HC Deb 06 May 1983 vol 42 cc595-602

Order for Second Reading read.

2 pm

Mr. George Foulkes (South Ayrshire)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on the Bill although I am naturally disappointed and concerned that time is unlikely to permit a Second Reading to take place. I do not want to belittle the Pet Animals Act 1951 (Amendment) Bill—indeed, I supported it and sat in my place and agreed with it —but I sometimes have the feeling that this animal-loving country is more concerned sometimes about the plight of animals than about the plight of some of our fellow human beings. This Bill is concerned with the plight of some of our fellows.

The motivation behind the Bill is a feeling that I have had for some time, in common with organisations that are concerned with the elderly, especially Age Concern. There is a general awareness of the existence of sex discrimination and of racial discrimination. That was not always so. There is now such an awareness because of the campaign of some of my colleagues and of many people outside the House to bring these matters to public attention. However, there is not a great awareness of the amount of discrimination that exists against people because of their age.

The purpose of the Bill is, first, to bring that discrimination to the attention of the House and the wider public and, secondly, to try to do something about it. Why is there not much awareness of the problem? Why has no legislation been introduced to deal with it as there has been for other forms of discrimination? I think that it is because the discrimination lies principally in employment. It has been exacerbated by the enormous increase in the level of unemployment over the past four years. With high levels of unemployment, more and more examples of age discrimination come to our attention.

It is understandable that the media have concentrated on youth unemployment and the dreadful plight of young people leaving school without a hope of getting a job, but there are some tragic cases of unemployed people in their 50s and, as I have found from the many letters that I have received, in their 40s.

There are many myths about aging and we tend to stereotype old people. If I needed any proof, corroboration or justification for bringing the Bill before the House, it was amply provided when the Bill was published. Its publication was given relatively small publicity in some newspapers. Since then I have received a flood of correspondence about the measure. You are familiar, Mr. Deputy Speaker, with some of the causes that I speak about in the House—you have the unfortunate task of listening to many of my interventions and speeches on various matters—but you will be surprised to hear that all the letters that I received on this subject were in support of the Bill. That is not always the case with the issues that I raise. However, that provides corroboration that there is a need for legislation. With your permission, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall quote from some of the letters that I have received. I do not expect the Government to accept the Bill, but I hope that they will give some consideration to the general problem that lies behind it.

The Bill would give power to the Equal Opportunities Commission to deal with age discrimination just as it deals with sex discrimination. The commission would draw up a list — a prescribed list, which is not a particularly popular phrase in my party these days — of practices which are discriminatory. That would happen after consultation with the various interests involved. It would go from the commission to the Minister — or the Secretaries of State, as the case may be, because the provisions would also apply to Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales—for consideration and then to this House for approval. There would, therefore, be scrutiny of those matters which were accepted generally as discrimination against people because of their age.

Once the list had been agreed, the commission would have power to investigate complaints from individuals or groups of any unfair discrimination against them on the ground of their age, and, if possible, conciliate or otherwise adjudicate on those complaints. The Bill says that the areas that should be covered—obviously others could be added; I am referring to those that must be covered if the Bill became an Act — would, first, be employment, which is the main source of discrimination; secondly, appointments to public bodies; and thirdly, the portrayal of people or groups of people in the media according to their age.

Perhaps I should deal, before giving examples, with the question of practicability; the Minister and his advisers may believe that what I propose would not be a practical proposition. I argue that it would, for two reasons. The first is that we have an excellent precedent in sex discrimination. I understand that the provisions there are working well and that there is a general understanding of what is meant by sex discrimination; that there is an understanding of the kind of complaints that can be raised and an acceptance that they are being dealt with fairly. The second is that there are international precedents. It has been done for some time in the United States—certainly since 1967 in the sphere of work — and somewhat similar provisions exist in Sweden and Norway. I hope therefore that the Minister will not advance the case that it is not a practical proposition.

Let us consider some of the tragedies that are arising because of the high level of unemployment and the way in which people are being discriminated against, particularly in work. A Glasgow lady wrote saying: My husband, who is unemployed, applied for a job. We were told that a company directive had been issued banning the recruitment of staff aged over 35. I see your brow beetling, Mr. Deputy Speaker. My brow beetles at that, too, because it would exclude me from consideration. It is amazing that companies should be saying that people are too old at 35.

