HC Deb 28 May 1976 vol 912 cc872-84

3.52 p.m.

Mr. Greville Janner (Leicester, West)

It is appropriate that at the last breath of the House before we go into recess we should turn to a subject of intimate concern to hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens. Perhaps it will indicate to our electors, to the people who are concerned that this Parliament should reflect the feelings of the British people, that the disgraceful events of last night can be passed over. They are events from which neither side of the House can take any credit. Both sides of the House should feel a sense of shame at events that we can only be grateful were not televised.

We are now to turn, in these last few minutes, to a problem that afflicts about 1½ million people aged between 60 and 65 who are unable to retire from their work even if they wish to.

I should like to begin by making absolutely clear the position of my hon. Friend the Member for Preston, North (Mr. Atkins) and myself. I know that he will confirm that we are not seeking to force anyone into retirement or to produce any scheme that is anything other than totally voluntary. We consider that the hardship suffered by men aged between 60 and 65 at work is vast, should be diminished, and can be removed altogether, with great benefit not only to them but to those who would be able to take up the jobs that they vacate.

We approach the problem from two angles. The first is that of compassion for the elderly people who are forced to remain at work and cannot go en to a pension, even though they have passed 60, and even though that is the age at which women are, rightly, at present able to retire. We also approach it from the angle of the young unemployed. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has frequently said that he is concerned about that problem, as are all the members of the Cabinet and the rest of the Government.

If we are to be concerned with the young unemployed, there can be no better expression of that concern than to make jobs available for them. This can be achieved in only two ways, one of which is a proper subject for an Adjournment debate and the other of which is not. That which is not is the subject of my Private Member's Bill, which I fully appreciate is unlikely to reach the statute book in this Session but which is an indication of very powerful feeling on all sides of the House and throughout the country. It is a Bill seeking a change in the law to enable men to retire at 60 if they wish.

The Bill is now backed by a petition, which my hon. Friend and I are preparing and which will be presented to the House in due course. It is also a matter to be taken into account by my hon. Friend the Minister when he replies.

The petition has produced a flood of mail. I have brought to the House—I hope properly—a sample of a day or two's mail with which my hon. Friend and I have to deal, and with which we are delighted to deal. It is from people all over the country who are complaining about the hardship suffered, sometimes by themselves, sometimes by their fathers, and sometimes by their grandfathers. These are people who condemn the injustice of the requirement that men should stay at work until they are 65 if they wish to be pensioned. They are mainly ordinary working folk, but they are also people from every conceivable walk of life. They are accountants, lawyers, teachers and doctors, as well as farmers, shopfloor workers, shipbuilders, craftsmen and drivers.

The latest letter, which arrived this afternoon, came from the General Secretary of the Association of Professional, Executive, Clerical and Computer Staff, in which he says that he is delighted to see the petition that my hon. Friend and I are organising in conjuction with my Private Member's Bill. He says that this is entirely in line with APEX policy. He says that the union will be happy to put its full resources behind the petition, and, indeed, asks for 1,800 copies.

Copies will be available for anyone who wishes them, but what we have to do is induce the Government now to take such action as is available, short of changing the law, in order to achieve the ends which I know the Government want to achieve, and which we are seeking to produce.

When we have sought to have the law changed, the answer we have been given has always been the same. We are told "We wish to do it. We agree with it. It is just. It is in accordance with social justice. It is in accordance with Labour Party policy and in accordance with the decisions of Conference. It is in accordance with the decisions of unions. It is certainly in accordance with the wish of our electorate. But we just have not the money."

Even that premise I challenge, because I have an answer today from the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security, stating that if 750,000 people were to be taken off the unemployment register it would be likely to save about £650 million a year. It follows that if we were able to remove more, the amount that would be saved would be still greater.

I challenge even that figure. I think it should be a higher one, for so often the men who are working and who are seeking to retire are supporting only themselves, or possibly one dependant, whereas those who are unemployed are supporting their wives and their children, and are in receipt not merely of unemployment benefit but, in many cases, of social security benefit, rent rebate, free school meals, and the other rights of a citizen who, through no fault of his own, is unable to find work.

If we cannot immediately change the law, what possibility is there? I make a suggestion to the Minister, which I ask him to consider even though it may sound a little revolutionary at first blush. I suggest to him that we revert, to an extent——

It being Four o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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

Mr. Greville Janner

I suggest that we revert to the days when we had labour exchanges, and that a labour exchange should become just that for people over the age of 60 who wish to retire because they are unable to continue working, because they are tired, because they are unwell, and because they wish to enjoy their few remaining years of life in peace and dignity in the way that women are now permitted to do.

