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Touring Circuses

– in Westminster Hall at 11:00 am on 27th April 2004.

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Photo of Peter Luff Peter Luff Opposition Whip (Commons) 11:00 am, 27th April 2004

I am grateful for this opportunity to debate a subject of great importance to those affected by it. I welcome the Minister for the Arts to her position on the Front Bench, and express my gratitude to her colleague, the Minister for Sport and Tourism, who normally leads on this subject. I must emphasise that we are here today to find solutions, not to point the finger, and the Minister should read nothing whatever into the fact that my tie depicts the Government's own big top, the millennium dome.

The central question is this; for how long will families be able to "roll up, roll up" to the big top on their village green, town park or farmer's field? Is this the end of the road for the big top? It is appropriate that we should consider this because, when one thinks about it, Parliament is itself something of a circus. The Speaker—or you, Mr. Deputy Speaker—holds the ring, while the tightrope artists walk the difficult line between popular opinion and political reality, or between party view and personal convictions. The jugglers keep all those challenging balls in the air, while the trapeze artists swing from one side to the other of every argument, the lion trainers face up to the big issues of our time and—let us be honest—the parliamentary clowns perform. Most of the time, I feel that I am juggling lions.

My interest in the circus began 42 years ago at school when I made a friendship that has lasted for life with Gary Smart, grandson of Billy Smart. With him I visited Billy Smart's winter headquarters at Winkfield row, near to where I lived. His guilty secret, and mine, was that we went on regular school trips to Billy Smart's leading rivals, Bertram Mills at Olympia, and enjoyed them greatly.

The problem that we are addressing today is that the Licensing Act 2003 was intended to deal with alcohol, entertainment and sporting events in permanent structures, not with tents visiting up to 60 different venues a year. The Act was not designed for the particular needs of touring companies in tented venues pitched on grass. That is hardly surprising as—for reasons of cock-up, not conspiracy—the circus industry was excluded from the consultation on the Bill. It is no surprise that that the Government do not know why they need to license circuses. Is it on health and safety grounds, which are well covered by existing provisions, or is for the protection of children and public order, which is pretty irrelevant at a family circus?

The threat to circus is an even greater tragedy as it was invented in Britain. It is a little known fact that it was born a couple of hundred yards away from where we are now, on the south side of Westminster bridge, on land owned by St. Thomas's hospital, in 1768. Philip Astley was a sergeant-major who had served in the 15th Light Dragoons in the seven years war. He was a gifted horseman and when he retired from the Army, he became an equestrian trick rider and performed at pleasure gardens in London. Astley opened his riding school just across the river in 1768. He set up a ring, calling it "the circus"; derived, I believe, from the French word for a circle.

By 1772, the circus needed some variety, so Astley hired jugglers, acrobats, tightrope walkers and clowns, inventing the format of the modern circus. Circus spread from this small ring adjacent to Westminster to Russia and the court of Catherine the Great, and to the rest of Europe and to America. Indeed, as a British cultural export, it is easily as successful as my great hero, Shakespeare.

However, the burden of licensing under the 2003 Act now threatens to kill or seriously maim touring circus in the UK. The industry believes that if the Government do not change their mind, we could lose up to 80 per cent. of touring circuses. There are three main reasons why we should be concerned about that, and why the Government must act. First, the assurances that were offered that circus would be exempt from the Licensing Act 2003 have not been kept. A letter in November 2000 from an official in the Home Office—which then had responsibility for the legislation—to Malcolm Clay of the Association of Circus Proprietors said:

"I have spoken to colleagues within the Home Office and at the Local Government Association and at present the Home Office does not plan to include circuses in the scope of the White Paper or any future legislation."

The Government never meant to license circuses, which have been dragged into legislation by accident. When the policy changes took place that led to that accident, no one told the circus industry.

Secondly, the purposes of the Act are being inconsistently applied. Those purposes were to prevent crime and disorder, maintain public safety, prevent public nuisance and protect children. However, bizarrely, travelling fairgrounds are not covered by the Act and they are all too often scenes of crime and disorder. They are often unsafe, a public nuisance and a danger to children, unlike the family entertainment that is circus. Why do the already well-regulated circuses not enjoy a similar exemption, and why do fairgrounds and circuses not share the same regulatory environment?

