HC Deb 14 June 1977 vol 933 cc334-46

8.43 p.m.

Mr. Bruce George (Walsall, South)

I must apologise to the Under-Secretary of State for the two hours' notice of this Adjournment debate on safety and security at pop concerts.

I must first declare an interest. Behind what some might kindly call this "mature" exterior exists a rather fanatical pop fan—somebody to whom the humming of any two bars of a rock record made between 1956 and 1964 and four bars of a record made after 1964 will evoke instant recognition. I am still a frequenter of pop concerts. I am more likely to listen to Radio 1, Beacon Radio or BRMB than to more serious programmes.

I say this not to put myself forward as a contender for a pop version of "Desert Island Discs" but to show that I am not an old dodderer who is urging an attack on pop concerts or pop fans. Quite the reverse. I do not want to deny fans access to pop concerts. I want them to be provided with facilities at concerts which will allow them to enjoy themselves far more and with a greater degree of feeling that they will emerge unscathed from their attendance.

I am disturbed at the inadequacy of facilities at many pop venues. I am not concerned only about pop concerts held in premises such as theatres or cinemas. I am talking about concerts held in exhibition halls or dance halls, in enclosed or partly-enclosed premises such as sports grounds, and concerts held in the open air at pop festivals lasting three days or more.

Pop music is obviously a major industry, and with the increasing cost of large groups more organisers are resorting to premises other than theatres in order to attract the public. Facilities at such concerts vary considerably, and in many cases they are inadequate and dangerous. The situation is most serious outside London where the powers available to local authorities are weak.

There is no specific law on this subject. The law that exists that may be relevant is a rather curious ad hoc mixture including the law of nuisance and the use of injunctions. In London there is the London Government Act, which gives the Greater London Council much power. The rest of the relevant legislation is concerned with public health, but that is not really designed to control such pop concerts, and I hope that the Stedman Committee which is now investigating the matter will report soon. Perhaps some of my comments will be of relevance.

There are dangers inherent in the system of managing and organising pop concerts. I have a constituent, Mr. Raymond Dyke, who has participated in the security of about 1,000 pop concerts, and therefore he speaks with considerable authority. I shall forward his letter to the Minister and to the Stedman Committee. From my investigations and discussions with pop fans, I have ascertained that in the Midlands recently the extension to the stage collapsed, throwing large speakers on to the audience, injuring some of them and throwing some artistes into the audience. The fact that the group were punk rockers should not affect one's judgment about what happened to them. I have heard that in another theatre the scaffolding and barrier separating the audience from the stage collapsed under pressure, because it was totally inadequate.

I have personally seen, at the rear of a theatre where a pop concert was taking place, blocked fire hydrants, empty water buckets and empty sand buckets. One must remember the enormous amount of electrical equipment that there is on stage at such concerts, so that water is no use and the sand buckets would have been inadequate even if they were full. They would have been a potential danger. The impedimenta on stage would have completely blocked the lowering of the safety curtain. That was at a concert in an excellent theatre. If we cannot have proper standards at such a place, what chance have we of good standards in institutions that are not designed for pop concerts?

We are talking not about theatre or cinema-goers who sit down and are generally well behaved but about existing premises being used for pop concerts at which pop fans are not always riveted to to the seats. Many push forward, particularly if a pop group such as Queen, the Rolling Stones or the Bay City Rollers are performing. They put pressure on the barrier and cause considerable danger to themselves and others. If facilities in supposedly properly constituted theatres are not adequate, this is a cause for concern.

I am concerned not only about safety but about public health. I have been told that at a pop concert in the Midlands, attended by thousands of spectators, there were two toilets for the women. There were no toilets outside the perimeter of the premises. As large groups were queueing for hours, the local authority should take notice of this kind of situation.

Most of these concerts pass off without incident, but not all of them do so. A young girl was crushed to death at a White City concert, and this precipitated the GLC regulations that have put that council to the fore in the control of pop concerts. I hope that its code of practice will be adopted by all local authorities.

