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1.8 pm

The Minister for Employment and the Regions (Alan Johnson): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Ms Atherton) on her colourful speech. She has a talent for dealing with serious issues in an interesting way. Indeed, she set the spirit for what has been an excellent debate. Sometimes these debates do not get the attention that they deserve outside the House, but today has been the House at its best. The debate has covered lollipop men, silver surfers, a history of scurvy in the Royal Navy and Horace quoted in the original—of course, I must tell my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, South (Mr. O'Hara) that most hon. Members did not need the translation, because we understood it perfectly well. My hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne did the House a service not only by raising the issue, but by doing so so effectively.

We have had excellent, wise and sagacious contributions, including that from my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, North (Linda Perham), who has a long history of involvement with the issue. We had a passionate speech from my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Mr. Berry) who made the point that several of the Back Benchers who supported two ten-minute Bills on the issue last year have become PPSs or Ministers. The inference was that that could be the way up the promotional ladder. I point out only that both those Bills failed, which is probably why my hon. Friends were promoted so soon afterwards.

My hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey) made an excellent contribution. She raised the crucial issue about people approaching retirement age who may want the same access to flexible working and reduced hours that we intend to introduce into the Employment Bill for parents of young children. We have also had excellent contributions from my hon. Friends the Members for South Dorset (Jim Knight) and for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mr. Lazarowicz).

By and large, this very interesting debate has not involved any political posturing and has been the better for it. The hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) was, as always, entertaining. He was courteous in putting forward arguments that were not shared by other right hon. and hon. Members, and spoke with his normal clarity and panache.

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The hon. Member for Croydon, South (Richard Ottaway) made an important contribution. I know that area of London well, and the problems that he described are very real. There is very low unemployment, yet people cannot get work for no other reason than their age. The hon. Members for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Prisk), for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) and for Bexhill and Battle (Mr. Barker) also made important contributions. The hon. Member for Romford (Mr. Rosindell) broke what I thought was becoming a consensus and made some rather unnecessary political points. However, he does come from the same region as Ipswich.

The hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale) raised some points that I hope to address, together with the essential points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne. I will try to cover all of them in the course of my remarks, pointing out the Government's concern on the issues and how we intend to tackle them.

Sadly, all too many people fail to appreciate the seriousness of age discrimination and the damage that it can do. We often fail to realise how conditioned we are in our perceptions of older people—our upbringing, culture and the prevailing media images all conspire to create a stereotype, and discrimination feeds on stereotypes. The Government are strongly committed to tackling unjustified discrimination. Our record shows that we have taken action over the last Parliament to demonstrate that commitment through some important steps.

The minimum wage, for instance, was a vital step for all low-paid workers, especially women, which narrowed the pay gap by a full two percentage points in the first year of its implementation. That was the first progress on low pay that had been made for many years. The national child care strategy has created places for 700,000 children, thus helping parents in the work place. The new deals to help the young and long-term unemployed, lone parents and disabled people into work have made an important contribution. We created the Disability Rights Commission to promote and enforce civil rights for disabled people.

We implemented the recommendations of the Stephen Lawrence inquiry to improve the way in which police deal with race and race crime. We have amended the Race Relations Act 1976 to prohibit race discrimination in the exercise of any public functions not previously covered by legislation, and to place a new statutory duty on public bodies to promote race equality.

We have introduced a common age of consent for gay people and heterosexuals. We have changed the immigration rules to allow long-term unmarried couples of different sexes or the same sex the same right as married couples.

The hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford asked what we had been doing ahead of introducing the European directive regarding age discrimination. We have introduced the code of practice on age diversity in employment and the new deal for 50-plus, which is a voluntary programme to help the unemployed and the economically inactive back to work. We are taking forward the recommendations of the PIU report "Winning the Generation Game", which was published in April

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2000, and included the collection of examples of good practice by employers adopting flexible retirement policies, which may be widely disseminated.

We have also introduced the age positive campaign and the inter-ministerial committee for older people—so we have not been inactive.

In its most pernicious form, age discrimination scars the lives of countless older workers. It costs British industry untold amounts—the figures were quoted in the debate. Especially set against the context of the current demographic trends, it is a waste of potential that this country cannot afford. We all have a common interest in ensuring that all, regardless of age, are able to contribute effectively to the economy, for the economy's sake as well as their own.

There are almost 19 million people aged 50 and over in the United Kingdom. They account for 40 per cent. of the adult population. There are almost 6 million people aged between 50 and state pension age in employment, but 30 per cent. of that age group are not economically active. Failing to make full and effective use of that resource is not the only problem. According to the Employers Forum on Age—an august body; some of the companies associated with it were mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood—18.5 million people feel that they have been discriminated against on the ground of age in one or more aspects of their life. Eight million people have experienced age discrimination in employment.

