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House of Commons

Friday 23 November 2001

The House met at half-past Nine o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Orders of the Day

Age Equality Commission Bill

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

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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:

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

It continues:

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:

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

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

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attention to the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) when he said of the Government and their formation:

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

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:

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

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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.

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