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Open Air Music Festivals

Volume 163: debated on Monday 4 December 1989

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Moton made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Mr. Greg Knight.]

11.45 pm

I welcome this opportunity to discuss the extent and range of problems which are undoubtedly associated with the holding of large open-air music festivals which last for two or three days. This is not a new problem. In 1972, my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin) introduced a Night Assemblies Bill, and I served on the Committee which considered that Bill. It contained provisions which received wide support on both sides of the House but regrettably it was talked out on Report, largely as a result of civil liberty arguments. That was a pity, because many of the difficulties that many of my Friends are experiencing in their constituencies might have been curtailed if that legislation had been passed.

I appreciate that these events are not solely a phenomenon associated with south-east Cornwall. A number of colleagues have contacted me in the past week to express their concern about the holding of such events. The holding of these large-scale gatherings attracting people from all over the country is not a new development there. For many years an event known as the Elephant Fair was held annually at St. Germans, organised by my noble Friend the Earl of St. Germans. By and large, it was well contained. It was attended by local people as well as visitors. However, it is not without significance that the holder of that event stopped it some five years ago as a direct consequence of the activities of a small minority of people who were attracted to the function but whose behaviour could only be described as sordid.

This year, in my constituency, a local farmer decided to hold such an event at Treworgey, a small hamlet just two miles north of the market town of Liskeard, over the weekend of 28–30 July. At least three weeks before it, individuals of a certain type, euphemistically described as travellers, began to arrive in the vicinity. The men dressed distinctively, in a way that I can only describe as having a certain commonality with paramilitary denim uniforms. They wore army boots without laces. Their method of transport was varied, and included converted buses—single and double-decker—old ambulances, lorries, vans and even a pony and cart. Inevitably, they owned dogs. Their behaviour in the three weeks before the Treworgey tree fayre, in Liskeard and a neighbouring village called St. Cleer, can only be described as provocative. Local residents, particularly elderly people and those with young children, were genuinely frightened and appalled by their behaviour and as a consequence their presence required enhanced high-profile policing.

Of the 40,000 or so who subsequently attended the Treworgey tree fayre, the group of travellers who came in advance formed only a small minority of about 1,000. Unfortunately, because they came early, they set the tone for the event and conditioned local reaction and attitudes to the event. It is not without significance, as I represent a law-abiding electorate who are conservative with a small "c"—and, I hope, with a big "C" at election times—that they were horrified that such people could openly flaunt around Liskeard, with state benefits probably their only source of income. I do not intend to labour that point as I hope that the revised regulations introduced a couple of months ago may have the desired effect and that benefit entitlement will be tightened up for such people.

The source of the problems at the event was, I believe, lack of preparation and organisation. I said that 40,000 people attended. The vast majority of them were young people who wanted to spend a few days at a music festival in a lovely part of the world but, because of the lack of organisation, it displayed the usual characteristics—no running water and inadequate toilet facilities. I spent three hours at the event incognito on the Saturday evening. The few inadequate toilet facilities were not working. They were all blocked up. There was no running water and there were virtually no refuse collection facilities. There was also a lack of car parking areas. I could continue.

The weather was dry and dusty, and the effect of having 40,000 people in a confined area could only be described as squalid. At the time, I described conditions as those that one would associate with a shanty town on the edge of some Third world capital, and that was no exaggeration.

How does such a situation develop? I have no doubt that it reflects the lack of adequate, and clearly defined, procedures governing the holding of such events. At present, we have a system of entertainment licences which are administered by district councils according to the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1982. I understand from colleagues in local government that there is confusion about the procedures, let alone their effectiveness. In addition, there are powers under section 14 of the Public Order Act 1986 which the police may use not to prohibit but to control public assemblies. Section 16 of the same Act defines a public assembly as being
"of 20 or more persons in a public place which is wholly or partly open to the air."
If 40,000 people descend on a particular location for a specific purpose, no one has a chance of imposing public health regulations, public order or public safety should the need arise.

