics on a stage, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned—the recent, terrible disaster in the United States was the consequence of the use of pyrotechnics. Conditions may also refer to other licensing objectives when there has been relevant representations, or when the conditions are consistent with the operating schedule. For example, conditions may be attached to a club premises certificate that is considered necessary for the protection from harm of children. However, the licensing authority may not interfere with a director's interpretation of a play or the manner in which the cast present it. We are talking about plays as they are defined in paragraph 16 of schedule 2 and, therefore, about operas and ballet too.

Mr. Gale, you and I will recall the giant step of the Theatres Act 1968, which abolished the Lord Chamberlain's powers to censor plays. Those people who have seen ''Shakespeare in Love'' will realise that he was a powerful character. The Lord Chamberlain's powers were curtailed only in 1968—it is astonishing that they lasted as long as it did. That was a memorable day for the freedom of art and culture in this country, and it is still regarded by many as a step towards becoming a grown-up society. Indeed, the Bill is similar in that respect. The 1968 Act did not, of course, lead us into the abyss of sin predicted by some at the time. I must add, however, that many of us wandered around looking for that abyss, but unfortunately we did not find it.

Plays can be controversial. The controversy currently associated with ''XXX'' being presented in Hammersmith shows that such issues never go away. We would not, however, have challenging, inventive productions if producers lived in fear of censorship. We are a grown-up society and artistic freedom is important. As the newspaper debate on ''XXX'' has shown, we have laws that address indecency, obscenity and offence caused by plays that are considered to have gone too far. We do not need licensing law and licensing authorities to become engaged with matters relating to the content of plays. If clause 74 were removed entirely there would be the risk that following the making of representations, plays would be censored by the imposition of conditions that claimed to prevent disorder. That would be a step back into the dark ages for artistic freedom, and I cannot support that.

Clause 74 preserves this important freedom insofar as it relates to clubs, just as clause 22 preserves it for other premises, especially theatres. The clause does not prevent the conditions relating to the four licensing

objectives from being attached to club premises certificates, so long as they do not affect the nature of the play or the manner in which it would be performed. Only public safety overrides that rule, so conditions could be imposed to prevent an over-enthusiastic cast from hurling knives at an audience, for example.

Photo of Mark Field Mark Field Conservative, Cities of London and Westminster

Public safety is already one of the objectives. I understand the Minister¡¯s point, but surely he is making too much of the argument that without clause 74 the world would fall apart. The point made by hon. Friend is that we want another licensing objective added to the Bill: that is, the protection of children from harm.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Vice-Chair, Conservative Party

Order. Before we go much further down this road, I remind the Committee that we are discussing an amendment that refers to the protection of children, not to the removal of the clause from the Bill.

Photo of Malcolm Moss Malcolm Moss Conservative, North East Cambridgeshire

It was the Minister¡¯s fault, but he got away with it.

Photo of Kim Howells Kim Howells Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Culture, Media & Sport

The clause does not prevent the conditions being attached to club premises. Amendment No. 362 would not remove the clause—I am trying to answer the question asked by the hon. Member for Isle of Wight—but would enable conditions relating to the nature of a play or manner in which it is performed to be imposed to protect children. I am afraid that that would take us into the dangerous ground of censorship. Should ''Hamlet'' be altered because the violence or references to incest might disturb children? Many of the greatest plays produced in this country could face censorship if the amendment were accepted.

I entirely understand the hon. Gentleman¡¯s concern to protect children, but the amendment is not the way to go about it. The Bill would still permit the attaching of conditions when representations were made that they were necessary for the protection of children from harm.

Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Conservative, Isle of Wight

The Minister says that the amendment is not the right way of protecting children. Will he assist me by telling me whether a licensing authority, while it is not permitted to attach a condition as to the nature of plays that may be performed or the manner of performing them, may attach a condition preventing children from entering the premises during the performance of such plays?