A man wrote to me from Glasgow saying: Since I was made redundant at 51 years of age due to company liquidation"— which was not his fault, he being a skilled and able person of whom one could not say that he was of no use and was not being employed for that reason— I have compiled a massive dossier of information which clearly illustrates that career development opportunity is slashed progressively from age 45 until even simple job opportunity virtually ceases at age 60. A man from Herefordshire wrote: I read that industry is short of skilled and experienced workers. Young people are considered to be lacking in skill and experience, and those who have it are considered too old. No wonder industry is suffering. A man in Esher said: It seems a waste, when there is so much to be done, that I should remain idle for what amounts to 25 per cent. of my working life. It is a waste of skills and talent that this country should and could be using.

A man from Trowbridge wrote: I have colleagues who are deemed 'unemployable' at 48. Whilst it is right and proper for people to show concern over youth unemployment, I feel that the over 45s deserve more publicity. The Minister who will be replying to the debate comes from the Department of Health and Social Security. He may be interested in a point that was raised by a man from Buckinghamshire. He said: I wonder whether you could also give some thought to the fact that since 1978"— this is not a party political point— the DHSS notifies an employer if he has an employee still working over the age of 65. In many cases the employer is under the impression that the employee is younger—and the result is either extreme embarassment or dismissal. Yet that person has been doing, and could continue to do, a good job.

I received a letter from a chartered engineer who states: I have campaigned unremittingly over the past eleven years through all relevant agencies". He has been trying. He contacted the Manpower Services Commission, the CBI, the Professional and Executive Register and the Equal Opportunities Commission, which is the body that I say should have some power to deal with this. He also contacted local and central Government asking for legislation against what he described as this growing cancer which is creating a class of industrial untouchables. A number of people have contrasted their circumstances with those of Mr. Ian MacGregor, who does not seem to have found age a problem. I am not too happy about Mr. MacGregor's appointments to the Coal Board or the British Steel Corporation, not because of his age, but because of the task that he has been asked to carry out. He has been brought in to carry out an offensive task. It is interesting, however, that the Government considered that his age was not a barrier and that at the age of 70 he is able to carry out the task.

I wonder why he has been able to obtain a public appointment while there are many people who have retired at the usual age, or perhaps earlier, but who would like to continue in public service as justices of the peace, on health boards and all types of public bodies. That is my second area of discrimination. They find not just that they are too old to work, but that they are too old to be appointed to such bodies. For the rest of their lives—it could be one third of their lives—these opportunities are not open to them. It is seen as the fag end of their lives.

I do not wish to give too many examples because it would not be appropriate, but I assure the House that I have received many more. However, I wish to raise one somewhat different example. It comes from a 23-year-old college graduate. That seems amazing. I am sure that hon. Members will ask, "How on earth can he be discriminated against on grounds of age?" He wrote: You may think, at first glance, that this has little to do with age discrimination until I tell you that all too many employers of graduates to which I have been applying now set the ridiculously low age limit of 23 for entry to their graduate training schemes. Yes, you can be too old at 23, let alone 55! I assume that this deplorably low age limit is calculated to exclude the long-term unemployed graduate (two years without a permanent job is now very far from uncommon among perfectly able graduates generally), on the presumption that if a graduate leaves university at 21 … and has not found a permanent job by the age of 23, he cannot possibly be worth much to any employer. That is amazing. Someone may go to college or university later in life, graduate, and then find that he cannot gain entry to some of the graduate courses that exist. It is an unusual example and, although there may be many more such cases, it seemed strange to me. That is another example of age discrimination about which something should be done.

