HC Deb 03 July 1996 vol 280 cc1024-34

Motion made, and question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.[Dr. Liam Fox.]

6.45 pm
Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

The subject that I want to raise is child labour and the employment of children in the United Kingdom. I am sure that you will recognise, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that that is an extremely important and sensitive issue, and one that concerns large numbers of people, not just in this country but throughout the world. There is also concern about purchasing products produced by child labour in other countries.

First, I must put it on record that I am the chair of the British committee of the International Campaign Against Child Labour. It is a totally unremunerated position—indeed, it probably costs money, but that is not the point. I should also place on record the thanks of many people for the work done by Anti-Slavery International to expose the problems of child labour in many parts of the world, but also in Britain.

Most members of the public assume that child labour is a problem of the past. They think of children going up chimneys in Oliver Twist, or of Dickensian England. Possibly, they think of those tragic children in southern India, who are weaving carpets for 10 hours a day, or of the bonded labour in Pakistan and so many other places.

It is true that child labour was an enormous problem in Victorian Britain. Indeed, many of the great struggles to develop free state education were conducted in the teeth of opposition from farmers in many parts of the country, who wanted children to work on their farms because they were cheap or virtually free. One of the motivations behind the Burston school strike in Norfolk in the 1920s was that it was in opposition to farmers who wanted children to pick stones off fields rather than attend lessons.

While the problem has changed a great deal, it has not disappeared. There is a secret illegal work force in Britain that deserves to be highlighted. One does not have to go to the third world to find out what is happening. Here in London, children are working illegally. They are doing so obviously, by washing car windscreens and so forth at junctions, but they are also doing so illegally in clothing factories, bakeries and many other places, where they are dreadfully exploited and exposed to extremely dangerous conditions. They are also working as waiters and shop assistants and delivering milk, papers and the like. Those issues have to be brought to the attention of the House, and I will come to some of the things that the Government can and should do about the problem.

In a recent report, a group of psychologists at the university of Paisley, who have done much work on the subject, estimated that from 1.1 million to 1.7 million pupils in the 11 to 15-year-old age group are engaged in employment. That report demonstrates—it is the widest study undertaken to date—that that is not a minority experience for pre-16-year-olds. The group questioned 2,000 pupils in 22 schools in Scotland and the north of England, and found that between 35 and 50 per cent. of the pupils had jobs, and as many as 70 per cent. had had jobs at some time.

Despite the fact that almost all jobs require a child to have a work permit issued by the local education authority, the Paisley study finds that nine out of 10 of the children are employed illegally, and that their average pay is £1.50 an hour. Some earn as little as 50p an hour.

In Britain, particularly in areas of high unemployment, we seem almost to be mirroring what is happening in the third world, where adults cannot gain employment but children can, because their wage rates are so low and they are easier to exploit as a result.

The Paisley study also found that some children started work at about 4 am and worked for several hours before going to school, even though it is illegal for children to work before 7 am. One third of the children interviewed in the Paisley study said that that had happened to them. A total of 20 per cent. of the pupils questioned in Strathclyde, Dumfries and Galloway worked more than 10 hours a week, although it is illegal for children to do that, starting at the times I have mentioned.

I want to put these problems before the House. The accident and health risks for children are serious, and there is a double bind in this. Not only are children seriously at risk when they are working early in the morning and late at night, but they are also working illegally. Therefore, the employer is unlikely to want to report any accident. They are not covered automatically by health and safety legislation, and are exposed to the most appalling dangers as a result.

A study by the Low Pay Unit found that one in three working children had been involved in accidents of that kind, and that 27 per cent. of children working in the service sector have reported being hurt at some time.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Mrs. Clwyd) has produced a report on child labour. She cited cases of children aged between 12 and 15 who were killed or seriously injured at work. Where prosecutions followed, the fines were often low. Her report cites two cases in which boys of seven and eight were working on a building site, and another in which school-age children were working a fourteen-and-a-half-hour day sorting rags for £1 an hour.

One can see the advantage to the employer of employing children at £1 an hour when he would have to pay considerably more for adults. It underlines the case both for a national minimum wage in this country and for much greater labour regulation, not less. Sadly, in the case of those children, the Health and Safety Executive did not prosecute.

An even more shocking case is that of a Birmingham 15-year-old, Dean Allsop, who died because he wore no mask and was overcome by intoxicating fumes when he fell into a vat of water in a sheet metal finishing factory. Another case is that of the 14-year-old Watford boy who was killed when he fell under the wheels of an oncoming car just yards from the flower stall that he was running. These issues are present in factories, and on building sites, farms and other places around this country.

