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Mr. Burstow: One of the issues that will have to be addressed is why we use someone's date of birth as the

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criterion to determine their competence and what they can contribute to society. Someone's date of birth is not an acceptable basis for such judgments, and my hon. Friend makes a good point in that regard.

I want briefly to quote from the final report that the Government have published on the outcome of the third wave of the roll-out of their voluntary code. The passage is telling and addresses a point made by the hon. Member for Ilford, North (Linda Perham), who has also been an effective campaigner on these issues. It states:

The report elaborates on the view that the code is not widely understood and appreciated by the very people who need to use it and who should follow it in the workplace. It seems at times that Ministers are wont to say that the Government are not enthusiastic about legislation as it will impose extra burdens on employers, as the hon. Member for Gainsborough implied.

There is concern that employers do not want the legislation, but research evidence does not support that contention. In 1999, a survey of members of the Institute of Directors found that six in 10 were in favour of legislation on age discrimination. Earlier research by the Institute of Management found that eight in 10 of its members favoured the introduction of such legislation. Even the Federation of Small Businesses said that it would support legislation as long as it was simple and clear.

So, why the reluctance to introduce that legislation? We have already seen that the voluntary approach is not enough in the workplace. Indeed, the hon. Member for Croydon, South (Richard Ottaway) gave ample evidence about the operation of age bars in respect of job vacancies in the legal profession. Such an approach is also not effective in health care. Indeed, there is an overwhelming body of evidence to show that ageism is rife throughout society—in the national health service, employment, social services, media and even the Government's approach to recruiting more vets, as the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne described.

In his foreword to "Winning the Generation Game", the Prime Minister said:

Yet, the solutions that have been advanced appear to contradict what Departments have been doing. What have they done so far? Not a lot. "Winning the Generation Game" is an excellent report that does a very useful job in illuminating the issue. It calls for a

It goes on to state:

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Those are very fine words, but where is the delivery? A series of written answers to questions tabled by the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne demonstrate that there is still a gap between that very fine rhetoric and the reality. In fact, the gap is a chasm, because no Department that replied to those questions indicated that any action would be taken before 2006. Instead, we are offered the prospect of more consultation.

Ms Atherton: I am very pleased to have the hon. Gentleman's support. I wish that some more Liberal Democrats were present to support the Bill. Is he aware that I had great difficulty in tabling the questions to which he refers, as the Table Office could not identify which Departments and Ministers were responsible?

Mr. Burstow: That is a very fair point. I think that the hon. Lady was present at a reception hosted by Help the Aged earlier this week, at which the Minister for Pensions shared with those present information about the members of his inter-ministerial group. Perhaps we now have a list of Ministers whom we can tackle and target to encourage them to follow the innovation unit's recommendations, especially in respect of the civil service.

In 1997, the position was clear. An incoming Labour Government were committed to introducing comprehensive legislation on age discrimination. It is a question now of whether the Government have gone far enough to put their house in order in relation to the performance and innovation unit's recommendations on changes in practice in the civil service, and of whether the Government are walking the walk in putting their own voluntary code into practice. I hope that the Minister will tell us a bit more about where the Government have got to in respect.

It is also worth considering evidence from abroad. The example of the United States shows that age discrimination laws can have a significant impact and substantially increase employment rates in respect of older workers. Legislation in Australia, Canada and the USA has had a substantial effect on discriminatory practices in relation to advertising vacancies, selection and promotion.

I want the UK to leapfrog the USA and other countries that have already introduced legislation and to introduce a new standard. Given the ageist assumptions in our employment practices, health service and many other aspects of life, it is time that comprehensive legislation to tackle age discrimination was put on to our statute book and enforced. It would have a positive impact. For example, it would address growing concern about the way in which we treat elderly people in our society. The absence of anti-discrimination legislation in respect of age, when it exists for gender, race and disability and will soon apply to sexual orientation and religion, downgrades for many people the importance that we should attach to age discrimination.

As a Liberal Democrat, I should like to repeat the view that we set out at the election—

Dr. Pugh: Speaking also as a Liberal Democrat, I point out that the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne

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(Ms Atherton) said that there were not so many of us here today. Does my hon. Friend agree that a higher percentage of the Liberal Democrat party is probably present than of the Labour party?

Mr. Burstow: The House has heard my hon. Friend's point. I took the comment of the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne in the spirit in which it was intended and moved swiftly on.

Although the hon. Lady did not accept the case for an integrated approach involving a single commission, a powerful case was made persuasively to the Employment Sub-Committee, which should be considered and form the basis for legislation. A single equality Act should codify and reform the 25 measures that are already on the statute book and enable us to meet our obligations under the EU directive. Such legislation would reduce the volume and complexity of existing UK legislation and regulation—perhaps addressing some of the concerns raised in the debate—focus on diversity and allow inconsistencies to be tackled across existing legislation and equality commissions. From the point of view of business managers, it might also save parliamentary time by combining debates and scrutiny of a single Bill rather than the several Bills that will be necessary if the Government adopt a piecemeal approach. Over time, we should move to a single integrated commission for equality issues. I understand that the Hepple report, which investigated the matter and was canvassed with the Confederation of British Industry, the Trades Union Congress and most of the existing commissions, carried much favour and support, albeit qualified in some quarters, as a sensible template to be followed for developing equality legislation in our country.

The hon. Lady is to be congratulated on promoting the Bill. I hope that the Government will give it the time it deserves in the House and that we will have the opportunity to explore in Committee the many issues it raises. I hope, therefore, that it will receive its Second Reading.

11.28 am

Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West): I should like to add my congratulations to those already expressed to my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Ms Atherton) on choosing this very important topic as the subject of her private Member's Bill. I guess that I should also declare an interest. I was elected to the House at the age of 50. I am immensely grateful that, despite the fact that my constituency has one of the youngest populations in the UK, it had the good sense not to exercise any age discrimination in the 1997 or 2001 elections. I think I was just the oldest candidate on both occasions, so I am extremely grateful to my constituents for showing the way forward for the rest of the UK.

Several hon. Members have pointed out that age discrimination, especially in employment, is not only unfair to individuals but a waste of valuable experience and expertise. I shall not enlarge on that, except to mention a specific case that I tackled soon after being elected in 1997. I was approached by a constituent who works for the security service in the House of Commons and was about to be turfed out of his job because of an age bar. I am pleased that I, like several other hon. Members, made representations to the then Home Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), who removed the age bar.

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I am pleased to say that my constituent continues to work here and greets me cheerily in the morning when I arrive at Portcullis House. His case shows that age bars are always wrong. They are a crude measure, which suggest that at a certain age all individuals lose the ability to do their jobs.

Some jobs, such as that of an airline pilot, require acute eyesight or quick reactions. It is important that people's ability to do their job is tested regularly to ensure that they can perform their tasks safely, but it is not right to try to achieve that by saying that at a certain age people suddenly go to seed and have to be removed. That is relevant in the case of Dr. Yacoub.

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