Wanted: better rules for the 21st century

24th January 1997 at 00:00
Ben Whitney calls for a fresh and radical approach to the child-labour licensing law.

Few teachers are aware that local education authorities are responsible for monitoring children in part-time work and that every child of compulsory school age "assisting in a trade or occupation carried on for profit" should have a licence, including those working in a parent's business, such as a farm or shop. There are about 2,500 children on the child employment database for which I am responsible, although there are probably about 10,000 to 12,000 working children in total. Staffordshire Council sends out six-monthly returns to all known employers, chases up the missing ones, provides information leaflets, and works in schools, all to achieve this high level of registration.

The whole licensing system is shot through with anomalies. For example, it is entirely legal to be on the streets on your 13th birthday at 7.00am in the middle of November while it is pitch dark and pouring with rain doing a paper round (90 per cent of the licences we issue are for paper rounds). And, in many LEAs it is legal to carry large amounts of cash collected in payment for papers, which can, and does, make children an obvious target for assault and theft. I was powerless to do anything when a local shooting range employing children to operate the clay traps turned itself into a members' club rather than a commercial business. Nor can I do anything about children babysitting, at any age, into the small hours. There are also no regulations about wages, which is probably the area in which children are most likely to be exploited.

Yet in recent months I have had to refuse licences for a child of 15 who wanted to put buttons on a card in the front room of his home under his parents' supervision (considered an "industrial undertaking", still prohibited under an Act of 1920); to another to work in a cafe (commercial kitchen); and to a third to work in a garden centre on Sunday afternoons. A child of 10 may legally work on a farm early in the morning but not in his or her parents' shop if it is an integral part of the home. A "child" of 16, who has not yet reached school-leaving age, may have sex and "do" the Lottery, but he or she cannot legally stack shelves in a supermarket under adult supervision after 7. 00pm in the school holidays.

The child licensing law has fallen into almost total disrepute, and by-laws are ignored on a massive scale. Children work; research has shown that up to two-thirds will have a job at some point before they leave school. Many use work, not only to make an economic contribution to their family, but also as a valuable supplement to school in which they learn responsibility and reliability. Yet the law which regulates their employment dates from 1933 when many current "safe" jobs did not exist and when the school-leaving age was 14.

LEAs have no power to make the present provisions more generous. The Department of Health is due to issue revised by-laws before the general election, proposing minor changes in response to an EU Directive, but tinkering around at the margins will make little difference. The Government points to the lack of prosecutions as evidence that there are no problems. But enforcement is, in practice, impossible if employers do not co-operate. So, the licencing system relies almost entirely on bluff.

No magistrate, council solicitor, councillor, parent, or headteacher wants to see scarce public money spent on costly and often arbitrary court proceedings, except in the cases of worst exploitation (which are best dealt with by Health and Safety officers). There is, by and large, little evidence of gross abuse, although there are occasional accidents which might have been avoided had there been greater awareness.

In addition, it is difficult to see what difference it actually makes to a child whether he or she is licensed or not. Many employee insurances will, in practice, cover children anyway. Neither is there likely to be any greater commitment to the task by LEAs, even if they were properly resourced. Any amendments to the current system will lead to no greater effectiveness in regulating children in employment since the law is now largely irrelevant to their lifestyle.

Politicians have avoided addressing this issue for over 50 years. It is high time we had a more realistic and modern framework of law which recognises that work is a fact of life for many young people. The link to education is no longer particularly relevant. Children working when they should be at school can be dealt with via their parents under school attendance law.

A clear distinction needs to be made between "work" and "employment". We need to know clearly what is covered by the law and what is not. You cannot stop children from working; the law should only seek to regulate "employment" and define it tightly. No one wants to see officers of the local authority licensing babysitting or counting how many hours children are allowed to spend doing homework (or whether they have done the required minimum).

The by-law has had its day as a meaningful tool. All current core legislation should be repealed and replaced with a new Employment of Children Act. There needs to be a serious national debate about what it is reasonable for children of school age to do in today's world. Children have views about what they might do and should be consulted. Some work must, of course, remain illegal; this should be clearly defined. However, much that young people want to do now could be done quite safely, including some work currently seen as "industrial" or in a commercial kitchen. Pubs have changed since the 1930s, though access to alcohol should still be restricted.

The hours that children are allowed to work should be made more realistic. I have no problem with the present earliest limit of 7.00am and a two-hour maximum on school days. But the evening limit could be much more generous at weekends, outside term time and for older children, so as to legalise the seasonal work which many children now do in the summer holidays. There needs to be a change about Sundays, with a reasonable weekend limit according to age.

Traditional children's work, especially paper rounds, should be subject to much less regulation than at present. There should be exemptions for children working at home under a parent's supervision. Education welfare officers and social workers should retain a responsibility for children working when they should be at school or for those who come to school late, but they should also be responsible for referring children working illegally to those agencies responsible for regulating the premises where they work.

It will be impossible to come up with the perfect system. But we have to accept that many children view work more positively than they view school. This should be seen as a good thing, if properly regulated by standards fit for the 21st century. At the moment we have a dog's breakfast which satisfies no one. Unless a radical approach is taken, we will end up with nothing more than a dog's dinner.

Ben Whitney is a writer on educational social work issues and a specialist education welfare officer for Staffordshire County Council. He writes here in a personal capacity

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