When one mentions child labour, people usually say that it is all about trying to stop children doing paper rounds, and that such paper rounds do not do them any harm. I did a paper round on a Sunday as an older child. Most children are glad of the money, but when one looks back, one sees that there are serious questions about the safety and exploitation of young children.

The physical damage that can be inflicted is quite serious. In 1988, the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy, which is affiliated to the Trades Union Congress, exposed the risk of spinal deformity that can be caused to paper boys and girls as a result of carrying heavy loads in poorly designed bags, which push their spines out of alignment. Children's loads are not set by law in the way they are for adult workers.

For example, a 17-year-old postal worker should not be carrying more than 40 lb of mail. Some children delivering papers, particularly Sunday papers which tend to be bulkier than daily papers, are sometimes carrying as much as 70 lb at the start of the paper round. I would consider that heavy for many adults. It would probably be beyond the capability of many hon. Members to carry that weight, yet children are doing that, and the damage caused in the early part of their round is considerable.

Tragically, safety in our society has diminished a great deal over the years. One must have serious regard for the safety of children, particularly in London and the big cities. As somebody who grew up in the country, I find it shocking that one can barely let one's children go out of the front door to go a hundre yards down the road to a shop without being concerned for their safety. Children undertaking paper rounds have been subjected to assault, sexual attack and violence, as well as facing the problems of traffic accidents and general safety.

Earlier this year, a tribunal on the world problem of child labour was held in Mexico. Mike Calvert, who was representing the British committee, presented evidence in which he said: It is estimated that in Britain 2 million children under school leaving age work for wages of around $1 or $1.30 an hour. He translated the figure for the tribunal. He went on: The general demand of British workers is for £4.15 per hour. One then clearly understands that child labour stands as one of the main means to deregulate the labour market and reduce the cost". We should also remember that, in 1899, the founding conference of the TUC said: The time has come for the British Empire to stop building itself on children's hearts". The hearts of children now are those to whom I have referred, who have suffered accident and injury because of excessive work early in the morning and late in the evening.

The TUC has done a great deal of work on this. It is concerned not just for the safety of children, but for the way in which children provide employers with cheap and flexible workers. The TUC document said: Children provide employers with cheap and flexible workers who often don't know their rights. Children have always worked and there are a huge variety of reasons why. In poorer families the child's wages may be very important to family income—and growing poverty in Britain makes that more likely. The TUC document goes on to say: According to the Low Pay Unit, one in three working children have been involved in accidents. The document also mentions the report produced by my hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley, and explains the dangers of the weight being carried by children. It goes on to call for legislation and ratification of International Labour Organisation convention 138, which is at the heart of the debate and my arguments.

Convention 138 clearly states that the minimum age for entry into employment should be the age of completion for compulsory education. Exceptionally, a country with insufficient economic and educational development may initially specify 14 years. That could not be said to apply to the United Kingdom. The Government purport to support the work of the ILO on child labour in developing countries, but they reject criticism of their record.

They are firmly opposed to a human rights clause in international trade agreements, which would link access to the global market to effective measures to eliminate bonded child labour. The most serious abuses of working children are generally dealt with under ILO convention 29. The TUC document states the nub of many of the problems.

Although this is a debate about child labour in the United Kingdom, it is difficult to limit it to the United Kingdom, for a number of reasons. As I have mentioned, working children provide a cheap and relatively docile source of labour. It is an advantage to an employer in Britain to be able to employ children, and it is an even bigger advantage in many third-world countries.

In some African countries, over 50 per cent. of children are working. In South America, 5 million children are working, and in Asia an estimated 44 million children are working. The worst offenders are Mali, Burkina Faso, Burundi, East Timor, Uganda, Ethiopia, Senegal, Bangladesh and Nigeria—many of the world's poorest nations.

When workers in Britain legitimately complain about job losses and manufacturers moving overseas, they complain about imported goods being produced by child labour. Those companies alleged to be producing goods by child labour usually say that no children work in their factories. That may well be true of their own factories. The sports shoe manufacturing industry is keen to point out that no children work in its factories. The problem is that it sub-contracts work to outstations which do employ children.

If we are to deal with the problem of child labour, it is not a matter of punishing the children for undertaking the work, or even, in some cases, of punishing the parents, who may be driven by terrible poverty; rather, it is a matter for international regulation and the implementation of the ILO convention.

