HC Deb 23 November 2001 vol 375 cc569-627

Order for Second Reading read.

9.33 am
Ms Candy Atherton (Falmouth and Camborne)

I begin by pointing out some facts that may bring home to hon. Members what my Bill to establish an age equality commission is about. As I stand here as a woman in her mid-40s, I have been termed a young thing—

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

Hear, hear!

Ms Atherton

I thank the hon. Gentleman. In the world outside, however, I am deemed an older worker. That speaks volumes about this place and about the world of work beyond these walls. In the House, the average age of Members of Parliament is 52, an historic low. We are probably the most protected older workers in the country.

If hon. Members were to be faced with unemployment, they might not find it easy to walk into a new job when they reach more senior years. Millions of our fellow citizens discover that every year. Some 2.8 million people between 50 and the state pension age are unemployed. Almost a quarter of men in their 50s have left the labour market. The cost to our economy of age discrimination in employment is estimated by the Employers Forum on Age to account for some £31 billion a year. Tackling age discrimination would have clear benefits for the economy and for business.

The issue is about not only employment, but health care and access to services and training. It is about cultural life, volunteering and participating in society as a whole. It is also particularly about financial services—the arbitrary rip-off of older people by companies to pump up the premiums.

I wish to see an age equality commission established to look at all those issues. Its members would be appointed by the Secretary of State and it would monitor existing and future legislation. It would advise Government, business and public and voluntary sectors on issues relating to age discrimination. It would evaluate existing measures and schemes and suggest improvements or wholesale change.

The world—the first world, in particular—is waking up to the issue. The bubbling pension issue in Europe is well known. In this country, the phrase "ageing population" is now entrenched in our political discourse. By around 2030, half the population of western Europe will be over 50. Population estimates suggest that the 55 to 64 age bracket will form the largest sector of the work force in 2026. Every four years, life expectancy increases by one year.

Mr. Swayne

Will not the very force of the statistics that the hon. Lady is citing provide the market imperative against age discrimination?

Ms Atherton

I beg the hon. Gentleman to listen to a little more of my speech to hear the arguments on why the market has not so far worked for older people.

Academia recognises the issue; this year, Oxford university has set up the Institute of Ageing, with the support of Help the Aged and its international sister organisations. Next year, the second world assembly on ageing will take place in Madrid. The Government also recognise that something needs to be done. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has put it himself: The Government firmly believe that age discrimination is unfair and makes no economic sense for business or society."—[Official Report, 31 July 1997; Vol. 299, c. 493W.] To that end, the Government have produced the life begins at 50 programme, the performance and innovation unit report "Winning the Generation Game", the passport 50-plus guide, the new deal for 50-plus and the better government for older people programme—a bookcase of literature recognising the problem.

Importantly, the Government have also recognised that age discrimination is an issue that goes beyond simply employment. The national service framework for older people makes it clear that it aims to ensure that older people are never unfairly discriminated against in accessing NHS or social care services as a result of their age. It continues: In some health and social care services, older people and their carers have experienced age discrimination in access to and availability of services. That is absolutely true.

When the steering group of the better government for older people initiative published a report in 2000, it noted that the projects were undermined by a lack of legislation. It stated: We believe there is a strong case for legislation against all forms of unfair age discrimination and call on the Government to bring forward proposals to that end. The report called for legislation to be wider than that governing employment and urged the Government to bring forward proposals in the next Parliament. In the Government's response, "Building on Partnership", they indicated that they would tackle discrimination against older people and will continue to act to combat it wherever it is found". We are now in the next Parliament, and I am delighted to offer the Government a means to this end.

Age discrimination pervades all aspects of our society, including goods and services. There is a widespread culture of discrimination which holds back individuals and society.

Mr. Swayne

Does the hon. Lady agree that such discrimination also relates to the Government? I draw her attention to the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) when he said of the Government and their formation: I came back to find that I am indeed part of an excluded generation—the rising-60s. To paraphrase Wordsworth in 'The Prelude': 'Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive—but to be old was something of a disadvantage.'"—[Official Report, 16 May 1997; Vol. 294, c. 305.]

Ms Atherton

I do not wish to comment on the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell), but many of us find that we are becoming older workers.

Age is the one major area of discrimination that the country has yet to tackle. We have worked on race, sex, gender and disability—most of those issues are already the responsibility of commissions. Age is the great omission yet it affects us all—I hope.

We must accept that we have failed to tackle the problem effectively. However, we must: recognise that this form of discrimination does not have the same profile as race or gender, for instance. This means that we will have to play catch-up. I believe that we should have acted sooner, for this delay presents problems. We cannot run before we can walk. Although I want to see action and results, punitive regulation at this stage may not be the answer. There is a need to educate, spread best practice and consider the many options to tackle age discrimination wherever it is found.

Linda Perham (Ilford, North)

Does my hon. Friend agree that there is also evidence of discrimination against younger people? It is not just a question of getting voted off first in "The Weakest Link". Has she considered extending the remit of her Bill to include all age groups?

Ms Atherton

I have considered extending it to younger workers, but as older workers face discrimination, the Bill focuses on them.

I believe that a commission can offer many answers. It would provide the Government with a rich font of expertise and research to deliver for older people. The seventh report of the Select Committee on Education and Employment on age discrimination in employment found a lack of robust statistical analysis on the issue. I like to think that the Bill would provide what the Select Committee was looking for. Its report goes on to say: Only if there is robust information on the prevalence of age discrimination can effective policies to combat it be designed and properly evaluated. The Government should commission research accordingly. A commission would assist the Government, bringing together policy strands and Departments to focus attention on this outstanding problem.

Since taking up this issue, I have discovered just how many Departments it affects and how many Ministers have responsibilities in this area. The Minister replying to the debate has responsibilities for employment at the Department of Trade and Industry. The Department for Work and Pensions has an obvious role, and the Minister for Pensions has made an important and valued contribution. The Department of Health, the Department for Education and Skills, the Department for Culture. Media and Sport and the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions also have a role. The list goes on.

Let me personalise my point by considering a man of 55, excluded from the labour market or perhaps denied access to skills training or promotion. His end of working life crisis may mean long-term unemployment or a reliance on temporary or low-paid work. It also means 10 years or so of his failing to make pension contributions or arrangements for his future security. The effect is obvious.

It is no accident that studies have proved that relative standards of income and wealth are more polarised in people's fifties than in their thirties. Almost half of those excluded from the labour force rely on benefit. The direct cost to the public finances is estimated at around £5.5 billion. The cost of getting old is becoming a significant barrier to social inclusion and good health. A man in his 50's who is unemployed is twice as likely to suffer from respiratory illness or depression. Around half of all those claiming incapacity benefit are over 50. For some, this is a matter of life and death.

Tackling pensioner poverty is a cause close to the Government's heart. It would be easier to address that problem if people could lead a full working life of opportunity up to retirement. The Government's new deal for the over-50s offers a start. Initiatives must tie in with local employers' needs. The regional development associations and learning and skills councils have a role to play in that.

Age discrimination remains a root cause of economic inactivity, health inequalities and long-term social problems. It affects all Government policy and the work of nearly all Departments. At times, such discrimination is bizarre. One of the original inspirations for my Bill was a vet in Cornwall, Mr. Noel Stuart. He contacted me because he and others were being prevented from helping out at the height of the foot and mouth crisis, despite all their qualifications and wealth of experience—not least in knowing where the farms were, unlike some of those who were flown in from abroad. Mr. Stuart, who is also a part-time lollipop man, had his lollipop taken away when he reached 70 years of age. He did not have a good birthday.

Many hon. Members will have read in this week's press that Britain's leading heart surgeon, Sir Magdi Yacoub, has been told by his hospital trust that he must retire, despite being considered to be at the peak of his powers and having performed more operations than any other surgeon in the world.

When we face skills shortages, what is more absurd than writing off people on the ground of age alone? Given that we have an ageing but increasingly active population, this is becoming a farce.

Ms Julia Drown (South Swindon)

My hon. Friend talks about the dignity of older people. Does she agree that the Bill would also be a big boost to their families, to the carers of those who are a little more vulnerable and to those who volunteer to work with older people?

Ms Atherton

I agree with my hon. Friend. Volunteers, carers, the wider community and the families of older people would all benefit from the expertise that a commission could provide.

Let us consider the evidence. B&Q found that, "You could do it if you B&Q it", whatever one's age, and that mature employees could offer skills and experience that made them an essential and highly productive part of the work force. Back in 1989, B&Q decided to dispel the myth by opening up a store staffed entirely by people over 50. Over the next six months, monitoring showed that profits were higher, staff turnover lower, the skills bases increased and customer satisfaction increased. B&Q has now gone further in updating its retirement policy by allowing employees to review their working life and decide what is best for them with reference to safety and their own situation. One employee in Swindon has now reached 86, and proves his worth, I am sure, on a daily basis.

The problem of age discrimination in employment is complex, and I am sure that that will be one of the first issues addressed by the Minister. However, that does not mean that it cannot be tackled. There is a positive consensus on this. The Trades Union Congress and Confederation of British Industry recognise the debilitating effect of discrimination in employment. There is a genuine business case to be made for action and a commission can make that case. Because of demographic change, the problem can only get worse and a commission can be a means to publicise the issue, educate business and prepare society as a whole for the changes to come. The time is right to take action. The problem is made more complex by the link between employment and financial services. One of the problems facing older workers and their employers is that the costs of insurance can rise. That is particularly true for the voluntary sector.

My hon. Friend the Member for Conwy (Mrs. Williams) cannot be here today, despite her support for the Bill. She raised with me the particular question of volunteers, so often the mainstay of charities. To work, however, they need insurance, and this can be an obstacle. Some charities are forced to turn away volunteers because they cannot get the necessary cover. It is especially important because while by 2006 there will be legislation to tackle age discrimination in employment, that may not apply to the voluntary sector.

My legislation, article 13 of the EC treaty and the equal treatment in employment directive are certainly a step in the right direction, and the Government put much energy into negotiation of the directive. However, like many pieces of legislation that originate in Europe, implementation of much of the detail can be left up to member states. I very much hope that the Government will implement it in a way that is effective and serves its defined purpose. I know that consultation on the implementation of article 13 is imminent, and while the Government already have an age advisory board looking into this question, what better means than a commission to aid this process? It would play an invaluable role in preparing us all for this legislation.

As I have said, my legislation on employment will not be enough. A study for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation showed that anti-ageist employment legislation in other countries was far more effective when working in conjunction with other policies. That is why there must be a comprehensive step forward which can consider a variety of solutions through legislation and otherwise.

Arbitrary discrimination in financial services is one of the most galling forms of discrimination for older people. One case brought to my attention was of a man whose car had broken down but he could not hire another, even in an emergency, because he was over 75. My own mother's travel insurance doubled overnight when she reached 70. I accept that there must be a gradual change, but such arbitrary jumps in the space of 24 hours are hard to take. I am aware of older people being denied access to telebanking or other modern innovations. I think that this is on the spurious, patronising grounds that they will not understand or will not be able to cope. I gather that one bank offers free insurance with a credit card as an incentive, but not, I gather, if someone is 65 or older. Such decisions are probably being made by smart-suited 20-somethings without the vision to look beyond the stereotype.

Only the other week, I read of a new generation of surfers in my home county of Cornwall riding our wonderful waves in their 50s—"the silver surfers." But these same people are denied the chance to do their banking when surfing the net, despite the fact that, according to Microsoft, over-50s are signing onto the internet at twice the rate of those under 30.

We now reach 50 with a healthy expectation to reach 80, but the doors of opportunity, in the workplace and elsewhere, are being shut in our faces. We know the excuses—that the market will regulate itself. There are companies that specialise in providing insurance or services to older people, but we know that that cannot be guaranteed. We also know that industries can rip people off. That is why in Ireland, the Equality Authority can investigate whole industries to root out discrimination. And that is why such a commission is needed in this country.

A commission would help the Government to co-ordinate policy making; it would also focus our society on the need to deal with this problem. It is a philosophical argument whether legislation reflects or leads society's attitudes. I would say that on the issue of discrimination above all we recognise where Government and the law can make a difference. On race, gender and sexuality, there has always been a need for legislation to help undermine prejudice and intolerance. I say that with great certainty as a woman Member of Parliament.

Changing attitudes to ageism is all the more necessary because it lags so far behind other discrimination in terms of public awareness. An evaluation of the Government's existing code of practice flags up how unrecognised age discrimination is by both employers and employees compared with other forms of discrimination. The Carnegie Trust has already used research by the Employers Forum to show that only 25 per cent. of employers knew of the Government's code and only 4 per cent. were aware of its purpose.

One of the main arguments that I have had since I took up this Bill was about whether we should have one all-embracing commission to deal with all forms of discrimination. There are models for this, such as that in Northern Ireland, which is favoured by some in business and elsewhere, but I believe that we need an age discrimination commission here for us in this country, and I commend the Bill to the House.

9.55 am
Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough)

I warmly congratulate the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Ms Atherton) on her good fortune in drawing such a high place in the ballot and on the skilful and committed way in which she moved the Second Reading of her Bill this morning. I am sure that the whole House will want to congratulate her.

I declare a personal interest. Having attained the age of 51, I fall within clause 2's definition of an older person.

Mr. Swayne


Mr. Leigh

It is written that The silver-haired head is a crown of glory". The Book of Proverbs obviously had my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) in mind.

Regard for age is a sign of a civilised society. Those who are elderly and have experience of life deserve respect. Those who have the wisdom that is born of the years deserve to be listened to. The hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne has done a service to the House in bringing the matter before us for debate. If her intention is to encourage people to have more regard for age and experience, her aim is entirely laudable, and is one that I and the whole House will share. Sadly, respect for age is not so great now as it was in the past; the House has a right to be concerned about that.

We all know that having dealings with older people can be enriching for younger people. I am aware of a group of teenagers from one school who became involved in a local scheme to fit security locks to the windows of elderly people living in nearby council houses. The practical benefits of increasing home security are obvious, but perhaps more beneficial were the relationships that the young people developed with the older people. Long after the locks were fitted, some of the young people maintained friendships that they have continued to enjoy.

We all know that there is discrimination in some aspects of employment, but from a purely commercial point of view, discriminating against older people is pure folly. Young adults do not have the experience of those who are older, and the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne has rightly mentioned the example of B&Q, which makes a virtue of employing older people because they bring people skills and expertise to the job. We are all aware of some worrying examples of discrimination in the NHS.

The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow) mentioned on 15 May 2000 the case of Mrs. Marge Terry, a 91-year-old whose stay in hospital was characterised, according to her daughter, by neglect. Bedside tables were left dirty and sticky; bins were unemptied; medical records were badly maintained; and she was left in bedclothes soiled with blood. She waited four days to see a doctor after developing a serious chest infection and a further two days for an X-ray. Staff failed properly to assist her with eating, and even with the administration of medication. After four weeks in hospital, Mrs. Terry died. The NHS has rightly apologised for her appalling treatment, and the whole House should unreservedly condemn any organisation that holds older people in less respect or fails to give them the care they need.

The House is united on those points, but what should be done? Is the Bill the right way to address the problem of lack of respect for age? I do not believe that it is the way to achieve the hon. Lady's laudable aims. Laws should be made only when they are necessary to achieve a result, and when they can achieve that result. I fear that the Bill fails the second test.

It is good that we are holding this debate and that we raise these issues. That is our responsibility, but not all the problems in society can be addressed by legislation. Surely the House must be able to recognise a problem— in this case, a serious problem in society—and draw attention to it, but without concluding that it must always legislate.

Mr. Win Griffiths (Bridgend)

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will develop that argument. He says that the Bill does not address the laudable aim that he supports. Why is that, and what would he propose to ensure that we achieve the objectives of my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Ms Atherton)?

Mr. Leigh

That is precisely what I hope to do in the next five or 10 minutes.

The answer to the problems of age discrimination is not further heavy regulation to enforce equality. A commission for age equality would simply be a statutory busybody. Its job would be to argue for more legislation and regulation.

Dr. Desmond Turner (Brighton, Kemptown)

Following the hon. Gentleman's logic, are we to assume that he would advocate the abolition of the Commission for Racial Equality?

Mr. Leigh

No, I would not advocate the abolition of the Commission for Racial Equality. There is a difference, as I shall explain later in my remarks.

Jim Knight (South Dorset)

The hon. Gentleman suggests that the measure will impose extra regulation on business. In essence, the Bill would set up a commission to advise the Government and society about a problem whose existence the hon. Gentleman acknowledges. The commission would then point out whether regulation for, or self-regulation by, industry was necessary. The measure does not propose a great regulatory burden.

