Video: Speech in debate on UK musicians performing overseas

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Selby and Ainsty (Nigel Adams), chair of the all-party group on music, on securing the debate and on his opening remarks. He covered much of the ground in his speech very well and I associate myself with his remarks about the Bataclan attack in Paris. People getting together to enjoy one another’s company, whether at a football match or music gig, represents the best of humanity, and people killing others while they enjoy themselves for the sake of a twisted ideology represents the worst of humanity. We are here to celebrate the best of humanity in our wonderful musicians and to try to help them a little, with the assistance of the Minister, to pursue their profession, career, trade and art with a bit more freedom and more opportunities to travel and play abroad.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman and I thank the other hon. Members who have contributed, including my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq) whose Wikipedia entry describes her occupation as writer, columnist, politician, senior lecturer and music DJ. She did not mention that in her contribution, but I am sure we all look forward to witnessing that talent during this Parliament. She pondered on what would be the contribution to Chinese history of the famous tour by Wham! of the People’s Republic of China. The answer may be the same as that given by Zhou Enlai when asked about the French revolution’s influence on history: it is too early to tell. No doubt we will eventually find out what contribution Wham! make to Chinese history.

Nigel Adams: That tour may have been preceded by Elton John—I am not sure of my chronology—but its contribution may have been a surge in bleached mullets across China. They became very popular if I remember the period to which the hon. Gentleman refers.

Kevin Brennan: Is it any wonder that from time to time we are condemned for western imperialism by those in the far east?

I congratulate the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) on her contribution. She said she was tone deaf, but I thought she hit exactly the right note with her contribution. She has colleagues who are very musically talented, including the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart), who plays in the legendary parliamentary rock band, MP4, with me and colleagues from other parts of the House.

Moving on to our discussion today, the hon. Member for Selby and Ainsty and other hon. Members outlined the contribution that the music industry makes to our economy, particularly to our export revenue. When our balance of payments is in significant deficit that is a positive contribution. There is always a danger of double-counting, but the figure for UK music of around £2 billion is credible, and nearly £1 billion of that comes from the work of musicians, composers, songwriters and lyricists in foreign currency revenue from overseas. A significant amount, estimated at £42 million, comes from foreign currency through live performances of UK music. Music is a significant part of our economic strength and our cultural strength, and the soft power of the industry’s contribution to promoting democracy, freedom and our cultural values across the world is highly significant and should not be underestimated.

There have been some welcome developments in recent years, including the music export growth scheme, which the Government introduced in the last Parliament to support musicians through grants enabling them to develop, to tour and to play overseas. That scheme is very welcome, but what is not welcome is the fact that musicians who are supported by it, or by Arts Council and other schemes, are sometimes denied the opportunity to tour overseas and subject to excessive costs if they do. Recently, there has been a particular focus on musicians touring in the USA, because of a number of cases that have been highlighted.

Let me say that I am extremely pro-USA and a big fan of American music. I have an American wife. I first went to America with my guitar—I was not stopped at customs—when I was 19 years old.

Dr Huq: Last year.

Kevin Brennan: It was a lot longer ago than that—it was a long, long time ago. The cultural exchange between the United Kingdom and the United States, particularly in relation to music, is one of the world’s great cultural jewels. The tremendous cross-fertilisation we have seen over many decades between music in the United Kingdom and America is a wonderful thing, and the Government should cherish, develop and support it.

I want, however, to highlight a couple of cases, in the hope that that will lead to better procedures in future, because there have been some worrying cases recently. One, which the hon. Member for Selby and Ainsty referred to, was that of Kizzy Crawford, a young singer from Wales. Kizzy has in fact played at the House of Commons—in one of my other roles, I chair the all-party group on folk arts, and Kizzy played earlier this year at one of the little showcases we have from time to time in the Jubilee Room, just next door to this Chamber. She is a wonderful young talent, with a bright future in the music industry, and she has the potential to become quite a big star.

Kizzy visited the US earlier this year, having been invited to participate in a showcase in Kansas City. She travelled first to Canada to do some gigs there before moving on to the United States. All was going well, and she even cleared US customs, going through preclearance at Toronto. Unfortunately, her flight was cancelled, and she had to spend the night at her hotel with her manager and musicians. They returned for the flight the next day, but as they were going through US customs, Kizzy was pulled aside into what I believe is called secondary, where she was questioned.

We should bear in mind that this young girl was—I think I am right in saying—18 years old at the time. She was a young girl from Wales embarking on her musical career, and she was not well equipped to deal with being heavily questioned in such circumstances. She was pulled away from her support mechanism—her manager—on her first visit to America as a musician. It was quite a traumatic experience for her, and it is understandable—I say this as the father of a 21-year-old daughter—that she was frightened. She had a bit of a panic attack, as a result of which she was detained in a locked room for several hours.

