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Wilf StevensonWilf Stevenson on the need to update legislation on child performers

We have all heard the old adage about not working with children and animals, whether on the stage or in film. Rather surprisingly, this issue is going to be debated in the Lords today on what is expected to be the final session of Committee on the Children and Families Bill. Labour Peers will be joined by Crossbencher Charles Colville and the LibDems Floella Benjamin, in seeking to amend legislation relating to child performers and which was last updated in 1963.

Relying on a system which doesn’t give local authorities certainty around a licensing framework simply means that some just shut up shop and refuse to licence at all, while others are open to working with producers and giving opportunities to young people. So we end up with situations such as the recent documentary made in London when a school was filmed taking part in sporting and other activities. The children were excited and desperate to take part but they came from across two London Boroughs. One of the councils allowed the filming to proceed whereas the other wouldn’t let them participate, meaning that half of the children couldn’t take part. It makes no sense.

Clearly the world of television and film performances has been transformed since the 1963 Act. It is important that legislation properly reflects the full range of opportunities available to young people today, but at the same time builds in safeguards which will protect them from exploitation, or physical or mental harm. 

Currently, children in one local authority area have many more opportunities to be on the stage or screen than those living in an adjoining Borough. This can’t be right – or indeed fair. There are also huge disparities in the amount of paperwork required by councils before a licence to approve a child performer can be obtained. 

The legislation also needs changing to widen the types of involvement suitable for child participants as styles of television programmes change, so that it is no longer just about ‘acting and singing’ (as the original legislation has it). Our amendment would achieve this, by broadening the definitions and mediums covered by the 1963 Act, and would also update the provision for licensing children travelling abroad to perform so that the rules become consistent with those applied in the UK.

The need to update the legislation on these issues is long overdue. It is a shame that the Coalition government have so far failed to take action, and we will be pressing them to introduce reforms which focus less on bureaucracy and more on the welfare of children.

Lord Wilf Stevenson of Balmacara is a member of Labour’s frontbench in the House of Lords

Published 20th November 2013

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