HC Deb 13 February 1998 vol 306 cc671-728

Order for Second Reading read.

9.34 am
Mr. Chris Pond (Gravesham)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

When I chose today as the date for the Second Reading of my Bill, I did not realise that we would be celebrating something of an anniversary. Today, as we know, is Friday 13 February; by coincidence, the previous Bill providing national legislation on this issue received its Second Reading on Friday 12 February 1932. One hon. Member speaking in that debate on the Children and Young Persons Bill commented: If we accept this Bill…it is just 24 years since the last Children's Bill was introduced", adding rather plaintively: Must we wait for another 24 years?"—[Official Report, 12 February 1932; Vol. 261, c. 1233.] Actually, the wait was a little longer than that—66 years almost to the day.

That hon. Member's wait might have been rather shorter. Nearly 25 years ago, in March 1973, a private Member's Bill with the same title as this one went into Committee. It, too, was called the Employment of Children Bill, and the private Member concerned was a Mr. Jeffrey Archer. I understand that the Bill was something of a potboiler, and is still available in airport lounges around the country.

Although Mr. Archer had come only 16th or 17th in the ballot, and although he admitted to being just a little half-hearted about the Bill—which was originally a Labour measure, and which he had taken off the shelf, having nothing much else to put in its place—it had a very fair wind. As Mr. Archer noted in Committee, "There has been a demand for it in the constituencies, and it is wanted by all parties. We shall all be glad to see it passed into law and on the Statute Book."—[Official Report, Standing Committee C,14 March 1973; c. 7.] The same might be said of the present Bill of the same title. Nearly 170 hon. Members signed the early-day motion supporting the Bill, and most of the signatures were collected in the space of a week. The Bill's sponsors, many of whom are in the Chamber this morning, have provided tremendous support, for which I thank them, and they represent each of the three main parties. At its First Reading, three of the 11 sponsors were Conservatives. Soon afterwards, we lost one of those three—not because he was no longer a sponsor, but because he was no longer a Conservative.

Let me take this opportunity to wish the hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Temple-Morris) a happy birthday. Although he cannot be with us this morning, for reasons that we understand, he can comfort himself with the thought that yesterday he was exactly six years younger than the most recent national legislation on child employment. He will not mind my saying that I am not referring to the 1973 Act—which was never signed by the Secretary of State, and therefore never came into force.

As well as the support for the Bill in the House, there is considerable support outside. I pay tribute first to the Low Pay Unit, an organisation with which I worked for many years before entering the House and with which I am still proud to be associated. The unit helped to draft the Bill, and for many years has carried out research on the extent of child labour. It has also campaigned for better protection for children at work.

As hon. Members will know from their postbags, the Bill is also supported by many other organisations, such as the major children's charities, including the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, NCH Action for Children, Save the Children, the Child Accident Prevention Trust and the Children's Rights Office. The Trades Union Congress and individual trade unions, many of which have done much work on the issue over the years, support the Bill, as do individual employers who want to ensure that where children are employed they are given appropriate protection, that their safety and welfare are not damaged in the process and that their education does not suffer. Those employers include the National Federation of Retail Newsagents, which supports the Bill. One of its spokespeople told the BBC on Wednesday evening that this is a very good Bill and the Federation supports it". The federation and the distribution organisations played a constructive and helpful role in helping to shape the Bill. I pay tribute to Soroptimist International, many of whose members are here to listen to the debate and have pledged their support for the Bill as part of their work on the rights of the child.

Apart from having a broad base of support, there are many other similarities between the 1973 Employment of Children Bill, which was never brought into force, and the 1998 Bill. I am pleased to see my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Health in the Chamber. His predecessor a quarter of a century ago explained that the 1973 Bill was designed to deal with the shortcomings of the Children and Young Persons Act 1933: The first is the existence of a good deal of undesirable variation among local authorities, which at present have law-making powers in the matter of conditions and terms of employment for youngsters. The Bill, he said, would introduce a uniform pattern of law-making throughout the country". So, too, would the Bill before us. He went on to explain: The second purpose …is that power should be taken to enable the scrutiny of a child's employment to be undertaken not only after he has started work…but before he takes his first step into the job."—[Official Report, Standing Committee C, 14 March 1973; c. 4–5.] The present Bill has a similar purpose, although clause 10 allows a grace period of a month between the commencement of employment and the issue of the work permit.

Had the 1973 Bill become law, its namesake Bill before us today might have been less necessary, but although the 1973 Bill progressed through all its stages to become an Act, as I have said, it was never signed by a Secretary of State and it has continued to gather dust on the shelves.

Local authorities at the time argued, understandably, that they had insufficient resources to implement that legislation. The Government decided to try to implement its best features through modern byelaws, which were adopted by some local education authorities, but still left us with patchy regulations that are difficult to enforce.

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Faversham and Mid-Kent)

As a sponsor of the Bill, I feel ashamed that, as I have explained to the hon. Gentleman, I cannot be here for the whole debate; I apologise for that. Does he agree that one of the enormous difficulties, both in this sector and in relation to vetting volunteers, for example, is that, with the best will in the world, the regulatory authorities often take so long that the contract, as it were, has expired before the necessary procedures have been carried out? I am sure that, later in his speech, he will explain how the Bill will deal with that.

Mr. Pond

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. As he has to leave, and given that he is a sponsor and great supporter of the Bill, may I briefly respond to that point now? He is right to say that many employers feel that the way in which the permit system operates does not allow for flexibility in children's employment. That is why the Bill states that an employer, once a permit has been applied for, may employ a child for a period of grace of one month, until the local authority issues that permit. If, after that one month, a permit has not been issued, the employment must cease. The employer must, of course, apply for a permit in advance. In that way, we can retain the flexibility that employers need, but provide the protection that children deserve.

As a result of the events that I have described, a quarter of a century of providing greater protection for Britain's working children was lost. We must ensure that history is not allowed to repeat itself on this occasion. A further opportunity was missed to provide that protection more recently, when the European Union considered a directive to provide greater protection for children at work. For more than two years, the previous Administration blocked the measure, arguing for special treatment for the United Kingdom. That was a cruel irony, given that Britain's working children needed that protection rather more than children elsewhere in Europe.

At the beginning of the 1990s, the European Commission tells us, Britain accounted for one third of the working children throughout EU countries, yet Britain's children had less protection than those in any other member state. A recent Council of Europe report singled out six countries in Europe as having extensive child employment: Turkey, Romania, Bulgaria Spain, Italy—and the UK.

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham)

I wish my hon. Friend's Bill every success, but on the European and international aspect, has he read the remarkable report in the Financial Times of 4 February, which said that child labour throughout the world is on the increase, despite globalisation and foreign direct investment, and that more than 250 million children work around the world? Is he aware that the previous Government sabotaged attempts by America and France to put the employment of children on the agenda at the World Trade Organisation summit in Singapore in December 1996? Does he agree that, like charity, eliminating child labour throughout the world must begin at home, which is why I wish his Bill every success?

Mr. Pond

I thank my hon. Friend for that support and agree with him that we must view children's employment in this country, especially children's illegal employment, in the context of what is happening in the world. One of the points that international organisations such as the International Labour Organisation and the Council of Europe constantly make is that, throughout the world, children are being used as a hidden but important part of the labour force and are therefore being placed at risk.

It is a great danger to say that the only problems of illegal and exploitative child employment happen elsewhere in the world. Unless we deal with that issue in this country, we shall not be in a position to deal with it in some poorer countries. I am pleased that the Secretary of State for International Development has made that point on several occasions in the House.

I have said that the EU directive was resisted by the previous Government, who argued at the time that the directive would be a threat to the British tradition of newspaper delivery. We hear echoes of that argument today. The Government at the time secured an opt-out from one of the directive's main provisions: the weekly limit of 12 hours' work during term time for school-age children; current UK legislation and byelaws allow, between them, up to 17 or 20 hours a week.

The directive has still not been implemented in Britain, but the present Government have given a commitment, which I welcome, to implement it urgently. However, without further lengthy consultation, the opt-out that was negotiated by the previous Government will have to remain in place for the time being. One of the main purposes of the Bill is to implement that 12-hour limit, bringing us into line with every other EU country.

In the remaining time that I have at my disposal, I want to outline why we need the Bill, drawing on some of the evidence of the extent and effect of unregulated child employment. I then want to describe how the Bill seeks to tackle those problems.

I think that all of us in the Chamber are aware of the extent of child employment in this country. It is well documented. Surveys by the Low Pay Unit in London and Birmingham, by Norfolk county council, by Paisley and Greenwich universities and by the TUC all come to similar conclusions: about four in 10 school-age children have some form of paid employment during term time. That implies that children represent a hidden work force of almost 2 million throughout the country.

Why is that in itself a problem? All of us agree that an early glimpse of the world of work can be beneficial. It encourages a sense of independence and responsibility, and provides extra pocket money for the things that children want, which parents nowadays often cannot afford. We have to recognise that, with a fifth of households not having an adult in employment, in many households, the child may be the only member of the family bringing in any earnings, however small.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

I understand what my hon. Friend says about the number of households with no adults in employment, but it is dangerous to say that, because there are many unemployed adults, we should encourage children to work to supplement the family income. Surely the issue should be addressing the need for adult work rather than promoting child work to assist family income.

Mr. Pond

My hon. Friend makes an important point. We must understand the circumstances in which children are employed. Even if we do not condone such employment, we must accept that for many families the income may be important. The Bill tries to provide better protection for children, to ensure that they are not placed at risk. I shall return to some of my hon. Friend's concerns.

Problems arise when children's safety is placed at risk, when the work damages their education or when they are exploited as cheap labour. Research shows that about three quarters of all children who are employed in the UK are employed illegally in terms of the 1933 legislation and local authority byelaws. That suggests that 1.5 million children are working illegally.

The Department of Health briefing for the debate states that this does not mean that these children are all employed in sweatshops. In the majority of cases, it means simply that the child is not registered for work. I agree that the majority of children do not have work permits, and the Bill seeks to address that. The absence of such permits causes concern, because employers who fail to secure work permits for the children whom they employ will find that their employers' liability insurance is null and void. If a child is involved in an accident, the employer will be personally liable. Employers who fail to secure work permits are likely to be infringing the law in other ways, and the Bill seeks to address that.

We should not be complacent about the fact that the majority of children are employed without work permits. Hon. Members will have seen the reports of a survey that was published this week by the Low Pay Unit. The survey was based on more than 1,000 school-age children in the north-east, and confirmed the findings of earlier studies that were undertaken elsewhere in the country. The survey found that almost 40 per cent. of working children were employed before 7 o'clock in the morning or after 7 o'clock in the evening, although that is specifically prohibited under the 1933 legislation. The Bill would treat such infringements rather more seriously than does the present law.

Almost one in 10 of the boys in the survey were doing jobs that are prohibited by the Employment of Women, Young Persons and Children Act 1920 and the 1933 Act. They included work on building sites, door-to-door selling or factory work. A quarter of the children were below the legal working age of 13. One in 10 12-year-olds were working, as were one in six 11 and 12-year-olds. We cannot dismiss illegal child employment as simply a paperwork error by absent-minded employers. I have no doubt that the majority of employers are themselves victims of the complexities of the current law. The Bill seeks to address that as well, and proposes tough measures against employers who wilfully put children at risk by breaking the law.

Another reason for not being complacent about illegal child employment is that it places young people's safety at risk. An analysis by the Child Accident Prevention Trust of an earlier Low Pay Unit survey found that more than a third of employed children are involved in accidents at work. Injuries included cuts and burns, those resulting from road accidents, falls, broken bones and assaults. Nearly a third of those accidents required medical attention.

A boy in my constituency who was, I think, below the legal minimum working age at the time, was hit by a lorry while on his newspaper round. His hopes of a promising future in football were dashed in a few moments. Among the 317 reported fatalities and serious injuries since 1990 was a 14-year-old boy who was employed in a Manchester bedding factory for £1 an hour. His arm was trapped in an unguarded machine and he sustained severe injuries. The employer was fined £200 with £438 costs for illegally employing the child. A 15-year-old boy fell into a vat of water that was used to rinse metals, in a company near Birmingham where he was employed to make tea and sweep up. The boy suffered irreversible brain damage and poisoning. Those are the dramatic cases that make the headlines, but day in, day out children are placed at risk of injury because of inadequate enforcement of the law. We have a responsibility to provide them with the protection that they deserve.

Hon. Members will be pleased to know that I do not propose to go through the Bill clause by clause. They will have had adequate briefings on the Bill, especially from the Library, which I commend, and from the organisations that support the measure. I shall merely describe its general objectives. The Bill was carefully drafted after consultation with major children's charities, trade unions, local authority child employment officers and employers. I am grateful to the Low Pay Unit and the Public Bill Office for their help and guidance.

We have sought to build on existing foundations rather than start from scratch. The Bill incorporates the main provisions of existing legislation, as well as the European Union directive and the draft model byelaws that were proposed by the Department of Health. In only a few, albeit important, respects are wholly new provisions proposed. The intention is to create a measure that takes from the best of what exists and has been extensively consulted upon, to achieve a workable and effective measure that will provide the protection that children deserve.

I shall first outline what the Bill does not do. I say to hon. Members who are confused by its title that it is not part of the Government's welfare-to-work strategy. It does not outlaw or prohibit the employment of children. I appreciate that in that respect in may fall short of the aspirations of some hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn). I am aware that International Labour Organisation convention 138 requires member states to prohibit, as far as possible, the employment of children who are below school age.

The Council of Europe social charter is based on the presumption that childhood should principally be a time for education and training rather than employment. The Bill falls short of those aspirations and international agreements, as does the European directive.

Mr. Corbyn

ILO convention 138 is central to the debate. Will my hon. Friend confirm that if the Bill became law, it would prevent Britain from ratifying that ILO convention?

Mr. Pond

The Bill would improve protection for children, but it would not fully meet the requirements of that convention. However, the current arrangements and the EU directive do not meet those requirements either. I agree with my hon. Friend that we should work to achieve for our children the best protection that is required under international agreements. The Bill is a step in that direction, but I accept that in itself it would not fulfil all those requirements.

The Department of Health briefing reminds us that many children want to work and that child employment is an established tradition which, for better or worse, the Bill does not seek to challenge. As I have said, we recognise that properly regulated child employment can be beneficial as long as it is not allowed to compromise the child's safety, well-being and educational prospects. The Council of Europe acknowledges that. It states: Not all child work is harmful to a child's well-being. Rather, child work involves a spectrum. At one end of the spectrum, some kinds of work are wholly beneficial to the child's health and development, teaching skills, building self esteem, building a sense of solidarity and loyalty within a family and providing a bridge to the adult world of work. At the other end of the spectrum is work that is wholly detrimental to a child, such as bonded labour, commercial sexual exploitation, sexual and physical abuse in the workplace and hazardous industrial work. The Council states that whereas there can be no clear-cut universal definition of where on the spectrum child work becomes unacceptable, article 32 of the convention on the rights of the child defines three areas where the child has the right to protection. The first is in the area of economic exploitation. All hon. Members will agree that the example that was published this week by the Low Pay Unit of the child who was earning 33p an hour for delivering newspapers can be considered only in the realm of economic exploitation. Secondly, the Council of Europe refers to hazards to health and development; and thirdly, it refers to interference with a child's education. I think that we can all agree that those are sensible measures showing the divide between which forms of child employment are acceptable and which are unacceptable. The Bill would ensure that the first of those are permitted, while the second are outlawed.

I stress that the Bill does not prohibit child employment—and it certainly does not prohibit newspaper delivery by children. There is a myth that all or most child employment consists of the delivery of newspapers. In fact, almost twice as many children are engaged in other forms of employment. I am a little disappointed that the Department of Health briefing encourages the notion that the Bill might threaten the delivery of newspapers by children. Such anxieties have been fuelled by the Newspaper Society, the trade association for newspaper publishers, in a press release dramatically headed: New Bill Threatens Work For Young News Deliverers". It does no such thing, as the people who really know—the retail newsagents who employ children to deliver newspapers—are fully aware. As I said, the National Federation of Retail Newsagents supports the Bill, which it sees as no threat to newspaper deliveries by children.

That is what the Bill does not do; this is what it does do. First, it would limit the maximum working week during term time to 12 hours. That is the limit originally proposed under the European Union directive and the limit which already exists in every other EU country. According to the Low Pay Unit survey this week, about 14 per cent. of children work more than 12 hours a week. Current legislation, made up of the 1933 Act and local authority byelaws, allows children to work legally for up to 17 hours a week, or 20 hours a week for those aged over 15. Added to a normal curriculum school week, plus an expected 15 hours of homework, it means that children only just into their teens can legally work 60 hours or more a week.