Thirdly, and perhaps most important, we do not want to harm circus. Circus is probably our most undervalued art form. Despite the cultural elitism of the reviewers in the leading national newspapers who too often ignore circus, it remains immensely popular and very skilful, too. Millions of people visit circus every year and circus is, of course, the ultimate touring art—something that the Arts Council has always been very keen to promote—visiting even the smallest communities in our islands. And—joy of joys—it is unsubsidised. What is more, there has never been so much interest in circus skills, from juggling on street corners to circus societies at universities. If that interest is to flourish, there must be the opportunity to see real circuses locally.

It is true that the death of circus would be the death of a whole way of life. Many circus performers and circus proprietors follow a family tradition that reaches back many generations. The significance of "classic" circus was acknowledged by Arts Council England in its "Strategy and Report on Circus" in 2001. That report, and a more recent one from the Circus Arts Forum, cites recent survey figures stating that on an average Saturday during the circus season—between early spring and late autumn—more than 180,000 people will see a circus performance. Just over one in five people will visit a circus each year, and 50 per cent of the population have visited a circus in the previous five years.

Circus is a living art form. Traditional circuses have been influenced by more modern approaches to circus, such those of Cirque du Soleil, and there has been a conscious move away from the use of trained animals. Some people welcome that, others do not; but it has happened.

Some 90 per cent. of British circus organisations provide outreach and education activity. For example, only two weeks ago, in the area of the country where the Minister and I come from, Billy Smart's Circus donated its facilities for the launch of a new initiative by Wolverhampton city council and other organisations to guide children in safer surfing of the internet. Circus is increasingly used in regeneration projects and as a means of reaching disaffected youth; 86 per cent. of young people using circus to develop circus skills showed a marked improvement in general school performance.

The traditional touring tented circus, by travelling from town to town and from village to village, reaches people who would not otherwise experience live performance. Almost everywhere in the country—from villages to large cities—will usually receive a visit from at least one circus during a season. Circus introduces very young people to performance and, I strongly suspect, is a powerful but insufficiently recognised recruiting ground for performances by dance and theatre companies as those young children grow up.

As is the case in the production of theatre, if the small ones are closed down, the opportunity to bring on young performers is squandered. However that is more important to circus than theatre because the performers do much, much more than perform and must learn every aspect of circus life.

There are about 35 tented circus operating in the UK, and although circus is an established part of the cultural life of the country, the majority of those remain family businesses. Most tented circuses do not have a permanent administrative base, but instead operate from the back of a caravan. That is the root of the problem. Such very small businesses, already overwhelmed by coping with running their businesses—planning routes for example—cannot cope with an intrusive licensing regime.

What is the problem? There are three separate problems. The first is the substantial, additional and unnecessary regulatory burden placed on circuses. They are, after all, already subject to substantial health and safety, and planning, regulation. The second is the imposition of an inflexible licensing regime on an industry that simply has to be flexible and entrepreneurial to survive. The third is the simple question of cost.

I shall consider those one at a time. As regards regulatory burdens, the legislation could not sustain a regulatory impact assessment for a touring circus. Most circuses perform on up to 40 different sites a year, often visiting a venue for only three days. Under the new regime, most circuses will have to secure a full premises licence for each site that they visit. A typical circus will have to bear the administrative burden of applying for and negotiating up to 40 licences a year, with varying sites each year—circuses return to different places in different years—and 40 sets of fees.

We face the odd prospect of a circus facing a licensing system that is 40 times more burdensome and costly than the system faced by Old Trafford football ground, the Royal opera house or even a yearly heavy metal festival, such as Knebworth or Donington. Small businesses run from the back of a caravan and with no administrative support except the proprietor's wife simply cannot cope with that.

The second issue is inflexibility. I think that there are signs that the Government understand the significance of that threat to the future of circus, for which I am grateful. That issue is important because the Act has an impact on circuses' ability to change site at short notice. Circus relies heavily on the weather. Heavy rainfall and saturated ground conditions can mean that a site is unsuitable and possibly dangerous for erecting the big top. In such circumstances, circuses must find another, more suitable site at short notice. Alternatively, a circus may arrive in town, discover that a competitor has just been there and need to move to find a fresh audience.