Mr. Leigh

The whole raison d'etre of the commission, if it is to have any point at all, is to lobby the Government to exercise their powers of compulsion. The commission would fail to justify its existence if it did not do so. It would result in more regulation and compulsion and would not further the interests of elderly people.

I can illustrate that point with an example given by the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne. She said that during the worst of the foot and mouth crisis, vets aged over 70 were told that they could not assist because they were too old. She went on to explain, however, that the rule was subsequently changed so that they were allowed to help. Surely that proves that a commission such as she proposes is unnecessary. It appears that pressure and old-fashioned common sense were enough; the unreasonable age restriction was removed without the need for a statutory commission.

Mr. Roger Berry (Kingswood)

Does the hon. Gentleman recall that he deployed the same arguments to oppose legislation to secure civil rights for disabled people? Given that his Government then introduced such legislation, has he changed his view on that matter?

Mr. Leigh

I have not changed my view on that matter. There is a regrettable tendency for the House to identify problems of discrimination. Discrimination is wrong. Discrimination on the grounds of religion, race, disability or age is wrong, but I am prepared to have the courage of my convictions and point out to the House that sometimes the best way to remove ills in society is not necessarily through legislation. That is my view, and I believe that it is important that someone puts it forward—although it may sometimes be politically difficult to do so.

The case to which I referred shows the way forward.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Leigh

I should like to make a little more progress. Many Members want to speak, so I do not want to hog all the time.

Pressure from the public and from politicians, combined with sound reasoning and common sense, should ensure that, where change is needed on policies and practices that disadvantage older people, change is made. Pressure comes through naturally in society. Good sense asserts itself. We do not always need statutory commissions.

Ms Debra Shipley (Stourbridge)

The hon. Gentleman says that the whole House agrees that something is wrong. There are many examples of that, and numerous Bills have been introduced, yet it astounds me that the opinion of some people in business, health, leisure facilities and a range of activities has not been changed to the point that they adopt good practice so that they do not discriminate. Surely, as legislators, we have a responsibility to society to require them to adopt good practice; we should legislate and impose our values. As the hon. Gentleman has said, we have good, shared values.

Mr. Leigh

That would be correct if we were identifying an obvious evil to which society and the marketplace were obviously failing to respond. However, I hope to show as I develop my remarks—if I am allowed to do so—that society and the marketplace are responding to the evil of age discrimination. They are responding because it is evidently against the good interest of many companies to discriminate against older people. Good sense asserts itself in society.

As I was saying earlier, the commission's whole reason for existence will and must be to lobby the Government to exercise their powers of compulsion. A commission will naturally look for ways to justify its existence. It will always be able to come up with schemes, proposals and plans for new legislation. Why else need it exist? The likelihood is, however, that those schemes will merely consume time and public money without really dealing with the problem.

Organisations such as Age Concern, the Association of Retired and People over 50 and Help the Aged, as well as providing practical assistance to older people, play a major role in campaigning on their behalf. Such organisations can continue to work on specific cases, where tailored solutions can be negotiated to benefit older people, but wide-ranging statutory intervention is not the answer.

In the NHS, major issues relating to mistreatment of the elderly are the responsibility of the Secretary of State for Health. If there is a problem, that is his responsibility. Surely he does not need a commission to tell him that there is a problem. He simply needs to ensure that staff in hospitals are instructed to ensure adequate cleaning and high-quality care for all patients, irrespective of their age—that relates to the case of Mrs. Terry and others. Where that is not done—regardless of the age of the patient—those responsible must be disciplined. It does not take an age equality commission to work that out: the Secretary of State is already responsible. He has all the powers at his disposal to sort out the problem.

Ms Atherton

The hon. Gentleman cited various organisations that represent older people. Is he aware that all those organisations are calling for an age equality commission?

Mr. Leigh

I should be amazed if they were not. They are campaigning organisations, so they would naturally support such a proposal. I was not suggesting otherwise. I was pointing out that they are effective campaigning organisations; they are having an effect. They are changing values in society and in the marketplace, so I doubt that it is necessary to create a statutory commission to put their ideas into effect.

Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West)

The House will understand my hon. Friend's point about the law helping things to be effected rather than always guaranteeing that they will happen. In the same way, many things are crimes, but a third of young men have been convicted of criminal offences by the age of 30, so legislation is not always totally effective. Under clause 1(2)(b), the commission would comment on proposed legislation, so his argument could be used to justify the commission and to ensure that, when Ministers propose legislation, they take account of the needs of the elderly. For example, instead of requiring elderly people to requalify for driving licences, why not wait until they are just as dangerous as they would have been when they passed the test at 17?

Mr. Leigh

I have often had doubts about allowing people to drive at the age of 17, but I shall leave that to one side.

Clause 1(2) is interesting—I was about to deal with it—because it would allow the commission to advise the Secretary of State on all matters relating to age discrimination. It states that the commission should scrutinise any proposed legislation and that it could advise the Secretary of State to issue detailed guidelines on schemes to be imposed on businesses, voluntary organisations and public sector organisations". It could also propose policies on age issues not just for employment, but for the provision of goods and services and even in the wider community. So the commission could propose intervention in the nooks and crannies of everyday life. It could propose new legislation and regulation for every aspect of society—even private contracts would come within its purview. I seriously question whether that would improve the lot of the elderly.

The hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne did not deal with the point that, in the same way that the Equal Opportunities Commission has to act to defend the interests of men, the age equality commission would have to act to defend the interests of young people. If the provision of goods and services were to be within the commission's remit, it would come under pressure to end the cut-price deals available to pensioners because such deals inevitably discriminate against those who are young.

For example, tourist venues often offer low entrance fees to old-age pensioners and those aged over 60, and there is nothing wrong with that—indeed, I welcome it—but surely it is discrimination. That could come to an end if age equality legislation covered the provision of goods and services.

A young man could launch a test case against English Heritage. Its annual membership for those aged over 60 is £20 a year; for those under that age it is £31 a year. The young man could bring a test case and argue that he was discriminated against purely on the basis of his age. No doubt he would win that case because he was being discriminated against on the basis of his age.

Mr. Barry Gardiner (Brent, North)

The logic of the hon. Gentleman's argument escapes me. Surely if he is saying that that is a clear case of discrimination and that the commission would point it out, he should support a commission that would stop such discrimination. If the discrimination were against younger people, it should end, just as though it were against older people.

Mr. Leigh

With respect to the hon. Gentleman—I do hold him in very great respect—he does not understand what the Bill would achieve. Surely if the Bill were to achieve anything, we would have to introduce more rigorous legislation to end discrimination against people on the ground of age. If we introduced such legislation, young people would inevitably bring test cases to argue that they were discriminated against precisely for the reasons that I have given: many cut-price deals, especially for tourist venues, are available only to older people.

To counter the inevitable absurdity created by age equality legislation, it would no doubt be proposed that positive discrimination should be required. No one could deny that, and it would create the very serious difficulties that I have mentioned. That leads me to question whether the cure offered by the Bill would end up being worse than the disease.

Saga is a holiday company that provides services exclusively to those over 50—a marvellous arrangement—yet legislation that outlawed age discrimination in the provision of goods and service could catch that company. No one has instructed those who run our historic houses to offer reduced admission for OAPs; they have decided to do so themselves. A commission was not needed to instruct them to reduce admission charges for older people.

The marketplace—I hesitate to use that word—has acted in a way that benefits older people. Over the years, Saga has decided to reduce the age limit for those who can benefit from its holidays—at one time it was over 60; now it is 50. Legislation did not require Saga to make that change. Such decisions are best left to individuals and companies.

I am very concerned about the idea of the commission leaning on the Secretary of State and urging him to pass new laws on age discrimination, especially if its mandate is as wide as that suggested in the Bill. Such a commission would be a statutory busybody, looking for ways to interfere. It would spend its time telling the Secretary of State how to make new laws on age discrimination. It would tell him how any new laws that he proposed might affect age discrimination. It would write endless guidelines for him to foist on business, voluntary organisations and the public sector. It would meddle with the market in the kind of draconian ways that—dare I say?—only well-meaning liberals can dream up.

In my view that heavy-handed, top-down approach to delicate social issues just will not work, especially when it involves new legislation. Such a law would be a clumsy instrument, which could not cope with all the particulars of life. The law can never be drafted to take account of the possible exceptions and qualifications that accompany the basic principle of respecting age. That is my point. We have the basic principle that we should respect age. We cannot devise legislation, however well meaning, to take account of all life's complexities to implement that respect properly.

Ms Drown

Is the hon. Gentleman perhaps implying that the House should never pass any legislation? [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman laughs, but perhaps that brings into question why he is here in the first place. No one would argue that those discounts should end, and I hope that no hon. Member would argue that children should be allowed to become soldiers, for example. Age barriers are not the issue. Is not the distinction one between good legislation and bad legislation? Should it not be within our capacity to produce legislation that is not top heavy? The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that we need to ensure that legislation is not too burdensome or top heavy, but is it not right that if we could create the right remit for the commission we would serve our constituents well?

Mr. Leigh

There always has to be a balance. Of course, sometimes the House has to legislate, but dare I say that the House legislates too much? One of the things I have tried to do, especially on Friday mornings since I have been a Member of Parliament, is to try to stop the House regulating so much that it defeats its laudable aims.

Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam)

I have listened to the hon. Gentleman developing his argument and he is doing the House a service by providing a clear and stark difference between the Bill's proponents and those who do not support it. He referred specifically to relying on the good common sense of employers to employ older people, but can he tell us over what period he would seek to evaluate whether that common sense had made a difference and at what point legislation would be necessary?

Mr. Leigh

That is an unanswerable question, so perhaps the hon. Gentleman has made a very skilful intervention. I do not know the answer, but we have to take a common-sense point of view. Clearly, if there were an obvious evil in society, if the huge proportion of companies were making no progress on the matter, if people were being thrown out of their jobs cruelly and unnecessarily at the age of 55 and if no company was introducing proposals to employ older people, perhaps the House would come to a view. It would, however, have to come to a carefully considered view and introduce legislation to ensure that the House's aim of combating age discrimination was met without imposing heavy and unnecessary burdens on business; otherwise, it might defeat its laudable objectives.

Mr. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North)

The hon. Gentleman suggests that generalised burdensome legislation would be introduced. However, surely the purpose of the Bill is to advise the Government on specific legislation on specific problems. Each problem will be considered carefully and our Government would certainly not introduce legislation that had not been fully thought through and that was not carefully targeted. [Interruption.]

Mr. Leigh

The hon. Gentleman has a lot of faith in government, but the House has already given its reaction to his view. Let us consider what the commission would do. Clause 1(3) offers the prospect of its inventing lengthy, costly and time-wasting consultations, and clause 1(5) would enable the Secretary of State to spend taxpayers' money on staffing the commission. The powers that would be given to the commission are wide ranging and vague.

There is another problem with the Bill. Its drafting is unclear and imprecise. Even the definitions of equality and discrimination are confusing and do not appear to draw on any existing definitions of the concepts.

Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South)

There is another problem and I would be interested to learn how my hon. Friend would tackle it. My constituency is in south London where there is full employment. Many elderly people want to work, but some employers have a mindset that means they do not employ elderly people. If we stick to the principles that my hon. Friend has enunciated, that mindset will never be addressed. How does he think that it could best be addressed?

Mr. Leigh

Not through a statutory commission is the short answer. The mindset of a statutory commission is always geared towards introducing new regulations and new legislation.

My personal philosophy is to approach society's problems by arguing that we must eventually rely on people's innate good sense to come to the fore to address any evils that exist. I do not believe that one cures evils in society—particularly those that are difficult to identify—specifically by legislation. It is not the right vehicle. If my hon. Friend disagrees with me, I am sorry.

Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West)

The hon. Gentleman has made great play of the need to use common sense and practical experience to deal with discrimination. I invite him to consider the gender balance as represented by the Conservative and Liberal Democrat Members present and to compare it with the gender balance among Labour Members. Can he then say that it is perfectly acceptable simply to rely on the good sense of people in political parties to arrive at a better representation and that legislation is not necessary?

Mr. Leigh

It is a matter of great sadness to many of us that more women are not selected as Conservative candidates. Unfortunately, the women who dominate selection procedures often discriminate against women candidates. [Interruption.] I am sorry, but it is perfectly true. My personal view—I do not want to expand on this because you would rule me out of order, Madam Deputy Speaker—is that the use of quotas is the wrong way to deal with the problem. I believe in equality of opportunity, not in enforcing quotas on selection committees or anyone else.

Mr. Andrew Rosindell (Romford)

My hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South (Richard Ottaway) made a serious point about the employment of elderly people. Does my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) agree that perhaps a better way of approaching that problem is to use the tax system to price older people back into work by allowing them to pay reduced taxes? That would price people back into work rather than allowing discrimination to continue.

Mr. Leigh

That may be a possible way forward.

Let me briefly consider the American experience, because it is quite interesting. The Bill proposes that the age equality commission should advise the Secretary of State on issues, guidelines and perhaps legislation; but, in the next five years, there may be European Union intervention on the matter. The United States has had an Act outlawing discrimination in employment since 1967 when Congress passed the Age Discrimination in Employment Act.

The jurisprudence surrounding the 1967 law is described by Richard Epstein, professor of law at the university of Chicago, as complex and formidable. He is a leading critic of the use of the blunt instrument of the law to deal with delicate matters of discrimination. He has criticised the decision of Congress to pass the Act and said that before passing the Bill: Congress made no effort to understand the business reasons for practices that it rendered illegal. Instead without asking why, it offered only the blanket judgment that discrimination on the basis of age is 'arbitrary' and should for that reason be forbidden. The upshot of its position is that categorical judgments are thereby rendered illegal, and firms are now required, under a presumption of distrust, to make individualised decisions about ability independent of their knowledge of age. I believe that older people make a unique contribution to the work of any employer, and this is my answer to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South (Richard Ottaway). Employers that pass over superior older workers in favour of inferior younger ones are simply putting themselves at a disadvantage. Intelligent employers will realise that and will amend their practices accordingly.

Of course, we must be realistic. Some employers will always persist in bad practice in this sphere, just as they will always persist in bad practice in others. However, in the market as a whole, the pressure to provide the best products and services is the most effective pressure that can be brought to bear. I apologise to the House for giving such a classic Hayekian analysis of the situation.

Peter Bottomley

When I was the Minister responsible for health and safety, I discovered that it took 200 years from the time it was found that vitamin C helped people to avoid scurvy to the time that people were required to feed crews on ships with the food that prevented it. Is 200 years the sort of period that my hon. Friend has in mind?

Mr. Leigh

That is a singularly inappropriate example. As it happens, I know a bit about naval history. Following the experience of Captain Cook, it is remarkable how quickly good practice spread throughout the fleet. I apologise for digressing, but I was asked about this. It was obvious that scurvy was a fatal disease that seriously inhibited the fleet's ability to sail around the world. Sailors were therefore given lemons, and that good practice spread like wildfire throughout the fleet. Legislation might not have been passed. The 18th century House of Commons did not operate like that. The hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne was not here at the time of Pitt, the Earl of Chatham, to suggest that there should be a scurvy quality commission or something of the sort. We did not need it.

Mr. Hopkins


Mr. Leigh

I am enjoying myself so I shall give way again.

Mr. Hopkins

The hon. Gentleman keeps making the point that we do not need legislation to encourage good practice. However, there are many examples in recent decades in which legislation has made a significant difference. For example, the legislation on the compulsory wearing of seat belts and crash helmets and the serious laws restricting drinking and driving have saved countless thousands of lives. Even though it is rational to wear a seat belt or a crash helmet and not to drink and drive, people still did not wear them or continued to drink and drive. I am afraid that the law was necessary to make people act sensibly.

Mr. Leigh

Even if that were true, there must be a difference between matters such as the wearing of seat belts or a crash helmet, which relate to health and personal safety, and seeking to impose a whole new series of burdens, controls and regulations on the wider business community. If people wear seat belts or crash helmets, it as certain as night follows day that they are safer. It is not immediately apparent that legislation such as this Bill necessarily improves matters. Leaving aside the fact that it would impose an extra burden on business, it is not obvious that it is the right thing to do.

Mr. Mark Prisk (Hertford and Stortford)

Does my hon. Friend agree that drink driving laws were on the statute book for more than 10 years before the statistics reflected the fact that it had become socially unacceptable to drink and drive? Is it not that model to which we should be looking, in which each individual plays a role in changing what is acceptable? Simply passing laws is not the best approach.

