Rogue agencies are fleecing the unwary of their money. Martin McGrath asks DTI minister Jim Fitzpatrick MP what the government is going to do about it.

Somewhere, right now, rogue agencies are making promises they can’t keep. They promise fame and fortune, regular work and easy money. And all you have to do is sign up and appear in their books and then sit back and wait for casting directors or modelling agnencies to start beating your door down with offiers of work. But wait… these pictures won’t do. Not to worry for just a £100 we’ll take some new ones. And then there’s the administration fee and the publication costs for the casting book. Just £250, then, but what’s that compared to a life of celebrity and riches?

Just £250 . But of course many people never hear from the dodgy agent again. Most people never find work through appearing in these books. And almost no one will earn enough from these agencies to cover the fees they charge.

Jim Fitzpatrick MP is Employment Relations Minister at the Department of Trade and Industry and the man responsible for overseeing the introduction of new rules for agency working. Equity has long expressed our concern that the current regulations don’t go far enough to protect people from unscrupulous and, sometimes, plainly fraudulent agencies.

Equity magazine recently had the opportunity to interview Mr Fitzpatrick. We started by asking him whether the decision to revisit these regulations, just four years after the last bill reformed the rules, proved that the current laws don’t go far enough in protecting the unwary and the vulnerable.

“No, I do not accept that the existing regulations do not protect workers; however it has become increasingly clear that some unscrupulous individuals use very hard sell tactics to persuade individuals to pay fees which, on mature reflection, they might decide not to pay. We aim to address this, proposing in our consultation to ban the taking of fees (or a promise of fees) during a casting session and possibly for a short additional period thereafter. We are also publishing a Top Tips information leaflet to raise awareness.”

Equity and other unions have been expressing our concerns about these issues for some time. Why didn’t the government act sooner?

“Last year, in our strategy paper Success at Work, we identified a number of abusive practices affecting vulnerable agency workers, including some involving certain entertainment agencies. We recognise that legitimate companies do not operate in this way. In this consultation we want to address the bad practices that can affect the most vulnerable agency workers but without placing burdens on the majority of reputable agencies who do not behave like this yet are undercut by those that do.”

But there are clear loopholes in the current legislation – for example the lack of a specific definition as to what constitutes a “reasonable estimate” of the costs of the publication of these casting books. Without clear rules the unscrupulous can charge more than is fair. Will the government tighten up the guidance on what is a “reasonable cost”?

“It has become clear that there is confusion over what sort of costs can be included in the reasonable estimate. In order to simplify and clarify the law on this point, we are considering limiting the costs that can be recovered through fees to those directly relating to production, distribution and consumables (e.g. paper and web space). Agencies would not be able to recover any other costs associated with publications through fees. In the consultation, we have asked for comments on whether there are legitimate additional costs for which allowance should also be made and we will be better able to decide what guidance to provide when we have considered responses to the consultation.”

Equity wants to see agents paid only when they find work for their clients. It is a system that has lworked well for the majority of legitimate agents for many years. Such an arrangement would effectively stamp out the disreputable practices of these unscrupulous agencies. Wouldn’t a ban on up-front fees be the simplest way of dealing with this issue? Why have they rejected this approach?

“Government must always seek to strike a sensible balance between protecting workers and not placing unreasonable restrictions upon them or upon legitimate business practice. We therefore focus on tackling the abuses, perhaps by tightening the law to make it harder for unscrupulous companies while facilitating legitimate company activity. We would also seek to inform workers about what to look for so they can protect themselves better. This is why we have made proposals in the consultation document about banning taking fees (or promise of fees) on the day or during a casting session and clarifying the legislation on what constitutes reasonable fees.”

Equity has been told that the DTI receives more complaints about entertainment and modelling agents than any other group, yet none have ever been prosecuted. Can the minister reassure us that the new regulations will be enforced?

“In fact in the year 2005/6 there was a lower percentage of cases in the entertainment and modelling sectors than in certain other sectors. It is worth remembering that prosecution is not the only route to enforcement open to government. In the majority of cases agencies quickly bring their procedures into line with the law when problems are brought to their attention and in the first instance the Employment Agency Standards Inspectorate (EASI) would usually seek to work with an agency to help them bring their procedures into compliance. Action such as prosecution is contemplated only in the most serious cases, for example where an agency refuses to comply. At present the EASI investigate every complaint they receive relating to a possible breach of agency legislation and I can confirm that we expect this to continue to be the case under any revised regulations flowing from the current consultation.”

Conservative MP Mark Prisk has placed an early day motion before Parliament relating to the payment of upfront fees for actors and models.

The motion reads: “That this House notes that thousands of young aspiring actors and models are being defrauded by unscrupulous agencies who charge unwarranted up-front fees; further notes that, according to The Stage magazine, the vast majority receive no work in return; recalls the promise made by the Government in May 2006 that it would stamp out this practice; is concerned to note that not a single prosecution has since been made; and calls on the Government to fulfil its promise to prosecute rogue agencies and to close the legal loophole which allows this fraudulent activity to continue in the entertainment industry.”

Equity would encourage all our members to contact their MPs and urge them to add their support to this motion.

(Originally published in Equity magazine, Summer 2007. © Equity)
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