Westminster Council – stop the prosecution of young musician Dan Wilson

A guest post by Jonny Walker, director of Keep Streets Live

On Wednesday 20 August at 10am a talented young musician who has represented Great Britain in the world loop championships appeared in court in Westminster answering criminal charges of ‘illegal street trading’ and using a speaker in the street, for a 10 minute busk in Leicester Square early this year with a couple of CDs of his own music with a sign saying ‘suggested donation £5’ and giving details of his Facebook page. This was his fourth court appearance relating to this one incident of spontaneous live music and he now faces a fifth court hearing in November. 
If convicted this graduate of Leeds College of Music will have a life-long criminal record which will affect his ability to travel aboard, an essential part of life as a touring musician, and a heavy fine.

Westminster Council’s determination to prosecute Dawson comes against a backdrop of the Mayor of London’s #backbusking campaign launched in April with the intention of making London ‘the most busker-friendly city in the world’’. Boris Johnson has convened a task force designed to remove obstacles to performing in the capital city of which Westminster Council, the Musician’s Union and the Keep Streets Live Campaign are a part. Despite this, Westminster Council have decided to spend thousands of pounds on a heavy handed criminal prosecution against Dawson, no doubt to make an example of Dawson lest any other musician decides to commit the ‘crime’ of performing beautiful music on the streets of London. The extravagant waste of scarce public resources involved in using the police and courts to criminalise an activity which brings colour and enjoyment to the streets of our cities is very troubling.

If you share the view of the Keep Streets Live Campaign that this protracted prosecution is a scandalous misuse of public time and money, and that it represents a campaign of legal harassment against a promising young musician, please email the cabinet member for Public Protection at Westminster Nickie Aiken on naiken@westminster.gov.uk and also the Head of Legal and Democratic services at Westminster Peter Large on plarge@westminster.gov.uk who, bizarrely, maintains that it is in the ‘public interest’ to spend thousands of pounds prosecuting street musicians. Politely point out to them that it serves no ones interest to criminalise culture and that the public don’t need protection from music makers who are bringing enjoyment and colour to public spaces.

In response to emails they received when this news went public, Joseph McBride, Cabinet Officer for Communications and Strategy for Westminster stated that ‘…street performance can give rise to real problems for local residents and businesses and in such cases it may be necessary to ask buskers who are causing a public nuisance to desist and, in exceptional circumstances make use of our legal powers as a last resort’.

Dawson had never performed in Westminster before and only played for a matter of minutes on the evening he was challenged. He is an accomplished musician and was not causing any nuisance, so why is he being targeted?

The Metropolitan Police have justified police action against buskers in Leicester Square by claiming that ‘Spontaneous, unauthorised, unlicensed street performing causes anti-social behaviour and is a driver of crime’. Repeated requests for evidence of this claim under the Freedom of Information Act have been fruitless. However, it may be of interest to note that recent police crackdowns on buskers in Leicester Square, including the well publicised arrest of The King’s Parade, winners of the Mayor’s GIGS competition to find ‘ London’s best buskers’, have been partly funded by Heart of London Business Improvement District, picking and choosing legislation to use against buskers on an arbitrary basis. This is a troubling example of private interests hijacking civic and cultural freedoms.

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 busking 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!

London can, and must, do better by its musicians and culture makers if it wishes to avoid a descent into a dull, authoritarian conformity.

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