It is all too clear that employers do their business a disservice by excluding otherwise meritorious candidates solely on the ground of their age. Such practices have a devastating effect on people's lives, and that is what we are determined to tackle.

A large part of the problem is the tendency to think of age in terms of outdated and inaccurate stereotypes. Unlike in other areas of discrimination, differential treatment based on age is often not based on hostility or ill feeling, but misconceptions about older workers abound, and the outcome for the victims is just as bad. That point was made eloquently by my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, South.

Older workers are said to be slow to learn new skills, stubborn and inflexible, to cling to outmoded working practices and to take more sick leave. Surprise, surprise, none of the research supports those stereotypical views of older workers. They turn out to be more reliable on average than their younger counterparts. They are less likely to change employers after a short time. They are good at learning new skills. They are reliable and effective workers who turn up on time.

Moreover, the negative stereotyping ignores the benefits that older people bring to the work force. They bring a better balance and continuity and a more representative work force profile that reflects companies' customer base. They bring a stronger skills base and higher levels of experience.

Prejudice and culture are not remedied by legislation alone. In June 1999, the Government launched the code of practice on age diversity in employment along with supporting guidance for employers and illustrative case studies. The voluntary code sets the standard for non-ageist approaches to recruitment, selection, training and development, promotion, redundancy and retirement. We are also embarking on an age positive campaign to

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promote the code strongly through advertisements, awards, initiatives, events and project work with small and medium-sized businesses.

Those initiatives have met with some clear success, but equally clearly they were not sufficient in themselves to tackle the problem. That is why we decided last autumn to throw our weight behind the EU employment directive that commits all EU member states to the introduction of legislation to outlaw age discrimination in work and training. I was pleased to be able to play second fiddle to my right hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Tessa Jowell), who was then the Minister for Employment, Welfare to Work and Equal Opportunities. It was not a decision that required qualified majority voting; it required unanimity. I do not know what the difference would have been had the Opposition been in power, but we were pleased and proud not to use our veto and to sign that directive.

We are determined to press ahead with our campaign, because we believe that legislation alone is not enough, and I shall discuss that in a moment. Experience abroad, in countries such as the United States and Australia, where age legislation has been in place for some time, strongly suggests that the effectiveness of such legislation is greatly helped when it operates in conjunction with other policies—such as age positive initiatives—to promote equal rights and to educate employers about their obligations as well as their rights.

The Government have committed themselves to bringing in new legislation to outlaw age discrimination in the workplace and in training. As the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford pointed out, that is at the heart of this debate. I shall outline our plans for the implementation of that legislation.

Last November, the European Council of Ministers agreed the employment equality directive. It will require all 15 EU member states to introduce legislation prohibiting direct and indirect discrimination at work on the grounds of age, sexual orientation, religion and disability. We welcomed the directive from the outset; it is an important step in ensuring equal opportunities for all workers, whether in this country or elsewhere in the EU.

However, legislating against age discrimination is highly complex—as, I know, many Members on both sides of the House appreciate. There are many complicated and sensitive problems that we must address and resolve so that the eventual legislation is practical and helpful to employers and employees. In particular, the directive recognises that differences in treatment on the ground of age can sometimes be justified. For example, it may sometimes be necessary to make special provision for younger or older workers in order to protect their safety and welfare.

The challenge in implementation is thus to identify which types of different treatment are acceptable and which are not. That clearly requires sensitive consideration, in the light of responses to consultation. The EU recognises the complexity of the issue and, for that reason, the directive allows member states up to six years to implement its age discrimination provisions.

The Government intend to take full advantage of the time allowed, so as to develop clear and workable legislation. We thus do not anticipate that new legislation

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will come into force sooner than 2006, although we aim to have the legislation and its accompanying guidance in place well before then, so that businesses, employers and others have sufficient time for preparation.

We realise that the problem of age discrimination is not confined to employment, but legislating on age in employment is a significant undertaking and we need to allow time to get it right. At this stage, we are not persuaded to move at once to extend the scope of the legislation in order to cover goods and services as well as employment. It is likely that demographic and economic factors will provide powerful incentives for shops and service providers to change discriminatory attitudes to customers. There will simply be too many older customers for businesses to ignore them or treat them in a cavalier fashion.

Future consideration of legislation on goods and services would pose some complex questions. For example, would it be reasonable to outlaw specialist services aimed at particular age groups, such as holidays for younger or older people? That was one of the examples given during the debate. Should insurance companies be able to make reasonable adjustments in their premiums to reflect actuarial calculations? How would we deal with special concessions to pensioners? Travel, television licences and winter payments come to mind.

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