HC Deb 04 April 1944 vol 398 cc1959-69

A child shall not be employed on any day on which he is required to attend school.—[Mr. Denman.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Denman (Leeds, Central)

I beg to move, "That the Clause be read a Second time."

We are keeping up quite a good pace, and the last thing that I want to do is to slow it down. I must, however, offer a few sentences in support of the proposed new Clause, which proposes that a child shall not be employed on any day when he is required to attend a school. I think there are few subjects on which teachers are so unanimous as on preventing the employment of children of school age. I think we all agree that it is bad for children's education. The hours of education and leisure should occupy the whole day. To try to mix them with employment is not beneficial to education. Employment, such as delivering newspapers or milk, perhaps in very inclement weather, must tend to the tiredness of the child. A very great deal more care is now taken in looking after children than used to be the case, but it cannot be advantageous to a child's education that he should have that employment.

Employment of children is practised really because of the poverty of the parents. Parents who can afford to keep children out of employment while attending school do so. We are on the eve of the introduction of family allowances, which will make the last excuse for this employment of school children invalid. Abolition is clearly the next step in our employment policy. We have advanced towards greater care of childhood by a series of stages. It is our practice to try things out by experiment and by means of varying by-laws which are intended to correspond with the circumstances of different districts, but by now we have accumulated enough experience to warrant our saying that the experimental stage is over and that employment of children should no longer find a place in the school day.

Earl Winterton

I should like to resist the Clause on the ground that it is wholly and completely impracticable in time of war. By a most curious coincidence the same Clause was brought up on the Education Bill of 1918. I happened to be home on leave at the time, the only case in which I was in this House during that war, and I asked the then House of Commons how they really supposed that, when all over Europe children of 12 and 14 were working in the fields, we could ask people in this country, when there was such a shortage of labour, to prevent children performing the task of delivering newspapers in the morning. The thing is simply impracticable in war-time. In peace-time there is a different question to be put. I do not know what the representative of the Home Office will say, but I cannot imagine anything which would be more calculated to bring the law into contempt than to pass the Clause. It would be disregarded in every town in the country.

Mr. Denman

May I interrupt for one moment? Of course the Clause is intended to come in with the employment Clauses in the region of Clauses 56 and 57 and is not intended to operate until Part II is in force. I think the earliest is in April next year, when presumably the war will be over.

Earl Winterton

I am dealing with the Clause as it stands. The courts are not concerned with the intentions of Parliament. If the hon Member says that the Clause is not to come into operation until after the war, and that is embodied in the wording I shall have nothing more to say. As the Clause reads, it comes into operation now, and I say that the thing is impracticable and will not be carried out. If I pursued this matter I should be out of Order, but I must say that I think before this war is over we shall be calling up people of 16 and 60, such is the manpower and woman-power shortage to-day. Therefore, you cannot apply a thing of this kind, which I agree would be admirable in peace-time and which I should support most strongly.

Mr. Denman

I agree.

Earl Winterton

Then why put it in?

Commander Bower

I hope that the proposed new Clause will be resisted, not for the reasons advanced by the noble Lord opposite, but because I think it is impracticable and therefore undesirable in war or peace. The example has been given of the newsagents, so many of whom are what are called "little men," who rely entirely upon school children to do small news distribution rounds year in and year out on their way to school and who simply love doing it for the little reward they get. Quite apart from that, I suggest to the Committee that this is one of these intolerable interferences with the liberty of the subject which many of us are determined to fight to the death, both now and after the war.

