THE BLOG
05/02/2016 08:21 GMT | Updated 03/02/2017 05:12 GMT

Banning Paper Rounds: Look Beyond the Headlines

Despite what you may have read in the Sun, the Daily Mail or the Telegraph recently, "barmy" eurocrats are not trying to ban the good old British paper round.

The truth behind this story is quite different, and a bit more complicated. Bear with me.

Back in 1961, the UK voluntarily signed up to the European Social Charter, a legally-binding international treaty overseen by the 47-nation Council of Europe in Strasbourg.

The charter sets out various economic and social rights that people should have in areas such as employment, education and healthcare - in other words, as they go about their daily lives.

The signatory countries tasked the European Committee of Social Rights with monitoring how well they put the charter into practice.

The committee is made up of 15 independent judges, professors and other legal experts from across the continent. Its members are elected by the Council of Europe's Committee of Ministers.

One way the committee checks that countries are sticking to the standards they set themselves is by publishing annual "conclusions" focusing on the implementation of different articles of the charter.

It does this on the basis of reports provided by the national authorities, as well as information from NGOs, trade unions and other sources.

The latest set of annual conclusions - covering 31 different countries and focusing on the social rights of children, families and migrants - were published at the end of January.

The committee found that the UK was meeting its commitments under the charter in seven areas but falling short in nine. In three further situations, the committee did not have enough information to reach a conclusion. The reference period was 2010-2013.

Among the findings was the fact that the minimum wage for UK workers aged 16-18 (£3.72/hour) was 41% lower than for workers over 21. The committee said this was unfair, especially given its previous findings that the adult minimum wage was not sufficient to secure a decent standard of living.

The committee also re-stated its clear position on corporal punishment: no ifs, no buts - hitting children should be banned. There is a broad and growing consensus on this at European and international level, and the UK is one of a small number of Council of Europe members which are lagging behind.

The conclusions also said that the right of Roma/Traveller families to housing is not effectively guaranteed in England. It highlighted a January 2015 High Court ruling which found that it could take over six months to process applications from Roma people which should ordinarily take two days or less.

Concerning migrants, the committee pointed out that family members of an expelled migrant worker can be removed from the UK regardless of their own personal circumstances.

It also found the language and financial conditions for family reunion to be excessive: almost 50% of British workers did not earn the amount required (£18,600 per year) for a settled migrant worker to sponsor his or her spouse - alone - to join them in the UK.

Furthermore, the committee flagged up that children involved in prostitution can still be treated as offenders under UK law, that the age of criminal responsibility (10 in England and Wales, and 8 in Scotland) is "manifestly low" and that the level of maternity benefits is inadequate.

And, yes, the committee expressed concern about the number of hours of paid work that schoolchildren could be doing and the effect this might have on their education and well-being.

It said that allowing children in compulsory schooling to work up to 8 hours a day and 35 hours a week during the holidays was a bit much.

The committee also highlighted a previous finding that children under 15 working two hours a day, from 6am, for five days a week before going to school was not in line with the charter.

In other words, delivering newspapers or working during the holidays was not a problem but there should be limits and excessive hours of "light work" for schoolchildren could potentially be an issue.

So what did the newspapers make of all this?

"Barmy eurocrats call for UK ban on 'child cruelty' paper rounds" was the headline in the Sun.

"Report claims paper rounds and holiday jobs breach children's rights", said the Mail.

"Fury as self appointed EU quango launches attack on way Britain treats migrants' rights" added the Express, quoting an MP bemoaning "barmy interference from unelected bureaucrats" which is "only going to get worse if we vote to stay in the European Union". (N.B. This article has since been corrected following a complaint.)

The basic factual errors are predictably frustrating: the Council of Europe is not part of the European Union, the conclusions were not drawn up by "unelected bureaucrats" but by legal experts elected by national governments, and the committee was not "interfering" but doing its job.

However, what is really depressing is that - rather than generating any serious discussion about the many important issues raised in these conclusions - the take-away "story" for most people in the UK was that barmy foreign bureaucrats are yet again trying to do away with all that is great about Britain.

At first glance, it's tempting to agree with the UKIP statement entitled "Banning newspaper rounds utter nonsense". Until you actually read it and realise that they, too, have got the wrong end of the stick.

A reminder to always go beyond the headlines if you want to get the full story.