HC Deb 19 July 1950 vol 477 cc2434-44

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Sparks.]

11.57 p.m.

Mr. Vaughan-Morgan (Reigate)

I hope I shall have the sympathy and support of the gallant few who remain in considering the very human problem I want to bring before the House, the incidence of unemployment among those over 50. I should like to begin by explaining why I have chosen this rather arbitrary age limit. I do not in this case have to declare my interest, I am glad to say. I have chosen it because it happens to be a statistically convenient age.

The principle remains the same, that the incidence of unemployment grows more serious as age increases. That was brought out rather strikingly in some words uttered by the Minister of Transport in the previous discussion, when he referred to compensation being higher owing to difficulties of obtaining employment at a later age. The question has been brought forward before. The hon. Member for Croydon, East (Sir H. Williams) brought it up as affecting those over 60, and the hon. Member for Heston and Isleworth (Mr. R. Harris) brought it up as it affected those over 45. I am grateful to the Minister of Labour for the recent statistics that have been given me.

The most recent figures show that there are over 70,000 men over 50 unemployed, and some 12,000 women. Compared with the vast figures before the war that may not seem very considerable, but what is important, and the fact which I am trying to draw attention to, is the high comparison of incidence. That will be more striking when it is realised that of the men who are unemployed, 37 per cent. are over 50, and of the women 16½ per cent. That figure has to be related to the various age-groups in the population. As far as I can obtain the correct figures of the working population, some 18½ per cent. of men are over 50. and some 8 per cent. of women.

The first fact brought out is that the incidence of unemployment is twice as high among men and women over 50 as it is for the average of the working population as a whole. If we take those over 50 as compared with those under 30, the ratio would be even more striking. Therefore, I think this question of unemployment amongst what we must frankly now call the middle-aged merits consideration as a very special and very serious problem. It is recognised on all sides.

The aim before everyone who is concerned with this matter is to try to remove the prejudice which undoubtedly exists in the minds of employers against engaging people who are over 50 and to see that the incidence of unemployment falls no harder on those who are middle-aged than on any other section of the age groups. The reasons for this prejudice are quite understandable even though we may deplore them. The reasons for unemployment, of course, are economic circumstances, the vicissitudes of fortune, changing techniques, and so forth.

We ought, I think, to understand the point of view of the employers and the reason why this prejudice exists. There are three main reasons. One is the difficulty of teaching new techniques to those who are rather older than the ordinary entrants into employment. Secondly, there are the superannuation schemes which are often cited as the reason for the reluctance to take on older men and women, but which the Minister himself, in reply to a Parliamentary Question some time ago, referred to as not being a viable one. Lastly, and this applies particularly to executive posts, there is the question of what one might call the pyramid of promotion, the reluctance to bring men and women in where it is going to break the prospect of promotion for younger men and women. I was interested to notice that the Minister on 27th June, when challenged on the attitude of his own Ministry in this matter, said: It is the same in this business as in any other business. One has to provide for apprenticeship for future employment."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 27th June, 1950; Vol. 476. c. 2072.] Those are the difficulties, and I feel that none of them is insuperable.

I want this question to be considered quite apart from the actual injustice done to our fellow citizens. We have in this country an ageing population. We have before us the problem of maintaining our standard of living in the future with a population which on the average is steadily growing older. I think it may well be necessary to extend the working life of our citizens in order to maintain that standard. Therefore, it is particularly vital that we should get used to using the skill, experience and knowledge of the middle-aged who might have become unemployed through no fault of their own. It may not be possible to employ them in the same positions they have been used to in the earlier part of their lives, but that we shall have to make use of their talents I am certain.

I want to give credit to the Ministry. I realise that they are fully aware of this problem. The Ministry of Labour Report for 1947 stated on page 37 that the Ministry took every occasion offered to appeal to employers not to impose unduly low age limits when engaging staff. The Ministry sought the assistance of the Association of British Chambers of Commerce and pointed out that age distribution of the working population was changing and that employers must realise that their staffs will have to include a higher proportion of older men. The Association have given wide publicity to this problem. Though I give full credit to the Ministry, I do not think that merely raising the issue in that way is nearly an adequate solution

In the Ministry of Labour Report for 1948 we have these words: Local employment committees have been able to render valuable service in connection with the work of Employment Exchanges. Among their many activities may be mentioned the consideration they gave to the difficulties often experienced by older workers in obtaining employment. It would seem, from figures which I quoted earlier, that none of the efforts of the Minister in combating this prejudice have been wholly successful.

