HC Deb 21 July 1953 vol 518 cc337-48

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

10.1 p.m.

Mr. Charles Fletcher-Cooke (Darwen)

My subject tonight is the employment of persons over 40. I am still able to speak about this subject without declaring an interest, although I believe that the Parliamentary Secretary who is to reply is not in such a happy position. Three years ago, almost to the day, this painful, unglamorous subject was raised by one of my hon. Friends. I am sure it is a subject which has been in the minds of the Ministry of Labour ever since then.

My impression is that during those three years the matter has become worse rather than better, and it is a painful reminder of that fact that only recently a very gallant officer, formerly in the R.A.F. and who has been unemployed for many years, felt it necessary to make a demonstration of the suffering and misery of these men by flying under the bridges of the Thames in an aeroplane in order to call attention to his plight and the plight of his co-sufferers. I am glad to say that as a result of his daring and no doubt foolhardy action he himself has at last got a job, but it will be a sorry state of affairs if it is necessary to fly under the Thames bridges and imperil both oneself and the bridges in order to get a job when one is advanced in years.

There are two problems. There is the problem of persons over 40, and the problem of persons over 60. The first problem is not too difficult to solve. The difficulty that people of that age find, particularly in the clerical and executive grades, when they have left their jobs, no doubt for good reasons, and try to get another, is that owing to the increasing incidence of superannuation and pension schemes in this country nowadays, they do not fit into the schemes of the insurance companies that run these beneficial schemes. The result is that employers, even if they are otherwise disposed, are virtually forbidden to employ persons over 40 because the schemes of superannuation and pension devised by the insurance companies forbid it. The insurance companies, for actuarial reasons, insist on a comprehensive cover for employees altogether in any concern, because that spreads their risk. As a result, they also insist that to bring people over 40 into these schemes would be unduly to favour such persons. As a result of that, and not of ill will on the part of employers, persons over 40 are virtually debarred from employment.

It is a rather curious development of what is otherwise a magnificent social experiment. The only possible cure is for the Ministry of Labour to make it clear to a conference representing employers, the F.B.I. the trade unions and above all the insurance companies, that any such provision in pension schemes run by insurance companies is contrary to public policy, whatever its actuarial merits may be.

I am quite sure that business in this country has sufficient sense of social responsibility to accept that, provided that they all accept it, provided that all the companies agree that they will not make this a condition for running a superannuation or pension scheme. It is one of the glories of our way of life that these things can be done without compulsion. If that can be put to them I think that that very serious problem might be solved. At the very least, the insurance companies should allow the over 40's to contract out, that is to say they should not insist that all employees of whatever age of any concern should join the scheme.

I have had a good deal of information from people since I said that I was going to raise this subject. My information is that people of that age are so desperate to use their faculties in employment that they are prepared to be excluded from a superannuation scheme altogether and not to take the benefits that otherwise would accrue to them. But under most schemes at present even that is not permitted, because for actuarial reasons insurance companies insist that all employees, of whatever age, should be members of such a scheme.

I know that the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour has an Advisory Council that advises him on these matters. I also know that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has set up a Commission to advise him on the whole problem of working age because of the fact that, as we all know, owing to the advances of medicine and one thing and another, people who used to be too old at 60 are now often only too spry at 76 or 79. But in the case of this problem of the employment of perfectly robust, fit and capable men of over 40 we cannot wait for the reports of the Chancellor's Commission, because every day one gets more and more examples of the most terrifying waste of talent and of the feeling of despair that attacks people who are still in the prime of life when they feel that they are not wanted.

The problem in the form of human despair and misery is almost as acute as it was in the bad old days of mass unemployment. It is not as glamorous and does not hit the headlines as often as that did, but I believe that in the sum total of waste, despair and misery the problem is almost as acute. After all, in the days of mass unemployment there were many who were young and in whom hope was not yet dead, but once the great divide is passed it is very difficult to retain hope. This problem, though not as glamorous as that of mass unemployment, is just as urgent and in the matter of human misery is just as important. Yet in the case of the middle-aged it does not require very much to put it right.

