HC Deb 05 May 1971 vol 816 cc1377-9

3.32 p.m.

Mr. Edward Milne (Blyth)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make it illegal for employers to refuse employment, or for employment agencies to refuse to entertain an application for employment, on the sole ground that the person concerned is aged 45 years or over. On past occasions when this subject has been discussed it has been against the background of massive redundancies and high unemployment in the mining areas and development districts. Today the problem has spread to the professions, the technical and administrative staffs, higher executives, and the gentlemen of the Press, who will now be able to frame their articles and editorials on the difficulties of securing employment when one is over 45 years of age with more sympathy than has sometimes been the case.

It has often been argued that the top-level people do not need help, guidance or assistance in seeking work, but this has certainly not been the experience of the past few months in particular and the past two years in general. People over 45 have much more difficulty in finding other jobs. Most of us, if not all of us, know that the reasons for the refusal of jobs rarely have anything to do with fitness for the job but have very much to do with the question of age.

I, like other hon. Members, have received numerous letters on the subject, including one which describes the problem as follows: Ours is a sick society and the discarding of able men merely because they are 50 is a distressing symptom of this sickness. I do not need to convince my colleagues in the House or in the other place of the contribution that can be made to the life of the nation in all its aspects by the over-45s. No other part of our national life in trade, commerce, industry or the professions carries such a high percentage of its participants in the over-45 age group as do the two Houses of Parliament.

However, there are many thousands, not yet old, not yet voluntarily retired, who find themselves jobless because of arbitrary age discrimination. I was first prompted to tackle the problem by the introduction of legislation arising from the mining redundancies I have mentioned. Those redundancies, occasioned by pit closures in my constituency and throughout Northumberland and the rest of Britain, have demonstrated the adaptability of the unemployed in the older age groups to fit into the newer industries that are moving into the development districts. It is obvious, therefore, that a policy designed, and legislation introduced, to secure employment for the older age group is helpful to industry and the nation as well as to those being placed in the jobs.

The position has been aggravated by the unemployment of the past six months, and particularly the period towards the end of the year. In 1970 it is possibly true that British industry dis-hoarded men in a way that it had not done for years. In the first two weeks of 1971 10 major companies announced that they would be shedding 5,400 men, and as we have moved into the year the pace of redundancies has accelerated. We are faced with a major problem not only of rising unemployment but of a wider range of unemployed and unemployed in higher age groups than formerly.

It is in the interests of industry as well as the older job-seekers that labour forces should be balanced in age. Yet we still find the display advertisements in employment agencies telling people, "Stop looking for a job. We have 470 jobs looking for you, but no one over 45 need apply." Of 55,000 workless in the area of the northern regional office of the Department of Employment, 25,000 are over 45, 11,000 being in the 60–65 age group. We find increasingly that few appointments organisations will bother to register people who are 45 or over. A survey on the prospects of securing employment, based on Ministry of Labour Gazette figures gave a striking commentary on the problem. It showed that 22.4 per cent. of those becoming unemployed should get work without difficulty, and gave percentages of unemployed who would find difficulty in getting work on personal grounds for various reasons as follows: age, 23 per cent.; physical or mental condition, 20 per cent.; prison record, 1.6 per cent.; attitude to work 10.3 per cent.; colour, 0.9 per cent.; and so on. So, the biggest single factor in securing a job on becoming unemployed at the moment is age itself.

Some people have doubted the purpose, value or effectiveness of legislating on this subject. But early in 1967, faced with a rising unemployment problem in some ways similar to the one we now face, the United States Congress decided to tackle it. President Johnson in introducing the legislation said: In our nation there are thousands of people who possess skills which the country badly needs. Hundreds of thousands, not yet old, not yet voluntarily retired, find themselves jobless because of arbitrary age discrimination. The Bill is not just the simple suggestion of preventing something from being done, but has the purpose of promoting the employment of older persons based on their ability rather than on their age, to prohibit arbitrary age discrimination in employment and to help employers and workers to find ways of meeting problems arising from the impact of age on employment.

It would be unlawful for an employer or an employment agency to seek to engage or discharge any individual or otherwise discriminate against any individual because of his age. I have mentioned the United States legislation, and it is useful to remember that the age to which that related was 40. We in this Bill propose that it relate to those over 45. I am certain that since the Bill would determine that age must not be a factor in refusing employment to a man, the House will give permission to bring it in.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Milne, Mr. David Watkins, Mr. Robert Edwards, Mr. Leadbitter, Mr. James Hamilton, Mr. Ted Fletcher, and Mr. Fernyhough.