She was eventually refused entry into the United States, where she was supposed to play a showcase in Kansas City, despite having funding from the Arts Council of Wales for the visit, and despite having the correct paperwork, visa and so on. She was also told that being refused entry at the border could have a major influence on her ability to visit the United States again as a musician and would automatically mean that she would have to obtain a visa for every visit to the United States.

At this point, I want to praise UK Music and its chief executive, Jo Dipple, for the work it does in this area. I also want to praise the Musicians Union—I declare an interest as a member—under its general secretary, John Smith, and its assistant general secretary, Horace Trubridge, for the tremendous work that it does in this area.

As a result of Kizzy’s case, there was a degree of lobbying, and I, among others, got in contact with the US embassy. In terms of what then happened, it is fair to say that the same might have happened in the UK. As MPs, we know that those who write to the Home Office about particular cases of refusal of entry do not always get a full and helpful response. In this case, however, there seemed to be a difference between the attitudes of the State Department and the Department for Homeland Security.

Through the embassy, the State Department had issued Kizzy with all the right documents, allowing her to go to the USA and play in this showcase, and there should not have been a problem. However, that process was separate from the process of the Department for Homeland Security, which, understandably, has to protect the USA’s borders and do its job. None the less, one wonders why Kizzy was pulled aside in the way she was and whether there was any racial profiling in this case. I do not know, but it seems that Kizzy was singled out for pretty harsh treatment for a young musician simply travelling to the USA. It is concerning that there seems to be this disparity between the attitudes of the State Department and the Department for Homeland Security.

I do not think that that was deliberate, but this is not an isolated incident. The hon. Member for Selby and Ainsty mentioned another case, involving the band Calan, who are also from Wales. They also encountered great difficulty when they sought to enter the United States. At first, there was a bureaucratic problem involving the computers at the US embassy, which, in fairness, affected everybody, although it was a bit of a nuisance. Subsequently, however, the band did everything they could to get the right clearance, paperwork and visas so that they could fulfil their engagements in the United States.

Initially, Calan did not tour as a whole band, because two of their members could not gain entry. Subsequently, the band ran into problems again, even though they thought they had the right paperwork. In an email to me, their manager said:

“our issue might not be with the embassy but rather homeland security. Calan travelled in what they thought was the correct way…But my main issue is the way they were treated and although there might not have been the right stamp in their passport they had paid for a visa and had a copy of the approval notice…Not letting them into the country was a little over zealous I feel.

They sat around for about 7 hours then had their laces removed along with belts and were put into a cell with other people with a toilet with no door. Then the next day they were escorted to a caged van and taken to the plane. The atmosphere in the holding room was extremely unpleasant with guards being incredibly rude and impatient.

I understand that they have to treat everyone in the same way but to treat them in the same way as criminals was uncalled for. If this was a one off incident then it might be unfortunate but other musicians have travelled to the USA for perfectly valid reasons and been turned away and treated badly.”

I hope that today’s debate will open up a dialogue between the Government and the US embassy. We have heard today of the support the US ambassador gives to music, and he is a tremendous music fan—I attended the Rock the House event at his residence earlier this year, and it was incredibly generous of him to give that facility over to allow young people the opportunity to play music. Unfortunately, the very positive example he is setting is being let down a little because of what happens when people get over to the other side of the Atlantic.

As well as opening up a positive dialogue, it would be helpful—there are moves to do this—to have more preclearance in the UK for people travelling to the United States. It is possible for people travelling to the United States to preclear immigration in Ireland, and there are plans for more of that to happen in the UK. I do not know whether the Minister knows anything about that, but does he think it would be a positive contribution to solving the problem?

UK Music has raised the issue of A1 national insurance forms for employees who go overseas for two years or less. Musicians have apparently been having difficulty in getting those forms from HMRC, and UK Music would like the Government to consider what could be done at HMRC to speed up the process. Also, musicians have problems when flying musical equipment to the United States, when the band needs an approved US company with a business premises, a federal tax ID and a previous shipment history, which restricts options to fly equipment as cargo within the USA; equipment can be moved only by cargo plane, and they operate between a minimum number of cities, and are less frequent and much more expensive. That is an additional problem.

I look forward to the Minister’s response and hope that he will say something positive about what steps he is taking. As the hon. Member for Selby and Ainsty said, the debate is a cross-party initiative. We are all here for the same reason, because we love British music and want the rest of the world to love it too. The only way that can happen is if our musicians can travel freely. I hope that today’s debate can contribute to that.