County goes to court over child exploitation

27th June 1997 at 01:00
Education authorities are being urged to get tough on employers who exploit children after a major study revealed large numbers of young people working illegally.

A survey of 1,600 children aged 10 to 16 in Norfolk found that widescale child employment is not limited to inner cities. Some 43 per cent of pupils had worked in the previous week, many illegally. At least two-thirds were not registered.

One in five of those working had suffered an accident in the past year - one in 11 had needed medical treatment. One in four young workers said their job had left them feeling tired or unwell.

Tales uncovered during the survey included one 10-year-old who worked in a nightclub until 10pm collecting and washing glasses for Pounds 3 a night. A 13-year-old boy climbed roofs to help install satellite dishes. He slipped and cut his hand during one job.

Chris Small, the education welfare service divisional manager who has led the Norfolk initiative, said local education authorities did not make child employment a high enough priority.

He said: "Children who are not registered are left in a situation where they are vulnerable, particularly to accidents. There is no control, and they may be doing jobs that are inappropriate. It's asking a lot of a 10 or 11-year-old to recognise the dangers.

"Local authorities have to be more proactive in prosecuting people. I don't like taking people to court - I think we need to work with people as much as possible because there is a great deal of ignorance around. But there comes a point when we have to go to court."

Norfolk is already working to raise the issue's profile - a conference earlier this month attracted delegates from Newcastle to Cornwall. And it has begun prosecuting employers who fail to heed warnings.

In the past two months, Great Yarmouth magistrates have twice imposed fines of Pounds 1,000 after the authority prosecuted.

In one case, a firm employing a 15-year-old girl in an amusement arcade token booth was fined Pounds 400, its two directors Pounds 200 each and the girl's parents - who had effectively aided and abetted despite warnings from the authority - Pounds 100 each. In the other a chip shop owner was fined Pounds 1,000 for employing a 15-year-old girl.

Mr Small, secretary of the National Children's Employment Network, said many people were ignorant of the law, while over-stretched education welfare services preferred to concentrate on truancy and other high-profile issues. But effective action cost very little if schools, environmental health, careers, health and safety and education welfare services worked together.

The authority has produced a training pack to use in personal and social education lessons which outlines the rules governing child employment.

Previous studies, in Birmingham and south London, have produced similar results. But the Norfolk study, funded with Government Grants for Education Support and Training, was the first to be carried out in a rural authority. It found: * one child in three aged 10 to 12 was working despite a legal minimum age of 13; * 40 per cent of working children worked before 7am or after 7pm - 80 children worked after 10pm.

* some children were working in pubs, clubs, on farms, as models, in fairgrounds and on building sites.

It also revealed the misleading picture created by official figures. By law, all working children must be registered with the local authority. In Norfolk, 80 per cent of those registered delivered newspapers. In fact, the survey found, newspaper boys and girls made up only 21 per cent of young workers.

Post-conference packs containing training materials and the survey's preliminary findings are available for Pounds 10 from Chris Small, Norfolk education welfare service, 22 Euston Road, Great Yarmouth, NR30 1EA

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