Page last updated at 16:53 GMT, Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Circuses 'short of UK performers'

Clowns protest outside Parliament
British circus clowns are in short supply, MPs were told

Britain is suffering a shortage of home grown clowns and acrobats, MPs on the home affairs committee have been told.

Malcolm Clay, of the Association of Circus Proprietors of Great Britain, said they needed to recruit performers from China and Eastern Europe.

But they feared the new points-based migration system, which starts next month, is not ready and Embassy staff have not been properly trained.

Mr Clay was giving evidence to the home affairs committee.

He said the points-based system was a "vast improvement" on the previous work permit system, which required evidence that the applicant was a recognized artiste.

In one case, a female trapeze artists from China, performing at Blackpool Tower, was denied entry, while her male partner was allowed in.

"They wouldn't give a visa to the girl because she didn't have an international reputation. It was an absolute nonsense," he said.

'International circuit'

The Home Office has dropped the requirement for performers to apply for entry from their home country.

But performers will still be limited to a 12 month visit, even though Mr Clay claimed circus performers rarely overstayed, as they were part of an "international circuit".

There is not a pool of British unemployed circus performers
Malcolm Clay

But there was an apparent lack of training at British embassies for staff dealing with visa applications and the points-based system was being introduced too quickly, leading to concerns that circuses would have problems fulfilling commitments, added Mr Clay.

Asked why British circuses needed to recruit from abroad at all, Mr Clay said that younger members of Britain's circus families were not interested in learning to become "clowns, acrobats and bareback riders" and other traditional circus jobs.

And he added: "We don't have British circus performers who want to pass their skills on to the next generation. They seem to want to take them to their graves with them."

Committee chairman Keith Vaz asked if there was any demand at all for "British clowns for British circuses".

Mr Clay replied: "There is not a pool of British unemployed circus performers."

Emergency replacements

Chinese and Eastern European circus performers were products of former state training systems and although there were circus schools in the UK, they tended to produce students who wanted a hobby rather than a career.

"Someone who can stand outside Marks and Spencer's and juggle three clubs may look quite impressive but in circuses we need someone who can juggle seven clubs," said Mr Clay.

Ruth Jarratt, director of policy development at the Royal Opera House, said she was pleased that the government had placed ballet dancers on its shortage occupation list under Tier Two of the points based system, allowing it to continue recruiting from outside the EU.

"We cannot at the moment find the best 90 dancers in the world all from the UK," she told the committee.

But she was concerned that productions might have difficulty with emergency replacements for performers who have been taken ill, under the new system.

University concern

The Home Office had been helpful in the past, with former Home Secretary Jack Straw on one occasion rushing through a work permit for an opera singer who flew in from Russia to stand in for a performer who went down with a sore throat the morning before a show.

"By the time he was on the stage that night, he had the work permit," she said.

But under the new system, the singer would have needed a biometric visa which could not have been sorted out quickly enough, she told the committee.

The Registrar of the London School of Economics told the committee he was "deeply" worried about a lack of clarity on what's required of universities when the points-based system comes into effect.

Simeon Underwood said universities are "quite nervous" - because discussions between the UK Borders Agency (UKBA) and the suppliers of student record IT systems and the institutions are still not completed.

He said the two or three existing IT systems are "immensely sophisticated", and noted that that UKBA still have not decided precisely what information they want universities to supply.

He argued piloting of the new system and a gradual introduction over "two or three years" would be preferable.

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