I suggest that they be enabled to put their names on a register at the labour exchange indicating that they wish to give up work, and that they invite a younger person who is unemployed and looking for a job in that category and of that sort to apply for that job. In that way, the younger person would be able to come to the registry, and he could be put in touch with the work by those excellent officers who are already doing such a tremendous job at the various offices of the Department of Employment.

Then, if the job is available and the employer is prepared—as normally he would be—to accept the younger person, the able-bodied young man who is ready, willing and able to take over the job would do so and the elderly man would be able to go on unemployment benefit. He would very rarely need social security, and the young man who wished to work would no longer have the indignity of remaining unemployed.

We then get a social benefit of the highest order, in that elderly people do not have the indignity of being forced to work years after they should have retired, and young people do not suffer from the moral, intellectual and personal misery of having to be unemployed.

This "swap a job" scheme could cut down unemployment and hardship and increase the lively, active and productive work force of the country. It would not force a single elderly person out of work who did not wish to go. It would not create any burden for the DHSS, which, so far, has been so unwilling to reduce the pension age for men, even by stages.

I suggest to my hon. Friend that in the long run the cost to the Department would not be high, because the keeping of the register and the placing of people in work would, as more and more unemployed people ceased to be hunting for work, reduce other aspects of their labours. I appreciate that initially the cost would be there, and that it would take care and thought. I ask the Minister to consider this "swap a job" scheme as a possible method of beginning to help those who have so often sought that help, who are writing to us at the moment, who are seeking petition forms, who are attempting to bring their pressure behind this campaign and who are hard at work when they are too old or are seeing their fathers, brothers, relatives and friends staggering and soldiering on to the age of 65 when they should have been allowed to retire at the age of 60.

I know that my hon. Friend has often shown his deep understanding and compassion for people who are in need. Among this section of our community—men at work aged between 60 and 65—probably two-thirds would wish to retire. I ask that this idea and any others which may be put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Preston, North or by the Minister himself should be considered now as a matter of urgency.

4.5 p.m.

Mr. Ronald Atkins (Preston, North)

I am deeply grateful to my hon. and learned Friend, and to the Minister, who is always helpful to Back Benchers, for giving me the opportunity to make a contribution to this debate.

I feel that the Government are sympathetic to the principle of equal pension rights for men and women at 60, but the argument which is always directed against it is that we cannot afford it. This sort of argument has always been used about any social advance. It was used against the five-shillinig old-age pension at the beginning of the twentieth century, it was used against the dole, national assistance, widows' pensions, the National Health Service, and decent schools and hospitals. Even more recently, it was used against equal pay for women.

The men who are now asking for justice are the very men who fought for these benefits for others. They are the men who suffered in the depression, who had to face the malnutrition and disease which accompanied unemployment, and the demoralisation of unemployment itself. When they say, as they do in their thousands in the letters we receive, that youngsters should be allowed to take on their jobs, they do so not from self-interest alone but from the knowledge and experience of the way in which unemployment destroys self-respect, and spoils a man. It is spoiling many young men today.

Voluntary retirement at 60 would provide perhaps 750,000 jobs for younger men, thus relieving the Exchequer of money needed for social security benefits for whole families, not just single people or couples. These savings would largely cancel out the cost of the extra pensions. We should consider also the national wealth—I am not concerned here with narrow accountancy reckoning, but the gross national product—when we are considering retirement at 60.

It is well to remember that in some professions, such as teaching, of which I have experience, not to mention politics, wisdom is acquired from experience, and it is highest between the ages of 60 and 65 or perhaps even 70.

Mr. Greville Janner

Or even 83.

Mr. Atkins

Yes, even 83. Because the work is more interesting and less physically arduous and in many cases the standard of living is higher, the men concerned are often not only able, but willing to carry on after the age of 60. But they can retire at 60 if they wish or they can opt for later retirement. Carrying on after pension age should be encouraged, especially in times of full employment, but we do not envisage full employment for several years.