It seems to me that the problem is not a large one. It is not absolutely intractable. The figures are not immense. The employer whose duty it is, above all others, to set an example is the Government. It is now a fact that the Government, and the nationalised industries and local government, are employers of some quarter of the population. Therefore, it is for them to show a lead to private employers in this matter. I realise that the Government are already doing much for the ex-Service man, the Regulars in particular, whom they are taking on.

I suggest that rather more might be done for the middle-aged unemployed. I have had a long correspondence with the Financial Secretary to the Treasury. I am grateful to him for the trouble he has taken. I learned from that correspondence that at least the Government have no prejudice against employing those who are over 50. But I cannot say, as his letters were entirely innocent of statistics. that it is clear the Government have made any drive towards trying to solve this problem along the lines which the Ministry of Labour itself has indicated.

It is true, also, that there are declining numbers in Government employment: but there is still an intake each year. If agree that there is no prejudice against taking on those over a certain age, there is certainly no bias in favour of the middle-aged. I should like to refer, in particular, to the Post Office, which is one of the largest of all the Government organisations which are employers. I was struck by the words of the Assistant Postmaster-General on 6th July, when he said: …there are not, it is true, the same number of collections and deliveries as there were before the war because of the limitation of manpower. That is the reason."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 6th July, 1950; Vol. 477, c. 816.] Almost on the same day, my eye was struck by an advertisement which said: Postmen wanted; permanent employment available for suitable applicants under 40; 45 in the case of ex-Service men. Good promotion prospects. Opportunities for driving. There are many postmen of our acquaintance who are more than 45, indeed who are 50. I suggest that the Minister might look to that quarter for further employment. Another case occurred in answer to a question on 21st May by the hon. Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter). He asked about the filling of vacancies for the post of sales representative. The hon. Member related his question to those under 35 and those over 35. It may be interesting to note that if a person were over 35 the odds were 11 to 1 against his being engaged for this particular job.

But I think that Government employment is only a part solution of trying to find a way out of the difficulty of breaking down this prejudice. I should be out of order if I entered upon discussion of the prospects of legislation on this matter, but I want to enter one caveat. That is against anyone who suggests that there should be a quota for the middle-aged unemployed. A quota works well for the disabled: but I hope that no suggestion will be made that it should be applied to those who are more than 50, because I am afraid it could probably end only in a series of blind alley employments, and that is not what we want. We want to have these men and women of experience absorbed into the economic body in such a way that their talents and experience can best be used. I think that any quota would probably fail.

Finally, I have two suggestions which I should like to make to the Parliamentary Secretary, and which I think may contribute towards a solution of the problem. The first is that he should make use of the powers that he has under the Employment and Training Act, 1948. I read the Debates on that Measure, and it was a very striking fact that the accent throughout was on the employment of youth, and not one reference that I can recall from either side of the Chamber was made on the dangers of unemployment as affecting the middle-aged.

I want to ask the Minister to add one to the 524 local youth employment committees that he has already appointed; and that is. a standing committee to advise him on this question. If he is short of names I should be willing to suggest one or two. I think the job of the committee would be to keep this matter permanently before him, and to advise on ways of promoting employment in this particular section of the community.

The second suggestion is—and I think this probably would be one of the recommendations of such a committee as I have suggested—that the Minister should use the powers he has under Section 3 (1) of the Act to promote training schemes. I should like to remind the Parliamentary Secretary of the Minister's own words on the subject of that Act. He said: It places special duties on the Minister to assist persons to select and fit themselves for employment, to obtain employment and to retain employment suitable to their age and capacity."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 16th April, 1948; Vol. 449, c. 1371.] This is, as I have said, a comparatively small problem, but it is one which merits consideration. I should like to remind the House that in the years since the war the Minister, in conjunction with other members of the Government, has managed to train, and to incorporate into the economy of this country, many thousands of Poles, who have been retrained for the tasks that we could offer them. What I am asking is that the Ministry should take rather more forceful action to solve this problem that affects some of the middle-aged of our own nation.