There can be considerable "aggro" at pop concerts. About £8,000 worth of damage was done at a recent concert at the Rainbow Theatre in London, and after a famous—or, rather, infamous—concert at the Charlton Athletic Football Ground last year the Melody Maker wrote: All around there were ferocious fist fights breaking out. Slugging combatants, incensed perhaps by a dig in the ribs, some spilt beer or a blocked view, lashed out and kicked". The Record Mirror commented on the considerable overcrowding. The ground was licensed for 45,000 spectators, and the Record Mirror estimated that there were 20,000 more fans than had been initially anticipated. This led to a crush, overcrowding and fighting. A vast number of forged tickets were on sale, and there were probably as many people outside the ground with proper tickets as there were inside with forged tickets. There is a danger of some entrepreneurs deliberately producing too many tickets and trying to con local authorities about the number of people who will be attending the concerts.

I understand that as a result of the Charlton concert the football club was taken to court. This may act as a warning to football clubs, many of which are under considerable financial pressures, which may be seeking to increase their revenue in this way. The organiser may disappear to parts where he cannot be found and the football club will be liable to prosecution, although the fine on Charlton Athletic F.C. was derisory.

Some of the dangers and potential dangers have been exacerbated by the development of the phenomenon of punk rock which originated in the United States. I refer to another source of information that is not often quoted in the House. In an article last week, the Sunday People analysed punk rock. It may have overstated the case, but the paper said that the verdict of its investigators on the cult was: It is sick. It is dangerous. It is sinister. And their findings are a warning to every family. Our investigation has uncovered a creed which glorifies violence, filth, sadism and rebellion. Unemployed young people or those with limited job prospects provide a fertile ground for the proponents of punk rock. As one who attended a number of concerts given in the late 'fifties by singers such as Eddie Cochrane and Gene Vincent, who could be regarded as fore- runners of punk rock, perhaps I should not throw too many stones at youngsters who are doing the same sort of thing 20 years later.

There may be a danger of exaggeration, but I have been to a couple of punk rock concerts and seen how even quite respectable youngsters respond to this phenomenon. Despite the total opposition of the Press, a punk rock record by the Sex Pistols has shot to the top of the hit parade. Young people are listening to this new prenomenon and it is one about which we should be concerned.

What is to be done? I do not want to inhibit the development of pop concerts, and I should be appalled if any one made such an assessment of my remarks I urge all local authorities to look at the GLC code of practice to see whether it could be applied to their areas. I am informed that outside London the law is inadequate and that the police and fire services can act only in an advisory capacity. Their weapons are limited to powers of persuasion and are not as strong as they would wish. I hope that the Stedman Committee will report fairly quickly and that the Government will act speedily.

I should like to refer in some detail to the Code of Practice for Pop Concerts produced last year by the GLC. It was called "A guide to safety, health and welfare at one day events". I agree with the GLC's finding that such events must be properly stage-managed and regulated, not only in the interests of those who attend but in the interests of nearby residents. One must bear in mind the needs of people who live near concert sites.

It is important that these concerts should be well conducted and do not fall below certain minimum standards. The code echoes the words of Mr. Dyke in calling for certain principles to be upheld. The code and Mr. Dyke say that there should be adequate access for emergency services and adequate public transport and security provisions. The number of security officers—or perhaps "attendants" is a better word—at many concerts is few. If there are difficulties in the crowd, as there were at the Charlton concert, the existing provision for security officers or attendants is totally inadequate.

As the GLC suggests, there should be a minimum number of competent attendants. The GLC says that there should be one attendant for each 100 people at an open-air concert and one to every 250 at an inside venue with seats.

The GLC also indicates that such attendants should not be belligerently dressed, as policemen or security officers but should wear casual clothes such as fluorescent jackets or T-shirts and should be recognised as attendants. They should not resemble the heavies who knock hell out of anyone who steps out of line but should be properly briefed and know how to handle a potentially dangerous situation. There should be adequate communication between them. The GLC says that this is a prerequisite for any successful concert.