Mr. Leigh

It is dangerous for the House to get ahead of public opinion. Of course it has to lead public opinion, but to get too far ahead and to impose its will on a society that is not ready for it can cause distortions and difficulties and does not necessarily meet the laudable aims that we want to achieve.

Mr. Edward O'Hara (Knowsley, South)

On public opinion, is the hon. Gentleman aware of the Age Concern Gallup poll which shows that 73 per cent. of the public agree that it should be illegal to discriminate against someone because of their age? As for burdens on business, did he not hear what my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Ms Atherton) said about the B&Q experience? It makes eminent business sense to employ older people.

Mr. Leigh

Exactly. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman heard me say that it makes eminent business sense for B&Q and other companies to employ older people because they are wiser, have better people skills and are more experienced, but it is not necessary to legislate to achieve that laudable aim.

Dr. John Pugh (Southport)

I am trying hard to understand the hon. Gentleman. He said that it is the duty of the House to lead public opinion, but that it should not be ahead of public opinion. I find it difficult to understand how it is possible to lead without being ahead. Perhaps he can clarify that.

Mr. Leigh

The hon. Gentleman is making a semantic point; he knows perfectly well what I am trying to say. The House cannot get too far ahead of public opinion.

There has to be a balance. Some employers, possibly for good business reasons, have younger staff. Others, for equally good business reasons, have older staff. Within that system, individual cases of disappointed expectations, such as those cited by the Bill's supporters, are not necessarily a condemnation of the marketplace as a whole. Workers tend to move to jobs where they are most highly valued. Those employers who refuse to employ older people because they do not value them are missing out, and employers who value older employees will benefit instead. That freedom of contract should not be interfered with in the blunt way that anti-discrimination provisions do If the law interferes, it will not succeed in doing everything that proponents of such legislation might wish.

Even after 30 years of the United States Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the law does not guarantee every worker a job with the employer of his or her choice at the desired wage. That is not possible, but it is the implied wish of those who support such anti-discrimination measures. The more the state attempts to achieve that, the more intrusive and coercive its attempts will become.

Mr. Swayne

It would have been legitimate for the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Ms Atherton) to introduce this measure so that we could scrutinise and weigh up whether it would achieve its objective. What she has done instead is to come up with the idea of handing over the task, which is rightly the task of Members of Parliament, to a commission that will lobby, agitate and introduce legislation. She thinks that our role should be done by someone else—the great and the good, the big cheeses or whoever—but is not that an attempt to do us out of a job?

Mr. Leigh

I agree that society as a whole can right some of the wrongs. Members of Parliament and campaigning organisations can help. It is not necessary to have a statutory commission.

It is also important to recognise that employers may impose age restrictions for good reasons, such as health and safety, or for reasons relating to service targets that are essential to the survival of that firm. There may be good reasons for practices that some people say are based in discrimination. If such restrictions are justifiable, they should not be interfered with. It is also important to recognise that some age restrictions may be so self-evidently sensible that they have to be imposed even though the same restrictions will eventually affect those who impose them.

Age discrimination is not like sex or race discrimination. A man cannot become a biological woman and women of one race cannot become people of another race, but all young people become old people. Either the restrictions that employers impose make sense, in which case they will be prepared to submit themselves to the same restrictions when their time comes, or they do not, in which case the employers should recognise the need for change.

Respect for age is important both morally and practically. The House is doing society a service by continuing to draw attention to examples of injustice suffered by older people, and we should continue to do so. Legislative intervention, however, is not the answer. In particular, an age equality commission would be ineffective and possibly damaging because it would be unlikely to recognise the complex and varied reasons why age sometimes requires different treatment. Some suppliers of goods and services discriminate positively in favour of elderly people, providing price discounts and special services that are not available to young people. Other service providers may impose upper age limits for good health reasons. I am afraid, therefore, that I cannot support the Bill. I hope that my hon. Friends will also oppose it.

10.36 am
Linda Perham (Ilford, North)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Ms Atherton) on introducing the Bill. I welcome the age equality commission, which will advise the Government on age discrimination issues in relation to older people. In particular, I welcome the provisions in paragraphs (C) and (d) of clause 1(2) on the commission's role in preparing detailed guidelines on the implementation of schemes to address age issues for businesses and voluntary and public sector organisations, and the promotion of equal treatment for the provision of goods and services.

I am especially pleased to contribute to the debate because I am secretary of the all-party group on ageing and older people and a founder member of a group called Equal Rights on Age, formed three years ago by Members of Parliament and age campaigning groups including Age Concern, Help the Aged, Association of Retired and Persons over 50, the Carnegie Third Age Programme, Third Age Employment Network, trade union representatives, academics and journalists.

In February 1998, my Employment (Age Discrimination in Advertisements) Bill led to the introduction of a code of practice on age diversity in employment and to the Government requiring that Employment Service jobcentres should no longer accept upper-age restrictions on vacancies notified by employers. That Bill was the ninth attempt in 15 years to get an age discrimination measure on the statute book. Since then, there have been five attempts, including two by my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Lawrie Quinn), to introduce an age equality commission.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne said, age discrimination could affect any one of us and it is just as dehumanising and offensive as another form of discrimination. It should never be assumed that because someone has reached a certain age they are unable to perform a task or to carry on working and that they are inferior to younger people.

Our own and past ages bear compelling witness to the achievements of older people. Sir Winston Churchill, one of my predecessors in part of my constituency, became Prime Minister at the age of 65, which is still the retirement age for men. Queen Elizabeth I, one of our most successful and popular rulers, was in her 70th year when she died. Two of our distinguished female parliamentarians, my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) and Baroness Boothroyd, have passed their 70th birthdays. There is also that other battling baroness, Barbara Castle, who is 91. Two recently retired colleagues, Sir Edward Heath and Tony Benn, both of whom served more than 50 years in this place, are 85 and 76 respectively. There are 343 Members who are over 50, including me, and I understand that there are six whose age could not be determined. Perhaps they would not give it away.

Members may recall the recent national outrage at the suggestion that Jimmy Young should stop spinning discs and interviewing the great and the good because he is 80. For those of us who were let off early yesterday evening, the rock star Mick Jagger was in a television documentary about his life. He is 58 and still singing, rocking and rolling and living life to the full.

On a more serious note, a constituent rang me yesterday to say that his daughter's consultant psychiatrist can no longer treat her, as he must retire at 65, and my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne referred to Sir Magdi Yacoub having to retire this week. The Third Age Employment Network reports that the three leading New York firemen who gave their lives on 11 September were 71, 63 and 54.

A report entitled "Third Age Entrepreneurs", published in August by Barclays, found that 15 per cent. of all business start-ups in England and Wales are by people over 50, which represents a 50 per cent. increase in the past 10 years. Of those business people, 17 per cent. made the move because of redundancy. Millions of ordinary people in all walks of life are, like them, struggling to seek and keep work.

When I introduced my Bill almost four years ago, with the enthusiastic support of Age Concern, I received hundreds of letters from people who felt that they had been discriminated against because of their age. Some upper limits were as low as 30 and some job age ranges were advertised arbitrarily as 25 to 40. That still happens today. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development survey of January 2001 said that almost a quarter of workers surveyed agreed that employers are not interested in recruiting or promoting people over 40.

A report published this summer, commissioned by the Department for Education and Employment and entitled "Age Diversity—Summary of Research Findings", found that nine out of 10 older people believe that employers discriminate against older people in at least one aspect of employment. The summary outlines preliminary findings from four research projects to evaluate the impact of the code of practice, on age diversity in employment.

Clearly, I welcome the introduction of the code of practice as a result of my Bill. There is evidence that it has had an impact, and the departmental submission to the Education and Employment Committee report of February 2001 refers to promising signs of change with more companies orientating their policies towards age diversity"— and The proportion of companies taking age into consideration when selecting the best candidate for a job had almost halved just six months after the code was issued". In evidence to the same investigation, Age Concern said that the Code of Practice has had an important role in changing the behaviour and attitudes of employers". On making further progress in tackling age discrimination, although I regret that the Labour Government have not carried through declarations made in opposition by the Minister for Pensions and others, I welcome the initiatives undertaken in the past four years to improve the lives of older people and, in particular, to address employment and health discrimination on the ground of age. Some were mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne.

The age positive campaign, which started this summer, aims to change attitudes to help employers to recognise the benefits of an age-diverse work force. The age advisory group was set up last year and the better government for older people programme aims to increase access to education, information technology, libraries and other resources.

The new deal for 50-plus has been introduced, the inter-ministerial group on older people has been set up, and the project on active ageing led to the publication in April 2000 of "Winning the Generation Game: Improving Opportunities for People Aged 50 to 65 in Work and Community Activity". It made 75 recommendations, including establishing a champion for older people—that is my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions—and affirming that age discrimination legislation must be introduced if the code of practice is shown to be ineffective. The national framework for older people addresses age discrimination in health and social care.

In my years of campaigning on age discrimination, and despite the Government's achievements for older people, I am still persuaded that legislation is the only answer. I know that the Government want to consult widely with employers and others on implementing the European Union equal treatment in employment directive, which must be put in effect by December 2006, but I agree with Age Concern that an age equality commission, which the Bill would establish, would take UK legislation beyond the directive's stipulations and address age discrimination in all its forms. The commission could act as a regulatory body.

There are examples of equality commissions in countries near and far, including Ireland, the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. When I visited New Zealand on a Commonwealth Parliamentary Association delegation last year and met representatives of the Human Rights Commission, I was struck by how far behind we are in legislating on age discrimination. New Zealand passed a human rights Act in 1993 and it covers discrimination in the provision of goods and services—an issue to which the Bill refers.

I welcome the Government's commitment, announced in a written answer on 21 November, to issue two consultation documents on combating age discrimination to prepare for the EU directive, but I hope that the Bill will be given a fair wind. The Government obviously think that they need time to address the issues, but time is not on the side of older people. We need the commission now.

10.47 am
Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Ms Atherton) on choosing this subject and the effective way in which she introduced her Bill. Like the hon. Member for Ilford, North (Linda Perham), I have introduced such a Bill—it was one of the 15 she referred to.

I do not have any trouble with a group of people sitting around and advising the Government on age discrimination, so I disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh), who is a political and personal friend. We have disagreed on that approach for the past 25 years. The hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne has introduced the Bill to set up a commission to advise the Government on helping aged people, but, for reasons that I shall describe, as the years go by the tables will turn. Employers will approach the commission, rather than the other way round, and say, "Give me the aged." That is why I must part company with my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough.

I have no doubt that there is a problem, as 40 per cent. of the country are aged over 50 and a wealth of talent out there is being ignored. Teachers, dentists, professionals, engineers—you name it—in their 50's and 60's could make a huge contribution to the British economy. The nation has invested in that talent and wealth of expertise over the years, but it is not being fully developed.

As I said in my intervention, we cannot rely on market forces. I gave the example of south London, where there is full employment. Employers tell me that their biggest problem is that they cannot get the skills they want, yet we know that such people are out there. There is a mindset that must be broken.

This morning, I picked up the weekly law supplement in The Times, which, I am told, is the best place for lawyers to find a job. The average lawyer qualifies at about 25. Eighty per cent. of the jobs in the supplement call for lawyers with fewer than five years' qualification. That means that 80 per cent. of the jobs advertised in one of the nation's leading law supplements are seeking people younger than 30. As a lawyer, I know that there are many other professional people who could make a huge input. However, they are not even being sought. At the same time, they are needed. That is the mindset that has to be broken.

Civil servants are obliged to retire at 60. Firefighters must retire at 55. There are good reasons for these retirement ages, but there must be flexibility. As the author John McLaren wrote in The Sunday Times last weekend, many people have a surge of energy in their mid-40s. They make some money and go into semi-retirement, and suddenly in their 50s they discover that they are bored and want to return to the workplace.

I query whether the commission is needed in the way in which it would be set up because it is just dawning on the developed world, including the G7 countries, that there is a rapid growth in the ageing population and a shrinking of the younger population. That must be coupled with the fact that pension systems throughout the developed world are failing All the major political parties hang on to the notion that somehow we can still give a funded pension to elderly people. When the Conservative party raised the issue at the general election, saying, "I am not sure that the system is working", we were attacked politically. However, we may have made good sense politically.

I do not think that the pension system, as it is structured, can continue in the United Kingdom for much longer. Private pensions are failing. We have the debacle of Equitable Life. I was listening to people on the radio this morning who have company pensions that are not fulfilling the promises that were made about them by their employers.

At the same time, life expectancy is increasing. When that is set against failing pension provision for the elderly, a shrinking working population and an increasing elderly population, it is clear that something must be done.

The next society in which we shall work will be technology based and borderless. It is easy to send out technology. Work will be mobile, even now people can sit in different places to do their work. There will be two groups—the committed under-50s and part-time, mobile, flexible and knowledge-society workers who are older than 50.

Unless there is a body that addresses the moving patterns of society and the way that we work, we shall get things wrong. We live in a fiercely competitive society. Other countries will not sit back and accommodate us. As I have said, we are borderless. We must produce the best out of our work force.

The debate is useful. If there is not a commission, an organisation or a group of people that asks Ministers how their legislation addresses changing employment patterns in our society, we shall be at a disadvantage. For that reason, I hope that the Bill is given a fair wind.

10.54 am
Mr. Roger Berry (Kingswood)

It is a pleasure to support the Bill that has been introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Ms Atherton), who I congratulate on her speech and on leading a campaign that has massive support both inside the House and outside.

As always, I am struck by the arguments deployed by the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh). When the case was put for legislation to address discrimination on the ground of race, it is interesting that we were told to leave the matter to the free market, to education and to persuasion. When the argument was advanced that legislation should be introduced to prevent discrimination on the ground of gender, again we were told to leave the matter to the free market, to education and to persuasion. More recently, I recall clearly the argument about discrimination on the ground of disability. We were told by the hon. Gentleman that we should leave the matter to the free market, to education and to persuasion.

We cannot leave everything to the free market if we wish seriously to represent our constituents in this place. If the free market solved all the problems to which I have referred, there would never be a successful legal challenge to discrimination on the grounds of race, gender and disability. If the free market is so wonderful, why is it that there are successful legal challenges under the legislation that the House has put on to the statute book?

It is also said, "All right, drop the argument about the free market. Education and persuasion will prevail." That means that we cannot legislate and we must try merely to persuade people. The House has spent many years trying to change things merely by education and persuasion, initially in terms of race, gender and disability. We came to the conclusion that that was not enough. Therefore, the House decided to legislate.

I tell the hon. Member for Gainsborough that legislation on disability has been the major impetus for further education and persuasion throughout the country. Anyone who believes that the progress that has been made in recent years to tackle discrimination on the ground of disability could have come about without legislation, which a Conservative Government were forced to introduce, is seriously misled.

Mr. Peter Duncan (Galloway and Upper Nithsdale)

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that we are trying to achieve change? The codes of practice that were introduced in 1999 represented an attempt to create change. The following evidence was given to the Employment Sub-Committee when it conducted an inquiry: The wave 2 survey indicates some promising signs of change with more companies orientating their policies towards age diversity. Does that not indicate that there is change on the way?

Mr. Berry

I entirely agree that such measures are helpful and have been helpful. That is in stark contrast to leaving things to the free market, which the hon. Member for Gainsborough was talking about. However, I shall argue that we need to go further.

The House has legislated to tackle discrimination on the grounds of race, gender and disability, and I am convinced that it will legislate to address discrimination on the ground of age. It is no more justifiable to deny someone a job, for which they have the necessary skills and experience, on the ground of age rather than on the basis of race, gender and disability.

When we talk of equal opportunities, we are not saying that people should be given unfair advantages. We are saying that unfair disadvantages should be removed. The argument is as powerful in terms of age as it is in relation to race, gender and disability. There is overwhelming support for the Bill in the House. My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, North (Linda Perham) has campaigned effectively on the issue for many years. She said that there have been 14 previous attempts to introduce a private Member's Bill to deal with it, one of which was her own. Last year, there was a vote on the issue. My hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Lawrie Quinn) introduced the Age Discrimination Bill, to which the Bill before us bears a remarkable resemblance. Only a few words differ. The Bill is an important improvement on its predecessor but essentially the proposal is the same. On 12 July 2000, the House divided on Second Reading of the Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby, with 190 Members voting in favour and seven against.

Kali Mountford (Colne Valley)

Name them.

Mr. Berry

The two Members who were Tellers for the Noes were in the Chamber this morning, and I think that it is legitimate to refer to them. The first Teller against was the shadow Leader of the House, the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), who is not in his place. The other Teller for the Noes was—surprise, surprise—the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) who intervened on my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne at the beginning of our debate. Those Tellers counted the votes of the seven Conservative Members who voted against the Bill that was introduced last year. However, 190 Members voted for it.

