Ministers have moved to bring Britain into line with the rest of Europe, where children spend far fewer hours working. A national review has been launched and local authorities have been asked to rewrite their by-laws to take account of the changes.
In future, children under 14 will only be able to do light work which is detailed in local regulations.
Those under 16 must have at least two weeks' break from holiday jobs and must have regular rest breaks during their working day.
A review group which is to report by the end of the year will make further recommendations to ministers on how to protect children in work.
Chris Pond, the Labour MP for Gravesham and former director of the Low Pay Unit, is pressing Paul Boateng, the Health Minister, to cut children's hours from a maximum of 17 per week to 12, including up to two hours on Sundays.
He also wants insurance companies to enforce rigorously a rule which renders employers' liability insurance void if children are employed illegally.
Mr Pond brought a private members' bill on the subject earlier this year, but withdrew it after Mr Boateng promised to launch his review.
"In most European countries children's working is outlawed altogether. In others, they say children cannot work except in certain circumstances but British legislation just sets out circumstances in which they cannot work," he said. One third of all working children in the European Union are British.
The Department of Health has already written to all local authorities setting out model by-laws which should create a uniform system across Britain for the first time. Legislation on child labour dates back to 1993, and some local by-laws have barely been changed since.
Research by the Low Pay Unit, timed to coincide with Mr Pond's bill, showed that more than 40 per cent of children between the ages of 10 and 16 were working - about two million children across the country.
Three out of four were working illegally because their employers were either unaware that children should be licensed by their local authorities or had chosen to ignore the rule. The Low Pay Unit offers advice to parents and employers on the law.
Most experts say part-time jobs can help teenagers to build self-confidence and to get used to the world of work, but add that long hours often interfere with their studying.
Researchers at the University of Paisley found that those working up to 10 hours per week actually did better in exams than those not working at all, but those working more than 10 hours did progressively worse the more they worked.
Some schools try to ensure that their pupils know the law, and report illegal working to the authorities. At Baverstock school on the border of Birmingham and Solihull, the deputy head Mary Small has seen several children's licenses to work revoked after abuse by employers.
One boy, aged 14 or 15, worked all night for a taxi firm while others helped milkmen with their rounds for a few pounds despite having no license or insurance.
"For some children it's a good way to learn to manage money and to learn about the world of work," she said. "But some of them are used very badly. Sometimes, it is just abuse."
LIKE MANY 13-year-olds, Jade does a paper round. She delivers newspapers each morning and evening from Monday to Saturday, and on Sunday mornings.
For a little less than seven hours' work each week, she receives pounds 10. This is quite fair, she feels. "Up the road they get pounds 15 or pounds 16, but they are doing more papers." The round allows her to buy clothes and other items for which she might otherwise have to wait.
JOHN IS paid pounds 1.11 per hour for working in a kennels - a princely sum compared with his last job where he got 45p an hour - pounds 5 for an 11-hour day from 8am. Since April John, 13, has worked from 9am to 6pm on weekends during term, with extra days on holidays, for pounds 10 daily. "I think pounds 15 would be reasonable for a day," he said.Reuse content