The effects of the event on our local community in south-east Cornwall were considerable. Again I provide a factual and not an exaggerated or subjective account. First, enhanced policing was required over the two-month period. During the event, 280 police officers were involved. To put that in perspective, that is the same figure, purely fortuitously, as the total police establishment for the whole of the eastern half of Cornwall. The additional cost of policing before, during and after the event over and above normal policing levels for the area was £191,000. That was the estimate provided by the chief constable of Devon and Cornwall.

The second effect was that the travellers came early and remained long after the event. That led to subsquent problems of trespass and illegal camping. Naturally, when they were obliged to leave the site in question, they found the point of nearest weakness, which was either an adjacent farm or a common moor on the southern margins of Bodmin moor. Livestock and property were damaged. More than 60 animals had to be slaughtered in advance of the event, largely due to the activities of the dogs owned by the travellers. A couple whose home was right in the middle of the area were obliged to leave for about a week. When they returned to their home it was filthy.

There were legal consequences. Some 310 arrests were made, 180 of which related to drug offences and 50 to public disorder. Finally, but not least, there was the inconvenience, annoyance and disturbance caused to the local population.

It is insufficient to say that local authorities have powers to lay charges against an organiser after the event. Caradon is doing that.

I am well aware of the problems that my hon. Friend describes. Does he agree that those of us with constituencies on the M25 have similar difficulties with acid house parties? Is he aware that I support everything that he says about the need for act ion on public order and criminal justice legislation?

I am obliged to my hon. Friend for his support. Although he represents a constituency with entirely different geographical characteristics, the nature and extent of the problems are identical.

The Government need urgently to clarify and define procedures governing the control of the issuing of licences before an event. It should be mandatory on local authorities, before granting a licence for an event, to insist on adequate public health provision and conditions which will allow public order to be maintained and public safety ensured.

Furthermore, local authorities could and should require the payment of a financial bond in advance to cover additional costs to public authorities and damage o property. In the light of experience in the part of the country that I represent, the local authority should ensure that the cheque is cashed before it issues a licence. In the case to which I have referred, a cheque for £10,000 was written in advance, but it bounced.

With that requirement there is a need also to examine the law of trespass and its enforcement. The problem of trespass is linked intimately to the other problems that I have described, given the character of the minority who are attracted to pop festivals.

It does not worry me too much how the Government go about realising these objectives. I have submitted some ideas this evening. I do not expect my hon. Friend the Minister to respond to all the detailed points that I have raised, but I expect a commitment that Her Majesty's Government acknowledge the range and extent of the problems and are prepared to act.

12.1 am

My hon. Friend the Member for Cornwall, South-East (Mr. Hicks) has done a service by raising an important matter, and especially for the county which he and I have the honour to represent. The problem stretches, as he acknowledged, from his constituency to my constituency at the other end of the county, in the west.

There was a pop festival in my constituency about a year ago. It was not on the dramatic scale of the one to which my hon. Friend referred, but it caused untold irritation and damage. There was intimidation, especially of elderly people, and I believe that some of the police were fearful of the people who came to the festival.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cornwall, South-East is right to call for a complete review of the law. I believe that the Public Order Act 1986 is insufficient. The provision that there must be 12 caravans before the police can act is far too onerous.

The law of trespass needs to be examined and reviewed. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cornwall, South-East said, many of those who come to pop festivals stay on. In west Cornwall, there have been many examples—they are still to be found—of people trespassing on private land and causing untold damage and many other problems, especially for landowners. I beg my hon. Friend the Minister to carry out the review which has been called for tonight. Let us put an end to a scourge which has extended beyond Cornwall to many other areas.

12.2 am

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Cornwall, South-East (Mr. Hicks) for setting out his case so clearly. I recognise the genuine concerns which he has expressed and the great disturbance and inconvenience that some of his constituents have suffered. He is not alone in voicing concern, and that was demonstrated by the brief but welcome interventions of my hon. Friends the Members for St. Ives (Mr. Harris) and for Esher (Mr. Taylor).

The essence of the problem is control of very many people at open-air gatherings. The congregation of large numbers of people is not a new phenomenon but it is, perhaps, becoming more common. It is easier today than it was in the past to publicise events to wider audiences, and it is easier for people to travel considerable distances from their homes. Moreover, it is a fact of life that young people like to congregate to listen to music, to dance and to enjoy themselves.