I checked the names of Members who sponsored that Bill 12 months ago. I am heartened because, of the seven Labour Members who did so, six are now Ministers or Parliamentary Private Secretaries. That is an extremely good omen, although not necessarily, I suspect, for those of us who are sponsoring my hon. Friend's Bill. I am sure that the Government want to give the Bill a fair wind, given the strength of support for similar proposals in the past. Early-day motion 178 has been tabled on the issue; it is one of the most popular early-day motions before the House in this Session, and was signed by 157 Members, 118 of whom are Government Members.

The Bill has cross-party support, and I pay tribute to the Conservative Members who back its proposals, notwithstanding the opposition of the hon. Member for Gainsborough, the shadow Leader of the House and the hon. Member for New Forest, West. I acknowledge and welcome Opposition support, but I draw the Minister's attention to the substantial support of Government Members, of which he is well aware.

Mr. Leigh

Is that a threat?

Mr. Berry

I never ever threaten people, and certainly not in public.

The Bill also enjoys substantial support from organisations and individuals outside the House. Reference has been made to Age Concern, which supports the Bill, as does the Association of Retired and Persons over 50, Help the Aged and the National Pensioners Convention. Not surprisingly, the Lobby to End Age Discrimination supports the Bill. Clearly, such an organisation would do so; it held a seminar in the Palace of Westminster last year, in which Members from all parties participated. The seminar was part of the continuing campaign to secure action in which many of my hon. Friends have been involved.

The Bill is popular because it is necessary. Like every other Member, I have constituents over 50 who have difficulty finding or retaining a job, and find it hard to hire a car and access credit and other services. It is not just that they have difficulties; they believe that those difficulties arise because they suffer discrimination on the ground of age. They are right; the evidence is plain for all to see. In March this year, as has been said, the Education Sub-Committee produced a report on age discrimination. The submission from the then Department for Education and Employment drew attention to a survey conducted six months after the code of practice was issued, which found that one in five older people believed that they had suffered discrimination in their current job or a job application because of age.

If one in five people believed that they had suffered discrimination at work on the grounds of race, gender or disability, we would not be having further debate on the matter in the House. When one in five people believe that they are suffering discrimination on the ground of age, the House must respond seriously and effectively. In their submission to the Select Committee, the Government pointed out that in the past 20 years employment of the over-50s has fallen dramatically—a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne in her excellent opening speech.

Few of the over-50s who find themselves out of work say, "This is good; I think I'll retire." The evidence is that many people are leaving work involuntarily before the state pension age. In 1979, 84 per cent. of men aged between 50 and the state pension age were in employment; by 1997, that figure had fallen to 67 per cent. Did people have a sudden urge to retire early? Did they suddenly find themselves with riches and opportunities beyond their wildest dreams so that millions of them left employment early? No, that was certainly not the case for the majority of people. Last year, the proportion of men aged between 50 and the state pension age in employment rose to 69 per cent. because employment is rising and, thanks to Government policy, there is a favourable environment. The situation has improved a little, but the trend over the past 20 years is plain for all to see. Notwithstanding the fact that the economy is now performing well, older people who wish to work are being denied that opportunity.

Discrimination is morally wrong, and is bad economics as well. Discrimination on the ground of age robs us all of the enormous economic and social benefits of age diversity. Reference has been made to the Employers Forum on Age, an independent network. As my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne said, it estimates that we could be losing about £30 billion-worth of output and income as the, result of age discrimination. I must advise the House that the forum is not a small, little-known, ineffective and unrepresentative organisation. I see that our free marketeer is no longer with us.

Mr. Gardiner

He is sitting in the Gangway next to me; my hon. Friend has convinced him to join us.

Mr. Berry

Never have I had such success in a debate; I shall keep the hon. Member for Gainsborough here. The private sector knows that age discrimination is economically inefficient. There is a massive list of companies that support the Employers Forum on Age, including Sainsbury's, BAE Systems, HSBC bank and the Nationwide building society. The forum is not a fly-by-night or unrepresentative organisation; it represents British business and the public sector. Many local authorities support it, as do public sector bodies and Government Departments. When such an organisation says that we are throwing away £30 billion a year as the result of age discrimination, we should take that seriously, even if, just for a second, we have to question our faith in an unfettered free market.

It is wrong that for both moral and economic reasons we allow age discrimination to continue without adequate address. I pay tribute to the Government for taking action; they have done more on the issue than any previous Government. The 1999 voluntary code of practice and the Government's commitment to the EU directive are welcome. Taking five years to introduce legislation to tackle age discrimination in employment is certainly better than no commitment at all, but it is not the best that could be done; five years is a long time to wait when one is on the receiving end of discrimination. Moreover, the Government currently have no clear proposals on discrimination in areas other than employment.

In conclusion, I am sure that all Members agree that discrimination is wrong. To deny people employment or access to services simply because they happen to be of a particular race or gender, have a disability or are of a certain age is unacceptable in a society that says that it is committed to human rights. We therefore need legislation to tackle age discrimination However, the admirable Bill presented by my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne does not go as far as that. It asks the House to show that it takes the problem seriously, to establish an age discrimination commission to advise Government and move on from there. The Bill has my full support, and I am sure that, with only one or two exceptions, it will have the full support of the House.

11.10 am
Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam)

I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Kingswood (Mr. Berry), who is a highly regarded campaigner on disability rights and on anti-discrimination more generally. He makes a powerful case for the Bill, which I and my party support. The initiative of the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Ms Atherton) in presenting the Bill does the House a service and does a great service to the many in our community who face age discrimination in the workplace and beyond.

I shall set out the issues and recap some of the points made in the debate. In the next 25 years, the number of people aged 50-plus in this country will rise by 6 million. I have an interest to declare, as do many other hon. Members: in that period, I will become one of those 6 million people. Hon. Members should bear that figure in mind during the debate.

Over the past 20 years, the number of men between 50 and state pensionable age who are out of work has doubled. That is not a matter of choice. As the hon. Member for Kingswood said, it has not come about because people are suddenly blessed with ample resources, allowing them to enjoy a life of unfettered leisure; quite the contrary. It is the result of ageist assumptions that lead employers to cast their older staff on to the scrap heap.

By 2020, 1 million more over-50s will be thrown on to the scrap heap, unless Parliament takes action now. It is those millions of individuals whose potential has already been stifled and those whose potential will be stifled in the future who should be the cause of concern for the House, and lead us to introduce legislation to deal with discrimination on the basis of age. That is why the Bill should get a Second Reading today.

Further delay and half-hearted consultation over the coming months and years is not good enough. Parliament should send a clear signal to the Government, to employers and to the people that there can be no place in our society for ageism, which denies people their dignity and liberty and makes no economic sense. Even the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) accepts that it is folly not to employ older people.

It has been estimated that age discrimination in the workplace costs our economy £16 billion a year. The Employers Forum on Age believes that the figure could be as high as £26 billion a year. The cost to the taxpayer, in terms of lost income tax and other tax revenues and extra benefits paid out, is put between £3 billion and £5.5 billion a year. What a waste of people, talent and public resources.

Although I shall focus primarily on age discrimination as it impacts on older people, and there is, perhaps, a tendency for it to be couched in those terms, we must recognise that there are aspects of discrimination that affect not just the older members of our society, but the young. In framing anti-discriminatory legislation, the House must address that.

Ageist language permeates our society. For example, talk of demographic time bombs ignores the fact that the age shift that we think will occur in the future has already occurred, to a large extent. The time bomb has already exploded, but we seem to be coping with a much larger elderly population. Another example is talk of bed blocking, which too often victimises the person in the bed, as if it was their fault that they have become a delayed discharge statistic.

We Liberal Democrats believe that there should be comprehensive age discrimination legislation on the statute book as soon as possible. The Bill will not deliver that end, but it is an important milestone. I hope that the House will allow it to make progress today and in future.

As we heard from the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne, the Bill establishes an age equality commission to monitor existing and future legislation and advise the Government, business, the voluntary sector and the wider public on issues relating to age discrimination. I see the commission in much the same light as the commissions that already exist to deal with disability rights, equal opportunities and racial equality.

An age equality commission with the powers and resources necessary to back individual older people—to be in their corner and on their side—would give them the ability to seek redress and to challenge discrimination in the workplace and in their everyday lives. Everyone deserves to be treated as an individual. It is important to bear in mind that there is no such thing as a typical older person: each of us is unique. There is no such thing as a typical disabled person. There is as much difference between a 20-year-old and a 40-year-old as there is between a 60-year-old and an 80-year-old, yet all too often, in the delivery of service and so on, we bracket people together.

We rely too much on people's date of birth, which can blind professionals and others to their uniqueness. For example, it can lead to arbitrary decisions about access to health care. In the case of not-for-resuscitation orders, it can determine who lives and who dies. The hon. Member for Gainsborough spoke about the NHS and quoted an example that I presented to the House some years ago. I welcome the fact that through their national service framework, the Government are tackling age discrimination in the health service. Audits have been undertaken and we await the outcome. It remains to be seen whether the voluntary approach will be adequate in the NHS. I hope that it is successful, but it may not be.

In the past, the House has taken steps to outlaw discrimination on the basis of gender, race or disability. Those laws have played a crucial part in changing attitudes in our society. They set a benchmark against which behaviour could be judged. They may not have changed society as much as we would have liked, but law can make a difference by setting the tone and clarifying the direction in which we wish to travel. On age discrimination, the Government have clung far too long to the idea that a voluntary approach through a code is the way to deal with it.

On the horizon is article 13 of the EU directive on equal treatment in employment, which provides a touchstone to which we can refer. It must become part of our law by December 2006, but I hope that action will be taken sooner. Why should we have to wait five more years before older people have the law on their side? Why limit the law to employment?

The present Minister for Pensions was keen to send a positive message back in 1996, when he was shadow Employment Minister. He said: The Labour party's position is quite clear…an incoming Labour Government will introduce comprehensive legislation to make age discrimination in employment illegal."—[Official Report, 9 February 1996; Vol. 271, c. 618.] Quite right, too.

What happened? In government, Labour had second thoughts. Rather than legislating, the Government opted to tread the path of the voluntary code. Although we have heard some suggestions that the code is working, the evidence that I have read so far suggests that it has worked, at best, at the margins. The Government's own research casts doubt on its effectiveness. Surveys found little or no change in employment policy among the employers surveyed.

Dr. Pugh

My hon. Friend made the point that the scope of age discrimination stretches wider than employment. Does he agree that there have been clear instances of age discrimination in some public bodies? I refer him to Merseyside police authority, whose staff have to withdraw at the age of 70.

Mr. Burstow

One of the issues that will have to be addressed is why we use someone's date of birth as the criterion to determine their competence and what they can contribute to society. Someone's date of birth is not an acceptable basis for such judgments, and my hon. Friend makes a good point in that regard.

I want briefly to quote from the final report that the Government have published on the outcome of the third wave of the roll-out of their voluntary code. The passage is telling and addresses a point made by the hon. Member for Ilford, North (Linda Perham), who has also been an effective campaigner on these issues. It states: The information gathered in this research project suggests that although the concept of a voluntary Code is seen as a step in the right direction it is felt that the government needs to do much more to raise awareness of the Code and to change entrenched attitudes. It is, expected that the Code will eventually become law, just as other types of discrimination legislation has. The main criticism levelled at the Code is that it will not have sufficient impact on its own and not in its current voluntary state. The fact that there is not general awareness of the new Code is taken as evidence of this. The report elaborates on the view that the code is not widely understood and appreciated by the very people who need to use it and who should follow it in the workplace. It seems at times that Ministers are wont to say that the Government are not enthusiastic about legislation as it will impose extra burdens on employers, as the hon. Member for Gainsborough implied.

There is concern that employers do not want the legislation, but research evidence does not support that contention. In 1999, a survey of members of the Institute of Directors found that six in 10 were in favour of legislation on age discrimination. Earlier research by the Institute of Management found that eight in 10 of its members favoured the introduction of such legislation. Even the Federation of Small Businesses said that it would support legislation as long as it was simple and clear.

So, why the reluctance to introduce that legislation? We have already seen that the voluntary approach is not enough in the workplace. Indeed, the hon. Member for Cioydon, South (Richard Ottaway) gave ample evidence about the operation of age bars in respect of job vacancies in the legal profession. Such an approach is also not effective in health care. Indeed, there is an overwhelming body of evidence to show that ageism is rife throughout society—in the national health service, employment, social services, media and even the Government's approach to recruiting more vets, as the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne described.

In his foreword to "Winning the Generation Game", the Prime Minister said: I hope that our actions as a Government will also promote a wider change in attitudes. Yet, the solutions that have been advanced appear to contradict what Departments have been doing. What have they done so far? Not a lot "Winning the Generation Game" is an excellent report that does a very useful job in illuminating the issue. It calls for a change in culture—to raise expectations of older people and stop making judgments based on their age rather than their true value and potential. It goes on to state: The Government can take a lead in stimulating this change. First, though its words, it can prominently set out the case for valuing the skills and experience of older people in work and beyond. Second, through its actions, the Government can show that it means what it says: by accepting that age discrimination must be tackled, with legislation needed unless a voluntary code produces demonstrable results; and by taking steps as an employer to retain older Civil Servants and to give them flexibility in their working lives. Those are very fine words, but where is the delivery? A series of written answers to questions tabled by the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne demonstrate that there is still a gap between that very fine rhetoric and the reality. In fact, the gap is a chasm, because no Department that replied to those questions indicated that any action would be taken before 2006. Instead, we are offered the prospect of more consultation.

Ms Atherton

I am very pleased to have the hon. Gentleman's support. I wish that some more Liberal Democrats were present to support the Bill. Is he aware that I had great difficulty in tabling the questions to which he refers, as the Table Office could not identify which Departments and Ministers were responsible?

Mr. Burstow

That is a very fair point. I think that the hon. Lady was present at a reception hosted by Help the Aged earlier this week, at which the Minister for Pensions shared with those present information about the members of his inter-ministerial group. Perhaps we now have a list of Ministers whom we can tackle and target to encourage them to follow the innovation unit's recommendations, especially in respect of the civil service.

In 1997, the position was clear. An incoming Labour Government were committed to introducing comprehensive legislation on age discrimination. It is a question now of whether the Government have gone far enough to put their house in order in relation to the performance and innovation unit's recommendations on changes in practice in the civil service, and of whether the Government are walking the walk in putting their own voluntary code into practice. I hope that the Minister will tell us a bit more about where the Government have got to in respect.

It is also worth considering evidence from abroad. The example of the United States shows that age discrimination laws can have a significant impact and substantially increase employment rates in respect of older workers. Legislation in Australia, Canada and the USA has had a substantial effect on discriminatory practices in relation to advertising vacancies, selection and promotion.

I want the UK to leapfrog the USA and other countries that have already introduced legislation and to introduce a new standard. Given the ageist assumptions in our employment practices, health service and many other aspects of life, it is time that comprehensive legislation to tackle age discrimination was put on to our statute book and enforced. It would have a positive impact. For example, it would address growing concern about the way in which we treat elderly people in our society. The absence of anti-discrimination legislation in respect of age, when it exists for gender, race and disability and wi11 soon apply to sexual orientation and religion, downgrades for many people the importance that we should attach to age discrimination.

As a Liberal Democrat, I should like to repeat the view that we set out at the election—

Dr. Pugh

Speaking also as a Liberal Democrat, I point out that the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Ms Atherton) said that there were not so many of us here today. Does my hon. Friend agree that a higher percentage of the Liberal Democrat party is probably present than of the Labour party?

Mr. Burstow

The House has heard my hon. Friend's point. I took the comment of the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne in the spirit in which it was intended and moved swiftly on.

Although the hon. Lady did not accept the case for an integrated approach involving a single commission, a powerful case was made persuasively to the Employment Sub-Committee, which should be considered and form the basis for legislation. A single equality Act should codify and reform the 25 measures that are already on the statute book and enable us to meet our obligations under the EU directive. Such legislation would reduce the volume and complexity of existing UK legislation and regulation— perhaps addressing some of the concerns raised in the debate—focus on diversity and allow inconsistencies to be tackled across existing legislation and equality commissions. From the point of view of business managers, it might also save parliamentary time by combining debates and scrutiny of a single Bill rather than the several Bills that will be necessary if the Government adopt a piecemeal approach. Over time, we should move to a single integrated commission for equality issues. I understand that the Hepple report, which investigated the matter and was canvassed with the Confederation of British Industry, the Trades Union Congress and most of the existing commissions, carried much favour and support, albeit qualified in some quarters, as a sensible template to be followed for developing equality legislation in our country.

