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SANTA CLAUSE!; Children are banned from sitting on Santa's knee.

Byline: Kate Jackson

FATHER Christmases have been banned from sitting children on their knees in magic grottos at shopping centres across Wales.

Many shopping centres and department stores have implemented a 'no-contact' rule amid fears sex perverts may use the festive season to don Santa outfits and prey on young children.

Unlike teachers and social workers, adults who work as Santa Claus during the run up to Christmas do not have to go through any checks by the criminal Record Bureau.

But fears about perverts slipping into Santa outfits to get near to children have caused many shopping centres and department stores to bring in their own safety checks.

At the Kingsway shopping centre in Newport, a grotto is run by St David's Foundation Care charity.

St David's appoint all their Santas, and most of them are volunteers with the Foundation.

It's an open grotto in the shopping centre so people can see what's going on, and the centre's security guards are on hand nearby.

In St Tydfil Square Shopping Centre, Merthyr Tydfil, the only store where children can give their Christmas wish-list to Santa is at the discount store Wilkinson's.

Manager Paul Schofield has a written code to cover both the children, and his two Santas.

He said: "Both of our Santas come from a theatrical agency and they've already been cleared by the police.

"I've seen the confirmation of the checks myself.

"We also have our own rules. There's no sitting on Santa's knee, and he must wear gloves at all times so there's no skin contact.

"There's a camera in the grotto which monitors both sound and movement, and he's never alone in there - there's always one of our employees with him.

"It's a sad state of affairs, but it's our priority to protect the children, and also to protect our Santas from false allegations."

The added difficulty of ensuring all Santas are thoroughly screened has meant many grottos will not be going up in shopping centres this year.

At the Capitol shopping centre, Cardiff, a spokeswoman said: "We don't have a Santa's grotto - we did have one years ago, but there's so many security procedures now it's just not practical.

"We have a walkabout Santa who doesn't have any direct contact with the children, but if they're with their parents, he can interact with them."

And St David's Centre, Swansea, has a Father Christmas-less grotto this year. Instead there's just a Christmas display.

A spokesman said Santa's absence wasn't to do with security checks or screening, but added that Santa had only made a couple of appearances in Swansea so far.

The spokesman said: "I don't even know where there is a Father Christmas! He doesn't seem to be very popular round here nowadays!"

Santa will also be missing from his usual grotto in the Bay View Shopping Centre, Colwyn Bay, due to building work, but instead the town council are running a temporary outside grotto on Sea View Road.

Town manager Ingrid Lewis said: "The children's charity Dan's Den are providing the grotto, and because most of the Santas come from the charity, they have already undergone checks for working with children.

"Santa won't ever be on his own in the grotto.

"We have had discussions as to whether the children will be able to sit on Santa's knee and we decided that if it was one of the Santas who have already been checked, and there's a parent present, then they can sit on his knee.

"But if they haven't been checked, then they won't be able to."

High street giants Debenhams have imposed a nationwide no-touching policy to cover more than 70 grottos.

A spokeswoman said: "We use a registered recruitment agency and the Father Christmases are thoroughly reference checked prior to being accepted.

"What we have found this year is that a lot of them are ones who we've used in previous years.

"We're advising that there's no physical contact between Santa and the children, and parents are advised to accompany their children into the grotto."

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Publication:Wales On Sunday (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Dec 1, 2002
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