The argument for limiting working hours to 12 per week is strong. There is evidence that children's employment beyond such hours can result in a decline in school performance. The work of Sandy Hobbs and Jim McKechnie in Paisley shows that there is a fairly clear tendency for longer hours of child employment to be associated with poor performance at, and commitment to, school. Research suggests that working 10 hours or more a week can have an adverse effect on a child's school performance. The authors do not argue that there is necessarily a causal link between the two, but I think that most of us would agree that there is likely to be a link between the number of hours that a child is employed and his performance at school. The increasing responsibilities that we are placing on children through their schoolwork should make us think carefully about whether the limit on working hours, which was set several decades ago, is appropriate to modern circumstances.

The Trades Union Congress survey, which was carried out by MORI, found that more than a quarter of children working during term time were often or sometimes too tired to do their homework or schoolwork because of their job. One in 20 admitted to playing truant in order to do paid work instead. Sometimes it is more blatant. The Times Educational Supplement last week reported that one student sat her examination wearing her supermarket overall to make sure that she was back at work in time for her shift. It reported that retailers were putting pressure on sixth-formers to work hours that damaged their chances of A-level success. Is that sensible when the Government rightly place education as the first, second and third priority? We need to ensure that our attempts to build an education system for the new century are not undermined by child employment practices more appropriate to the previous century.

Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills)

I support and commend the Bill. However, will the hon. Gentleman allay the concern felt by many of us, which has grown out of our own experience in the delivery of newspapers? I am aware that much of the criticism of the Bill has focused on this point. I did a morning and evening delivery and a Sunday morning round, so the number of hours I worked were above 12. For most of us, the school holidays were important as we tried to get in as many newspaper deliveries as possible, so the 12-hour limit would inhibit the ability of young kids to do what most of society would not consider to be a damaging occupation.

Mr. Pond

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention and for his support for the Bill. I can give him the reassurance that he sought. The 12-hour limit in the Bill relates only to term time, not to the school holidays. The National Federation of Retail Newsagents says that the 12-hour limit is acceptable, because it would allow children to do a newspaper round during the week and also another job or additional newspaper deliveries at the weekend. The 12-hour limit has been carefully chosen for that very purpose.

The Bill would provide a uniform overall structure. At present, the law on child employment is complex. It is based on a mix of national legislation and local byelaws, many of which are pitifully out of date. Some local authorities still prohibit the employment of children as lather boys in barber shops or outlaw the extraction of sugar beet from the ground by hand. I have no objection to outlawing such practices, but I would prefer to focus more seriously on the real threats to child safety today. That is why the Bill specifies the types of jobs that children can and cannot do, wherever they live in the country, by establishing a list of appropriate and inappropriate jobs based on both the EU directive and the guidance from the Department of Health. The Bill retains some flexibility for local authorities to build on that platform of basic provisions, but provides much greater uniformity than currently exists.

The Bill would improve the enforcement of the law, which currently is poorly enforced. Part II of the Bill deals with that problem. An employer who wishes to employ a child must apply for a work permit from the local education authority, as is the case now. However, unlike the current provisions, the Bill involves the home and school in the decision on whether a particular type of employment is appropriate. We want to stimulate a dialogue between parents, children, employers and schools about children's employment. The Bill recognises that children have a right to be consulted about the process of issuing permits. A permit will not be issued unless a local authority is satisfied that the employment is suitable to the child, having consulted the home and school, and also that the employer is an appropriate person to be employing children.

I do not believe that it is an onerous process. It goes only a little beyond the existing arrangements and the advice that we have had from the Department of Health. The permit system would help to ensure that children were not permitted inadvertently to be employed illegally. Penalties would be tougher than at present for employers failing to apply for a permit, and tougher still for those who employed a child illegally outside the conditions established in part I. We need to ensure that employers know their responsibilities. We need also to ensure that where employers wilfully place children at risk, we will come down hard on them. If the Bill becomes law, many rogue employers may look back on Friday 13 as being very unlucky.

Mr. Corbyn

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way again. The issue of local government and the control that it could impose is important. However, the record of local government in this matter is appalling. No local authority that I know of takes its responsibilities seriously; very few investigate malpractices in the employment of children; and hardly any have ever registered any children in work. Does my hon. Friend have any indication that matters will improve in future?

Mr. Pond

I am aware of the great amount of work that my hon. Friend has done over the years on the issue. I accept that there is a very real problem with the way in which local authorities currently enforce the law. Many of them are very good and take their responsibilities seriously. They do everything that they can, within limited resources, to enforce the law. The Bill would improve on that position by ensuring that there was a uniform set of regulations, rather than the current confusion, which makes the problem of enforcement both more expensive and more difficult for local authorities.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate)

The record of councils across the country in licensing anything is woeful. In Hammersmith and Fulham, for example, the time required to get a building permit is lengthening. The idea that councils will be able to process a permit application in four weeks is laughable. Later in the Bill's passage—if it is not held up by the antics of hon. Members on other Bills—I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman will examine that four-week provision.

Mr. Pond

I thank hon. Gentleman for that helpful intervention. The four-week period was one of the issues raised in the consultation process while the Bill was drafted. Employers especially said that, currently, it is difficult to obtain a permit—even for the few employers who decide to apply for one—because of delays at local education authorities. That is why we built into the Bill the four-week grace period. We realise that responsibility runs both ways. If employers are to undertake the process of applying for a permit, local education authorities will have to take their responsibilities seriously and ensure that they meet that deadline.

Mr. Rowe

Further to that point, this seems to be a matter in which some delegation to parish councils or, in cities, local councils might work perfectly well. Those councils have quite an interest in increasing their responsibilities, and they are much closer to the people applying for the permit and to the children who are likely to be involved. That might work much better.

Mr. Pond

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, which, again, was helpful. We shall have to examine the provision in the context of what is happening in local authorities generally and within the structure of local government, to determine the most appropriate level at which such a provision should be applied. We shall have to think seriously about the issue.

While working on the Bill, I often thought about that young man in my constituency who was injured while doing a harmless newspaper delivery round. One could not really blame the lorry driver involved in that incident—after all, international freight lorries and children on bicycles are not a good mix in the early hours of the morning. One could not blame the parents. None of us as parents would allow our children to be hurt and injured if we could possibly avoid it or knew that it might happen. One could not blame the employer. The law is complex and outdated, and I am sure that that employer would never wilfully put young lives at risk. No one is to blame. Yet a schoolboy is seriously injured, and his prospects are damaged.

Today, we have an opportunity to do something to provide the protection that working children deserve; to ensure that they are not exploited as cheap labour, that they are not placed at risk and that their education and prospects are not damaged. If we fail to take that opportunity, we shall all be to blame. I commend the Bill to the House.

10.12 am
Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire)

I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for calling me so early in the debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr. Pond) both on introducing the Bill and on the manner in which he has done so. Undoubtedly, there is a need to change some aspects of child legislation, and I congratulate him on dealing with the issue. However, I should like to mention a few possible consequences of the Bill, some of which he may have intended, and some of which may have been unintended.

The hon. Member ended his speech by mentioning the sad accident in his constituency of a newspaper boy and a lorry. Hon. Members have to accept—we sometimes find it difficult—that legislation cannot solve everything. We cannot say that the Bill will stop another newspaper boy being hit by a lorry. We have to be a little careful in our choice of language so that we do not lead people to believe that we can achieve the unachievable.

Most cases of what could be called the abusive employment of children that one hears about—the hon. Member mentioned some, and I have a copy of research by the Evening Standardon such practices in London—are already illegal. The problem is that the enforcement measures are not sufficiently tight or rigorously applied. Therefore, I am more concerned about some of the Bill's provisions on hours of work, for example, than about those on enforcement. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to be attempting significantly to tighten up enforcement. I am not convinced that it is necessary to do very much about hours, other than to bring them in line with the European directive, as we are obliged to do.

The hon. Member will probably take it from what I have said—I hope that it is understood—that I shall certainly not oppose the Bill. I hope that it will receive its Second Reading today and proceed to Committee, so that some of those issues can be explored properly.

My principal concerns are about both the unintended and the intended consequences of the Bill. Among the intended consequences, clause 2 clearly stipulates—it could not be bolder—that only two hours can be worked on a Sunday. I respect those who, for religious reasons, maintain the view that Sunday is a special day and that two hours work should be the maximum. However, that view is no longer widely held and does not recognise what is happening in the real world, particularly in employment.

The hon. Member rightly said—I congratulate him on emphasising it—that children's work is not only about the retail delivery of newspapers but covers a vast number of activities. Some of those activities, such as jobs in supermarkets, can be done by children only at weekends. He has undoubtedly already thought seriously about the matter—otherwise it would not be dealt with in the Bill—but I ask him to think again about that two-hour Sunday limit.

Perhaps we could simply say that no more than five hours can be worked on Saturday or Sunday, or that a total of seven hours may be worked over the weekend. It is too inflexible to stipulate a maximum of two hours on Sunday and five hours on Saturday, given the vast range of activities that are available to young people.

Audrey Wise (Preston)

Given the vast range of people available for work and unable to get it, starting with school leavers, why should retailers seek to have 13-year-olds doing that type of work?

Mr. Paice

I certainly will not get into an argument about retailers' recruitment policies. We know that many retailers employ children below school-leaving age part time in filling shelves and other activities. If they are providing those opportunities, it would be unwise for the Bill to provide that children under school-leaving age—they may be 15 years or 15 years and nine months; they are all covered by the Bill—should not work more than two hours on Sundays.

I very much hope that the hon. Member for Gravesham will think more flexibly on that limit in view of the vast range of activities available not only in traditional retail businesses but as a result of the widespread advent of Sunday markets—which, although I realise that they are the bane of many people's lives, are providing many work opportunities. Agricultural employment, which I shall deal with shortly, must also be considered.

The Bill applies the same rules—adopting a blanket approach—to all children from 13 years to 15 years and 10 months. As all parents and teachers know, such an age range covers a vast range in children's development and abilities. I should much prefer the Bill to allow some variation in the maximum hours that can be worked, according to the age of a child. Clearly, it would be wise to apply the proposed 12-hour rule to children of 13, and perhaps it would be wise to apply it to children of all ages who are at school. However, I think that a 25-hour maximum during schools holidays would be too low for 15-year-olds. I should like the Bill to reflect the changes that children undergo between those ages.

The Bill would repeal section 18 of the Children and Young Persons Act 1933, thus removing from local authorities the power to make byelaws covering the ages to which I have just referred. I am happy about that—I see that the hon. Member for Gravesham is grinning. I have nothing against local authorities, but the hon. Gentleman was right to say that we have ended up with a hotch-potch of byelaws across the country, whereas there should be standard rules. If we prevent local authorities from making those byelaws, we need to find another way to vary the age structure.

Clause 7 would allow the Secretary of State to vary the maximum weight that children can carry and the types of physical, chemical and biological agents with which they can work, and so on. It also states that the Secretary of State may make different provisions for children of different ages and different types of work. If it is possible to allow for variations in types of work, I see no reason why it should not be possible to vary the number of hours that children can work at different ages.

Schedule 2 would repeal the byelaws that, where applied, allow 13-year-olds to do light agricultural and horticultural work. That worries me. The hon. Member for Gravesham referred to the pulling of sugar-beet by hand. Many activities that were commonplace on farms in 1933 are no longer so today. However, there are still many light activities with which farmers' sons and daughters want to help, and are perfectly able to do so, at the ages of 10, 11 and 12. As I understand it, that would be illegal under the Bill because they would be under the 13 years of age threshold. That is very unjust. We are not talking about forced sweatshop labour; it is natural that farmers' children should want to be involved in the family's activities.

When I had a livestock farm, I remember my sons at that age helping me to feed and gather in the sheep, to bottle-feed lambs and to do various ordinary but important little jobs—

Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge)

Collecting the eggs.

Mr. Paice

My hon. Friend mentions the collection of eggs, but my hens did not seem to lay many.

I appreciate that the definition has been taken from other legislation, but clause 19 defines work as any tasks, duties or other work undertaken by virtue of a contract, whether express or implied and…whether orally or in writing, in connection with a trade or occupation carried on for profit"— profit is clearly the objective in owning a farm, although many farmers would say that there is not much profit in it at the moment— whether or not the person undertaking the work receives any reward for his labour. I am not an expert in the interpretation of the law, but my understanding is that that definition would cover the activities to which I have referred. I hope that the promoter of the Bill will consider that point carefully and not adopt too blinkered an approach, if I may put it that way, to the 13 years of age threshold.

I am wholly opposed to the exploitation of children, but some of the activities traditionally undertaken by children, even those below the age of 13, do not involve exploitation but may still be caught by the Bill.

Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe)

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the European directive appears to be fairly explicit in this regard? Although virtually everyone would accept that a little private introduction to the family farm would not run into legal difficulties, if we attempted to define it in the Bill as a legal activity, we should run into trouble with the directive.

Mr. Paice

That is a perfectly fair point. The European directive does not make specific mention of the case that I have just outlined, but I hope there is a way to define work in the Bill so that the activities that I have just described are not caught by it. There are various ways to tackle such problems, and I am sure that it can be done without the head-on confrontation with the directive which the hon. Gentleman suggests.

Why do children work? The hon. Member for Gravesham said that a child's income can often be an important part of the household's income. It is perfectly reasonable for hon. Members to be worried about that. This is probably not the right time to deal with that issue, but we should not blind ourselves to the fact that the children themselves value their income. We live in a society in which teenagers are besieged by advertisements that target them directly. Teenagers are presented with a raft of material goods that they ought to have if they are to be up with the times. They need much more money than I dare say most of us required when we were 14 or 15. It is unrealistic to expect many parents to provide sufficient pocket money to pay for the compact discs, clothes and other things that teenagers want. Therefore, we must recognise that it can be important for children to earn some money.

The hours set out in the Bill are more restrictive than those under the European directive. My hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) mentioned out-of-term work. The Bill specifies a maximum of five hours a day and 25 hours a week, whereas the directive stipulates seven hours a day and 35 hours a week. That brings me back to the point about ages.

I entirely recognise the logic in saying that 25 hours a week is probably more than enough for a 13 or 14-year-old. However, a 15-year-old, who might have only a few months to go before leaving school, should be able to work longer hours. I hope that the 35-hour week specified in the directive could be incorporated into the Bill, especially given that the Bill provides a full two-week break, or proper holiday, which is perfectly right. In those circumstances, there is a case for arguing for a 35-hour week for older children.

Audrey Wise

How long a holiday does the hon. Gentleman take? Is it only a fortnight?

Mr. Paice

I am sorry that the hon. Lady wants to lower the tone of the debate to one of such stupidity. She knows perfectly well that the holidays in this place are very different from school holidays. I am talking about the two-week holiday specified in the Bill; I completely support that. Children are to be entitled to two weeks away from work; what they do with that time is entirely up to them. I am simply suggesting a maximum of 35 hours a week for 15-year-olds for the weeks other than the two when it is proposed that they should not be allowed to work.

Part of my concern in that regard relates to what I consider to be one of the Bill's unintended consequences. I am thinking about the effect on the work experience, not jobs, effectively undertaken as part of a child's education. It is a matter for which I had some responsibility under the previous Government, who did quite a lot to improve the entitlement to one or two weeks' work experience during compulsory schooling and to make sure that it was far more effectively used. Instead of young people sitting and watching for a week or being given a mundane sweeping job, we set out to make it a much more structured process, with clear outcomes demanded and continuous assessment. However, even that could be caught by the Bill unless there is a specific exemption. If the hon. Member for Gravesham were to say that he did not intend that to be the case, I would respect that. That is why I suggest that it is an unintended consequence of his Bill.

The Health and Safety (Young Persons) Regulations 1997, which are clearly linked to the issue, certainly apply to work experience. I had the somewhat difficult task of working out how they should be implemented in respect of work experience for schoolchildren.

We all understand the value of work experience and would not wish it to be jeopardised by the Bill. However, it seems clear to me that it would be caught, so I urge the hon. Gentleman to address that and the issue of a full working week. If a child of 15 is to undertake work experience, it has to be a full week, rather than the 25 hours proposed in the Bill. That is making the rash assumption that we are talking about out-of-term work. Actually, work experience usually takes place during term time, so it may well be caught by the 12-hour week. I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that a specific exemption for work experience may be an appropriate way forward.

I have spoken for longer than I intended. I conclude by saying that it is unacceptable for young children to work very long hours or in onerous conditions, as it can damage their education and their health. Although we do not talk about it very much, it can also destroy their childhood, which is very precious and, in this day and age, is far too short for most of them.

We must not believe that we can solve everything. Whatever we do, it will not stop every accident. It will not stop one item in the Evening Standard—the ubiquitous gangs of traffic lights windscreen cleaners, who are probably self-employed. However, we can make a difference. As the hon. Gentleman wrote in his article in the Parliamentary Review, Much of this employment is wholly beneficial". That was slightly stronger than his speech this morning, but it is a perfectly admirable statement.

