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Licensing slip threatens circus livelihood

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Officials at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport came under heavy criticism this week for allegedly forgetting to ensure that a promised government exemption for touring circuses was included in the new Licensing Act.

Home Office civil servants who were originally in charge of steering the new legislation through Parliament had previously agreed to pleas from the industry to maintain the traditional public entertainment licence exemption for travelling companies.

But when responsibility for the parliamentary bill was later transferred to the DCMS, the department omitted to ensure the necessary alterations to the bill were made – an oversight only recently spotted by campaigners led by the powerful Association of Circus Proprietors.

One senior circus industry source told The Stage: “This could have devastating consequences for circus. When the review of the licensing act was first announced we were told that we would not be affected and that we would still not need an entertainment licence to perform.

“When the draft bill was published and it became clear we might be affected, we were told that it would be made clear in the guidelines that circus would be exempt. Again this has not been the case.”

Under the guidelines for the new Licensing Act, which will be introduced early in 2005, circuses fall into the category of regulated entertainment due to the provision of “the entertainment of a similar description to that falling within the performance of live music, the playing of recorded music and the performance of dance” in front of an audience.

Travelling companies will have to apply for a special public entertainment licence for every venue – in many cases a field or patch of common ground – to be able to perform. The DCMS admits that individual permits will cost up to £500.

ACP secretary and lawyer Malcolm Clay warned: “If the law stands then you will have circuses having to apply for up 38 licenses a year and you could get one circus owning the permit for a piece of land and not allowing others to perform on it.”

Travelling circuses often have to change sites at short notice because of poor ground conditions. In such cases, they would have to apply for another licence, thereby losing performances and adding to the overall costs. A temporary licence exemption, for venues with less than 500 capacity, only lasts for 72 hours. This would not be long enough for most travelling companies, which take at least a day to set up and generally run from Tuesday to Saturday.

Commenting on the episode a spokesman for the DCMS would only state: “The Licensing Act does not regulate circuses. It regulates licensable activities. Whether they are taking place in a pub or a circus is not an issue.”

However, Arts Council England is already meeting with civil servants from the DCMS to try to resolve the issue. ACE director of press and public affairs David McNeill hinted that the crisis had been caused by oversight rather than deliberate omission.

He added: “It is an enormously large piece of complicated legislation. There are always likely to be unforeseen consequences. We really shouldn’t point the finger at anyone.”

“We have been quite concerned about this. ACE is in the process of producing a report detailing the impact this law is likely to have on circuses. What the act does is repeal a specific exemption from the old entertainment licensing regime.

“What we are now trying to do with the DCMS is to see whether we can minimise the disruption and see what could be put in further guidance notes or secondary legislation. One shouldn’t underestimate the importance of traditional circuses, which do work with very, very fine [financial] margins.”

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