Select Committee on Education and Employment Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum from Age Concern

  1.  Age Concern England (the National Council on Ageing) brings together Age Concern organisations and groups working together at local level and 100 national bodies, including charities, professional bodies and representational groups with an interest in older people and ageing issues. Through our national information line, which receives 285,000 telephone and postal inquiries a year, and the information services offered by local Age Concern organisations, we are in day-to-day contact with older people and their concerns.

  2.  Age Concern is strongly committed to the principle of age equality, whose adoption is integral to achieving an equal society where everyone is valued and respected whatever his or her personal circumstances or background.

  3.  Age Concern has for some years advocated the introduction of comprehensive age equality legislation in the United Kingdom. We welcomed the publication of the Code of Practice on age diversity in 1999 as a positive first step taken by the UK Government to combat ageism in the workplace. Nevertheless, Age Concern believes that a clear legislative framework is needed alongside a change in culture and attitudes if age equality is to be achieved. Such legislation should not only cover employment. It is important that older people are treated equally in the health service and other public services, and in relation to access to and provision of goods and services in the consumer market.

  4.  In the employment field our experience shows that many people experience discrimination in their working life because of their age. We have received many personal testimonies of this experience, from all parts of the country—and from people no older than 43 (a marketing manager denied promotion because of her age) and even 32 (a man who was told that he was too old to be security officer). In 1998 a nationwide survey revealed that 79 per cent of workers over 50 believed that they had been rejected for a job because they were too old, even though they had the right skills for the job.


  5.  As the Committee will know, on 17 October the European Union adopted a Directive on discrimination in employment. It obliges member states to introduce legislation against both direct and indirect age discrimination in employment by 2006 at the latest. The same time limit applies to discrimination by disability although discrimination on other grounds (religion and sexual orientation) must be outlawed by 2003.

  6.  When the Directive was being drawn up Age Concern worked hard to persuade the European Parliament and Commission, and ministers, to remove many exemptions which appeared to allow too much latitude for member states to allow age discrimination in employment to continue. The final Directive, to Age Concern's regret, retained many of these exemptions and allowed a three-year delay (subject to reporting obligations on member states) in the implementation of the provisions relating to age discrimination. In November Age Concern gave evidence to the House of Lords European Sub-Committee F on the Directive. This evidence, together with the replies from the Department for Education and Employment, is annexed.[21]

  7.  Age Concern has expressed the hope to ministers and officials that the UK Government will not exploit the potential loopholes in the Directive nor take the full six years to implement the age provisions.

  8.  The Committee may wish to note that the institutions of the European Union continue to take an interest in the issue of age discrimination in employment. For example, the Employment and Social Affairs Committee of the European Parliament recently drew up a report on the Commission document "Towards a Europe for all ages—promoting prosperity and intergenerational solidarity" (the Sbarbati report). Paragraph 6 suggested that "the proposal for a Council directive establishing a general framework for equal treatment in employment and occupation is not an adequate means of guaranteeing the rights of older people" and it called on the Commission "submit a proposal for a directive on the basis of Article 13, for the specific purpose of combating age-based discrimination."

  9.  In December last year, the European Ombudsman completed an inquiry into the upper age limit of 45 for entry competitions for posts in the European Commission. Although he was satisfied that the Commission was making enough progress to abolish the limit he suggested that he might launch an inquiry into age limits for recruitment for other European institutions.

  10.  However, the most important development since the Directive has been the adoption by member states of the new EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. Article 14 (1), 15(1) and 21(1) are relevant to the on-going debate on age discrimination.

    Article 14(1): "Everyone has the right to education and to have access to vocational and continuing training".

    Article 15(1): "Everyone has the right to engage in work and to pursue a freely chosen or accepted occupation."

    Article 21(1); "Any discrimination based on any ground such as . . . age . . . shall be prohibited."

  Although the precise status of the new Charter is not established, during the coming years it is possible that European jurisprudence may interpret and apply these Articles in ways which may have consequences for the United Kingdom.


  11.  On 6 November Baroness Blackstone replied to Parliamentary Questions from Lord Lester of Herne Hill on the current Code of Practice on Age Diversity in Employment. The replies suggested that in its first six months the Code had achieved a fall in the proportion of employers taking age into consideration—from 27 per cent to 16 per cent—and a fall in the proportion of people over 50 reporting personal experience of age discrimination in employment—from 26 to 20 per cent.

  12.  Although these figures are welcome, Age Concern believes that age discrimination is still unacceptably high if practised by one is six employers and experienced by one in five older people—especially in the tightest labour market for many years.

  13.  In the view of Age Concern the Code of Practice has had an important role in changing the behaviour and attitudes of employers, and will continue to do so, but we believe that this role needs to be supplemented by legislation.


  14.  Apart from the individual loss for older people, which is psychological as well as financial, age discrimination is a source of lost output and tax revenue for the nation. The Cabinet Office PIU report Winning The Generation Game recently estimated these losses as £16 billion and £3 to £5 billion each year. The Employers Forum on Age has produced even higher estimates, of £26 billion and £5.5 billion. The Committee may wish to seek further evidence on this issue.

