HC Deb 02 April 1985 vol 76 cc1194-200

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Lennox-Boyd.]

12.38 am
Mr. Alfred Dubs (Battersea)

This Adjournment debate is about the employment of children, by which I mean young people of school age. One of the main benefits of having such a debate is that it is possible to see which of the three Government Departments responsible has put up a Minister to answer it. Responsibility for this subject is divided between the Department of Health and Social Security, the Department of Education and Science, and the Department of Employment. I believe that there has been little Government activity or willingness to accept responsibility for the problem because that responsibility has been divided between the three Departments.

I should make it clear that I am not concerned in any way with the ordinary pocket-money earning activities of school children. That has been going on for many years and there is no reason why it should not continue. I am concerned about when it ceases to be merely a matter of small jobs for pocket money and becomes a major employment activity.

The facts are hard to come by, because no hard statistics are kept. However, the estimate is that about one in four children of the ages 13, 14 and 15 have some sort of a job. The survey excludes informal jobs like baby-sitting and running errands. About 600,000 or more children are employed in other than informal jobs. The known facts indicate that children below the age of 13 also work.

We are indebted to the studies carried out by or on behalf of the Low Pay Unit, which provide the most accurate and revealing information on the subject. Surveys were carried out for the Low Pay Unit in a number of areas, including London. The London survey covered, at least in part, the borough of Wandsworth where my constituency is located. It showed that 35 per cent. of the children interviewed were working and that 26 per cent. of those children were under the legal age, while 28 per cent. of them were in jobs that were illegal and 65 per cent. were working illegal hours. This meant that in London overall about 83 per cent. of the children working were somehow in breach of the law — or, rather, their employers were in breach of the law. The corresponding figure for the Wandsworth sample was 65 per cent., although the sample was too small to be statistically reliable.

There is clearly, and understandably, a conspiracy of silence on the subject. Employees who are employing young people illegally have a vested interest in not talking about it and, for understandable reasons, the children do not particularly want to talk about it. Therefore, we are doubly indebted to the Low Pay Unit for providing this information. Of course I understand that if parents are out of work and their children are able to earn some money, pressure will be put upon them to make a significant contribution to the household income.

What types of jobs are carried out? In the Wandsworth survey, delivering newspapers, doing milk rounds and shop work were three of the largest categories, but cleaning offices, building construction and decoration, working at a garage or petrol station, or in a pub or offlicence — indeed, even farming, gardening and washing cars — were all jobs that featured in the survey. There were many others.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security (Mr. John Patten)

Can it be right that farming was found to be an occupation in Wandsworth?

Mr. Dubs

The category was farming or gardening. The same questions were also asked of young people living outside London. However, I assume that in Wandsworth the category would have been gardening rather than farming.

Mr. Patten

There are not many farms in Wandsworth.

Mr. Dubs

The Minister is right, but there is at least one. Outside London, children find work in manufacturing industries, although the survey does not cover manufacturing.

Why is there so much concern? The first reason relates to the hours of work. The London survey showed that 20 per cent. of the boys worked for 16 or more hours a week. One boy covered by the survey worked for 47 hours a week in his own family's take-away restaurant.

It is not only in London that there is concern. I have received a letter from a retired teacher who referred to the fact that, when he was teaching, a pupil of his, then aged 13, started work each day at 4.30 in the morning at a local dairy and that other pupils of his worked regularly in supermarkets from 5.30 to 8 o'clock in the evening. He also talked about pupils studying for O and A-levels who worked for more than two and a half hours on three or four nights a week, and made the further comment that those youngsters had no protection from their trade union.

The second concern is low earnings; 64 per cent. of boys in London were earning less than £1 an hour. There is evidence that many young people are being seriously exploited in terms of low pay. It is also doubtful whether those employers adequately cover the youngsters for national insurance purposes. Then there is the question of illegal employment, where the children are under-age, working illegal hours, or doing jobs that they should not be doing.