The code also says that there should be adequate barriers and regulations relating to the way in which they are constructed. There should also be adequate provision for first aid. Much depends today upon the Willingness of members of the St. John Ambulance Brigade to turn out in all weathers and on all occasions. However, they do not always turn up. I believe that at large concerts there should be a doctor, a State registered nurse and members of St. John because their services can be called upon at any time. I urge that proposal upon the Minister because I have attended concerts where no first aid was available.

The code recommends that there should be proper sanitary provision. I have referred to a concert in the Midlands where there were totally inadequate facilities. When between 10,000 and 80,000 people attend a concert, even the toilet facilities at a football ground are inadequate because concerts last nine or 10 hours and not just one and a half hours of a football game. It is expensive to hire mobile toilet facilities, but the GLC specifies the number of toilets that should be provided per person. In my view, this is imperative.

The GLC also says: Noise levels should … be controlled in order to (a) minimise the risk of hearing damage to the audience, performers and staff and (b) to reduce as far as reasonably possible any annoyance to occupiers living close to the premises. Noise to one person is music to another. Who are we to say that a group should not be too noisy?

However, I should like to refer to a survey conducted by academics from Aston University at a recent concert at the Civic Hall, Wolverhampton, where a group—as they come from the Black Country I in no way criticise them—namely Slade, gave a concert during which the decibel reading in some parts of the theatre was 110 to 120. If noise levels reach 80 decibels in a factory, the work force would insist that they should clear off. Even three hours of 110 decibels can be injurious. That is something that obviously must be borne in mind.

I shall not go on at any more length about the report. It obviously indicates the number of gangways required, and it says that everyone should be seated at the performances. I hope that this superb report will be widely distributed and its principles implemented elsewhere.

In opposition to what I am urging, some might say "You are getting on a bit. You cannot really understand what youngsters want to do." They may say that people who attend pop concerts do not want to be regimented. I am not urging regimentation. What I want is to see proper health and safety standards in order to allow these people to enjoy their concerts.

We are told that this would be costly to organisers. Improved safety will be costly. If they want to organise a concert for 50,000 people, or in some cases more—at an Elton John concert at Wembley recently it was supposed that 70,000 people were there; I suspect that there were more than that—they must pay the price for organising a concert in this country and they must provide adequate facilities.

These are minimum standards which must be maintained. But "maintained" is the wrong word, because they simply do not exist. They are minimum standards that must be created.

We are talking about basic human rights at a pop concert. We are talking about the basic human right to receive medical attention if injured, the basic human right to relieve oneself in a proper and private place if the occasion arises, the basic human right to know that if one is going to a concert one will not be in the middle of violence that will obviously be physically injurious, and, of course, the rights of neighbours, people living around potential theatres.

What the spectators must be allowed to do is to enjoy these concerts, but if they are to be sitting there for nine hours with inadequate facilities they can be come quite frustrated, especially if they cannot hear the music, as at Charlton, when people started standing in front of others. The people behind them could not see. Bottles and cans were thrown, not always accurately, and some of the people sitting were struck. If facilities do not exist, there will be greater frustration, and this may lead to some form of aggravation.

I would hope that artists who appeared would not provoke violence. There was a quotation from a punk rocker, Gary Holton, of the Heavy Metal Kids, who said: Bands don't incite violence. I think they control it. This is highly questionnable to my mind. The Heavy Metal Kids on one occasion recently, I am informed, spat at the audience. The audience spat back. God help the attendants in between.

There are some groups who would deliberately provoke not only hysteria but violence. Thankfully, they are in a minority. I would hope that all groups would exercise a degree of responsibility, but here is a dilemma. To develop some degree of rapport with their audiences, they whip them up to a frenzy. This may be entertainment, but it has overtones of danger.

With the "new wave" of music, as it is euphemistically called, we have people who can deliberately provoke violence. That is something that I would deplore. Some groups set a good example. If there is rioting down below, they stop playing. That may get people back to their seats, although some may say that it might provoke a greater riot.

