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9 May 2001 : Column 126

Age Discrimination

4.5 pm

Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford): I beg to move,

You may recall, Mr. Speaker, that in the previous Parliament I also introduced a Bill to outlaw age discrimination. Shortly thereafter I rather hoped that I would not have to raise the matter in the House again, because before the last election the Labour party committed itself to legislate against age discrimination. Unfortunately, Labour went on to win the election, and I assumed in good faith that, as the party had made that commitment, that would form part of its legislative programme. I went on hoping, rather against hope, that there would be some way of pricking the Labour Government's conscience and persuading them to implement their pre-electoral promises.

I was rather heartened on 2 December 1998, when I asked the Prime Minister whether he still stood by his commitment to legislate against age discrimination, and he answered:

I continued to wait in expectation, but, I have to say, with decreasing confidence that my expectations and those of millions of people affected by age discrimination would be met. Two weeks ago, as you will recall, Mr. Speaker, I again asked the Prime Minister at Question Time about his intentions in that regard, but all I got was the standard new Labour waffle.

It is clear that the Labour Government have no intention whatever of dealing with the matter, and that their promise before the last election has proved to be yet another broken promise. Many Members--and not only Members, but people throughout the country--will be saying, "So what's new? Labour have broken all their other major promises--about tuition fees, tax, class sizes, and a referendum on electoral reform." I would not want electoral reform, but having a referendum was a clear manifesto promise. People will ask, "Why shouldn't they break their promise on age discrimination, too?" In the light of events, that is the only reasonable attitude to take, but it is sad that we have to come to such cynical conclusions about how democracy is conducted in this country, and how the electorate is treated by the new Labour publicity and spin machine. I trust that on 7 June a suitable punishment is in store for those who have treated the British electorate in that fashion.

I, for one, will not forget about this issue--not in this Parliament, and not for as long as it takes--because it is extremely important. There are two aspects, both to the issue and to my Bill, and I shall deal with each in turn in the short time available.

The Bill deals with age discrimination both in the job market and in the provision of public services. In the employment market, the issue is one of justice. That is where I start from: it is a matter of elementary justice. We must all have encountered people in our surgeries who say that they are looking for a job and have sent their CVs round to hundreds of employees, but although they appear to be perfectly well qualified, they keep being told,

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"I'm sorry, you're too old." Sometimes those people are in their 50s; sometimes they are even in their 40s--yet they are still being told that they are too old.

This is, first and foremost, a matter of elementary justice--the same issue as arises with race and sex discrimination. Human beings are not being considered on their merits as individuals, but are arbitrarily put into some Procrustean category, and condemned without their case having been considered at all. That is exactly the same issue as we encountered in race and sex discrimination before the House--rightly, in my view, but before I became a Member--legislated against those barbarities.

Age discrimination is an issue of justice and humanity. We want to avoid people being made to feel that simply because they are older, which they can do nothing about, they will not be given a fair chance or, worse, they will face a series of humiliations as they pursue the elementary human right to seek work and a role in society and the community.

The economic aspect of age discrimination will become increasingly important as the years go by. We all know that we face a rise in the dependency ratio, which is the number of people aged over 65--the notional standard retirement age--as a proportion of those aged between 20 and 65. The other member states of the European Union also face that problem, some of them to an even worse degree. The problem is worrying, because the number of people who are purely consumers as a proportion of those who are both producers and consumers will increase. That is problematic for the provision of public services and future consumption levels if people wish to increase their standard of living--as most hope to do when they are working and when they retire.

Any pension system is a claim on the resources of the economy and if the output of the economy declines or does not match the expectations that people had when they took out their pension--whether their pension is provided via taxation, through savings or the accumulation of a portfolio of financial securities--their standard of living will decline and their range of choices in retirement will not be what they hoped.