There is also a problem of safety and accidents at work. For example, there are health and safety provisions regarding the lifting of weights, the sort of machinery operated and minimum rest periods. The figures for deaths and accidents at work are not clear, because the Department of Employment does not collect figures in a way that would be useful for this purpose. It includes figures for 16-year-olds who are at work, as well as under16-year-olds, and it includes figures for working children even if the deaths or accidents did not occur at work. That is a difficulty, because the bald figures suggest that, in 1983, there were six deaths involving children; as for accidents, for which the figures are in doubt, there were nearly 400 major accidents at work and many more lesser accidents. There is also anxiety about the lack of safety measures, such as no protective clothing and children working when they are tired. The consequences are that children fall asleep at school and do not perform adequately in examinations.

There is legislation for this, including the Employment of Women, Young Persons, and Children Act 1920, which prohibited certain employment for children aged under 14, especially with regard to industrial, manufacturing, building and construction work. The Children and Young Persons Act 1933 stipulated that children aged under 13 should not work, that they should not work before the end of school hours, before 7 am or after 7 pm, and that they should not work for more than four hours a day. It also prohibited the lifting of heavy weights. There are also local authority byelaws. There was an attempt in the Employment of Children Act 1973 to produce a uniform set of regulations that would supersede the byelaws and apply to all local authorities, but that Act was never brought into force.

As regards safety provisions, there is the factory inspectorate, but there are few convictions for breaches of the law. Indeed, in 1983, three employers were prosecuted for eight offences, and eight convictions were obtained. The figures for previous years are similarly low. There is also a wages inspectorate, working under the wages councils, and there are education welfare officers, but few prosecutions are brought under any of these measures.

What is to be done? First, we must recognise that this is a serious problem. If only the Government would say, "Yes, this is a serious problem", and emphasise the fact, that itself would have a salutary effect. Secondly, we must enforce the law. It is clear that there have been major breaches of the law, but the number of prosecutions suggest that there are either too few inspectors or an unwillingness to bring illegal employers to book, or a combination of the two.

Thirdly, we should not have to depend upon the Low Pay Unit and its surveys to provide the bulk of the information on this subject. The Government have a responsibility to collect information about the problem. Fourthly, we must implement the 1973 Act. Fifthly, we must then consider whether further measures are necessary.

We have a responsibility as a society to alter Victorian attitudes to this problem. It is not good enough to say that children are enterprising and should therefore be allowed to do it. The fact is that their health and sometimes their lives are at risk. Much of the work is illegal. It affects their schooling, and it is wrong. Moreover, it may deprive school leavers of jobs.

For all those reasons, I hope that the Minister will respond by saying that the Government recognise the problem and are willing to take action.

12.49 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security (Mr. John Patten)

It is characteristic of the hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Dubs) to address this problem with even-handedness and level-headedness. He has raised some important points. I should like to try to respond in the fashion in which he has asked of me, because I appreciate that his interest in this matter is genuine and longstanding. Indeed, he has been pursuing it vigorously with my Department for a number of years, he has written to me about it, and now he has been successful in raising the issue on the Adjournment of the House.

The hon. Gentleman at the beginning of his speech raised the issue of who might be replying on behalf of the Government. It does not strike me as odd or unusual in Government that more than one Department should have a legitimate interest in a particular area. To take by analogy the problems that we have in combating drug misuse, my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Home Department, the Department of Education and Science, the territorial Ministries, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and the Overseas Development Administration all try to work together to do our bit to combat this menace. In exactly the same way, a number of Departments—the Department of Education and Science, the Department of Employment and my own Department — have a legitimate interest in children and children's welfare, particularly with regard to employment matters. My Department is in the lead to the extent that will become apparent during my response. It would be difficult to try to allocate all responsibility to one Department in this difficult area.

Of course we are concerned about allegations concerning children being illegally employed. We are well aware of the allegations made in the Low Pay Unit report on working children, which was published recently, and in the excellent BBC2 programme, Brass Tacks. It is always a matter of concern if laws to protect the welfare of children are not being properly observed, and there can be the most tragic consequences in this area and in other areas about which we read in the press from time to time. However, it is the duty of employers to obey the law, and the primary responsibility for the welfare of children rests in the first instance with their parents, foster parents or those who have a duty of care towards the children.