Last year's Trades Union Congress passed a resolution in support of the ILO convention, and asked Governments to translate into practical actions their commitment to ratify ILO convention 138, which I strongly support. I hope that the British Government are prepared to declare their support for that, and to look more seriously at the regulation of the labour market in order to control the safety of children.

British legislation also creates some problems. When I started researching the issue, I discovered that the Employment of Children Act, a private Member's Bill, was passed by the House in 1973 during the Government of the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath). That Act has never been put into operation. It sought to regulate child labour, prevent young children from working, and establish various other conditions concerning rest, maximum hours, and so on. It is shocking that such legislation could be passed more than 20 years ago, yet never be put into operation. I hope that the Minister will explain why that has been the case.

The Department of Health issued a consultation document, which I understand attracted a number of responses, although I have no idea exactly how many, which was based on the new EC directive on child labour. Some of those who read that document found it rather disturbing. When I asked a parliamentary question on the subject, I was told that there were no plans to publish the responses to that document. I hope that the Minister will change his mind tonight, and tell us that all the responses will be published. If he does, that will be fine; if not, the only conclusion that can be drawn is that the replies were unsympathetic and hostile to the EC directive and the Government's position.

The Guardian, in an article on 22 May this year, said: Britain has opted out of key provisions of the EU directive, rejecting a 12-hour weekly limit on children's term-time working in favour of a limit of 17 hours for 13 and 14-year-olds and 20 hours for 15-year-olds. Uniquely in Europe, Britain will also exclude 16 and 17-year-olds from any restrictions on the hours they can work. Many families in my constituency are extremely hard up. They are keen for their children to stay on at school past the age of 16 in order to obtain A-levels, go on to college and so on, but they simply cannot make ends meet. Insufficient money is available through the social security system, and in many cases children work such excessive hours that their studies are damaged. Children under the age of 16 also work more than they should because their parents cannot get work, so they too are part of the problem.

The Government are seeking an opt-out from parts of the EC directive, but even that is limited, because it does not outlaw the employment of children in the way that the ILO convention suggests. As a result, the British position is even worse, because Britain believes that children should be working even longer hours than the EC directive states.

Britain has the beginnings of a serious problem. Child labour is disgraceful. Children should be able to grow up in a happy atmosphere, in which they can learn without the stress of knowing that, after school or early in the morning, they have a job to go to because of their family's poverty. Those things were wrong in the 19th century, as many hon. Members would have said in this Chamber 100 years ago, and they are doubly wrong today, when we have the resources to eliminate child labour altogether.

I conclude by quoting from the Anti-Slavery International appeal for action on child employment in the United Kingdom. It is headed: The British Government is planning changes to the law affecting the employment of school-age children, which will worsen their school performance and provide cheap labour to businesses trading on a Sunday. It says: ASI is concerned that school-age children in the UK are still not adequately protected from exploitation under UK law, and that the Government has not given serious consideration to the impact on children of working long hours while still at school. UK laws on child labour need revision, need to be applied and need to conform with the UK's international commitments. If the current proposals become law many more school-age children in Britain will be working even longer hours during term-time at the expense of their education and childhood. We have the power to do something about child labour. Legislation exists. We have the ILO convention 138, ratification of which in its entirety would help to eliminate child labour.

When I recently asked the Secretary of State what actions are being taken by his Department to ensure that children are not working in breach of the current employment law"— that was a question to the British Government, who are responsible for the enactment of legislation and the protection of British people—the answer took less than one line. It said: Enforcement of the law in this area is a matter for local authorities."—[Official Report, 26 June 1996; Vol. 280, c. 146.] Local authorities often lack the resources and expertise to deal with the matter. In some cases, they may lack the will to deal with it. All the battles to develop free education in Britain 100 years ago in the teeth of opposition from employers who were busy exploiting children at the time might be rerun today because some local authorities might not be too keen on investigating clothing companies, newspaper deliveries and other employments in which children are working excessively and in great danger.

Even more shocking is the fact that there is apparently no central collection of statistics showing how many children have suffered from accidents, or of the work done, or not done, by local authorities. The Government have all the appearance of wanting to have nothing to do with the problem. They hope that it will go away, and that someone else will deal with it.

Many people feel angry about the moral situation of children around the world. They refuse to buy goods produced by child labour—not because they want to harm the children or their families, but because they want to make their own statement about the employment of children and the way in which their education suffers.

I am concerned that the education of many children in Britain is being seriously harmed and that many are suffering physically, mentally and educationally as a result of the way in which they are forced to undertake jobs that they should not be doing. It is time that the 1973 legislation was put into operation in its entirety, and that the Government gave legislative approval to the ILO convention to protect children.