The second and rather more important point is the problem of the over-60s. There are insurance and actuarial complications which though great are not the overwhelming obstacle. The over- whelming obstacle today is the retention by employers, by the Government and by everybody else of the myth, and it is a myth, that people over 60 in the 1950's are the same physical specimens as people over 60 a hundred years ago. They are quite different physically, mentally, spiritually, and in every way. But there is a sort of carry-over from a century ago of the idea that anyone over 60 is an old man with a beard, fit for nothing but to be put out to grass. I am sure the House agrees with me that that is quite incompatible with present-day medical and sociological conditions.

It is ridiculous, for example, that our great trade union leaders, who have done so well by this country recently, should in the next few years, and in some cases in the next few months, be forcibly retired because the age limit is laid down rigidly in black and white and, therefore, they have to go. In the same way, in the Civil Service the age limit is quite out of touch with modern conditions. Of course, it spreads all the way through industry and in every activity. One sees men perfectly capable of doing a good day's work mooching about public libraries, sitting on the public benches, being got rid of by their wives because they become a nuisance if they stay in the house, with nothing to do, eating their hearts out, longing to be of use in a humble capacity.

A great many people—I think the population here is ahead of the leaders—realise that a working life should not be a sort of crescendo up to the position of a great executive in a high position at the age of 60 or 65, and then a complete drop down to retirement, but should be a curve—a life up to a position of maximum responsibility and a maximum income, say, at 55 or thereabouts, and then a tailing-off and an acceptance of lesser responsibility with a smaller income, because in the sixties a man's responsibilities are much less. His children have grown up and gone away, and he has not got that financial responsibility. His needs are less and his way of life is more settled. He knows exactly how to deal with such money as he has. His days of restlessness are over. He is much less of an absentee.

I think that now, after the fearful experiences that older people have had in recent years of the difficulties of employment, they themselves would be quite prepared to accept jobs much humbler and lower paid than they were accustomed to when they were 10 years younger. I believe they would do such jobs very well.

I suggest to the Parliamentary Secretary that it should become an honourable obligation among all employers, whether they be Government or private employers or whatever they may be, to accept a proportion—I think the problem will be solved by quite a small proportion—of people over 60 or even over 65 as new employees. Of course, they would keep their old employees, by and large. If this idea is put across in the right way, there is no reason why it should not be put into effect.

Employers should be proud of doing this, in the same way as the employment of the disabled or ex-Service men who have lost some faculty has become an honourable obligation generally in industry. That, of course, is a much more glamorous affair. There was the old King's Roll on which employers who were prepared to employ a proportion of disabled persons were proud to have their names. We should try to stimulate the same sort of attitude towards the employment of what are known as the old, but who are no longer the old owing to the triumphs of medicine. The same sort of credit should be given for employing a proportion of the old as is given so readily for the employment of the disabled, and it should be the same sort of honourable undertaking.

If it is not presumptious to suggest it—it is not my idea—if in some way the favour of Royal patronage could be given to such a suggestion, as was given so successfully to the employment of the disabled, then I think we should create a climate of opinion which would encourage the employers, both State and private, to achieve that position.

None of these points is new, and none is my own. I raise them again because, in spite of the fact the Parliamentary Secretary has his Advisory Committee, and has this matter very much before him and takes it very much to heart, I do not think it has been treated sufficiently urgently. I have had a great deal of correspondence in this matter; more than I expected, and much more than I thought the problem really deserved. I was wrong about that; it deserves an enormous amount. It was suggested to me today that the secretaries of Chambers of Commerce might be of help. They are in touch with employers and are, generally speaking, accepted persons throughout the country. It may be that they are the right agency; I do not know.

All I can say is that we cannot wait for the Chancellor of the Exchequer's Committee to report on the whole problem of the employment of old people. I suggest that we cannot wait even on the Parliamentary Secretary's Advisory Committee, valuable though that body is. It is time to get the insurance people and employers really weaving on this matter, and that can be done only by a propaganda campaign of great imagination. We must make it not only an honourable obligation but an economic obligation to employ these old people. The old people themselves must be prepared to accept tasks and remuneration less than they have been accustomed to in their younger days, and I think they would do so.