Under the new licensing regime, however, the option of moving site at short notice risks being denied to circuses, because a full premises licence is likely to take four to six weeks from application to approval. A circus facing that problem will typically lose a week of performances and the box office revenue that that generates. The loss of only a week's revenue is financially damaging to many smaller circuses, and an unseasonably wet summer, for instance, could devastate the whole industry.

The third issue is cost. The circus industry already operates on very tight margins. If a small touring circus visits 40 or more venues a year and we assume that there is a charge of £500 each time—that is a big assumption—the cost will be £20,000 for the circus. Of course, we do not yet know the cost of the licences. A sliding scale of charges based on rating valuation has been suggested but as farmers' fields are not valued for rating purposes, how on earth will it be calculated? The cost will be even higher for the smallest circuses. One small circus that tours mostly Kent and the south and that could quite possibly play 60 or so venues annually is John Lawson's circus. There is also Peter Jolly's circus—I rather like that name; no relation—which was in Chasewater park in Staffordshire on Sunday. Bills for those tiny enterprises could be some £30,000 a year.

What is the solution? We must find one because there is no evidence of public harm associated with circus, the industry is already covered by a stringent safety inspection regime and local planning requirements, and the Government originally intended to maintain the exemption for circus. The need to re-examine the issues is therefore overwhelming.

I do not expect the Minister to rule anything in or out today, but I want her to commit her Department to an even more urgent search for a solution. There are at least two options. The specific exemption of circuses from the definitions of entertainment or sport—there is some uncertainty about which category of the Act they are caught under—in the guidance to licensing authorities would help. I understand the insuperable legislative difficulties that that might involve, but a block exemption is by far the simplest solution.

More technical—I do not have time to explain this at length—is the option of including all circuses, at all audience capacity and for a longer period than the current 96 hours on a site, in the regime for temporary event notices. That option would, I believe, require circus proprietors to be eligible for a personal licence within the temporary event notice regime. The temporary event notice provisions of the Act offer little help to circuses, as most are too large to benefit, or stay on a site too long to qualify. Had the Act been developed with circuses in mind, a temporary event notice could have been available for, say, a week or 10 days.

One approach that officials have helpfully suggested is for the Government to encourage local authorities to license in their own name areas of public land that could then be used by circuses without the need for a separate licence. That might help some circuses in some parts of the country, but it is far from a complete solution; it would cause a number of practical problems, not least the creation of a line of legal liability for the local authority. Indeed, Birmingham city council has already said that it would not be prepared to do that. Anyway, how many circus sites are controlled by local authorities?

Licensing in Scotland has deterred touring circus north of the border. There is a real risk that we will pay a fortune for local authority bureaucrats to come and look at things that simply do not need looking at. This is not only about circuses; Punch and Judy shows could also be caught. Those shows may have a dubious approach to domestic violence, but I do not suppose that the Government want to end up banning them.

Encouragingly for the Minister, most circuses, and their trade body, would be happy to accept the principle of a genuinely workable licence. However, the talks with the industry have been dragging on for a long time now and there is an urgent need to move them up a gear.

I am not asking the Minister to offer a solution today, but I entreat her to signal that the Government accept that there is a problem, and that they will work out a solution in close consultation with the industry. The Licensing Act 2003 was intended to be a flagship piece of legislation. It must not become an epitaph for the travelling circus.

Photo of Ms Estelle Morris Ms Estelle Morris Minister of State (Arts), Department for Culture, Media & Sport, Minister of State (Department for Culture, Media and Sport) (Arts) 11:15 am, 27th April 2004

I am grateful to Mr. Luff for introducing the debate and for the way in which he has presented the issues.

I am not sure that I shall be able to answer all his questions today but, as he said at the beginning of his remarks, it has been agreed that he can bring a delegation to meet the Minister for Sport and Tourism. It is essential that the detailed issues that have been raised by the hon. Gentleman today continue to be discussed between the Government and the industry. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for agreeing to bring that delegation.

The hon. Gentleman said that it is not the case that the sector does not want to be regulated, but that it wants a regulatory system that meets its needs as well as those of the wider community. That is also the Government's aim; to find something that we and the industry believe will achieve that.

Before I address some of the detailed points raised by the hon. Gentleman, I should like to acknowledge that circus is something that we treasure in the UK. It is part of our heritage and, as fashions in entertainment have come and gone, circuses have remained. We can all remember them in our own childhood, as our grandparents can remember them in their childhoods.

