HC Deb 06 February 1998 vol 305 cc1396-419

Order for Second Reading read.

12.57 pm
Ms Linda Perham (Ilford, North)

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

This is Parliament's ninth opportunity in 15 years to put on the statute book legislation that begins to address age discrimination. The most recent attempt was the Bill that my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) introduced almost exactly two years, ago on 9 February 1996—the Employment (Upper Age Limits in Advertisements) Bill. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend's tireless campaign on the issue—he is one of the co-sponsors of my Bill—and to all colleagues and former colleagues who have shown determination and commitment to fighting agism.

I am also extremely grateful to the large number of hon. Members who have pledged their support for the Bill, irrespective of whether they are present in the House today. That reflects the importance of the issue and the fact that it simply will not go away. It is worth noting that this is not a party-political matter. My Bill is sponsored not only by Labour colleagues but by three Conservative Members, one Liberal Democrat Member, one Plaid Cymru Member and one Scottish National party Member. I have the support also of almost 150 hon. Members, from all parties, who signed early-day motion 126 on age discrimination in employment advertising, which was tabled in support of my Bill on 17 June 1997 and has continued to attract signatories.

My Bill is, however, the first attempt to introduce legislation under a Labour Government. Given our commitment to tackling age discrimination, I hope that it will also be successful. I am proud of the declaration in the 1997 Labour party manifesto that states: We will seek to end unjustifiable discrimination, wherever it exists. I welcome the Government's commitment to fairness in employment and to promoting the practical benefits of an age-diverse work force. I particularly welcome the announcement, at the beginning of Age Concern's age discrimination week, by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Employment, Welfare to Work and Disability Rights of a code of practice to promote fair treatment of older workers both in work and trying to get work, which should encompass job advertisements.

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham)

Does the hon. Lady agree—despite the Government's recent announcement, which was so conveniently timed to coincide with the promotion of her Bill—that she is disappointed that the Government have reneged on the clear promise made in the House on 5 February by the Minister of State, Department of Trade and Industry, the hon. Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney)?

Ms Perham

I am sure that, in his reply to the debate, my right hon. Friend the Minister will state the Government's position.

As I said, I welcome both the Government's commitment to tackling age discrimination and my right hon. Friend's announcement. I am convinced that the Labour Government are committed to tackling age discrimination and I look forward to working with colleagues from both sides of the House in tackling an issue that is of great interest not only to hon. Members but to the public.

My right hon. Friend's announcement promised consultation with the Trades Union Congress—which I mention first—the Confederation of British Industry, the Employers Forum on Age and other interest groups. I appeal to him to give a commitment that, after that consultation—and the visits and consultation that he has had with a variety of organisations concerned with age discrimination, which will continue into the spring—he will issue perhaps a Green Paper with proposals on how we can make progress towards ending age discrimination in employment.

Support for my Bill is not confined to the House. I am very grateful for the great work done and long months of help given by Age Concern, particularly by its parliamentary officers Mark McLaren and Nick Stace, who are in the Strangers Gallery. Moreover, organisations as diverse as the Federation of Small Businesses, the Law Society, the Institute of Management, the Employers Forum on Age, the Third Age Challenge trust and the Association of Retired Persons over 50 have added their voices. In the London borough of Redbridge, the Redbridge Pensioners Action Association is a very active organisation.

I should tell the House that 61 per cent. of people in my constituency—including me—are over 40. Although many people who feel discriminated against are in their 40s, 50s or even 30s, my Bill would apply to all ages. It seems that more advertisements place a lower limit than an upper one.

What matters are qualifications and suitability for a job, not an applicant's age. I have received hundreds of letters from the public telling me their personal—and often harrowing—experiences of age discrimination. Can it be right that the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority, in Cumbria, can refuse to consider a 32-year-old man for its constabulary by stipulating an upper age limit of 30? In London, a woman of 54 who has a PhD, a diploma in translation and another in computing, is fluent in three languages and has administrative and editorial skills, has been unable to find a full-time post. A man was excluded from a bookkeeper's position because applicants had to be under 30. A former primary school friend recently wrote to tell me that when she approached a local employment agency and mentioned her age she was not even asked to sit down, but told that it would be difficult to help her.

The achievements of older people have been in the news recently, with the reselection of John Glenn for a return to astronaut duties and the birth of a baby to a 60-year-old woman. A cartoon in the 23 January 1998 issue of Private Eye, to which I am a subscriber, shows an elderly couple sitting in armchairs by the fire with their slippers on, with the woman saying to the man, "You can't go up into space—I'm pregnant!"

At the other end of the scale, some people are arbitrarily told that they are too young. An advertisement in Miss London a few months ago stipulated, "Mature secretary, 30+," but what if someone is 28 or 29? People realise that age discrimination could affect them at some point in their life, which is why in the most recent Gallup poll, carried out for Age Concern last month, three quarters of people backed the need for legislation—and I am one of them. Unjustified discrimination against people on grounds of age is in its way just as dehumanising and offensive as any other form of discrimination.

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West)

The whole House and people outside will greatly welcome the way in which the hon. Lady is presenting her Bill and the ideas behind it. Does she agree that, if evidence shows that the average mature person stays in a job far longer than the average young person it means, first, that they are capable of doing the job and, secondly, that employers are losing out by arbitrarily excluding them or refusing to consider offering them the post? I say that with particular emphasis, as Worthing, West has the highest proportion of retired people in the country.

Ms Perham

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I left my first professional job within two years, whereas older people are far more likely to give longer service—for example, 10 years' service if they are 50 when appointed.

If passed, the Bill will be first piece of legislation to confront the issue of age discrimination. It will provide a positive sign that discrimination is unacceptable and ensure that all employers, large and small, have to address the problem. It will also act as a catalyst to change employers' attitudes. If the Bill is passed, age discrimination will be taken as seriously as other forms of discrimination, including sex, disability and race discrimination. The personal and economic waste that age discrimination perpetuates will begin to be addressed. The value of a mixed-age work force and opportunities for people of all ages will be championed.

My Bill is a modest measure to tackle only one aspect, employment age discrimination. I should like to go further and would have done so if I had thought that a more comprehensive Bill might become law under the private Member's Bill procedure. I want wide-ranging legislation that encompasses all aspects of age discrimination, not only in employment. The Bill must therefore be seen as a first step towards that wider legislation. It will send out the right message from the House that in the first Parliament of the new Labour Government we have not missed an opportunity to tackle this issue head on.

One of the most recent surveys, by Barkers in 1997, showed that one in 10 advertisements in The Sunday Times contain references to age. For example, can it be right for a company to ask for sales managers aged 25 to 40 or for buying controllers unlikely to be under 30 and—as reported by Nigel Dempster in the Daily Mail of 5 January 1998—for the Balmoral estate to advertise for a foreman gardener who should be between 20 and 35 years old?