It is the House's role to examine all the consequences of a Bill—not only the intended ones, which one can oppose or support, but the unintended ones, and to take an objective view on whether all those consequences are more serious and damaging than the principal objectives of the Bill. I do not believe that any of the consequences to which I have referred are insuperable—I am convinced that they can be overcome—but they are real and important. In wishing the Bill well, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will consider the points that I have made.

10.32 am
Mrs. Llin Golding (Newcastle-under-Lyme)

First, I should declare an interest as a trustee of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and a trustee and patron of a number of smaller charities which do such good work to help and protect children. Let me say how delighted I am to be asked to support the Bill and how pleased I am that my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Pond) has joined the many hon. Members who care passionately about the rights and needs of children.

What image does the words "child labour" bring to mind? Is it the children of Victorian Britain sent up dark chimneys or down black mines—the children of the industrial revolution? Or is it children in the sweatshops of the so-called third world, tied to looms, held in debt bondage or working in dangerous factories in conditions of slavery? Whatever image it is, it will be one of overworked, underpaid exploitation. Although it has to be recognised that there are good employers, far too many working children in Britain, while not experiencing conditions as bad as those I have mentioned, nevertheless face unacceptable working practices.

All of us present today are here to stand up for the rights of children. We know that we have the power to change things—and what better place to start than on our own doorstep? Many people react with disbelief when told that a large percentage of the 2 million working children in our affluent country are more often than not employed illegally, exploited and subjected to physical dangers. They may not be the dangers that we conjure up in our minds, but we must address them. It is more than time that the law was brought up to date to protect working children and, today, thanks to my hon. Friend's Bill, we have the opportunity to do so.

There was a time when if children went to school at all, it was seen as an interruption of their working hours rather than a necessity or right. Later, when the Children and Young Persons Act 1933 was introduced, the difference between the minimum school-leaving age and the age when employment was allowed was very narrow, so the line between work and education was much clearer.

Since then, the school-leaving age has been raised to 16, widening the gap and allowing children to seek an extended variety of part-time employment. As my hon. Friend said, sadly, the Employment of Children Act 1973, which was introduced to give local authorities certain enforcement powers, was never implemented. Although the Children Act 1989 stresses the welfare and educational needs of children, no effort has been made to implement the legislation, which would have taken into account the changed circumstances of the higher school-leaving age.

We have been left with totally inadequate legislation that is hardly ever enforced or understood, and, for the most part, is ignored by employer, child, parent, school and local authority. As the my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Health well knows, in England and Wales the legislation rests with the Department of Health, the enforcement with local education authorities, and the responsibility for the employment of 16 and 17-year-olds with the Department for Education and Employment, under the employment section, because, under United Kingdom law, 16 and 17-year-olds are not children but young people. It all adds to the confusion, as the Minister will recognise. Indeed, only yesterday I received a letter from him about child labour, stating: Full implementation of the Young Workers Directive in respect of adolescents will involve legislation being passed by DTI (in the case of most young workers) and the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (in the case of sea-based young workers). A review of our reservation on Article 32 of the Convention will need to take account of the detailed implementation proposals. The timetables for implementing both sets of regulations are currently unclear. Officials here are in contact with the two departments". No doubt they will need to be in contact with many more Departments.

Hon. Members will note from my hon. Friend's letter that he does not intend to ignore article 32 of the United Nations convention on the rights of the child, which seeks to protect children from exploitation at work that would damage their health or education. Indeed, knowing his track record, I would not expect him to do so. Perhaps he will also see all this as a crying need for a Minister for children, or, at the very least, a children's commissioner. Perhaps the review that he has set up in respect of child employment will also consider establishing a complaints procedure for children, preferably with a children's commissioner.

I also want to bring to the attention of the House a letter that a lady wrote to me in support of the Bill. She has three daughters, aged 17, 15 and 12. All have at some time been employed delivering papers six evenings a week. They live in a rural village. One daughter was paid £3.70 a week. Another, whose round covered a slightly larger area, was paid £5 a week. The third, who had a much larger area of delivery, was paid about £6.50 a week, because she had to go outside the village into the country on main roads without footpaths. The employer recognised the danger and decided to give her a little more money.

One of the daughters also collected the money for the paper bills because it was more convenient for people further out in the country to pay in that way. If the paper bill was, for example, £2.76, she might be given £3, with the extra money being a tip. However, she was expected to take that money back to the newsagent, who decided whether she was entitled to the tip, or even a percentage of it.

The mother recently found that the 12-year-old was working illegally, so she has stopped her. The newsagent should have known. This is a genuine case of dangerous exploitation of young people. As the Minister knows, cases of exploitation of children are almost never pursued. If the mother had taken the case to the local authority, it would have been able to do very little about it.

I received another letter from a lady about the Children (Performances) Regulations 1968. She had encouraged her children to take part in amateur shows. They had got together with friends to form their own group. They enjoyed singing and dancing, providing entertainment for elderly people. They felt that they were making a contribution to the community. The lady said that there must be hundreds of children who do constructive things rather than going around terrorising their neighbours and experimenting with alcohol and drugs, and that we should recognise their work. She believes that the regulations are too restrictive and need to be updated for a modern world. They crush children's dreams, ambitions and enterprise. They must be reconsidered. Children need to be encouraged away from the television and computer games to use their talents and imagination in live performances. That gives them confidence to appear before people and knowledge of the world outside the home.

I know of the Minister's long-standing commitment to children, and I pay tribute to his work to improve their rights. Even if the Bill does not cover all the issues that need to be addressed, I am sure that he endorses its principles and will seek to bring forward an effective and enforceable Government Bill to prevent the exploitation of children.

We do not want to stop children working—far from it. We want them to have the full protection of the law when they are at work. I whole-heartedly support this excellent and long-awaited Bill.

10.42 am
Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire)

I am pleased to take part in the debate. I was honoured by the invitation of the hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr. Pond) to sponsor the Bill, and pay tribute to him for using the opportunity afforded to him to introduce it and for his model consultation exercise beforehand. Those of us who know him expected nothing less. He has given an excellent example of how to proceed. The House is indebted to him for that process and for bringing forward this important Bill.

I join the hon. Member in paying tribute to the Low Pay Unit. From a Scottish point of view, I also pay tribute to the work of the university of Paisley in bringing forward some of the research that has led to the Bill.

I was taken aback when I examined some of the background to the Bill. The Library briefing was particularly instructive. I did not know that the House had taken so long to revisit this important subject—the most recent deliberative examination was in 1933. A House of Commons that is too busy to examine such issues is too busy full stop. In anticipation of the establishment of a Parliament in Edinburgh in 1999, I think that decentralisation might reduce the overload of business in the House and it might not be such an unconscionably long time before we return to the issue.

Even if the Bill achieves nothing else, the hon. Member for Gravesham has contributed to the important educational process of bringing the issue into the public domain and giving it the attention that it needs. I understand that there are some difficulties with the Bill. I hope that the Minister will say what the Government think about that. However, raising the issue has been an important service. The publicity that it has generated has forced me and many others to re-examine the matter. I hope that the Government will give the Bill careful consideration. It is important for a new Administration to review all such legislation carefully and prudently and come up with a coherent response. I do not know why the Government cannot accept the Bill in principle and promise to enshrine it in law. I do not know what that would cost them.

I listened carefully to the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice). I agree that those of us from rural constituencies have a different perspective from those representing places such as Islington, although I pay tribute to the work that the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) has done on the subject. He is right to keep our thoughts focused on the wider canvas, but half a loaf is better than no bread. None of the minimum standards set in the Bill preclude International Labour Organisation conventions in the longer term. I understand the hon. Gentleman's impatience and frustration. Improvements could be made in Committee to ensure more flexibility on the employment of children in a rural context. That is different from factory-driven sweated labour for 13-year-olds.

Getting the balance right is important. Knowing the hon. Member for Gravesham as I do, I am confident that he will be assiduous in paying attention to the detailed and balanced points that are being made today. Friday debates are more meaningful and constructive than many of our debates during the rest of the week. Flexibility and decentralisation are important, but the Government must make their position clear this morning. I hope that the Minister will give us an idea of the time scale that the Government have in mind on this important process.

The framework should be set in a Europewide context. As the single market develops, it is increasingly important to establish common minimum standards for decent pay and safe working conditions for children. We must ensure that our European sister democracies are as assiduous as we are in enforcing framework rules. The European Union is ahead of us in legislating on the issue. It is a shame that we are behind. I hope that the Minister will use our current presidency to promote some of the ideas being discussed today to ensure common standards and levels of enforcement throughout the United Kingdom.

The framework set out in the Bill is right. We must introduce a system of work permits so that the home, the school and the employer can agree about acceptable working conditions. The other half of the equation is a system of monitoring and enforcement that involves local authorities.

The hon. Member for Islington, North said that, on the whole, local authorities have a poor record of monitoring enforcement. That is generally true. However, local authorities would say in their defence that Parliament is for ever laying duties and responsibilities on their shoulders. Local authorities' failure to fulfil those responsibilities is often due to not a lack of will but a lack of resources. It should not be up to the hon. Member for Gravesham to say that he needs hundreds of thousands, or even millions of pounds—I do not know what it would cost—because we all have a duty in this regard. I am not making a narrow point. It is all very well for Parliament to pass good and onerous measures, but if we do not will the means it is pointless trying to will the ends.

Mr. Corbyn

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: unless we provide the finances that enable local authorities to carry out proper control and inspection functions, they will not happen. It is not that local authorities do not want to undertake those duties: they simply do not have the resources. Representatives of social services and child welfare departments from many local authorities tell me that they can barely cope with the statutory requirements for children at risk, never mind examining the plight of children who are being exploited in employment.

Mr. Kirkwood

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, which reinforces what I have said. I am sure that the hon. Member for Gravesham is well aware of that fact, given his experience in this area. We join the Minister in seeking to win some extra resources from the Treasury—I am sure that he, with his powers of persuasion, is well able to do that. I hope that he will make that commitment—I shall certainly help him in any way I can.

I encourage young people to take on employment. I know that there are problems with poor working conditions, sweated labour and so on, but I believe that properly organised work in a controlled and safe environment is a positive experience for young people. It is important that the Bill be enacted quickly before the introduction of the minimum wage—which I support, subject to certain standards and safeguards. If we require employers to pay their employees a minimum of £3.50 or £3.60 an hour, unscrupulous employers or those at the margins of the law may be inclined to employ more young people in order to avoid their legislative requirements. Legislation such as the Employment of Children Bill was necessary before, but it is even more urgent now. It must be in place before the widespread implementation of the minimum wage.

It is essential that the House takes steps to ensure that young people know their rights. The present rules are clearly a mess; the legislation has fallen into disregard, disrepute and desuetude. That is a matter of real concern. We need to establish clear rules and ensure that they stick. Everyone must abide by them.

I support young people's right to participate in a positive employment experience during the school year. The hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire referred to work experience. My local authority in south-east Scotland is making positive use of work experience for young people, particularly during school holidays. I am sure that the hon. Member for Gravesham will take that matter on board.

I found my experience in preparing this Bill very beneficial. I did not appreciate the extent to which young people work in this country: 2 million children are a huge part of our young population. I did not realise that the laws of the land were in such a bad way. It is essential that we recognise that conditions have changed completely since 1933. The Sunday experience is one example. The social outlook regarding Sundays, particularly in areas such as mine, has changed dramatically.

The House must seize this opportunity: the moment is right to change the legislative process. Whatever happens to the Bill, I hope that its principles will be enshrined in legislation. I hope that some responsibility will remain in the hands of the hon. Member for Gravesham, whose track record in this area is second to none. He came to the House with a reputation as an acknowledged expert in this field, and I do not believe that there are many advisers in the Department who know as much as he does about this subject. The House should recognise that fact. If we do not seize this opportunity now, the Minister will have to offer a pretty convincing excuse for delaying or for refusing to accept the proposals. It is my great privilege and pleasure to support the Bill.

10.55 am
Audrey Wise (Preston)

My hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Pond) talked about illegal employment, and we join him in deploring that. However, I do not wish people to think that simply legalising work or allowing legal work to continue will make everything all right. Even if the Bill were enacted and fully enforced—and that is a very big "if"—we would still be looking with equanimity at appallingly long working hours for children.

A child's workplace is, and should be, the school. We should view 12 hours' paid employment not in isolation, but in the context of the school week, having regard to homework and the extra demands that are placed on children all the time. A legal 12-hour working limit would simply confer respectability on an excessive practice. A 13½-year-old child in my constituency who attends a typical high school has a 32½-hour school week, with six hours of homework plus possibly 12 hours' legal work. That is not good enough. It amounts to a 50½-hour working week for a 13-year-old.

We are told that half a loaf is better than none—I do not see why, in 1998, we must talk in terms of half loaves when it comes to the protection and development of our children. A child of 13 must do his work at school while he is developing physically, mentally and emotionally. Labour Members are completely convinced of the correctness of the maximum 48-hour working week for adults, yet we are proposing 50½ hours' work for a 13-year-old.

A 15-year-old attending a typical school in my constituency—it is not a particularly pushy school, but a normal school which seeks to bring out the best in its pupils—would have 15 hours of homework. If that 15-year-old were also employed for 12 hours, it would increase his working week to nearly 60 hours. I do not see why we should head down that road in 1998. It is not good enough to say that it is a step in the right direction or that half a loaf is better than none. It is not I who would be eating that half loaf: it would be the youngsters. I believe that they should have a full loaf.

I am one of the few hon. Members whose working life started at 15 years of age. I am not talking about a holiday job, but a proper job. I did not have to go to school and work 40 hours or more on top of that: my working hours as an employed 15-year-old were a lot less. My work gave me opportunities to develop physically and intellectually. We should not be satisfied with talk of steps in the right direction.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham rightly referred to the extent of illegal working, but employers get away with it because the present laws are feeble and are not enforced, and the penalties are inadequate. Can we be sure that this legislation would be enforced? I think not, especially as no extra resources would be provided. My solution to the problem is simple. We should enact legislation in line with International Labour Organisation convention 138, which would prohibit employment of children under school-leaving age. That would be infinitely easier to enforce.

The Bill is incredibly complex. It contains lists of what is and is not permitted. Incidentally, I am not sure why it is thought that waitressing is light work and suitable for a 13-year-old. It is a very hard job, as is car washing. The proposed enforcement and licensing system is complex. If we cannot enforce present laws, I do not see how we shall enforce these provisions. It would be much easier to enforce a simple adherence to ILO convention 138.

The Bill could affect the relationship between home and school. My hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham pointed out that some kids have to supplement the family income, and that the only worker in some families is a 13-year-old. Under the Bill, if the school thinks that work would interfere with a child's education, it should not agree to a work permit. That would put schools in a delicate position in their relationship with parents. Schools are already pressed and have suffered staff cuts, so they are in no position to undertake this addition to their work.

I am sceptical about the Bill for the child's sake. I also do not approve of children being used as cheap labour. At a time when 16-year-olds cannot obtain work, why should 13-year-olds be so eagerly sought by employers? The answer is that they are cheap. If there is so much work to be done that we need the labour of 13-year-olds, 14-year-olds and 15-year-olds, who already have full-time school work, why are 16-year-olds unemployed? Even the welfare-to-work system, which I support, does not come into operation until the kid has been unemployed for six months. That is an implicit acknowledgement of the level of youth unemployment. There is youth exploitation through the use of cheap labour of 13 to 15-year-olds, and youth unemployment after the age of 16. That is an untenable situation. Kids should not be exploited as cheap labour when their proper work is at school. I do not accept that working excessive hours is character building; nor should we excuse it, given the extent of adult unemployment.

The Bill's complexity is not my hon. Friend's fault: it is bound to be complex because it tries to reconcile impossible and contradictory objectives. It tries to protect children while allowing them to work far too long and be a supply of cheap labour. I agreed with a great deal of what my hon. Friend said, but I was disquieted when he explained that the 12-hour limit was carefully chosen to allow two newspaper deliveries and another job at weekends. That is not the way in which to decide how many hours our children should work.

I hope that the Government will review the current position, and will decide that we should have higher ambitions for our children than half a loaf. I also hope that the suggestion of my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding) about a children's commissioner will be pursued. A children's commissioner is an overdue addition to our protective mechanisms. I commend her for introducing that concept into the debate.

Having expressed scepticism about the Bill, I urge the Government to undertake a thorough review with the objective of preventing employers from using our children as cheap labour, to their detriment.