Mr. Lindsay

This is not the moment to debate this question. I have expressed my views publicly in a letter, but I am simply horrified to hear the views expressed by, among other people, my Noble Friend. We are not thinking in terms of this Bill coming into operation now. I have said so time after time. We are thinking of after the war, and of getting this provision written into the Bill. As for the argument put forward by my hon. and gallant Friend, does he really think that the liberty of the subject is being injured by not sending little children—[Interruption.] Those I am talking about are little children. I say that persons who normally talk in this way do not recommend that their own children should be employed for gain at this hour of the day. I, at any rate, say this with some sense of satisfaction, that since on an earlier Clause of this Bill, I made reference to a village where I happen to be living and where this is going on, the mere publicity has since stopped it. The little bay concerned subsequently told me that he was extremely tired, getting up at 4 a.m. It is no use pretending that there is a teacher in the country who wants to see this kind of thing going on, before and after school, in peace time. I am not talking about holidays, but of the periods before and after school, and on that I should have thought that the case was made. I do not wish to take up any more time now, but I ask the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department to give us something more than the negative answer he gave us to-day. If he can say anything, which will indicate that the Home Office, like his right hon. Friend the Home Secretary the other day in another matter, is showing a spirit of investigation and inquiry, if he can give us any sort of inkling that he will help us, we shall be satisfied. But we cannot go on as we are going on at the moment.

Mr. R. Morgan (Stourbridge)

As an ex-teacher who had charge of a large number of boys at a bluecoat school, I know something about this subject. I am quite sure that if the Noble Lord had had the same experience as I have had with poor boys and found them coming to school tired out—

Earl Winterton

I said I was in agreement with this after the war. I challenge the hon. Member to say that during the war, in view of what our Allies are doing, a child should not be employed in some way during the war. Let him say so if that is his view. If he does say so he will not be very popular with the Press.

Mr. Morgan

I am not concerned with popularity, either inside or outside the Committee. The mover of the new Clause made it clear that he did not expect this prohibition at the present time. He went out of his way to say that it would not come into effect until 1947, when we all hope that the war will be over. Some Members have spoken against the Clause in so drastic a fashion but the hon. Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. Lindsay) was perfectly right. You will not get a single teacher of experience in any kind of school you like who will say that it is a good thing for a boy to get up at 5.30 in the morning to go to work before school. Nor, if he does work at night, can he be expected to be bright and able to take advantage of the education put before him in the morning. I feel very strongly about this. I am anxious to see this Bill go through, and I am hoping that the representative of the Home Office will to-day give us some reassurance on this point.

Mr. Rhys Davies (Westhoughton)

I took a small part in the earlier Debate on this issue on a previous Clause, and I understood then that the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Education was going as a result of that Debate to have a talk with the representatives of the Home Office, the Department responsible for the employment of children. I hope therefore that the right hon. Gentleman the Under-Secretary for the Home Office will have something acceptable to tell us. There is no suggestion from the supporters of this Clause that we should disturb the present arrangements during the war; we are talking about what should be done when the war is over. The Bill itself presupposes that very few if any of its major provisions will come into operation until hostilities cease. I would like to challenge the hon. and gallant Gentleman who said that the children love this work. I happen to live in Lancashire, where not very many years ago exactly the same sort of argument was employed about the children working half time in the textile mills. When we advocated the abolition of that half-time system, all the arguments were used then that we have heard to-day against this Clause. It was said that the children liked working halftime, and that the parents would condemn those who voted for the abolition of the system. Yet, when it was abolished we never heard a word of protest from any parent, and certainly not from any child.

I am sure I can carry every Member with me when I say that it is not sufficient for the Home Office to issue model by-laws covering the employment of school children. One of my complaints is, that there is no effective instrument in being to implement these by-laws when they have been adopted by a local education authority. The right hon. Gentleman knows well that before the war, and more so during the war, children under 11 years of age have been gainfully employed, and that in some agricultural districts children of eight and nine years of age have been so employed in agricul- ture, contrary to the by-laws. Information was supplied to us about one agricultural district where the school managers who closed the school for potato lifting were the farmers who employed the children, and the very same farmers were also the magistrates who ought to see to the prosecution of those who violated the by-laws. The Home Office has an excellent record in connection with employment in factories; it would not for a moment allow the Factory Act to be violated as the model by-laws in connection with school children have been violated.

Sir P. Hannon

I intervene to support my Noble Friend the Member for Horsham and Worthing (Earl Winterton). I have received a number of communications from newsagents, for example, asking that the facilities already existing for the employment of school children in the distribution of newspapers shall be retained. I am the last person who would suggest abnormal employment of school children against the opportunities of education, but I agree with my Noble Friend that, during the progress of the war, with a shortage of man-power and the difficulty which small traders have in the distribution of their goods to their customers, we ought not to embody an Amendment of this kind in the Bill. No doubt the hon. Member feels strongly about it, and so do I, but we are dealing with abnormal conditions during the war.