An even higher proportion of job advertisements use general language to discriminate. In this Wednesday's edition of The Independent an advertisement appeared for young audio secretaries aged 18 to 29 and for vacancies for well-educated college leavers to work with young, fun teams of surveyors. I shall not insult surveyors by commenting on that, although I am married to an engineer—

Mr. Jim Dowd (Lord Commissioner to the Treasury)

Hear, hear!

Ms Perham

I know the background of my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Dowd) and I know that he supports engineers.

I was pleased to learn recently that the worst offender, the European Commission, has now agreed to begin to revise its agist recruitment policies. Given that the Amsterdam treaty includes a provision that allows the European Union to tackle age discrimination for the first time, it seems wholly appropriate that we should take the initiative and legislate at the first opportunity to promote the positive value of workers of all ages.

The Bill would make it unlawful to publish an advertisement with an actual or implied age or age range unless it can be justified on grounds irrespective of age. Unlike the Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North, my Bill does not make discrimination a criminal offence; it makes it a civil offence that will be dealt with by an industrial tribunal.

The Bill would apply to any advertisement appearing in Great Britain. If it proceeds to its further stages, I would want to widen its scope to include Northern Ireland.

The Bill provides for exemptions, including the armed forces, but only for jobs that require combat effectiveness, mirroring the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, and where a genuine occupational qualification requires someone of a particular age—for example, what is referred to in the Sex Discrimination Act as "a dramatic performance".

Candidates for dramatic performances in the House have to be over 21, but there is no upper age limit. I was elected in May, just a few weeks before my 50th birthday and the Father of the House, the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath), who represents my wonderfully supportive and much-loved parents, George and Edith Conroy, was re-elected at the age of 80. That is one way to get one's parents in Hansard—I am sure that they are watching.

Other legislation that prescribes an age limit will take precedence over the Bill. The Bill does not currently include a separately established enforcement agency, partly because it would be largely self-enforcing, but also because I believe that only the Government can introduce the necessary legislation to establish an enforcement agency such as the Equal Opportunities Commission. However, clause 9 allows the Secretary of State to introduce a code of practice containing practical guidance.

I do not believe that the Bill will cost either employers or the Government significant sums to implement. The Equal Opportunities Commission had a budget of less than £6 million in 1996–97 and the Commission for Racial Equality had a budget of £15.5 million. The Government admit that they cannot estimate the cost of enforcing the Race Relations Act 1976 and the Sex Discrimination Act 1975.

The United States, the land of free enterprise, introduced the Age Discrimination in Employment Act a generation ago, in 1967. According to the Employment Service, in "An international overview", published in 1990, it has been proven to work causing employers to reconsider job evaluation and descriptions in order to use objective criteria—rather than arbitrary age criteria. Other countries have followed suit. In 1992, New Zealand introduced similar legislation. Many states in Australia are following the example of South Australia, which introduced legislation in 1990. It has proved to be successful and is therefore attracting considerable support throughout the rest of Australia. There is also legislation in Spain, France, Sweden and Canada, and a wider range of countries have age-related discrimination laws or constitutional protection.

The barriers to legislation in this country are similar to those experienced by hon. Members who have introduced other discrimination legislation. It took many attempts to get on to the statute book legislation that outlaws discrimination based on gender, race or disability, but few people would now dispute its necessity.

In my view, the fact that there may be legal difficulties or other possible complexities is no excuse for not trying to right a wrong. There are armies of legal experts, civil servants and special advisers to help if the will exists.

Banning age limits has been tried, tested and proven to work. In 1996, the journal People Management adopted a policy of refusing to accept job advertisements with age limits. The reaction has been very positive. The journal said: If anything, the new policy has boosted business. People Management's revenue and market share have both increased substantially during the past 12 months. However, we cannot expect all employers and advertisers to act voluntarily. My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North predicted as much when he said: I doubt whether, next year"— he meant 1997— or the year after,"— 1998— any hon. Member will be able to say, 'People Management took the first step in 1996, and look what has happened since.""—[Official Report, 9 February 1996; Vol. 271, c. 560.] The previous Government's campaign for older workers, although well-meaning, was, unfortunately for the case for persuasion, a rather ineffective way of dealing with the problems. Voluntary action and attitude changing have their part to play, but we need a legislative lever, too. Depressingly, the evaluation of the previous Government's campaign, published last year, showed that there was little awareness of the campaign". A paper called "Age Discrimination in Employment" published in 1997 by Eurolink Age, a European network concerned with older people and issues of aging, said: there is no evidence as yet that this campaign has had a significant influence on employers' practice. Those surveyed appeared to acknowledge that an aging population would affect their business without realising that it also directly impacted on their work force.

I have tried hard, with the help of Age Concern, to do what I can to draft legislation that will have the support of the Government, officials at the Department for Education and Employment and others. The Bill is the third or fourth re-draft, following meetings with my right hon. Friend the Minister for Employment, Welfare to Work and Disability Rights and departmental officials. If some hon. Members want further changes to the Bill, that is the role of the Committee if the Bill progresses to that stage. I ask hon. Members to work with me and the people who obviously want and need legislation of the type that I propose.

I present the Bill to the House in a spirit of compromise and with a desire to make the Bill work. I want the Bill on the statute book so that we can start to honour our commitments to people who are discriminated against on grounds of age, and so that we can work to destroy the discrimination that devastates the lives of so many people.

Finally, I draw attention to the work of Age Concern in this area and to the way in which it has constantly and consistently campaigned for legislation to tackle age discrimination and to introduce policies that promote the well-being of older people. I pay tribute to its work in promoting the positive contribution that older people make to society and helping us to realise that we must act to tackle age discrimination.

Hon. Members will know that, this week, Age Concern has held an awareness campaign on all aspects of age discrimination—not only in employment, but in health, social security and consumer affairs.

Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne)

Does the hon. Lady recall that, earlier in the week, she and I attended a meeting with Age Concern and the all-party group for older people, in which Lady Greengross was a speaker, as was the hon. Lady? Does she recall the tangible disappointment of Lady Greengross and other people from Age Concern at the Government's change of tack on this issue? Can she confirm that?

Ms Perham

Well, Lady Greengross has made her views clear. This week she has been interviewed perhaps as much as I have, so her opinion has been made known.

More than 100 hon. Members have signed early-day motion 628, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, South (Mr. O'Hara), which welcomes Age Concern's age discrimination week and calls on the Government to respond with legislation, in the 1998–99 parliamentary Session, to ban age discrimination in the way that existing legislation outlaws race, sex and disability discrimination, tying in with the 1999 United Nations year for older persons.

I hope that the House will show its commitment to ending age discrimination by giving this limited Bill an unopposed Second Reading. Further to the intervention made by the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson), about 2,000 people have contacted Age Concern with their stories of age discrimination.