This matter is going to get more and more important, because we are all going to live much longer than we expected and, perhaps, longer than we hoped. We are all going to do that because the National Health Service, under the beneficent leadership of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Health, is so very successful. Sooner or later this matter is going to get on top of us, unless we get on top of it. I hope that I have said enough to keep this burning question revived in public attention. I have not done as much as Major Draper, who flew under bridges, but at least there will be a reply from the Parliamentary Secretary, and I am sure it will be a favourable one.

10.18 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour (Mr. Harold Watkinson)

I congratulate my hon. Friend upon raising this matter. As he said, it has not been raised in this House for some time. It is a very important matter and it is time that it was ventilated again. Certainly my right hon. and learned Friend and myself, and the Ministry of Labour, very much welcome the opportunity to say what we are doing.

I should start by saying that we realise that this is a very real problem, and one which must inevitably become more pressing as people tend to live longer and the whole age balance of the population changes, as it will do. Most of us know that statistics show that by 1977 there will be literally millions more older people in the population. The Government appreciated that point, and, as a result, the National Advisory Committee on the Employment of Older Men and Women was set up by my right hon. and learned Friend.

I should defend myself from any charge, by my hon. Friend or anybody else, that we have not brought a spirit of urgency into this matter by saying that the Committee, which meets under my chairmanship, has worked extremely well and extremely hard, and either the Committee or its sub-committees have been meeting every month since its inception—and more often than once a month in some cases. I should like to take this opportunity of paying a tribute to the members of this Committee, who have worked very hard and who represent all the interests which are concerned with this great problem.

They represent the British Employers' Confederation, the Trades Union Congress, research institutes, Government Departments, the medical profession, women's organisations and many other interests. We are certainly not waiting for this problem to get on top of us. The Committee hopes to issue an interim report early in the autumn, the purpose of which will be to draw attention to the hard fact that, as my hon. Friend has very rightly said, this is a problem from which the nation cannot escape.

Perhaps I may give an analysis of the present figures of unemployment for June to prove that point. The total unemployment in that month was 1.4 per cent. of the working population, but for men aged 20 to 40 it was only 1.1 per cent., while for those aged over 40 it was 1.6 per cent. and, in addition, the over-40s have been unemployed for much longer periods. I have analysed the 30,000 persons continuously unemployed during the last year and 60 per cent. of them were over 50. So we certainly must not, and we do not, under-estimate the seriousness of the problem, nor do we close our eyes to the fact that, because people are tending to live longer, this will inevitably alter in time the balance of the population.

We have, therefore, to forget all our previously conceived notions about people being too old at any age. The point which I want to put to the House, and which I hope will be noted by employers, is that the criterion for the future must not be age at all; it must be capacity and ability. Certainly, in my task as chairman of this Committee, I have had many examples brought to my notice of people far beyond what we consider normal retirement age doing expert and sometimes very hard physical work. Sometimes they are leaders of their professions and others are skilled craftsmen on whose teaching skill we rely for training the younger operatives. We cannot do without their skill and assistance and the nation has to come to realise this fact.

I had brought to my notice today the case of a man who is working in a brickworks organisation, which is not easy work. He has been working there for 61 years. He started when he was 11 and he is now 72, and what is more, because it was his customary time to start work at 6.30 a.m. he still does so, although most of the other workers do not start until 8 o'clock. There are plenty of examples like that throughout the whole range of industry of people whom we have in the past called too old doing expert work which the nation cannot do without.

I say again, do let us try and determine—and it is, as my hon. Friend said, dependent very much on the good will of employers, whether the employers be in the private sector of industry or the Government or nationalised industry—that no man or woman suitable for a job shall be denied it because of his or her date of birth. If we can establish that principle we shall have gone a long way towards solving this problem.

