Call for law to ban theatre ticket resale

Nuala Calvi

Theatre managers have called for a new law stopping the resale of West End tickets, in order to stamp out unscrupulous touts who are wrecking Theatreland’s international reputation.

Major entertainment promoters from the world of theatre, music and sport joined forces last week at a summit with culture secretary Tessa Jowell to address the growing problem of large ticket mark-ups and sales of non-existent tickets to unsuspecting fans.

The Society of London Theatre called for a similar law to that being brought in ahead of the Olympics in 2012, making it illegal to resell tickets to the games, to cover theatre and other forms of entertainment. Such legislation already exists to prevent football tickets being sold on, in order to control hooliganism.

SOLT commercial manager Paul James said the society did not want to see any new law penalise people who had good reasons for having to sell on their tickets, or prevent legitimate ticket agencies from starting up. But he said: “More than the other [forms of entertainment], we have a relentless, day in, day out touting of theatre tickets. Big rock concerts tend to be one-offs where there is huge demand, but we get unsuspecting tourists being ripped off all the time who don’t realise they’re either being hugely overcharged or that there will be no tickets when they get there. Touting of theatre has a worse effect on the image of Britain because there are a lot of overseas tourists who, if they have a bad experience, stop travelling to London.”

The society says tickets to West End shows which should cost £30 are currently being sold for up to £100, and that every month it receives complaints from tourists who have turned up at box offices only to find their tickets are not there.

While touts still operate from booths in Leicester Square and elsewhere in the West End, the problem of tickets being resold at extortionate prices has been exacerbated by the growth of ticket vending websites and online auction sites such as eBay. With tourists often buying tickets in advance of coming to the UK, it can be difficult for them to know whether a price is unreasonable.

Chris Edmonds, managing director of Ticketmaster UK, who also attended the meeting at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, said: “I believe that the industry’s efforts to self-regulate against the activities of the emerging online black market for event tickets can only be ultimately successful if it is supported by appropriate legislation.

“Last week’s meeting was an important step within this process. The consumers can only benefit from this industry wide commitment to tackle this issue.”

Entertainment lawyers warn that bringing in a blanket ban of resale of tickets would be problematic, partly because there is no legal definition of a ticket tout. Sean Egan, entertainment specialist at lawyers Bates, Wells & Braithwaite, said: “Generally people know one when they see one, but putting a legal definition on it is more difficult and would require a full review.”

Jonathan Brown, Secretary of the Society of Ticket Agents and Retailers, whose members must comply with a code of conduct, said that while reselling tickets was not illegal, agents could be breaking the Price Indications (Resale of Tickets) Regulations 1994 by failing to provide information on the face value of the ticket and the location of a seat. But he said prosecutions were few and far between. “It requires action by the police and trading standards but the amount of evidence they have to gather makes it extremely difficult.”

The DCMS said it would be investigating whether new legislation was needed or if current trading laws could be made to work better, and was considering introducing a kitemark system for authorised websites. Jowell has requested a second meeting with industry representatives early in 2006.

A spokesman said: “New legislation hasn’t been ruled out but we would much prefer to look in terms of self regulation or tightening up existing legislation. At this stage it is too early to come to any firm conclusions.”

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