Child performer safety is being put at “needless” risk due to inconsistent regulation of chaperones working in the entertainment industry, experts have warned.
Demands have been made for new, more rigorous regulations around those who supervise and look after child performers at work, amid warnings that the current situation is failing.
It follows a new campaign by union BECTU requesting an “urgent dialogue” with the theatre, film and television industries to make the approach around employment of chaperones more consistent.
At present, chaperone licences are granted by an individual’s local authority, with requirements varying from a DBS check and two references, to interviews and mandatory safeguarding training.
BECTU’s assistant national secretary Paul Evans, who has worked on a tutors and chaperones manifesto as part of the campaign, said the entertainment industry would be taking a “needless risk” around child safety by not introducing robust regulations.
He told The Stage: “There is a fear, and sometimes it is a realised fear, that children could get treated badly in the industry. This can be in any one of a number of ways – they can be not fed properly, work long hours, be picked up early and put to bed late, or not have their tuition looked after properly.
“Our big concern is that one day there might be a big scandal around this. It really doesn’t bear thinking about, but the industry needs to be able to put its hand up and say, ‘We did everything we could to make sure that it didn’t happen.'”
Nationwide uniformity in the way local authorities grant chaperone licences was needed, Evans said, “so that when parents are leaving their children in the hands of a chaperone, they know they’re being held to national standards, and it’s not just a postcode lottery”.
Russ Russell, who has worked as a chaperone for 28 years and is currently employed on Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, said theatre was more careful than other sectors but the overall licensing system was “definitely failing”.
“There’s no consistency between councils. There are different rules and they interpret the rules differently,” Russell said, adding that he was worried councils were too stretched to do proper background checks on applicants.
“When I first started, [councils] used to come out and check on you. Now you [just] have to have two references to get a licence to look after children, but chaperones should be properly trained up and every now and again called in with the council.
“There are some chaperones I wouldn’t even let look after my dog.”
Other issues identified include the complexities of parents acting as chaperones for their own children. However, this practice does not exist in West End theatre. In 2014, the BBC also banned the arrangement.
Russell added that chaperones were required to keep their time sheets for three months in case the council wanted to check them, but he had not once been asked to present his.
Children’s casting director Jo Hawes said it was easy to obtain a chaperone licence and more training should be offered. However, she said the local authorities that grant them were under enormous pressure due to budget cuts and, as such, the quality of training was patchy.
The current system means that in some areas, individuals can become chaperones with no training and no experience of the job.
“That is really not good enough when the safeguarding of children is so vital,” she said.
BECTU’s campaign is also pushing for fairer pay for chaperones, and a more unified approach around certain areas such as overnight pay and breaks.
Hawes said there was a general feeling that the job was underpaid in theatre, and that pay levels have not risen in the way they should have over time.
Evans went on to say that the union also sought to ensure that chaperones were treated properly – as being “integral to the production” – and that there was a transparent grading system for these workers, varying from a volunteer to people with extensive child-protection qualifications.
Sebastian Brennan, from the Sylvia Young Agency, said the company worked with a small team of chaperones so had not come across issues. However, he added that inconsistencies between councils also impacted child performance licences.
“Despite the move to a standard application form in England two years ago, councils still vary in their level of staffing, in the number of days they require to process licences and, where they’ve moved to online application forms, there is no standardisation between the online systems that are used.
“Unfortunately, this lack of coordination has just led to a fragmented system which is confusing to navigate and doesn’t appear to benefit the welfare of children.”