Some months ago, I went to see the Jerwood circus awards in east London. I am not sure whether circus is a sport or an art—it is one of those crossover areas—but it involves a huge level of skill, commitment and expertise, and is both graceful and energetic at the same time. I was particularly impressed by the number of young people who were engaging in it, which shows that the sector is carrying out its obligation to the next generation in training and in contributing to social cohesion.

I also acknowledge the strength of feeling in the circus industry. I accept that a letter was sent that gave people in the industry reason to believe that they would not be covered by the regulations, and I know that it has not been an easy time for the industry. However, it has not been an easy time for anyone covered by the licensing regulations; balancing the interests of the public and the wider community with those of performers is not easy.

Photo of Peter Luff Peter Luff Opposition Whip (Commons)

But does the Minister accept that most sectors had the chance to contribute to the consultation, but circus did not, because it was thought to be exempt? That is the crucial point for circus.

Photo of Ms Estelle Morris Ms Estelle Morris Minister of State (Arts), Department for Culture, Media & Sport, Minister of State (Department for Culture, Media and Sport) (Arts)

I will come on to that in a moment. Circuses feel more strongly about the matter than anyone else and more aggrieved than any other entertainment sector. Most of the other industries have settled their differences with the Act and with the Government, but the circus sector has not done so.

I remind the House that the 2003 Act was intended to be broadly beneficial to industry and to the entertainment sector, because it integrated six existing licensing regimes into one. The aim was to reduce the bureaucracy and paperwork to which the hon. Gentleman referred. The deregulation affects some 180,000 businesses, of which circuses represent about 30. That does not make the issue any less important for circuses, but part of the problem has been that one law covers so much of the entertainment industry, which has different interests.

It is important to remember that the current regulatory system governing circuses is not perfect; it is a patchwork that offers neither stability to the circus industry nor the necessary assurances to the public. Circuses have been subject to regulation that is confusing and not always consistently enforced across the UK.

As the hon. Gentleman said, circuses are covered by health and safety legislation and, in some cases, by local byelaws. Some of their activities fall under the requirements of the Theatres Act 1968, but whether that Act has been applied and enforced depends on different local authorities and their understanding of the provisions.

It is therefore important to remember that we were not moving from a perfect system to a less-than-perfect system. I am not saying that there have been major embarrassments, but the licensing system was not logical, nor was it consistently applied. The aim of the 2003 Act was to provide that consistent, unified system for the licensing of certain activities.

It is often said that health and safety legislation should license circuses, but it does not deal with issues such as crime and disorder, the prevention of public nuisance or the protection of children from harm, which are just as relevant to licensable activities at circuses as to other forms of entertainment.

Photo of Peter Luff Peter Luff Opposition Whip (Commons)

I should like to challenge that assertion. How much antisocial behaviour or public disorder has the Minister seen at a circus?

Photo of Ms Estelle Morris Ms Estelle Morris Minister of State (Arts), Department for Culture, Media & Sport, Minister of State (Department for Culture, Media and Sport) (Arts)

I am not sure that I have seen any. Circuses are held in my constituency, as are funfairs, which are subject to the same regulations and are not exempt. Urban areas such as the one that I represent contain open space on which circuses and funfairs can be held. They are well-run institutions, but nobody could argue that the potential for antisocial behaviour does not exist. That may be sad, but it is probably true.

There are four licensing objectives: the prevention of crime and disorder; public safety; the prevention of public nuisance; and the protection of children from harm. The argument is that those objectives are as relevant to circuses as to any other form of entertainment.

As I said, the circus industry has a good record, but circuses are large commercial events that attract big crowds, a significant proportion of whom are children who are not always accompanied by parents or do not go as part of a family unit. Perhaps that was the case when the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire and I went to circuses as children. I hope that the circus industry will acknowledge the possible risks.

I accept that the circus industry has no objection to being licensed, but does not like the scheme approved by Parliament as part of the 2003 Act. The circus is licensed not by the 2003 Act but by the extent to which it carries out licensable activities—

"the sale by retail of alcohol . . . the supply of alcohol by clubs", under neither of which would circuses be caught,

"the provision of regulated entertainment", under which circuses would be caught, and

"the provision of late night refreshment", under which they may or may not be caught. Therefore, only circuses that carry out any of the four licensable activities, as defined in the Act, would require authorisation.

