Home Page

Column 1109

House of Commons

Friday 9 March 1990

The House met at half-past Nine o'clock


[Mr. Speaker-- in the Chair ]

Hackney (Disturbances)

9.34 am

Ms. Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will be aware that there were scenes of violence and looting last night in Hackney, which all of us in Hackney deplore. However, you will also be aware, Mr. Speaker, that Ministers have been making misleading statements about that outside the House. I should be grateful if you would advise me whether there is any means by which I may pursue this matter, either by an application under Standing Order No. 20 today, or by such an application on Monday.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough and Horncastle) : Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Have you received any application from the leader of the Labour party to make a statement dissociating himself from the violence, because it is evident that many members of the Labour party were involved in the protest? Will the Opposition condemn the violence or sit silent? We want a statement from them.

Mr. Mark Fisher (Stoke-on-Trent, Central) : Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. The hon. Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh) may not have been in the Chamber yesterday afternoon during Prime Minister's Question Time when my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition made it very clear that the Labour party totally dissociates itself from the violence.

Mr. Speaker : These are not points of order for me. I am sure that the whole House deplores what we have seen on our television screens and what has been reported in the press. I cannot advise the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms. Abbott) on tactics, but if she would like to come to see me privately, I shall give her some guidance.

Column 1110

Orders of the Day

Entertainments (Increased Penalties) Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

9.36 am

Mr. Graham Bright (Luton, South) : I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

It is a great privilege to win a high place in the ballot for private Members' Bills. Indeed, this is the second time that I have had that privilege during my time in the House. It is important to choose an issue of general concern, on which action is needed and can be taken with reasonable speed, and on the importance of which the whole House is agreed.

I apologise for having a fairly lengthy speech, but I want to set the scene about acid house parties. The spread of such parties in this country over the past two years has revealed serious safety problems for those attending and performing at them. The problems that have arisen for the residents in the areas in which the parties have been held are equally serious. The licensing arrangements have been shown to be inadequate. I am therefore introducing this Bill to tackle the problems of the safety of young people attending the events and to protect nearby residents.

I make it clear at the outset that the Bill has a strictly defined purpose. It seeks to place in the hands of the courts the necessary powers to impose stiffer penalties on those convicted of holding and organising dancing and music entertainment without the appropriate local authority licence. The Bill creates no new criminal offence and it does not confer additional powers on the licensing authorities, the fire authorities or the police. It is designed specifically to deal with the problems that have been created by the spread of the so-called acid house parties in the past two years. There is nothing in the Bill to prevent young people from enjoying themselves at professionally organised parties, in a thoroughly safe environment.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North) : My hon. Friend seems to be making clear a difficulty that has been raised with me by a number of my constituents, especially young people who want to be reassured that while acid house parties, or parties of young people of all ages, are properly controlled and moved away from areas of heavy population, so that the general population is not disturbed, my hon. Friend is not seeking to ban such parties if they are properly run. I should be grateful if my hon. Friend could make that clear.

Mr. Bright : If my hon. Friend listens carefully to what I have warned him will be a lengthy speech, he will hear that there is no way in which I am setting out to ban parties. I am simply seeking to ensure that they are licensed, legal and--more important--that they are safe. Once the Bill is enacted, that will certainly be much more likely.

Despite claims to the contrary in some sections of the media, safety considerations have been uppermost in my mind. Some of the media have been pandering merely to increase their circulation. I have here a photocopy of Face, which in my opinion has been irresponsible in not pointing out the safety dangers to young people.

Column 1111

The use of domestic and even commercial premises for noisy parties at which alcohol is consumed, music performed and dances take place has been going on for many years. The police and the local authorities, as well as environmental health officers, have the experience and a range of powers to deal with them. What is new and disturbing is the spread of pay-parties on a much larger scale. I understand that it began with the gatecrashers' ball in London in 1988. Subsequently it expanded so rapidly that the capital's clubs and night clubs were no longer willing to allow their premises to be used for the purpose. The potential profits from such parties prompted a search for other venues capable of holding audiences of several thousand. That was inevitably a magnet to unscrupulous operators and, indeed, criminal gangs.

Those who organise such parties, whether reputable individuals and companies or not, object to the term "acid house party". The term derives from Chicago slang describing the theft and subsequent mixing of recording tracks played at warehouse parties. But because of its association with drug LSD or "acid", the promoters prefer to use descriptions such as all- night party, warehouse party, dance party, rave and, I am sure, many other names. I know that one of my hon. Friends may introduce us to some of them later.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. John Patten) : Would not a more apposite phrase for such parties be "pay-parties"? Substantial sums are charged to people, sometimes for parties that never happen.