11.5 am

Mr. Nick St. Aubyn (Guildford)

I listened carefully to the debate. It is possible warmly to applaud the principal objectives of the Bill while questioning the practical results of its passing into law. The hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr. Pond) reminded us that he used to work for the Low Pay Unit. He used to campaign for the principle of a minimum wage. Although we may applaud the aim of eliminating exploitation at work, we should question the practical results of the minimum wage legislation currently before the House, and of this Bill if it is not subjected to rigorous scrutiny.

We must ask ourselves why the Children and Young Persons Act 1933 has been in force for such a long time. It was W. C. Fields who said: Anybody who hates children and dogs can't be all bad. It is not because we hate children that we have neglected this area of the law. In fact, I would say that we love children almost as much as we love dogs. As the father of five, I do not want to neglect the needs of children.

Not only parents, but teachers, social workers and responsible employers are involved in looking after the interests of children in work. The hon. Gentleman said that much of that work is wholly beneficial. He did not say why, so perhaps I can help him. Work induces self-esteem in children. Teenagers in particular need to develop self-esteem. Earning money by their own efforts, which they can spend on their family, on their friends and on themselves, is undoubtedly one of the most powerful ways in which to earn that self-respect outside the academic field. Work experience may play an important part in helping children who are not academically gifted or inclined to mature.

Given that background, it is right that we should question the benefits of the Bill in terms of cost. I agree with the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) that there is no point proposing the Bill without a clear idea of the costs involved. I am a member of the Select Committee on Education and Employment which has been examining the costs of further education colleges' franchising training programmes. Even in the most franchised programmes, the cost to the educational establishment is at least £20 per place. It would be naive to assume that the cost of administering permits for LEAs would be less than £20 per child.

We have been told that nearly 2 million children are currently in work in this country. One must assume that the permits would have to be renewed annually, so we are talking about a minimum cost for the LEAs of £40 million a year to introduce the Bill. To put that in context, that is the same amount as the Government tell us they will have to spend to reduce primary school class sizes for early years to a maximum of 30 per class. Clearly, that is a significant cost and we have to ask what benefits will be achieved.

The hon. Member for Gravesham mentioned the distressing fact that one third of children who work are involved in accidents, and that one third of those require medical attention. More than one in 10, therefore, are involved in an accident of concern. It would be helpful to put that into context. How many of those children participate in games and sports? How often do children participating in such activities risk serious accidents and, unfortunately, sometimes suffer serious accidents? It is a fact of growing up that children are exposed to risk, and it is part of the maturing process that they have to learn to cope with that risk. In dealing with truly threatening situations—which all of us want to see eradicated—is it really right to adopt the ideas of the Bill in terms of regulation and the excessive use of officialdom?

Many people are involved in the welfare of a child. If the 1933 Act had been so neglectful of the needs of children, we would by now have seen a campaign in the press—built around evidence of sweatshops, abuse and children at risk—which would surely have had an impact on the House at some point over the past 60 years. The fact that that has not happened suggests that the isolated cases that the hon. Member for Gravesham cited—distressing as they are—are just that: isolated. If he has more convincing evidence, he should present it. It would help to convince those of us coming to the debate in a spirit of constructive criticism and it would also help him to convince the Minister that those tens of millions of pounds are needed to implement the Bill to achieve the objectives which, in the long run, we all share.

We are told that those at work in this age group comprise one third of those at work across the whole of Europe. I know how diligently our European partners compile their statistics, but one has to question whether, in this case, greater regulation in Europe has not merely resulted in there being more hidden employment of children in that age group in those countries. Is it desirable to move to a situation where the problem is driven more underground, rather than to have a clear idea in this country of what is going on?

If a child is coming to school looking tired, inattentive and unable to take part in lessons, it is to be expected that the teachers involved will raise this with the parents and, in some circumstances, the social services. If more resources are needed in that area, surely that would be a more direct and effective way in which to bring pressure to bear.

Judy Mallaber (Amber Valley)

I am puzzled by the hon. Gentleman. He seems to be suggesting that there should be no rules and prohibitions at all as they would be far too expensive to enforce. He thinks that we should let the matter lie, as clearly there is not a problem if it is not reported. We would argue that there is a problem because we do not have enforcement, and that there is such a confusion of byelaws that it is hard to see which rules are necessary. Can he enlighten me on whether he thinks there should be rules and enforcement?

Mr. St. Aubyn

I hope that the hon. Lady knows me well enough by now to believe that I favour regulating the matter. The question is how much further we should regulate to improve the situation, and whether the costs are justifiable and obtainable from the Minister and his Department. If we end up creating a new burden on local authorities without providing them with the money to pay for it, the Bill will be neglected or other vital duties of councils will suffer.

It is entirely consistent to applaud the principles behind the Bill while questioning its practical results. We must ask ourselves why the Bill proposes that there should be no work between 7 pm and 7 am when the European standard is between 8 pm and 6 am. Over one third of those children identified in surveys two years ago were working before 7 am, and half were working after 7 pm. Clearly, we want to ensure that children are safe, but, as I have explained, we have to recognise that children will take risks in their lives. It is for the hon. Member for Gravesham and his supporters to justify this tighter limit, which will clearly have an impact on more than three quarters of those currently employed in that age group.

Why has there been a change in the wording in the Bill compared to the 1933 Act, which was carefully drafted to ensure that those involved in activities such as babysitting would not be affected by the legislation? The Act refers to work in terms of a person who assists in a trade or occupation undertaken for profit. The Bill proposes a new definition—no doubt taken from good legislation, but not in this context—and refers to tasks and duties in connection with a trade or occupation carried on for profit". Is there not a risk that someone will argue in the not-too-distant future that someone going out to work in their own business who engages a babysitter to look after their children will be engaging that person "in connection with" their business? I am not a lawyer, but there is a risk in changing the definition.

The Bill goes further, in terms of limiting the hours. If a child who undertakes a full newspaper round has a stable at home with a pony in it, and the child spends five hours looking after that pony, that extra work is not covered by the Act. If, however, the child is fond of ponies and goes to the commercial stable up the road and asks to help—for free and in the child's spare time—to look after the ponies, the child will have to be turned down under the Bill as it is drafted. The people running the stables will have to say, "I am sorry. Even if I let you do this for love, I will be breaking the law and will be risking a fine."

Clearly, there may be ways in which well-intentioned legislation can have the opposite results to what is wished. Minimum wage legislation could lead—and, no doubt, will lead—to job losses. The Bill may lead not just to protecting the few—with which I agree—but to denying many more children the opportunity to gain self-esteem and to find their way in the world through valuable work experience.

11.19 am
Mr. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North)

I very much welcome this debate; we are indebted to my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Pond) for using the opportunity that he won in the ballot to bring this issue to the Floor of the House. I am pleased to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Preston (Audrey Wise), with whom I very much agree.

All hon. Members will deplore the exploitation of children at work. We know that, in some countries, children work hard and long in appalling conditions, sometimes bonded for repayment of debt, invariably receiving pitiful wages and suffering ill-health and poor life expectancy as a result.

If we are effectively to challenge such dreadful exploitation, we must first put our own house in order by ridding Britain of illegal child labour and by setting the highest minimum standards for our young people. Indeed, I would go further and say that we should constrain and restrict the extent of child labour in general.

Children must be protected from the dangers and disadvantages of illegal, unsafe and unhealthy employment and, if they work, they should be properly paid. The Bill raises many of the issues that need to be addressed, but I do not believe that it provides the protection and standards that we should expect and demand. Other hon. Members have dealt with specifics, and I add my concern to theirs. I believe that we need much stronger legislation than the Bill.

Like the Government, I am especially concerned about education. We have become aware that our schoolchildren have not been achieving as well as they should; their achievements compare unfavourably with those of schoolchildren in other developed nations. Moreover, there is a wide diversity of achievement in schools, which reflects the fact that the advantages of affluence and the disadvantages of poverty are key factors in education.

Poverty is a root cause of many of our problems, including educational under-performance. The gulf between rich and poor is greater in Britain than in most other developed countries, and much greater than in some. The proportion of those living in poverty is much higher, in relative and absolute terms, in Britain than in continental Europe, for example. Educational weaknesses mirror those disparities in wealth.

It is not surprising, therefore, that so many youngsters seek employment to bring in more money. If their parents have little money to give them, children want to gain more through work, which is often illegal, usually excessive and poorly paid, and sometimes dangerous and unhealthy. Significantly, that work is always tiring; children go to school weary and unable to take full advantage of what educational opportunities they have.

The fact that 30 per cent. of all working children in Europe are British is a scandal. These children, usually from the less-well-off families, perform less well in education and go into poorly paid work—if they can get it—when they leave school. The cycle repeats itself with their own children.

In my schooldays, my parents did not let me do a paper round on weekdays in school terms, but my family were comfortable, and extra money was not a problem. I do not know whether my education benefited, but I would certainly have done less well in school and been less able to concentrate and learn if I had trudged into class after a long paper round. The option of not working as a child is less attractive to the less well-off, especially, I would guess, to the children of single parents.

In dealing with children's employment, we must address two issues. First, there must be laws to restrict and regulate child labour, with minimum standards defined and enforced. When I read the Bill, I had a strong impression that it was too weak and that the proposed standards were too low. I ask Ministers to consider seriously what standards would be appropriate—mention has been made of the International Labour Organisation convention 138, which could be a starting point.

Secondly, we must address the more difficult question of poverty, low incomes and inequality which underlies so much child employment. Poverty in Britain is a national scandal which the Government must tackle. A sufficient minimum wage, decent benefits and, above all, a return to full employment are essential. We must consider measures to ensure income redistribution during the Government's term of office and beyond. Tight regulation, high minimum standards and the elimination of poverty would put an end to the exploitation of children. We owe it to them to succeed in those objectives.

The hon. Member for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn) referred to the self-esteem that children derived from employment. I suggest that they work more for money than for self-esteem, although they might derive from work some self-esteem that they do not get elsewhere. That is not the point, however. Children should derive their self-esteem from success in education and from success in later life, which depends on good education. Their education must come first; work must take second place. We should restrict child labour to the very minimum and encourage children to study at school.

Mr. St. Aubyn

Surely the hon. Gentleman recognises that some children are not academically inclined. If the whole focus is on academic achievement, it will be hard for such children to learn that principle of self-esteem.

Mr. Hopkins

I do not agree. Low self-esteem and low performance at school is characteristic of our society; in effect, we tell a large number of young people, "You're not going to succeed in school, so don't bother." I believe that all children, at whatever level, should be able to achieve their maximum potential. That means that we must focus on their education. If they are failing in school, we should give them extra resources and attention; we should not send them out to work or, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) would say, give them a brush and stick them up a chimney.

11.25 am
Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr. Pond) on initiating this debate and on introducing the Bill. I shall briefly outline the views of Liberal Democrats on this very important topic.

I agree with the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice), who said that, all too often in the House, we take the view that, simply by enacting legislation, we can transform things—we believe that we can do far more to solve problems than we actually can. Nevertheless, as the hon. Gentleman recognised, we can make a difference through legislation, although we should not exaggerate what we can achieve.

The legal framework covering child protection in employment dates from the 1920s and 1930s—the era of William Brown and his schooldays. In reading up for the debate, I was interested to note that child protection was only a small part of the purpose of the Children and Young Persons Act 1933, which dealt primarily with criminal justice issues. I am sure that William Brown would have been delighted to know that Parliament decided, at that time, to abolish the whipping of children under 14. That gives us an idea of how far things have moved on—or, at least, how far we hope we have moved on.

I also noticed, in preparing for the debate, how often such issues are debated in the House because of a private Member's Bill rather than Government legislation. Although I welcome the fact that the hon. Member for Gravesham has promoted the Bill, I hope that the Government will introduce their own legislation. I await with interest the Minister's response today.

The debate helps to keep child employment on the public agenda. My hon. Friend the Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) rightly said that the fact that so long has elapsed since Parliament legislated in this area is disquieting. A number of concerns need to be addressed. Four out of 10 children in Britain currently do some form of work. Seven out of 10 working children work illegally. That must be a cause of concern to the House.

The MORI survey commissioned by the Trades Union Congress in 1996 revealed that 20 per cent. of 11-year-olds and 23 per cent. of 12-year-olds were working illegally, as current legislation provides for a minimum starting age of 13. Four out of 10 worked before 7 am and half the children polled worked after 7 pm, both of which are illegal.

The Liberal Democrats do not want to stop children taking the opportunity to work, as it gives them a sense of independence and responsibility—for example, independence of an over-reliance for entertainment on the television, the internet and computers. However, work must not inhibit a child's learning, and his schooling and family life must not be sacrificed or put at risk.

Interestingly, the work of the Low Pay Unit demonstrates that the work being undertaken by young people is very diverse. We are not talking merely of paper rounds and of earning pocket money. For many children, it is about supplementing the family income.

The problem is not only the age of the legislation. The legislative framework is there and, arguably, could be made to work. The Employment of Children Act 1973—a private Member's Bill that was enacted—provided a way forward. The Minister is not in his place at the moment, but perhaps I shall have a chance to intervene on him later to ask why the 1973 Act was never implemented and why the Government will not take the opportunity to review it, to enable it to be used. As the excellent Library briefing demonstrates, the Act provides a route through regulation, which would enable considerable tightening of the law without the need for lengthy review and the process that I am sure the Minister will outline. The Government have a tool available to make a difference.

A serious issue is compliance, by children, parents and employers, as well as the other agencies that have a responsibility under the legislation. To echo something that several hon. Members have said, including my hon. Friend the Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire, when passing such measures, we must be mindful of the fact that by imposing new duties, particularly on local authorities, without giving the necessary additional resources to do the job, we shall be imposing burdens that will ultimately result in the authorities not doing those things, choosing not to do other things that they already have a duty to do or cutting other services. Local authorities are already under pressure and we must be mindful of that fact when we deal with such legislation.

Non-compliance is the most crucial issue. Why is there non-compliance? Is there a mass movement of civil disobedience against the 1933 Act? I think not. Sadly, non-compliance has much more to do with complete and utter ignorance of the existing legislation, on the part of not merely the public at large but those in authority at a local level and those acting as employers. Some of that ignorance may be wilful, but much of it is because of the lack of available information to make people aware of their obligations. Therefore, awareness raising and information must be an important part of this debate, the Government's response and the way in which we proceed.

The European Union directive seems to provide a basis for moving forward, and the Government are reviewing matters to find out how they can bring it into our law. I should be interested to hear from the Minister how soon that will be. We have been told that it should be by the end of this calendar year.

This debate is a useful way to increase the awareness of the House and the general public. The previous Government sought a number of opt-outs from the EU directive, and we have heard arguments from Conservative Members that the problem is not that great, so there is no need to legislate for change. The evidence presented today and much of the other evidence supplied to us in the form of briefings demonstrate that there is a problem and a need for action.

The hon. Member for Gravesham made a powerful case for the Bill. Having the chance to work is valuable to children, and we must ensure that we do nothing to prevent employers from offering them legitimate opportunities to work. The legal framework is 65 years old today, and it is 66 years since the previous Second Reading debate on such legislation, which is an incredible period of time. At the moment, the law makes 1.75 million children into law breakers. For that reason, we welcome the Bill as a way of raising some important points with the Government and promoting reform. The detail of the Bill will need considerable scrutiny, for the reasons mentioned by hon. Members on both sides of the House, but we wish it well and hope that the Government will respond positively to its measures.

11.35 am
Mr. Paul Goggins (Wythenshawe and Sale, East)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Pond) on his choice of child employment for his Bill and on the eloquent way in which he opened the debate. Given his years of campaigning against low pay and on employment issues generally, he must be satisfied to have produced a Bill that will strengthen the protection for children at work.

Perhaps the most important function of Parliament is to afford protection to those who are not always in a position to defend themselves. We have a special responsibility to protect children. I sincerely hope that the Bill and the arguments advanced today will help to strengthen substantially the safeguards for children who work.

I am pleased that, in the main, we have not been talking about children who take on small tasks to earn a little extra pocket money. We all know youngsters who go baby-sitting or clean cars—indeed, some hon. Members, including myself, have children who do so. I agree with my hon. Friend that excessive work is not character-building for children, but, at the right time and place and with the right controls, a little work of that sort can help to foster self-reliance and a sense of maturity. At that level, it is to be welcomed. What is not welcome is the exploitation of children at work, and the Bill would remove such exploitation.

Britain has long-standing legislation to prohibit children from working in certain locations and to impose age and time limits. All that the Bill seeks to do is what the Government are pledged to do in so many other areas of life—to modernise, humanise and move towards conditions that are appropriate for the new millennium.