The hon. Lady is to be congratulated on promoting the Bill. I hope that the Government will give it the time it deserves in the House and that we will have the opportunity to explore in Committee the many issues it raises. I hope, therefore, that it will receive its Second Reading.

11.28 am
Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West)

I should like to add my congratulations to those already expressed to my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Ms Atherton) on choosing this very important topic as the subject of her private Member's Bill. I guess that I should also declare an interest. I was elected to the House at the age of 50. I am immensely grateful that, despite the fact that my constituency has one of the youngest populations in the UK, it had the good sense not to exercise any age discrimination in the 1997 or 2001 elections. I think I was just the oldest candidate on both occasions, so I am extremely grateful to my constituents for showing the way forward for the rest of the UK.

Several hon. Members have pointed out that age discrimination, especially in employment, is not only unfair to individuals but a waste of valuable experience and expertise. I shall not enlarge on that, except to mention a specific case that I tackled soon after being elected in 1997. I was approached by a constituent who works for the security service in the House of Commons and was about to be turfed out of his job because of an age bar. I am pleased that I, like several other hon. Members, made representations to the then Home Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), who removed the age bar.

I am pleased to say that my constituent continues to work here and greets me cheerily in the morning when I arrive at Portcullis House. His case shows that age bars are always wrong. They are a crude measure, which suggest that at a certain age all individuals lose the ability to do their jobs.

Some jobs, such as that of an airline pilot, require acute eyesight or quick reactions. It is important that people's ability to do their job is tested regularly to ensure that they can perform their tasks safely, but it is not right to try to achieve that by saying that at a certain age people suddenly go to seed and have to be removed. That is relevant in the case of Dr. Yacoub.

Ms Drown

My hon. Friend suggested that a way forward might be for all constituencies to elect the oldest candidate. I hope that her view is closer to mine: a Chamber such as ours should represent a wide group of ages. Does she believe that we have achieved that?

Dr. Starkey

My hon. Friend slightly misinterpreted my comments.

Ms Drown

I thought that I might have done. I am pleased to hear that.

Dr. Starkey

I said that I was pleased that my constituents had set aside the age of the candidates and judged us on our merits and, clearly, those of the parties we represented. It meant that I was elected despite being the oldest candidate. I do not think that I said what my hon. Friend suggested, but I believe that the House should be more representative of the population in every way, including in gender, ethnicity, age and experience. We are a long way off that, but closer to it than in the past.

I shall not say more about the way in which current practices discriminate against individuals and are often not in the best interests of employers in the private and the public sector. However, I echo the comments of the hon. Member for Croydon, South (Richard Ottaway) about employers' mindsets. My constituency is similar to his in that it has full employment and employers often find it difficult to fill vacancies. Nevertheless, many employers in my constituency have the mindset that older workers should not be considered, and seek younger workers from elsewhere instead of taking account of the breadth of experience in the local work force.

I want to make two points that have not yet been mentioned about employment practices and older people. First, it is important that employers make conditions more flexible. Many older people have experience to offer and want to continue to work, but perhaps want to reduce their hours. The sort of measures that are mentioned in the context of women with family responsibilities—greater availability of part-time jobs, more openness to job sharing—are also applicable to older workers.

There is no reason not to consider job-sharing opportunities for older employees. An employer can get two experienced people who wish to work, but do not want to do so full-time because they want more leisure to enjoy their lives. Such measures, which are often relevant to young women with children, are also applicable to a wider range of workers, especially the elderly.

Secondly, age discrimination militates against those, especially older woman, who have tried to improve their skills and change their career They have missed out on educational opportunities because of discrimination in the past. They may have chosen to stay at home—or, indeed, had no option but to stay at home—and not had the same opportunities as men of their age to develop career skills and progress up the employment ladder. They may have been employed in low-paid, relatively unskilled jobs. When their children have grown up and left, they go into education. Many of them study with the Open university, which is based in my city. They upgrade their skills and wish to return to work and have a fulfilling career, but find that they are badly discriminated against because they are entering the work force aged 50 or older.

It is important to take into account the need to encourage women and men to upgrade their skills, invest in greater education and training at any stage in their career and for them to feel that they will be welcomed back into the work force and that their investment in improving their skills will be recognised. They should be able to contribute and not be written off as too old to make a valuable contribution. I therefore commend the Bill to hon. Members and hope that the Minister will respond to it positively.

11.36 am
Mr. Mark Prisk (Hertford and Stortford)

I commend the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Ms Atherton) on promoting the Hill, and do so not least as someone who was brought up in the Camborne and Redruth area. I am delighted that a representative for the area has taken such an initiative. I feel a slight twinge of envy as a new Member who did not do so well in the ballot, but I congratulate her on her success.

The hon. Lady is right to raise the issue of age discrimination. We should recognise the way in which society has changed. I am now the tender age of 39, going on 40, and in those years we have developed a youth culture. All too often, the media portray a negative image of those who are 55 or older. The image may be intentionally humorous, such as that of Victor Meldrew, but it is nevertheless negative. Youth and new things are viewed as good whereas experience and historical matters are perceived as bad. That culture and attitude are at the heart of the subject that we are discussing.

I commend the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne for promoting the Bill because irrational discrimination, whether against age, colour, creed or race, is wrong and should be tackled. I regard myself as a meritocrat. Decisions, whether they are about parliamentary candidates or someone's job, should always be based on the individual's qualities and suitability for the role. They should never be based on an irrational method of trying to choose between one person and another. The merit of the individual and suitability for the role should always be paramount. It is therefore right to raise the matter in the context of the workplace.

There is in my constituency an excellent charity that tries to tackle the problem. Based in a church hall in Bishop's Stortford, Kickstart is an excellent agency that helps those who face the type of discrimination that we are discussing. In my visits to the charity, I learned how often larger corporations use euphemisms such as "restructuring" and "downsizing" when they are in fact removing more expensive senior employees and replacing them with cheaper, younger members of staff. That is wrong. I also learned that such discrimination is not applied solely to those whom the Bill addresses—those aged 50 or more. As one who is 39, going on 40, I was worried to learn that it is used against those who are in their 40s.

I have focused on two aspects of the Bill. I hope that the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne will understand that my aim is to scrutinise, not to oppose. The first aspect I want to question is the definition of discrimination set out in clause 2, which states: 'discrimination' means—

  1. (a) the denial or removal of rights customarily held by persons residing in the United Kingdom, or
  2. (b) the creation of additional conditions that must be satisfied before rights customarily held by persons residing in the United Kingdom are granted".
My concern is that that differs sharply from definitions of discrimination in existing legislation: for example, the Race Relations Act 1976 focuses primarily on "less favourable treatment". Why is there a different definition?

I raise that question because if two different definitions of discrimination are on the statute book, problems of enforcement arise. If it is desirable that we establish a single equality commission, there is clearly a danger in having two different definitions.

Ms Atherton

The hon. Gentleman is right to raise that complex issue, which I look forward to exploring in more detail in Committee. It is properly a Committee matter, whereas we are currently discussing the broad principles of the Bill.

Mr. Prisk

I fully respect that. I just wanted to put the point on the record so that we could explore it in Committee at the appropriate stage of consideration. The definition is clearly at the heart of the Bill.

My second question, which has been touched on by my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh), relates to the applicability of age equality, defined in clause 2 as: the absence of discrimination on the basis of a person's age". That definition does not specifically refer to those aged 50 or more, so there a danger that the Bill might be applied to those aged less than 50. That is another issue that must be explored properly in Committee.

Ms Atherton

I refer the hon. Gentleman to the fact that under the heading "Interpretation" the Bill states: 'older person' means a person who has attained the age of fifty. That is a clear definition.

Mr. Prisk

That does indeed define "older person", but "age equality" is defined as I stated, and a question mark hangs over how the two terms relate to each other.

Jim Knight

The Bill starts by saying that it is a Bill to Make provision for the establishment of an Age Equality Commission to advise the Government on discrimination issues in relation to older people.

That clearly sets out the purpose of the Bill, which goes on to define "older person". I do not think that there can be any doubt.

Mr. Prisk

I am concerned about the fact that the definition of "age equality" does not appear beneath that of "older person" and that there is potential for conflict. However, if no such potential exists, I am happy,

I am a small business man, so my second concern relates to the employment aspects of the Bill. It is right to introduce the Bill because it helps us to identify a major problem for our competitiveness: the potential loss of experience and skills from our work force. However, the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne should recognise that the burden of new regulations tends always to fall disproportionately on the smallest businesses. Small firms—those with, say, between one and four employees, such as local newsagents and post offices— are the ones that often find the burden of regulations and compliance most onerous.

It is always the law-abiding firms that make the effort to comply, whereas those who are happy to ignore the law seek to avoid provisions such as those set out in the Bill. My concern is that we may become frustrated that the Bill does not appear to be achieving our aims and that we pass further rules, regulations and laws. The law-abiding will try to keep up, but those who are never prepared to support such legislation will continue to try to find a way around the measures. I wonder whether legislation is the best means of dealing with those who deliberately discriminate on the basis of age.

When introducing her Bill, the hon. Lady rightly said that we need to change minds and attitudes. However, I echo my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough in asking whether new laws are the best way to achieve such changes. The drink driving laws were mentioned: it is true that those laws were in place for 10 years before a noticeable change in behaviour occurred. Only when drink driving became socially unacceptable—when it was generally acknowledged that it was wrong—did a significant and rapid change occur. I am not entirely convinced that changing the law will, of itself, solve the problem.

I have reservations about the details of the Bill and I am concerned that the definitions it contains may conflict with existing legislation. I also have reservations about its impact on small businesses. Overall, however, I support the aims of the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne, because discrimination is wrong. It is wrong morally, it is wrong for business and it is wrong for our society. For those reasons, I commend the purposes of the Bill.

11.47 am
Mr. Edward O'Hara (Knowsley, South)

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Ms Atherton) on introducing the Bill and on her extremely effective presentation.

The Bill is not a Bill for older people—it is a Bill for all the people. It is rare that I agree with the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh)—sadly, he is not in his place to witness this rare occurrence—but I did agree with him when he said that the one inescapable fact is that all young people become old. I am reminded of the joke about the young lad who meets an old feller in the street. He looks at him and asks, "How old are you?" The old feller says "I'm 88." The young lad says, "I don't want to grow up and be 88 like you", to which the old feller replies, "You will when you're 87." To put it more soberly, let me quote Horace, who wrote: Eheu fugaces, Postume, Postume, Labuntur anni, nec pietas moram rugis et instanti senectae adferet. Which translates as "Alas fleeing Postumus, the years glide by, nor will piety bring a delay to wrinkles and advancing age." We all get old eventually, and there is nothing we can do about it.

Horace's words about pious efforts not being effective illustrate the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne, who amply demonstrated that in all sorts of areas Government exhortation has been seen to require the support of legislation and, in many cases, of a statutory body to enforce that legislation. The Commission for Racial Equality and the Equal Opportunities Commission are examples of such bodies. Several hon. Members have mentioned that some political parties have acknowledged the need for active intervention to achieve gender balance in their representation in Parliament. Legislation on disability that was first ventured by the last Conservative Government needed strengthening by the first Labour Administration of 1997. There is ample evidence of discrimination on grounds of age, across a wide spectrum. Mention has been made of the NHS and certainly the national service framework recognises the problem of discrimination on the ground of age across the service. The jury is out on how effective the national service framework will be in eliminating that discrimination, and an age equality commission might be able to do some useful work in that area.

My hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne mentioned age discrimination in financial services, giving the example of her mother. We could all add our own examples. The debate has concentrated on employment, and there are welcome indications from the Government that more than exhortation may be needed in the shorter, rather than the longer ran to enforce their pious exhortations not to discriminate on grounds of age in employment.

The implications underlying age discrimination are that older people are less worthy, deserving, capable and valuable. They are certainly not less worthy or deserving. As the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Prisk) pointed out, it is wrong in principle that people should be discriminated against on the ground of age. We are all equally valuable, young and old alike. Moreover, older people have their deserts because of their contribution to the common wealth and to the opportunities now being made available to younger people, from which older people are too frequently excluded.

Older people certainly are not less capable. For a second time in this debate, I can agree with the hon. Member for Gainsborough—this is indeed a rare occasion—who accepted the B&Q experience. It can make sense to employ older people. They are not less valuable and they bring to their work maturity, experience, people skills and stability in their personal lives. Older people are not distracted from their work, as some younger people can be, by difficulties in their personal lives. Older people also often have a greater commitment to work than younger people, not least sometimes because they appreciate the fact that they are being employed in their more advanced years.

An age equality commission would address a need, but it is not a heavy-handed proposal. The Bill says that the commission would monitor and advise the Government and other agencies on age discrimination. The commission would serve the interests of those who suffer from discrimination and it would serve the nation, by ensuring that it does not loss the valuable resource of older people, who are healthy, active, still of working age and anxious to give of their efforts to the labour market. After all, older people are healthy and active for longer than has been the case in the past, a demographic fact with which the labour market has not yet caught up.

Older people are often dependent on benefits because they are prematurely and involuntarily unemployed. Many would rather be in work and self-sufficient. Nothing could be more in line with the mainstream thinking of the Government than the argument that people should have every opportunity to be self-sufficient, responsible for their own lives and able to work to achieve that.

The proposal for the establishment of an age equality commission is modest, but eminently sensible. I hope that the Government will look favourably on the Bill and give it the time it needs. I commend it to the House.

11.55 am
Mr. Andrew Rosindell (Romford)

I commend the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Ms Atherton). The intentions behind her Bill are right, although I have some concerns that I shall outline. I entirely support the comments by the hon. Member for Kingswood (Mr. Berry) about discrimination not only being wrong in principle but making no economic sense. That is true.

The older generation in this country are people who deserve better. They fought for this country, they have paid taxes all their lives and worked hard for a long time. They deserve better than they are getting today. However, we should be careful how we approach the issue. It is not necessarily always the best approach to introduce more legislation or to set up more: self-perpetuating quangos, but more needs to be done to enhance what we do for our senior citizens.

I am a strong supporter of our senior citizens and have a lengthy record of campaigning for a better deal for them. In my constituency of Romford, in the London borough of Havering, I have worked closely with local organisations such as the Havering Pensioners Forum, the Association of Retired Persons and a new group, established two years ago, called Havering Action against Home Closures. Several council-ran residential homes in the borough are being closed and I have worked closely with all interested parties, including the groups I have mentioned, to fight those proposals.

As I said in my maiden speech, only four months ago, the older generation, especially in my constituency, are suffering at the hands of a Labour council determined to close the residential homes I have mentioned. As we all know, such closures, in turn, create bed-blocking problems in the NHS. My constituency contains two excellent residential homes, Marks Lodge and Hampden Lodge. Both are threatened with closure under the Labour council's proposals. The hon. Member for Hornchurch (John Cryer) has an Adjournment debate on the issue later. That policy is unacceptable, and I will certainly campaign alongside the older people—

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman must address his remarks to the Bill rather than to the issues to which he has been referring.

Mr. Rosindell

That is what I now propose to do, Madam Deputy Speaker.

I fear that the measures in the Bill would give no guarantees and offer no practical solutions to many other issues identified by countless reviews and investigations by charities and organisations suggesting that the older generation is a victim of widespread discrimination. I accept that such a commission would, as the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne says, seek to create a lobby and pressure for measures that would alleviate many problems facing the elderly population, and that is an honourable intention. However, I question the added value that a new quango would bring to the situation.

Ms Atherton

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the Bill refers to the over-50s, and that its brief goes wider than he appears to believe?

Mr. Rosindell

Yes, I am aware of that. I am not sure whether it means that my comments are not relevant to the situation. I understand that the commission would focus on people over 50. I am simply saying that the creation of another quango—another body to interfere—is not necessarily the right answer. I agree with many of the points of my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh).

It is difficult to find a single document on the subject that does not already demonstrate how the elderly are treated differently in terms of the job market, access to health care and travel insurance, to name just a few examples. None of those groups is shy in putting forward its ideas on how issues can be resolved. Considering that our very large civil service is more than able to consult them, I am puzzled as to why we need to spend yet more taxpayers' money on yet another body to tell us what existing structures should be competent enough to work out for themselves. Indeed, we in this Chamber are elected to represent our constituents and to raise these issues. I do not believe that it will help to create yet another body of bureaucrats to speak up for the older population when that is what we are elected to do. The commission is unnecessary if Members of Parliament do their jobs properly.

