HC Deb 21 January 1986 vol 90 cc212-4 5.10 pm
Mrs. Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to secure a guaranteed minimum retirement age for men and women of sixty years, subject to certain conditions, and for connected purposes.

Most of us are aware of the existence of sex and racial discrimination. There are laws in existence to attempt to combat those types of discrimination but there are no laws to deal with discrimination against people because of age. There is growing evidence that this type of discrimination occurs mainly in employment. Compulsory retirement is the most obvious way that age is directly related to employment. It is important to realise that job discrimination in the employment market begins at a much earlier age than 65 or 60, in some cases at 35. This is why I stress that people should be able to work, if they wish, at least until the age of 60.

Age discrimination affects those who are trying to get jobs and those whose present jobs are at risk. The numbers in both groups have risen sharply since 1979. The purpose of the Bill is to ensure that discrimination against people in employment or seeking employment on the basis of their age should be made illegal.

A year ago, at a factory in my constituency owned by the Japanese firm Hitachi, the management invited the workers aged 35 or more to take so-called voluntary redundancy. The management told them in no uncertain way that British workers were over the hill at 35. In a letter to all its employees the company said that older workers cause problems through sickness, slower reactions, poor eyesight and resistance to change. The company also invited these old-timers, in their late thirties, to leave the company to make way for younger people. It offered a ta x-free payment of £1,800 to those taking up its invitation. The company also gave the workers the chance to nominate a 16-year-old school leaver to take their place. The letter to the workers, or "company members", as the Japanese like to put it, pointed to the continuing losses at the south Wales factory and maintained that one problem standing in the way of increased efficiency was the age profile of the workers. Eleven employees took up the offer.

Hitachi is not alone in being averse to older workers. According to the Trades Union Congress, in the private sector there has been a huge increase in voluntary early retirement as an alternative to redundancy. In many cases the voluntary nature of such arrangements is open to question and it is clear that many older members feel under pressure to make way for youngsters when they would prefer not to retire.

Age discrimination has been accelerated in recent years by the massive increase in unemployment since 1979. Job adverts frequently impose upper age limits. Long-term unemployment among older workers has increased since 1979 by 300 per cent. and those caught in the trap are likely to suffer the consequences for the rest of their lives. Surely age and experience are qualities which should not be tossed lightly aside. Indeed, on the basis of age limits now set by many employers, many Members of this House would no longer be at work.

It is not surprising that a number of countries have laws which preclude or limit the use of chronological age as an automatic exclusion factor in retirement and employment practices. In Britain, the majority of those living exclusively on state benefits, including pensions, are not far removed from poverty. The problems of long-term unemployment concern the over-50s rather than school leavers and it is understandable that demands for the removal of discriminatory practices, based solely on chronological age, have become more insistent in Britain.

However, practices concerning recruitment, training and promotion use age enthusiastically despite its lack of objectivity. An advertisement which appeared in the press recently stated: It is unlikely that anyone outside 35 years of age will have the necessary experience or drive essential for the rapid achievement required. If a person is over 35, he is beyond the pale. Imagine the same advertisement saying "It is unlikely that a woman or a black person will have the necessary experience or drive essential." No one could put such an advertisement in the papers. If he did, it would be illegal. Why is the first version allowed? If some employers can get away with it, others will try to do the same.

Young people are cheaper to employ and it can be argued that they can get lower rates in their first year because they are supposed to be training. There are also cases of indirect discrimination, applying the requirements or conditions apparently equally to both sexes, with the result that one sex is less able to comply.

One of the most recent cases of indirect discrimination is that of Belinda Price, who married early and left her job to bring up her young family. She later qualified as a mature student and then applied to join the Civil Service as an executive officer. She was refused entry to that level because the age limit was 28 and she was 32. An industrial tribunal found this service condition "indirectly discriminatory", because more women than men rear children during the traditional recruitment years. The Civil Service has since raised the age limit to 45 in this grade. The Civil Service has declared itself to be an equal opportunities employer, but it is again defending a rigid age limit of 32 years for those applying for entry to the fast stream administrative grades of the Foreign Office, despite the fact that only one woman in 140 is in the top three grades.

In his book "40-60: How We Waste the Middle-Aged", M. P. Fogarty says: …at whatever age, chronological age turns out to be a poor predictor of performance in a wide range of activities. People at any age are individuals, differing within their overall capacities and in their profile of individual capacities. If one is looking for a woman or man who can put up a certain level of performance—whether high, average or low—on a certain task, one is likely over a very wide range of tasks to have to search all groups to find the right one.

In 1949, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights argued that the association of age with discriminatory practices results in detrimental distinctions which do not take account of the particular characteristics of individuals. Over the years a number of countries have responded, but so far the United Kingdom has enacted no relevant legislation—although, on at least four occasions, attempts have been made to deal with this matter by private Members' Bills. There has been a recognition of age dicrimination or agism—the holding of a particular image of someone on the basis of formal age—in France, West Germany, Sweden and the United States which have legislated against it. In the United States the trend seems to be running against compulsory retirement. A law came into effect in New York State last year which does away with age discrimination at any age in the public sector. This year New York State expects to abolish it in private employment.

Age discrimination can have as serious personal and economic effects for an individual and society as racial and sex discrimination. For this reason, I argue, there is a need for legislation, and I hope that the House will support me.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mrs. Ann Clwyd, Ms. Jo Richardson, Ms. Clare Short, Mr. Richard Caborn, Mr. Clive Soley, Mr. Doug Hoyle, Dr. John Marek, Ms. Harriet Harman, Mr. George Foulkes, Mr. Brian Sedgemore, Mr. Roland Boyes and Mr. John McWilliam.

Mrs. Ann Clwyd accordingly presented a Bill to secure a guaranteed minimum retirement age for men and women of sixty years, subject to certain conditions, and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday 21 February and to be printed. [Bill 61.]