We have heard about research findings on the issue, and I have further evidence that reinforces the general picture. A couple of years ago, the Greater Manchester Low Pay Unit—an excellent organisation which offers expert advice to low-paid people and vulnerable workers—carried out research in the Manchester area to find out how many children are in part-time work. In a survey that included a substantial number of 13, 14 and 15-year-olds, it found that nearly half were doing some form of paid work. Just over one third were involved in some sort of delivery work, typically milk and newspaper rounds, and one fifth were regular baby-sitters. However, I was more disturbed to find that nearly one third did shop work, waiting, manual labouring, catering or contract cleaning. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Preston (Audrey Wise) that that work is more appropriately done by adult workers, particularly unemployed adults who are desperate for work.

Many of those jobs are done illegally, either because they are deemed by law to be unsuitable or because of the hours. Interestingly, the unit found that few children worked more hours than they were supposed to, but large numbers either started too early or finished too late. About 40 per cent.—nearly half—worked before 7 am and 30 per cent. finished after 7 pm. Also, 70 per cent. of the working schoolchildren polled in the Manchester survey earned less than £2 an hour, with one sixth receiving less than £1 an hour. It is a source of great concern that some 30 per cent. of those surveyed claimed to have started work before they reached the age of 13, another clear breach of the law.

As hon. Members have said, passing laws is not enough. Parents and employers should exercise proper responsibility and ensure that children are not employed in illegal circumstances. It would be much better for all concerned if the Bill were passed into law and the Government gave a strong lead by backing a tough approach and encouraging more rigorous enforcement.

Much is already being done to improve the situation. I welcome the Government's commitment on the European directive and the signs that they understand that further improvements are necessary, but it cannot be left to local authorities to police the system. They have an important role to play, but the strong message from the debate is that they will require substantial further resources to do it. They must be given a strong lead nationally.

I wish to emphasise two aspects of the Bill further. First, I applaud the provisions in part II that make transparent the obligations of public authorities, employers, schools and parents. The proposed work permits offer the prospect of an approach altogether more rigorous than the current system of registration. That would assist public authorities to police and monitor the system and in ensuring a proper and helpful relationship between a child's welfare and progress at school and his or her eligibility to undertake part-time work.

Secondly, I strongly support the strict limits on Sunday working. The previous Government favoured greater deregulation, but I believe that that would be a grave mistake, not for reasons of religious observance, which are a matter of personal choice and belief, but in the interests of family life. There is great anxiety about family life, and to reinforce Sunday as a regular family day would help us all. Sunday is also a day for ensuring that homework is finished and that proper preparations are made for the week ahead.

The exploitation of children, whatever form it takes, is unforgivable. I hope that today marks a turning point in the protection of children at work. A small amount of the right sort of part-time work can be a positive additional activity for children, but their main task is to learn, and our principal duty is to protect them. The Bill will help us to fulfil our part of the bargain.

11.41 am
Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate)

There is no doubt that it is proper to have regulation and legislation to protect children. The hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr. Pond) is to be congratulated on introducing the Bill, because one great problem is ignorance of existing legislation and regulation. That is why so many of the people who employ children are in violation of the laws and regulations as they stand. However, in seeking to address that problem and the inconsistency of regulation across the country, with local authorities having different byelaws which they largely do not enforce, the Bill, as currently drafted, goes too far. It is a classic case of overcorrection.

People who take systematic advantage of children in the workplace will be in breach of any standard that hon. Members could happily enact. The system of licensing proposed in the Bill will not address the central problem of people taking advantage of children in employment. Hon. Members have already spoken about the burden of licensing. My hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn) mentioned a figure of £40 million. The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow) pointed out that if additional burdens are to be placed on local authorities, resources must be made available to them.

The licensing regime proposed in the Bill will cause worse problems. I do not believe that many local authorities, as they are currently managed, are capable of managing a licensing regime that could produce licences in four weeks. Employers who wish to behave properly and get licences will apply for them but find that, after four weeks, the opportunity that they have given to a child to do some part-time work must end because they have not received a licence. Many employers who wish to employ children on paper rounds or whatever will not bother to try to get licences. We shall drive out of the area of regulation probably the majority of people who want to give opportunities to children. That will have two effects. First, people will say that it is not worth going through the burden of trying to get a licence. The opportunities for children to do paper rounds, or other work that the House agrees that they should be able to do, will disappear. Secondly, employers who do not get licences will be in violation of the standards. They might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb, so there will be greater abuse of children.

The proper way to regulate is to establish standards in the House, and there are some points on standards in the Bill. It should then be for police and local authorities, in the normal way, if cases are brought to their attention, to prosecute people guilty of abuse. If we overlay the matter with a massive regulatory regime involving every local authority, we shall bring it into disrepute. We want to identify the people who take unfair advantage of children beyond the standards that we set, and then properly prosecute and punish them. Such behaviour is so scandalous that there is a clear case for them to be properly punished with serious penalties in the courts.

The hon. Member for Luton, North (Mr. Hopkins) saw the priority wholly in terms of education. I agree with other hon. Members that training and work experience are an important part of education. The opportunity for children to work should be encouraged, in a part-time way at the margin, as they grow towards adulthood, as part of their education and of preparing them for adult life.

Mr. Hopkins

Will the hon. Gentleman distinguish between child employment outside school hours and work experience as part of the curriculum in school hours?

Mr. Blunt

I agree that work experience in school hours is welcome, but I would not want to deny work experience to children who want to take opportunities for it on their own, outside school hours, organised by people outside schools and the formal education system. There is a role for more informal experience outside the school authorities.

Mr. St. Aubyn

Does my hon. Friend agree that there are some children who are antipathetic to school for whom it is important to have experiences that are not related to school? If everything that they do is tied to school, it might be counter-productive and serve only to antagonise them in regard to the process into which we are trying to pull them.

Mr. Blunt

My hon. Friend makes an important point. We should be seeking to enrich the experience of children in the sense of horses for courses. All children are different and develop in different ways. For some, work experience might be more important than formal education. We should not try to establish set standards to try to force children to fit a particular framework. I fear that the Bill's licensing regime will significantly reduce opportunities for child employment, while imposing standards honoured in the breach rather than the observance.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice), who referred to the rules governing the two-hour limit on Sundays. That, I think, is out of date. It would be better to regulate for an overall length of time that could be worked over weekends, and to allow parents and children to judge for themselves how that should be split between Saturdays and Sundays.

11.49 am
Mrs. Christine Butler (Castle Point)

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Pond) on presenting such an important Bill. The debate is indeed timely, after 66 years. I was amazed to hear the comments of some Opposition Members, who seemed only to want a deregulatory regime.

Let us refocus on the main issue, which is the vulnerability of children who may or may not be employed, legally or illegally, in today's Britain. They are vulnerable because they are young: because they are young, they are all too easily exploited. That is central to the Bill, and we should not forget it.

I welcome the Bill. I should like it to go further and to be broader in its scope, but I understand the reasons behind it. It is not dramatic; it does not ask for a great deal. It simply suggests that there should be a better regulatory framework—a framework that is consistent across the country, that is better enforced and that protects the welfare and well-being of young people more effectively. For the purposes of the Bill, children may be defined as those who are under the upper school leaving age limit. I also welcome the Government's proposed review, which I believe is already under way. I hope that it will be all-embracing, and that it will go beyond the Bill in increasing protection for children at work.

I accept that we must consider the technicalities, but I denounce the way in which some Opposition Members gave technical reasons for not supporting the Bill—or, indeed, the principle of the Bill. I abhor that, because I think that we should all support the principle.

Mr. Blunt

I have heard no Opposition Member oppose the principle of the Bill. Opposition Members are keen to make legislation and regulation effective, respected and known about, and for that legislation and regulation to work.

Mrs. Butler

That is not how I understood the comments of Opposition Members, who argued against nearly all the Bill's proposals and seemed to want provisions that had more to do with the free market and deregulation. They support the interests of children, however, and the two positions strike me as incompatible. Perhaps it is up to those who will wind up the debate to explain: I shall be interested to hear what my hon. Friend the Minister—as well as the Opposition spokesman—has to say.

I should like all employers and putative employers of children to be licensed or registered, although dialogue between home, employers and school is essential, whatever precise form it takes. It is never too soon to start talking about the issue. Indeed, let us start now: let us not wait until the end of the year. I want to see a significant improvement in registration, consistent across the country. Employers should be certified as fit and proper people to employ children, and should be able to convince authorities that conditions in the workplace are suitable for children. Such an extra provision in the Bill might mitigate some of the complexities involved in processing permits quickly. At least parents, children and councils would know who were likely to be fit and proper employers, and which establishments had suitable conditions. That is the main point that I wanted to make.

I agree with all who have said that our main concern should be children's health, welfare, training and education. I could not disagree more with Opposition Members who suggested that training and education could take place in a laissez-faire context. I have much sympathy with my hon. Friend the Member for Preston (Audrey Wise), who referred to the ILO agreement and suggested that we should prohibit all child employment; but I know from my experience as a parent, and my experience of other people's children, that many children would be aggrieved if we were too prescriptive and prevented them from taking part-time work on a reasonable basis that could be properly regulated. That is the crux of many of the Bill's provisions. We have no such enforcement now; we seem to have a complete disregard for, and almost complete ignorance of, the current legislation. It is entirely ignored, and I was not aware of the details until a short time ago.

Ms Ruth Kelly (Bolton, West)

Is not one of the reasons for the high level of non-compliance with the law a basic ignorance of that law? There is some national legislation, but there are also hundreds of byelaws. I have a particular interest, because many of the towns and other areas surrounding my constituency have non-compliance rates of up to 98 per cent. Does not the Bill give us an Important opportunity to simplify and standardise the legislation?

Mrs. Butler

I entirely agree.

As I have said, I support the Bill, and welcome the Government's decision to conduct a root-and-branch review of all aspects of child employment. I hope that we shall have a more enforceable and simpler regime that will do more to protect our working children. I commend the Bill, with the proviso that the Government should do their work. I hope that we shall hear from them before the end of the year, following what my hon. Friend the Minister says today.

11.58 am
Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

This has been an interesting and important debate. The Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Pond) gives us the opportunity to debate the issues of child labour, which were discussed in the previous Parliament only in Adjournment debates; I presented a private Member's Bill, but it was not debated. I should declare an interest: I am chair of the Stop Child Labour campaign in Britain, and my hon. Friend the Member for Preston (Audrey Wise) is its vice-chair. The purpose of the campaign is to ensure that International Labour Organisation convention 138 is enacted into British law: we have made that clear in an amendment to early-day motion 712, which was tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham.

Child labour is an appalling problem world wide. Millions of children throughout the world are denied any education because they are forced to work in rice fields or in factories that make training shoes or toys. Many children in Pakistan are slaves. We use the euphemism "bonded labour"; it is, in effect, child slavery. Child slavery and child sex slavery exist in many parts of the world.

The whole purpose of the international conventions is to protect children in the most dangerous and vulnerable situations. If we insist as a country, as we rightly do, that United Nations, International Labour Organisation, World Health Organisation and other conventions should be agreed or imposed world wide, the least we can do is ensure that all those conventions apply within the terms of British law. We should not ask for exemptions for ourselves when we condemn other countries that seek exemptions which mean that children are grossly exploited.

Once a huge number of children are employed in a disgraceful and dangerous situation, as they are in many parts of the world, the interests of the employers are not to ensure that those children are well paid, well regulated and protected, but to oppose education authorities and others who try to get those children to leave work and go to school. The struggle against child labour in the 19th century was often with neanderthal factory owners who opposed compulsory state education. One of the great events in labour movement history, the Burston school strike, was in part about the power of the farming community to drag children out of the classroom to take stones off fields.

It is horrible to say this, but there is still much exploitation of children in our society. My hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham pointed out that probably 2 million children work in this country. It is difficult to know exactly how many children are in work. Most are unregistered, unregulated or unvisited by social services, by education welfare officers or by anyone else. The danger and possibilities of serious child exploitation is ever present in our society.

The hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) made a perfectly fair point about local authorities. They do not necessarily want a lot of child labour, but, if we ask an inner-London, inner-Birmingham or any other local authority to regulate and look into child labour, they say, "No chance." Social workers can barely keep pace with the number of statutory referrals that they have. Education welfare officers cannot deal even with the number of statemented pupils in our schools. It is not possible for those local authorities to go round to clothing factories in Hackney, Islington, Lambeth or Lewisham to find out whether children are working.

There is another side to it, which I suspect is the reason why some of the figures look progressively and refreshingly low in other European countries. They probably hide the problem. Throughout this continent, refugee and migrant children live twilight existences illegally. Often, they are the most grossly exploited people on earth because their parents have no redress in law or anything else; they lack any legal status.

Rightly, we all sign petitions demanding the end of child labour in other parts of the world. We recognise that the problem is far worse and the exploitation far greater in other parts of the world, but we should also be prepared to look behind factory doors here and consider the danger that many children in our society face.

The idea that child labour is necessarily safe is not something one should take lightly. Appalling accidents still happen on farms, with children working near or around farm machinery. Youngsters doing newspaper rounds are exposed to traffic dangers or worse. Carl Bridgewater was murdered while delivering newspapers to a farm, which shows the danger of children being out on their own. Unfortunately, we do not live in a particularly safe society.

There is an international campaign to protect children and to ensure that they go into education rather than to work at too young an age.

There have been worldwide campaigns against child labour, and an important tribunal in Mexico in 1996 drew attention to the problems of child labour and bonded labour. I should like to quote from ILO convention 138, which was framed in 1973—interestingly enough, the year in which the House last debated legislation on this subject. It builds on many of the conventions about the minimum age for employment in agriculture, clothing and other industries. Part of the convention states: Considering that the time has come to establish a general instrument on the subject, which would gradually reduce the existing ones applicable to limited economic sectors, with a view to achieving the total abolition of child labour, and Having determined that this instrument shall take the form of an international Convention, and adopted in 1973. Article 1 of the convention is brief. It states: Each Member for which this Convention is in force undertakes to pursue a national policy designed to ensure the effective abolition of child labour and to raise progressively the minimum age for admission to employment or work to a level consistent with the fullest physical and mental development of young persons. Article 2.1 is also brief. It states: Each Member which ratifies this Convention shall specify, in a declaration appended to its ratification, a minimum age for admission to employment or work within its territory". It is stated that that must be deposited with the ILO director-general. Article 2.3 states: The minimum age specified in …paragraph 1 of this Article shall be not less than the age of completion of compulsory schooling and, in any case, shall be not less than 15 years. If we have signed up to that international convention, we should ratify it and carry it into law. I was sorry to hear that the legal advice that was given to my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham shows that his Bill would prevent ratification of that ILO convention. I may be wrong about that, but it is important to look to the Government for legislation to ensure that the ILO convention is ratified.

In July, my hon Friend the Member for Preston and I had a useful meeting with the Minister who will reply to the debate. We had a long discussion about the problems of child labour. The Minister was extremely helpful and we left that meeting in a positive frame of mind. We said that the exploitation of children is detrimental to their education. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Preston that a child who works for 12 hours a week is carrying a big burden on top of his normal schoolwork and homework.

High unemployment means that many children are able to get jobs because they are not covered by minimum wage legislation, which in any case applies only to agriculture. Many adults could be out of work, but children can be in work for up to 12 hours a week to supplement the family income. The pattern of child employment shows that children from poorer families tend to work more hours than those from wealthier families who can afford to pay for the things that children want and need.

I hope that the Minister understands and accepts the concerns about child labour that many of us have been expressing for a long time. We should ratify ILO convention 138 and frame legislation accordingly, to ensure that we are in line with international conventions.

The Bill contains serious problems, the first of which relates to the large number of hours that children are allowed to work. My hon. Friend the Member for Preston spoke about that. Secondly, the Bill does not state, presumably because the Government would not allow it to state, how its regulatory regime would be funded. I have tabled parliamentary questions on that subject, and have been told that there is no standard spending assessment specific budget heading for the monitoring of child employment by local authorities. Presumably, that is one of the reasons for local authorities not carrying out serious monitoring. That has been left to universities and to the organisers of campaigns.

I hope that, in the review, the Minister will recognise that although it is not necessarily wrong for a local authority to carry out any regulatory regime, it must be adequately funded to do so. The point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding) is crucial—Britain needs a children's commissioner. He or she could examine the dangers of exploitation of children, the problems of child employment and what goes with that, and the anomalies in existing legislation. We need someone who can speak up and influence Departments, legislation and public opinion on the question of the treatment of our children.

Children must have the opportunity to grow up happily, to learn safely, and to develop into society. When I go into cafes, restaurants, pizza bars or whatever—being a vegetarian, I do not go to burger bars—it saddens me to see young people looking rather tired at the end of work on a Saturday. We see youngsters going into school looking tired because they have already spent an hour or two delivering newspapers on the streets. It is not glamorous; indeed, much of it is dangerous. It is certainly detrimental to the children's education.