One area in which there is a clear need for urgent action, however, is the national health service. The number of people who write to me and come to my weekly surgeries to complain about the national health service is staggering, something with which I am confident every Member in this place is all too familiar. It demonstrates the depth of crisis and disarray in the health service.

What most disturbs me and should, I believe, concern every Member of the House is the attitude seemingly shown towards our old folk. It is all too common to hear of elderly patients being treated as if they were second-class citizens. I find that utterly unacceptable and shameful. For example, Age Concern reports that it. receives a call a month from people reporting how their clinical notes, or the notes of ageing relatives, were marked "not for resuscitation".

Dr. Pugh

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that, as I understand it, Age Concerns supports the establishment of the commission as proposed in the Bill? If the hon. Gentleman is quoting Age Concern as an authority in one case, why does he not accept its views on other matters?

Mr. Rosindell

It is absurd to think that every Member would agree with every point made by every outside organisation. Age Concern may support the creation of a commission, but I question whether that would solve the problems that Age Concern wants to be solved. However, Age Concern makes many sensible, relevant and logical points, and I agree with it on this issue.

Surveys have revealed that elderly people suffering from serious conditions wait longer than 24 hours to be given a bed. Of course, under this Government that scenario is not unique to older people, but even if the health service really cannot cope with every case, it must surely be accepted that the elderly, who are undeniably more frail than younger people, deserve a quick admission when seriously ill. Yet time after time they are treated as if the wait will make no difference.

This is a disgraceful state of affairs that demonstrates the inherent ageism in the national health service's attitude. Such ageism prevents and blocks those who have dutifully paid their taxes and national insurance contributions all their life from gaining access to the quality of care they so rightly deserve. But the question must be what a commission would do to solve that problem. Surely the treatment of elderly patients by the NHS is a matter for the Department of Health and the NHS to resolve, and for us as Members of Parliament to take up. Of course the commission could come up with new ideas and strategies, but at the end of the day it all comes down to the running of the health service.

Travel is another area in which we can help the older generation in a practical way. In London, the freedom pass allows pensioners to travel free on London buses, underground and trains. That scheme is superb and should be extended beyond the boundaries of Greater London into Essex—indeed, why not to the whole country? That is something practical that we can do to enhance the lives of the older generation.

Job market issues are relevant to what we are discussing today. With 2.8 million people between 50 and the state pension age not in work, the public purse is clearly suffering. Older people are a magnificent resource, with experience and years of knowledge. We should encourage them and give them opportunities that they are currently denied. My hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South (Richard Ottaway) alluded to that.

When people reach the age of 50 they are blatantly not ready to be placed on the scrapheap and branded unsuitable for work. Many of my constituents of pensionable age or, indeed, over 50 say they feel that they have been placed on the scrapheap. That is wrong. We should use the power that we have in this place to encourage and help the older generation back into work. They are a tremendous resource of which we should make use.

However, I challenge the basis on which supporters of the Bill think that the scenario should be changed. All the regulations, directives and campaigns in the world can focus on encouraging employers to take on people over 50, but there is only a limited pool of jobs. If the sort of campaigns and regulations that a commission would predictably propose were implemented—regulations that simply focused on the status quo—we might end up with lower unemployment in the older age categories and higher unemployment across other age groups.

Dr. Starkey

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Rosindell

I would like to make a bit more progress. I will give way in a moment.

The problem will not be solved through regulation. No market is helped by regulations. The problem is one of long-term unemployment, which can be solved through competent economic policies that leave the market free to grow. In order to become more prosperous, businesses look to expand and take on more staff. A better way to help the older generation into work is to use the tax system. Reducing taxes for older people is surely a better way to encourage them and price them back into the job market.

Dr. Starkey

The point that I wanted to make was relevant several sentences back. The hon. Gentleman said that if more older people were employed, there would inevitably be unemployment for younger people. How does he reconcile the scenario outlined by the hon. Member for Croydon, South (Richard Ottaway) and which exists in my constituency, where we have essentially full employment and labour shortages, with his notion that that is a zero sum gain and one cannot help the elderly without creating a disbenefit for the young?

Mr. Rosindell

I am suggesting that we would disadvantage certain groups of people by implementing the Bill. There are other mechanisms that we could use to allow older people greater opportunities to work. I have already cited the tax system as an example, and I hope that proposal will be considered.

The Bill identifies undesirable practices—especially the problems in the treatment of elderly people by the NHS. However, the Bill would be enormously costly to implement and the establishment of yet another bureaucratic commission—a quango—might not yield any tangible results. A commission sounds most impressive, but I urge Members to think about what it would actually do that could not already be undertaken by our civil servants on a case-by-case basis.

The Bill would be a blank cheque for endless reports, with no guarantee of real change and no recognition of the different issues that affect older people. If we are to treat our old folk with the respect and dignity that they deserve, we must accept that a single commission will never solve all their problems. Each case must be dealt with individually, in the most appropriate manner.

12.11 pm
Dr. Desmond Turner (Brighton, Kemptown)

It is a great pleasure to support the Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Ms Atherton), which is in the best tradition of private Members' Bills. It addresses the type of social issue that Governments rarely have the time to get round to, but is rightly discussed in this place. There is a remarkable degree of cross-party unity on this issue—with certain less than honourable exceptions.

If hon. Members were to propose that discrimination on the grounds of gender, race, religion or even age was reasonable, everybody would howl them down. We all know that such discrimination is unacceptable. Age discrimination touches all our lives—whether we are young or old and whatever our creed, race or sexuality.

Only one thing in life is as certain as getting a bit older and that is getting even older—if death does not get to us first—so we all have a distinctly vested interest in the measure, even if it is only self-interest. I shall thus declare my interest, because I seem to be on the Saga mailing list as well. We all have a strong interest in the topic.

Other countries and cultures respect and treasure older people and look to them for wisdom and for the benefit of their experience, but in this country we are all too ready to treat older people as dotards, or perhaps even to categorise them as "older folk"—as they apparently do in Romford. As a result, we get many things wrong. We set arbitrary ages for retirement from work, paying no heed to people's ability to perform their jobs.

Individuals differ enormously in the way that they age. Some people are perfectly capable of carrying on their job or profession well past an arbitrary retirement age of 60 or 65—although it was probably right to draw the line under the working lives of some judges as they approached the age of 100. By and large, competence and ability should determine when people stop work. If they want to carry on working and are capable of doing so, and if there is work for them to do, it is in their interest and in society's interest that they should, so we need to be much more flexible, as that would be of vast benefit to the nation.

An obvious example is the health service, where we have critical recruitment and retention problems with nursing staff and related professions. Those problems will not get any easier, because a very large percentage of those who are in service at the moment are nearing their arbitrary retirement age, but many of them might want to continue to work. It would be very much in the interests of their service if they were able to do so; otherwise, we shall continuously run to stand still in trying to staff the health service.

Health services are also notorious for discriminating against older people. Labelling a patient with the words, "Do not resuscitate" should be a criminal offence. Human life is uniquely valuable whatever our age—young or old. No one should think himself able to decide whether to take a life or death decision such as that. That is playing God, just a little, and it should be outlawed.

In fact, in the examples that I have given, a commission would be cost-effective. It would cost a little to run—a trivial amount in terms of administrative expenses—but the possible economic return to the nation would justify its cost probably several hundred times over.

Of course, ageism or age discrimination goes on in this place. A large percentage of Members were elected for the first time after they had reached the age of 50, but I cannot think of anyone—I am open to correction—from that category who has been appointed to a Government post under either party, yet this group of people must, by definition, contain a great many very talented individuals, with a wealth of experience, who could fill ministerial posts with distinction, but they will never get the opportunity. So we need to look at ourselves and the ageism and age discrimination in our own institution.

Mr. Gardiner

Give him a job.

Dr. Turner

No, I am not seeking ministerial employment—the Whips would not allow it.

We, as politicians, should also keep very firmly in mind the fact that more than 35 per cent. of the electorate are either over or rapidly approaching retirement age—the grey vote. That is a powerful political force, which we ignore at our peril. Those people are much better at turning out to vote than younger electors. Turnout among the over-50s is very much higher than among any other group. If only for political self-interest, they need to be treated with great respect, and I mean respect as opposed to the way in which Governments sometimes treat them—as a group that has to be kept sweet. There is a very big difference. That is why an age equality commission could play a vital role.

I do not agree one iota with the hon. Members for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) and for Romford (Mr. Rosindell). Their touching faith in the market will not bring dividends to anyone. There is no evidence of a widespread uptake of what one might describe as the B&Q philosophy in British business. Change will not happen overnight or in our lifetimes; we could wait centuries before the message about ending ageism is turned into practice.

The hon. Member for Romford thinks that we have enough civil servants and Departments to tackle the problem issue by issue. We certainly have enough of them but, if that approach were effective, we would have seen the results already and we would not be here debating the continued existence of ageism; the fact that we are shows why we need a commission

Everything that the hon. Members for Gainsborough and for Romford said emphasised in my mind the argument and the justification for a commission. It would create a focus for dealing with age discrimination. It would draw together the activities of Departments, civil servants and Ministers and make them think about co-ordinating their activities and their legislation so that they end age discrimination for the whole population.

I have no difficulty in; supporting the principles enshrined in the Bill. I hope that the Government will support it; one of the best things that they could do is create an age equality commission. I commend the Bill to the House.

12.22 pm
Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire)

I am pleased to be called in this important debate, particularly as I was one of the signatories to early-day motion 178.

We rightly have legislation that outlaws discrimination on the grounds of race, disability, gender and creed, so why not have legislation that outlaws age discrimination? I have been struck by the comments of friends from the United States of America. When they look at some of our job advertisements, they feel the same horror that we would feel if an advertisement said that it wanted a white male. The level of discrimination that they see in our job press is equivalent to that. Although I will not dwell on it, there is discrimination at the other end of the age spectrum. As a country, we send people to fight for our armed services, perhaps to be killed, at the age of 17, but we do not allow them to vote.

The cost to the economy of discrimination against older people is huge. A Help the Aged report published in September shows that 85 per cent. of people over 50 believe that there is discrimination. A report from the Employers Forum on Age in April 2001 estimated that the cost of ageism in terms of lost gross domestic product was £31 billion. I note that the Bill has the general support of the Institute of Directors and the Federation of Small Businesses, so it appears that employers' organisations do not oppose it.

This summer, when foot and mouth was raging and we were desperately scouring the country for vets, was it not ridiculous that a vet was turned down simply because he was 70? Many of my constituents will be deprived of the services of the world-famous surgeon, Magdi Yacoub, of Harefield hospital purely because he has reached the age of 67. That is an anomaly given that other parts of the national health service allow people to work until they are several years older than that.

Mr. Dillamore senior is a counter-example of that. He is an owner of Dillamore's, the fine furniture store on Leighton Buzzard high street, and has just retired from the business at the age of 98, as I found out during a constituency canvass in Linslade last week. Older people contribute hugely to our economy.

On insurance discrimination, I am a former insurance underwriter, although I worked in the reinsurance market. It is wrong that the premiums for car and other forms of insurance increase at certain age limits. That is a result of the increase in telephone-based insurance systems, which do not involve underwriting. Instead, insurers follow a rigid guideline and people's ages automatically push them into a higher premium category. That is not underwriting, which is what I was trained to do, in which a proper risk assessment is carried out. There is no reason why older people with a good risk record should be penalised. That is poor underwriting and does not make sense. We heard how charities and voluntary groups are unable to get people to work for them because of the prohibitive cost of insuring them.

It must be sensible to have a flexible retirement age as our population increasingly gets older. I feel strongly that it is grossly unfair that people have no right to claim unfair dismissal if they are over 65. My mother-in-law, a widow who receives only a small pension, recently went through that experience. As she was older than 65 she had no grounds to contest her employer's decision to make her unemployed, which is unacceptable.

I associate myself with the remarks of the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner), who mentioned the "Do not resuscitate" notes that have been placed on several elderly NHS patients in recent years. That is also unacceptable. However, the problem is wider than that. The upper age limit on clinical trials for cancer sufferers is often 75, so older people are denied the best forms of treatment. Delays in hip fracture operations severely harm the elderly because of the pre-operative procedures that they have to go through. Evidence also shows that dialysis treatment for kidney patients discriminates on the basis of age.

I wholeheartedly support the establishment of an age equality commission. I note that it was a Labour commitment as long ago as 1996, before it came into government in 1997. I hope that the House will pass the Bill and that the Government will not rely on the European Union to legislate, which sadly is often the case, because we would have to wait another five years for that, which again is unacceptable.

I accept that the law on its own will not change attitudes. Social attitudes must also change over time, but the Bill is needed because the problem is large. If existing structures, Departments and hon. Members have not managed to solve it, an age equality commission would give a healthy prod in the right direction. I am pleased to support this important Bill, which I hope will proceed to Committee.

12.29 pm
Jim Knight (South Dorset)

I am pleased to support the Bill, having tabled early-day motion 178. I am also pleased to support it because I am a personal friend of my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Ms Atherton). We met almost 10 years ago, fighting the good fight for our party in Westbury in Wiltshire. It was not an easy task. I also got to know her father, Denis, at that time, and he is a good advertisement for the Bill. He bore a remarkable resemblance to Father Christmas, but he was also an active pensioner—active in walking his dog, in going down the pub, in work as a journalist and in supporting his daughter in her career. He is a good example of how able many elderly people in our society are and why we should take action to avoid discriminating against them.

I am also keen to take part in the debate because there is a tradition of Members of Parliament for South Dorset speaking on age discrimination. I dug out the record of a debate on the Employment (Upper Age Limits in Advertisements) Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (David Winnick) in 1996, during which my predecessor went with the arguments proposed by the hon. Members for Romford (Mr. Rosindell) and for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh). I am sure he would agree with the hon. Member for Romford, who said that no market is helped by regulation.

My predecessor said to my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Mr. Banks): The hon. Gentleman is wrong in believing that there has been any advantage from the legislation on sex discrimination. In another intervention, my hon. Friend asked whether capitalism had always been colour blind, when slavery used to underpin capitalism". My predecessor replied that clearly capitalism was at least employing and utilising those people."— [Official Report, 9 February 1996; Vol. 271, c. 580–81.] I must reassure the House that I do not agree, and I have great pleasure in supporting the Bill. With a majority of just 153 and more than 21,000 constituents aged over 60, plus many aged between 50 and 60, I have a self-interest in doing so, although I am only 36.

One of many constituents who got in touch to ask me to support the Bill sent an e-mail last week. She is a remarkable person who has done a huge amount to help others into work. She is self-employed and she worked for Weymouth college in attracting a £3.5 million European social fund grant to south and west Dorset. It is the largest ESF grant awarded anywhere in my region, but her e-mail said: If I were not self employed I could have been put out to grass by now! That £3.5 million investment in my constituency would not have happened if she had been employed and discriminated against as a person over 60.

On Saturday. I was given a tour of Swanage, another part of my constituency, by a retired constituent who wanted to show me some excellent work being done by volunteers. I was taken to the look-out over beautiful Swanage bay and the Isle of' Wight beyond to see the tremendous work that retired people do voluntarily to look after the shipping that passes Swanage on the south Dorset coast.

My constituent took me on to Durlston country park, where I saw the tremendous work done almost exclusively by volunteers to sustain a superb attraction that draws many hundreds of thousands of people to my constituency every year. They see the beautiful countryside and spot dolphins from the cliffs around Swanage. In my constituency there are many examples of how important elderly people are in supporting our society, which reinforces my belief that we must liberate them and allow them to make a contribution. Any discrimination should be stopped.

My final example is from my time as an employer before being elected to the House. Our small company in Westbury, Wiltshire, always advertised vacancies in local jobcentres first, so unemployed people usually applied. I received an application from a chap aged over 50 who had been made redundant and believed he was on the scrap heap. We gave him a chance. He became our accounts manager and he still works there. He is the most loyal, the most committed and, in many ways, the most important part of our team in sustaining morale and paying our wages. He is certainly a valued employee at my former company. He genuinely believed that he did not have a chance of obtaining another job. The fact that he was given that chance makes him the most valued of our employees.

The principle of tackling age discrimination has been well argued. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Mr. Berry) advanced a powerful argument in support of the Bill.

I remind the House of the findings of the Employers Forum on Age. Its research found that a tenth of people between the ages of 45 and 54 believed that they had been rejected for a job in the past 12 months, and that age discrimination costs the United Kingdom at least £16 billion a year. The economic arguments are overwhelming for taking action to tackle age discrimination.

Given that the European equal treatment directive has to be enacted by 2006, it is sensible to establish the proposed commission to advise, to receive evidence and to present arguments so that we secure legislation and implement the directive in the best possible way for the UK and its economy.

