Farewell to innocence as shops ban children from seeing Santa alone

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The Independent Online
It was one of the more depressing revelations of Christmas present - the news that some shops have banned unaccompanied children from sitting on Santa's knee because of fears of child abuse allegations.

Children's welfare charities and a leading children's lawyer yesterday backed the decision by shops, including Selfridges, to follow the policy, in order to avoid any threat of legal action.

Peggy Ray, a member of the Solicitors' Family Law Association's children's committee, said it was "common sense" to have a guardian in Santa's grotto.

"It is a potential opportunity for a determined abuser to abuse, so as a matter of common sense and good practice it would be advisable to have another person there," Ms Ray said.

"I don't think shops have to check their Santas out. Having a register of convicted paedophiles would help, although there are a huge number of suspected paedophiles out there who would not be on it."

A spokesman for the National Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children said: "Some young people can be scared of visiting unfamiliar environments and meeting strangers. The NSPCC would recommend that adults accompany their children when visiting Santa Claus."

Richard Cain, manager of Clay's Garden Centre in Sunderland, where children must be accompanied by a parent, said it was a sensible precaution. "It is just a common sense policy that we have had for a couple of years. It's a sad sign of our times."

Selfridges, in Oxford Street, said it had always required parents to be present when children entered Santa's Grotto. A spokeswoman said: "We have had the same Santa for years and he knows how to behave with children. But we are dealing with young children and they can be quite frightened. We want to make it the best experience for them."

She later added that the policy of insisting children be accompanied was less to do with fears of abuse allegations than parents using the Santa's Grotto as a creche while they did their shopping.

Jane Kilpatrick, associate director of Kidscape, a charity which aims to help prevent child abuse, said yesterday it was necessary to maintain a sense of perspective. "We know that children need positive role models. What could be more positive than Santa? We have to get a grip here," she said. "It's great that shops are aware... but having said that if we can't trust Santa, whither civilisation?"

Ms Kilpatrick added that she knew of no occasions where a Santa had been accused of abusing children.