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10.36 am

Linda Perham (Ilford, North): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Ms Atherton) on introducing the Bill. I welcome the age equality commission, which will advise the Government on age discrimination issues in relation to older people. In particular, I welcome the provisions in paragraphs (c) and (d) of clause 1(2) on the commission's role in preparing detailed guidelines on the implementation of schemes to address age issues for businesses and voluntary and public sector organisations, and the promotion of equal treatment for the provision of goods and services.

I am especially pleased to contribute to the debate because I am secretary of the all-party group on ageing and older people and a founder member of a group called Equal Rights on Age, formed three years ago by Members of Parliament and age campaigning groups including Age Concern, Help the Aged, Association of Retired and Persons over 50, the Carnegie Third Age Programme, Third Age Employment Network, trade union representatives, academics and journalists.

23 Nov 2001 : Column 586

In February 1998, my Employment (Age Discrimination in Advertisements) Bill led to the introduction of a code of practice on age diversity in employment and to the Government requiring that Employment Service jobcentres should no longer accept upper-age restrictions on vacancies notified by employers. That Bill was the ninth attempt in 15 years to get an age discrimination measure on the statute book. Since then, there have been five attempts, including two by my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Lawrie Quinn), to introduce an age equality commission.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne said, age discrimination could affect any one of us and it is just as dehumanising and offensive as another form of discrimination. It should never be assumed that because someone has reached a certain age they are unable to perform a task or to carry on working and that they are inferior to younger people.

Our own and past ages bear compelling witness to the achievements of older people. Sir Winston Churchill, one of my predecessors in part of my constituency, became Prime Minister at the age of 65, which is still the retirement age for men. Queen Elizabeth I, one of our most successful and popular rulers, was in her 70th year when she died. Two of our distinguished female parliamentarians, my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) and Baroness Boothroyd, have passed their 70th birthdays. There is also that other battling baroness, Barbara Castle, who is 91. Two recently retired colleagues, Sir Edward Heath and Tony Benn, both of whom served more than 50 years in this place, are 85 and 76 respectively. There are 343 Members who are over 50, including me, and I understand that there are six whose age could not be determined. Perhaps they would not give it away.

Members may recall the recent national outrage at the suggestion that Jimmy Young should stop spinning discs and interviewing the great and the good because he is 80. For those of us who were let off early yesterday evening, the rock star Mick Jagger was in a television documentary about his life. He is 58 and still singing, rocking and rolling and living life to the full.

On a more serious note, a constituent rang me yesterday to say that his daughter's consultant psychiatrist can no longer treat her, as he must retire at 65, and my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne referred to Sir Magdi Yacoub having to retire this week. The Third Age Employment Network reports that the three leading New York firemen who gave their lives on 11 September were 71, 63 and 54.

A report entitled "Third Age Entrepreneurs", published in August by Barclays, found that 15 per cent. of all business start-ups in England and Wales are by people over 50, which represents a 50 per cent. increase in the past 10 years. Of those business people, 17 per cent. made the move because of redundancy. Millions of ordinary people in all walks of life are, like them, struggling to seek and keep work.

When I introduced my Bill almost four years ago, with the enthusiastic support of Age Concern, I received hundreds of letters from people who felt that they had been discriminated against because of their age. Some upper limits were as low as 30 and some job age ranges were advertised arbitrarily as 25 to 40. That still happens today. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and

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Development survey of January 2001 said that almost a quarter of workers surveyed agreed that employers are not interested in recruiting or promoting people over 40.

A report published this summer, commissioned by the Department for Education and Employment and entitled "Age Diversity—Summary of Research Findings", found that nine out of 10 older people believe that employers discriminate against older people in at least one aspect of employment. The summary outlines preliminary findings from four research projects to evaluate the impact of the code of practice on age diversity in employment.

Clearly, I welcome the introduction of the code of practice as a result of my Bill. There is evidence that it has had an impact, and the departmental submission to the Education and Employment Committee report of February 2001 refers to


In evidence to the same investigation, Age Concern said that

On making further progress in tackling age discrimination, although I regret that the Labour Government have not carried through declarations made in opposition by the Minister for Pensions and others, I welcome the initiatives undertaken in the past four years to improve the lives of older people and, in particular, to address employment and health discrimination on the ground of age. Some were mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne.

The age positive campaign, which started this summer, aims to change attitudes to help employers to recognise the benefits of an age-diverse work force. The age advisory group was set up last year and the better government for older people programme aims to increase access to education, information technology, libraries and other resources.

The new deal for 50-plus has been introduced, the inter-ministerial group on older people has been set up, and the project on active ageing led to the publication in April 2000 of "Winning the Generation Game: Improving Opportunities for People Aged 50 to 65 in Work and Community Activity". It made 75 recommendations, including establishing a champion for older people—that is my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions—and affirming that age discrimination legislation must be introduced if the code of practice is shown to be ineffective. The national framework for older people addresses age discrimination in health and social care.

