From the Archive - May 23, 1903
The Employment of Children Bill now before Parliament proposes to make some important changes in the law. It proposes that a county or borough council may make bye-laws as to the age below which employment is illegal, as to hours between which employment is illegal, and as to the total number of hours which a person under fourteen may work in any one day or week.
A council may also prohibit absolutely, or permit, subject to restrictions, the employment of children of that age in specified occupations which may be dangerous either to health or morals. Bye-laws may also be made regulating street trading by persons under sixteen, and very wide powers indeed are given for this purpose, so that such trading may be prohibited "except subject to such conditions as to age, sex, or otherwise, as may be specified in the bye-law." No child, however, under eleven years of age may be employed in street trading at all.
There are also provisions aimed at protecting children from injury by being employed in lifting heavy weights, or in any other manner likely to be injurious to life, limb, or health. It is also proposed that "a child (under fourteen) shall not be employed in any occupation between the hours of nine in the evening and six in the morning, provided that the council of any county or borough may, by bye-law, vary these hours either generally or for any specified occupation".
This provision evidently, in effect, will repeal section 3 of the Prevention of Cruelty to Children Act, 1894. Section 2 of that Act forbids the employment of any child under eleven years of age in a theatre or other place of public entertainment. Section 3, however, provides that a petty sessional court may grant a licence for any child above seven to take part in an entertainment, subject to such restrictions as to hours and other matters as the court thinks fit.
If the Bill passes in its present form it is clear that there will no longer be any power in magistrates to grant such licences, and an attempt in committee of the House of Commons to still specifically reserve this power to the magistrates was defeated. Unless, therefore, allowed by bye-law, it will be impossible in the future for any child under fourteen to be employed at a theatre later than nine in the evening. That is almost equivalent to forbidding the employment of children in theatres altogether. If any council does allow children to be employed in theatres after nine o'clock, there does not seem to be any satisfactory mode of inquiring into the case of each particular child, as to the child's personal fitness, or as to the provision to be made at the theatre for the child's care.
Under the existing law, the magistrates often make the most searching and minute inquiries into these matters. If children in London and other large places are not allowed to act in pantomimes and such-like entertainments, a very serious loss will be inflicted on many poor families, which profit greatly in the winter by the easily-earned money of their children. If they are allowed to act, then, we submit, the power of granting licences for their employment after inquiry by a magistrate is a far better system for the children than the new regulation proposed.