Mr. Bright : My right hon. Friend is right. "Pay-parties" is another term that is used. People certainly pay. They pay dearly. He is right that sometimes people part with £30 and then there is no party. Certainly there has been one such case.

There is no doubt that organisers of such parties have been highly successful in attracting young people to various functions. It is also apparent that there is considerable organisation at many of the events. They have been advertised through expensively printed fliers or handbills. I have some here. They are colourful and, indeed, expensive. I am happy for my hon. Friends to look at them. The examples support the point that it is nothing for someone to spend £20,000 to launch a party.

Originally the fliers gave brief details of the date, time and approximate location of the party. Reputable ticket agencies such as Keith Prowse handled them. It is possible that they still do so. More recently, more sophisticated methods have been employed. The handbills and posters circulated give only telephone numbers to contact for information on the night about meeting points and ticket sale locations. Pirate radio stations operating on the FM band have been used for the same purpose.

The intended venue is announced at the meeting points when a sufficiently large number of young people have assembled. Sometimes more than one party is announced or the venue is altered on arrival at the first location. I have observed that process. Its sole purpose is to prevent the venues of the parties becoming known in advance to the local authorities, fire brigades and police, who are responsible for the safety of the young people attending the party. That was openly admitted by an organiser in the national press last June. He said :

Column 1112

"The venue for the party was, like others of its kind, kept secret until the last moment the main reason for the secrecy was to prevent the police from banning it."

The scene was set for a cat and mouse operation.

There is little doubt that the venues chosen are highly unsuitable. Parties have been held in disused or empty warehouses, farm outbuildings, on former airfields, in circus tents put up at short notice on waste ground and, on some occasions, in unoccupied homes. In almost every case the organisers have not sought a public entertainment licence from the local authority. As a result, proper safety standards for the performers and those attending have been completely disregarded.

There have been instances where doors have been locked, thus ensuring that people would be trapped inside in the event of an emergency, and of inflammable material being used without fire extinguishers or first-aid kits being available. At one pay-party planned at the Panasonic building in Thames valley, 20,000 ft of interior walls were removed by the organisers. Not surprisingly, the fire brigade intervened because the building was completely unsafe. With thousands of people converging on the chosen location and when the party is under way, the regulation of noise levels, hours of performance, traffic and parking is impossible. The risk to which young people at such parties and nearby residents are exposed gives rise to great anxiety. I am sure that both Conservative and Opposition Members will wish to see those dangers eliminated. Perhaps I may illustrate the risk to which the organisers expose their customers by citing three parties in Essex last autumn. At one, organised in a warehouse and attended by 3,000 people, the power generator did not work properly and the power cables on the floor produced sparks throughout the performance. At the second, held on a farm, the dance area was provided by crude scaffolding covered in plastic sheeting through which live cables passed. In a third case, a pay- party was held in a derelict private home heated by a liquid paraffin gas heater and powered by electricity which was bypassing the meter. The cables were wired through polythene sheets and were shorting out.

Jeremy Taylor, one of the organisers from Energy has told me of a party at which the scaffolding was alive with electricity. There is no doubt that when that happens, particularly when inflammable materials are also involved, there is a clear risk of fire. That disregard for public safety can also be seen in the lack of proper access and exit arrangements at many venues. On some occasions highways have been blocked and whole communities, such as villages or residential areas have been isolated. It is usual for party organisers strictly to control entry to their events, to make sure that they get their money. Even when they have access to ultra-modern premises--usually illegally--with proper industrial safety standards, doors are blocked. At one warehouse party, only two doors had not been blocked. It took the police over one and a half hours to let out those attending the party. If there had been an accident or fire, the consequences could have been disastrous.

The larger the party, the more serious the risk. That is especially so if the emergency services cannot gain access. It is common for convoys of cars and minibuses to be seen travelling to pay-parties in the late evening. One such party at Roydon airfield in Suffolk last September caused such disruption on the A12 that the road had to be closed. Last

Column 1113

Saturday the junction of the M25 and the A12 at Brentwood, which was the meeting point for several acid house parties, was completely blocked for some time. No one could get into or out of Brentwood. Certainly no ambulance or fire tender could have done so if an emergency had occurred.