12.13 a.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour (Mr. Frederick Lee)

The whole House will appreciate not only the importance of the issue which the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Vaughan-Morgan) has raised but also, I think, the very capable and fair manner in which he has dealt with it. Not only my Ministry but the Government as a whole are very conscious of the problem. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that if we speak in mere statistics, the numbers do not sound large; on the other hand, we appreciate that this great problem of the employment of people of advancing years is most vital for a number of reasons. There is, of course, primarily the humane side of the thing, which appeals to the hon. Gentleman and to me. I would agree that that is by far the most important point in this whole problem.

The hon. Gentleman gave us some figures which cause us most serious reflection. Perhaps I may give the House some more information on this point. At December, 1949, 12 per cent. of the wholly unemployed males were in the age group 51–55, and 23 per cent. were aged 56 or over. The seriousness of unemployment among men aged 51–55 and 56 and over can be seen from the fact that the figures of 12 per cent. and 23 per cent. which I have given, compared with 7 per cent. and 11 per cent respectively of the working population. It is hardly surprising, then, that the older men remain unemployed for longer periods than the younger men. In the age group under 40, at December, 1949, 25 per cent. had been unemployed for periods between eight weeks and one year, and this proportion rose to 33 per cent. for the age group 41–50, 36 per cent. for the age group 51–55, and 37 per cent. for men over 55. For the same age groups, those unemployed for more than one year represented 6 per cent., 16 per cent., 20 per cent. and 28 per cent. respectively.

At the end of 1947, there were 3,560,000 persons in the age group 50–64, and 2,153,000 aged 65 and above. At the end of. 1949, these numbers had risen to 3,663,000 and 2,214,000 respectively: and it is estimated that by the end of 1954 there will be 4,000,000 and 2,300,000 respectively. I give the House those figures in order to show how the problem will undoubtedly increase if the present tendency is maintained. Although I suppose it could be said that the increasing age of the population would of itself compel employers to alter their opinion and outlook on this matter, that would be a very hard method to employ for the persons concerned, and we must try to encourage a different outlook among employers in genreal towards this vital question.

My right hon. Friend has discussed the question of the retention of elderly workers with the National Joint Advisory Council, and as a result the British Employers' Confederation and the T.U.C. have urged their constituent bodies not to fix arbitrary age limits for the retirement of elderly workers, but rather to encourage them to remain at work where they are willing to do so and are fully fit and efficient to do their jobs, and where there is a need to retain their services, provided it is not to the detriment of the careers of younger persons. Similar action has been taken with the nationalised industries and with local authorities. In spite of what the hon. Gentleman has said, I must emphasise that the same principles apply to Government staffs.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the Employment and Training Act, and suggested that by the wider use of that Act we could probably find a solution to the problems of the older workers. I presume he has in mind these words: To provide such facilities and services as he "— that is, the Minister— considers expedient for the purpose of assisting persons to fit themselves for, obtain and retain employment suitable to their age and a capacity. That is a wide enabling power, but I do not think that it has any very specific application to this particular problem. Even if it could be enforced, it is by no means certain that it would be to the advantage of the older unemployed worker. As the hon. Gentleman will appreciate, it is one thing to say that a man must be given a job, but it is quite a different thing to see that the job he is given is a suitable job to his age and physical capacity.

The hon. Gentleman also referred to training schemes. Again, able-bodied un. employed persons as well as the disabled. are admitted to courses of industrial rehabilitation, but I cannot give the House any separate statistics for the numbers being so trained, as they are not available. It is, then, a problem not of trying to enforce by legislation the employment of older people, but rather of employers looking inwardly and asking themselves whether they would like the same sort of treatment when they have passed that terribly advanced age of over 40.

