Licensing Act 2003 (Ammendment) Bill

House of Commons

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Licensing Act 2005 in relation to touring circuses and for connected purposes.
When the world is so troubled with natural disasters, international terrorism, threats of flu pandemics, the impact of climate change and with scandalous poverty, malnutrition and disease, circus may seem a rather trivial matter for the House to consider.

But I believe peforming arts have a vital contribution to make to the welfare of our nation and that circus is perhaps the most overlooked, undervalued and misunderstood performing art of them all. Today touring circus is not just misunderstood - its very existence is under threat.
I am a school friend of Gary Smart, grandson of the legendary Billy Smart, and I freely confess that circus is in my blood. I was delighted this summer to see two very different circuses – the charming and intimate Giffords Circus, and the outstanding and exhilarting Zippos. At both the looks on the faces of the children – and, for that matter, the adults – were enough to persuade me to continue this campaign to save the circus from extinction.

Neither of these two circuses uses wild animals, and I must make it clear at the outset that this bill has nothing whatsoever to do with the use of wild animals in circuses. Indeed I have signed Early Day Motion 468 expressing concern about the use of such animals in circuses.

Anyhow, of the thirty to forty touring circuses, only about three still use wild animals, and only one to any significant extent. The overwhelming majority of circuses are now either all human, or use only domestic animals.

No, this bill is about protecting a fine British tradition that was born on the south side of Westminster bridge, on land now owned by St. Thomas's hospital, in 1768 by Philip Astley, a retired sergeant-major who had served in the 15th Light Dragoons in the seven years war and who was a gifted horseman.

Initially he became an equestrian trick rider and performed at pleasure gardens in London. Astley opened a riding school just across the river, added other acts and set up a ring, calling it "the circus", derived, I believe, from the French word for a circle.

For many thousands of young people, a touring circus is now their very first introduction to live performing art. Circuses are the last unsubsidised touring art form in the country that visit some of the smallest, as well as some of the largest communities of our land.

Circus is a profoundly democratic art form, and its very nature is multicultural.
The innocent pleasure circuses bring, though, as highly talented professionals even risk their lives on a twice daily basis, is threatened, unintentionally I am sure, by the Licensing Act.
The debate about the Licensing Act has concentrated on alcohol related anti-social behaviour, twenty-four hour drinking and, to an extent, its impact on village halls and sports clubs.

But the Act also threatens to destroy the touring circus.
This is hardly surprising. The Act just wasn’t constructed with the needs of touring circuses in mind – indeed, the circus industry had been promised a total exemption from the provisions of the Act, just like that granted to travelling fairgrounds and even Morris dancers. Too late they realised that the promise had been broken – or, perhaps, just forgotten.

I have taken representatives of the industry to ministers on three occasions and those meetings have always been courteous – but the policy has not changed. I have initiated two adjournment debates, asked many questions and written many letters to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

I hope, even at this eleventh hour, I can persuade ministers to embrace this bill which is entirely in keeping with the spirit of the Licensing Act.

I am not alone in my concern. I am sure that ministers know that Arts Council England continues to be concerned that the Act will have a damaging and lasting impact on the Circus industry.

The central problem is that the Act requires premises to be licensed – fine for a theatre that doesn’t move, but a real issue for a touring circus that moves many times a year. So the Royal Opera House needs one licence while a small touring circus needs forty – and sometimes as many as sixty.

Getting forty or more licences poses three problems for circuses.

First there is the cost. It’s not just the fee, it’s also the cost of duplicating plans, advertising the application and so on – even without costing the labour to make the application, the average cost for just one licence is around £600. Most circuses operate on very small margins. £600 per venue and forty venues is £24,000 a year.

Second there is the bureaucracy – it’s really difficult for a small circus out on tour to go through all the complex formalities needed to apply for a licence. All but the largest circuses have no back office beyond the one that travels with them on the road. Organising photocopying and advertising and dealing with local authorities in other parts of the country is going to pose an intolerable additional burden on these very small operators.

But third, and perhaps most seriously, there is the resultant inflexibility.