If the regulatory regime provides for the school to decide whether a young person works, intolerable pressures will be put on that school. Many schools will just say that they will not allow any child to work, or say that they will allow all of them to work, or they will consider each individual case. The latter puts pressure on the school to make a value judgment on whether the family needs the child to work. That is not the right job for a school.

I look forward to the Minister's speech. I hope that his review will be thorough and will take evidence from other organisations and people. Above all, I look forward to a commitment from the Government that, at long last—we have waited since 1973—Britain will ratify ILO convention 138 and will play its part in ending the disgraceful exploitation of children not only around the world, but in this country.

12.11 pm
Mr. Barry Gardiner (Brent, North)

What may we expect of hon. Members, unless it be that they should take care of those who are without power? Children in Britain are without direct access to power. For that reason, the obligation on us today is all the more onerous to have a care for them. I could hardly contain myself when I heard the hon. Member for Hogwash—the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt)—saying that our role in this Chamber is not to set standards. If we are not to set standards, who is?

Often in these debates, we hear hon. Members congratulated on their good fortune in having come so high in the ballot for a private Member's Bill. Interestingly, today no one has congratulated my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Pond) on his good fortune; instead, we have all congratulated him on his good sense in using this opportunity to give voice to the needs of our nation's children so that we protect them against both injury and exploitation.

The Bill does not ignore the great benefit that children can derive from engaging in the world of work. The sense of responsibility, the independence and the mature co-operation in a commercial context, which work can bring to children, are of real value.

My eldest child, Jess, is a singer and has performed, from the age of 11, at the Almeida opera and on Radio 3. I am proud of the rigorous hours of training and rehearsals that he has worked. The experience of working with professional musicians, conductors and recording technicians is one which he will never forget. Above all, he will retain the sense of being treated as a fellow professional—not a child, but an artist of equal importance in a successful production. However, such benefits must not be purchased at the expense of childhood itself. It is vital that a child's school should always be aware of and support any child's employment, as the Bill would stipulate.

When it was discovered, not a few months ago, that the footballs used in our national game were made by child labour on the Indian subcontinent, it rightly became a matter of national news and of public outrage. How remarkable therefore that, during all that time, little uproar was raised in defence of our own children and about the conditions in which they have been employed. Yet we know that almost 1.5 million children in Britain are employed illegally, and that one third of them have been involved in an accident at work. We have allowed an almost casual disregard of child employment to prevail in Britain, dismissing such employment as merely paper rounds and babysitting. It is not.

I pay tribute to the Low Pay Unit for its research, which has highlighted more than merely the bald official statistics on injuries and deaths of children in the workplace from contact with machinery, falls from a height and other causes. It is shocking enough that even one child in Britain should die in legal employment, but the unit's research has uncovered the appalling scale of illegal employment of children under 13 and outwith the hours of 7 am to 7 pm.

Those of us with children know to our cost how early mornings and late nights can be singularly corrosive of family life. Children are less patient with their parents in such circumstances. Much more important, tired children learn less in school. Critically, children are more exposed to all the potential health and safety risks in their workplace when they are tired.

Mr. St. Aubyn

Given that all hon. Members oppose the illegal employment of those under 13 and putting children at risk in the workplace, and that those matters are already dealt with in existing legislation on health and safety and on employment of children, how will the Bill help to address those issues?

Mr. Gardiner

I shall deal later in my speech with the very important matters not only of regulation but of enforcement of regulation, which have been mentioned by many hon. Members.

I particularly welcome clause 4(4), which stipulates: No person shall employ a child to do any work which, on account of the nature of the tasks involved or the particular conditions under which they are performed, is likely to be harmful to his safety, health or development; or to his attendance at school, his participation in vocational training or guidance programmes…or to his ability to benefit from the instruction so received. It seems that that is one of the central focuses of the Bill.

Part II of the Bill seeks to provide an enforcement system through the issuing of permits involving the local education authority, parents, schools and the local police. It is here that what weaknesses there are in the Bill are most manifest. Clauses 12, 13 and 16 rightly provide that the child's school must be notified and consulted at all stages on the issuing of permits and their amendment. It would be helpful to include in clause 15 a continuing requirement not only on the employer to update the local authority record on 1 January and 1 July each year, but on schools to reassess their own agreement to the employment continuing.

Clearly, many schools, on first being approached by parents for their agreement, may say that they would be prepared to allow a child to undertake some employment, but they will want to see how the work affects the child's performance at school. Unless an automatic obligation is placed on schools to renew their consent, it may be that, as the child's achievement declines, it is forgotten that the child is in employment outside of school life; the two factors may not be correlated.

Having been a councillor in local government for many years, I am acutely aware of the ever-increasing work load placed on local authorities by the House. As has been said, it is not simply a matter of making regulations; those regulations have to be enforced. The resource implications of such enforcement are, sadly, clear to anyone involved in local government.

Local government budgets are strained in meeting their present statutory obligation to protect children. New legislation will inevitably add to that burden, but that does not mean that new legislation that attempts to codify the existing regulations is not right and necessary.

My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding) set out only too clearly the difficulty involved in providing the necessary resources that could give us confidence that we might see any real enforcement of the Bill's provisions. The split of Government responsibility for children between different Departments—the Department of Health, the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, and the Department for Education and Employment—is detrimental to the resolution of the problem. I certainly echo and support my hon. Friend's call for the Government to consider appointing a Minister for children.

Employers do exploit children. Few would doubt that the reason why most employers take on children is that children are cheap, but they are also compliant. They can be got to work at times and in conditions that an adult might resist. They are also less likely to protest about harassment by their employer—and such harassment of children clearly exists. That is why any employment must be assessed and permitted for children only if it can be clearly shown that such employment is a net benefit to the individual child. It is the child who must be our primary consideration and, broadly speaking, the system of permits set out in the Bill seeks to ensure that.

Children are born to love their parents. Very soon, they grown to judge them; rarely do they end up forgiving us. Let us resolve today to remove one more obstacle to that forgiveness, and speed the Bill on its way.

12.24 pm
Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes)

I welcome the Bill, and I applaud my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Pond) for the excellent and hard work that he put into the Bill and during his years working at the Low Pay Unit. He has brought a wealth of experience to today's debate and his Bill has given us the opportunity to discuss an extremely important issue.

Like my hon. Friends the Members for Preston (Audrey Wise) and for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn), I do not think that all work is bad for children. When I was a teenager, I would have been horrified had I not been allowed my wee Saturday job in a well-known high street chemist. It gave me the opportunity to earn a bit of money to spend on the things that I wanted. As a teenage girl, I bought mainly clothes and make-up, but it was all about growing up, becoming independent and choosing to buy the things that I wanted. I did not want Mum's smelly old Vosene, for example. I wanted to buy the shampoos that I was reading about in the girls' magazines.

We cannot condemn all employment for children, but the debate is not about that. It is about the abuses of the system, and I am concerned about them. Some children work extremely long hours. When I was a teenager, my employer did not break the regulations; teenagers were paid exactly the same rates as other members of staff. However, I was lucky. At the time, some of my friends were working for a pittance, as teenagers still do today. In addition, some work in dangerous conditions. We must do all we can to protect children in those circumstances.

Like other Members, I am concerned about the impact of employment on schoolwork. When I was a teenager, I did not find that my job impacted on my performance at school, but my propensity for staying up until 2am watching trash horror films on television did.

I have discussed the issue with education welfare officers of North East Lincolnshire council, which is responsible for the towns of Grimsby and Cleethorpes. They are most concerned about abuses of the system—not just about children who might be tired at school, but about non-attendance because of work. One recent example involved a 14-year-old girl who was absent from school. An education welfare officer visited her home and found that she was being picked up in a van and driven south to a factory in Lincolnshire to pack pork pies. Her shift was from 2 o'clock to 10 o'clock, so she simply was not at school. We must stop such abuses.

In Lincolnshire, there is a tradition of gangs of children working in factories. They are hired by a ganger, who collects them and drives them to the factory. The ganger, not the factory, pays the children. The factory may be unaware that it is employing someone of 14 and may assume that he or she is 16. It is a shady form of contract work. The practice is also prevalent in the agricultural sector. At harvesting time, gangs of children are driven to work. Certainly the regulations are often breached in respect of the hours that the children work.

The education welfare officers are concerned about the agriculture sector because abuses do not occur only in the summer holidays. Sometimes it happens in term time, resulting in non-attendance at school. One of the worst examples that the officers came across recently was an eight-year-old selling flowers in the centre of Grimsby. I am sure that we all condemn such exploitation.

A couple of loopholes concern me. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will address them. In the food processing industry in Grimsby, 16-year-olds who have just been given a national insurance number dupe employers by saying that they have left school, when they should still be there. The processing firms have responded when education welfare officers have raised the issue with them.

The European Union directives have been mentioned. As I understand them, they will give less protection to children who work in some respects, such as start and finish time. We should be more protective of our children.

Even in winter, there are many people at the seaside in Cleethorpes on Sundays. A lot of children work there—perfectly legitimately. We must address that. Patterns of employment are not the same across the country.

I welcome the Bill and the Government's review of such important issues. The Department of Health and the Department of Trade and Industry have set up a working group, which will report by the end of the year. That shows the Government's commitment to addressing the serious issues. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham can work with the review, contributing some of the excellent aspects of the Bill to ensure that we protect children who are being abused in the workplace.

12.32 pm
Mr. Ross Cranston (Dudley, North)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Pond) on introducing the Bill. I first came across his name in 1977, when he was the co-author of an important book called "To Him Who Hath". Another co-author was my right hon. Friend the Minister for Welfare Reform. The book addressed several issues that are still on the agenda, such as the relationship between taxation and poverty, and how regressive taxation can be. It also contained an interesting European dimension, showing how we were taxed less than elsewhere.

I am pleased that my hon. Friend and I were elected at the same time. Other hon. Members have mentioned his time at the Low Pay Unit, where he worked for almost two decades, producing a stream of pamphlets and articles. He took up the important issue of the exploitation suffered by many in low-paid work. I congratulate him. In a way, the Bill is a culmination of the many years that he has spent toiling on the issue.

I shall concentrate my remarks on children of pre-school-leaving age. Hon. Members have already said, I think correctly, that work can create a sense of responsibility, self-respect and self-discipline. The Bill recognises the fact that we must not eliminate the possibility of young people's entering work. However, there are three important caveats. The first is exploitation. My hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac) mentioned examples of exploitation from her constituency and my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding) referred to exploitation in terms of pay rates. The Low Pay Unit publication "Fair Play for Working Children" gives several serious examples of exploitation.

The second caveat is the health and safety concern. My hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham addressed that issue in his remarks and gave several examples of young people who were seriously injured while working. The third caveat concerns the impact that work can have on education, and I shall spend a few minutes on that point. The TUC commissioned an important study by the MORI organisation which found that some 28 per cent. of working children said that they were often or sometimes too tired to do their homework or their school work. Some 4 per cent. said that they played truant from school because they had to work. My hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes referred to such a case in her constituency.

That is a serious problem. There is strong evidence of the link between homework and achievement at school—even the previous Government acknowledged that. This Government have taken several important steps to ensure that children, who may not otherwise do their homework, can attend homework clubs. Some 8,000 such clubs are planned by the turn of the century, at a cost of £200 million. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment has emphasised the importance of homework and the fact that it makes a real difference. Even though there are advantages in young people's undertaking work, there should be limits on what they are able to do.

As hon. Members have said, the current legislation is a patchwork. It is a complex hotch-potch. The basic law is the Children and Young Persons Act 1933, and its key section—section 18—is clearly drafted. It imposes limits by stating that school-age children cannot work before 7 am and after 7 pm, and cannot work more than two hours a day, including Sunday. However, superimposed on that legislation are many other complex provisions, including the Employment of Women, Young Persons and Children Act 1920, the Children Act 1972 and local authority byelaws which, in many cases, were introduced as a result of the Employment of Children Act 1973. Although that Act was never proclaimed, draft regulations gave rise to local authority action.

There are limits on these provisions. The basic provision in section 18 of the 1933 Act covers only employment. As the hon. Member for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn) pointed out, the definition of employment in that Act is assisting in a trade or occupation carried on for profit, so it would not cover the job of babysitter. There are other relevant regulations, such as the Children (Performances) Regulations 1968 and the Health and Safety (Young Persons) Regulations 1997. There is a case for the Bill on the grounds of the complexity of current provisions alone.

Reference has been made to international instruments. My hon. Friends the Members for Preston (Audrey Wise), for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) and for Luton, North (Mr. Hopkins) mentioned ILO convention 138 on the minimum age for admission to employment. I want to correct something they said about the nature of that convention. This country has not ratified it, unlike some other European countries, such as France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Sweden. The European directive is not inconsistent with the ILO convention, and nor are the provisions in the Bill.

The ILO convention seeks to do away with child labour. Article 7 clearly states: National laws…may permit the employment or work of persons from 13 to 15 years of age on light work subject to limitations. The first limitation is that it should not be harmful to their health or development and the second is that the work should not be such as to prejudice their attendance at school…or their capacity to benefit from the instruction received. Paragraph 4 of article 7 enables adherents to the convention to substitute the ages 12 and 14 for the ages 13 and 15". It would be wrong to go away with the impression that the convention is inconsistent with part-time work for children who have not left school. It aims to do away with child labour, but it allows part-time work.

Mr. Hopkins

I referred to the ILO convention as a minimum starting point. It is a basis to work on, but I would go beyond it.

Mr. Cranston

I agree, it is a basis, and the European directive is consistent with it.

The other international instrument that has been mentioned is the convention on the rights of the child. This country is an adherent to that convention: it came into force in the United Kingdom in 1992. It sets out important rights for children. The basic right is that we must always take the best interests of the child into account. Article 12 states that we should listen to what children say, for example when we make administrative decisions. I would extrapolate on that, and say that we have to listen to children when making legislation. The TUC survey shows that children say that they do get tired, cannot do their homework and, in some cases, play truant. We must take that into account in making laws.

The key provision is article 32 of the convention, which says that children have to be protected from exploitation, and from performing work likely to be hazardous or to interfere with the child's education, or to be harmful to the child's health or physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development. To that end, article 32.2 says that states shall provide for a minimum age for admission to employment, for appropriate regulation of the hours and conditions of employment and for appropriate penalties or other sanctions to ensure the effective enforcement of the article. A number of hon. Members have referred to the under-enforcement of the current laws.

I refer also to the EC directive, to which others have referred, which contains an important provision on risk assessment in articles 6 and 7. We must ensure that, on health and safety grounds, any employment will not adversely affect children and young persons who are working. The directive also contains absolute limits on the amount of time a child can work. For example, a 12-hour limit is specified; that is different from the current law in this country where, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham pointed out, a child can work up to 17 hours a week during term time. Under the directive, we are rightly obliged to reduce the hours a child of school age can work.

Article 11 of the directive states that children should have a period free of any work during school holidays. It is important for young people to have a couple of weeks free from any work. The previous Government negotiated certain opt-outs from the directive, and we have discussed one of those—the opt-out which relates to Sunday employment and the fact that children can work up to eight hours on Sundays.

I take the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes made about changing employment patterns in some parts of the country. However, my hon. Friend the Minister was right when he said in December that the provision allowing eight hours' work on Sundays was—to use his colourful language—"dead in the water." Children, as he said, need time with their families and friends, and for their school work. Eight hours is simply too long. In addition, my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department of Trade and Industry said that the other provision—the two-week break during school holidays—was appropriate so that children could have a rest from school and other work.

I now turn to enforcement. Under the UN convention, we are obliged to introduce an effective enforcement regime—which, clearly, we are not doing. There are various reasons why local authorities are not able to enforce the law, but the fact is that they are not doing so.

In 1991, the Low Pay Unit confirmed that much employment was illegal and unregistered. In 1995, a GMB report showed that only 15 of the 108 local authorities had employment officers specifically dealing with children. It also showed that there were few prosecutions—only 11 in the previous year, for example. In February 1997, Labour Research reported that, in Blackburn, only 4 per cent. of employers who should have been registered were, in fact, registered.

Law enforcement is important not only in this area, but more generally. If a law is not properly enforced—or if it is not enforced at all—not only it, but the whole legal process falls into disrepute. I look forward to hearing from my hon. Friend the Minister about the Government's proposals to improve enforcement.

Under the 1933 Act, children under 13 may not work, but the TUC survey found that one in five 11-year-olds and one in four 12-year-olds said that they were working. It also showed that the legal maximums were not being observed and that many children were working longer than two hours a day during term time.

The Bill contains some interesting and innovative proposals on enforcement. Under clause 11, children would have to have a certificate from their parents to say that they were fit for the work that they were doing. Head teachers would be involved and the police would have to be notified. The whole enforcement regime is toughened up under part II which, I believe, is especially valuable in putting enforcement well and truly on the agenda.

