Curtains up on panto bureaucracy

THEATRE groups are today buckling under the strain of red tape designed to protect child performers from being overworked.

THEATRE groups are today buckling under the strain of red tape designed to protect child performers from being overworked.

With pantomime season in full swing, groups across Ipswich have reported crippling delays in the vetting procedures for the chaperones who supervise young performers - and revealed some have been forced to flout the laws.

Under laws designed to protect children, anyone under 16 in a play must be constantly monitored by a registered chaperone, who is given strict guidelines on how to monitor the child.

The chaperones are required to:

Guard the child's “moral welfare” and ensure they are treated kindly

Scrutinise their diet, preventing them from eating “takeaway snacks”

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And even protect them from bad weather

They must also keep a detailed log of the child's movements and escort them from the theatre within half an hour of the play ending.

Chaperones must go through a three-month application process, which includes child protection training, an interview with council staff, a thorough criminal records check and a further background check.

They have to re-apply for the licence every year and repeat their training every three years.

Peter Finch, from Hadleigh Amateur Dramatic Society, said groups were being “stretched to the limit” by the regulations and sometimes were forced to allow plays to go ahead without enough chaperones.

He said: “During rehearsals for a production in the summer we just didn't have enough chaperones.

“During our annual pantomime in 2007 at Hadleigh town hall we were short of chaperones for all five performances.”

Child cast members must also obtain a licence which allows them to take part in performances by sending to the council photographs of themselves, copies of their birth certificate, a health questionnaire and a letter from their head teacher.

After just four nights on stage they are banned by law from performing again for the following six months.

Sarah Corbett, musical director and producer for Suffolk group Oskar Foxtrot Productions, said: “It's a major issue. Of course we understand the need for protections, as we're working with children but when you have 20 kids involved, it's a lot of paperwork.

“We've all got full-time jobs - we're just volunteers. I wish there was an easier way of doing it.”

HADLEIGH Amateur Dramatic Society's Peter Finch today said the Suffolk County Council department responsible for chaperone registrations was overloaded.

He said: “I am going through the application process myself. Although all the checks were completed many months ago, I'm still waiting to hear back. It just goes on and on and on.

“My application was made in early June 2007, the Criminal Records Bureau check was completed in July 2007, all the references have been completed but I still do not have the licence.”

Margaret Mudd, membership secretary of Ipswich Operatic and Dramatic Society, said that delays in the registration process were so lengthy that some groups were being forced to operate illegally.

She said: “Those reapplying for chaperone licences end up being without one for three months simply because their forms are waiting in the in-tray. They have to hope that if anyone asks, they can say their new one is in the post.”

Suffolk County Council today defended the stringent rules in place to protect children taking part in performances.

Adrian Orr, Suffolk County Council's senior education officer for social inclusion said: “The issuing of licences can sometimes take longer than we would wish. We would therefore encourage anyone intending to apply for licences and chaperones to do so as early as they possibly can.

“The national regulations are set out clearly in order to protect children who may be involved in any form of work.

“Suffolk County Council fully recognises the importance of the regulations and implements them with the resources available.”