Traffic problems on that scale naturally attract the attention of the police. But what is equally serious and dangerous is the sudden arrival of the cars and minibuses often in quiet residential areas and commercial districts. I hope that hon. Members on both sides understand that I am aiming at the safety and protection of young people.

I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn (Mr. Hargreaves) will forgive me if I quote what happened in Accrington last month when several thousand partygoers converged on a warehouse. Hundreds of fixed penalty parking tickets were issued and the police chased a large number of convoys through the streets. Both the local commander of police and the fire chief commented afterwards that because of the traffic it would have been impossible to reach the warehouse in the event of an accident.

It is not just the partygoer who is subject to these risks. Local residents endure disturbance and noise which can be intolerable. A party held last August beneath the flyover at the junction of the A12 and the A130 produced hundreds of complaints to the police and local authorities about noise levels. One held the subsequent month on the A130 at Benfleet provoked more than 1,000 complaints. Some of those complaints were from people up to 10 miles away. That illustrates the impact of these events. This nuisance is undoubtedly intolerable. I have been told of a pay-party, which was fortunately prevented from starting, at which the level of amplification was to be so high that the honeycombed floor of the building, which was obviously wholly unsuitable, could have collapsed. If it had, we would have had a great many deaths on our hands.

The spread of these parties is of considerable concern to local authorities, emergency services and hon. Members, particularly those in whose constituencies they have taken place. The anxiety is prompted by a desire to ensure that large-scale parties should be held in appropriate and safe premises and that a proper balance should be struck between the interests of the partygoers and those of the local residents. No one wants to be a killjoy or a party-pooper. I certainly do not want to be branded as such.

Mr. Steve Norris (Epping Forest) : May I place on record that the last time I went to a party at my hon. Friend's house it was excellent? There were no signs of pooping there.

Mr. Bright : I cannot remember when that was. [Interruption.] I hasten to add that on that occasion the party finished by 7.30 pm. Moreover, when the party was running my hon. Friend consumed an adequate amount.

Mr. Stuart Randall (Kingston upon Hull, West) : The hon. Gentleman referred to the term pay-party. Does he agree that because of the poll tax the Conservative party should be called the pay party? Perhaps it has been party-pooping, too.

Mr. Bright : I wondered when the hon. Gentleman would make a crack like that. Many young people have

Column 1114

been complaining about the community charge, yet they are willing to pay £20 or £30 every week to go to these parties.

There is great anxiety in the House and outside about the criminal element that is clearly involved in the promotion and management of acid house parties. I do not wish to overemphasise this point, but it is apparent from all the anecdotal evidence, certainly from the Thames Television documentary, from court cases that have been decided and from newspapers, that pay parties often involve breaking the law. Why else would it be necessary to keep the venue a secret and to attempt to deceive the police? If the venues are safe and suitable, why are public entertainment licences not sought as a matter of course?

There have been too many cases of premises being broken into, for example at Accrington, and of keys being used improperly and duplicated for subsequent illegal entry, for the claims of these parties' supporters to be strict observers of the law to be convincing. I am aware of forged documentation being produced to support claims by organisers that they have the permission of landowners to use their grounds. At Polesworth in Staffordshire last September, for example, the owners were misinformed about the nature of the event for which the property was being hired. Why are the so-called security guards at these functions so often equipped with baseball bats, knives and, sometimes, even guns? I find it difficult to believe that the pit bull terriers that have started to appear are simply being given nocturnal exercise. Perhaps, too, the security guards who, according to The Times on 1 January, had CS gas canisters at a party in Reigate thought that it was some sort of superior air freshener.

The explanation lies in the massive profits that can be made at these parties which operate at the margins of the law and beyond.

Mr. John Patten : My hon. Friend is talking about parties that happen at the margins of the law and beyond. Is he equally concerned about parties that are advertised but never happen? Is he aware that up to 4 March this year on 161 occasions in the Metropolitan police area, the south -east and in East Anglia, parties were advertised and tickets were sold, but the parties never happened? Young people were rippied off by substantial sums.

Mr. Bright : My right hon. Friend is right. He anticipates my speech because I was about to mention that the head of the regional intelligence unit said that in many cases the organisers are just "doing a runner" with the money. That means that they are taking the money from youngsters, pocketing it and disappearing rapidly into the sunset.