Mr. H. Boardman (Leigh)

I know that the hon. Gentleman and his right hon. and learned Friend are very interested in this problem. He says that it is dependent on the good will of the employers. Is it not a fact that his right hon. and learned Friend has himself put this problem both to the T.U.C. and to the Employers' Confederation, that his predecessors did likewise, and in the meantime we have made no progress whatsoever?

Mr. Watkinson

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will let me finish what I have to say, and I think that he will then find that I have tried to meet his point.

I was going on to say that there is another reason why we can look at this matter from another point of view; it is that all modern medical evidence tends to show that older people are healthier and happier members of the community if they continue in their job.

For all these reasons, therefore, the Government attach the greatest importance to this work and to the work of the Committee over which I have the honour to preside. It was our duty only to try to set forth the general scope of the problem and how it might best be met. We were not given in our terms of reference the financal and economic implications, and that is the reason the Chancellor of the Exchequer has set up a separate Committee which will deal with the economic implications, because we realise that the time for purely pious exhortation has gone by and we have to state this as a serious problem. Therefore, we must study the economic and financial implications as well as the general scope of the problem. So these two Committees will work very closely together. My own Committee will produce its first interim report to the Minister before the House resumes after the Summer Recess. I believe its contents will shock the country into some realisation of the scope and the urgency of the problem. At least, that is our hope.

As to what the Government themselves have done to try to set an example, we have tried to adjust our own practice to meet the needs of older people. For example, age limits of engagement are now as high as 60 in some occupations in Government service, such as typists, postmen and telephonists. There is no upper age limit for temporary posts, and the periodical arrangements whereby civil servants become established have upper age limits of 60 and 65 in some cases. But we realise that we can make little progress unless we have good will and that we have this time really to try to establish it and not just take it for granted.

My hon. Friend spoke about insurance schemes. It will be one of the main purposes of the Advisory Committee to draw attention to any method or principle which we think is a bar to the employment of older men and women. I do not qualify that by age at all. As to the insurance schemes, my hon. Friend will be glad to know that, as chairman of the Committee, I have already approached all the insurance companies concerned in any form of pension scheme and they have promised me their co-operation and good will. My advice to any employer who feels that his present retirement pension or insurance scheme is a bar to the recruitment of older people is that he should now get in touch with his insurance company, who, I am sure, will now be willing to try to recast the scheme to stop that requirement being a bar to the employment of older people. It is not the easiest thing to do, but we believe that there is a solution. Whether it be contracting out of the scheme or whether it be benefits proportionate to the payments, I am sure the companies will try to meet the point.

I feel that my hon. Friend tried a little to put the over-60s too much into a category. I refer to the idea of a Queen's Roll, or something of that kind. In our view and in the view of the Committee, the one thing we do not want to do is to say that anybody is old at a certain age. We recognise my hon. Friend's point that it may be necessary for older people to do a job switch in later middle age to something not quite so strenuous or more suited to their length of experience, perhaps teaching other people in industry.

We recognise all these things. They have all been studied at great length in our report and they are all set forth in a way which I hope people will recognise and study, and we hope that it will bring home to the people of this country that they really have got to do something about the problem. If they do not feel that way inclined, there is the Chancellor's Committee studying the economic problems, and my own Committee which will stay as an Advisory Committee and will have to continue to take action if we feel that the problem is not being met.

At least we have made some attempt to face up to the problem. We have made great attempts to find a solution to it. This will be set forth within three months in our report. The Chancellor has now got to work studying the very grave financial implications of the generally older age levels of the population, and between these two Committees we hope we can tell people at the older age levels that they have a better chance in the months and years ahead of becoming useful and gainfully-occupied members of the population than they have had in the past.

Before I sit down, I must point out that I do not wish to imply that all this sort of thing can be solved by a committee or by somebody making a speech in the House of Commons. As I have said, it can be solved only by the co-operation of all the interests involved and by the realisation that it is a problem that we cannot escape and that we must face as a nation, and, if we are prepared to adopt that approach to it, we can offer much more hope to the older men and women in the population.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-nine Minutes past Ten o'Clock.