My Bill is a modest but significant milestone measure that will begin to act on the iniquity of age discrimination. It is the first step towards addressing wider issues of age discrimination and it will consequently send out important messages to employers—and society in general—about the positive value of workers of all ages. I commend the Bill to the House.

1.19 pm
Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham)

I start by thanking you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for calling me early in the debate and by giving my unreserved apologies to right hon. and hon. Members. I will be unable to stay beyond the delivery of my speech, as I have an urgent engagement at the Henry Allen school in my constituency at 2.30. I hope that the Chair and the House will forgive my impoliteness.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Ilford, North (Ms Perham) not only on presenting the Bill, but on her ingenuity in including her parents in the debate. They will be rightly proud of her, and I am delighted that she found that avenue.

This has an element of deja vu because, on 9 February 1996, I was the Minister when the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) presented a similar Bill. On that morning, we had a first-class debate and agreed to differ in the end. It was a good-humoured debate which reflected the great concern in the House for this issue. I am delighted to see the hon. Gentleman in his place, and that the hon. Lady has put the issue at the top of the agenda once again. No matter what our differences are on the route, our aims are the same.

I add my voice to that of the hon. Lady in congratulating Age Concern, which has put agism on the map this week. I am sure that no one in the Chamber has not seen the series of advertisements by Age Concern. I see from the nodding heads and smiles that they have had an impact. They certainly had an impact on my husband, who said that he thought the model looked rather more attractive fully dressed. I hope that we also pay attention to those later on in years who are doing things to prove that older people are not past their sell-by date. The one example that comes to mind is the astronaut John Glenn, who is about to return to his career in space many years after his first famous trip.

It is important that this debate receives wide coverage, as that would help me in my argument that we should use education and persuasion and not legislation. Using legislation, in my view, is using a hammer to crack a nut. While we all agree on the aims, we will differ on the ways in which they can be achieved. My sympathies lie not only with the hon. Members for Ilford, North and for Walsall, North, but with the 150 Labour Members who appended their names to the early-day motion. They fully expected a new Labour Government to honour their pledges.

In 1996, the shadow employment Minister at the time, the hon. Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney)—now the Minister of State, Department of Trade and Industry—made an unambiguous pledge. He said: The Labour party's position is quite clear. This Conservative Government may not accept my hon. Friend's Bill, but an incoming Labour Government will introduce comprehensive legislation to make age discrimination in employment illegal."—[Official Report, 9 February 1996; Vol. 271, c. 618.] Nothing could be clearer than that quote from the hon. Gentleman, but, nine months after coming to power, the Labour Government have broken their promise. That will be disappointing not just to hon. Members, but to members of Age Concern and the other organisations that have worked so hard on both the Bills that have been presented to the House in the past two years.

Mr. Robin Corbett (Birmingham, Erdington)

I am sure that it was a slip of the tongue when the hon. Lady said that the Labour Government had broken their promise. Is it not more accurate to say that the Government have not yet kept their promise? Will she wait, with me, till the next election to see what happens?

Mrs. Gillan

That is a generous interpretation of the Government's actions. The comment made on the Floor of the House was unambiguous. The Minister is not rising to say that legislation is imminent. Indeed, he has let it be known that legislation is not favoured by his Department at this time.

It is disappointing that hon. Members and the wider audience outside the House have been duped. The right hon. Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) also supported legislation at the time. What have the Government done so far? Precious little. They have abandoned the older workers advisory group, which regularly advised me when I was a Minister responsible for such matters. Sally Greengross, who was mentioned earlier, was a member of that group. I believe that she has had the privilege of meeting the Minister on this subject only once since his appointment. He has abandoned a group on whose advice he could have drawn.

The Government have announced that a code of practice will be developed, but that is not substantially different from my own campaign, which was built on the excellent work of my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe).

Despite the criticism of the hon. Member for Ilford, North, our campaign, with the limited funds that we had to spend on it, caused people to think about age discrimination. We had a series of roadshows. Such importance did I attach to the matter that I went out to launch those roadshows throughout the country.

We had widely circulated booklets, "Too old—who says?", which contained advice to older workers, "Getting on", which was advice to employers, and "Age Works", which was targeted at recruitment agencies. While we were researching advertisements and the age limits found in them, we discovered that out of, say, 22 newspaper advertisements that carried an age limit, 17 would have been placed by recruitment agencies. It was obvious that we had to get to the middlemen to stop such discrimination.

We had seminars with the Carnegie third age programme, the Industrial Society and the Policy Studies Institute. We even produced a video. The expenditure was real and the intentions were good. We have not seen such expenditure or activity from the Minister, who is in his place and is listening.

It might be apposite for me to put on record my thanks to all the officials and organisations that assisted me in my time as Minister and helped to make the campaign a success and to move the matter forward.

I am totally opposed to age discrimination. It is particularly shortsighted if employers practise it. The benefits to business of employing older people are undeniable—better service, lower staff turnover, experienced personnel and increased customer satisfaction. Some organisations, such as B and Q, make a virtue of employing older workers.

There is a phenomenon known as corporate memory loss. If a business does not retain its older workers, it may lose the experience and knowledge of the business that they have accumulated over many years. In Japan, the culture is quite the reverse. Hon. Members may know that when one does business in Japan, there will be a senior, much older man sitting in the meeting room. He will often close his eyes and appear not to be listening—indeed, he is called the sleeper. He is the senior man in the organisation, who has many years of experience. Whether a company gets the contract depends on his assessment of its representatives at the meeting. Many organisations waste their older workers, and I am glad that corporate memory loss is at last on the agenda.

At a time when businesses face increasing Government burdens in the form of taxes, regulation and the social chapter, I believe that the Bill will add yet another layer of bureaucracy. There is little international evidence that such legislation makes a real difference. There has been legislation covering this area in France since 1986, under the code de travail. However, in 1994, when we examined advertisements in Le Monde, 30 per cent. of them stated maximum age preferences—people were openly flouting the law.

The Minister, who does not want legislation, cannot be convinced that much action is necessary in this area. In the footnotes to his press release on the code of practice, he says that employment between the ages of 50 and retirement has risen by 1.9 per cent., versus 1.6 per cent. for the working age population in the past year. At least the Minister acknowledges that there has been some improvement in the position of the over-50s, but I am afraid that he adds weight to the argument that the hon. Lady's Bill should go no further.

I remain thoroughly opposed to age discrimination, but I will not support the legislation if it goes to Committee. However, I would like the Bill to go to Committee. A problem that affects many people throughout the country has been highlighted in the past fortnight. I wish to see that problem eradicated. I hope that hon. Members will not talk out the Bill: I hope that the Government Whips will not play any tricks on the House today. I hope that the Bill will go to Committee because the hon. Member for Ilford, North is providing a great service to many people in this country, and I support her.

Self-regulation must be given a chance, but I again draw the attention of the House to the fact that, although the Labour Government made a clear promise in this area, they have chosen to break it.

