The following information comes from FOI requests submitted to Camden Council by The Busking Project’s founder, Nick Broad. Help in analysing the information and preparing our line of questioning came from Hamish Birchall, a musician and campaigner who worked closely with Lord Clement-Jones on the Live Music Act 2012; and by the internationally recognised busker advocate Jonathan Walker, whose organisation, ASAP, has successfully helped councils across the UK to find mutually beneficial busking policies.
If it helps you, and you want to support our work (and get some insanely good music from street performers around the world) go to patreon.com/busk and subscribe!
“Spontaneous, unauthorised, unlicensed street performing causes anti-social behaviour and is a driver of crime. There is strong evidence that this type of street performing attracts thieves as large crowds gather.”
The Metropolitan Police in London have made this claim twice:
In May 2014, police in Leicester Square arrested The King’s Parade using the 1839 Metropolitan Police Act, which outlaws “hawking, selling, distributing, or collecting any article whatsoever, or of obtaining money or alms”. The law is so outdated it also “prohibits kite flying, sleigh riding and doorbell ringing”. The press asked the Metropolitan Police (or “Met”) why the cops would need to arrest these particular buskers, who were previously dubbed “London’s best” at a photo shoot two weeks earlier by then-mayor Boris Johnson. A spokesman for the Met responded by making the above claim.
In December 2014, a police officer banned Jonny Walker from entering Romford town centre (in north-east London). Walker is a well-known and well-travelled busker who has advised several councils across the UK, including the London mayor’s office. Despite his professionalism and quality, the officer booted him out of Romford – before he had played a single note on his guitar! Again in response to press interest, a Met spokesman made the exact same claim, word-for-word.
“On its website the Heart of London BID states that it promises ‘quality, licensed street entertainment’, but Westminster do not issue busking licenses resulting in the absurd situation where award winning musicians who have represented the UK internationally are criminalised under the pretence of targeting antisocial behaviour. This is a Kafkaesque farce in which the police claim, entirely without evidence, that unlicensed street performing causes anti-social behaviour; in which a private company funds police action against buskers whilst claiming to support ‘quality, licensed entertainment’; and in which Westminster Council do not even issue licenses for busking so that even if a musician wished to obtain one, they couldn’t!”
Questioning whether the MET has any “strong evidence”
Hamish Birchall, a busking campaigner in the UK, decided to force the MET to back up its claim by submitting the following Freedom of Information Request:
“Spontaneous, unauthorised, unlicensed street performing causes anti-social behaviour and is a driver of crime.” I request under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 that you provide the evidence supporting this claim.
Worried that the request was a little too vague to pin the MET down to a precise response, I followed up with them with this clarification:
The Metropolitan Police respond
Five weeks later, the MET spokesman sent us the following response:
Dear Mr Broad,
Please find attached our response to your Freedom of Information Act request. I hope that this answers your query.
Needless to say, it didn’t. But, here it is in full:
A break down of their response, part by part:
“Where the negative impacts of freedom of expression outweigh the privileges of the individual, steps will be taken to mitigate the risks posed.”
(a) Is it the job of individual officers to weigh up an individual’s rights against the potential for crime to be committed by other people? If so, shouldn’t all music festivals, electronic dance clubs and even car manufacturers be illegal, due to the potential they create for increased criminal activity?
(b) If the police are right that unlicensed street performing is “a catalyst for anti-social behaviour or criminal conduct”, then isn’t this the case in all instances of unlicensed street performing? Why aren’t all unlicensed buskers in London arrested?
The arrest of The King’s Parade emphatically was an unjustified interference with freedom of expression. No-one had complained about noise, they are not connected to any street crime, they are highly talented and respectful individuals and they were performing in a loud, lively part of London. How could the Met possibly interpret that as activity that would warrant arrest?
“The problems encountered on Westminster Bridge provide useful evidence of these issues. The street gamblers on the bridge attract significant crowds, often through the use of music and unlicensed amplification equipment. These crowds block the footway and put members of the public at risk by forcing them into the road. The gamblers are not delivering a game of ‘chance’ but a highly organised dishonesty trick that will cost victims significant amounts of money.”
This is so frustrating to read. If the Met’s “significant evidence” against “unlicensed street performing” is based on the actions of con artists and gamblers, they don’t know what “busking” is. The people mentioned here are NOT buskers. They are professional criminals. This entire paragraph is undeniably offensive to every talented, hard working street performer.
“Trafalgar Square and Covent Garden also see high numbers of unlicensed street performers. The Borough’s pickpocket team has identified a particular tactic, whereby an unlicensed street performance is delivered, with the sole objective of distracting passers-by so that accomplices can steal from their pockets and handbags. In dense crowds this is very difficult to detect – and very lucrative for those involved.”
The actions of a single gang of people also hardly constitutes “significant evidence”. By that standard they could also claim that there’s “significant evidence” that all lakes in Scotland contain monsters, or that all presidents wear toupées. Furthermore, the actions of a single gang certainly do not constitute a reasonable basis for criminalising an activity that provides reputable work for hundreds of people across London.
Most importantly, though, why would pickpockets need the street performer to be a part of their scam to take people’s money? Why did this gang need a busker of their own? Well, either (a) the busker does have to be in on it, because regular buskers would call out would-be pickpockets, and therefore you can supposed that regular buskers are honest, law-abiding and even useful for the police, or (b) the busker does not have to be in on it, in which case it makes no difference whether the busker is licensed or unlicensed.
Regardless of whether you believe unlicensed street performing is a “driver of crime”, the Met has not made the case that “this type of busking” (i.e. unlicensed street performing) is any worse than licensed busking in this respect.
“The MPS is committed to working with partners in the business community and local authority to contribute to the rich diversity of the culture of central London.”
Mr. Dellow should have gone on to say, “In fact, the MPS [Metropolitan Police Service] is so committed to working with local businesses that our anti-busking enforcement is even funded by local businesses!”
It is obviously the opinion of The Busking Project that local businesses paying the cops to patrol the streets creates a conflict of interest, and has significant impact on how busking is policed in the neighbourhood.
“Licensed and regulated street performance is an essential part of this vision. Where unlicensed activity leads to negative impacts, in terms of crime or anti-social behaviour, the MPS will take lawful and proportionate measures to deal with these issues.”
(a) Not one of their answers, nor the supposed “evidence” they have, deals with how regulated or licensed or even unlicensed street performing would differ in creating opportunities for criminals.
(b) The actions of these police officers may have been “lawful”, but were they “proportionate”? As stated above, the 1839 Metropolitan Police Act also criminalises kite flying, sleigh riding or doorbell ringing. Is it really relevant legislation to use 174 years later?
The video above is a debate between Jonny Walker, a prominent busking campaigner in the UK, debating whether busking should be cleared out from in front of the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square, officially the noisiest part of Westminster, full of tourists and with zero residential buildings nearby…
Our Response to the MET
A little shocked at just how little evidence the MET had to back up their claims, I sent the following response back to them:
I got no response.
It won’t be long until another busker is getting arrested in London. Next time, though, if the Met uses the same line, that “unlicensed street performing is a driver of crime”, I hope that you, the press and especially the judge consider whether the Met should be making that claim.
Thanks, and I hope this blog post was useful to you!!!
[p.s. if you want to support our work and get some insanely good music from street performers around the world, go to patreon.com/busk and subscribe!]