HL Deb 25 April 1991 vol 528 cc372-4

3.18 p.m.

Lord Jenkins of Putney asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether the employment of a baby in the "Inspector Morse" television programme broadcast on Wednesday, 20th March, was within the law; how the child was induced to cry at the appropriate time; and whether the laws relating to the employment of children in entertainment are generally enforced.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Baroness Hooper)

My Lords, we have contacted the television company responsible for making this series. We are satisfied that it is aware of the legal provisions governing the participation of the child in the programme, and, with the company's assurance, that it complied with the provisions and that the child was in no danger at any time. We understand that the child cried spontaneously during filming. We are not aware of infringements of the law in this area.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the Equity films organiser was worried about the incident because he believed that it was, as he put it, going over the top? Is the Minister further aware that there is a wider anxiety because, since the employment of children was legalised, the regulations permitting that are not always enforced? Will the Minister examine that aspect of the matter? There is no use in having regulations in respect of such a sensitive area unless they are carried out.

Baroness Hooper

My Lords, I am aware that there have been anxieties about this film. I understand that the baby who appeared in the programme did not take part in any performance or rehearsal for more than the permitted one hour per day. Apparently, another baby—the equivalent of an understudy—was available to deputise if necessary. Although the baby cried spontaneously during the take, it appears that the scene had to be shot several times because the baby persisted in smiling contentedly. Her mother was present on the set during filming. The effect of the child apparently being held over the top rail of the stairs was contrived and the child was never more than two or three feet above floor level.

Although this may appear amusing, I recognise the seriousness of the noble Lord's anxiety. Numerous provisions are contained in government legislation and local authority byelaws which place detailed restrictions on the hours and conditions of children's employment. The guiding principle behind those provisions is that children may be employed only to the extent that their health, education and general welfare do not suffer. As I said in my original reply, we are not aware of infringements of the law in this area.

Baroness Phillips

My Lords, is the Minister aware that many of us believe that the laughter occasioned by this Question is typical of unthinking people, particularly the Liberal Democrats? If this Question referred to animals, it would be received in reverential silence. However, far too many children are used in the soap operas. As a mother and as a female, I have been anxious about that. Children do not cry naturally unless induced to do so.

Baroness Hooper

My Lords, although I am not a parent, I understand that children sometimes cry without that being induced. However, I recognise the serious aspect of the Question. I can reassure the noble Baroness that an officer of the local education authority may at any time enter any place where a performance is being given, whether licensed or otherwise, and can make inquiries about any child taking part in a performance. That power is also available to the police. A parent or guardian who allows a child to take part in a performance in contravention of the legislation is committing an offence.

Lord Ennals

My Lords, there has been happy laughter on these Benches as well as on the Liberal Democrat Benches. However, does the Minister agree that this is a serious issue? Will she say rather more about the monitoring which applies? Is she satisfied that this issue would have been raised had my noble friend not asked this Question? Is she satisfied about the general system of monitoring, which should ensure that children do not suffer either physically or mentally from this situation?

Baroness Hooper

My Lords, under the wide body of provisions which govern these arrangements, responsibility is placed on the appropriate authorities. Infringements of the many provisions to safeguard children in part-time jobs should be brought to the attention of the local education authority or, in the case of industrial and agricultural employment, to the Health and Safety Executive.

As I said, we are not aware of any infringements and there have been no prosecutions for infringements of the licensing provisions; I have in mind, for example, Section 40(1) of the Children and Young Persons Act 1963.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that the fact that the Government are not aware of any infringements may well be because there are insufficient inspectors employed to enforce the regulations? Will she investigate the possibility that the existing regulations are not being adequately policed or enforced?

Baroness Hooper

My Lords, as a result of the noble Lord's Question, we have investigated this case. I shall draw the Question and the anxieties which have been raised to the attention of the Department of Education and Science, which is the responsible department. The Department of Health rarely receives any complaints and indeed my department is not a responsible authority in that connection.

Lord De Freyne

My Lords, will my noble friend help us on this matter? I am told that a brace of babies was used in "Coronation Street". They were happy and gurgling all the time for a number of weeks.

Baroness Hooper

My Lords, I am sure that we should all be very sorry if baby actors and actresses, laughing or crying spontaneously, were not permitted to appear on our screens. However, it is important that safeguards and protections should be in place and fully in force.