I think that there have been some misunderstandings, and I welcome the opportunity to try to set the record straight. But to do so, I shall have to go into some detail about the existing arrangements.

There is no doubt that working when one is a young person is a popular thing to do. A lot of people like doing it. I know that the hon. Member agrees with that and does not seek to inhibit it at all. I entirely concur with his view. But we need legislation to ensure that children are not exploited. There is a long history of such legislation. Legislation which is a combination of primary legislation and local authority byelaws allows children who are still at school to have a part-time job before or after school or both and/or during school holidays, but we need strict controls. The hon. Gentleman has alluded to the Children and Young Persons Act 1933 which prohibits from working children below the age of 13. No child may be employed before 7 in the morning or after 7 in the evening on any day, before the close of school, or for more than two hours on any day on which he has to attend school, and no child can work for more than two hours on a Sunday or lift or carry anything so heavy as to be likely to cause him injury. I suspect that the area where these legislative rules are stretched most of all is in early morning paper rounds, if my experience and that of the hon. Gentleman is anything to go by.

All local authorities operate byelaws made under the 1933 Act except, curiously enough, the Isles of Scilly. Administration and enforcement of the legislation is the responsibility of the local education authorities, which usually work through the education welfare service. In addition, the Employment of Women, Young Persons, and Children Act 1920 prohibits the employment of children in any industrial undertaking, particularly mines and quarries. I dare say that mines and quarries are as unusual in Wandsworth as are farms. In this case, the factory inspectorate of the Health and Safety Executive is the enforcing authority. I would be the first to admit that under different Acts different enforcing authorities come into play, but it has ever been thus with laws in this country which have been attacked from a number of different points of view.

The Health and Safety Executive, through the agricultural inspectorate, is also the enforcing authority for legislation relating to agriculture which prohibits the employment of children in activities such as operating circular saws. The overall guiding principle behind the children's legislation and the local authority byelaws is that the child may work only to the extent that the health, education and general welfare of the child does not suffer.

Children's welfare is a subject in which my hon. Friend the Minister for Social Security, whom I am pleased to see in the Chamber listening to the debate, is greatly interested, an interest which he fully followed when he was Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security responsible for children's issues. It is characteristic of him to take the time, even at this late hour, to attend our debate.

If a young person wishes to take a part-time job, we must then ask whether he will, as far as possible, be protected from exploitation. That is what the hon. Gentleman wished to be assured of. I support him, as do the Government, in wishing to see that there is no such exploitation. As I explained, comprehensive restrictions are set out in the legislation covering the minimum age of employment, permitted hours of work and types of occupation.

In addition, the byelaws include detailed requirements to enable local authorities to vet any proposed employment and the child's fitness to undertake that employment. The employer is required to provide details of the work and a medical certificate showing that the employment will not be detrimental to the child's health or education. The child then gets an employment card as a requirement of his employment. All authorities which have byelaws, with the exception of Cornwall and Wiltshire, operate a system such as that. Cornwall and Wiltshire have similar arrangements.

In addition to the issue of employment and exploitation, the hon. Gentleman raised the question of danger, and I share with him a fear that accidents may occur to young people, wherever they work, be it in an urban environment or in the countryside on farms, where, tragically, accidents occur all too often.

The Low Pay Unit report was interesting in that respect. It suggested that about 30 per cent. of children had suffered an accident or injury while at work. It may help to put that in context if I explain that the Low Pay Unit used a very wide definition indeed of "accident". If the position is considered on the basis that the Health and Safety Executive considers it—there is usually support for the work of the Health and Safety Executive from hon. Members on both sides of the House—a rather different picture emerges. It is not possible to provide precise figures, but in 1982, the last year for which we have up to date figures, no more than 125 accidents occurred to children in employment. We are not complacent about the situation, but that gives a different picture from that presented in the report of the Low Pay Unit.

It is illegal for children to work in industrial undertakings. In view of the number of accidents to children in agricultural undertakings — not all of which occur while children are at work — the agricultural inspectorate of the Health and Safety Executive devotes a great deal of time and effort to reducing the accident rate by successful publicity, education and enforcement action and campaigns.

