The European Committee on Social Rights’ verdict on children’s paper rounds is laughable, and will only distract us from tackling more serious human rights issues.
It has become a cliché to moan about absurd rulings that issue from unelected bureaucrats in Brussels and Strasbourg. Every so often, we get reminded why. The European Committee of Social Rights (ECSR), part of the Council of Europe (not to be confused with the European Council or the Council of the European Union), has claimed that children’s paper rounds constitute a breach of their human rights; according to the ECSR, paper rounds are “in principle contrary” to the European Social Charter, since they could “interfere with [the children’s] attendance, receptiveness and homework” and may even impact their “health, moral welfare or education”. The claim is manifestly ridiculous. Nonetheless, it deserves to be discussed, if only to hold it up as example of how low our discussion of human rights has sunk.
The Council of Europe, whose founding in 1949 owed a lot to Winston Churchill, came about at a time when Europe was crying out for the formal protection of human rights. The Nazi concentration camps had shown the world that a horrifying disregard for human dignity way still politically possible. Democracy and freedom were scarce. The ability to speak your mind, worship your god, and change your government without being arrested or shot was not a given. It is understandable that the people who had just endured the most deadly conflict in human history would feel the need for a supranational organisation to look after and promote their rights. The Council has some notable achievements: it has helped to abolish the death penalty, end institutional racism and fight violence against women.
Today, Europe has an exceptional record on human rights. It contains six of the ten freest countries in the world, and is arguably the safest place for women, LGBT people and pretty much everyone else. This historically unprecedented state of freedom is not guaranteed by the ECSR, which has no ability to enforce its decisions. It is guaranteed by the elected government of each nation state, the resistance of the European people to tyranny and corruption, and a general culture of tolerance. The ECSR, trying to justify its existence in a continent where it has little left to tackle, has started scraping the bottom of the barrel. This is why it feels the need to attack the legality of paper rounds.
Technically speaking, children’s paper rounds are an issue of child labour. This is, on the face of it, a very controversial area and requires careful and precise legal scrutiny. It is quite easy to understand how someone, reasoning abstractly from the concept of “child labour”, could come to see paper rounds as a breach of the children’s rights, and believe that something serious should be done to limit or abolish them. It sounds reasonable, and yet is totally nonsensical, a paradox which comes from taking the concept of “child labour” completely out of context.
When we think of “child labour”, we think of ten-year-olds sweeping chimneys, operating dangerous machinery, pulling carts in a coal mine, and other Dickensian horrors. We certainly do not think of a fifteen-year-old on an expensive bike, tapping away at his iPhone as he delivers The Telegraph in a leafy suburb. To be sure, not all paper girls and paper boys in the UK are “well-off” in the colloquial sense, but all of them are living in luxury by global and historical standards. All of them have access to free education, regular meals and world-class medicine. Spending an hour or two each morning delivering newspapers is not going to severely impact their welfare.
In the Victorian era, children were coerced into backbreaking labour. How many children today are coerced into taking a paper round? My guess would be none. The element of choice is key here; no child has to take a paper round. If they feel that their work is having a negative impact on their education and general wellbeing, they can choose to stop. If their parents feel that way, they can convince them to stop. The ECSR are insulting parents, teachers and children if they believe that none of these three are competent to judge whether having a paper round will impact a child’s health and education. (I’m ignoring the ECSR’s claim that a paper round somehow impacts a child’s morality; I really don’t see how any sensible person could think that).
All the time the ECSR focus on trivial issues such as children delivering newspapers, they are ignoring the significant human rights abuses perpetrated by the less progressive members of the Council of Europe. Azerbaijan for example has a terrible record with regards to freedom of the press. In Russia, LGBT people are treated abysmally. Armenia has a longstanding problem with police brutality. If the ECSR still want to play a part in protecting freedom in Europe, they ought to rearrange their priorities to focus on stopping the more obvious human rights violations. The victims of tyranny will thank them for their help, and Britain’s paperboys and papergirls will thank them for butting out of their affairs.