HC Deb 18 July 1972 vol 841 cc562-8

Not amended ( in the Standing Committee ),considered.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Robert Grant-Ferris)

There are no Amendments for consideration. Mr. Speaker has found the four Amendments in the names of the hon. Member for Norwood (Mr. John Fraser) and his hon. Friends to be out of order.

Mr. John Fraser (Norwood)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. May I invite you to reconsider the decision not to select any of the Amendments? I am sorry to do this at such a late hour. This is an extremely short Bill, with a restricted purpose, but it changes the law. The Amendments which have been put down do not alter the main purpose of the Bill. They introduce an element of flexibility, and the proposed Amendment to the Long Title would put the other Amendments in order. I should have thought that the Amendments were directly relevant to the Bill. If they are not selected, it means that the Bill will pass through without any opportunity to amend it at all. On those grounds, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I would ask you to reconsider your ruling.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I am very sorry that I cannot oblige the hon. Gentleman, but I am not empowered to do so. The right to select Amendments is restricted entirely to Mr. Speaker. He has made his decision and I am powerless to do anything about it. I am sorry to have to disappoint the hon. Gentleman.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

11.46 p.m.

Mr. John Fraser

This Bill was introduced in another place. It was not opposed by the Opposition either there or in this House. The general weight of opinion is that there is no great harm done by children doing jobs such as newspaper rounds and a small amount of work on Saturdays under a restrictive code. Indeed, there may be some merit in children doing work which does not harm them either morally or physically. It gives them some degree of independence and enables them to earn a little pocket money and to learn how to manage money. I concede that there is some division of opinion whether this is a good or a bad thing, but the overwhelming weight of opinion is that children ought to be permitted to do small things such as paper rounds, within limitations which protect children from abuse and ensure that their education is not damaged.

The question I want to raise—and I am sorry to raise it at this rather late hour—is about the nature of the consultations which took place with interested parties. I received the impression from reading the Second Reading debate in another place and in this House that there had been some consultation about the Bill. I do not want to accuse the Minister of misleading the House—I am sure there was no intention to do that—but my hon. Friends got the impression that there had been consultations about the Bill.

Since the Committee sat, I have received a copy of a letter written by the Trades Union Congress to the Secretary of State for Social Services and I should like to quote briefly from it. The letter states that the Home Office issued a circular to interested bodies about proposed changes in the law on child employment. The Trades Union Congress states: At the time of these consultations it was emphasised to us that the Government had reached no conclusion about what changes in the law, if any were desirable. We were therefore surprised and concerned to learn that the Government had recently introduced a Bill into Parliament…without any further consultation with interested bodies…". It seems a pity that the Government did not make known to interested bodies the result of their consultations. As a result, the Trades Union Congress feels that the Bill was drawn to its attention rather late in the day and it had some observations to make.

Perhaps the Minister could give an assurance that in future when the Government have considered the question and have come to a firm conclusion they will make their conclusions known before the Bill is published.

Secondly I ask for an undertaking that the general operation of the Children and Young Persons Act, 1933, which this Bill amends, will be considered. If my Amendments had been in order and if we had discussed them, I would have suggested that the Minister should have power by regulation to change the age at which children could work and to raise it above 13, and to specify different ages for different occupations.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Member is on dangerous ground. He had better keep away from those Amendments.

Mr. Fraser

I am off them now, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

The Minister said in a parliamentary answer that there were other legislative proposals designed to improve and standardise the framework for administering this branch of the law, and that he intended to introduce regulations. As the Bill and the Children and Young Persons Act stand, local authorities can make byelaws which regulate child employment. For instance, the Inner London Education Authority has passed a byelaw saying that no child under 12 shall engage in horticultural work. It has also made byelaws prohibiting children working in kitchens, hotels, fried fish shops, registered clubs, billiards saloons and so on.

All I am asking is that there will now be full consultation with interested bodies about legislation which I understand is to come, and which I hope will give the kind of flexibility that I would have liked to see in the Bill, after consideration of the representations of the TUC.

11.51 p.m.

Dame Joan Vickers (Plymouth, Devonport)

Although I am not against children showing their willingness to take jobs, I am worried about the period in the Bill. There will now be a period of three years in which they can take jobs, instead of two, as the school leaving age goes up to 16. I am not sure that this is beneficial, particularly as very often children from the poorer income group families undertake the sort of jobs envisaged, and probably they are the least well nourished and so on. I would have much preferred the starting age to be 14.