7.7 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Mr. John Bowis)

I thank the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) for introducing the subject of child labour. He may not be wholly surprised to find that I do not agree with everything that he has said, but he raised some important and legitimate concerns for the welfare of children in Britain and abroad. I am not here to answer today for children abroad. I merely say that, if some of the countries to which he referred adopted some of Britain's protective legislation, some of the abuses about which he and I share concern might be prevented.

The hon. Gentleman speaks from a purist and honest point of view, which is that no child should be employed. That is a perfectly fair position to take, but it is not the one that most people in Britain would adopt. He would rule out even the paper round. Children often wish to work, and society in general sees work by children as a normal part of a child's life.

Suitable work undertaken by children in controlled circumstances can be beneficial, for instance by developing in them a sense of their own worth, by developing the discipline of regular attendance, and through the experience of handling money and forging working relationships, not least with people older than themselves. All that can be beneficial to general development, to the rounding of a child as an individual.

We must be careful not to confuse the common experience of children who work, for example, delivering daily newspapers, with the occasional horror stories that we hear of children being exploited, perhaps in dangerous circumstances, by unscrupulous employers. If that occurred, the hon. Gentleman and I would stand shoulder to shoulder to find ways to prevent it and to bring to justice anyone who had perpetrated it.

Let me make the legal position quite clear. Children are prohibited by statute from working except in strictly controlled circumstances. Apart from the general prohibition on children working in any industrial undertaking, contained in the Employment of Women, Young Persons and Children Act 1920, the basic rules are contained in the Children and Young Persons Act 1933, which stipulates that no child may work below the age of 13 years before 7 am, during school hours or after 7 pm for more than two hours on any school day or Sunday.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the 1973 private Member's Bill, which, as he rightly said, was passed during a Conservative Government. It was considered by the Labour Government of 1976, but they decided not to implement it in that form and instead decided to go for local government byelaws. Subsequent Governments have followed that route, although we are now looking to see whether they need strengthening as a result of the EU directive.

Most important—this is the crux of the control of children's employment—any employer who wishes to employ a child must register the child with the local education authority and obtain an employment card, which will be issued only when the LEA is satisfied that the job involved is legal in terms of the nature of the task to be performed, the hours of work involved and the times when the task is to be performed. The LEA must also be satisfied that the child is fit to do the work and that his or her education and general well-being will not be put at risk.

The measures that I have described provide a sound legal basis for allowing our children, from a suitable age, to gain valuable experience of work while at the same time protecting their well-being.

Mr. Corbyn

Roughly how many children are registered with local education authorities? What does the Minister's Department think is the rate of non-compliance in that area?

Mr. Bowis

I shall come to that point in a moment. We do not know the number of children who are registered with employment cards, but there is perfectly clear evidence that a large number of children do not use the cards. That is something that local authorities must look at.

There is, however, much good practice. I have seen booklets produced by local authorities of all political persuasions, in all parts of the country—rural and urban—which set out to ensure that local employers are aware of their duties in that regard. I have seen documents produced by those in the newspaper industry to try to ensure that their people are complying. I have no doubt that debates such as this will also highlight the need to comply. It is not a case of people being exploited or badly treated; it is a case of children who are not being properly employed within the law. That is not acceptable. There is a £1,000 fine for non-compliance, and we must get that across. As we move towards the implementation of the EU directive, we shall have further opportunities to highlight that.

If we hear of instances—sometimes tragic instances, which are rare—where the system has failed, we do not find that a child has come to harm as a result of a deficiency in the current law. I have heard of calls for central Government to do something about the illegal employment of children, usually from people who are a little short on what to do. As I have described, local authorities have considerable powers to control children's employment sensibly. I stress again that they have had such powers since 1933. There is nothing new in the idea of children working or of protecting them while they do so.

We sometimes hear alarmist figures that up to 1.5 million children work illegally—alarmist because the estimate is due not to any widespread exploitation but rather to the fact that relatively few children, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out, possess an employment card. Many authorities are taking positive action to tackle that by visiting schools and so on, and I hope that that will continue.

Suggestions have been made—the hon. Gentleman referred to this—that local authorities have not felt able to allocate the necessary resources to control children's employment effectively, and in particular to enforce the employment card system. It is, as the hon. Gentleman will know, for each local authority to decide on its spending priorities and to devote resources as it sees fit to any sector of its responsibilities. It is not a new responsibility; it goes back more than 60 years, and I should have thought that any authority that thought that children were at risk would ensure that such resources as were necessary were allocated to that area.

