HC Deb 06 March 1968 vol 760 cc463-5

4.35 p.m.

Mr. Edward Milne (Blyth)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to prevent employers from refusing employment to persons on the sole ground that they are aged 45 years or over. In this House, where the age level of entry is possibly higher than in any other profession, I imagine that there will be a sympathetic response to this proposal. Numerous letters from constituents and others throughout the country indicate the extent of this problem. Too many people with excellent qualifications are applying for jobs and, on being asked their age, are immediately told that they are not required. The purpose of the Bill is not to make jobs available, for that can be done only by a policy of full employment, but, even within the framework of providing jobs for all, it will still be necessary to secure equality of opportunity and equal access to job vacancies for all age groups in the community. This is not the case at present.

On age discrimination at 45, only three members of the Cabinet—the Minister of Technology, the Minister of Power and the Chancellor of the Exchequer—would fit into this category. It is not the purpose of the Bill to develop this point, but in a world where people are living on to a greater age than in any previous period of history and at the same time in terms of mental and physical powers are retaining their faculties to a greater extent, it is becoming increasingly necessary for the nation to make the fullest use of all our available manpower as more and more people become dependent on our labour force.

The International Labour Office, looking at this question on an international basis, reckoned that by the mid-seventies the population over 60 years of age would have increased from 200 million to 300 million. In the 40 to 60 age group in the nation at the moment there is about 9¾ million. We are dealing with a considerable section of the community. The rate of increase in this range is indicated by the fact that at the beginning of the century there were 10 pensionable people for every 100 of working age. In the 1950s there were 20 pensionable people for every 100 of working age, and by the early 1970s the number will be something like 30 in every 100.

Already we hear, even in development districts and some areas of under-employment, talk of shortage of labour in many spheres, shortage of trained management and of skilled and semiskilled workers. The guidance units of the employment exchanges, in a report on change of employment, have said that the over-40s form about 16 per cent. of all their customers wanting job advice. At 45 most men and women are prepared to weigh up their careers so far and to have a look at the prospects for change and the position as it affects their families. The effect on families and the cry of "Too old at 45" prevents many from changing their jobs, although that could be beneficial to the community and the country as a whole as well as to the individual.

I am reminded of this by the death of one of my old political colleagues, John McNair, the former General Secretary of the I.L.P., who, in 1955 at the age of 68, went to university to read French and English history and Greek and Roman culture. At 72 years of age he took his Master of Arts degree with a thesis on the life and work of George Orwell, with whom he was closely associated. John McNair said: I did not find it difficult to take in things until I was 75. At 45, said John, a man should be in the prime of his life and full of beans. He has forgotten a lot of nonsense and, if he has kept his brain in good order, he should have no difficulty in changing jobs.

There are many thousands not yet old, not yet voluntarily retired, who find themselves jobless because of arbitrary age discrimination. This is more acute in development districts because of the decline in the basic industries of coal, shipbuilding and railways. The effect is felt throughout the entire community because many who possess skills are also deprived of job opportunities. The over 45s form a large percentage of all unemployed and an even larger percentage of the long-term unemployed. It is difficult on the basis of available statistics to calculate the extent of this. but it is believed that something like 27 per cent. of all the unemployed are among the age groups I have mentioned and form 40 per cent. to 50 per cent. of the long-term unemployed. Figures in Britain are difficult to obtain on this matter. In America, which is much further ahead in dealing with this problem than we are, about one-half of all the job opportunities are barred to the over-55s and 25 per cent. of job opportunities are barred to the over-45s.

What we are asking in the Bill is that the employment opportunities for older workers should be increased. They cannot be increased solely by measures eliminating discrimination. They must also be backed by expanding training and educational facilities. About 23 American States have already enacted laws to prohibit discrimination in this field, which take account of the difficulties that are very often presented when legislation of this kind is discussed or when legislation of this kind is envisaged.

Legislation of the kind envisaged in my proposed Bill would prevent employers, labour exchanges and employment agencies from engaging in any discriminatory practices on the basis of age against a potential worker between 45 and 65. It would also prevent employers from indicating in advertising for labour a preference based solely on age. The Bill would determine that age is not a factor in a refusal to employ. Indeed, it would be the primary object of the Bill to promote employment opportunities for older workers based on their ability and not on their age.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Edward Milne, Mr. James Hamilton, Mr. Ted Leadbitter, Mr. William Molloy, Mr. Eric Ogden, Mr. David Watkins, Mr. David Winnick, and Mr. Victor Yates.