In my years of campaigning on age discrimination, and despite the Government's achievements for older people, I am still persuaded that legislation is the only answer. I know that the Government want to consult widely with employers and others on implementing the European Union equal treatment in employment directive, which must be put in effect by December 2006, but I agree with

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Age Concern that an age equality commission, which the Bill would establish, would take UK legislation beyond the directive's stipulations and address age discrimination in all its forms. The commission could act as a regulatory body.

There are examples of equality commissions in countries near and far, including Ireland, the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. When I visited New Zealand on a Commonwealth Parliamentary Association delegation last year and met representatives of the Human Rights Commission, I was struck by how far behind we are in legislating on age discrimination. New Zealand passed a human rights Act in 1993 and it covers discrimination in the provision of goods and services—an issue to which the Bill refers.

I welcome the Government's commitment, announced in a written answer on 21 November, to issue two consultation documents on combating age discrimination to prepare for the EU directive, but I hope that the Bill will be given a fair wind. The Government obviously think that they need time to address the issues, but time is not on the side of older people. We need the commission now.

10.47 am

Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South): I congratulate the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Ms Atherton) on choosing this subject and the effective way in which she introduced her Bill. Like the hon. Member for Ilford, North (Linda Perham), I have introduced such a Bill—it was one of the 15 she referred to.

I do not have any trouble with a group of people sitting around and advising the Government on age discrimination, so I disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh), who is a political and personal friend. We have disagreed on that approach for the past 25 years. The hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne has introduced the Bill to set up a commission to advise the Government on helping aged people, but, for reasons that I shall describe, as the years go by the tables will turn. Employers will approach the commission, rather than the other way round, and say, "Give me the aged." That is why I must part company with my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough.

I have no doubt that there is a problem, as 40 per cent. of the country are aged over 50 and a wealth of talent out there is being ignored. Teachers, dentists, professionals, engineers—you name it—in their 50's and 60's could make a huge contribution to the British economy. The nation has invested in that talent and wealth of expertise over the years, but it is not being fully developed.

As I said in my intervention, we cannot rely on market forces. I gave the example of south London, where there is full employment. Employers tell me that their biggest problem is that they cannot get the skills they want, yet we know that such people are out there. There is a mindset that must be broken.

This morning, I picked up the weekly law supplement in The Times, which, I am told, is the best place for lawyers to find a job.

The average lawyer qualifies at about 25. Eighty per cent. of the jobs in the supplement call for lawyers with fewer than five years' qualification. That means that 80 per cent. of the jobs advertised in one of the nation's

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leading law supplements are seeking people younger than 30. As a lawyer, I know that there are many other professional people who could make a huge input. However, they are not even being sought. At the same time, they are needed. That is the mindset that has to be broken.

Civil servants are obliged to retire at 60. Firefighters must retire at 55. There are good reasons for these retirement ages, but there must be flexibility. As the author John McLaren wrote in The Sunday Times last weekend, many people have a surge of energy in their mid-40s. They make some money and go into semi-retirement, and suddenly in their 50s they discover that they are bored and want to return to the workplace.

I query whether the commission is needed in the way in which it would be set up because it is just dawning on the developed world, including the G7 countries, that there is a rapid growth in the ageing population and a shrinking of the younger population. That must be coupled with the fact that pension systems throughout the developed world are failing. All the major political parties hang on to the notion that somehow we can still give a funded pension to elderly people. When the Conservative party raised the issue at the general election, saying, "I am not sure that the system is working", we were attacked politically. However, we may have made good sense politically.

I do not think that the pension system, as it is structured, can continue in the United Kingdom for much longer. Private pensions are failing. We have the debacle of Equitable Life. I was listening to people on the radio this morning who have company pensions that are not fulfilling the promises that were made about them by their employers.

At the same time, life expectancy is increasing. When that is set against failing pension provision for the elderly, a shrinking working population and an increasing elderly population, it is clear that something must be done.

The next society in which we shall work will be technology based and borderless. It is easy to send out technology. Work will be mobile, even now people can sit in different places to do their work. There will be two groups—the committed under-50s and part-time, mobile, flexible and knowledge-society workers who are older than 50.

Unless there is a body that addresses the moving patterns of society and the way that we work, we shall get things wrong. We live in a fiercely competitive society. Other countries will not sit back and accommodate us. As I have said, we are borderless. We must produce the best out of our work force.

The debate is useful. If there is not a commission, an organisation or a group of people that asks Ministers how their legislation addresses changing employment patterns in our society, we shall be at a disadvantage. For that reason, I hope that the Bill is given a fair wind.

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