HC Deb 27 March 2003 vol 402 cc147-9WH
4. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey)

If the Government will make a statement on the progress they have made in tackling age discrimination in employment. [104450]

The Minister for Lifelong Learning and Higher Education (Margaret Hodge)

We are encouraging employers to adopt non-ageist employment practices through our age positive campaign, which raises employers' awareness of the business benefits of an age-diverse workforce and encourages a flexible approach to retirement to open up choice and the opportunity for individuals to stay in work longer. Between 1999 and 2001 the number of companies referring to age in recruitment fell from 27 per cent. to 13 per cent. and the number of companies having a policy against employing older workers dropped from 14 per cent. to 7 per cent.

Simon Hughes

The Minister knows that that is not a very encouraging answer, because just before Labour came to power in 1997, her right hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney), now Minister for Pensions, said that the Labour Government would introduce legislation against age discrimination at the earliest opportunity. In the six years since, there have been 18 attempts to introduce such legislation—all blocked by Labour. Will the Minister tell us whether Britain will have to wait until the last minute of the last hour before we are required under European law to implement age discrimination legislation in 2006? What would she say to a relative of mine who reached retirement age in December, asked to stay on and was able and willing to do so, but, like many in that position, was told by the employer, "I'm sorry, but you have to go."?

Margaret Hodge

The Labour Government chose to sign up to article 13 of the treaty of Amsterdam, which will ensure that measures against discrimination on the grounds of age are incorporated into UK legislation. We did so freely and played an extremely active role in ensuring that that article came into being. If such legislation is to work in practice and have an impact on people's lives, it should be developed through consensus among all parties. Working with employers to ensure that we have a framework that is acceptable to everyone is an important part of the process. In my view, legislation simply provides the underpinning framework. What is required in this as in all other aspects of discrimination is a transformation of culture. All parties working together is a much better way of achieving that than simply attempting to confront the issue through legislation.

Ms Candy Atherton (Falmouth and Camborne)

I am pleased that the Government are to produce their own legislation, although I, too, would prefer that to happen as quickly as possible. Tackling the issue of goods and services is absolutely critical. If an employer wants to take on an older worker but cannot obtain insurance for that person, the older worker will not be employed. It is critical that we have the same legislation in respect of age as we do in respect of race.

Margaret Hodge

I understand my hon. Friend's point. I am sure that she appreciates that we must ensure that we have a framework in place that is acceptable and that employers will implement according to the spirit, as well as to the letter, of the law. Making the necessary adjustments to enable older people to participate in the workplace will be part of the culture change that we will seek to achieve in the years prior to 2006, when the legislation will finally come into place.

Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne)

Does the Minister agree that we must address cases such as that of my constituent, Jill Lambard-Brown, who has just been sacked by Liberal Democrat-controlled Eastbourne borough council for no other reason than that she happened to turn 65? The central issue is that, miraculously and in one fell swoop, when people turn 65 they lose all their employment rights.

Margaret Hodge

That is precisely why we freely joined with our colleagues across the European Union to sign up to the directive based on article 13 and to bring that into the framework. It is interesting to hear that the Liberal Democrats are not doing what they urge others to do.

Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South)

The Government's pensions Green Paper acknowledges that there is a savings gap. Essentially, the longer people can work, the more they can save into a pension fund and the better their pension will be when they retire. It is important that people are allowed to work and remain in the workplace as long as they possibly can. Far too many employers are still using age as an excuse to offer people early retirement—thereby putting a strain on occupational pension schemes—or not to consider employing people once they have turned 55. Will the Minister engage with employers to ensure that they end age discrimination and that people are allowed to work, pay into pension schemes and make better provision for their old age?

Margaret Hodge

I completely agree that the longer people work, the more they can save and the likelier they are to have a higher standard of living during retirement. I draw the attention of my hon. Friend and other hon. Members to the fact that this is a difficult area of policy, because discrimination on the grounds of age is important in relation to younger people as well as older people. We need to ensure that when we have a framework that enables older people to stay on at work for longer and prevents them from having to retire on the grounds of age, younger people have an equal opportunity to progress into jobs and move up the ladder, so that they, too, can fulfil their potential and contribute to the economy and society.

The Minister for Pensions(Mr. Ian McCartney)

May I advise my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg) that the Government have introduced the new deal 50-plus programme, which is specifically designed to get older workers who have been discriminated against or forced out for economic or structural reasons back into the workplace? The programme is having a significant impact on turning around the long-term decline in labour market activity by older workers, especially older men. We have now changed that trend. There is an upward trend in terms of proactively keeping older workers in the work force. Linking the new deal 50-plus programme with our age positive campaign, employers are now giving significant support to proposed legislation on age discrimination and, in the run-up to that, to work with other employers to get them to end their bad practices. That will have a significant impact by 2006.