Photo of Kim Howells Kim Howells Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Culture, Media & Sport

I am not entirely clear what the hon. Gentleman means. If he means that the licensing authority could determine that a particular play was unsuitable for children and after discussion with the club—we are discussing clubs—could recommend that it should think about taking that action, I agree that it would be entirely appropriate for the club to do that. There is nothing in the Bill to prevent it from doing precisely that. However, the proposal that a committee made up of a local authority should decide whether the content of a play, its presentation and the acting in it is appropriate and whether it is appropriate for anyone to see it would be a dangerous move, which successive Governments have quite properly resisted. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will also resist it.

A condition prohibiting the admission of children to an ''XXX'' film, for example, would be possible, but censorship of the play itself or the manner of its performance would not be permitted under the Bill. That is an important difference. In the light of my comments and that assurance, I hope that amendment No. 362 will be withdrawn.

Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Conservative, Isle of Wight

In the light of the Minister's most recent remarks that the licensing authority may prevent the admission of children to particular plays on club premises and, I presume, to particular plays on other licensed premises, but may not affect the manner of the performance of those plays, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Malcolm Moss Malcolm Moss Conservative, North East Cambridgeshire

I have a couple of short questions. I am puzzled as to why the provision is in the Bill. The only reasons for it seem to be in subsection (2), under which conditions can be imposed in accordance with other clauses, most of which are to do with public safety.

We are talking about a club with a licence that allows it to admit a certain number of people for normal activities, and to extend the numbers for a dance, for example. The club might pack the chairs in and admit quite a lot of people to attend a public meeting. The issue is the premises themselves, and whether proper public safety requirements are set as a condition of the licence. Whether it is a play or a public meeting on stage is irrelevant.

The Minister has gone to great lengths to say that ''XXX'' can happily be shown in all the clubs in the land—and if that is not a green light to the company to take its show on the road, I do not know what is. If there are no restrictions as to the content of a play, I fail to see the relevance of including plays in the Bill at all. It would be interesting to hear how many clubs have asked the Minister to include the provision in the Bill because they are in the business of putting on plays regularly.

Photo of Kim Howells Kim Howells Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Culture, Media & Sport

I am amazed by the hon. Gentleman's assertion. As he probably knows, ''XXX'' is performed by a Catalan group from Barcelona, and there are not too many of those around. In fact, I do not believe that there is another one in Spain, so however many clubs would want that group to perform—[Hon. Members: ''They could go on tour.''] They could certainly go on tour; they are on tour at the moment—they are in Hammersmith.

We discussed the importance of the clause in the debate on the previous group of amendments. The removal of clause 74 would allow licensing authorities to censor the content of plays if they so decided. Surely that cannot be appropriate in 2003. Although we hold local authorities in extremely high regard, they are certainly not the defenders of public morals.

Photo of Kim Howells Kim Howells Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Culture, Media & Sport

No, I shall not; I want to answer the question asked by the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire first.

The Bill, with clause 74, reflects existing law. I would include it simply because doing so would in itself be an important continuation of a prized part of public freedom. The hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire should think hard about trying to remove that right and allowing local authorities to censor the content of plays. That right was an important part of the Theatres Act 1968.

Theatre clubs stage plays. I do not know whether there is a theatre club in the hon. Gentleman's constituency—I am thinking hard about that—but there are such clubs in many constituencies, especially in central London, and some of the most revolutionary and interesting advances in theatre have been made by them over the years. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not seriously arguing that if a committee of a local authority considered that a play was not in the best taste, or to its taste, it should be able to censor its content. That would certainly be a step back into the dark ages.

Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Conservative, Isle of Wight

What I find surprising is the fact that the Minister has taken the step of including the clause, which prohibits the censorship of plays, but has not included any clause to prohibit the censorship of performances of dance or recorded music or exhibition of films. What is it about plays that they require such a provision?

Photo of Kim Howells Kim Howells Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Culture, Media & Sport

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman knows that the British Board of Film Classification is a well-established authority on what ratings films should receive. Their advice is followed usually to the letter by local authorities. They have the ability to vary it a bit, and sometimes they do; in fact, they have been known to prevent a film from being shown in a particular area. However, the hon. Gentleman knows that that old and established practice works well in this country, as does the practice under discussion in relation to live theatre.

Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Conservative, Isle of Wight

The Minister has made my case. There is a national scheme, but he sees no reason why local authorities should not amend it.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 74 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 75 ordered to stand part of the Bill.