1.31 pm
Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, North (Ms Perham) on introducing the Bill and on the manner in which she did so. She deserves many congratulations, and I hope that the measure will make progress.

I was rather surprised to hear the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) say that she hopes that the Bill will go to Committee. When I presented my measure—which was almost the same as my hon. Friend's Bill—two years ago almost to the day, that was not the attitude displayed by the then Government. They did not wish my very modest measure to go to Committee.

Mr. Clive Efford (Eltham)

Corporate memory loss.

Mr. Winnick

Indeed. The mood was one of hostility, although it was an enjoyable debate. The hon. Lady said then that she opposed discrimination, but—as she said again today—she was certainly very much against legislation.

Mrs. Gillan

The difference between the hon. Gentleman's 1996 measure and this legislation is that this is a changed Bill. As the then Minister, I could not accept his proposals. I still do not accept this Bill, but I would like it to be discussed further.

Mr. Winnick

The House may make up its own mind on that intervention; the hon. Lady's remarks, now and then, are on the record.

Although there has been an increase in the amount of media coverage afforded to the subject in the past two years, there has been no change as far as dealing with discrimination on the ground of age. The hon. Lady—who is now leaving the Chamber; she explained why she had to go—was right to say that there is a greater awareness of age discrimination. The advertisement that has been referred to served a useful purpose by bringing the issue to the attention of those who perhaps would not bother to read a news story or a press release.

As for the present Government's attitude, a promise was given, but it was to bring in comprehensive legislation. I hope that the Government will support the Bill, but if they do not, so be it, although that would be unfortunate and I would share the disappointment felt by a number of my hon. Friends. I know that there has been a great deal of pressure exerted by employers not to bring in such legislation, and perhaps that pressure is all the greater because of other measures that we are introducing about which employers might not be keen, for example, on a national minimum wage, and trade union recognition as well I hope. I understand the pressure that is being exerted on the Government about the Bill.

Let us be clear that many people experience discrimination on the ground of age alone. I deplore all forms of discrimination, and I know that young people are often discriminated against. However, I know from what I have been told and from what has been said by hon. Members and others outside the House about the acute difficulties of those who could be described as middle aged. When they lose their job, they find it difficult to get another, certainly in the non-manual sector, simply because they are in their 40s. Indeed, age discrimination can begin when people are in their 30s. Some employers state in their advertisements that the upper age limit for applicants is 35. Those who reach their 40s, let alone their 50s, find that, time and again, even though they have the qualifications and are capable of doing the new job, the door is closed for no other reason than that they have reached the advanced age of, for example, 45.

I remember the maiden speech of one of my hon. Friends who entered the House in 1992, and who said that he had just turned 45. He was starting on a new career and has done well since then, but, as he pointed out then, he would not have stood a chance of obtaining so many other jobs simply because he had reached his mid-40s. That must be wrong and cannot be defended. If it is not possible by voluntary means, persuasion or education to overcome the problem, legislation is needed.

Yvette Cooper (Pontefract and Castleford)

Does my hon. Friend agree that tackling age discrimination is a critical part of the fight against long-term unemployment because people who lose their jobs, particularly the over-50s, are more likely to become long-term unemployed and to stay on the dole year after year?

Mr. Winnick

My hon. Friend has made a valid point that ties in with my remarks about people's difficulty in getting a job because of their middle age.

Two years ago, I made much about linking age discrimination with that on the grounds of race and gender. We are not responsible for the colour of our skin, or whether we happen to be born male or female; neither are we responsible for when we were born. Discrimination on the grounds of race, gender or age must be unacceptable.

As I said two years ago, much of the argument against legislating against age discrimination, as outlined by the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham and the Conservative party, is the same as that used over 30 years ago against any legislative attempt to deal with race discrimination. Then, Conservative Members, many of whom were by no means racist, although I accept that some were, repeatedly said that we could not change human nature by law. They said that it was a matter of trying to educate and pressurise people to make them understand that it was wrong to discriminate on the ground of race.

Thirty years on, and despite all the difficulties still connected with racial discrimination, would anyone suggest that the progress we have made on race relations, and its subsequent impact on jobs and housing provision, would have been made without legislation?

Thirty years ago, it was argued that it was the customer rather than the employer who might be prejudiced. It would be unthinkable that anyone could now queue up at a bank, building society or wherever and then say, "No, I cannot be served by that person. She is of Asian origin. She is black." It would be unthinkable for an employer to try to discriminate in such a blatant way. Indeed, it would be against the law, apart from anything else.I accept and concede the point that to be discriminated against because of one's colour might be much worse than being discriminated against because of age, but to be penalised for no other reason than when one was born is, in my view, absolutely wrong.

One of the ironies is that many companies that discriminate on the ground of age have in their most senior positions people in their 40s, 50s—even 60s. No one is suggesting for one moment, including those companies, that the people who do the most senior, executive jobs cannot do them because they have reached what could be described as a rather advanced or late middle age.

I hope that the Bill will make progress, but what is required is comprehensive legislation to deal with age discrimination. My remarks today demonstrate that I have increasingly come to that view. If I am asked why I tried two years ago to introduce a more modest, limited measure, I say that it was because I knew that if I had tried to introduce more comprehensive legislation, there would have been no chance of the then Conservative Government supporting it. Indeed, they decided not to support my more modest measure. My hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney) said what he said at the time, but he also made the point that the Labour party is committed to comprehensive legislation, and, moreover, that an incoming Labour Government would consult on such legislation. As my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett) pointed out, we have been in office a relatively short time—under a year—and there is time to consult.

If the problem will go away without legislation, those of us who are pressing for a change to the law will have to accept that there is no need for legislation, but I believe that it will not go away any more than the problem of race or gender discrimination. What has happened in the past two years demonstrates that little progress, if any, has been made in combating age discrimination, although there is a greater awareness of the issue. To my right hon. Friend the Minister for Employment, Welfare to Work and Disability Rights I say that if the problem does not go away, I hope that the Government will act, as it was a Labour Government who acted on race discrimination 30 years ago.

If the Government decide on a voluntary code of practice and decide that it simply does not work—that people continue to be penalised because of their age—I hope that they will conclude that comprehensive legislation is required. We must make progress on this issue. My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, North has done a public service. Indeed, to a large extent she has carried out what the Labour party conference decided in combating age discrimination. If we reject the Conservative notion that legislation is never desirable in such a field, and the Government conclude that the problem will not go away unless legislation is introduced, I hope that Ministers will have the courage to do precisely that.

1.43 pm
Mr. Don Foster (Bath)

I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick), who has done so much to promote this issue.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Ilford, North (Ms Perham) not only on her success in the ballot and on choosing the Bill, but on the thoughtful, measured and well-informed way in which she opened the debate. I join her in congratulating Age Concern on its work in this area, and the campaign that it has been running for such a long time. I hope that, through the success of her Bill, something that Age Concern has campaigned for will become a reality.

