Business News Legal Live Business Top Stories

Parklife founder and NTIA boss hit out at Home Office’s “demonstrably untrue” statement on festival drug testing policy

By | Published on Monday 17 July 2023

Night Time Industries Association

Founder of the Parklife festival Sacha Lord and the Night Time Industries Association have hit out at the UK government’s continued insistence that it hasn’t changed its position on drug testing at music festivals. It follows a new letter from the Home Office stating that its “consistent position” has been that such testing requires a specific controlled drugs licence from the government department.

Responding to a letter from Lord and the NTIA which called on the government to change what they consider to be a new policy, the Home Office wrote: “Our consistent position has been that anyone wishing to lawfully undertake activities that include the possession, supply or production of controlled drugs – including in the course of drug testing services – to whom an exemption does not apply, should apply for a controlled drugs licence”.

But that response, says Lord, is “frankly laughable and wholly disingenuous”, while NTIA CEO Michael Kill states: “There seems to be an unwillingness by the Home Office to acknowledge that testing has happened for the last ten years under a memorandum of understanding, and much of our dialogue and engagement has been met with the same bureaucratically scripted response”.

A number of festivals have, for many years now, tested drugs on-site to assess whether there are any substances in circulation that could pose a heightened risk to those consuming them. In some cases, the drugs are provided for testing by festival-goers, sometimes anonymously, or – more commonly at UK festivals – the experts analyse drugs that have been confiscated by police and security.

Either way, any information about substances that could pose a heightened risk is pushed out through social media, and provided to police and on-site medical personnel. That work can prevent harm and save lives by ensuring any heightened risk is known.

Manchester’s Parklife festival has previously undertaken work of that kind in partnership with drug testing charity The Loop and in liaison with the city’s police force. However, this year it was told that a licence was also required directly from the Home Office. Given that getting that licence can take up to three months, the event wasn’t able to carry out any drug testing this year.

The news that such a licence was now required also meant that a number of other UK festivals which planned to have drug testing in place this summer had to rethink. Even if they were taking place later in the year and, in theory, there was time to apply for a licence, doing so increases the costs of undertaking testing and arguably adds logistical requirements that not all festivals are able to meet.

After Lord, and others, criticised what seemed to be a new rule being enforced by the Home Office, the government insisted that there had always been a requirement to get a controlled drugs licence to do drug testing at events, and therefore its position was unchanged.

But in a letter at the end of last month, in which the NTIA threatened to take the matter to judicial review, the trade body stressed that central government was very much aware that festivals were undertaking drug testing by agreeing memorandums of understanding with local police forces and other local authorities.

That fact had been discussed at sessions in Parliament which involved relevant ministers, and the idea that a licence from the Home Office was also required was never raised at those sessions.

With the Home Office again insisting in its new letter, sent on Friday, that it hasn’t changed its position on drug testing at festivals – and that a licence has always been required – Lord has again stated that that position is “demonstrably untrue”.

In a statement issued this morning, he says: “Our existing testing arrangements have been a vital feature of festivals up and down the country for many years, but now the Home Office wants us to believe they were unaware this was taking place. It’s something that would frankly be negligent were it not demonstrably untrue. The only explanation is that this is a policy reversal”.

“We call on the Home Office to put an end to this reckless disregard for the safety of festival-goers and reinstate the existing memorandum of understanding with immediate effect”, he goes on. “The industry works tirelessly to ensure we do everything possible to safeguard the public and frankly this summer the Home Office has looked to score political points by putting lives at risk”.

NTIA boss Kill adds: “With no acknowledgement from the Home Office of previous back of house drug testing practices or engagement, and a rigidity in the current policy and dialogue, we have been left at an impasse. Although the Home Offices position is evidently contradicted in practice and at multiple communication points, we have had no choice but to bring this to the public domain”.

“Even under this new policy regime”, he then says, “there is a clear lack of clarity on elements of the drug testing licence requirements, which left to individual interpretation has the potential to exclude a considerable number of festivals from operating this facility”.

In its new letter, the Home Office also confirms that it has so far received no applications for a licence to run drug testing at a major music festival this summer. This is despite the fact, the NTIA notes in its statement, that “many of the summer’s biggest festivals operated their usual testing facilities, electing to prioritise customer safety”.

Lord concludes: “It’s a small wonder the Home Office has received no applications given it is clear that were festival organisers to apply they would be forced to shut down the vital testing facilities they had relied upon for many years to save lives”.

We discuss this story in more detail on this week’s edition of the Setlist podcast.