Some people may think that the current law is out of date. I do not accept that. Detailed controls are contained in local authority byelaws, which local authorities are responsible for keeping up to date. We propose changes, to which the hon. Gentleman referred. The directive on the protection of young people at work, which was produced by the EU in June 1994, calls on member states to bring their domestic legislation into line with the terms of the directive, and we are working towards that. We believe, however, that our current system already provides suitable protection. That does not, of course, mean that we shall not comply with the terms of the directive. Of course we shall. I am concerned that, while we make the few changes to the current rules that are required by the directive, we ensure that we are fully up to date, which we need to be to protect our children.

With regard to children under the minimum school leaving age—the cut-off point where the legislation applies—we have the option, and we shall take it, under the directive of not applying the limit of 12 hours a week during term time. We shall retain our current limits of up to a maximum of 17 hours a week for children up to the age of 15, and 20 hours a week for children of 15 or over. There is no objective evidence to support a lower limit. The current limits have been in place for many years, and I am aware of no evidence that they are in any way inappropriate. I am, of course, aware of the research, notably from the university of Paisley, which suggests that children working more than 10 or perhaps 12 hours a week perform less well academically, but, as the authors of that research are honest enough to acknowledge, no direct causal link has been established.

I should point out that the directive permits children aged 13 and 14 to work up to seven hours a day and 35 hours a week in their school holidays, and children aged 15 or over to work eight hours a day and 40 hours a week. That is far in excess of our current limit of five hours a day and 25 hours a week for 13 and 14-year-olds, and eight hours a day and 35 hours a week for children over 15. I can tell the hon. Gentleman that we are not moving towards the directive on that. We are retaining our lower limits, which I hope will please him at least. Another important way in which we are already more protective than the directive requires is on the start and finish times. The directive prohibits children from working between 8 pm and 6 am. Current United Kingdom law prohibits work between 7 pm and 7 am. We shall retain our more protective approach.

Mr. Corbyn

If, as the Minister says, the EU directive is rather worse than the British Government's position—I take his point about start and finish times—why on earth did the British Government not veto it when they had the opportunity to do so? They veto lots of other things—why not that?

Mr. Bowis

The veto was not appropriate in that context.

Mr. Bowen Wells (Lord Commissioner to the Treasury)

There is qualified majority voting.

Mr. Bowis

Indeed. But, in any event, options in the directive gave us the necessary flexibility to continue our current best practice—and I think that we do have best practice, which has been seen to work.

It has been suggested that we are proposing to increase the number of hours for which children may work. That is not so. What we propose is to bring up to date the law governing children's working hours on Sundays. The current two-hour limit is not reasonable in the 1990s: many shops now open on Sundays, and I believe that children should be able to work in those shops if they wish to.

I am conscious, however, that merely increasing the number of hours for which children may work on Sundays could erode their leisure time with their families, or the time in which they must do their homework. That is why our proposals are carefully framed to maintain the current limit on the number of hours that may be worked over the weekend, while providing a choice of when those hours may be worked. I consider that increased flexibility a positive step, and expect it to be particularly welcomed by the various ethnic and religious groups for which Sunday is not a special day.

I believe that experience of suitable work at a suitable age, in strictly controlled circumstances, can be positively beneficial to children.

Mr. Corbyn


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris)

Order. Is the Minister giving way?

Mr. Corbyn

I thought that the Minister was about to sit down.

I referred to the consultation document sent out by the Department, and the lack of published responses. Are the responses to be published? If so, when?

Mr. Bowis

We shall certainly present our conclusions on the consultation in due course, but we do not propose to publish the details of the letters that we have received. As on other occasions, it was not made clear to those who wrote to us that that might happen, and it is not normal practice, but we shall certainly take into account the views that have been expressed on both sides of the argument.

Local authorities are responsible for ensuring that the law is adhered to. We are working on some minor changes to the current law, both to ensure that it is fully up to date and to comply with the terms of the directive. I believe that, when local authorities update their byelaws as part of the process, the publicity that that will engender will lead to a greater knowledge of the law, and therefore greater compliance with it.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will feel that we have good law in this country. That law needs to be complied with, and it needs to be publicised on occasion, but sensible working practices for children can be helpful to those children as they develop and grow. It is not a question of supporting families' incomes; it is a question of helping children to grow into responsible citizens. In that spirit, I believe that the steps that we are taking will be helpful.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-two minutes past Seven o'clock.