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Ms Drown: My hon. Friend suggested that a way forward might be for all constituencies to elect the oldest candidate. I hope that her view is closer to mine: a Chamber such as ours should represent a wide group of ages. Does she believe that we have achieved that?

Dr. Starkey: My hon. Friend slightly misinterpreted my comments.

Ms Drown: I thought that I might have done. I am pleased to hear that.

Dr. Starkey: I said that I was pleased that my constituents had set aside the age of the candidates and judged us on our merits and, clearly, those of the parties we represented. It meant that I was elected despite being the oldest candidate. I do not think that I said what my hon. Friend suggested, but I believe that the House should be more representative of the population in every way, including in gender, ethnicity, age and experience. We are a long way off that, but closer to it than in the past.

I shall not say more about the way in which current practices discriminate against individuals and are often not in the best interests of employers in the private and the public sector. However, I echo the comments of the hon. Member for Croydon, South (Richard Ottaway) about employers' mindsets. My constituency is similar to his in that it has full employment and employers often find it difficult to fill vacancies. Nevertheless, many employers in my constituency have the mindset that older workers should not be considered, and seek younger workers from elsewhere instead of taking account of the breadth of experience in the local work force.

I want to make two points that have not yet been mentioned about employment practices and older people. First, it is important that employers make conditions more flexible. Many older people have experience to offer and want to continue to work, but perhaps want to reduce their hours. The sort of measures that are mentioned in the context of women with family responsibilities—greater availability of part-time jobs, more openness to job sharing—are also applicable to older workers.

There is no reason not to consider job-sharing opportunities for older employees. An employer can get two experienced people who wish to work, but do not want to do so full-time because they want more leisure to enjoy their lives. Such measures, which are often relevant to young women with children, are also applicable to a wider range of workers, especially the elderly.

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Secondly, age discrimination militates against those, especially older woman, who have tried to improve their skills and change their career. They have missed out on educational opportunities because of discrimination in the past. They may have chosen to stay at home—or, indeed, had no option but to stay at home—and not had the same opportunities as men of their age to develop career skills and progress up the employment ladder. They may have been employed in low-paid, relatively unskilled jobs. When their children have grown up and left, they go into education. Many of them study with the Open university, which is based in my city. They upgrade their skills and wish to return to work and have a fulfilling career, but find that they are badly discriminated against because they are entering the work force aged 50 or older.

It is important to take into account the need to encourage women and men to upgrade their skills, invest in greater education and training at any stage in their career and for them to feel that they will be welcomed back into the work force and that their investment in improving their skills will be recognised. They should be able to contribute and not be written off as too old to make a valuable contribution. I therefore commend the Bill to hon. Members and hope that the Minister will respond to it positively.

11.36 am

Mr. Mark Prisk (Hertford and Stortford): I commend the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Ms Atherton) on promoting the Bill, and do so not least as someone who was brought up in the Camborne and Redruth area. I am delighted that a representative for the area has taken such an initiative. I feel a slight twinge of envy as a new Member who did not do so well in the ballot, but I congratulate her on her success.

The hon. Lady is right to raise the issue of age discrimination. We should recognise the way in which society has changed. I am now the tender age of 39, going on 40, and in those years we have developed a youth culture. All too often, the media portray a negative image of those who are 55 or older. The image may be intentionally humorous, such as that of Victor Meldrew, but it is nevertheless negative. Youth and new things are viewed as good whereas experience and historical matters are perceived as bad. That culture and attitude are at the heart of the subject that we are discussing.

I commend the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne for promoting the Bill because irrational discrimination, whether against age, colour, creed or race, is wrong and should be tackled. I regard myself as a meritocrat. Decisions, whether they are about parliamentary candidates or someone's job, should always be based on the individual's qualities and suitability for the role. They should never be based on an irrational method of trying to choose between one person and another. The merit of the individual and suitability for the role should always be paramount. It is therefore right to raise the matter in the context of the workplace.