I hope that the House will support the Bill and allow it to proceed to its next stage.

12.36 pm
Mr. Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle)

I join those who have commended the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Ms Atherton) for bringing forward an important measure that affects an important section of society to the Floor of the House.

My constituency includes Bexhill, and because of that I represent one of the oldest constituency populations in Great Britain. Bexhill is therefore no stranger to prejudice against the elderly. We are tired of constantly being on the receiving end of bad jokes about the elderly. We are especially fed up with the one about Dover for the continent and Bexhill for the incontinent. We would like to see much more done to talk up the positive role that elderly people play in the United Kingdom, not least because the population of Bexhill is very far from retiring.

Bexhill has a highly active elderly population, and not only politically. Many of my supporters, who played a crucial role in securing my return to Parliament, are in their 60s and 70s, and some are in their 80s. They are doing great work for me and for a wide range of voluntary and charitable organisations. The members of the generation who fought and won a war and are now in their 70s and 80s still give freely of their time, effort and experience to their local communities. The public-spirited approach that many senior citizens have in my constituency is something that we would all do well to emulate. I agree with the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner) that competence and ability, not age, should be the key criteria for assessing a person's fitness to do a job.

Even in Bexhill, which is to grey power, perhaps, what Hollywood is to the film industry, ageism rears its ugly head. Numerous charities and voluntary organisations have a mandatory retirement age. Individuals have a great deal to offer the voluntary sector, but that sector imposes the age for retirement rather arbitrarily. It seems extraordinary that at the age of 80, for example, one will be deemed not fit to work in a voluntary capacity in a hospital or a charity shop in Bexhill. However, at the age of 87, one would be considered quite fit to play a central role in a broad-based coalition Government for the future governance of Afghanistan. I welcome the role that King Zahir Shah will play in bringing peace to that country. He certainly would not be the first octogenarian to play an important international role. We all appreciate the part played by Nelson Mandela; before him, Winston Churchill and even Gladstone played important roles in their 80s.

The Government have introduced proposals on reforming the House of Lords; I hope that the proposal to impose an age limit of 75 on Members of the upper House will be consigned to the scrap heap. Elderly people bring important wisdom, consideration and experience to the legislative process. It is lamentable that Members of Parliament tend to leave the House earlier and earlier; the House of Lords is improved by the age and experience of its Members.

I should like to make a few remarks about the NHS. Four and a half years after Tony Blair said that he had 24 hours to save the NHS, there is still a huge amount of age discrimination.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Order. I should remind the hon. Gentleman that it is not in order to refer to a Member of Parliament by name; that should be done by reference to his constituency.

Mr. Barker

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker; I stand corrected.

Age discrimination is rife in the NHS, as hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Mr. Rosindell), have said. It is a matter of record that elderly people are being left to die, as has been highlighted by Age Concern. They are being left on trolleys and are missing out on cancer treatments. Elderly patients are being refused dialysis and elderly people are at greater risk of hip fractures. Last year, an Audit Commission report revealed that 43 per cent. of hospitals had to cancel hip replacement operations for "unacceptable reasons", such as a lack of properly qualified staff. In some hospitals, one operation in five had to be cancelled for those reasons. The report stated: Cancelling operations is particularly risky for elderly patients since repeated starvation prior to anaesthesia can lead to dehydration and nutritional problems and increase the likelihood of complications and poor recovery. The elderly are not just suffering medically in the NHS, but are suffering as a result of provisions on bed allocation and nursing aftercare. In East Sussex, the social services sector is in crisis, largely as a result of the financial state of affairs that the county council inherited after four years of a Lib-Lab pact which ran down the reserves. As a result, bed blocking is a frequent occurrence and a serious problems for both hospitals in my constituency.

In conclusion, while I share the concerns of my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) about the introduction of more legislation and the establishment of more commissions, in this case the Bill is sufficiently important to warrant a Report stage and I am happy to support it.

12.44 pm
Mr. Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith)

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Ms Atherton) on introducing the Bill, not least because it allows the House to demonstrate clear cross-party support for it. I hope that the Government will take that on board in due course. I congratulate my hon. Friend on the effective campaign that she and those backing her have waged throughout the country to draw attention to the Bill. I was contacted by Age Concern Scotland, whose headquarters are in my constituency; its representatives met me and explained why they supported the Bill. I know that there is support for the principle of the Bill throughout the United Kingdom.

We heard earlier from a number of hon. Members that the Bill was the 15th private Member's Bill on the subject to come before the House in less than 20 years. Whatever the eventual outcome of the measure, I hope that across the political spectrum hon. Members will accept that, notwithstanding the useful voluntary initiatives that have taken place, particularly in the past few years, it is a criticism of our system of parliamentary procedure and parliamentary democracy that a proposal which has received overwhelming support in the House and in the country almost every year for the past 20 years should not find its way on to the statute book and should make so little practical progress. I hope that those on the Treasury Bench will bear that in mind.

I have no doubt that there is a strong case for tackling discrimination based on age. A particularly bad example of age discrimination is that practised by employers who discriminate against existing employees as well as potential new recruits on the basis of age. As we heard, such discrimination is unfair to the individuals concerned and can also be self-defeating for the business involved and damage the economy.

My city is one of many places in the country which, thanks to the policies of the Government, now has low levels of unemployment, by and large. It is crazy for employers to rule out potential employees on the basis of age. Employers with a positive attitude to older workers, such as B&Q, which has rightly received praise in the debate, are reaping the benefits.

My hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne referred to the gentleman in her constituency who worked as a lollipop man and had been required to retire at the age of 70. I am glad to say that in such matters my local authority has a more enlightened attitude. In Edinburgh lollipop men and ladies are not required to retire at any specific age. They can serve as long as they meet the necessary medical requirements and pass a medical test.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

How far is discrimination against workers who have reached the age of 70 due to the fact that insurance companies are not prepared to cover such people to provide information or do voluntary work?

Mr. Lazarowicz

The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. I am sure that in many cases, that is the underlying reason.

In my city, if the requirements of sight and hearing are met, a person can work as a lollipop man or woman until any age. I recall that last year I attended a presentation ceremony for someone who had just retired as a lollipop man at the age of 87. He was replaced by a youngster of 76, who would no doubt serve for many years to come. In so doing, those individuals were enjoying their work, contributing to society and helping to meet the shortage of workers in an important social sector.

I support the proposal for an age equality commission. I accept that there are complexities in the issue of age discrimination. There are undoubtedly problems relating to insurance. The range of premiums may well reflect factors that should justifiably be taken into account. However, as the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) pointed out, in many cases discrimination in insurance means that a blanket discrimination is applied, with no objective, logical justification.

The approach that could usefully be followed is the one adopted in the disability legislation, whereby if there is objective justification for some form of differential treatment, that can be applied, but where there is no justification, discrimination becomes unlawful and should not be allowed. That seems a sensible way forward.

I will not say that I am sympathetic to the points made by the hon. Member for Romford (Mr. Rosindell), who is no longer in the Chamber, but I can see merit in some of them. He drew attention to the danger—as he would see it—of having too many commissions and statutory bodies. I had better not speak about him for too long while he is absent from the Chamber, but I suspect that he is against almost any commission or statutory body. I certainly do not share that opinion, but none the less I think that there may be a case for considering in due course how to tidy up the various commissions and bodies that are designed to promote equality in this country—a possibility that my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne did not rule out.

I have no doubt, however, that the proposed age equality commission is at this stage the right way forward to highlight a form of discrimination which, as has been pointed out, affects many people in this country. The beauty of the proposal is that it allows a flexible response to the problems that arise from age discrimination. As those problems can express themselves in many different ways, the flexibility of my hon. Friend's approach should commend it to the House.

I want to make one final point about the Bill in relation to Scotland, to which it would apply. It must do so, as equal opportunities legislation is still a reserved matter. I have no doubt that there is support for the Bill in Scotland, as there is in the rest of the UK. However, given that some related legislation is devolved to the Scottish Parliament—legislation on education and health, to name but two areas, is devolved—it would be necessary in due course to make provision to allow representation of appropriate Scottish bodies on the commission. Such provision would also be necessary to ensure that what the commission did fitted in with measures that applied in England, Wales and the rest of the UK. Of course, I make those points not to express any opposition to the Bill, but to highlight a matter that should be taken up in Committee or elsewhere, whatever future form the measure takes.

I have no hesitation whatever in supporting the Bill. I commend it to the House and I hope that the Government will accept the spirit of what it proposes.

12.52 pm
Mr. John Whittingdale (Maldon and East Chelmsford)

I join other hon Members in congratulating the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Ms Atherton) on her good fortune in coming third in the ballot for private Members' Bills and on the way in which she has presented her case to the House.

A number of speakers have pointed out that age discrimination has occupied quite a bit of the House's time in recent years. Three Bills have been introduced on the issue in this year alone and one was introduced in each of the previous five years. It is worth noting that two of those Bills were introduced by Conservative Members., five by Labour Members and one by a Liberal Democrat. None of them proved successful, but their introduction indicates a widespread desire, which extends across all parties, to see a debate on the issues that the Bill raises.

However, there is another reason why it is very important that we should reconsider age discrimination. Almost exactly a year ago, the European Union Employment and Social Affairs Council adopted the equal treatment in employment directive, which will prohibit discrimination in employment on a number of grounds, including age. Member states have until 2 December 2006 to implement the provisions on age and disability. I am slightly surprised that no more of our debate has concerned the EU directive. It has been mentioned by a number of hon. Members, but it is a looming presence that we cannot ignore.

The directive is wide ranging and will cover selection, recruitment, working conditions, training opportunities, promotion and employment benefits. Only the armed forces are specifically exempted from it, although it will not cover membership of occupational pension schemes. It will reverse the burden and proof in civil cases of alleged discrimination so that when an allegation is made, it will be up to the employer to show that discrimination has not occurred.

There has been an obligation for a year to introduce legislation on age discrimination. There has been no shortage of employment law proposals, which include consultation documents on part-time work, fixed-term contracts, parental leave entitlements and dispute resolution. Next Tuesday, the Employment Bill, a major measure, will be considered on Second Reading. However, the Government have been largely silent about age discrimination, apart from an explanatory memorandum in January from the then Department for Education and Employment. It stated that the directive required legislation and that the extended implementation period until 2006 will allow time for research and widespread consultation with employers, individuals and expert groups to clarify the differences in treatment on the ground of age that are justified and those that are not.

It is a pity that, apart from establishing a working group, nearly a year has passed and the consultation process has barely started. I am pleased that the Minister said that the Government intend to publish proposals for a first round of public consultation in the next few weeks. I am sure that he will give details of that shortly. However, much time has already been lost.

Several hon. Members said that the Select Committee on Education and Employment usefully dealt with the issue. It produced a helpful report, which drew attention to the difficulty of determining the extent of discrimination in the work place on the ground of age other than through anecdotal evidence. It pointed out that although it may seem that discrimination is taking place on the ground of age, there may be other underlying reasons. For example, a higher proportion of the work force aged over 50 may have worked in traditional heavy industries, which have experienced more redundancies. That may have had a greater impact on those people. The Select Committee accepted that discrimination existed and called for further research, which I support.

The Select Committee highlighted two valuable points, which I endorse. Some of the contributions have dealt with them. First, discrimination against employees because of age is likely to lead to economic inefficiency. Those who use age criteria to judge individuals' ability will have a narrower choice of applicants from which to recruit. Those who judge individuals on their ability, not according to their age, are likely to manage resources more effectively by minimising staff turnover. They are better able to build a flexible work force and they will have access to a wider range of experience. Their work force will be better motivated if employees do not believe that they are necessarily reaching the end of their employment. Increased productivity will mean that their costs are reduced.

Those clear advantages, which most hon. Members accept, inevitably lead us to ask why employers have not recognised them more widely. Hon. Members have pointed to the shining example of B&Q. Why is Government intervention necessary? I favour a voluntary approach, which would educate employers, rather than compelling them through the blunt instrument of anti-discrimination legislation.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) made a powerful and persuasive case. He explained why legislation involves dangers and that it is much better to focus on the market to achieve greater efficiency through ruling out discrimination. The previous Conservative Government mounted several campaigns to educate businesses about the advantages of employing older workers and the Government have continued that practice. They adopted a similar approach through the voluntary code of practice on age diversity. None the less, I accept that progress has been disappointing. My hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South (Richard Ottaway) mentioned specific areas where not nearly as much progress as we would like has been made.

The second reason why age discrimination is damaging is demographic: we have an ageing population. Currently, about 35 per cent. of our work force is aged over 45, but in 10 years time that proportion will have risen to 40 per cent., so it is essential that we make full use of the abilities of older workers. That will have implications for retirement ages, which I shall discuss shortly.

As I have said, there are dangers in adopting a statutory approach. When the Education and Employment Committee carried out its investigation, it received evidence from several business organisations. The Confederation of British Industry pointed out that there is considerable uncertainty about what constitutes unfair treatment. Detailed guidance is needed to give employers certainty and there must be a long lead time before legislation comes into effect if widespread compliance is to be achieved.

It is self-evident that some occupations demand a high degree of physical fitness and that, similarly, physical risk factors escalate significantly with age. Examples cited by the CBI include aircraft pilots, divers and offshore riggers, and I would imagine that firemen, who have been mentioned several times today, fall into the same category. Those much higher actuarial risks are likely to affect employers' liability both for insurance and for health and safety requirements.

The CBI rightly points out the danger that legislation will leave employers vulnerable to high levels of costly— and potentially spurious—litigation. One of the main purposes of the Employment Bill, which is to receive its Second Reading on Tuesday, is to reduce the number of cases that go unnecessarily to employment tribunals, but if it is passed, the Age Equality Commission Bill will create a new cause under which employees can take a case to a tribunal. In the evidence to the Select Committee, it was pointed out that it is extremely difficult to show that age discrimination has not occurred—indeed, anyone leaving a job could claim that age discrimination had played a part, whether they were replaced by a younger worker or an older one. Age discrimination is likely to be thrown in among all the other causes under which cases are taken to tribunals.

There are many unanswered questions: for example, will it be fair to offer seniority-based pay, or to offer more attractive redundancy packages to older workers? The Institute of Directors has pointed out that the provision in the directive for prohibiting apparently neutral provisions, criteria and practices that are likely to affect adversely a particular age group is likely to entail costs for business. Some of the practices that may be prohibited are not at all obvious. It has been suggested that graduate recruitment schemes, recruitment by word of mouth, and advertising in particular places or publications may be held to be indirectly discriminatory. Most of us will be familiar with the "milk round", whereby employers go to universities specifically to recruit graduates. That, too, might be ruled to be indirectly discriminatory on the ground of age.

There are doubts about the effectiveness of existing anti-discrimination legislation. The United States of America, France, Canada, Finland, Spain, Australia and New Zealand have age discrimination legislation, but only in America and New Zealand are unemployment and inactivity rates for the over-50s lower than in this country. Clearly, more research is needed.

It is extremely likely that employer-imposed compulsory retirement ages will become unlawful unless they can be objectively justified. The evidence to the Select Committee states that that will be the case. I am strongly in favour of promoting flexible and phased retirement ages—indeed, the demographic factors that I have mentioned make them essential—but I note the view of the CBI that employers would strongly oppose a ban on contractual agreements to retire. Such matters should be left to negotiation and agreement between employer and employee.

During the debate, my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Mr. Barker) made an interesting observation about whether the Government's proposed age ceiling for membership of the House of Lords would prove to be discriminatory under the terms of the directive. I am sure that the Government will examine that issue.

Many questions urgently need to be addressed. Every single one of the employers organisations has called for consultation and clarity. That is one reason why I welcome the opportunity that the Bill has given us to have an informed debate. It might be helpful to establish a body such as the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne suggests. I have not always been a great fan of commissions, and I share some of the reservations that were set out by my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Mr. Rosindell). However, an advisory body might be able to bring about the national debate that is needed and could prove valuable. That view is shared by Help the Aged and Age Concern, and—like most hon. Members here today—I have been approached by Age Concern in my constituency to support the Bill.

I have focused on the employment aspects, but the Bill covers other aspects, some of which have been mentioned in the debate. I am sure that we all share the views of the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner) about evidence of age discrimination in the NHS, and the appalling stories of "Do not resuscitate" notices. Nobody could condone that.

My hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) made a helpful contribution on the issue of insurance, bringing in his expertise in that area. In some areas, insurance may be more expensive for older people. In the case of health insurance, there may be good reasons for that, based on actuarial calculation. It is undoubtedly the case that the average cost of health care for someone over 50 will be higher than for someone under 50. Indeed, the cost continues to rise as people grow older. In some markets, it is cheaper for older people to obtain insurance. For example, some motor insurance schemes are targeted specifically at older people who are less likely to have accidents. I suspect that older people would not wish to have such schemes ruled illegal under anti-discrimination legislation.