Perhaps I should begin by declaring a sort of interest. Although I have a fair degree of confidence in the good sense and judgment of the voters of Bath at the next general election, one should not be over-confident. I may have to look for a job at that time and, if so, I hope that this Bill will have gone through. In the past 24 hours, I have looked at job advertisements in two local newspapers, The Bath Chronicle and the Western Daily Press, and I am currently debarred from many of the jobs advertised.

For instance, I have some of the skills required if I want to be a sales executive. I have no experience of that, but the advertisement says that no previous sales experience is required, and I have well-developed communication skills and a high degree of self-motivation. Sadly, however, I am debarred from that job because the applicant must be between the ages of 25 and 35. A fascinating advertisement said that if I answered five questions correctly, I could excitingly ring Rachel on 011790 77733. I could answer four of the questions: could I drive; was I enthusiastic; was I seeking a career—I may be seeking one in the future—and was my appearance smart. Others must judge the answer to the last of those four questions. However, if I was to ring Rachel, I had to be between the ages of 18 and 45.

I might have wanted to be a training instructor, advising people how to use soft ice cream and thick milk shake equipment, but I note that I could not do that because only people aged 22 to 35 were sought, despite the fact that training would be provided. I got quite excited when I saw an advertisement with no age bar. It said that the company wanted an excellent communicator, a persuasive individual, able to strike up excellent relationships with customers. However, the advertisement went on: For talented people, this is an excellent opportunity to join a young and dynamic environment which offers excellent career scope for up and coming individuals. It was an excellent way not to mention an age range, but, nevertheless, make it clear what was required.

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham)

It sounds like the Labour party.

Mr. Foster

I shall not comment on new Labour.

One job that I was surprised to see advertised, given that a certain television programme is enjoying popularity, was headed, "Do you have an inquisitive nature?" It said, if so: Busy Bristol-based Private Investigation Company is looking for out-going and confident agents … aged 20 to 30. Clearly, that company has never hear of Hetty Wainthropp.

The Liberal Democrats fully support the Bill. I accept that the measure is limited and, like the hon. Member for Ilford, North, we should like to go much further and persuade the Government to update the Fair Employment (Northern Ireland) Act 1976, which was last updated in 1989. We want additional comprehensive legislation, outlawing discrimination of all kinds, including religion, sexual orientation and age, to complement the existing legislation covering gender, faith, race and trade union membership.

No one should be denied access to employment for any reason that is unrelated to his or her ability to carry out a job, and no one should be hindered in the workplace because of matters irrelevant to his or her suitability for a job. The legislation that we should like would include outlawing age discrimination in advertisements for job vacancies, and this Bill is an important first step. That is why I am delighted to be one of its sponsors.

Unfortunately, discrimination in employment is still widespread, but tackling advertisements as proposed will at least begin to help to overcome that. Reference has already been made to last year's Age Concern survey, which found that one in 10 jobs advertised in The Sunday Times and 11 per cent. of the jobs advertised in The Daily Telegraph carried numerical age limits. The important thing to bear in mind is that a much higher proportion of those advertisements used language that effectively discriminated against particular age groups. Such discrimination is widespread, and I believe that it is detrimental not only to the individuals concerned but to the economy as a whole. Many skilled and experienced people are being denied access to jobs.

The hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) talked about "corporate memory loss". She was right. Too many skills are going untapped. Although we all seem to have accepted the idea that the computer industry is intended only for young people, many firms are now having to go out and recruit the computer programmers of the 1960s, because they are the only people with the relevant knowledge and skills to deal with the problems caused by the millennium bug.

That is a good example of the way in which we should invest in such people and encourage them back into the workplace, helping them with retraining where necessary. We should ensure that there is protection against discrimination through the type of legislation before us.

We have tended to concentrate on the problems faced by older people, but it is always worth remembering that age discrimination applies equally to younger people. The Age Concern survey found that 18 million adults had found some form of age discrimination in employment, and the authors point out that more than half of those were under the age of 45.

We know how important the issue is. Some people will suggest that the problem could be resolved by the introduction of a voluntary code of practice. Clearly, that would be better than nothing, but I believe that all the arguments are in favour of specific legislation.

We need to persuade people of the real advantages of not discriminating against older people. We need to get them to realise the benefits that companies such as B and Q have gained by employing people with better interpersonal skills, the ability provide higher quality customer service and a wide range of skills.

Of course, a voluntary code of practice would help, but, as the hon. Member for Walsall, North rightly suggested, voluntary codes of practice in respect of gender and of race did not work. We had to introduce specific legislation to get rid of discrimination on those grounds. The same is true of discrimination on the ground of age, so I hope that all right hon. and hon. Members will ensure that the Bill gets a Second Reading, goes into Committee and becomes law in due course.

1.52 pm
Miss Melanie Johnson (Welwyn Hatfield)

I shall endeavour to be brief, because I understand that many of my hon. Friends want to contribute to the debate. The hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) has now left the Chamber, but I shall still say that listening to her speech I found it difficult to understand why, after all that she had done, we had not seen a more marked improvement in the situation. She is unduly critical of what is being done.

However, I was interested to hear about the danger of corporate memory loss. That is not something from which we in Parliament suffer. On occasions, it has even been possible for me to contemplate the idea that we may occasionally have a surfeit of corporate memory in this place.

By the turn of the century, four out of 10 people will be over 45—a significant proportion of the population. More than 39 per cent. of those currently over 40 believe that they have experienced age discrimination in some way or another. Labour Research did a survey of job advertisements in 1995; at that time, 46 per cent. of them expressed an age preference. Where a preference was expressed for a particular age, 87 per cent. excluded the over-40s—research that is in line with what the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) found. That striking picture can be seen in a number of contexts.

Over the past 20 years, the number of men aged between 55 and 64 who are not working has risen from 14 to 37 per cent. Many employers clearly see 50 as a watershed. Labour Members are great supporters of youth, youth culture and modernity, but I think it is taking that too far to see 50 as a cut-off point.

What would we be like without the older people in our lives? I think that we have to include almost all those present in that category. A few of my hon. Friends could possibly dissociate themselves from my remarks, but, sadly, the vast majority of us cannot. Few of us would be in the House if the over-50s, let alone the over-40s, were excluded.

Bernard Baruch, the American financier, said in 1955: Old age is always 15 years older than I am. I must agree with that sentiment. I felt the same even when I was 25.

Dorothy Fuldheim, an American writer, said: Youth is a disease from which we all recover. Nearly all of us here have recovered. In previous years, we have not always set the example for the country that we should have set, but, in this respect, I think that we do set an example. There is now a wide age range in the House. Members come here because—hopefully—they are respected and merit public support, not because they are young, or indeed because they are not young. Where would we be if we did not have the likes of my right hon. Friends the Members for Hull, East (Mr. Prescott), for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) and for Derby, South (Mrs. Beckett), to name but a few?

Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne)

Is that irony?

Miss Johnson

No, it certainly is not. It is genuinely felt, and I am sure that there are Conservative Members of whom the hon. Gentleman would say the same.

Madam Speaker is another example. She performs her role with great energy, and she has clearly passed 40—I shall put it that way.

What can people in their middle and older years contribute? I believe that merit is the proper criterion for employment, as it is in many other contexts. Age brings experience, wisdom, maturity and sense. Older people may be wittier, just as energetic as younger people, and very good to work with. A group of former colleagues visited me yesterday, all of whom had certainly turned 40 and all of whom are still energetically inspecting schools on behalf of the Office of Standards in Education. I am very well served in my office, where three people have turned 40. Although I have turned 40 myself, I still hope to acquire the additional qualities that age brings, such as experience and maturity. I am working towards that.

The country cannot afford, in any sense—economically, or in terms of the general well-being of individuals—to neglect and discard those who reach riper years. They not only have the benefits of experience, but are likely to have fewer family responsibilities, and to be more flexible and reliable. We need more of them, not fewer.

T. S. Eliot said in an interview in 1950: The years between 50 and 70 are the hardest. You are always being asked to do things and yet you are not decrepit enough to turn them down. Let us apply that to employment—as, indeed, it should be applied to other areas of life.

1.58 pm
Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne)

In the short time available, I am delighted to have an opportunity to contribute to the debate. I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Ilford, North (Ms Perham) on her presentation of the Bill, which she did extremely well. It is nerve-racking for any of us to do such a thing. I apologise to the Front-Bench spokesmen if I cannot stay to the end of the winding-up speeches. I am sure that they will understand.

Mark Twain said that, when he was 16, he thought his father was really stupid, but that, by the time he was 21, he was amazed by how much the old man had learned. Age and youth are relative things. I am honoured to be a co-chairman of the all-party group for older people and am delighted to see my colleague, the hon. Member for Knowsley, South (Mr. O'Hara), in the Chamber. I never quite knew whether I qualified. It used to be the all-party pensioners group; we changed the name recently. The qualification age seems to have gone down further and further; these days, it is between 45 and 50. I am 47, so perhaps I need to declare an interest in this debate; some mornings I feel that I qualify more than others.

I know from first hand the contribution that older people make to our community—and would make, if they were only permitted. In my constituency of Eastbourne, 40 per cent. of my voters are over retirement age. The majority of my constituents are over 45 or 50. That is the sort of age where discrimination seems to bite.

It is extraordinary to see the experience and wisdom that those constituents have accumulated. Many of them put it to good use in the voluntary sector, working for charities and other organisations. That is all splendid, but I am sure that many of them would have liked to continue working either up to or beyond the normal retirement age, simply because they did not particularly feel like retiring and believed that they had something to offer. They were not ready for the scrap heap. That is what the Bill is about.

As we have heard, the Age Concern survey found that 18.5 million adults believed that they had encountered some form of age discrimination. The problem is found in a variety of sectors, not just employment. We are told that 40 per cent. of post-heart attack rehabilitation programmes impose an arbitrary upper age limit on who can join, which is remarkable in itself. The benefit system is also relevant. One's date of birth can make a big difference to one's entitlement. Bills such as this need to be discussed in the financial services sector. People pay more if they are older. They miss out on some entitlements. Even hiring a car or renewing insurance can cost people more if they are older.

This is a timely debate, if for no other reason than that it represents yet another broken election pledge by the Labour Government. The past few months have been littered with broken pledges. We have heard the quote before, but it bears repetition. The Minister of State, Department of Trade and Industry, the hon. Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney), said: an incoming Labour Government will introduce comprehensive legislation to make age discrimination in employment illegal."—[Official Report, 9 February 1996; Vol. 271, c. 618.] Older people in my constituency will be as dismayed as I am that the Government have broken yet another pledge by reneging on their commitment to legislate against discrimination at work. They have announced a voluntary code of conduct for employers, rather than a change in the law.

As we have heard, Age Concern is equally dismayed, particularly as this coincides with age discrimination week. A spokesman said that Age Concern was very very disappointed the Government was not fulfilling the commitment made clearly in Parliament before the election. At a meeting earlier this week with Lady Greengross of Age Concern, it was clear that Age Concern, representing millions of older people, felt that it had been severely let down by this Government.

Mr. Marsha Singh (Bradford, West)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Waterson

No, I will not. I do not have time.

I appreciate the efforts of the hon. Member for Ilford, North in introducing the Bill. She must have had a massive postbag and I commend her for her efforts. Many technical matters of definition need to be addressed in the Bill and that is why we have a Committee stage, but, for the moment, the Bill deserves a fair wind and a Second Reading.

2.3 pm

Ms Claire Ward (Watford)

I, too, support the aims of the Bill, but, as currently drafted, it does not deal with some of the problems of age discrimination. Discrimination of any sort is, of course, unacceptable and we have had legislation for many years that prohibits discrimination on the grounds of sex, race and, lately, disability, but attitudes take much longer to change. Even if the House were to enact the Bill today, it would not, unfortunately, ensure that age discrimination did not continue in workplaces, health services and the leisure and other industries.

Mr. Singh

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Ms Ward


If we enact comprehensive legislation at some time in future—we should not rule that out—it will still take a long time to change people's perception and to educate them so that they see other people's merits and what they can bring to employment rather than simply their age.

As a young hon. Member, I can speak with some authority about age discrimination against younger people. During my selection as a candidate for the recent general election, comments were occasionally made about my age. I have always believed that it is not a matter of how old or young someone is, but whether they are capable of doing the job. Although in the House I feel young, when I watch my local football team in Watford I am conscious that the players are considerably younger than me.

I watched my father suffer age discrimination when he lost his job in his mid-50s. Despite looking much younger than his years—perhaps the House will allow me to be biased about that—he often faced discrimination when filling in forms that required him to state his age and details of his early education. When he finally gained employment, he suffered the comments of younger managers such as, "You are old enough to be my father" and "I am surprised that someone of your age is still working."

We all recognise that changes are required. Recently, one of my constituents, a capable and young-looking woman of 69, applied for a job in a well-known and highly respected high street store during the Christmas period. She requested an application form, completed it and handed it in with the passport photographs that were required. As she had previous retail experience, she was an ideal candidate. She was invited for an interview. When she got there the personnel department was quite impressed, but, being an honest woman, she felt that she should say that she was 69. She was promptly informed that company policy would not permit the store to employ her as she was over retirement age. Disappointed, she returned home determined to approach other employers who did not discriminate in that way. To make matters worse, over the next few days she was telephoned by the personnel department of the store and asked whether she was interested in work. Clearly, the staff had looked at her form and seen how much experience she had. When she advised them once again that she was 69, they apologised and said that they could not employ her. Since then, the company has apologised and provided a generous token, but it has not changed its policy.

