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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

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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 rose

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,

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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

It could also propose policies on age issues not just for employment, but for

and even

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

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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.

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