The whole issue raises huge questions and we have had the chance to mention some of them today. The need to address the issue is urgent, because we are not alone in considering it. It has already been covered by a European directive and we are under an obligation to legislate soon. I hope that the debate will have served to illuminate some of the issues that have been raised. I also hope that the debate will continue in Committee. It is important that we have a full discussion of all the issues raised and, for that reason, we do not intend to stand in the way of the Bill being given a Second Reading.

1.8 pm

The Minister for Employment and the Regions (Alan Johnson)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Ms Atherton) on her colourful speech. She has a talent for dealing with serious issues in an interesting way. Indeed, she set the spirit for what has been an excellent debate. Sometimes these debates do not get the attention that they deserve outside the House, but today has been the House at its best. The debate has covered lollipop men, silver surfers, a history of scurvy in the Royal Navy and Horace quoted in the original—of course, I must tell my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, South (Mr. O'Hara) that most hon. Members did not need the translation, because we understood it perfectly well. My hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne did the House a service not only by raising the issue, but by doing so so effectively.

We have had excellent, wise and sagacious contributions, including that from my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, North (Linda Perham), who has a long history of involvement with the issue. We had a passionate speech from my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Mr. Berry) who made the point that several of the Back Benchers who supported two ten-minute Bills on the issue last year have become PPSs or Ministers. The inference was that that could be the way up the promotional ladder. I point out only that both those Bills failed, which is probably why my hon. Friends were promoted so soon afterwards.

My hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey) made an excellent contribution. She raised the crucial issue about people approaching retirement age who may want the same access to flexible working and reduced hours that we intend to introduce into the Employment Bill for parents of young children. We have also had excellent contributions from my hon. Friends the Members for South Dorset (Jim Knight) and for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mr. Lazarowicz).

By and large, this very interesting debate has not involved any political posturing and has been the better for it. The hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) was, as always, entertaining. He was courteous in putting forward arguments that were not shared by other right hon. and hon. Members, and spoke with his normal clarity and panache.

The hon. Member for Croydon, South (Richard Ottaway) made an important contribution. I know that area of London well, and the problems that he described are very real. There is very low unemployment, yet people cannot get work for no other reason than their age. The hon. Members for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Prisk), for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) and for Bexhill and Battle (Mr. Barker) also made important contributions. The hon. Member for Romford (Mr. Rosindell) broke what I thought was becoming a consensus and made some rather unnecessary political points. However, he does come from the same region as Ipswich.

The hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale) raised some points that I hope to address, together with the essential points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne. I will try to cover all of them in the course of my remarks, pointing out the Government's concern on the issues and how we intend to tackle them.

Sadly, all too many people fail to appreciate the seriousness of age discrimination and the damage that it can do. We often fail to realise how conditioned we are in our perceptions of older people—our upbringing, culture and the prevailing media images all conspire to create a stereotype, and discrimination feeds on stereotypes. The Government are strongly committed to tackling unjustified discrimination. Our record shows that we have taken action over the last Parliament to demonstrate that commitment through some important steps.

The minimum wage, for instance, was a vital step for all low-paid workers, especially women, which narrowed the pay gap by a full two percentage points in the first year of its implementation. That was the first progress on low pay that had been made for many years. The national child care strategy has created places for 700,000 children, thus helping parents in the work place. The new deals to help the young and long-term unemployed, lone parents and disabled people into work have made an important contribution. We created the Disability Rights Commission to promote and enforce civil rights for disabled people.

We implemented the recommendations of the Stephen Lawrence inquiry to improve the way in which police deal with race and race crime. We have amended the Race Relations Act 1976 to prohibit race discrimination in the exercise of any public functions not previously covered by legislation, and to place a new statutory duty on public bodies to promote race equality.

We have introduced a common age of consent for gay people and heterosexuals. We have changed the immigration rules to allow long-term unmarried couples of different sexes or the same sex the same right as married couples.

The hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford asked what we had been doing ahead of introducing the European directive regarding age discrimination. We have introduced the code of practice on age diversity in employment and the new deal for 50-plus, which is a voluntary programme to help the unemployed and the economically inactive back to work. We are taking forward the recommendations of the PIU report "Winning the Generation Game", which was published in April 2000, and included the collection of examples of good practice by employers adopting flexible retirement policies, which may be widely disseminated.

We have also introduced the age positive campaign and the inter-ministerial committee for older people—so we have not been inactive.

In its most pernicious form, age discrimination scars the lives of countless older workers. It costs British industry untold amounts—the figures were quoted in the debate. Especially set against the context of the current demographic trends, it is a waste of potential that this country cannot afford. We all have a common interest in ensuring that all, regardless of age, are able to contribute effectively to the economy, for the economy's sake as well as their own.

There are almost 19 million people aged 50 and over in the United Kingdom. They account for 40 per cent. of the adult population. There are almost 6 million people aged between 50 and state pension age in employment, but 30 per cent. of that age group are not economically active. Failing to make full and effective use of that resource is not the only problem. According to the Employers Forum on Age—an august body; some of the companies associated with it were mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood—18.5 million people feel that they have been discriminated against on the ground of age in one or more aspects of their life. Eight million people have experienced age discrimination in employment.

It is all too clear that employers do their business a disservice by excluding otherwise meritorious candidates solely on the ground of their age. Such practices have a devastating effect on people's lives, and that is what we are determined to tackle.

A large part of the problem is the tendency to think of age in terms of outdated and inaccurate stereotypes. Unlike in other areas of discrimination, differential treatment based on age is often not based on hostility or ill feeling, but misconceptions about older workers abound, and the outcome for the victims is just as bad. That point was made eloquently by my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, South.

Older workers are said to be slow to learn new skills, stubborn and inflexible, to cling to outmoded working practices and to take more sick leave. Surprise, surprise, none of the research supports those stereotypical views of older workers. They turn out to be more reliable on average than their younger counterparts. They are less likely to change employers after a short time. They are good at learning new skills. They are reliable and effective workers who turn up on time.

Moreover, the negative stereotyping ignores the benefits that older people bring to the work force. They bring a better balance and continuity and a more representative work force profile that reflects companies' customer base. They bring a stronger skills base and higher levels of experience.

Prejudice and culture are not remedied by legislation alone. In June 1999, the Government launched the code of practice on age diversity in employment along with supporting guidance for employers and illustrative case studies. The voluntary code sets the standard for non-ageist approaches to recruitment, selection, training and development, promotion, redundancy and retirement. We are also embarking on an age positive campaign to promote the code strongly through advertisements, awards, initiatives, events and project work with small and medium-sized businesses.

Those initiatives have met with some clear success, but equally clearly they were not sufficient in themselves to tackle the problem. That is why we decided last autumn to throw our weight behind the EU employment directive that commits all EU member states to the introduction of legislation to outlaw age discrimination in work and training. I was pleased to be able to play second fiddle to my right hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Tessa Jowell), who was then the Minister for Employment, Welfare to Work and Equal Opportunities. It was not a decision that required qualified majority voting; it required unanimity. I do not know what the difference would have been had the Opposition been in power, but we were pleased and proud not to use our veto and to sign that directive.

We are determined to press ahead with our campaign, because we believe that legislation alone is not enough, and I shall discuss that in a moment. Experience abroad, in countries such as the United States and Australia, where age legislation has been in place for some time, strongly suggests that the effectiveness of such legislation is greatly helped when it operates in conjunction with other policies—such as age positive initiatives—to promote equal rights and to educate employers about their obligations as well as their rights.

The Government have committed themselves to bringing in new legislation to outlaw age discrimination in the workplace and in training. As the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford pointed out, that is at the heart of this debate. I shall outline our plans for the implementation of that legislation.

Last November, the European Council of Ministers agreed the employment equality directive. It will require all 15 EU member states to introduce legislation prohibiting direct and indirect discrimination at work on the grounds of age, sexual orientation, religion and disability. We welcomed the directive from the outset; it is an important step in ensuring equal opportunities for all workers, whether in this country or elsewhere in the EU.

However, legislating against age discrimination is highly complex—as, I know, many Members on both sides of the House appreciate. There are many complicated and sensitive problems that we must address and resolve so that the eventual legislation is practical and helpful to employers and employees. In particular, the directive recognises that differences in treatment on the ground of age can sometimes be justified. For example, it may sometimes be necessary to make special provision for younger or older workers in order to protect their safety and welfare.

The challenge in implementation is thus to identify which types of different treatment are acceptable and which are not. That clearly requires sensitive consideration, in the light of responses to consultation. The EU recognises the complexity of the issue and, for that reason, the directive allows member states up to six years to implement its age discrimination provisions.

The Government intend to take full advantage of the time allowed, so as to develop clear and workable legislation. We thus do not anticipate that new legislation will come into force sooner than 2006, although we aim to have the legislation and its accompanying guidance in place well before then, so that businesses, employers and others have sufficient time for preparation.

We realise that the problem of age discrimination is not confined to employment, but legislating on age in employment is a significant undertaking and we need to allow time to get it right. At this stage, we are not persuaded to move at once to extend the scope of the legislation in order to cover goods and services as well as employment. It is likely that demographic and economic factors will provide powerful incentives for shops and service providers to change discriminatory attitudes to customers. There will simply be too many older customers for businesses to ignore them or treat them in a cavalier fashion.

Future consideration of legislation on goods and services would pose some complex questions. For example, would it be reasonable to outlaw specialist services aimed at particular age groups, such as holidays for younger or older people? That was one of the examples given during the debate. Should insurance companies be able to make reasonable adjustments in their premiums to reflect actuarial calculations? How would we deal with special concessions to pensioners? Travel, television licences and winter payments come to mind.

Mr. Burstow

Some Members will be disappointed to hear that goods and services are not to be included in the process at an early stage—not least because the Disability Rights Commission Act 1999 offers such a good template. Will the Minister tell us why the EU directive requires delivery of legislation in respect of sexual orientation and religion by 2004, but age by 2006? Would it not make more sense to introduce the provisions at the same time, so that Parliament could debate a comprehensive measure in the round, thereby addressing all the issues—including goods and services—sooner rather than later?

Alan Johnson

The date for the other two issues is 2003, not 2004. The feeling was that age discrimination is particularly difficult to deal with—indeed, we are further behind in relation to age than in relation to the other areas. That is one of the essential points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne, which I shall come on later, and it is the reason for the different time scale. I shall deal with the point that the hon. Gentleman makes in a second.

In our view, the problems that I have outlined reinforce the importance of focusing first on getting things right in relation to employment and building firm understanding and support for the necessary changes. Of course, hon. Members and others will say that legislation should be all embracing in its scope and that having to wait until 2006 is too long. The Americans, for example, have had their Age Discrimination in Employment Act since 1967, with subsequent laws extending and amending the scope of the legislation. However, even now, US federal law does not extend to goods and services.

Although the American experience can provide us with useful lessons, experience from abroad also suggests that there are no easy off-the-peg solutions. The path to legislation, and the legislation itself, differs from country to country. Overseas experience suggests that age discrimination law evolves over time. Another clear message from overseas is that solutions that fit particular experiences need to be found. That view is reflected in the EU directive. Recital 25 of the directive refers to the fact that provisions on age discrimination may vary in accordance with the situation in member states, and that is our view.

This is a complicated issue and we need to get it right. As I have already said, we have to tackle hearts and minds while developing proposals for legislation. It is not a question of persuasion or legislation; an effective strategy requires both. That is why we propose to consult widely, and why we aim to raise awareness and promote understanding of the issues throughout the period leading up to implementation.

As a first step, therefore, we shall shortly launch a consultation on how discrimination in the workplace on grounds of age, religion and sexual orientation can be made unlawful. The current plan is to publish the consultation document on 13 December—just a few weeks away. Those involved in that consultation will consider whether goods and services should be covered and whether we should have a separate age commission. We shall seek the views of employers, employees, organisations and expert groups.

We do not expect to resolve everything to do with age all in one go. The difficulties and questions that we have to consider—for example, redundancy, recruitment, promotion, training and retirement—cannot be resolved quickly. We shall, therefore, consult again on further age proposals next year, when we have evaluated the responses to the first consultation.

Of course, we have already had the benefit of the age advisory group's valuable expertise. The group includes representatives from industry, unions, employers organisations and key interested parties. I cannot mention them all, but they include the Trades Union Congress, the Confederation of British Industry, Age Concern, the Institute of Management, the Employers Forum on Age and the Society of Chief Personnel Officers.

Mr. Burstow


Alan Johnson

Let me turn now to the issue at the heart of the debate: the provision of advice and support on age discrimination and the proposal to establish a new equality commission to help tackle age discrimination. That might cover the point about which the hon. Gentleman wants to intervene.

As we implement the directive, we shall certainly need to consider how advice, support, and guidance in respect of all three new equality strands—religion and sexual orientation, as well as age—should be delivered to those who need it. It will have to be delivered in a way that people find easy to use; it has to be accessible and coherent.

The Government accept that age is behind the starting line in respect of measures that already tackle discrimination. In respect of race, sex and disability, we have the Commission for Racial Equality, the Equality Opportunities Commission and the Disability Rights Commission, which perform a key role in the provision of advice and support. It does not follow, however, that—as we introduce new laws giving protection from discrimination on the three new grounds of age, religion and sexual orientation—we should set up another three commissions, making six in all. That is an option, which has been powerfully argued by my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne, but it is not the only one.

The EU employment directive does not require new commissions for any of the new grounds. We will need to weigh the merits of calls for a single commission to cover all grounds of discrimination, as in the United States where the enforcement of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act rests with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Rev. Martin Smyth


Alan Johnson

This might be a good time for the hon. Gentleman to intervene, because we can also learn from our experience of the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland. That single body was created to exercise functions formerly carried out by three commission bodies and the Northern Ireland Disability Council.

Rev. Martin Smyth

What evaluation is now taking place of the outworking of the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland? Even though it may have different offices dealing with different aspects, it is much more reasonable to have just the one commission.

Alan Johnson

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. We shall use that pertinent example in our deliberations.

A single commission could provide a number of benefits. It would be a single point of contact for employers and employees as well as for members of the public. It would be also able to tackle multiple discrimination such as might have been experienced by an elderly black women or a disabled young man. It would help to create cohesion and aid compliance with co-ordinated enforcement action across all areas of discrimination and it could provide a more effective use of resources and expertise.

As the debate has demonstrated, however, the arguments are not one-sided. To what areas of discrimination should a single commission give priority? For example, those such as my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne and others who want an age commission would argue that a single commission would lose focus, with age being only one of a number of issues that a commission would tackle. We could also argue that the Disability Rights Commission is bedding down and that it is the wrong time to include it in an overall commission. We recognise those finely balanced arguments. That is why we want to consult.

Although I understand the concerns of my hon. Friend and the age lobby, it would not be right for us to commit to an age commission now and in isolation. We are just about to embark on a major consultation exercise on the implementation of new legislation. We need first to examine the requirements of all equality grounds in the round and to consult widely and to come up with proposals in the light of that consultation. That does not rule out special arrangements for age. We recognise that special factors are unique to this particular strand, but the decision should not be taken at this time and with sole reference to the issues surrounding age discrimination.

The Government do not want the Bill to go to Committee because we cannot commit ourselves to establishing an age commission—let alone one that does not cover young cover people in the way that we are obliged to by the European directive—or any other arrangements for commissions until full and proper consultation has been carried out and all the options have been considered in the round.

Our age discrimination legislation, which will be developed in consultation with all the interested parties, will cover people in employment and training—young and old. We shall take into account the views expressed in the debate and we shall continue to consult and listen to what organisations, such as Age Concern, the TUC, the CBI and others, say about the commissions.

The age advisory committee will also have a role. The Government cannot, however, make a commitment to establish an age commission or provide other arrangements for commissions at this stage. I hope that on the basis of my remarks my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne will withdraw the motion and focus her considerable expertise and strong and passionate advocacy on the consultation that is due to commence within the next few weeks.

1.35 pm
Ms Atherton

With the leave of the House, I shall respond to the debate, which has been excellent.

I welcome the support that the Bill has received from hon. Members on both sides of the House. It is clear that there is much support for action to be taken and I thank hon. Members for contributing to the debate. I also thank the Minister for the powerful case that he made on why I should not proceed with the Bill. I am pleased that the Government are making strides forward and I urge further strides in the future. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Hon. Members


Question, That the Bill be now read a Second time, put and negatived.