In conclusion, I should like to refer to a letter written by Mr. Dyke, whom I met last week. He has said that he has been at a thousand concerts, ranging from small ones of 200 to a concert of over 50,000. He asks that there should be safety attendants, one per 100 of the audience, and says that this would not be unreasonable. He says: First aid should be available at all concerts in proportion to the size of the audience. He says: At live pop concerts a … proportion of safety attendants should be trained in basic fire fighting, because in closed theatres there is a danger with all the equipment, and it is a considerable danger. He persuasively argues that There is a growing tendency to use pyrotechnics (flashes) on stage, and if the audience come forward out of their seats as most do now, they are in real danger, as the flashes are normally placed on the front edge of the stage. He says that all audiences should be compelled to remain seated during a performance, and, further, that there must be adequate toilet facilities. In conclusion, Mr. Dyke states: Due to the above reasons, I shall very shortly finish with my part-time job as security chief at pop concerts, as I feel that I cannot be a party to the growing violence and lack of responsibility shown by managements and promoters, and total disregard to the very inadequate existing statutory legislation governing this type of entertainment. Surely Mr. Dyke's great experience should be taken into account by the Stedman Committee.

I very much hope to see more pop concerts. I should be prepared to sit out in the open, although not for three days. I am prepared to sit out in the open or to go to a theatre. I very much enjoy going to pop concerts. I was to be seen outside the Rainbow three months ago in my teddy boy outfit—well, not quite—before watching Jerry Lee Lewis. I am a pop fanatic and I want to see more pop concerts, but let us have better organised pop concerts and a framework of legislation that will allow youngsters to enjoy their concerts with a certain degree of safety. That is what I urge upon the Under-Secretary of State and upon anyone concerned with this phenomenon.

9.7 p.m.

Mr. David Mudd (Falmouth and Camborne)

I am most grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to intervene briefly in someone else's Adjournment debate. I recognise and respect what the hon. Member for Walsall. South (Mr. George) has said. The hon. Gentleman is not seeking to curtail anyone's enjoyment. He is merely drawing attention to the holocaust of death and destruction that could so easily overwhelm any one pop concert already scheduled to take place in Britain. No one may sit back complacently and assume that somehow certain safety standards will be introduced and that over and above one or two scuffles that will make the newspapers there will be no lasting damage and no lessons to be learnt.

I was most impressed to hear the hon. Gentleman refer to Eddie Cochrane as being one of the fathers of punk rock. I assumed that a forerunner of punk rock might have been the Kirchin Band, which used to appear at the Fountainbridge Palais, Edinburgh. If one did not queue up three hours before the ballroom opened, there was no chance of admission. The Kirchin Band had the basic rhythm that the young people wanted. It had the ability to bring them literally to the peak of frenzy. However, through the sheer professionalism of Basil and Ivor Kirchin the band knew the point at which it would cause risk or would disappoint the young people. It would drop the tempo and avoid that peak.

That is the greatest criticism of the majority of modern pop groups. It seems that they do not have the ability to differentiate in the critical balance of lightness and darkness and activity and inactivity that is so necessary in crowd control.

I echo the hon. Gentleman's fears, especially about the dangers of pop concerts in theatres. There is now an increasing tendency for young people to move forward towards the stage. That results in a packed mass in front of the stage. The very presence of that mass in that area effectively cuts off some of the exits that would be necessary in the case of an emergency.

I am delighted to have heard the hon. Gentleman make his constructive observations. I am sure that his views will be shared by the Government. I hope that we shall have a reassuring reply.

9.9 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Kenneth Marks)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) on seizing this opportunity for a debate. I do not say that I thank him for it, as the Environment Minister who happened to be around, but I congratulate him on his initiative and interest.

My hon. Friend is right to call attention to the variations of legislation in different areas. He set out the problems and provided many answers in his advice to local authorities, promoters and groups. Some of the law and order aspects are matters for the Home Secretary, but I will consult him so that he can discuss this problem with the authorities concerned.

My noble Friend Lady Stedman is at present chairing a committee which is examining the problem of pop concerts. A working party under the chairmanship of Lord Melchett produced a report on the free festivals which were a great worry a few years ago. Its report said: We agree … that pop festivals—whether commercial or free—are a reasonable and acceptable form of recreation. The working party hoped that its report would contribute to more informed public discussion about free festivals. It went on to say: When properly organised, free festivals can be held with little expenditure being incurred by local and other statutory authorities, and without undue disturbance to the area in which they are held. The report showed that it was possible for festivals which were causing so much worry to be well organised. In one case, the Government spent money on a site so that it could be shown that a pop festival over several days would not create great disturbance.