In some professions—the police and the fire fighting services—retirement is earlier still. The reason for that is that older men are not at their peak physically and that their continued employment would endanger the service if they stayed on. This principle should be applied also to hundreds of thousands of manual workers in heavy industry who are worn out by hard conditions and, in many cases, a low standard of living. These men have suffered the most in the past, and we should remember them now. Very often they are a burden not only to themselves but to their employers as well who, in many cases, keep them on out of compassion. In other cases, where no compassion exists, these men are sacked without any hope of re-employment and left with the indignity of scraping along unem- ployed without the pension which they truly deserve.

Would it not be reasonable to employ younger, fitter men to replace the old and the infirm? Would not this proposal increase production, productivity and the gross national product? The fact is that those men who need pensionable rights at 60 most of all, because they are employed in heavy and dangerous work, are least able to retire. The comparison with women is similar. They are generally employed in physically lighter work. Moreover, their expectancy of life is several years longer.

Men—many in the 60 to 65 age group—fought hard for equality for women. They fought hard for social services to preserve the self-respect of both men and women. Why are these doughty fighters, who suffered so much in the bad old days, the people to be left out, especially when equality for women has been established by law?

In 1974, with some of my hon. Friends, I pressurised my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mrs. Castle), who was then Secretary of State for Social Services, for equal pension rights for men and women. She said that the retirement pension advantages that women had to some extent compensated them for inferior conditions elsewhere. But equality has now been established, and equality is also needed in pensions.

My hon. and learned Friend and I have received thousands of letters, and many of them are most pitiful. But the heartening fact about them is that many come from women, both single and married. The wives beg for a provision which will enable their men to live a couple of years longer in relative ease and peace. Many of these ladies point out that their husbands will not live to 65 years of age and that their men are killing themselves trying to reach pensionable age.

When I was a small boy I heard my namesake, Rev. Leon Atkins, make a speech on silicosis. At that time miners who got silicosis had to work on until they got a certain percentage of dust in their lungs, knowing full well that they would die by so doing. As a boy I was moved to tears because I realised that my uncles and cousins were killing themselves. That was a long time ago. We do not want that sort of thing today.

Nevertheless, this is similar to the time when miners who were suffering silicosis had to work until the amount of dust in their lungs proved fatal, because men in the 60 to 65 age group know that they are killing themselves by continuing to work.

Society as long abandoned this cruel attitude and established social justice. The lack of pensionable rights at 60 for men is an anachronism in society. It is time that justice was at last granted to many men aged 60 to 65 who have little time left to enjoy the more equitable society that they, more than anybody else, did so much to establish.

4.14 p.m.

Mr. Edward Lyons (Bradford, West)

Over a period of years I have had occasional letters from men asking for a reduction in the retirement age to 60. In the last few months there has been a switch of emphasis, because the people who write about this matter to Members of Parliament are not so much the elderly as active trade unionists. Indeed, I have had two letters this week from trade union branches in Bradford demanding the reduction of the retirement age to 60 for males. The motive behind that demand is unemployment. They see the reduction in the age of retirement as a means of reducing the unemployment figures, enabling younger persons to take over those jobs.

One is bound to have sympathy with these fears and anxieties which promote that kind of demand, just as one is bound to have sympathy with men who have been in heavy industrial occupations and feel, by the time they reach 60, that they are played out in terms of carrying on with that type of job.

None the less, this is a difficult problem. In Denmark the retiring age for men is 67 and for women 62. Already the present situation in Britain is an advance on that. Another factor which the Government will have to consider is the effect on foreign confidence in the sudden reduction of the retirement age to 60 for men. It will be seen abroad as an acceptance by British people that they will not recover economically and that there will be a permanent, large pool of unemployment. A better way of looking at the problem, in the sense of being more realistic, is to proceed by gradual steps to retirement at age 60.

We have to accept that in a world of increasing automation there is likely to be, and ought to be, a reduction in retirement ages and a shorter working week. That is what is being worked towards all over Europe. It is something which I welcome. At the moment a sudden reduction in the retirement age to 60 for men is likely to cost the Exchequer net, having deducted the amount saved in unemployment pay and supplementary benefit, over £1,000 million. This is a figure which will increase the more that unemployment falls. If we were now in a time of full employment the cost would be even greater. The Minister will have the figures.

There is the inspiration of the swap-a-job scheme which is worthy of examination. I hope that my hon. Friend will undertake to examine it. The other method is to come down not by five years but by a couple of years and to see how the thing goes. The country may not always have this present high level of unemployment. I am rather more optimistic than some. Unemployment in this country is still substantially in pockets. What worries me is that if we suddenly made the retirement age reduction a compulsory five years there would be certain areas and certain skills in which there would be no people available to take up the jobs. I would go for transitional reductions coming down gradually to 60.