Mr. Mark Fisher (Stoke-on-Trent, Central) : The House will have great sympathy with the Minister's comments. Will the hon. Member for Luton, South (Mr. Bright) address his remarks to the fact that his Bill will affect not only those parties, but perfectly legal, licensed, open- air, rock festivals? I am sure that that is not his intention, but he is well aware from representations that he has received that his Bill will inadvertently drive out of business exactly those legal, licensed, well- organised, open-air, music festivals. That would be destructive to everyone.

Mr. Bright : The hon. Gentleman, who has spoken to me, knows full well that I am worried about that point. I intend to say something about it later. However, I will take

Column 1115

this opportunity to emphasise that the increased penalties are for those who do not obtain the necessary licence and for those who blatantly refuse to accept or who disregard the terms and conditions. I am worried that unscrupulous people could obtain a licence and wholly disregard the terms and conditions. We would then be back to square one. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we shall look into that.

Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne) : Before my hon. Friend leaves this point, will he confirm that he is not proposing to alter the conditions of licences? If that is the case, why should people who obtain licences have anything to fear from increased penalties for breaking the law?

Mr. Bright : My hon. Friend is right. I am doing nothing to alter the law or the conditions under which people must apply for a licence. We are merely increasing the penalties. If people abide by those conditions and the law they have absolutely nothing to fear from the Bill.

Massive profits can be made at the parties and there are enormous opportunities for drug peddling. A small pay-party, catering for between 300 and 700 people, can often generate profits up to £10,000 for the organisers. A large party, catering for 10,000, can easily provide profits of between £150,000 and £200,000. I understand that since 11 November about 270 illegal parties have been held in the south-east, but, according to the regional intelligence unit head, in 144 of those parties the organisers were :

"just doing a runner with the money".

So, more than half those parties never took place. Young people parted with their money and some crook ran straight to the bank with it.

Apart from the profits to be made from selling tickets to the parties, profits can be derived from the sale of soft drinks. At one party 20,000 cans of Coke, that had passed their sale by date and had been bought for a few pence each, were sold for £2 a can. The profits available from drugs are even greater and that is why the control of security arrangements at such parties often attracts criminal gangs. They can keep out competitors and control the distribution and sale of LSD, ecstasy and cocaine. The largest haul of amphetamine tablets found on one person by the police was recovered from someone who readily acts as the security chief at acid house parties. That says it all.

I understand from the police that every raid on an acid house party has found either individuals in possession of drugs or drugs discarded to avoid arrest. Takings of between £30,000 and £90,000 from drug sales at any one party are no exaggeration.

The chief investigations officer of the Customs and Excise, Mr. Douglas Tweddle, links the rise in amphetamine seizures directly to the spread of the acid house craze. It is nonsense to suggest, as the Freedom to Party Group has, that acid house parties will go underground and be taken over by criminals if the Bill becomes law. Organised crime is already deeply and directly involved in the pay-party cult and our young people are paying the price. The police have rightly taken vigorous action to deal with the parties. They have the necessary powers to deal with criminal offences and under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 they are able to search premises and to detain

Column 1116

persons. The Public Order Act 1986 gives police officers the authority to deal with the disorderly threatening and offensive behaviour.

The police also have powers under the common law to prevent potential breaches of the peace and public nuisances. The commission of acts not warranted by law, the failure to discharge legal duties, the endangering of the life, health, property, morals or comfort of the public or the obstruction of the public in the exercise or enjoyment of rights common to all Her Majesty's subjects fall within the law of public nuisance. Offences falling within that ambit are triable on indictment and can be punished upon conviction with sentences of up to five years' imprisonment. I understand that a number of charges of causing a public nuisance and conspiring to cause a public nuisance have been brought.

The operational difficulties faced by the police arise from the fact that the organisers of the parties deliberately flout the entertainment licensing requirements and the penalties available to the courts do not appear to be a sufficient deterrent. Considerable efforts have had to be put into the collection of intelligence information and the co-ordination of manpower and resources to deal with such parties. That involves the identification of potential sites, contacting the owners of premises or land who have often been misled about the true nature of the event to take place on their properties, liaison with the local authorities and fire brigade to arrange legal action, traffic control measures, and so on. In Essex alone, 90 police officers are on duty every weekend to carry out those duties. That is in addition to the necessary numbers of uniformed police officers who must be assembled to deal with a party once it has begun.

