UK’s Brexit negotiator criticised over no-show at Parliamentary session on the bureaucratic barriers faced by touring musicians


June 11, 2021

The Musicians’ Union and Incorporated Society Of Musicians said yesterday that they were “extremely disappointed” that David Frost – formerly the UK government’s chief Brexit negotiator and now Minister Of State at the Cabinet Office – chose to bail on a hearing being held by the culture select committee in Parliament, where he was due to answer questions on what, exactly, the government is doing to address all the post-Brexit issues facing touring musicians.

The UK’s post-Brexit trade deal with the EU, negotiated by Frost, failed to include any provisions to ensure that British artists could continue to tour Europe without facing any new bureaucracy at the border. That means that, when COVID restrictions lift, performers will be subject to different rules in different EU countries. In some cases that means no new bureaucracy to navigate, but in others artists will need to secure travel permits and/or carnets for their equipment.

Most people agree that the costs and hassle caused by those new requirements will make European tours unviable for many artists, just as the live revenue stream comes back online post-COVID. Various UK ministers – including Prime Minister ‘Boris’ Johnson – have conceded that the new bureaucracy is a major issue that needs to be addressed, and at various points have issued statements to the effect that they are addressing it. Although so far they seem to be mainly addressing it by issuing statements insisting that they are addressing it.

Given Frost’s unique knowledge of the negotiations that led to the post-Brexit trade deal, music industry reps were pleased when the Digital, Culture, Media & Sport select committee in Parliament announced in April that the cabinet minister would answer MPs’ questions on this issue on 10 Jun. At the time the committee said Frost would be asked “what the government is doing to avoid ‘irreparable damage’ to the performing arts sector and related businesses”.

But then, yesterday – with political tensions mounting between the UK and the EU as British ministers continue to rail against treaty terms they previously championed – Frost pulled out of the culture select committee session.

The chair of the select committee, Julian Knight MP, was not impressed. He said in a statement: “Parliamentary scrutiny in front of select committees is of crucial importance in our democratic system and is particularly important when we have a government with a majority [of seats in the House Of Commons] of over 80”.

Knight then noted that Frost is in government – and has a seat in Johnson’s cabinet – as a member of the appointed House Of Lords, not an elected MP. This reduces the scrutiny Frost faces from MPs on a day-to-day basis. “Ministers in cabinet from the Commons have scrutiny due to questions, urgent statements and departmental questions”, Knight said. “They are accountable every day. It isn’t acceptable for Lords not to be accountable when they hold high office”.

With the committee itself stating that can be “no acceptable reason” for Frost bailing on a rescheduled hearing later this month, Knight concluded: “I and this committee look forward to Lord Frost joining us at the rearranged date and we will not truck any further cancellation”.

Responding to Frost’s no-show, the MU and ISM said in a statement: “Given the impact of Brexit on musicians’ touring prospects and livelihoods, and the confusion which still surrounds the implications of the UK-EU trade agreement for the music industry, it was hoped that this select committee session would throw some much-needed light on the subject”.

“The scrutiny of the DCMS Committee, who are well-versed in problems raised by musicians and music industry campaign groups, would have been very welcome. To date, Lord Frost has also declined to meet with MU and ISM representatives to discuss the impact of Brexit on musicians”.

ISM boss Deborah Annetts added: “As Lord Frost is at the heart of negotiations, his absence deprives MPs of a vital opportunity to find out what the UK government is doing to make sure the music sector is not destroyed by Brexit. Lord Frost must urgently schedule a new appearance to answer the select committee’s questions, to prevent further harm to the UK’s creative industries”.

While MU General Secretary Horace Trubridge stated: “Since the beginning of the year we have been promised that a deal would be done to remove the enormous barriers that musicians are now facing when performing in EU member states. We have become tired and frustrated by the empty promises from ministers, and the PM himself, but we were pinning our hopes on this meeting and a subsequent breakthrough”.

“What has become starkly clear”, he added, “is that this government cares not a jot for the UK creative industries, either at home or abroad, and the treasury will pay a heavy price in the future if ministers don’t wake up and realise that they are squandering the future prospects of one of this country’s most precious assets”.

Although the culture select committee wasn’t able to discuss what solutions the government is pursuing regarding post-Brexit touring – given Frost’s absence – it did hear further testimonies from the music industry on just how big a problem has been created by the lack of touring provisions in the UK/EU trade deal.

Craig Stanley, a promoter, agent and tour producer with Marshall Arts, explained how – in addition to the challenges faced by artists – the new bureaucracy will have double the consequences for production crews and companies in the UK.

If British artists are unable to tour, crew members will lose work obviously. However, British production crews and companies also traditionally work with international artists when they are touring Europe, especially American acts. But if using British crews and suppliers on European tours requires a whole load more bureaucracy, promoters of those shows will look for talent elsewhere in the EU.

According to the BBC, Stanley explained: “American acts, when they come over, the vast majority of the time, take on British staff and use British equipment 85 to 90% of the time”. But with the extra bureaucracy costs that will now be incurred by going that route, “they will start to move to Schiphol, to Frankfurt, to warehouses in the middle of Germany, and take on the gear there, and all of that will be lost”.

A statement from Elton John – one of the few members of the music community who has managed to get a meeting with David Frost – was also read out during the select committee hearing, with the musician subsequently posting his message to MPs onto Instagram.

He said: “We are currently in grave danger of losing a generation of talent due to the gaping holes in the government’s trade deal. New and emerging artists will be unable to tour Europe freely – an essential part of their education and development – due to the prohibitive costs of visas, carnets and permits”.

“However”, he went on, “despite this looming catastrophe, the government seems unable or unwilling to fix this gaping hole in their trade deal and defaults to blaming the EU rather than finding ways out of this mess. The situation is already critical and touring musicians, crews and support staff are already losing their livelihood”.

He concluded: “During our meeting Lord Frost said trying to solve this issue is a long process. Unfortunately our industry doesn’t have time. It is dying now. The government have broken the promise they outlined in 2020 to protect musicians and other creative industries from the impact of Brexit on tours to Europe. They now need to find solutions in both the short and long term to ensure the UK music industry continues to thrive”.

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