Mr. E. Harvey

I would point out the fact that Clause 108 governs the commencement of the different parts of the Bill, and the only parts that come into force on its passing are Parts I and V. This Clause, if adopted, could not possibly come under Part I, which deals with purely general matters. Neither could it come under Part V. It would have to come in under one of the Clauses in connection with Part II, and thus could not possibly come into force until a year and a half from now, or something like that. Quite clearly, it could not come into force while the European war was going on. The important thing is that we should secure in the Bill itself proper provision for the education of children, and you cannot educate children under satisfactory conditions if they are employed for gain during the period of their school work in a way in which many children are now. We have had the case of the newspaper boys. Some of them are glad to earn the money for their families, but anyone who has been out in the early hours of a winter morning, and has seen a little lad going along in sleet and snow delivering papers—then having to go to school immediately afterwards without the opportunity of a hot meal—will realise that that boy will not get education under conditions such as we would wish our own children to enjoy. We ought to safeguard the future education of the children. I hope the Under Secretary of State will make it clear—if he takes the line that he took previously that this is not the place, in an Education Bill—that the Government are going to deal with this matter in the near future in the interests of the health of the children and, from the point of view of this Committee, in the interests of the education of the children. We cannot go on satisfactorily if present conditions are indefinitely prolonged. Employment clearly means gainful employment, and it does not mean the voluntary help given by children to their parents or others.

Mr. Colegate

Does the hon. Member mean, when he talks of children helping their parents voluntarily, that a farmer is not allowed to give a little gift to children who help with the hay or corn harvests?

Mr. Harvey

If it is a free gift or tip, it is another matter, but the important thing is to prevent the exploitation of child labour and the over-working of children while they are still in the stage of education. I hope the Government will meet my hon. Friend's urgent plea. He has been working for this for many years and I hope he may have a satisfactory assurance.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Peake)

We have had a good humoured Debate on what is often a very controversial subject. My right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Education promised, when Clause 57 was before the Committee, that he would consult his right hon. Friend the Home Secretary with view to making some further statement when a new Clause on this question was before the Committee. The Government are in full agreement with the view that the raising of the educational standards should involve corresponding changes in the legal provi- sions relating to the employment of school children. There is a Memorandum produced by the Trades Union Congress on Education after the War in which the following principle is stated: Industrial questions should not be allowed to determine educational policy. Let the greatest possible educational advance be secured then let industrial practice be adapted to the new educational situation. The Government endorse this principle. Consideration has therefore been given to these two questions: first, what modification in the existing law relating to employment should be embodied in the Education Bill, and secondly, what would be the most expeditious procedure for devising and effecting further changes of a kind which could not properly be incorporated in the Bill. The existing law is contained in Part II of the Children and Young Persons Act, 1933, which prohibits the employment of children under 12 altogether and provides, as regards children between 12 and 14, that their employment should be subject to restrictions imposed partly by Statute and partly by local by-laws.

In the Bill now before the Committee it is proposed to amend this Section so as to raise the age of prohibition from 12 to 13, when the school-leaving age is raised to 15, and consequently to subject children between the ages of 13 and 15 to the restrictions which now apply to children between 12 and 14, and similarly, when the school-leaving age is raised to 16, the minimum age will become 14. When this Bill becomes law there will still remain two questions, whether the restrictive provisions which now apply to children between the ages of 12 and 14, and which in future will apply to children between 13 and 15, are sufficient, and what further limits should be imposed on children in the last two years that they spend at school. We recognise that the existing provisions require to be overhauled, but there is, of course, diversity of opinion on what ought to be done. There was a correspondence in "The Times" in the early months of this year in which very diverse views were expressed, and I see also on the Order Paper of this House there are four or five new Clauses, all providing different solutions.

