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Mr. Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle): I join those who have commended the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Ms Atherton) for bringing forward an important measure that affects an important section of society to the Floor of the House.
My constituency includes Bexhill, and because of that I represent one of the oldest constituency populations in Great Britain. Bexhill is therefore no stranger to prejudice against the elderly. We are tired of constantly being on the receiving end of bad jokes about the elderly. We are especially fed up with the one about Dover for the continent and Bexhill for the incontinent. We would like to see much more done to talk up the positive role that elderly people play in the United Kingdom, not least because the population of Bexhill is very far from retiring.
Bexhill has a highly active elderly population, and not only politically. Many of my supporters, who played a crucial role in securing my return to Parliament, are in their 60s and 70s, and some are in their 80s. They are doing great work for me and for a wide range of voluntary and charitable organisations. The members of the generation who fought and won a war and are now in their 70s and 80s still give freely of their time, effort and experience to their local communities. The public-spirited approach that many senior citizens have in my constituency is something that we would all do well to emulate. I agree with the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner) that competence and ability, not age, should be the key criteria for assessing a person's fitness to do a job.
Even in Bexhill, which is to grey power, perhaps, what Hollywood is to the film industry, ageism rears its ugly head. Numerous charities and voluntary organisations have a mandatory retirement age. Individuals have a great deal to offer the voluntary sector, but that sector imposes the age for retirement rather arbitrarily. It seems extraordinary that at the age of 80, for example, one will be deemed not fit to work in a voluntary capacity in a hospital or a charity shop in Bexhill. However, at the age of 87, one would be considered quite fit to play a central role in a broad-based coalition Government for the future governance of Afghanistan. I welcome the role that King Zahir Shah will play in bringing peace to that country. He certainly would not be the first octogenarian to play an important international role. We all appreciate the part played by Nelson Mandela; before him, Winston Churchill and even Gladstone played important roles in their 80s.
The Government have introduced proposals on reforming the House of Lords; I hope that the proposal to impose an age limit of 75 on Members of the upper House will be consigned to the scrap heap. Elderly people bring important wisdom, consideration and experience to the legislative process. It is lamentable that Members of Parliament tend to leave the House earlier and earlier; the House of Lords is improved by the age and experience of its Members.
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. I should remind the hon. Gentleman that it is not in order to refer to a Member of Parliament by name; that should be done by reference to his constituency.
Age discrimination is rife in the NHS, as hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Mr. Rosindell), have said. It is a matter of record that elderly people are being left to die, as has been highlighted by Age Concern. They are being left on trolleys and are missing out on cancer treatments. Elderly patients are being refused dialysis and elderly people are at greater risk of hip fractures. Last year, an Audit Commission report revealed that 43 per cent. of hospitals had to cancel hip replacement operations for "unacceptable reasons", such as a lack of properly qualified staff. In some hospitals, one operation in five had to be cancelled for those reasons. The report stated:
In conclusion, while I share the concerns of my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) about the introduction of more legislation and the establishment of more commissions, in this case the Bill is sufficiently important to warrant a Report stage and I am happy to support it.
Mr. Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith): I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Ms Atherton) on introducing the Bill, not least because it allows the House to demonstrate clear cross-party support for it. I hope that the Government will take that on board in due course. I congratulate my hon. Friend on the effective campaign that she and those backing her have waged throughout the country to draw attention to the Bill. I was contacted by Age Concern Scotland, whose headquarters are in my constituency; its representatives met me and explained why they supported the Bill. I know that there is support for the principle of the Bill throughout the United Kingdom.
We heard earlier from a number of hon. Members that the Bill was the 15th private Member's Bill on the subject to come before the House in less than 20 years. Whatever the eventual outcome of the measure, I hope that across the political spectrum hon. Members will accept that, notwithstanding the useful voluntary initiatives that have taken place, particularly in the past few years, it is a criticism of our system of parliamentary procedure and parliamentary democracy that a proposal which has received overwhelming support in the House and in the country almost every year for the past 20 years should not find its way on to the statute book and should make so little practical progress. I hope that those on the Treasury Bench will bear that in mind.
My city is one of many places in the country which, thanks to the policies of the Government, now has low levels of unemployment, by and large. It is crazy for employers to rule out potential employees on the basis of age. Employers with a positive attitude to older workers, such as B&Q, which has rightly received praise in the debate, are reaping the benefits.
My hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne referred to the gentleman in her constituency who worked as a lollipop man and had been required to retire at the age of 70. I am glad to say that in such matters my local authority has a more enlightened attitude. In Edinburgh lollipop men and ladies are not required to retire at any specific age. They can serve as long as they meet the necessary medical requirements and pass a medical test.
Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): How far is discrimination against workers who have reached the age of 70 due to the fact that insurance companies are not prepared to cover such people to provide information or do voluntary work?
In my city, if the requirements of sight and hearing are met, a person can work as a lollipop man or woman until any age. I recall that last year I attended a presentation ceremony for someone who had just retired as a lollipop man at the age of 87. He was replaced by a youngster of 76, who would no doubt serve for many years to come. In so doing, those individuals were enjoying their work, contributing to society and helping to meet the shortage of workers in an important social sector.
I support the proposal for an age equality commission. I accept that there are complexities in the issue of age discrimination. There are undoubtedly problems relating to insurance. The range of premiums may well reflect factors that should justifiably be taken into account. However, as the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) pointed out, in many cases discrimination in insurance means that a blanket discrimination is applied, with no objective, logical justification.
The approach that could usefully be followed is the one adopted in the disability legislation, whereby if there is objective justification for some form of differential treatment, that can be applied, but where there is no justification, discrimination becomes unlawful and should not be allowed. That seems a sensible way forward.
I will not say that I am sympathetic to the points made by the hon. Member for Romford (Mr. Rosindell), who is no longer in the Chamber, but I can see merit in some of them. He drew attention to the dangeras he would see itof having too many commissions and statutory bodies. I had better not speak about him for too long while he is absent from the Chamber, but I suspect that he is against
I have no doubt, however, that the proposed age equality commission is at this stage the right way forward to highlight a form of discrimination which, as has been pointed out, affects many people in this country. The beauty of the proposal is that it allows a flexible response to the problems that arise from age discrimination. As those problems can express themselves in many different ways, the flexibility of my hon. Friend's approach should commend it to the House.
I want to make one final point about the Bill in relation to Scotland, to which it would apply. It must do so, as equal opportunities legislation is still a reserved matter. I have no doubt that there is support for the Bill in Scotland, as there is in the rest of the UK. However, given that some related legislation is devolved to the Scottish Parliamentlegislation on education and health, to name but two areas, is devolvedit would be necessary in due course to make provision to allow representation of appropriate Scottish bodies on the commission. Such provision would also be necessary to ensure that what the commission did fitted in with measures that applied in England, Wales and the rest of the UK. Of course, I make those points not to express any opposition to the Bill, but to highlight a matter that should be taken up in Committee or elsewhere, whatever future form the measure takes.