A further illustration is provided by a letter that I received from Teddington. It says: Even in my own circle, two first class workers … have been going through this nightmare for over a year. In fact one friend, a top secretary with first class c.v. and references, whose company folded up"— so it was no fault of hers that she was unemployed— was recently told by a young girl of about 22 working in one of the employment bureaux, 'we consider anyone over 40 is over the hill, you really are wasting your time coming in'. That is a frightening thought. The letter continues: She is attractive, healthy, competent and 48 (hardly one foot in the grave) and if you are male, and over 50, forget it and go dig your grave. That would include a great many people here. The letter also states: Those fortunate enough to be in full employment and in safe jobs, have no conception what it is like to be the victim of this disgraceful discrimination. I personally know that certain people in my … area … have become utterly demoralised and are convinced … that they are, and will remain, on the scrapheap forever. That demoralisation now extends to many people.

It is entirely wrong that arbitrary age limits should be given for appointments. Time and again, advertisements prescribe age limits for applicants. That should not be allowed. People should compete on equal terms and have the oppportunity to prove themselves in interviews or assessments irrespective of their age.

In addition to discimination in employment and appointments to public bodies, there is the problem of stereotyping by the media. Often false assumptions are made about age. People are stereotyped as senile because they are old and quaint or less diverse in their personalities, aptitudes and interests just because they are retired. If there is persistent stereotyping of any group, especially the old, an individual or a group representing such individuals should be able to take the matter to the Equal Opportunities Commission.

I could give many more examples. I must confess that I am not happy at having to seek legislation in this area. I should greatly prefer the problem to be solved without that. With the current high unemployment, however, many older people and some not so old are being blackmailed into early retirement, which may mean poverty for many, because of the lack of jobs and the moral pressure on them to make way for young people.

Jobs should be provided for all who wish to work. There is plenty of work to be done in caring for the sick, the elderly and the handicapped, in public works projects to get rid of dampness in houses, to build new homes, schools and hospitals and to improve other facilities. There is work to be done in improving our public transport service, in electrifying the railways, and in many other areas. There is no reason why people should be out of work.

If there is to be more leisure time, our employment policy should be to spread that time evenly throughout people's working lives by means of a shorter working week or a shorter working year, not by forcing people unnecessarily on to the scrapheap, as the dole queue is so eloquently described by many people. While that situation exists I argue that there is a need for some legislation. That is why I have brought the Bill before the House today, and I hope that the House will consider giving it a Second Reading.

2.20 pm
The Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security (Mr. Geoffrey Finsberg)

I noted with particular interest that the hon. Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Foulkes) said that the provisions of his Bill apply to all of us here, and then went on to speak about safe jobs. Some of his colleagues who have not been reselected might take a different view.

Mr. Foulkes


Mr. Finsberg

Irrespective of the fate of the Bill, it would be a pity if the hon. Gentleman were to go on basing his campaign on one or two of the things he said.

The hon. Gentleman spoke of there being something wrong when people who reach retiring age may be regarded as being too old to do such things as serving as justices of the peace. He will know that Parliament took a decision on the age of judges, magistrates and justices of the peace, and I imagine that he would not wish to question it at this stage.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the case of a person who wrote to him because he was out of a job after the liquidation of a firm. I am sure that he is a perfectly good person, with good experience and qualifications, but we know of companies which have been forced into liquidation by the actions of their employees, so we must be careful not to generalise or to build up an entire case on what may not be the right foundation.

The Bill proposes to make unlawful discrimination on grounds of age against a person or groups of persons. It seeks to give the Equal Opportunities Commission power to investigate complaints about discrimination on grounds of age, to conciliate where appropriate, and to make recommendations on the activities to which the measure should apply.

At present, there are, as far as I can find, only three areas of activity specified in the Bill, but there are powers to extend its provisions — subject ultimately to Parliament's approval. Therefore, the Bill is potentially of very wide application, and the area of activity already specified would involve the Home Office and the Department of Employment, and almost certainly nearly every other Government Department would have an interest.

I shall not go through the detailed clauses at this stage but I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that the Bill as at present drafted would be ineffective. Some of the terms that the hon. Gentleman uses are not defined — for example, "unjustifiable". That term would be a key element in any litigation. Further, and perhaps even more important, since the proposed legislation gives the Equal Opportunities Commission no power to impose penalties for breaches of the law, it is very uncertain how it could be enforced.

