Issue 177
March/April 2013

The Artwork Logo

The Artwork Logo

December 7, 2023

April Fools' Day licensing shambles

A YEAR AGO an exhibition I planned had to be cancelled due to changes in legislation regarding public entertainment licensing. The law, introduced by the Criminal Justice and Licensing (Scotland) Act 2010, states that even free to enter events would be liable to hold a Public Entertainment Licence costing between £124 and £7500.

Since putting on an exhibition is a financial struggle anyway, this also put an end to all plans for future projects. The new legislation, which came into effect from 1st April 2012, seemed like a cruel April Fool's joke.

A year later I am still not laughing. However, it does seem time to assess what is going on here and try to unravel the effects of this unfair piece of legislation. Back in 2012 Glasgow City Council endeavoured to find a way round the law mainly due to pressure from Glasgow's prestigious art scene. Artists, gallery owners, musicians and publishers were among those up in arms with petitions being signed and well known names including politician Nicola Sturgeon expressing dismay at the charges.

Ms Sturgeon is quoted as saying at the time that the new legislation was a response to lack of control over large-scale free events such as raves. She also said "it is important to stress that the new law does not mean local licensing authorities are required to insist on free to enter events having a Public Entertainment Licence. The discretion lies entirely with the local licensing authority - in this case Glasgow - to determine what types of events they licence".

In this case Glasgow decided to adopt a "temporary solution" which was a proposal to "clarify the exact definition of an exhibition". In this way they sought to ensure that small art shows would not need a licence.

So that is Glasgow sorted then, but what about the rest of Scotland? One year on the situation is still unclear as to what the law actually is. As mentioned, Ms Sturgeon suggested in 2012 that the discretion lies entirely with the local licensing authority and this is a problem. Local authorities having the final say on how to implement the law leads to a cultural postcode lottery whereby some authorities insist on the licensing of free events and some do not.

There are also significant grey areas, which cause organisers of free events to shudder due to lack of clarity regarding the law. It would appear that nothing much has changed in Glasgow since last year. A spokeswoman for Glasgow City Council's Licensing Board states that the issue has been "open to public consultation" and under review. A decision will be reached and published on the website.

What about the area where I live? West Lothian Council's website seems unclear, there is no mention of the type of event I need to know about. Therefore, is it legal to go ahead without a licence or not? A WLC spokeswoman advised that people are required to decide for themselves whether their event is within the law without a licence or not.

This is scary since the website does reveal that the maximum penalty is a fine not exceeding £20,000 or 6 months imprisonment. The spokeswoman also informed that it is at the discretion of the police and no one had been prosecuted for holding a free event without a licence up till now. Since it has only been the law for a year though maybe no one has been brave enough to try it?

I asked why WLC could not just put down in writing in a concise manner every kind of free event that is exempt. Her reply was that if the type of event I was planning was not mentioned on the revised resolution (published on their website) then she was fairly certain that a licence would not be needed. Sorry, that is not good enough, nobody in their right mind would risk the threat of a hefty fine or prison without assurance in black and white that they are acting within the law.

There is good news for East Lothian though. ELC have produced a heart warming document "Resolution RE Public Entertainment Licensing" where they exercise their powers under Section 9 of the Civic Government (Scotland) Act 1982 to amend their current resolution relative to the licensing of Public Entertainment activities to reflect changes to the law. There it is in black and white, all non-profit functions, small-scale exhibitions of artwork, performances of music, recitals of poetry and story telling and all community festivals are exempt - easy.

It would be ideal if all local authorities could be as clear, however, what the fall-out from this silly law will be throughout Scotland is uncertain. In my view it heralds a needless step backwards in the cultural life of the country at a time when people are being asked to look to the future.

If an independent Scotland is to be taken seriously surely the powers that be must start with the idea of an equal Scotland where laws are uniformly applied from John O'Groats to Gretna Green?


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