Again, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham. The Bill is the culmination of all his work over the years before he entered the House and it deserves a serious response from the Government. From what my hon. Friend the Minister has done in the past and said recently, I know that he will consider it seriously. The Government are committed to human rights—we shall debate the Human Rights Bill on Monday. They are dedicated to employment rights and also to children's rights. I very much look forward to my hon. Friend the Minister's response.

12.52 pm
Angela Smith (Basildon)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Pond) on promoting the Bill. I have never understood the custom that hon. Members should be congratulated on drawing a high place in the ballot—that is a matter of good fortune—but I congratulate my hon. Friend on his choice of subject. He has considerable expertise and experience in the matter, for which he is widely respected, and I pay tribute to him for promoting the Bill. I know that he consulted many experts in drafting it, as its length and detail testify, and I am sure that the House will recognise and applaud his commitment to the issue.

As I awoke in my constituency this morning, I heard the dulcet tones of my hon. Friend being interviewed on my local radio station. I do not share the view of some hon. Members that work for children is inherently bad. My hon. Friend described the many jobs that he had had as a child. The interviewer said, "It doesn't seem to have done you any harm, does it?" My hon. Friend replied, "I don't know; some people say it must have done, because I am now a Member of Parliament." I do not believe that it has done him any harm; indeed, perhaps it helped him in promoting the Bill.

The Bill focuses not merely on the employment of children, but on the problems inherent in child employment. I share many of the experiences of my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac), although while I was still at school I worked for a high street retail store—not a chemist—for many years. I found it a valuable experience. However, many children work in conditions that are not safe for them and they are not given the appropriate clothing or equipment. The fact that probably one in three of children in employment are injured at work, sometimes seriously, should give the House cause for concern. I was upset to hear the hon. Member for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn) refer to those as isolated incidents. One in three is not an isolated incident. As about 2 million children work, the fact that one third are injured at work is extremely serious and important.

We must also deal with the possibility of exploitation. My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) mentioned the Burston school strike. In the summer, I was honoured to be asked to address the annual rally in support of teachers who fought for decent education standards for children in rural areas. One reason for the Burston strike was that teachers took great offence that, come harvest time, children would regularly be dragged out of school for several hours a day, and sometimes the whole school day, to work in the fields. Perhaps, the action taken by teachers—punching the farmer on the nose—was not the best way forward. My hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham has proposed far more effective enforcement procedures in the Bill.

Educational disadvantage and the fact that children can be too tired to work effectively in the classroom have also been mentioned. I endorse that view whole-heartedly from my experience. When I was a sixth-former at Chalvedon school in Pitsea, I helped out in what was then called the remedial department for children with special needs, helping youngsters who needed a little extra coaching and support to read and write. I was a mentor to one child in particular and asked him what he did with his day. Often, he would get up at 5 or 6 am to muck out a stables—that would interest one Conservative Member—go to school, nip off at lunch time as he was employed for a short time in a local shop and then return to school for the afternoon. Sometimes, he would work in the evenings as well. He was a bright, bonny lad, full of enthusiasm for life. It cannot be a coincidence that his educational attainment was below average. He was working excessive hours.

Mr. St. Aubyn

Is the hon. Lady going to tell us that the young boy was called Richard Branson?

Angela Smith

Unfortunately not. He did not have certain advantages that would have enabled him to reach such a high place in life. Undoubtedly, he suffered from low educational attainment at school despite so many efforts by the school to help and support him.

Problems with employment are not automatic and can be tackled. Employment for children can bring certain advantages for both child and family, if properly regulated. Those include a degree of responsibility and independence. Also, such work improves social skills. Many children mix, perhaps for the first time in their lives, with people of different age groups outside their family relationships and that is a benefit.

I was fortunate in my employment as I was generally well treated and reasonably well paid. Not all my school friends were so fortunate. As for the effects on my school work, my bad A-level result had more to do with late-night television—like my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes—and Hammer House of Horror films than with the shop I worked for. By enabling me to earn money when I was 14, 15 and 16, my job helped me to stay on at school at 17 and 18 and take my A-levels. The money that I brought into the household, generally for my benefit, was a great advantage in that it helped me to pursue my education.

About 40 per cent. of 11 to 16-year-olds work during the school week, which is more than in any other European country. We estimate that about 75 per cent. of those children are employed illegally. Some illegality arises from ignorance of the law. It is clear that the regulations are inadequate, but they are also not widely known. That is a great problem for employers. With some employers, it is ignorance of the law, but, with others, it is lack of regard for the law. The Bill does not try to stop children working, but seeks meaningful, practical, protective legislation. It must be workable and understandable, and strike a balance between protecting children and allowing them freedom of responsibility.

I am proud to be a sponsor of the Bill. I pay tribute to the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham. My office is three doors along from his on the same corridor. When I go home at midnight or 1 am, he is still there late at night writing his Bill, and he was up early this morning on the radio. I congratulate him. By introducing the Bill, he has given great publicity to the issue. But for the Bill, we would not have had a debate across the country about child employment. It would not have been discussed and there would not be such widespread concern. I await with interest the Minister's response. As hon. Members have said, I am sure that if the Minister works with my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham, we can produce workable solutions to the problem and ensure that we protect our, children adequately.

1 pm

Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe)

I welcome the Bill, for which there is a clear need because of the European directive and the significant changes in how children work. There are one or two matters where the Bill has not taken account of all those changes, to which I shall return.

It is true that the Bill adds new regulations where the situation was vague or locally variable. I would be surprised if we got through the debate without hearing the words "nanny state" from Conservative Members. I am tempted to say that a nanny state is appropriate for children, but I shall be less polemical and try to say in a little more detail why most of us feel the need further to restrict child labour and what the consequences might be. Three reasons have pre-occupied the House. First, we want to avoid diverting so much time into work that children's education and reasonable free time suffer. I am not one of those who believe that childhood should be a golden age untainted by adult experience, filled with nothing but school, playground and the gathering of flowers. Let us be honest: childhood can be boring. We need to give children the opportunity to develop their interests. We should not force ideas of an idyll on them, but it is vital that they have enough time and energy to study. Everyone would agree that they should have reasonable time to enjoy life.

Secondly, we must avoid the wholesale substitution of adult labour by underpaid child labour, a point made forcefully by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn). That was not a great problem when most children worked on paper rounds because not many adults seek such work. It is now a problem, as hon. Members have made clear. We should beware of exploitation masquerading as work experience. Thirdly, we want to prevent physical and mental stress that could make children ill or affect their development into healthy adults.

The first two issues were dealt with by other speakers, so I shall add only brief comments. Diversion of time is well covered by the Bill, and I support the Government's rejection of the Conservatives' proposal to open the floodgates to full-time Sunday work. That was a very unconservative idea and I do not think that it commands wide support, even among their traditional supporters.

The under-cutting of adult labour is not directly the subject of the Bill, but it will feature in the broader discussion on the minimum wage. Attention there has so far focused on whether people aged 18 to 25 should be paid the same for doing the same work as older people. In view of the extensive child work reported in this debate, we will need to decide whether there should be a lower limit for children. It may be assumed that a child will probably not be paying rent or paying for food, and is thus less dependent on other income; but I would argue that even 13-year-olds should not be paid massively less than what an adult would receive for exactly the same work, as often happens nowadays.

I want to deal with the third point—the prevention of physical and mental stress that could affect the development of a child—in more detail. That is addressed by the inclusive and exclusive lists that are required by the European directive. The problem with the "list" concept is that it is difficult to think of every aspect in either an inclusive or an exclusive context. For example, if I understand the rules correctly, it would be illegal for children to carry milk that was not in a suitable container—presumably because of the risk of breaking glass—but legal to carry bottles of mineral water, which are heavier and equally likely to break. The Committee stage will play an important part in refining such measures as far as possible; we are required to introduce the lists by the European directive, but I think that further adjustment may be needed.

I now turn to a technological issue. I feel strongly that 13-year-olds should be allowed to do computing work, both as self-employed people and on behalf of employers, and either in offices or—as is more likely—at home. The Bill envisages clerical work in an office environment. That, I think, really means traditional office duties such as filing and photocopying—the kind of work that we are familiar with in the House. We ought to recognise that an increasing number of children are talented programmers, capable of earning a good deal over the internet from their own homes. I know of one 10-year-old who is currently grappling with the problem of opening a dollar account to handle his income from American buyers of his computer games.

I am not sure whether self-employment is covered by the current or the proposed law. I suspect that the idea of self-employed children is relatively new, but I predict that it will become fairly common in the context of computers. In any event, one of Britain's strengths is in computer skills, and we should avoid accidentally outlawing their use for pay by children in the 13-to-16 age bracket.

On the exclusion side, the European directive states that the work should be cultural, artistic, sporting, advertising, or—for 14-year-olds— work experience or training programmes or light work". I could not find those restrictions in the Bill, which merely lists exclusions for 14-year-olds. Some seem to have been inherited from past legislation and byelaws, and could perhaps be reviewed today. For instance, there seems to be no real reason why a 15-year-old should not work in a cinema, or help to prepare sandwiches.

More importantly, the positive emphasis on experience and training contained in the directive seems to be missing in the Bill. If we—rightly—stress the importance of training from the age of 16, it seems reasonable to support it for working children as well. I suggest a presumption in favour of allowing work where there is an element of training for possible future full-time employment.

Overall, however, the Bill fully deserves the extensive discussion that has been devoted to it today. I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Pond) was successful in the ballot, that he chose this topic—on the basis of his long experience—and that the Government have broadly welcomed the Bill. I hope that it will be allowed to proceed to Committee.

1.8 pm

Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge)

I agree with the hon. Member for Basildon (Angela Smith), who referred to the curious tradition of congratulating hon. Members on coming first in the ballot. I have never understood that either. In this instance, however, we can offer congratulations of a different kind. The hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr. Pond) entered the House with a formidable reputation for concern for the poor and the welfare of children. I hope that he will not mind my saying—given that we have exchanged views in various contexts over the years—that the fact that I may not have agreed with every jot and comma of what he has said about how he would go about the task in hand does not for a moment lessen my admiration for the objectives that he has set himself. The way in which he introduced the Bill was a model of its kind. I am delighted that Front Benchers duly noted that, for it was a superb performance.

During the debate, we have heard that there is a plethora of law on this subject; indeed there is. Wading through that plethora of law without the benefit of civil servants was made vastly easier by Julia Lourie in the House of Commons Library, and I am grateful to her for her help. The key statutes are well known. We have talked about the Children and Young Persons Acts 1933 and 1963 and the curiously ill-fated Children Act 1972, which contained some good ideas that never came to fruition.

It is worth reminding ourselves of the definition of a child for these purposes. In England, a child of compulsory school-leaving age will be between 15 years and eight months old and 16 years and three months old. That is the definition that we are working to, and I think that it is accepted that it will remain.

Under section 18(1) of the 1933 Act, a child cannot be employed below the age of 13, subject to a caveat. After the age of 13, that child can be employed in certain circumstances. Under section 18(2), byelaws can be made that effectively provide for higher standards, except in relation to the circumstances in which a child below the age of 13 can be employed. Inevitably, those variations give rise to anomalies. In the main, the Bill seeks to take the good practice in the 1933 Act and the model byelaws and to ensure that that good practice—that best practice, if you like—is enshrined in the Bill.

There are two exceptions to that approach. The first is that, under the present law, it is possible, in very limited circumstances, to employ a child under the age of 13. When I was preparing myself for the debate, my reading of clause 4 was that its effect—I did not quite understand at the time whether this was also its intent—would be to make it impossible to employ a child under the age of 13 in any circumstances except one. It appears that the Bill would permit children under the age of 13 to take part in performances under the Children and Young Persons Act 1963 and in accordance with the Children (Performances) Regulations 1968. Clause 8 says: Nothing in this Part or in any byelaw…shall prevent a child from taking part in a performance". Apart from that, the general prohibition on employing a child under the age of 13 remains.

As I say, when I came into the debate, I was not entirely sure whether that was merely the effect of the Bill or the policy intention behind it. I suspect that it was the policy intention. Either way, it is a point which needs to be addressed. Obviously, the Minister will want to take it on board when he sums up, but there are one or two comments that I want to make about it. I say that without in any sense trying to undermine the Bill's generality.

Under the present law, there are limited circumstances in which a person can be employed under the age of 13: where the employer is a parent or guardian, and the employment is light agricultural or light horticultural work. I accept to the hilt—anyone coming from a rural background or representing a rural seat would—that the farmyard is a dangerous place; we know that. However, it is not my reading of the situation that the dangers and the negligence of parents and guardians on farms are so inherently high that we have to have total prohibition.

My hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) made the point that it would be wholly unrealistic to say to farmers: "The very limited ways in which you might bring your children within farming are absolutely inappropriate." I personally would need much convincing about that—I suppose that I had better come clean and say that I do not know how I could be convinced.

I hope that, on reflection, the hon. Member for Gravesham will consider the matter. Even under the present law, there are very limited circumstances in which regulations can be made under the byelaw to allow horticultural work by someone under the age of 13. I hope that he will take that on board and think about it. The only justification for completely ruling out such work would be if the evidence was that, on the whole, the operation of that exemption has meant that a substantial number of children are being seriously injured. I do not think that that is the position, and I hope that that will be taken into account.

On a preliminary reading, I did not appreciate the significance of the definition of "work" in clause 19, which states that it means any tasks, duties or other work undertaken by virtue of a contract, whether express or implied and (if express) whether orally or in writing, in connection with a trade or occupation carried on for profit, whether or not the person undertaking the work receives any reward for his labour. However, under current legislation, a person who assists in a trade or occupation carried out for profit is deemed to be employed notwithstanding the fact that he receives no reward for his labour. Those two definitions can be compared in several ways. On one reading, the Bill's definition is looser or more liberal than the one under the present law. I cannot imagine that that was meant to be the case, and I hope that the Minister will address that. If the differences are significant, we should like to know about them.

The second major difference between existing legislation and the Bill, if it or a similar one becomes law, relates to the basic provision that, in law, a child over the age of 13 in certain specified circumstances can work for up to 17 hours. Under the Bill, a child will be able to work for only 12 hours. I appreciate that it is slightly unfair for an Opposition or Government spokesman to criticise arbitrary decisions by offering such a decision of his own. One tends to do that because it comes with the territory. It is a slightly unfair form of debate, and I shall try to avoid it.

I do not share the school of thought, nor I think does the hon. Member for Gravesham, although the hon. Members for Preston (Audrey Wise) and for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) would—I put it more brutally than they would—that the Bill is fundamentally misconceived because it gives parliamentary approval to a practice that some people would say is in principle wrong. In one sense, that approach has the benefit of being absolutely consistent.

I appreciate that on this issue we are simply trading arbitrary possibilities. However, if 12 hours can be justified, why are 17 hours absolutely wrong? What about 18, 19 or 20 hours? There is a problem in that part of the Bill. We shall hear from the Minister, and no doubt the hon. Member for Gravesham will have discussions about the Bill, but I wonder whether the limit should be as low as 12 hours.

If the Bill is enacted in roughly its present form, the legislation will be in accordance with the EC directive. I do not wish to reveal any obsession when I say that there is an artificial aspect to the debate, because I understand that when, in due course, the EC directive is implemented, as it will have to be, it will mean that if we legislated in a way that was incompatible with that directive, although that is unlikely, the directive would stand. That is the effect of our accession to the treaty of Rome. That would be somewhat sad, because such policies should be decided once and for all and under whatever terms, for better or for worse, in the House. It would be sad if the initiative of the hon. Member for Gravesham merely gave us nothing more than an opportunity for debate because the legislation could be overtaken by an EC directive.

In at least one respect, the Bill as drafted is even more draconian than the directive. I should welcome the Minister's views on that. I understand that, under the terms of the directive, outside term time, children must be restricted to working no more than seven hours a day or 35 hours a week. Clause 1 restricts that to five hours a day, not seven, or to 25 hours a week, not 35. To that extent, it is more draconian. It would be useful to hear more about that. I also hope that we shall hear something—although not too much—about paper rounds. We all appear to agree that we do not want paper rounds to be prohibited, so I hope that the Minister can reassure us that that will not be a problem.

Tied up with that matter is the debate about only two hours' work on a Sunday. Given that the nature of a Sunday has changed, it is a legitimate point to raise. A number of hon. Members have suggested that the way to tackle that problem is to consider the weekend as an overall package.

I want to saya word about the prescriptive element of the Bill and about the enforcement arrangements. The hon. Member for Castle Point (Mrs. Butler) suggested that some of my hon. Friends—and, by implication, me—might undermine the principle of the Bill by criticising the enforcement arrangements. I assure the hon. Lady that I do not approach the matter in that way. If the Bill is to pass into law, I want there to be enforcement arrangements that work.