The consumption of police time, money and manpower is a heavy and unnecessary burden. As the weather improves, it is likely that further such demands will be made. More acid house parties mean more aggravation to local communities, and increased risk of a major accident to those attending--I hope that we shall never have to debate such an accident.

Action is necessary to safeguard the interests of local communities and genuine party goers. That action should be directed against those who organise illegal parties. I have looked carefully at the suggestions made by the Association of District Councils to amend the Control of Pollution Act 1974 to make the commission of a noise nuisance a criminal offence, to increase the penalties for convicted offenders and to make the seizure of equipment easier. I have also considered the ADC's ideas for the introduction of standard conditions for public entertainments along the lines of the model adopted by Tandridge district council in Surrey, for the creation of a stop procedure and the compulsory deposit of a bond before a licence is granted under the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1982. I have also examined its proposals for the redefinition of a private party under the Private Places of Entertainment (Licensing) Act 1967.

The ADC's package is comprehensive and, undoubtedly, it would be extremely effective, but it constitutes a formidable agenda for action which I believe is way beyond the scope of a private Member's Bill. I prefer a more modest approach that will be equally effective, which is to increase the penalties available for offences against the entertainment licensing laws.

Before I explain the exact purpose of my Bill, I hope that the House will find it useful if I set out the nature and

Column 1117

purpose of the current entertainment licensing laws. The details of the law are complex, at least in England and Wales. To understand how my Bill will affect the penalties in each of the laws with which we are concerned it is helpful to understand the scope of the legislation.

In England and Wales, under the law on the licensing of public entertainments, whether an entertainment is public depends on whether, on the evidence, any member or members of the public could, on payment of an admission charge if one is required, attend the entertainment in question. I know that some of the more prominent organisers of acid house parties consider that they are private events that fall outside the scope of the public entertainment licensing laws. It is equally clear that the existing penalties are an inadequate deterrent. It is, therefore, appropriate to provide for increased penalties for offences as a means of bringing such parties under effective licensing control.

Under the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1982 or the London Government Act 1963 the responsibility for controlling places used for public music, dancing and similar entertainments rests with the local authority--the district council or the London borough council, as appropriate. Those provisions apply automatically to relevant events held indoors throughout the country. The 1963 Act also applies to those held out of doors in Greater London. The provisions covering such outdoor events are slightly different in that the licensing provisions in the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act apply only where the local authority has taken the necessary steps to adopt them and then only where the events are held wholly or mainly in the open air on private land. Outdoor events on public land are subject to other forms of control.

Under the two Acts it is an offence to organise a public entertainment involving music and dancing, which is the essence of an acid house or pay- party, without a licence obtained in advance from the local authority.

Local authorities have wide discretion over whether to grant entertainment licences. They are also empowered by legislation to attach terms, conditions and restrictions to the licences that they issue. It is also an offence to breach any of the terms, conditions and restrictions attached to the licence. The licensing regime thus created meets a number of important purposes. It seeks to ensure that places used for such entertainments have adequate standards of safety in terms of fire and other hazards, such as excessive numbers of people in a confined space. It also aims to minimise and to regulate, as far as reasonably possible, any nuisance caused to the neighbourhood by the entertainment taking place. That can cover matters such as the provision of adequate car parking space to prevent or reduce congestion on nearby roads and, very importantly, the level of noise at the event, and for how long the event may go on. The last point is crucial. However unwelcome it may be to the immediate neighbourhood to have a noisy party going on, perhaps until midnight, the specification in a licence of such closing hours offers a reasonable balance between the interests of local residents and of those organising or attending the event. What is certainly unreasonable is to allow such parties to go on throughout the night and into the next day.

For those reasons, local authorities are rightly given wide powers to attach terms, conditions and restrictions when they issue a public entertainment licence. When they consider applications for licences, and the extent and

Column 1118

nature of the terms, conditions and restrictions to be attached, local authorities take due account of any observations made to them by the police and the fire service, to whom advance notification of licence application must be made. Local authorities also give advance notice to members of the public around the event. When local authorities act as the licensing authority in this context--and I underline this point--they must act fairly and in accordance with the principles of natural justice.

The legislation provides applicants for licences with appropriate avenues of appeal, and I underline that point. Many people are concerned that the genuine party may not be able to obtain a licence. I have already said that local authorities have to act fairly and in accordance with the principles of natural justice. People have the right of appeal first, to the magistrates court and, secondly, to the county court against a local authority's decision to refuse an application for a public entertainments licence. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) may care to listen to this. Current legislation gives people a similar right of appeal in respect of the terms, conditions and restrictions that a licensing authority places on a licence. Event organisers can appeal to the magistrates and to the county court. That is to ensure that silly and petty restrictions are not put on the licence. Licences must be fair and reasonable.