The Social Survey have recently completed preliminary work for an inquiry to ascertain the views of employers about the employment of elderly persons and the attitude of the elderly workers. It is hoped that the report of the Social Survey will be ready in the autumn and will provide some further information which will help in attacking this problem.

The hon. Gentleman referred to Government employment. Substantial opportunties have been and continue to be afforded to older men and women who enter the Civil Service. In almost all competitions special age extensions are allowed to ex-Regulars of all ranks, and in the case of the men clerical and executive classes a special quota is reserved for them and a field of special examinations of a non-academic type designed to suit their particular circumstances. In the lower grade, such as messengers and so on, where competitions are not held, a preference for ex-Regular men is afforded, and these preferences act in general to help older men, although I would agree that this applies rather to men over the 40 line when we get into the higher grades.

If I may give some figures of the Civil Service, of the 435,000 non-industrial civil servants in posts on 1st April, 1950, 28 per cent. were over 50 years of age. If figures for men alone are taken, we find that 36 per cent. of the 304,000 employees were over 50, but the total is pulled down by the comparatively high proportion of young people among the women. Of the 61,000 men and women who have entered the permanent Civil Service, whether from outside or by establishment after a period of temporary service, during the year ending 1st July. 1950, 7,500, or 12 per cent., were over 50 years of age.

The hon. Gentleman referred particularly to the Post Office. I cannot go into the background in the short time at my disposal, but I can give him this information so far as men are concerned. In the Post Office minor and manipulative grades, of a total of 122,551 men, the number of 50 is 37,645. or 30.7 per cent. Of other grades in the Civil Service—again I am referring specifically to men—of a total of 181,698 people, 71,411, or 39.3 per cent., are over 50 years of age.

Turning to the War Department, on 31st December, 1947, a rough survey was made for use in connection with the schemes of establishment of industrial employees, and the position today is broadly the same as it then was. We found that 66 per cent. of the employees were over 40 years of age and, out of that number, 15 per cent. were over 60 years old. Taking the non-skilled employees also, the figures are 75 per cent. over 40 and 18 per cent. over 60 years of age. I am giving the hon. Gentleman these figures to show that the Government are alive to this problem and, in fact, if employers in general were employing the same levels of elderly people as are the Government, there would not be any problem at all.

In the Air Ministry it is estimated that 45 per cent. of the industrial employees are over 50 years of age, and in the scheme of establishment which provided for 10,000 industrials to be established, 5,700 were over 50 years of age. Now we come to the Ministry of Supply. In filling factories, at Bishopstoun in Scotland, 26.5 per cent. of the males are over 50 years of age and 13.1 of the females are over 50. At Pembury in South Wales 73.7 per cent. of the males are over 50, and here I would point out that only six women are employed. At Glascoed in South Wales, at the explosives factory, 56 per cent. of the males are over 50, and 23.2 per cent. of the females are over that age. At Chorley in Lancashire, the percentages over 50 years of age are 56 for males and 20.8 for females; and at Swinnerton, in Staffordshire, 37 per cent. of the males are over 50 and 16.2 per cent. of the females are over that age. In the Royal Aircraft factory at Farnborough, of 3,980 employees, 680 are over 50 and 312 are over 60; that means that 24.9 per cent. are over 50.

I am sorry to have had to weary the House with figures, because I know it is not simply a question of figures. I hope that the House will say that, so far as the Government are concerned, we are trying to give a most active lead. This question is vital and will become more vital if we are to make the best use of the manpower available. As a result of this Debate, I hope that employers in general will appreciate the vital nature of this problem and co-operate to the utmost of their ability to see that in these days, when manpower is the key to our economic survival, it is not right to discriminate between people below the age of 50 and those above it. As a result of the action being taken by the Government and the T.U.C. on the one hand and the Employers' Confederation on the other, I hope we shall see an alteration in this tendency to say that because people are above 50 years of age their usefulness has diminished; it has not, and what I hope will happen is that this tendency will diminish from now on.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'Clock on Wednesday evening, and the Debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Twenty-seven Minutes past Twelve o'Clock a.m.