Hon. Members will have encountered countless examples of discrimination in local advertisements, papers and among their constituents. Many people are extremely good at their job and at local community work irrespective of their age. If we are to attempt to remove age discrimination, it is important to debate the matter and I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, North (Ms Perham) has provided us with an opportunity to do so. However, it is a long-term objective and we must work harder to ensure that discrimination is removed and that company policy—as well as that of local authorities and the Government—is changed so that we can change people's attitudes.

2.8 pm

Mr. David Willetts (Havant)

We have just heard a fine and interesting speech from the hon. Member for Watford (Ms Ward), who I see from "The Times Guide to the House of Commons" was born in 1972 and began work as a part-time secretary in 1985—at the age of 13. I am pleased that there was no age discrimination there.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Ilford, North (Ms Perham) on introducing the Bill. It is a measure with a long history. We heard from the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick), who has been pursuing his campaign for a long time with great vigour and persistence.

I want not only to congratulate the hon. Member for Ilford, North; I should like also to commiserate with her. I suspect that, when choosing to promote this Bill, she may have thought—having come so high in the ballot for private Members' Bills—that she would be in a position to start implementing the Labour manifesto pledge that, in work, older people should not be discriminated against because of their age. However, rather than finding herself happily implementing a measure to pursue a manifesto commitment, she has the sad experience of her Bill being strangled at birth by being talked out in today's debate. She has gone from being a loyalist to being a rebel without her views on the subject of age discrimination changing one jot. I suppose that that is a feature of the vagaries of politics.

It is right to debate this subject this week because it is age discrimination week. Age discrimination is wrong in principle—that point has been made by hon. Members on both sides of the House—and economically wasteful. I had the honour of participating in some of the work done in the Carnegie study of the third age, which very clearly established that employers are missing out because of their entirely irrational prejudice against older workers.

There have been some very encouraging experiments by organisations such as B and Q, which has actively gone out and recruited older workers. Whether such a policy would be possible under the Bill is an interesting point. Regardless, having actively recruited older workers, B and Q reports less absenteeism and sickness and higher rates of consumer satisfaction with the service that they receive in B and Q shops.

The Opposition's position on the Bill is that there are arguments in favour of it, but that there are also substantial arguments against it. There are concerns in the business community about the burden that businesses would face if such regulations were imposed. We believe that it would be right for the Bill to proceed to Committee, having secured a Second Reading, so that those arguments can be thrashed out—particularly in the light of the comment made earlier in the debate by the hon. Member for Ilford, North, who went out of her way to say that she would be "flexible" in Committee and consider any practical amendments to the Bill.

Having stated the Opposition's position on the Bill, I look forward to hearing the Minister tell us the Government's view. This has been a rather erratic week for Government policy on older workers. First, we had a press notice from the Minister's Department that went on about a voluntary code of practice. That is fine—we have no problems with it—but it did not begin to clarify the Minister's view on legislation. Next, there were some quotations in the press that implied that the Minister had concluded against legislation. He apparently went beyond that press statement in his remarks to the press and talked about Trying to define some of these things in law could be setting up a minefield of complexity, with whole rafts of people going to industrial tribunals", which sounded like a Minister preparing for a climbdown.

Subsequently, we were told that perhaps some legislation would be possible—which I believe the Minister said to the nation through the medium of the Jimmy Young show. It would be very helpful to know whether the Minister believes that there should be legislation to deal with the issue. I look forward to hearing from him on that.

Today, another ingenious defensive argument has been mounted—we heard it in the intervention of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett), who is no longer in the Chamber—which is that the Government's commitment was to legislate comprehensively, so it would not be possible for the Government to legislate in a small but practical manner to deal with part of the problem. It is the argument that one cannot do a little but can perhaps do a lot.

The claim that it is impossible to implement the measures in this private Member's Bill because there may be subsequent and much more ambitious legislation is stretching credibility an awful long way, especially as the Minister of State, Department of Trade and Industry, the hon. Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney)—who was then the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman—said in a press release issued on 8 February 1996 that Outlawing age discrimination in job adverts is a worthy beginning. He believed that it would be a prelude to more ambitious legislation, so I cannot understand why the small measure before the House today has to be impeded because of the possibility of some more ambitious legislation later. I suspect that the Government have lost all interest in age discrimination. I suspect that they do not intend to legislate.

I suggest that we have clear evidence of the Government's real views on older workers in the pattern of expenditure in the welfare-to-work programme. We heard an extraordinary intervention from the hon. Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), who said that employing older people would be an important part of the Government's welfare-to-work policies; but we know that, of the £3.5 billion that is to be spent on welfare-to-work measures, £3.15 billion—90 per cent.—will go on young people aged 18 to 24 and only £350 million will go on the long-term unemployed. Despite some rather vague promises from the Chancellor when he launched the pilot projects for welfare to work, a parliamentary answer to a question that I subsequently tabled clearly establishes that the Government have no intention whatsoever of offering older workers the four options available to 18 to 24-year-olds, unless they have been unemployed for two years—four times longer than it is necessary for 18 to 24-year-olds to have been unemployed.

We know that young people are the more mobile section of the work force and are able to get back into work more rapidly than older workers. They already have an 80 per cent. chance of getting off benefit within a year of being unemployed for six months. It seems extraordinary that the Government should display such bias against older people in the one practical intervention in the labour market—the welfare-to-work programme—that they have made since coming to office.

I shall conclude by quoting, yet again, the words spoken in 1996 by the Minister of State, Department of Trade and Industry, the hon. Member for Makerfield, who was then the shadow spokesman on this subject. He said: an incoming Labour Government will introduce comprehensive legislation to make age discrimination in employment illegal."—[Official Report, 9 February 1996; Vol. 271, c. 618] If statements of policy made to the House from the Front Bench are to count for anything, the Government should be supporting the Bill this afternoon.

2.16 pm
The Minister for Employment, Welfare to Work and Disability Rights (Mr. Andrew Smith)

I join other hon. Members in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, North (Ms Perham) on her campaign on this important issue. I am grateful to her for the way in which she stated her case to the House. I listened with great interest to what she and what other hon. Members said.

Let me make it absolutely clear that I agree that unjustified age discrimination is unfair and a terrible waste of human potential. My hon. Friend's Bill and age discrimination week have achieved much in focusing greater public attention on these matters and on the need to counter age discrimination in employment. I share my hon. Friend's concern about the need to ensure that everybody has the chance to participate in the labour market. A modern economy needs a work force with the right skills and attitudes, and selection on the basis of age will often rule out the best candidate for the job. Such age discrimination is wrong, it makes no economic sense and it is unfair to the individuals affected. I share my hon. Friend's determination to tackle the sense of injustice felt in respect of age discrimination, especially as it affects older workers.