I have talked exclusively so far about the arrangements for the licensing of public entertainments in England and Wales. The Bill seeks to make changes in the penalties for offences in two other pieces of legislation. The Civic Government (Scotland) Act 1982 makes appropriate provision for the granting of public entertainment licences in Scotland by the district or island councils concerned. It also provides for the use of premises as a place of public entertainment without a licence to be a criminal offence. If a condition attached to a licence is not complied with, the holder of the licence commits an offence. Broadly speaking, that is similar to the public entertainment licence regime in England and Wales. So far, there have been only a handful of acid house parties in Scotland. If action is taken to control the abuses of such parties south of the border, but not in Scotland, the problem will simply migrate there. It is right in principle that the increases in penalties for which the Bill provides should apply to Scottish legislation to govern the licensing of public entertainments throughout the United Kingdom. The law generally does not seek to control private music and dancing entertainments in the same way as it does public ones. However, there is an exception to that and in the light of the activities at acid house parties, it is important. The Private Places of Entertainment (Licensing) Act 1967 enables all local authorities in England and Wales to take powers to require the licensing of private events that involve music or dancing and which are promoted for gain on a broadly comparable basis to the licensing of public entertainments. Even if acid house parties are genuinely private events, provided that the local authority has adopted the 1967 Act, the organisers will need a licence if they put on the party for their private gain. It is important to understand that. For that reason, the Bill extends to the penalty provisions in the 1967 Act as well. I have set out at some length how the existing entertainment licensing laws are framed. I now want to explain how they will be affected by the provisions of the Bill. The individual Acts are fairly complicated and, as a result, the Bill seems complex as well, although what it

Column 1119

seeks to achieve can be expressed relatively simply. It provides for an increase in the maximum penalty that a magistrates court may impose on someone who has been convicted in a case where an entertainment involving music and dancing has taken place without a licence. The penalty will now be extended to a fine of up to £20,000 or six months' imprisonment, or both, on conviction for a breach of the terms, conditions or restrictions in the licence.

Clause 1 deals with the legislation that applies in England and Wales. Subsection (1) applies the new penalty to the relevant offence provisions under schedule 12 to the London Government Act 1963, which governs the licensing of public entertainments in Greater London. The current maximum penalty for the offence under that Act is a fine at level 5 on the standard scale, which is presently £2,000 or three months' imprisonment, or both. I have been careful to leave unchanged the penalties for offences under schedule 12 that relate to entertainments other than music and dancing, which are principally indoor sports events to which the public are invited as spectators and outdoor boxing and wrestling.

Clause 1(2) applies the new penalty to the relevant offences under the Private Places of Entertainment (Licensing) Act 1967. The present maximum penalty prescribed in that Act is a fine at level 4 of £1,000 or three months' imprisonment, or both. Subsection (3) applies the new penalty to the relevant offences under schedule 1 to the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1982 which concerns the licensing of public entertainments outside Greater London. Here the present maximum penalty is a level 5 fine of £2,000 alone. At present there is no power for magistrates to imprison those convicted of offences under the Act. As in the case of the London Government Act 1963, the 1982 Act also governs the licensing of indoor sports entertainments to which members of the public are invited as spectators. The penalty for offences at such public entertainments again remains unaltered.

Clause 2 deals with the position in Scotland and amends the provisions of the Civic Government (Scotland) Act 1982 by applying a new penalty for the offences of failing to have a public entertainment licence or failing to comply with any condition attached to such a licence. The present maximum penalties for those offences are fines at level 4 of £1,000 and at level 3 of £400 respectively.

I have explained what the Bill seeks to achieve and I must now make clear what it does not seek to do. Unfortunately, some

misapprehensions have arisen before publication. The Bill creates no new criminal offence ; nor does it give any additional powers to the licensing authorities, to the police or to the fire brigade. Furthermore, it imposes no new burden on the applicants for entertainment licences or on those who already hold such licences. The Bill is designed specifically to deal with the serious problem arising from the spread of acid house parties. The penalties provided in existing legislation are so small in relation to the huge profits that can be made that they cease to offer any real deterrent. The Bill will make the penalties for flouting the proper licensing requirements effective once more and will help to ensure that future operators act within the existing licensing framework.