There is in my constituency an excellent charity that tries to tackle the problem. Based in a church hall in Bishop's Stortford, Kickstart is an excellent agency that helps those who face the type of discrimination that we are discussing. In my visits to the charity, I learned how often larger corporations use euphemisms such as "restructuring" and "downsizing" when they are in fact

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removing more expensive senior employees and replacing them with cheaper, younger members of staff. That is wrong. I also learned that such discrimination is not applied solely to those whom the Bill addresses—those aged 50 or more. As one who is 39, going on 40, I was worried to learn that it is used against those who are in their 40s.

I have focused on two aspects of the Bill. I hope that the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne will understand that my aim is to scrutinise, not to oppose. The first aspect I want to question is the definition of discrimination set out in clause 2, which states:

My concern is that that differs sharply from definitions of discrimination in existing legislation: for example, the Race Relations Act 1976 focuses primarily on "less favourable treatment". Why is there a different definition?

I raise that question because if two different definitions of discrimination are on the statute book, problems of enforcement arise. If it is desirable that we establish a single equality commission, there is clearly a danger in having two different definitions.

Ms Atherton: The hon. Gentleman is right to raise that complex issue, which I look forward to exploring in more detail in Committee. It is properly a Committee matter, whereas we are currently discussing the broad principles of the Bill.

Mr. Prisk: I fully respect that. I just wanted to put the point on the record so that we could explore it in Committee at the appropriate stage of consideration. The definition is clearly at the heart of the Bill.

My second question, which has been touched on by my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh), relates to the applicability of age equality, defined in clause 2 as:

That definition does not specifically refer to those aged 50 or more, so there a danger that the Bill might be applied to those aged less than 50. That is another issue that must be explored properly in Committee.

Ms Atherton: I refer the hon. Gentleman to the fact that under the heading "Interpretation" the Bill states:

That is a clear definition.

Mr. Prisk: That does indeed define "older person", but "age equality" is defined as I stated, and a question mark hangs over how the two terms relate to each other.

Jim Knight: The Bill starts by saying that it is a Bill to

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That clearly sets out the purpose of the Bill, which goes on to define "older person". I do not think that there can be any doubt.

Mr. Prisk: I am concerned about the fact that the definition of "age equality" does not appear beneath that of "older person" and that there is potential for conflict. However, if no such potential exists, I am happy.

I am a small business man, so my second concern relates to the employment aspects of the Bill. It is right to introduce the Bill because it helps us to identify a major problem for our competitiveness: the potential loss of experience and skills from our work force. However, the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne should recognise that the burden of new regulations tends always to fall disproportionately on the smallest businesses. Small firms—those with, say, between one and four employees, such as local newsagents and post offices—are the ones that often find the burden of regulations and compliance most onerous.

It is always the law-abiding firms that make the effort to comply, whereas those who are happy to ignore the law seek to avoid provisions such as those set out in the Bill. My concern is that we may become frustrated that the Bill does not appear to be achieving our aims and that we pass further rules, regulations and laws. The law-abiding will try to keep up, but those who are never prepared to support such legislation will continue to try to find a way around the measures. I wonder whether legislation is the best means of dealing with those who deliberately discriminate on the basis of age.

When introducing her Bill, the hon. Lady rightly said that we need to change minds and attitudes. However, I echo my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough in asking whether new laws are the best way to achieve such changes. The drink driving laws were mentioned: it is true that those laws were in place for 10 years before a noticeable change in behaviour occurred. Only when drink driving became socially unacceptable—when it was generally acknowledged that it was wrong—did a significant and rapid change occur. I am not entirely convinced that changing the law will, of itself, solve the problem.

I have reservations about the details of the Bill and I am concerned that the definitions it contains may conflict with existing legislation. I also have reservations about its impact on small businesses. Overall, however, I support the aims of the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne, because discrimination is wrong. It is wrong morally, it is wrong for business and it is wrong for our society. For those reasons, I commend the purposes of the Bill.

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