Does any Act lay down the exact number of hours the children can work? This is an important point, and it is not stated in the Bill.

I believe that there are about 150,000 young people of 13 who undertake jobs, and I should like to know which local authority is to be responsible, the district or the county, for laying down the new byelaws in regard to the age. Obviously, opinions vary between town and country, and the type of job also varies.

11.52 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security (Mr. Michael Alison)

I am much obliged to the hon. Member for Norwood (Mr. John Fraser) for the helpful and positive note he struck in welcoming this short Bill, and for the helpful way in which he assisted its progress through Committee. I am also much obliged to my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dame Joan Vickers) for the slightly qualified sympathy with which she greeted the Bill.

On the question of consultation with the TUC there has been a bit of a misunderstanding. I very much hope that the TUC will accept that we have at every stage sought to maintain the fullest possible good faith with it. In response to the letter to which the hon. Gentleman referred, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has today written a full reply, which it would perhaps be improper for me to refer to now as the General Secretary will have received it only today.

The background to the Bill is straightforward. As the hon. Gentleman said, there were wide consultations involving scores of different bodies, including the TUC, teachers' organisations, local education authorities and so on, all of which might be thought to have a view on these matters. I received in my Department a large volume of ideas and expressions of opinion on the matter.

The difficulty we then faced was that legislation embracing a quite wide range of topics, including the wider implications of the consultations, required a quite substantial instrument to be laid before the House, for which the Government have not, alas, found time in this Session. If we had done nothing, the event would have been removed from our hands by the inexorable processes of legislation already on the Statute Book. That would have resulted in a change being made which, as was apparent from the consultations, an overwhelming majority of the people consulted felt should not be made. It was only for that reason that we pre-empted that aspect of the consultation relating to the changing of the school-leaving age so that we should not be presented with a fait accompli in advance of the substantive Measure. This was the only reason that we acted hurriedly and rapidly.

However, referring to the fuller legislation which must lie in future, it would be wrong for me to undertake that we would engage in further consultation with outside bodies beyond those extensive consultations into which we have entered. It seems to us that we have already received a vast mass of invaluable material, cogently argued, and that the proper step is for the Government to make up their mind, to present a Bill to the House and to let the House, subject to impressions which may be conveyed to it by outside bodies, reach its conclusion through the normal process of debate. The processes of consultation have enabled us to make up our mind as to that which it is proper and reasonable to present to the House. It is up to the House to decide how it should view these matters.

We have had extensive consultations. Wide publicity will be given to the Bill when it is published. No doubt the consultation—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman is not in order in referring to future legislation.

Mr. Alison

Leaving aside the question of future legislation, I have no doubt that the TUC will have occasion to make further representations and it will have the opportunity of doing so. To that extent, its needs will be met. However, I hope that the hon. Member for Norwood will convey to the General Secretary of the TUC, should he be in touch with him, our deep appreciation of the considerable thought which it has given to this matter and the help it has given us in consultation. My right hon. Friend has written to Mr. Vic Feather today.

My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport may be slightly overstressing the aspect of the 16-year-olds who will be brought into the pool. She said that there would be a third year, but she will agree that already a substantial number of children of 15½ years of age or above are staying on at school and that to that extent they are already in the pool. The number who come into it as a result of raising the school leaving age may not be as large as was first thought. Our impression is that once children get beyond the age of 15 they tend to drift away from the newspaper rounds and milk deliveries, which are traditionally the occupations of younger children. It is the children of 13 and 14 years of age who do the milk rounds and newspaper rounds and enjoy them. Once they get over 15 they are more preoccupied with school matters and other interests.

There are sharp and distinct rules and regulations about the matter of hours. For example, children of this age must not work before 7 a.m. or after 7 p.m. They must not work during school hours or for more than two hours on a school day. They must also comply with local byelaws, which generally require the production of a certificate of fitness signed by the school medical officer and which regulate in some detail the work which may be done and the kinds of work permitted. Therefore, not only is there statutory protection for children but there is a good deal of supplementary byelaw protection.

I commend the Bill to the House.

Dame Joan Vickers

What sort of local authorities will be involved?

Mr. Alison

May I write to my hon. Friend about that? I cannot give an off-the-cuff answer.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed, without Amendment.