HC Deb 04 May 2000 vol 349 cc280-2
5. Mr. Alan W. Williams (East Carmarthen and Dinefwr)

What measures the Government are taking to raise the economic activity rate for men aged 50 to 65 years. [119620]

The Minister for Employment, Welfare to Work and Equal Opportunities (Ms Tessa Jowell)

The Government have put in place a range of measures to help to raise the economic activity rate among men aged 50 to 65. Those measures are designed to expand the labour market and address skill shortages. The new deal for people aged 50-plus—which was launched by the Prime Minister last month—and the new deal for disabled people are helping many people over 50 to find work. That drive is supported by the attack on age discrimination made through the code of practice for age diversity in employment, the publication of which was warmly welcomed by the Trades Union Congress and the Confederation of British Industry.

Mr. Williams

Does my right hon. Friend agree that an ethos has developed over the past 20 years which resulted in people over 50—many of whom voluntarily took early redundancy—feeling that they were on the scrap heap, but that that has now changed? As we approach full employment, the skills, expertise and extra output of those people is needed. Indeed, the income that they can bring is needed in many low-income households.

Will the new deal for the over-50s have a regional bias to help older industrial areas—such as my constituency—and those areas where there are high numbers of over-50s on incapacity benefit?

Ms Jowell

I thank my hon. Friend and entirely agree with his emphasis on the importance of halting the waste of skills and experience and delivering for all people of working age the prospect of employment for those who can work and security for those who cannot.

The important point is that the jobs are there and we must ensure that employers recognise the clear benefits of diversity in their work force. We are tackling age discrimination by putting in place job search programmes such as the new deal which, in its pilot phase, has already had considerable success in getting older people into work, offering individuals help, employment credit and assistance with in-work training. The new deal offers a package of measures and practical help, putting people into available jobs. It is linked to the intensive help being provided through employment zones in areas of high unemployment and the work of action teams who, later this year, will begin to tackle incidences of high unemployment. We have made a good start. There is a lot more to do, but older workers should recognise that they have much to fear from the Tories, whose hostility to the new deal and the help and opportunity that it has provided to young people and unemployed older people has been unremitting.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)

The only reason that we are not enthusiastic about the new deal is that it simply does not work.

I should declare an interest in connection with the question, in that, later this year, I shall fall into the relevant age category.

Is it not true that what will count will be not the new deal or other programmes, but a change of attitude on the part of employers? Is it not true that older people, even old, grey-haired sketchwriters, have as much to offer as anyone else? With your permission, Madam Speaker, I shall read one paragraph from a very good and very lucid letter that I received this morning. It is actually about the possibility of our changing to a dollar currency, rather than to the euro, and I entirely accept that it would be out of order were it not that it demonstrates that age should be no barrier. It states: I think perhaps that I should remark that I am now over 100 years old and have served in both World Wars, in Mesopotamia, India, the UK … Canada and the USA. Written by Brigadier E. M. Ransford, the letter demonstrates that what counts is not one's age, but one's enthusiasm, energy and zest for life.

Ms Jowell

Let me deal first with the hon. Gentleman's unfounded assertion that the new deal does not work. Do not take it from the Government—take it from independent research that confirms that the new deal is getting young unemployed people into work, that they are staying there and that it is having a substantial impact on reducing the scourge of long-term unemployment. If I had to choose between listening to the Opposition's assertions about the new deal and talking to young people who know that they would not have got into work without it, I know whose views I would take more seriously.

The hon. Gentleman is right about the importance of changing culture, but such a change alone is not enough. The new deal for older people, which offers practical help, advice and support, is the way in which we shall deliver on the hopes and ambitions of older people to leave benefit and get back into work.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

When 2.8 million people between 50 and retirement age do not work, half of them are on benefits and half have been jobless for five years, why do the Government offer them only a tiny fraction of the funds that are given to the young unemployed? Exactly how many of the older unemployed does the Minister expect to return to the labour market as a result of the new deal for the over-50s? When she answers that question, will she explain why she has stood idly by as older people are driven out of the civil service, the teaching profession and the armed forces; and why the hon. Members for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell), for Ochil (Mr. O'Neill) and for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) have been denied ministerial office, simply because they are not spring chickens? Is that not proof positive that Ministers preach inclusion of older people, but then kick them in the teeth?

Ms Jowell

Perhaps we can take that as an Opposition mea culpa for the decision of the right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) not to seek reselection for the next election.

To return to the question, we expect that the new deal for older people will help about 45,000 people to go from benefit into work. However, it is in its early stages. The new deal offers the personal help, advice and support that people need, and the sort of help that older people need differs from that which younger people need.

As with all the new deals, we will learn the lessons of experience and apply them in practice, and will continue to build on the success of the new deal. We will take the advice and help offered by employers and young people who have participated in the new deal, rather than taking lessons from the Opposition, who have always been hostile to the opportunities offered by the new deal to young people.