It is a bit rich for the hon. Members for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) and for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) to criticise us for failing to legislate in nine months, when the Conservative Government they supported did not legislate in 18 years. Let me make clear the Government's position. I hope that my hon. Friend will understand that, although we recognise the importance of the issue and are determined to tackle age discrimination, we do not support the Bill as an effective or appropriate way of doing so.

Our reasons for taking that view are first—as I know my hon. Friend recognised because she referred to it in her speech—that the Bill does not itself tackle age discrimination; secondly, it raises expectations of equal treatment that it does not fulfil—under the Bill, employers would still be free to discriminate during selection on the grounds of age, even if the age limit were not stated explicitly in the advertisement; thirdly, the Bill does not make allowance for positive action for particular age groups, not least for older people themselves. The new deal would therefore be caught by the Bill. It would expose to legal challenge advertisement of the new deal, not only for the 18 to 24-year-olds, but for the over-25s.

In summary, the Bill, although intended sincerely to take a first step in getting to grips with a pressing issue, would not achieve its purpose and, I fear, would not provide the practical benefits for older workers that my hon. Friend, I and many hon. Members on both sides of the House desire. Although the Government do not feel able to support the Bill, I would like to underline our belief, as stated in our manifesto, that older workers should not be discriminated against because of their age.

Mr. John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington)

If the Government do not see fit to support the Bill, which is not meant to outlaw overall age discrimination, but to be a first step along the path, will my right hon. Friend give a commitment to the House today that we will see legislation in the life of this Parliament to outlaw age discrimination? I am not talking about codes of practice, which have proved ineffective in all other spheres of discrimination and would eventually result in the need for legislation, but a commitment to legislation to tackle discrimination on the grounds of age.

Mr. Smith

I am not making that commitment today, for the very reason that the Government, as my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) acknowledged, said that they would consult, and that consultation is under way. I intend it to continue into the spring. I have met a range of groups and made a number of visits, and we are examining the issues closely.

I do not wish to pre-empt the outcome of the consultation, but I am persuaded that there is a case for drawing up a code of practice on age discrimination in employment. I believe that such a code could do much to address the practical issues that older workers and businesses face. More work clearly needs to be done to confirm the benefits of a code and what it should include, but I expect it to include guidance on recruitment practices and examples of where businesses have benefited from a progressive approach to recruitment and retention.

From comments that I have received so far, I believe that such a code would carry us forward in countering unjustified age discrimination. I think that it would be welcomed by employers, trade unions and employees alike. To be effective, the code would require all sides of industry to support it. In drawing it up, we shall, of course, consult leading organisations as well as the general public.

I take the important point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North. If we implement a code of practice, the monitoring of outcomes will be crucial. I want to ensure that close scrutiny of what happens, with the introduction and operation of a code, is given a high priority.

I believe that a partnership approach is vital if we are successfully to tackle age discrimination in employment. We must challenge attitudes and change behaviour; in some cases, we must change beliefs, as well as taking a more mechanistic approach. We have an opportunity, with a Government who genuinely believe in tackling discrimination, to get people working together—employers, big and small, professional organisations, trade unions and the lobby—to achieve a code that will be of benefit to all.

I hope and feel sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, North will want to be actively involved in helping to draw up the code. Her campaign for her Bill will deserve to be remembered as a key catalyst for the action that we take. It has also prompted another announcement that I make today.

The Employment Service has always said that it is wasteful and short-sighted for employers to refuse to consider jobseekers solely on the grounds of age, but, to date, it has reluctantly accepted vacancies from employers who could not be persuaded of the skills and experience that older workers have to offer—in other words, who specify age limits.

However, in the spirit of change that the Government wish to bring about, the chief executive of the Employment Service has proposed that jobcentres should ordinarily no longer accept upper age restrictions on vacancies notified by employers. We shall obviously examine very carefully how this is to be implemented, but I believe that it is right in principle, so, as we consult on the code of practice, we shall examine how those arrangements can best and most fairly be put in place. That will be an example of the Government acting and giving a lead to counter unfair age discrimination.

Mr. Singh

In the spirit of change, will my right hon. Friend consider publishing a Green Paper on age discrimination so that the merits of voluntary codes and legislation can be debated thoroughly and we can consult widely before moving forward?

Mr. Smith

I am pleased to assure my hon. Friend that we shall publish the results of our consultation. I cannot today say exactly what status that publication will have, but obviously it will act as a useful stimulus to the further public debate, and shifts in attitude and behaviour, that we all want on this important issue.

I emphasise that, although we are progressing with consultation on age discrimination, the code of good practice and the change of Employment Service practice, those are not the only expressions of Government involvement, concern and action on these issues. There have been a couple of references in the debate to the new deal. Naturally, much publicity has surrounded the new deal for 18 to 24-year-olds, but we are not ignoring in the new deal the needs of those over-25s who are long-term unemployed.

My hon. Friend the Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) was right in saying that there is an important link between tackling age discrimination and tackling effectively the scourge of long-term unemployment, especially for people in areas that have suffered devastating structural change, which has condemned very many people who have had a long working life to unemployment in circumstances where they see very little prospect of getting back to work.

That position must be challenged, and the new deal will help, as will other measures that the Government are taking, such as the introduction of employment zones. We are at present piloting five prototype employment zones, in Plymouth, Liverpool, south Teesside, Glasgow and north-west Wales. The aim of the employment zones is to focus on the needs of people, so that the programmes are fitted to people instead of people being obliged to fit the programmes. Within the terms of reference and the prospectus that the employment zone areas are drawing up, based on local partnership, action is being taken to help older workers into jobs.

All that is taking place in addition to the wide range of existing Employment Service measures already available to help older workers into work, including work trials, job interview guidance and job clubs. Job clubs may be of particular help to older workers, and job club leaders are given guidance to deal with issues that may especially affect the older jobseeker.

Through the Employment Service, we are piloting in north Tees a programme for jobseekers between the ages of 45 and 65, called "targeting the over forty fives". It offers a workshop-based programme covering job search techniques and a direct marketing and recruitment service, providing details of jobseekers to all companies in Stockton. That pilot will run into the spring and the results will be evaluated.

The Government are keen to support the invaluable community-based projects that are helping older workers into jobs. For example, the new directions 50-plus project in Harlesden provides one-to-one counselling and group sessions for unemployed older people and maintains a register to match clients with local employers' vacancies and in an inner-city area with a high proportion of unemployed over-50s, the project is proving succesful. I know something of this at first hand because I visited it last September. It is also an impressive example of how partnership can work in practice in challenging age discrimination and helping older workers into jobs. Partnerships are a key theme of all our back-to-work activities and this project combines the best of individual initiatives and the labour market needs of the local area. It is a partnership between Harlesden city challenge and the third age challenge with support from the Employment Service and other agencies.

That is but one example; there are many others. For example the FENIX project in Barnsley provides an integrated recruitment, guidance and training services with local partners such as the Bradford training and enterprise council. The over-50s job club—

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

Debate to be resumed upon Friday 13 February.