I hope that the Minister will say something about enforcement arrangements. The enforcement procedures in the Bill will produce a blizzard of paperwork. To some extent, the hon. Member for Gravesham admits that by providing a fail-safe in clause 10, to give time for the paperwork to be put in place. I wonder whether that will really happen. If the paperwork is too complicated, that will not aid the enforcement of the law. It will mean that we shall have the same problem that we have had up to now—that the law will not be enforced at all. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will reconsider and ask himself whether it is really necessary to be so prescriptive. A number of hon. Members, on both sides of the Chamber, have rightly referred to the present law's unsatisfactory nature and the fact that it is flouted, often out of sheer ignorance, as people do not know what the law is.

Under the Bill, the law will be clarified. Except in very narrow circumstances, byelaws will not come into play. There will be uniformity across the country. That should take care of enforcement. Nothing is more damaging to the implementation of the law than two people who are in similar circumstances having a discussion, with one of them saying that the law is something, and the other saying that the law is something else. Both are right, because different byelaws apply in different places. My concern about the enforcement arrangements in the Bill is that they are so tight that I can envisage their not being carried out. That is not a good idea.

I have two final points. I do not want to be unfair. I assure the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Dr. Palmer) that I had no intention of using the words that he accused me of wanting to use. As an avid listener to "Just a minute", I am not going to make the mistake of saying precisely what they were.

On the slightly different point of the different definitions of "work" and "employment", the hon. Gentleman wondered whether the Bill would cover some very young self-employed computer buffs. That point occurred to me, too. My understanding is that it would not apply to a self-employed computer prodigy, unless he decided to employ one of his less-gifted siblings, who was also below the age of 13, which would be a problem.

One or two lawyers' points appeal to me as a lawyer. I note that the Bill would repeal sections 18 and 59 of the Education Act 1944. My understanding is that they have already in effect been repealed by being consolidated under section 559 of that Act. However, that is the sort of detail that can be dealt with in Committee.

There is a great deal in the Bill that is good. It clears up ambiguity and ensures that people will know what the law is. All hon. Members can agree on its starting point.

Ultimately, if the Bill is to be a success, it will have to take on board some of the points that have been made by Opposition Members. For example, the narrow circumstances in which those below 13 can be employed should be re-examined. Moreover, I hope that the hon. Member for Gravesham—and the hon. Member for Castle Point and others—will accept that, when Opposition Members talk about enforcement arrangements, we are trying not to undermine the Bill, but to ensure that it works.

1.24 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Mr. Paul Boateng)

The House owes my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Pond) a debt of gratitude for enabling us to discuss an important issue. No one could bring to the issue his depth and breadth of knowledge, which is based on a lifetime's experience and work. I think that his work has influenced us all in our approach to the issue.

The Bill is an important one. Although the Government are not able to accept it, it will undoubtedly inform and shape policy development on the issue. We do intend to develop that policy. The Government's business and concern—which we share with my hon. Friend—is that children should not be exploited or endangered at work. All that we do must be designed to achieve that end.

The House should be in the business of ensuring that we protect childhood. A theme that has run through hon. Members' speeches is that nothing is more valuable than childhood—a period in which a child is allowed to grow and develop as an individual and is not circumscribed by the world of work. That is not to say for one moment that work is not valuable or that experience of work is not important to a child as he or she grows up. Nevertheless, the most valuable thing for any child is time—to grow, to play and to do all that children do—without having to worry about an employer. There is precious little time in life without those worries, and we must ensure that it is preserved for children.

This has been a good debate, not least because of the range of experience and opinion that has been shared by hon. Members on both sides of the House. However, it must be said that there is a difference between us and them—between a Labour Government's approach to the issue and the previous Government's legacy. We should not believe for a moment that, in their 18 years in power, they did not have an opportunity to act on the issue—they declined to act. Furthermore, they tried to make a fetish of deregulation.

I hear Conservative Members complain that this is the first party political speech in this debate—but that is my job. I am a Minister, and it is my job to point out where they failed. They did fail. I am glad to see the hon. Member for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn) beginning to stir and to give some indication that he will get to his feet. I wanted to say a few words, not too many, about him—although I shall not be as deprecating as my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North (Mr. Gardiner), because, after all, this is a Friday. Nevertheless, there was something of a whiff not so much of sulphur but of methane about the hon. Gentleman, not so much of the pony in the back paddock but of the pony down the pit. Listening to him, one felt that had he been in the House when it discussed the Shaftesbury legislation, he would have opined that that legislation would have worked against the development of self-esteem in the young people concerned. Sitting at the checkout for hours does very little to develop a young persons's self-esteem; nor does being bussed to a pork pie factory, as described by my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac). It is our job, in which we are aided by the Bill and the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham, to make sure that that sort of thing does not happen—under Labour it will not.

Mr. St. Aubyn

This is not only 13 February but Friday 13 February. It is the Minister's unlucky day, not mine. He has said that he does not intend to support the Bill, which rather undermines his position. Surely he accepts that self-esteem is important, especially for the most disaffected children. It is those children whom he is attacking, not me.

Mr. Boateng

I said that I would spend only a short time dealing with the hon. Gentleman. It is time that I passed on to the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) because it was he who suggested—at least, this was his subtext—that if a child was not particularly academic, it was all right for that child to work. That sticks in our gullet, because whether a child is academic or not, there is no reason why he should be subject to exploitation. That child, too, must be protected, and we will protect him.

Mr. Blunt

As usual, the Minister is creating Aunt Sallys, which appears to be an occupational hazard for members of new Labour. They are programmed to say what they assume everyone thinks, and they then bring their assumptions to the House. If the Minister reads the text of our proceedings, he will see that I, too, object to people being categorised. I said that people should not be stereotyped; nor should our ways of dealing with them.

Mr. Boateng

We will read the text and reflect on the subtext. We must remember what the Opposition failed to do when they were in government. Let us move on.

I want to concentrate on what we are going to do, because that is what interests the nation. Let us first turn our minds to the European directive, which was adopted as long ago as 22 June 1994. The previous Government did absolutely nothing to deal with the needs and concerns that arose as a result of that directive.

We have acted. Yesterday, my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Health and for Scotland signed and laid before the House the regulations that will bring the directive into effect and take forward our agenda. It is an important piece of work because the directive required member states to bring their domestic legislation into line with its minimum requirements within two years of its adoption. The previous Government did not do it; we have, and the regulations have been laid.

The major effect of the regulations will be to bring the existing protections of children into line with the requirements of the directive and, importantly, to provide greater standardisation, as is envisaged in the Bill. That has been the call from all hon. Members during the debate. We recognised that the position was unacceptable and unsatisfactory, and that we needed the standardisation that was lacking.

The regulations will extend the provisions of the Children and Young Persons Act 1933—in Scotland, the Children and Young Persons Act 1937—to include restrictions currently contained in local authority byelaws on children's working hours on Saturdays and during school holidays and on minimum rest breaks. The new regulations will also give children two weeks free from work during school holidays, and local authority byelaws will have to contain a list of jobs that 13-year-olds will be permitted to do. The controls on children's involvement in performances contained in the Children and Young Persons Act 1963, and the Children (Performances) Regulations 1968 will be amended specifically to include children employed in sport and advertising, including modelling, which is a cause for concern.

During school terms, national working time limits will be two hours for weekdays, five hours for Saturdays—eight hours if the child is aged 15 or over—and two hours for Sundays. During school holidays, national working time limits will be five hours for weekdays and Saturdays—eight hours if the child is aged 15 or over—within a weekly limit of 25 hours, or 35 hours if the child is aged 15 or over, and two hours for Sundays. Currently, some of those limits are set by local authority byelaws, but they can differ from authority to authority, and cause confusion. We have ended that confusion.

I want to say a few words about Sundays, which have been mentioned by a number of hon. Members on both sides of the House. We believe that Sunday is a special day for the family and for children to relate to their parents and their siblings. It is a day on which there ought to be a focus on family life. Children should have an opportunity to mix with friends and family and to do their homework. We all know from experience the importance of making sure that children have a space in which to do their homework.

The matter was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley, North (Mr. Cranston), when he stressed the vital nature of ensuring that we do nothing to undermine the important steps that the Government have taken to promote education. That is why we refused to go along with what the previous Government proposed, not least because it undoubtedly would have had a damaging effect, to which several hon. Members, including my hon. Friends the Members for Luton, North (Mr. Hopkins), for Preston (Audrey Wise) and for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn), have referred, particularly in relation to employment in supermarkets. It could have resulted not only in the substitution of very young workers for teenagers and other workers, but in driving down wages and conditions in that sector.

That was never the intention of the legislation. It bears very much on the point rightly made by hon. Members that, as a nation, we must be only too aware of our need to comply with the highest international standards.

Had we allowed young children to be exploited—that is what it would have amounted to—in supermarkets on a Sunday, toys made by poor young hands in the third world could have been sold by young hands in this country, replicating the exploitation that we want to counter globally. That is the importance of our international commitments.

This country has traditionally given life and force to international treaty obligations and sought to make real the impact of international law. We want to do that for legislation on the employment of children, using International Labour Organisation convention 138 as a breath of fresh air, invigorating our system of protection for children. We take a similar view on the United Nations convention on the protection of the rights of the child. We want to make the best use of international law for our citizens.

The Government fully and unequivocally support the principles behind ILO convention 138. This country's laws relating to workers below the minimum school leaving age provide equivalent or better protection in some cases. That does not mean that we should not do better. We are actively seeking solutions to the technical problems that have so far prevented ratification of ILO 138. We hope that they will be resolved soon.

Nothing in the Bill contradicts ILO 138. If we had been able to accept the Bill, it would not have precluded us from ratifying the convention, as we are determined to do. We can take forward in another way the body of work that my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham wants us to take into account.

Mr. Corbyn

I am interested in what my hon. Friend has said, and I am pleased that he accepts the principles of ILO 138. If and when ratification takes place, that convention will be part of British law. I assume that all legislation, including European Union directives, will have to be compatible with it.

Mr. Boateng

We are satisfied that when we have overcome the technical difficulties and taken into account the special considerations that relate to children and young people between 16 and 18 and to younger children who live on farms, no aspect of the directive or domestic law will conflict with the ILO convention responsibilities. All our work is designed to bring that about.

Mr. Nicholls

The Minister mentions fanning. Are the Government prepared to consider the case that could be made for replicating the narrow circumstances in which children under 13 can currently be employed? The case for having no exceptions could be argued on its merits, but there is one exception in the Bill. If the Minister cannot tell us his view today, will he at least say that he does not have a closed mind and is prepared to consider the issue?

Mr. Boateng

We certainly do not have a closed mind, and we are actively examining that issue. It is important to explore and take on board the needs, concerns and practices of agricultural communities, and officials are currently charged with that responsibility. We are satisfied that we can move forward in this area and ratify the convention. That is our objective, and we are determined to fulfil it. I am grateful to my hon. Friends for the work that they have done in that field.

Several hon. Members have referred to the abuse of regulations and breaches of the law in this country, and local authorities' responsibilities in that regard. The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow) referred to the specific responsibilities of local authorities. Local authority experience varies. My hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes gave a good example of how the North East Lincolnshire local authority is actively involved in identifying abuse and working to solve it. I congratulate that local authority on its efforts. My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North also has considerable experience—on which we are anxious to draw—in this area.

Abuse occurs particularly in the semi-informal sweatshops that have developed in some communities, and the local authorities are clearly having real problems dealing with it. While recognising the resource issues involved—I am afraid that I cannot give local authorities much comfort in that regard—we must ensure that we promote best practice. We must also encourage local authorities to work with voluntary organisations. The Stop Child Labour campaign is a classic example of what may be achieved when voluntary charitable organisations work in conjunction with local authorities, with the full support and co-operation of Government. We shall seek ways of advancing our agenda of good practice in this area within the limited resources currently available.

In conclusion, I turn to the future programme of work. Hon. Members have asked what the Government intend to do over and above the measures that I have outlined. I pay particular regard to the points made by my hon. Friends the Members for Bolton, West (Ms Kelly), for Broxtowe (Dr. Palmer), for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding)—who speaks with considerable authority about children's issuess—nd for Wythenshawe and Sale, East (Mr. Goggins). I shall show the House the way forward.

We must not let the matter rest with changes to regulations designed to satisfy minimum EC standards. We envisage a larger programme of work. The Minister of State, Department of Trade and Industry and I have set up a review of all child employment legislation. The review will be undertaken by a group of officials from the Department of Health, the Department of Trade and Industry, the Department for Education and Employment, the Cabinet Office and the Health and Safety Executive, all of which are all players and stakeholders in this field. Expert practical advice will be provided by the National Child Employment Network, which provides, inter alia, a forum for people who work in the field of child employment to exchange best practice information.

The review will also seek the views of other interested parties drawn from a wide cross-section of interest in this area. We want to hear from the agricultural community and from those involved in newspaper publishing. There is no threat to the paper round, and there never has been.

I want to make particular reference to the role of the Low Pay Unit, whose work in this area is first class. It has an enormous contribution to make as we take the policy forward. I have written to ask it to participate in the research sub-group, and I hope that it will accept that invitation.

The terms of reference of the review working group are to consider the present arrangements for protecting children, including regulatory arrangements, levels of protection and enforcement; to examine any research or other evidence that it considers necessary from any source, including interested organisations and individuals; to make any necessary investigations; to draw up any proposals necessary to ensure that children's health, safety, welfare and development are strictly protected, and that they are shielded from exploitation; and to report to us by the end of 1998. We do not intend to hang around. There is much to be done, and I sense a determination in the House that we should do it.

We are enormously grateful to my hon. Friend for promoting the Bill. I hope that, in the light of my remarks, he will feel able to withdraw it, so that the work can continue. He can be sure that by this debate we have taken an important step forward in protecting the rights of all our children.

1.52 pm
Mr. Pond

With the leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I thank the Minister for that encouraging statement. All of us know that he shares our commitment to doing something about this problem with some urgency. His statement will reassure us that action will be taken. We have waited 66 years, so I suppose that another few minutes will not make much difference.

We have had a good debate, and it has shown the importance of the subject. It has highlighted the expertise and efforts of hon. Members who have worked on this issue for many years. I am happy to say that several hon. Members made generous comments about the Bill. Such generosity does not apply to the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Angela Smith), who revealed my nocturnal habits, or to those of my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley, North (Mr. Cranston), who reminded us that I have been at this since 1977. That is not as far back as 1933, but it is on the way.

In case any hon. Members still have any doubts about the importance of this issue, I should say that, a few minutes ago, I was handed a Health and Safety Executive press release. It plans a prosecution following an investigation into asbestos removal activities by a firm during 1994, 1995 and 1998. That firm employed three boys of school age in contravention of the Employment of Women, Young Persons and Children Act 1920.

The debate has been useful, because it has clarified a number of issues. There has been a difference of opinion on some of them, and much agreement on others.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIssaac), the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) and others referred to the number of hours worked, and to Sunday working in particular. I was pleased to hear my hon. Friend the Minister reaffirm the fact that the proposal by the previous Government on this matter is dead in the water. We must limit work on a Sunday because it would mean a considerable expansion in the number of children working and would open up a new area of children's employment.

I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes that it is not only about whether work will take place—clearly it will—but about who undertakes that work on a Sunday. There was a danger that we could substitute children for adults in the Sunday trading sector.

The 12-hour limit was mentioned and I hope that the Minister will seriously consider that in the interdepartmental review he has announced. It is an appropriate limit, and not an arbitrary one. I can tell the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls) that there is evidence that once hours exceed that level, there is a trade-off in terms of educational achievement.

Some hon. Members felt that the Bill was too lax in its provisions, particularly my hon. Friends the Members for Preston (Audrey Wise) and for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn). There were points during their speeches when I felt that the Bill was mainly concerned with building regulations—that is, that chimneys should be wide enough to allow children to go up and down them without hurting themselves. I assure my hon. Friends that my purpose was rather more progressive, and I intended to move towards the solution that they also wish to achieve.

I was pleased by the assurances from my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley, North and the Minister that there is no suggestion that the Bill would contravene ILO resolution 138, which the UK will ratify as soon as possible. The UK will also implement the EC directive without further delay. We have heard concrete statements from the Minister about the intention to move forward as we try to provide children with the sort of protection for which hon. Members have expressed the need.

We have heard a number of important assurances and I know that I and the supporters of the Bill will be looking carefully to see that the momentum is maintained in terms of achieving the objectives. I am pleased that the Low Pay Unit—which has worked so long and hard on this issue—will be an integral part of the review process. On the basis of the assurances we have received during the debate, I am sure that the Bill's supporters would feel it appropriate that I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and Bill, by leave, withdrawn.

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