The Equal Opportunities Commission is relevant because it is the cornerstone of the hon. Gentleman's case. The commission was established, under the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, to help to enforce that legislation and to promote equality of opportunity between the sexes generally. The Act applies to discrimination against women and men and it defines two kinds of sex discrimination, known as direct and indirect discrimination.

Direct sex discrimination arises where a person treats a woman, on the grounds of her sex, less favourably than he treats or would treat a man. Indirect sex discrimination consists of treatment which may be described as equal in the formal sense as between the sexes but which is discriminatory in its effect on one sex, in that the proportion of women who can comply with a condition or requirement is considerably smaller than the proportion of men who can do so.

For example, if an employer were to impose a requirement that all clerks—not Clerks of this House—must be 6ft tall, a woman refused a job because of her height would be able to make out a case of indirect sex discrimination. I shall not go into the matter of whether clerks should have beards. That, again, might be a source of indirect discrimination. To prove a case of sex discrimination, it has to be shown that the requirement is unjustifiable.

The Sex Discrimination Act 1975 makes discrimination on grounds of sex unlawful in certain prescribed areas—employment, education and the provision of goods, facilities and services. It does not, for example, extend to discriminatory treatment in the allocation of social security benefits, retirement ages, taxation, or those concessionary travel schemes which are based on age.

I suggest that it is unrealistic to assume that the commission, which is concerned solely with discrimination on grounds of sex, could readily adapt itself to identify and provide remedies for other forms of discrimination. The main purpose of the Sex Discrimination Act, and of the commission, was to remove obstacles that prevent women from having equal opportunities. Discrimination on grounds of age, which is certainly another highly sensitive area, as the hon. Gentleman said, is quite different in character, and could not easily be combined with the commission's existing functions.

The commission operates with a maximum staff of 166. Its approved budget for 1982–83 totals some £3.07 million, of which approximately half is spent on staff costs and half on overheads expenditure, legal expenses, research and publicity. Any extension of the commission's powers would require extra resources, in terms of finance and staff, and there is no prospect that those could be made available.

We need to examine where, under the Sex Discrimination Act, the EOC may undertake formal investigations for any purpose connected with the carrying out of its statutory dates. Where unlawful sex discrimination is found, the commission may issue a nondiscrimination notice requiring such practices to cease. Under the hon. Gentleman's Bill, however, the most the commission could do would be to make recommendations. There is no suggestion that more formal sanctions would be available to the commission if discrimination on grounds of age were found to exist. The extent of discrimination on grounds of age is impossible to quantify, although I note with concern and interest the cases that the hon. Gentleman retailed to us. It therefore follows that no assessment can be made of the extra resources required by the commission to pursue those general investigations.

In the Bill there is no suggestion that complainants should have the right to bring a case of discrimination before the courts, and it must be assumed that if the commission failed to resolve a complaint by conciliation discrimination would continue. Under the Sex Discrimination Act, those who believe that they have been the victims of sex discrimination have the right to take a complaint to an industrial tribunal in employment cases, or to a county court in all other cases.

The commission may assist a complainant, or prospective complainant, and the assistance that the commission may afford includes giving advice, seeking a settlement, and arranging for legal advice, assistance or representation. It is not the task of the commission to investigate all complaints of sex discrimination. Nor does the commission have any special standing before a court or tribunal in relation to any proceedings in which it is assisting an individual. Where an application to an industrial tribunal has been made, ACAS has a duty to consider whether it can help the parties to reach a settlement without the need for a tribunal hearing.

In 1981, the commission received about 3,100 inquiries about the Sex Discrimination Act, 245 of which led to requests for assistance to bring a case of unlawful discrimination. The commission gave advice or legal assistance in 143 of those cases.

Again, it is not possible to assess the number of complaints of discrimination on grounds of age which might be directed to the commission under the Bill, nor the number of additional staff required to investigate the complaints and to achieve conciliation.

The commission is required to make an annual report on its activities under the Sex Discrimination Act, and the Home Secretary is required to lay a copy of the report before each House of Parliament and to cause it to be published. The Bill does not provide for that procedure. If the EOC failed to resolve a complaint by conciliation, discrimination would continue unless the complainant sought redress in the civil courts. Complainants—

It being half-past Two o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.

Debate to be resumed upon Friday 13 May.