Column 1120

I have spoken to a wide range of people inside and outside the pay-party business and to those who perform at these parties--the artists and disc jockeys. They have told me of threats they have received from criminals and drug pedlars. Adam Adamski, an artist who has appeared at many of these parties has stated in the most recent edition of Melody Maker --a journal which I commend for its fair view of what we are trying to do--

Mr. Norris : I take it every week.

Mr. Bright : Mr. Adamski says that he has been threatened on various occasions. So, too, have Jeremy Taylor of Energy, and Jonathan Moore of Coldcut. These professionals and other organisers in this world have refused to co-operate with criminals and drug dealers, and have had their premises, staff and functions attacked. Reputable people in the business tell me that they want the criminals out and the licensing procedures enforced.

I know that some of the larger companies in the entertainment industry are prepared to offer their facilities for parties, provided that they are licensed. These organisers, like others, recognise the need to meet the safety needs of the public and to stop criminal involvement in pay parties.

Of course, I am aware of one organisation--the Freedom to Party Group-- which has resolutely opposed my Bill, although in an interview last night the group seems to have seen the light. The organisation claims to be the epitome of the enterprise culture : opposed to drugs, concerned about the noise and traffic problems created by its parties, scrupulous about informing local authorities about its plans and about having the venues for what it describes as private parties properly checked by environmental health officers and the fire brigade. The Freedom to Party Group is entitled to campaign for its views and advance its proposals ; equally I am entitled to comment on them.

The group's claims are worth examining. It claimed in The Independent last Saturday that it had never broken any laws. I have with me a pamphlet produced by the group and published by World Wide Productions, which is very much involved in the campaign. The front page of the December issue describes how the Ealing district council applied for and won an injunction under the Private Places of Entertainment (Licensing) Act 1967 to stop an unlicensed and therefore illegal party being organised by this company. Its manager was also fined £1,500 for breaking a noise abatement order. North Norfolk district council secured an injunction to prevent a party planned for new year's eve, too. So it is clear that parties in breach of the law are being run by these people.

The group's claim to act strictly within the law does not square with the Freedom to Party Group's comment in the leaflet circulated to many of my hon. Friends that decoys, disinformation and deception have been standard practices. As a business man, I find that deeply repugnant. My business would be closed down overnight if I went in for those practices. It is not an excuse to argue, as the group does, that drugs are found just as often at conventional night clubs as at all-night raves. It was maintained in The Independent that most of the traffic problems associated with these parties would not occur if the police did not put up roadblocks on dubious legal grounds. That is the sort of logic that would bring even cloud cuckoo land into disrepute.

Column 1121

As for the much-vaunted claim of the organisers to consult local authorities and fire brigades on the safety of their chosen venues, I have learnt that that is often done on the afternoon before parties are due to take place, to prevent legal action being taken as far as possible. No fire certificate has ever, to my knowledge, been issued for such premises. The group phoned me yesterday and told me that I was wrong about this and that it was sending over, by bike, a copy of such a certificate. I am afraid that there was no such bike ; I presume that the caller was on the usual acid house search, went to his rendezvous point and was sent elsewhere.

The Freedom to Party Group's positive proposals do not stand up to examination, either. In one breath it says that it recognises the problems that pay-parties cause, and organises them only well away from residential areas ; and it calls in the next breath for night clubs to be allowed to remain open all night. Perhaps someone will explain to the group that we do not find night clubs on remote farms or moorland. The group blames police for causing traffic problems for which its parties are responsible and then asks to employ police to manage the crowds and control the vehicles that the parties attract. It asks at one and the same time for purpose-built temporary structures to be erected in remote countryside, and for more extended licences to be granted by local authorities on a regular basis. All the group's proposals are riven with contradictions.

Having fun and protecting the right of young people to enjoy themselves are not what the acid house party cult is all about. It is about making money and exploiting a lucrative market for as long as possible. The cult is about taking money on occasion without even providing a party, and about operating at or beyond the boundaries of the law. That is bad enough ; but to endanger the safety of young people and of unfortunate nearby residents for the sake of one's bank balance is callous and evil. As Judge Rivlin pointed out when sentencing the organiser of three parties last year, they were "a purely commercial venture" in which the organiser was

"catering for large numbers of young persons who were minded to use dangerous drugs in a social setting."