I would impress upon hon. Members that it is not such a simple issue as it appears. You cannot dismiss it, as the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Greenwood) dismissed it the other day, by getting up and waving your hand and saying, "Who would pretend to defend any children working either before or after school hours?" The Act of 1933 actually and expressly prohibits any child from working before school hours, and does so in terms. Subsection (1) says that no child shall be employed before the close of school hours on any day on which he is required to attend school. It goes on in a subsequent Sub-section to provide that local authorities may make by-laws permitting one hour of employment before school. It is all very well for the right hon. Gentleman to put it that way, but the fact remains that the Statute law prohibits this and it is only by taking positive action that local authorities can sanction one hour's employment. Now for reasons with which I am not very familiar, the fact is that 217 out of 316 local authorities have made by-laws permitting an hour's employment before school and the local authorities, of course, remit these questions to their education committees.

Therefore, when the right hon. Gentleman asks, "Is anybody prepared to defend that?" there is not the slightest doubt that large numbers of local representatives on local education committees seem to think that it is not bad for the child. There is, of course, this aspect of the question which may be one of the points present to their minds. Personally, I do not like the idea of any child going to work before school, but they may think that it is preferable for one boy to deliver 80 newspapers round a street rather than for 30 or 40 householders each to send a child, perhaps of a much more tender age than the boy employed in this case, to go and fetch the newspaper from the newsagents. It is quite clear that this is a difficult and thorny question. It raises in a new form the question to which the hon. Member for the Combined English Universities (Mr. E. Harvey) referred, and that is the definition of employment. Employment is defined in the Children and Young Persons Act and the Definition Clause reads as follows: A person who assists in a trade or occupation carried on for profit shall be deemed to be employed notwithstanding that he receives no reward for his labour. This wide definition was adopted because it was thought undesirable that children should be employed in the business of their parents or relatives, and not subject to any of the restrictions applied to wage-earning children. Take the example of the newsagent of whom I was speaking just now. Unless the definition had been of this kind, he could have sent his own child to deliver the newspapers. Although this wide definition has great advantages in the way of facilitating the enforcement of the law, it also has the effect of extending the law to occupations of a harmless and a casual kind. If, for example, a farmer's son is sent to feed chickens or to collect eggs, or the daughter of a boarding-house keeper lays the table for the lodgers, that is employment within the meaning of this Act and any general provision that prohibits the employment of children on school days would inevitably have consequences which the promoters of this Clause would not, I think, intend or approve. It would prevent, as I have said, children on farms helping their parents in quite normal, useful and innocent tasks. It is clear, therefore, that some further consideration must be given to the definition of employment before any sweeping provisions prohibiting the employment of school children could be adopted, and when this question is examined, it would also seem right to examine the question of the employment of school children not only on school days but in school holidays. As regards employment during holidays, the existing law leaves the restrictive provisions almost entirely to local bodies, and further measures ought to be considered for imposing suitable limits on holiday employment. In this matter also—

The Chairman

The question of school holidays does not arise on this new Clause.

Mr. Peake

I cannot quite pass from it, Major Milner. In this matter, total prohibition would obviously present difficulties, if only because war has shown that school holiday camps for children—

The Chairman

But the question really does not arise here. Will the right hon. Gentleman kindly pass from it, as I understood he was doing.

Mr. Peake

I will, but there are, of course, other Clauses which I thought were not going to be called and hon. Members are interested in them as well.

The Chairman

But the right hon. Gentleman must appreciate that it would be passing on to a matter which is not referred to in the Clause under discussion.

Mr. Peake

Well, Major Milner, I will conclude by saying that this is a matter which calls for further inquiry, and the Home Secretary proposes to review the whole question of the law relating to the employment of children as expeditiously as possible, with a view to preparing the way for some amending legislation.

Mr. Denman

I must thank my right hon. Friend for his speech. Obviously, the subject is very complex and my only excuse for the shortness of the Clause is that I did not want to occupy too much of the Order Paper. I realised that if it were accepted something more would have to be added, but I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for saying that the matter will be explored, with a view to early legislation if it is found necessary after further inquiry. I am sure every one will welcome the opportunity to give all the assistance possible.

Motion and Clause, by leave, withdrawn.