Circuses may be involved in the provision of regulated entertainment, which includes the performance of live music or the playing of recorded music, a performance of a dance or an indoor sporting event. For the purposes of the 2003 Act, sport includes

"any form of physical recreation which is also engaged in for purposes of competition or display".

Acrobatics or trapeze acts are likely to be caught by that definition. It would ultimately be for the courts to determine whether circus activities fell into one of those four categories, if somebody chose to take the matter to the courts, but our intention is that they should be covered by that licensing regime.

With regard to consultation for the 2003 Act, the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire referred to the Home Office undertaking that there were no plans to license circuses. That is the case. Nobody denies that the letter exists. We have all had a chance to see it. It was a letter in November 2002 from a Home Office official in response to a letter from the Association of Circus Proprietors of Great Britain about the licensing White Paper. The Act was at the White Paper stage then.

Ministers subsequently considered more than 1,200 responses to the White Paper consultation and announced their conclusions and their intention to legislate in May 2001. When the results of the consultation were published, people changed their minds, and it was decided to bring circuses under the remit of the new Licensing Act. Therefore, when the Bill was published in late 2002 it did not include an exemption for circuses or pleasure fairs.

I can see that that was a disappointment for circuses and that it would have come as a surprise or a shock—they had been given assurances that they would not be covered and then they were—but I do not accept that they did not know that the change had been made. Indeed, the Association of Circus Proprietors of Great Britain wrote to Ministers in January 2003 to clarify the position, and all correspondence during the passage of the Bill made it clear that circuses were not exempt.

Photo of Peter Luff Peter Luff Opposition Whip (Commons)

The Government did not reply to that letter until 14 April, three months later. That is a pretty sorry story.

Photo of Ms Estelle Morris Ms Estelle Morris Minister of State (Arts), Department for Culture, Media & Sport, Minister of State (Department for Culture, Media and Sport) (Arts)

That was wrong, and I apologise. That letter should have been replied to sooner, especially in the context of a Government changing their mind after consultation. I was not in the Department at the time, but I remember during the passage of the Bill that the issue was raised. Although there was disappointment, there can have been no doubt that circuses would be included in the Bill. Circuses should understand that the Arts Council has actively raised their concerns and been a strong advocate of their position with Government. The Arts Council was included in our advisory group from an early stage and considered the contents of the draft Bill between July and its publication in November.

I shall make a few more points before summing up. The first is about the cost of licence fees. The licence fees for premises have not been finalised, and I understand that that is an important point. We have said on many occasions that we estimate the fees to be between £100 and £500. They are likely to be based on non-domestic rateable values. I take the point that the hon. Gentleman made about agricultural land, often the location for circuses, not being rated for that purpose and I will either drop the hon. Gentleman a line or ask my right hon. Friend the Minister for Sport and Tourism to take that point up later. However, it is clear that most open land that would be a location for circuses would be expected to pay no more than about £100 for a licence fee.

An important point that was not mentioned and will be helpful for circuses is that there is no bureaucratic renewal process under the new regime; licences will be valid indefinitely if they are not revoked or suspended. If circuses follow a pattern of visiting similar sites each year and have gone through the paperwork and paid the fee for the first year, they will stand in good stead for the second year because they will have a licence to perform on that piece of land. It might be difficult for the first year or cycle, but it will get easier as time goes on. To be absolutely clear, in subsequent years, licence holders will pay only an annual charge to cover inspection and enforcement activity. That will not involve paperwork and the fee will be lower than for the grant of a premise licence.

We have been exploring with local authorities the hon. Gentleman's point about the possibility of them seeking a licence for the area of land that would cover visiting circuses or funfairs. Local authorities are nervous about their liability if they seek a licence, but we believe that they will not be subject to any greater exposure than at present. The Department is still actively working with local authorities on that. That is our preferred way forward; if local authorities license the land, many problems would be solved.

I clearly cannot promise to reconsider either the legislation or Government's decision to not exclude circuses. However, I can give an assurance that we are happy to discuss the details and areas that have been raised today, for example surrounding the activities and charging of local authorities. An appropriate way forward might be for me to report to my right hon. Friend the main points that have come from this debate. I hope that when the hon. Gentleman takes a delegation to the Department, the details raised today can act as a starting point for that those discussions.

Sitting suspended until Two o'clock.