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Tears of a clown who will have to pay to entertain children

It's not just authors affected by the new child database. Chris Green meets the entertainers forced to sign up

Saturday 25 July 2009 00:00 BST
(Susannah Ireland / The Independent)

Clowns, magicians and puppeteers, who have spent their lives entertaining children, will have to pay to register on a new government child protection database, despite already proving they do not pose a threat.

Entertainers who have regular contact with children currently have to undergo Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) checks, costing up to £60, to prove to employers that they do not pose a danger. Under the Vetting and Barring Scheme (VBS), which launches in October, they will have to pay another £64 to add their names to a separate database.

Within five years, the details of more than 11 million people will be stored by the Independent Safeguarding Authority (ISA) which manages the scheme. It was created in response to the 2002 murders of Jessica Chapman and Holly Wells by Ian Huntley, a school caretaker, and is intended to protect children from paedophiles.

Stephen Spence, assistant general secretary of live performance at the union Equity, which represents 37,000 British performers and artists, accused the Government of "offloading" the costs of the scheme on to its members, many of whom are poorly paid.

He said the union's members already found the existing system of CRB checks "onerous, expensive and overly bureaucratic" and that the new scheme, which carries a compulsory one-off registration fee, was a "great concern".

"Money is always an issue for our members, because they're mostly casually employed and have a low level of income," he said. "Those who work in schools do not believe they should be left alone with children to start with – there should always be other suitably qualified staff there. Their job is not to supervise children, their job is to perform for children.

"Where it is appropriate for our members to be checked, yes of course it should happen, because children's welfare is important. But the £64 fee is just another payment that the Government is offloading on to sections of our membership who are some of the least well paid professionals in the country."

Mr Spence said the union would lobby the Government.

Glyn Edwards, 65, is a professional puppeteer who organises shows for children through his company, Blue Sky Theatre. He said the VBS represented an "erosion of trust" between children and adults.

"Children are being taught that adults are automatically dangerous unless they have a bit of paper that says they're not. I think that's terrifying. These quangocrats are themselves inflicting a form of abuse on children by doing this. The £64 fee is a fundamentally dishonest stealth tax that is raising money by preying on people's fears."

By November next year, it will be mandatory for all individuals who work with children to be registered, including those who have already been CRB-checked. If just half of the people on the database pay the fee, the Government will generate about £362m in revenue.

Rhubarb the Clown, 61 – born Martin Solity – has been performing for 35 years. He described the proposals as "positively dangerous".

He said: "All any form of checking can ever do is say that somebody hasn't actually been caught doing anything inappropriate. When a stranger comes into a school, the responsibility for the safety of the children should be in the hands of the paid staff, not the entertainer. Anything that labels that stranger as being 'safe' is dangerous."

Charlie Valentino, 40, a magician who has been performing at children's birthday parties for 15 years, said: "Nowadays, people don't ask whether we're members of the Magic Circle, they ask if we've been CRB-checked. What bothers me most about the new database is the cost – why do we have to pay for it?"

Public anger over the scheme has grown since The Independent disclosed that a group of respected British children's authors and illustrators intended to stop visiting schools in protest.

Clive Chaney, a member of All Saints' Choir in Wokingham, was concerned that all the adult choristers will have to be vetted because nine of its singers are under the age of 18.

"It's not just a question of vetting the choirmaster – we have to vet some adult members of the choir too, because we often go off to sing in other places at weekends and take the children with us," he said. "When we all get into cars, we already have to be very careful that the adults travelling with the children have been vetted. It's all very complicated."

Fortunately for Mr Chaney and his choir, people who volunteer with children do not have to pay the administrative charge – but they will still have to register with the ISA and add their names to its 11 million-strong database.

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