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We, as politicians, should also keep very firmly in mind the fact that more than 35 per cent. of the electorate are either over or rapidly approaching retirement agethe grey vote. That is a powerful political force, which we ignore at our peril. Those people are much better at turning out to vote than younger electors. Turnout among the over-50s is very much higher than among any other group. If only for political self-interest, they need to be treated with great respect, and I mean respect as opposed to the way in which Governments sometimes treat themas a group that has to be kept sweet. There is a very big difference. That is why an age equality commission could play a vital role.
I do not agree one iota with the hon. Members for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) and for Romford (Mr. Rosindell). Their touching faith in the market will not bring dividends to anyone. There is no evidence of a widespread uptake of what one might describe as the B&Q philosophy in British business. Change will not happen overnight or in our lifetimes; we could wait centuries before the message about ending ageism is turned into practice.
The hon. Member for Romford thinks that we have enough civil servants and Departments to tackle the problem issue by issue. We certainly have enough of them but, if that approach were effective, we would have seen the results already and we would not be here debating the continued existence of ageism; the fact that we are shows why we need a commission.
Everything that the hon. Members for Gainsborough and for Romford said emphasised in my mind the argument and the justification for a commission. It would create a focus for dealing with age discrimination. It would draw together the activities of Departments, civil servants and Ministers and make them think about co-ordinating their activities and their legislation so that they end age discrimination for the whole population.
I have no difficulty in supporting the principles enshrined in the Bill. I hope that the Government will support it; one of the best things that they could do is create an age equality commission. I commend the Bill to the House.
We rightly have legislation that outlaws discrimination on the grounds of race, disability, gender and creed, so why not have legislation that outlaws age discrimination? I have been struck by the comments of friends from the United States of America. When they look at some of our job advertisements, they feel the same horror that we would feel if an advertisement said that it wanted a white male. The level of discrimination that they see in our job press is equivalent to that.
Although I will not dwell on it, there is discrimination at the other end of the age spectrum. As a country, we send people to fight for our armed services, perhaps to be killed, at the age of 17, but we do not allow them to vote.
The cost to the economy of discrimination against older people is huge. A Help the Aged report published in September shows that 85 per cent. of people over 50 believe that there is discrimination. A report from the Employers Forum on Age in April 2001 estimated that the cost of ageism in terms of lost gross domestic product was £31 billion. I note that the Bill has the general support of the Institute of Directors and the Federation of Small Businesses, so it appears that employers' organisations do not oppose it.
This summer, when foot and mouth was raging and we were desperately scouring the country for vets, was it not ridiculous that a vet was turned down simply because he was 70? Many of my constituents will be deprived of the services of the world-famous surgeon, Magdi Yacoub, of Harefield hospital purely because he has reached the age of 67. That is an anomaly given that other parts of the national health service allow people to work until they are several years older than that.
Mr. Dillamore senior is a counter-example of that. He is an owner of Dillamore's, the fine furniture store on Leighton Buzzard high street, and has just retired from the business at the age of 98, as I found out during a constituency canvass in Linslade last week. Older people contribute hugely to our economy.
On insurance discrimination, I am a former insurance underwriter, although I worked in the reinsurance market. It is wrong that the premiums for car and other forms of insurance increase at certain age limits. That is a result of the increase in telephone-based insurance systems, which do not involve underwriting. Instead, insurers follow a rigid guideline and people's ages automatically push them into a higher premium category. That is not underwriting, which is what I was trained to do, in which a proper risk assessment is carried out. There is no reason why older people with a good risk record should be penalised. That is poor underwriting and does not make sense. We heard how charities and voluntary groups are unable to get people to work for them because of the prohibitive cost of insuring them.
It must be sensible to have a flexible retirement age as our population increasingly gets older. I feel strongly that it is grossly unfair that people have no right to claim unfair dismissal if they are over 65. My mother-in-law, a widow who receives only a small pension, recently went through that experience. As she was older than 65 she had no grounds to contest her employer's decision to make her unemployed, which is unacceptable.