Touring circuses need to be flexible. Their schedules change all the time – bad weather makes a field unusable or a competitor may have exhausted the market for circuses in a particular place a week or so before. A circus responds by changing its intended venue. But under the Act they cannot be flexible - the time it takes to apply for a licence means they just can’t change their plans.

So a touring circus will lose the revenue for the whole week as it either doesn’t put its shows on at all or performs to very small audiences.

But it gets worse. It’s also now obvious that local authorities simply don’t know how to treat circuses under the Act.

Some are effectively refusing to licence them at all, some are making it very difficult, some are saying it’s the land on which the tent is erected that needs a licence while others say no, it’s the tent, the Big Top. And some are even saying that circuses really aren’t covered by the Act at all and don’t need licences.

Cost, bureaucracy, inflexibility and now confusion.

This fearful foursome means that the Licensing Act is likely to kill all but the three or four biggest touring circuses unless we make changes.

It’s not as if circuses don’t have enough legislation to comply with already. Licensing circuses will not add in any way to public safety or provide any extra safeguards for local communities.

Circuses already liaise with local authorities, fire brigades and police forces about their sites. Any advice offered is always acted upon.
There is already a complex and detailed web of legislation in place.
Here is the operational manual of one touring circus – Zippos - needed to ensure the circus complies with all health and safety requirements, fire regulations, disability discrimination regulations, food safety and hygiene requirements, noise control rules, regulations for the safe storage of oil and gas and requirements for all manner of risk assessments, right down to a detailed analysis of the risks posed by the domestic budgerigars used in one act.

Hazards: non-dangerous domestic budgerigars, very low risk Control measures in place; Handlers to be present at all times. Animals to be caged when not working and if in contact with the general public. Animals are vaccinated; cages cleaned, washed and disinfected every day. Claws and beaks inspected daily. Handler wears mask when cleaning cages. Significant aspects of the risk: may peck.
And here are the twelve certificates, many of them annual, already required for a touring circus:

1. Certification of test and examination of lifting equipment
2. Fire extinguisher inspection
3. Flame retardant application
4. NICEIC electrical installation report
5. First Aid qualifications
6. Food hygiene certificates
7. Public Liability Insurance certificate
8. Employer’s Liability Insurance
9. Animal trainer licences and
10. Veterinary inspection (for the dogs, horses and budgerigars)
11. Water extraction permissions
12. Staff training documentation for fire, health and safety and manual handling

Anyhow, the primary purpose of the Act was to provide safeguards around the use and abuse of alcohol. Circuses don’t serve alcohol and I am aware of no public order issues around circuses – families with children intent on a good time don’t usually partake in anti-social behaviour. The closest they get to that is probably the behaviour of the clowns in the circus ring!

This bill provides three different routes for the government to use to solve the problem. Each will be on the basis of an order making power for the Secretary of State, but there will be a requirement for at least one of these to be implemented within a specific period.

1. The annual licensing of circuses. The nature of the licence and the body responsible for issuing it will be left to secondary legislation. The Secretary of State could issue it him or herself, or it could be issued by the Health and Safety Executive, the home local authority of the circus, or any other body deemed appropriate by the minister. But the Big Top would be the premise that is licensed, and, unless there were changes to the layout of the Big Top during the season, the licence would be valid for a calendar year and no local authority would be able to overturn it.

2. Amendment of the Temporary Event Notice procedure for circuses. The TEN regime is also designed for particular static venues like village halls and pubs. This clause would permit a special category of TEN, developed specifically for circuses with more TENs available for longer periods and for larger audiences. A tight definition of what constitutes a circus should remove any risk of “creep” of this provision outside circuses.

3. A provision to exempt circuses from the provisions of the Licensing Act altogether. The minister thinks he already has the power to do this – I am not convinced. This would be an important fallback provision if for any reason the first two routes proved unworkable.
Circuses are in real jeopardy unless the government acts. It was never intended that the Licencing Act should have this outcome.

My Bill is simple, workable and sets no dangerous precedent. It just delivers what the government originally promised circuses.
I know this government has a fondness for regulation, and that it seems often to be a tad serious in its approach – more Roundhead than Cavalier.

I hope, though, that ministers in what was once known as the Ministry of Fun can now live up to that name and agree that circus is fun and is worth saving.

I commend this Bill to the House.

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