Whatever the way in which the Government approach the matter, they may also consider the question of optional retirement as opposed to compulsory retirement, so that those who wish to continue to work can do so. That seems to be essential. We should look at retirement in that way.

4.18 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. John Golding)

You, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and the officials of the House will welcome the fact that this will be the shortest speech I have ever made on a Friday afternoon. I very much welcome this debate and thank my hon. and learned Friends the Members for Leicester, West (Mr. Janner) and Bradford. West (Mr. Lyons) and my hon Friend the Member for Preston, North (Mr. Atkins) for making such significant contributions.

As we believe that it is wrong for Government to spend more money on maintaining the unemployed than would be involved in providing socially useful work for them—provided that the work can be created in a way which is consistent with attainiing our ultimate objective of sustained full employment—so we have grave doubts about the wisdom of having young men unemployed and older men working.

Indeed, a system that keeps older men who want to take life easier at work while we have young, fitter men unemployed and drawing State benefits is one which I personally find difficult to defend and one which we will have to examine most carefully.

I say immediately that the Government are doing this. We are conscious of possibilities—not only by the efforts of my hon. and learned Friend but by the example of other countries, such as Belgium.

We are concerned to find a way in which we can ensure that we do not have existing side by side frustration among the young and fit because they cannot find work, and the desire of older workers, who perhaps are tired, to pack up work. But we have to find a solution that meets two requirements: first, that it is not costly, that is, that it will not lead to increases in public spending and consequent higher taxation and borrowing; and, secondly, that it fits in with the economic and industrial strategy that is well expressed in the words of the TUC Economic Review: The aim of the strategy is to put Britain on the path to a high wage, high output, full employment economy, by improving productive potential and the performance of manufacturing industry in particular, with a priority for industrial development over other objectives. Regretfully, I have to say that the reduction of the retirement age for all men to 60 would not meet those conditions.

There would be some savings in unemployment and supplementary benefits, but even so—and taking them into account—it is estimated that the cost of reducing the age of retirement to 60 at the present time would be about £1,000 million. That is a sum that we could not afford at the present time. Additionally, there are many at work at the present time between the ages of 60 and 64 whom industry can ill afford to lose—men on whose skill, experience and judgment firms place every reliance.

That is not to say that we should not be considering the cost of schemes of selective retirement, particularly for those whose jobs are heavy and arduous, and we are doing just that. The idea of the job-swap scheme put forward by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Leicester, West would be particularly attractive if it did not add to costs, and we shall examine it urgently.

Mr. Greville Janner

I thank my hon. Friend for that positive and helpful approach to my suggestion. Will he, in the inquiries that are being made, bear in mind the possibility that while in the short term there may be a cost in the introduction of the scheme, in the longer term there may be considerable savings?

Mr. Golding

We shall give the idea the most thorough examination, bearing my hon. and learned Friend's remarks in mind.

Nor should we not hope that the day will come—I certainly hope that it does—when, because we have become much richer as a country than we are today, we can afford voluntary retirement on good pensions at a lower age than at present. I emphasise the word "voluntary". Earlier retirement should come because men and women want it for its own sake, not because it has been forced on them as a work-sharing device.

Some men and women, because of failing health and strength, or boredom, will want to leave arduous or monotonous jobs, and if we can afford it we must help them to do so, but others will not necessarily want to pack up work. For others, the answer may well be a phasing out of employment. Our job is to create enough useful jobs in this country so that there will be no pressure on the older members of our society to retire when they do not wish to do so; but enough wealth so that we can afford to keep them in reasonable comfort if they wish to do so.

One last word, Mr. Deputy Speaker. If there was one disappointment in the speeches of my hon. Friends it was that they made no mention of pre-retirement schemes. Retirement is not always easy. It produces problems as well as relief. The contributions that industry can make to the age group we are discussing is to lay on courses during working hours on preparation for retirement. I hope that those that do not do so already will consider this point carefully. Indeed, I was bitterly disappointed to learn that the Vickers Company had turned down proposals for such a scheme.

Mr. Deputy Speaker, I thank my hon. and learned Friend who initiated this debate, and those who have taken part in it. They have earned the gratitude of those for whom they have spoken. I shall certainly consider their arguments very carefully indeed.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-five minutes past Four o'clock till Monday 7th June, pursuant to the Resolution of the House of 25th May.