Help Fix the Licensing Act for Folk Plays

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The UK Government is undertaking a consultation exercise to deregulate many of the activities covered by the Licensing Act 2003 in England and Wales. Folk plays are currently regulated by the Act, whereas morris dancing is exempt. This is an opportunity for folk play performers to influence the politicians to obtain exemption for mummers', guisers' and similar folk plays too.

As mummers and guisers in England well know, the Licensing Act 2003, which was meant to rationalise and improve the licensing of public entertainment, did anything but. Certain activities were exempt from the provisions of the Act, most significantly for us, morris dancing and dancing of a similar nature. The Joint Morris Organisations did well in lobbying to obtain their exemption, and had been fighting the corner for mummers' plays too. Unfortunately, we fell through the cracks in some last minute parliamentary redrafting. This theoretically put many folk play performances onto a legally dodgy footing, although in practice local authority Licensing Officers have bigger fish to fry, and would only pursue an 'illegal' folk play performance if they received a complaint from a member of the public. See our: FAQ on the Licensing Act 2003.

The new coalition government has recognised the absurdities in the current situation, and as part of its declared intention to streamline legislation has announced a consultation exercise on deregulating many of the activities currently covered by the Act. This is our opportunity to influence the politicians regarding folk play performances, and I urge you to participate contribute your opinions.

Details of the consultation, entitled "Consultation on proposal to examine the deregulation of Schedule One of the Licensing Act 2003" can be found on the website of the Department of Culture, Media and Sport at:

This has links to the proposals and related documents. It also provides the contact details of where to send comments and queries.

The proposal document is an interesting read. One currently regulated activity is "the performance of a play", and the preamble lists a number of low risk or no risk dramatic activities where they feel regulation is inappropriate - school plays and productions, Punch and Judy performances, costumed storytellers, and performances by street artists. Note that mummers' and guisers' plays are not included in this list of examples. It could well be that deregulating "the performance of a play" would encompass folk plays, but I suggest that there is a risk that we could once again fall through the cracks as a result of bad drafting.

Chapter 5 of the consultation document gives the following specific proposals regarding plays:

"5.7. This consultation proposes that we remove theatre from the list of regulated entertainment in Schedule One to the Licensing Act 2003 for audiences of fewer than 5,000 people.

5.8. Existing controls from the 1968 Theatres Act on obscenity, defamation and provocation of a breach of peace remain on the statue book, and separate rules on health and safety and children's protection are set out in Chapter 3."

The emphasis here is clearly on stage theatre, but could and should be interpreted as including folk drama. The rider in point 5.8 seems reasonable.

The consultation document also includes a set of questions on 48 points for which the legislators would like feedback. Of these, four relate to plays:

"Q26: Are there any public protection issues specific to the deregulation of the performance of plays that are not covered in chapter 3 of this consultation? If so, how could they be addressed in a proportionate and targeted way?

Q27: Are there any health and safety considerations that are unique to outdoor or site specific theatre that are different to indoor theatre that need to be taken into account?

Q28: Licensing authorities often include conditions regarding pyrotechnics and similar HAZMAT handling conditions in their licences. Can this type of restriction only be handled through the licensing regime?

Q29: Any there any other benefits or problems associated specifically with the proposal to deregulate theatre?"

There may be aspects of all of these questions that are relevant to folk plays, and you may wish to respond with your views on these matters. However, comments do not have to be restricted to these points, so you can add further evidence to support the case for ensuring that folk drama is explicitly exempt from regulation under the Act. Among others, key issues include:

  1. Mummers' and similar folk plays are short performance, rarely longer than 10 or 15 minutes duration, and are seasonal, normally only being performed once per year at any given venue.
  2. Performances typically take place in pubs or open public spaces. Such venues may not have included plays in their licenses. Requiring them to apply for variations to cover such short and infrequent performances is unduly burdensome.
  3. Folk plays are of low or no risk to the public and do not cause a public nuisance
  4. Most folk plays are performed to collect for charities, and therefore benefit the community.
  5. Many folk plays continue long established local traditions. Inappropriate regulation under the Act could put these traditions at risk of extinction.

The Department has approached a number of specific organisations for responses. Interestingly, the list does not include the Morris organisations, however it does include the English Folk Dance and Song Society, which recently changed its formal Aims to include folk drama.

I have no doubt that the EFDSS will recommend that folk drama should be exempt from the regulations in its response. On the other hand, it will help our cause if as many groups and individuals also respond. The Directory of Folk Play Groups lists over 200 active groups in England and Wales, and if enough respond to the consultation, we should get our point across.

Responses can be sent online to:

or by post to:

Nigel Wakelin, Regulated Entertainment Consultation Co-ordinator
Department for Culture, Media and Sport
2-4 Cockspur Street, London, SW1Y 5DH

The closing date for responses is the 3rd December 2011.

Adding comments to this blog may help other people to write their responses.

Peter Millington

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Readers' Comments

Liz Parkhurst - 28-Nov-2011

Folk drama is essentially just that - a traditional piece of drama performed by people who wish to keep their own local ideas and customs alive. Folk drama is at once traditional and spontaneous, essentially good-humoured, and celebrates the turning of the agricultural year - which a lot of us lose sight of in our urbanised society. There are still kids who don''t know that eggs come from chickens!
Please don't put any regulations in force that would put these amazing old traditions at risk!
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Michael Wright - 14-Jan-2012

Traditional (folk) plays, music and dance is the life blood of culture. From these, and other sources, help remind us as a people who we are. Where we came from., and what manner of people once lived where we do now. It is for posterity that these artists continue to perform. With out the opportunity to perform, free from fear of prosecution, for the general public as tradition dictates (in the streets and public houses) this rich cultural treasure may perish.
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