That is true, and it is the worst possible example to set. I am a keen supporter of small businesses and I have campaigned for many measures to help get people into business--particularly the enterprise allowance scheme --but I doubt whether the person from Stanford-le-Hope in Essex who applied for an enterprise allowance grant to run acid house parties from the headquarters of a greengrocer's shop fully understood the world in which he was trying to move.

I have set out the aims of my Bill as clearly as I can. I recognise that it may have wider effects than merely ending the threat posed by illegal pay- parties. In drafting the Bill I had to bear in mind the fact that if penalties remain the same, unscrupulous operators may apply for licences and disregard their conditions because profits are high enough to accept the fines as a form of business expense. That would not be desirable. However, I am more than prepared to listen carefully and to respond positively to suggestions from hon. Members on both sides of the House, provided that we can achieve the objectives that I have described. We shall have adequate opportunity in Committee, I believe, to do just that.

The Bill aims to ensure that our young people can go to parties to dance and enjoy music, confident that they are

Column 1122

in a safe environment, without making the lives of nearby residents a misery and endangering their own lives. Stiffer penalties for those who are exploiting them are the readiest way of doing that. I commend the Bill to the House.

10.29 am

Mr. Mark Fisher (Stoke-on-Trent, Central) : I congratulate the hon. Member for Luton, South (Mr. Bright) on his good fortune in the ballot. I cannot welcome his Bill because, whatever its intentions, I believe that its effect will be to drive out legal promoters and legal parties and leave the field, ironically, to the criminal and cowboy elements. I suspect that that is precisely the opposite effect of what the hon. Gentleman intends, but I fear that it may be the result of his Bill.

The Bill has strange origins that go back to a written answer by the Home Secretary on 5 December in which he laid out much stiffer penalties for offences that he identified. That gives the Bill a strange and rather special status.

The House will have great sympathy with much of what the hon. Member for Luton, South said in his attempt to meet some of the problems of warehouse or pay-parties. These problems undoubtedly exist, but I do not think that they are present at every party of that nature. There is an organisation called the Association of Dance Party Promoters that attempts to self- regulate parties. It has been pretty successful in doing so but there have been problems and they continue to exist. I refer to problems of location, which the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway) has already identified, of fire, public protection, safety, electricity supply, relationship to the emergency services and first aid, traffic, structural safety and not least the cowboy promoters that the Minister has already mentioned in his brief intervention. These are all problems that are associated with unlicensed or illegal parties, and they are serious. The two deaths at Castle Donington in Leicestershire in 1988 showed how serious unlicensed and illegal parties or events can be. The Bill seeks to address such problems with extremely serious and severe penalties--a maximum of £20,000, or six months' imprisonment. These are major penalties. Some would say that they would be draconian. I am sure that the hon. Member for Luton, South believes that that severity is merited by the problems that he is seeking to meet and that only that severity will be effective. The Bill, however, as the hon. Gentleman recognises himself, makes no distinction between legal and illegal parties, between unlicensed and licensed parties. They are all to be treated in the same way. The Bill will hit the licensed and the legal promoter of music events just as it will hit the unlicensed and illegal warehouse party promoter who is a cowboy. That might not be the hon. Gentleman's intention, but that undoubtedly would be the effect of his Bill.

When I intervened earlier, the response was that those who have licences and are legal and responsible promoters of concerts or parties have nothing to fear. Unfortunately, the world is not quite as simple as that. Large open-air rock music festivals will be hit. It is impossible to organise a large open-air event without some minor infringements by individuals who attend such events. It even happens at events such as Glyndebourne. The person who is responsible for the infringements is not the infringer but the promoter.

Column 1123

I shall give some examples that are related to the Glastonbury music festival, which takes place almost every year. It is organised by Mr. Michael Eavis. It has a high reputation for the enjoyment that it provides for about 60,000 people who attend. It has an enormously high reputation also in the rock music industry. The major record companies appreciate it and use it as a way of bringing new talent to the attention of the public. The festival's record is extremely good and it has the support of the local police. Every year the promoters obtain licences from the local authority and the magistrates. With a festival of that size there are, of course, infringements. Last year Mr. Michael Eavis faced charges on 24 different counts. He pleaded not guilty to six of them, and he was found not guilty on each one. The cost of pleading not guilty is considerable in terms of legal fees and it was cheaper and easier for him to plead guilty to the other 18 counts and accept the fines as part of the cost of promoting the festival.

Next Section

  Home Page