Celebrating Busking in the Lords!

Report Stage on Thursday February 5th was an opportunity to talk about the great progress being made in London and elsewhere to encourage local councils to agree codes of conduct rather than heavy handed legislation towards busking, one of  the great aspects of our culture. 

This is what I said. 

Busking is an essential part of London’s street culture. Lord Gardiner of Kimble, too, in  Committee said:

“The Government are clear that busking can enrich a community’s quality of life and generate a positive atmosphere enjoyed by many people”.

He also said:

“The Government do not start from the position that busking requires regulation and control. Busking should be about freedom of the individual, and only if necessary should local action be taken to curb certain excesses”.—[Official Report, 11/11/14; cols. GC 46-7.]

My starting point today is precisely from those words. My aim is to show not only that across the UK are many voluntary schemes coming into effect to promote and ensure that there is a thriving and popular busking scene, but also that, particularly in London, there are myriad ways of tackling noise and other nuisance if necessary other than by introducing repressive local authority licensing schemes under the 2000 Act, or using outdated legislation in London under a 170 year- old Metropolitan Police Act.

In Liverpool, York and many other cities, voluntary codes have been or are being agreed which obviate the need for licensing. Following work by the mayor’s busking task force and drawing inspiration in particular from Liverpool’s experience, Busk in London has been created. It is organising National Busking Day in July and a young buskers’ competition. With the MU and others, it is co-ordinating agreement across the London boroughs on a new busking code and voluntary online registration as the way forward in London. That will be launched on 18 March and celebrated on National Busking Day.

I hope my noble friend will agree that the aim must be to minimise the amount of regulation surrounding the performance of live music and continue the work begun with the Live Music Act 2012. I am sure that this voluntary action will demonstrate, as it has in Liverpool, that we can encourage appropriate busking without a cumbersome licensing system and only relying on statutory powers inter alia against noise, nuisance, obstruction and vagrancy as a backstop against those who do not stick within acceptable boundaries.

However, as my noble friend said in Committee:

“Regrettably, though, street entertainment can sometimes be a source of conflict between buskers, businesses and residents. Complaints of noise, nuisance and anti-social behaviour can arise, and police and local councils have to respond and try to find solutions”.—[Official Report, 11/11/14; col. GC 46.]

In response, some councils and the police have actively used inappropriate or archaic legislation to discourage busking in a disproportionate way. My noble friend Lord Stoneham at Committee gave the example of the London Borough of Camden using Part 5 of the London Local Authorities Act to ban street music at any time, amplified or unamplified, except through a special busking licence. Breach carries a fine of up to £1,000. Again, in Committee, my noble friend Lord Gardiner said:

“If we were to accept the amendment, the Government would indeed be saying that London councils should not have the option to decide whether or not to license busking based on local circumstances. Indeed, we feel that this is not a subject for top-down government solutions; it is for local authorities to determine fair, reasonable and transparent policies in relation to managing our streets”.—[Official Report, 11/11/14; col. GC 47.]

Why not? The Licensing Acts regulate the parameters of action for local authorities. Those powers are not held by any other locality. Why should London be the exception?

The amendment would also remove Section 54(14) of the Metropolitan Police Act 1839. My noble friend Lord Stoneham reminded us of the experience of the King’s Parade, the winners of the mayor’s busking competition, Gigs, who were busking in Leicester Square and were bundled into a van by eight officers and held at Paddington police station for more than six hours. The Minister said that although Section 54(14) is rarely used, the Metropolitan Police need to retain the provision to give their officers the tactical option of dealing with what they call busking-related offences. What are they? Are we talking of three-card trick artists on Westminster Bridge or pickpockets in Covent Garden—that is, activities totally irrelevant to legitimate busking? Does that not show a completely false understanding by the Metropolitan Police of what busking is?

I was struck by and grateful for what my noble friend Lord Paddick, who has great experience of London policing, said. He said:

“My Lords, as a former Metropolitan Police officer of 30 years’ experience, I cannot think of any offence that a busker might commit that is not covered by other legislation or requires the use of the Metropolitan Police Act”.—[Official Report, 11/11/14; col. GC 47.]

There are effective solutions and adequate powers that are proportional to deal with noise nuisance and other problems to which busking occasionally gives rise. Busk in London plans to work with the local authority noise and licensing teams in London to ensure that we bust any myths about current legislation not being usable against problem buskers. The Environmental Protection Act 1990 enables councils to issue noise abatement notices against buskers who cause noise nuisance. A breach of a Section 80 notice carries heavy fines and allows a local authority to seize and confiscate instruments and equipment. Section 80 notices can also be issued pre-emptively if it is likely that a busker will cause a noise nuisance. There are many examples—in Cardiff, Boston, Oxford and Newcastle—of the EPA and noise abatement notices being successfully used against problem buskers. The EPA is flexible enough to impose conditions on buskers who have caused issues, and able to deal successfully with complaints about a busker while allowing him to play for agreed intervals.

Likewise, I could take the House through the extensive powers available to deal with obstruction, illegal street trading, begging and other problems. In passing, I should say that, sadly, there are new powers under the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014, which came into force last year, which could be used in a heavy-handed way. The new community protection notices and public space protection orders create new powers that could be used disproportionately and pre-emptively by local authorities. I have an Oral Question about the use of those powers against busking to be debated soon, so I will not pursue the matter today, except to say that it appears that Canterbury is already invoking them and Bath may be about to.

I hope that the Minister will applaud the initiatives that are taking place in London and elsewhere in our major cities to promote busking and encourage it as an art form, but I also hope that he will accept that there is quite enough general legislation to deal with noisy busking without specific legislation for London. There are quite enough powers in existence to ensure that nuisance busking can be prevented without having to keep Part 5 of the 2000 Act or Section 54(14) of the Metropolitan Police Act 1839. I beg to move.

Other peers, the Earl of Clancarty, Nick Trench, and Lord Deben, John Gummer, made terrific speeches about the need for freedom for buskers. See here 


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