I associate myself with the remarks of the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner), who mentioned the "Do not resuscitate" notes that have been placed on several elderly NHS patients in recent years. That is also unacceptable. However, the problem is wider than that. The upper age limit on clinical trials for cancer sufferers is often 75, so older people are denied the best forms of treatment. Delays in hip fracture operations severely harm the elderly because of the pre-operative procedures that they have to go through. Evidence also shows that dialysis treatment for kidney patients discriminates on the basis of age.
I wholeheartedly support the establishment of an age equality commission. I note that it was a Labour commitment as long ago as 1996, before it came into government in 1997. I hope that the House will pass the Bill and that the Government will not rely on the European Union to legislate, which sadly is often the case, because we would have to wait another five years for that, which again is unacceptable.
I accept that the law on its own will not change attitudes. Social attitudes must also change over time, but the Bill is needed because the problem is large. If existing structures, Departments and hon. Members have not managed to solve it, an age equality commission would give a healthy prod in the right direction. I am pleased to support this important Bill, which I hope will proceed to Committee.
Jim Knight (South Dorset): I am pleased to support the Bill, having tabled early-day motion 178. I am also pleased to support it because I am a personal friend of my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Ms Atherton). We met almost 10 years ago, fighting the good fight for our party in Westbury in Wiltshire. It was not an easy task. I also got to know her father, Denis, at that time, and he is a good advertisement for the Bill. He bore a remarkable resemblance to Father Christmas, but he was also an active pensioneractive in walking his dog, in going down the pub, in work as a journalist and in supporting his daughter in her career. He is a good example of how able many elderly people in our society are and why we should take action to avoid discriminating against them.
I am also keen to take part in the debate because there is a tradition of Members of Parliament for South Dorset speaking on age discrimination. I dug out the record of a debate on the Employment (Upper Age Limits in Advertisements) Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (David Winnick) in 1996, during which my predecessor went with the arguments proposed by the hon. Members for Romford (Mr. Rosindell) and for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh). I am sure he would agree with the hon. Member for Romford, who said that no market is helped by regulation.
On Saturday, I was given a tour of Swanage, another part of my constituency, by a retired constituent who wanted to show me some excellent work being done by volunteers. I was taken to the look-out over beautiful Swanage bay and the Isle of Wight beyond to see the tremendous work that retired people do voluntarily to look after the shipping that passes Swanage on the south Dorset coast.
My constituent took me on to Durlston country park, where I saw the tremendous work done almost exclusively by volunteers to sustain a superb attraction that draws many hundreds of thousands of people to my constituency every year. They see the beautiful countryside and spot dolphins from the cliffs around Swanage. In my constituency there are many examples of how important elderly people are in supporting our society, which reinforces my belief that we must liberate them and allow them to make a contribution. Any discrimination should be stopped.
My final example is from my time as an employer before being elected to the House. Our small company in Westbury, Wiltshire, always advertised vacancies in local jobcentres first, so unemployed people usually applied. I received an application from a chap aged over 50 who had been made redundant and believed he was on the scrap heap. We gave him a chance. He became our accounts manager and he still works there. He is the most loyal, the most committed and, in many ways, the most important part of our team in sustaining morale and paying our wages. He is certainly a valued employee at my former company. He genuinely believed that he did not have a chance of obtaining another job. The fact that he was given that chance makes him the most valued of our employees.
I remind the House of the findings of the Employers Forum on Age. Its research found that a tenth of people between the ages of 45 and 54 believed that they had been rejected for a job in the past 12 months, and that age discrimination costs the United Kingdom at least £16 billion a year. The economic arguments are overwhelming for taking action to tackle age discrimination.
Given that the European equal treatment directive has to be enacted by 2006, it is sensible to establish the proposed commission to advise, to receive evidence and to present arguments so that we secure legislation and implement the directive in the best possible way for the UK and its economy.