Some local authorities—like the Isle of Wight, which first felt the impact of pop festivals, and the GLC—have Local Acts to cover the problem. Local authorities can use powers under the Public Health Acts (Amendment) Act of 1890 to regulate places of music and dancing and like places, but that is unlikely to include football grounds.

The answer does not lie entirely in legislation. The House rejected the Night Assemblies Bill which tried to do something about this problem because people assembling to listen to music could not be separated from those assembling for other reasons. There were civil rights problems and so on.

One of the problems with punk rock, as with the groups of the early 'sixties, is that the whole idea is to be against the Establishment and the adult population. Now that the earlier groups have themselves become a well-paid part of the Establishment, there is a natural revolt against them.

But there is something rather more frightening. My hon. Friend quoted the Sunday People, but it is not only the popular papers which have been giving attention to this problem. The Economist said: The fans describe themselves as the 'blank generation', 'hate' and 'destroy' slogans are frequently used, the lyrics of the better groups, such as the Clash, who have dubbed themselves the 'Sound of the Westway'"— with my former responsibilities for transport, I know what is meant by that— (after a London motorway built literally over the top of working-class housing developments) refer to urban decay, unemployment among the young and life in high-rise blocks. Mr. Mick Jones, of the Clash, once claimed that he had never lived below the 17th floor, though his fellow guitarist Mr. Joe Strummer went to a public school. The Economist says: The new wave is unlikely to produce a new Mozart. But if it causes Mr. Callaghan, Mrs. Thatcher and the rest"— presumably that means the rest of us— to wonder why Britain's young people go around with safety-pins in their noses it may serve a useful purpose. So that is part of a much larger problem. It applies not only to pop music but to football, and my Department has done a great deal of investigation and work on that.

I was asked about the question of legislation. Some football grounds are covered by the Safety of Sports Grounds Act. In the main, these are the big grounds where the huge crowds gather. I do not think that that applies to Walsall football ground, which at the moment is not included in the provisions of the Act.

My hon. Friend suggests the need for promoters to ensure that there are adequate first-aid and toilet facilities and to make sure that there is no overcrowding particularly where, even with a normal crowd, the people tend to congregate in only one part of the theatre or the ground.

My Department is certainly not against pop concerts or festivals. We have played a part in making sure that they can be well organised and in showing that this can be done. We have spent money on providing an adequate site. My hon. Friend referred to the adequate provision of toilets. We do not have a great deal of control over local authorities in this respect. The other week I thought that I might get the Department to lean on some local authorities which were closing public toilets as an economy measure, but I discovered that this is entirely a matter for the authorities and it is something they can do if they wish.

I was interested to hear my hon. Friend's point about the report from Aston University, because this afternoon I chaired the Noise Advisory Council. We have a working party considering the effect on people who stay for long hours in discotheques. My hon. Friend mentioned 110 decibels. This afternoon the council has been considering the question of Concorde, and 110 decibels is the point at which Concorde could run into trouble.

Mr. George

With Concorde, surely the speed of the aircraft is so great that it would be gone in a matter of seconds. However, with a group with enormous amplification the exposure could last for three or four hours.

Mr. Marks

That is true. There is a worry about young people—and old people, too, for that matter—particularly about those who work in discotheques and the considerable noise they have to endure. The experts tell me that after a short time one regains one's balance shortly after leaving the place, but there is a worry about people who are continually subject to this very great noise.

I am sorry that I cannot give my hon. Friend more information at such short notice. I assure him, however, that I shall put the points he has made to the Home Secretary and that Lady Stedman and her committee will be extremely interested in what he has said. I am sure that if he passes the correspondence he has had from Mr. Dyke, who has this great experience of acting as a security officer—I think that may be the wrong word, and perhaps we should think in terms of attendants and helpers—to the committee, the committee will welcome it.