If, alas, a person under 16 is unfortunate enough to be injured in an accident at work or, even worse sometimes, contracts an industrial disease, there is provision under the industrial injuries scheme for the payment of benefit. That is not widely appreciated. This is the case although national insurance contributions are not payable by either an employer or an employee on any money paid to an employee before his or her sixteenth birthday. There can therefore be no evasion at all of the law relating to national insurance matters where an employee is under 16 whether he is legally or illegally employed. Again, this is something which is not widely appreciated.

The Low Pay Unit report suggested that schoolchildren are generally employed at low rates of pay. That cannot be a very surprising overall finding; it is exactly what most of us would expect. It suggests that on average £1 an hour or less is about the amount that is paid to children.

I should explain in this context that wages councils are already empowered to set minimum rates for young people under 17. It is true that wages council rates apply only where the employee works a minimum number of hours a week—that is, more than two hours a day or 12 hours a week overall. None the less, the wages councils have a distinct remit in cases such as that. In many cases, of course, wages councils will not have anything to say where children are working part time for fewer hours than that. Where there are no set minimum rates, it is a matter for agreement between the employer, the child and the parents.

I do not wish to turn this debate into any wide-ranging review of the role of parents and the family in these issues, but it is critically important that the parents and families of young children who work take a responsible and a caring attitude as regards the hours the children work and the conditions under which they work and have due regard to the sums of money which are paid to the children for the work they do. That critically important role of the parents cannot be handed over to anyone else.

Equally, the schools have great responsibilities. The hon. Member for Battersea quoted one or two cases of school teachers reporting that children were getting up at 4.30 in the morning, working in dairies, coming to school exhausted and performing substantially below par. That is deplorable, if it is true. In cases such as those the schools have a clear duty to act. If schools suspect that children are being exploited and that the law is being broken they can notify parents about what is and is not permissible. Or they can take the matter up with individual parents through the education welfare service. Where a child's education clearly is being adversely affected by employment, the school should report the matter to the local education authority under section 59 of the Education Act 1944—the great Butler Act. The authority has power to prohibit an employer from employing a child and it also has power to impose restrictions. One wonders whether education authorities remind themselves often enough of their duties in this context.

The hon. Gentleman will know that the Employment of Children Act 1973 provides for the Secretary of State to make national regulations to replace local authority byelaws. He has asked that, in an attempt to solve the problem, this Act should be implemented. Certainly byelaws have to be confirmed by the Secretary of State for Social Services and we have achieved a considerable measure of uniformity since 1973. Local authority associations were consulted in 1975 and again in 1977 on the implementation of this Act, but it was concluded that, because of the resource implications for local authorities, the introduction of all the Act's provisions could not then be justified.

I am afraid that I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that, for exactly the same reasons as were apparent in 1975 and 1977, it is today still considered to be inappropriate to impose these further responsibilities on local authorities. It is for local authorities to ascertain priorities within the available resources for enforcement. However, that is not to say that, because this Act has not been implemented, a great deal cannot be done. The hon. Gentleman was brief, and I welcome that because it has given me the opportunity to put on the record, in an integrated manner, the whole picture as the Government see it.

To say that simply because we cannot implement all the provisions of the 1973 Act means that nothing can be done is flying in the face of the legislation. It is also flying in the face of the responsibilities of parents and of education authorities. I hope that education authorities are considering whether they are acting as effectively as they can in this context; whether teachers are reporting children at educational risk and whether the authorities are acting crisply and quickly enough and disseminating their decisions widely in the local environment so that there is a demonstration of concern that would inhibit other employers from exploiting young children.

My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Employment has asked the Health and Safety Commission to assess the implications of the Low Pay Unit's report on aspects of its responsibilities. I suspect that the hon. Gentleman will find a most concerned response from the Government to that important report. We may not agree in every respect, but we are grateful for the report, as it has stirred a measure of public debate. It has allowed us to say to education authorities and others that not only do they have duties, they have powers to do things.

The hon. Gentleman will be most interested in these findings, as we are in Government. We continue to do what we can within a free society and within the family framework of this country to ensure that young children who work are not exploited, that their safety is looked after, that they are well paid and that they are not made use of.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at seven minutes past One o' clock.