Large meetings are not a matter for concern as such, although they may pose significant administration problems. They usually create traffic difficulties, but it is particular difficulties arising out of particular circumstances that cause the trouble. A mass meeting to hear the Pope is unlikely to result in disorder, but there are security problems. Son et lumiere may not create excitement leading to almost mass hysteria, but that could happen at a pop group meeting. A boy scout jamboree does not lead to expectations of drug abuse but an acid house party carries that risk. An acid house party does not normally lead to alcohol misuse, but a jazz festival may do so. What is needed, I suggest, is flexibility for the police and the local authorities to impose beforehand such conditions as they think necessary, and for them to react to the particular circumstances as they arise. I think that the law already provides for that.

The law—described accurately by my hon. Friend—which governs the licensing of public entertainments outside Greater London enables district councils to take powers to control pop festivals and other outdoor musical entertainments. If they choose to do so, a licence will be required for any event of that kind that is held on private land. The controls are limited to private land because other methods of control exist for public land.

A licence must be obtained in advance from the district council concerned. Applicants for licences must give notice of their intention to seek a licence to the police, the fire authority and the local authority itself. The grant or renewal of an entertainments licence is at the discretion of the district council, but in reaching its decision it must have regard to any observations submitted by the police and the fire authority.

The legislation empowers the district council to attach terms, conditions and restrictions to a licence for certain specified purposes. Those are to ensure the safety of performers and others present, to secure adequate access for emergency vehicles and the provision of adequate sanitary appliances—that covers particular concerns expressed by my hon. Friend—and to prevent unreasonable noise disturbance to people in the neighbourhood.

If a pop festival takes place without a licence on private land in a district where those licensing arrangements have been adopted, the organisers of the event, and anyone allowing his property to be used for it, are liable on summary conviction to a fine of up to £2,000—as they are if there is any breach of the conditions of a licence. We have recently been considering—in the light of the development of so-called acid house parties, which my hon. Friend mentioned—the need for substantial increases in the penalties for offences against the entertainment licensing laws, and the possibility of confiscating the profits made by offenders.

My hon. Friend wanted the organisers to pay the extra costs of policing, and I sympathise with his view. Under section 15 of the Police Act 1964 a chief officer of police may provide, on request, "special services" at any place within his police area, subject to payment to the police authority of such charges as it may determine. If, for example, the organisers of a pop festival want police officers to maintain order inside the ground where the event is being held, they can request a police presence for which they will then be charged. A charge for "special police services", however, can be made only when officers are provided at the request of the organisers.

The review of public order law that led to the White Paper of 1985 considered the possibility of making demonstrators meet all or some of the costs of policing their own demonstrations, but the potential restrictions on police operational flexibility, and the difficulties of apportioning costs, were found to be too great for the idea to be pursued. It is, however, possible for local authorities to stipulate as a condition of a licence that the organisers should themselves provide adequate stewards: that is open to them now.

The phenomenon of acid house parties is a recent one and has produced much debate, because such parties have provided opportunities for drug trafficking. The police are alert to the risks and have powers to deal with such offences, but the problems that concern those who are in the vicinity of the parties are more to do with noise and nuisance. Such gatherings as the one described so graphically by my hon. Friend may not be held without a licence under the entertainment licensing laws, and local authorities may impose conditions to prevent noise and nuisance. But—and here I come to my hon. Friend's justified concern—the penalties for failing to obtain a licence, or for breaching its conditions, are at present far too low to provide a positive deterrent. My right hon. Friends the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for the Environment will be making statements tomorrow in which they will explain what steps the Government believe should be taken. I do not wish to pre-empt what they will say, but it will be clear from what I have said that the Government believe that to strengthen penalties is the right way to proceed. At the same time, profits should be at risk, to ensure full and proper observance of the law.

In the meantime, the police have established a central intelligence unit to obtain advance information about such parties. They are developing tactics to assist in dealing with them and prosecuting offenders. I believe that the existing law, in addition to the increased penalties, will provide the effective sanction for which my hon. Friend and his constituents are rightly looking.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at ten minutes past Twelve o'clock.