What can we do about the dependency ratio? We cannot, in a free society, alter the fertility rate through deliberate policies, and even if we could it would take, by definition, a generation or two before the position improved. One answer, which the United States has implemented to some extent, is immigration. Some 750,000 legal immigrants enter the US every year and, including illegal immigrants, the immigration figure is probably more than 1 million. There is a lesser degree of immigration into this country and the rest of the EU, and it is also associated with various social problems and

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tensions that may be more difficult to handle in a country such as this, which is physically overcrowded. However, immigration will have a role to play in the future if we are to address the issue of the dependency ratio and ensure that we continue to have a work force who enable the economy to expand. If the supply of labour is limited, economic growth cannot be pursued indefinitely. Capital can substitute for labour to a large extent, but labour is still essential for an economy, especially in labour- intensive service sectors.

Against that background, it is crazy to discard a resource that already exists--members of our community who are already here, already trained and already have experience. Some of those people want to work and have been told that they cannot. When they send in their CVs or ring up in answer to an advertisement, they are told, "Sorry, but we are not taking anybody over 40." Individual employers may feel that they can get away with that, because they can employ reasonable people below that age, but if the generality of the economy works on that basis, it will lose a precious resource.

The second issue addressed in the Bill is discrimination in the provision of public services, especially the national health service. I have spoken about the issue before in health debates. Many Opposition Members have spoken about that. There is much anecdotal evidence that, in practice, many procedures, drugs and operations are being denied to patients in our health service because of their age. I now have documentary evidence of that disgraceful practice. In a letter to me dated 17 April, Mr. Richard Jeavons, the chief executive of Lincolnshire health authority, stated that multiple sclerosis sufferers aged over 50 will not qualify for receiving beta interferon on the national health service. That is absolutely disgraceful.

The letter makes it clear that it is a fact, not a matter of anecdotal rumour, that age discrimination is being exercised in the NHS. I cannot believe that it is being exercised only against people in Lincolnshire, or only in the matter of beta interferon treatment for people with MS. The practice goes against every principle on which we like to think our society is based. My Bill is therefore more urgently needed than ever, and I trust that the House will give it a Second Reading.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Quentin Davies, Mr. Tony Baldry, Mr. Christopher Fraser, Mr. Michael Jack, Mr. Robert Jackson, Mr. Robert Key, Mrs. Eleanor Laing, Mrs. Jacqui Lait, Sir David Madel, Mr. Andrew Rowe, Mr. Richard Shepherd and Mr. Ian Taylor.

Age Discrimination

Mr. Quentin Davies accordingly presented a Bill to make provision in respect of age discrimination: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 11 May, and to be printed [Bill 98].

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Business of the House

Motion made, and Question proposed,

(1) At the sitting on Friday 11th May, notwithstanding the provisions of the Order [23rd January] relating to Business of the House, Government business shall have precedence;
(2) At the sittings on Thursday 10th and Friday 11th May, Government business may be proceeded with, though opposed, until any hour;
(3) At this day's sitting, Thursday 10th and Friday 11th May, Standing Order No. 38 shall apply and the Order [7th November 2000] relating to Deferred divisions shall not apply if, after the time for the interruption of business, the opinion of the Speaker as to the decision on a question is challenged in respect of any question;
(4) At this day's sitting, the requirements of paragraph (5) of Standing Order No. 55 (Questions on voting of estimates, &c.) shall be dispensed with in respect of the Motion relating to Estimates 2001-02;
(5) At this day's sitting, any Consolidated Fund (Appropriation) Bill ordered to be brought in and read the first time shall be proceeded with as if its Second Reading stood as an Order of the day, and Standing Order No. 56 (Consolidated Fund Bills) shall apply;
(6) At this day's sitting, Thursday 10th and Friday 11th May, the Speaker shall not adjourn the House until any messages from the Lords shall have been received;
(7) At the sitting on Friday 11th May, the House shall not adjourn until the Speaker shall have reported the Royal Assent to any Act agreed upon by both Houses; and
(8) At its rising on Friday 11th May, the House shall adjourn to Tuesday 15th May.--[Mr. Pope.]

4.17 pm

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): I am surprised that no Minister has sought to catch your eye, Mr. Speaker, to explain this complicated and controversial motion. As has so often been the case, the House must now flounder around and guess the Government's intentions. We have had no guidance from the Government. Sadly, this Parliament will end in the way that it has proceeded--

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