HC Deb 04 June 1991 vol 192 cc174-6 4.35 pm
Ms. Mildred Gordon (Bow and Poplar)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Employment of Children Act 1973 in respect of the definition of "child"; and to make fresh provision for its commencement. Most people think that if children find a job in which to earn a little pocket money, that is good. Indeed, many children do a few hours' work which they enjoy. It gives them a degree of independence, provides them with some money for extra clothing and helps them to keep up with their friends. The money that children from poor families earn is often important for the family's survival.

I agree with the prevailing public opinion that we would not want to prevent children from getting a taste of the world of work, but I am sure that hon. Members agree that that work must be properly regulated. It is our duty to see that children are not allowed to undertake work that involves lifting heavy loads or endangers their physical well-being in any way. We do not want children to work such long hours that they cannot benefit from their education. We do not want children to have accidents because of undertaking unsuitable work, and we do not want them exploited as a source of cheap labour in an adult job at a fraction of the adult wage.

The present laws date back to the very different world of the 1920s and 1930s and, in some ways, are inadequate for today's conditions. The entertainment industry, for example, has been fairly well regulated, but modelling, which has expanded enormously since the growth of television, is wide open to abuse. Those old national laws exist in conjunction with a plethora of local government byelaws, some of which look fine on paper, but are flouted throughout the country.

In 1970, considerable public anxiety was aroused as a result of research sponsored by the Department of Health and Social Security. It showed a lack of uniformity in the local byelaws and serious problems of enforcement. Following that, a private Member's Bill, which was considered uncontroversial, was passed unopposed, becoming the Employment of Children Act 1973. Its primary purpose was to provide a rational, uniform pattern of law-making throughout the country by removing the local authorities' powers to enact local byelaws and by giving the Secretary of State regulatory powers so that, after consultation, regulations could be made centrally for the whole country. The second purpose of the 1973 Act was to enable local authorities to appraise the work which boys and girls go into before they actually begin that work. The Act has never been implemented.

In answer to questions which hon. Members have asked from time to time, the Government have said that almost all local authorities have byelaws, but in January this year they said that they would look again at the 1973 Act if evidence should be forthcoming that children are being exploited.

Recent research by the Low Pay Units in Scotland and England and the Anti-Slavery Society for the Protection of Human Rights has shown that there is a need for the 1973 Act to be enforced now. It has proved that need up to the hilt, which is why I am presenting my Bill today. The Bill would bring up to date the Act's definition of a child and would provide for its implementation by January 1992.

Recent research shows that 43 per cent. of children in Britain between the ages of 10 and 16 have some type of paid work. That is almost 2 million children. They have been called the hidden army. Of those children, 74 per cent. are employed illegally, either working illegal hours, employed in work prohibited for children or working without a local authority permit under which education authorities are supposed to ensure that medical health checks are carried out and that conditions of work are not harmful to the child involved. Only one child out of 65 children interviewed from two schools in Strathclyde had such a permit.

Children on milk rounds start long before the legally permitted time of 7 am. Therefore, all children doing early morning milk rounds are working illegally. If I had the time, I could cite many other examples. Children are lifting heavy loads in street markets and heavy bags of soil in garden centres. Newspaper rounds are considered a suitable form of employment and 30 per cent. of children who have jobs do one. Many have benefited financially from such work and have come to no harm, but Sunday papers can weight up to 60 lb—far more than a postman is allowed to carry on his round. Children are working illegally in kitchens which have slippery floors and pans of hot oil or boiling water.

Unfortunately, hospital accident and emergency departments are not required to record accidents to children at work, but they should be. Hon. Members will be horrified to learn that research shows that one third of working children have accidents at work, such as a sewing machine needle going through a finger, losing the end of a finger in a bacon slicing machine, breaking limbs and spraining backs. Answers that children give about their accidents at work make sad reading.

It is not surprising that weary children have accidents at work. If one adds up the number of hours spent at school, the two or three hours' homework a night in the run-up to exams, the number of legally permitted hours of paid work and time helping the family in the house, it often comes to a long week of 50 to 60 hours—more than most adults undertake.

I have taught classes of children, many of whom were too tired to concentrate, and that is when I first became aware and concerned about the problem. It is clear that, although some children just do odd jobs which they enjoy and from which they benefit, many are used as a source of cheap, easily disposable labour, often to replace school leavers and part-time women workers.

On average, children earn about £1.80 per hour. About 500,000 children—24 per cent.—earn less than £1 an hour and 7 per cent.—a significant number when nearly 2 million children are working—earn less than 50p an hour. One hapless 16-year-old boy earned £1.50 after 20 hours of door-to-door selling—7p an hour.

Parents, children, teachers and employers are all woefully ignorant of the byelaws that are being honoured in the breach throughout Britain, leaving our children without the protection that we would all wish them to have. Children look to us for help and we are failing them. Our inaction is not fair to them.

Many aspects of child employment need to be reviewed, but the most immediate requirement is to replace the existing confusing patchwork of local regulations with national statutes which standardise practice and provide protection across the board. We need regulations which everyone will understand and know about and which will be properly publicised, monitored and enforced by the provision of a sufficient number of child employment officers. The few whom we have are trying valiantly to do an impossible task.

My Bill will not require precious parliamentary time. The 1973 Act is already on the statute book. We need to rectify the disgraceful negligence of all Governments who have left the Act unenforced for almost two decades.

I end with the words with which I ended my speech on Second Reading of the Children Bill two years ago when I first addressed the subject: Our children are our stake in the future, and it is our duty to protect them from exploitation of all kinds."—[Official Report, 27 April 1989; Vol. 151, c. 1151.]

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Ms. Mildred Gordon, Mr. Ron Leighton, Mr. Greville Janner, Mr. Peter Archer, Mr. John Hughes, Mrs. Alice Mahon, Mrs. Audrey Wise, Mr. Gerald Bermingham, Ms. Dawn Primarolo, Mr. Keith Vaz, Mr. Tony Benn and Ms. Joyce Quin.