  15.  We believe that national, devolved and local government, and other agencies such as Regional Development Agencies and Learning and Skills Councils, should collect more accurate statistics about older adults and monitor more closely their participation rates not only in formal paid work or business but as volunteers, carers and in education, training, cultural and recreational activities.

  16.  If age discrimination in employment continues, its economic costs will escalate with the ageing of the UK population. A third of the population is now aged over 45 and this figure is projected to rise to almost 40 per cent over the next 10 years. In 2021 there will be fewer younger people entering the labour market: 6.8 million people aged 16-24 compared to 8 million in 1991. By 2026, people aged 55 to 64 will form the largest group of people of working age—8.6 million or 24 per cent compared to the 1996 levels of 5.6 million and 15 per cent. These projected developments make it all the more vital for the United Kingdom to obtain the maximum possible output from each age group in its workforce.


  17.  From the evidence of first-hand testimonies and of special research projects. Age Concern as become particularly aware of the cultural attitudes which reinforce age discrimination. These attitudes influence not only employers but many employees and would-be employees, including older people themselves.

  18.  The ageist attitudes embedded in our society cascade into our employment and for the most part appear to be unrecognised and hidden. Our experience, from workshops in our current Age Diversity project, suggests that older workers suffer from negative stereotyping at all kinds of employment, including decision-makers and workers themselves. These negative stereotypes include being unable to grasp new ideas and cope with change, poor health, slow learning, technophobia, coasting to retirement.

  19.  A particularly disconcerting aspect of ageism in employment is the internalised oppression which it can generate. Within the cycle of age discrimination "younger" people can come to believe the ageist attitudes while "older" people can internalise them and sometimes become the very things of which they are accused.


  20.  The actual experience of companies which practise age diversity in their workforce has been very different from the negative stereotyping. Recent research by the Employers Forum on Age has suggested major benefits to businesses which adopt such an approach. They include reduced business costs through increased productivity, recruiting the best people for jobs from the outset, gains in experience and knowledge which can be shared throughout the business, and greater ability to match the profile of their customers and satisfy their wants.


  21.  Age Concern believes that legislation to end age discrimination in employment should take an approach which best meets the distinctive needs of the United Kingdom, and that it should be accompanied by other initiatives to empower older people in the labour market and the workplace and to encourage the best practices by employers of all kinds.

  22.  Legislation should also act as a catalyst to change society's attitudes to older people and challenge the cultural attitudes which engender direct and indirect discrimination. In these ways, legislation has a symbolic value which a code of Practice cannot achieve. Unlike a Code, it also provides a remedy for victims of discrimination.

  23.  Given the terms of the European Directive, there are two possible approaches to legislation. One is to introduce legislation piecemeal, for each of the areas mentioned: religion, belief, disability and age. The other is to introduce an omnibus measure covering all the areas together. We favour the second approach for two reasons. First, as a matter of broad principle we prefer to avoid legislation which suggests that older people are a class apart in society (even when it is designed to protect them). Second, although omnibus legislation would be more complicated and would require redefinition of some existing agencies, we believe that it is necessary to meet the needs of older people who suffer double or even triple discrimination (such as minority ethnic older women). Whatever legislative approach is adopted it will need to be accompanied by initiatives to strengthen access to new rights by minority communities.


  24.  Apart from legislation against age discrimination in employment, we believe that there should be greater Government investment in partnership initiatives to address age issues. The Age Concern Training/Employers Forum on Age training course is one example of such an initiative which promotes age diversity.

  25.  There is also a need to address the following issues in ways which help older people seek, find or remain in work:

    (a)  the financial penalties which may result from older people choosing to work rather than retire, in terms of state benefits or pension entitlements;

    (b)  recruitment and selection;

    (c)  pay and conditions of employment (including access to pensions, life and health insurance and similar benefits);

    (d)  retirement issues, including selection and inflexible practices;

    (e)  the extension of unfair dismissal protection to workers over 65 (a matter now under legal challenge in Rutherford v Harvest Town Circle Ltd);

    (f)  access to training and development opportunities—including access to career development loans which frequently have an age ceiling of 50;

    (g)  access to workplaces for people with disabilities;

    (h)  access to health initiatives in the workplace, such as screening programmes;

    (i)  promotion opportunities: our experience suggests that some employers consider it wasteful to promote older people;

    (j)  access to family friendly policies which reflect the needs of older workers (such as care for an elder dependant or access to grandchildren).

  26.  Finally, alongside anti-discrimination legislation, we believe that the Government should also consider how best to encourage flexible retirement ages, and flexible working practices as people approach retirement, and how to encourage further positive actions by employers, such as reporting on the age diversity of their workforce and providing advice, for example on financial planning, which is appropriate to all age ranges in their workforce.

Age Concern England

January 2001

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