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20 Mar 2002 : Column 94WH

Age Discrimination

11 am

Hywel Williams (Caernarfon): I am grateful for this opportunity to debate age discrimination. This is a timely debate, particularly given that the Government are consulting on the equal treatment directive. That consultation will conclude at the end of this month.

Last Saturday, at Plaid Cymru's spring conference, I chaired a meeting with Age Concern Cymru at which the latest version of the pensioners' manifesto for Wales was launched. Hon. Members will not be surprised to know that the fourth of 12 points in the manifesto is a call for legislation to make discrimination on the grounds of age illegal. That is a live and important issue for older people, as it should be for us all as we face the prospect of growing older—some more than others. I was proud to associate my party and myself with that call for an end to age discrimination, particularly given the salience of the issue in Wales, where a large proportion of the population is over retirement age, and in some areas the figure is extremely high.

I am gratified that hon. Members from other parties who have a long-standing interest in this matter hope to speak in the debate. I supported the Age Equality Commission Bill, which was introduced by the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Ms Atherton). I am glad to pay tribute to her hard work on the issue, and, like others, I was disappointed when the Bill was withdrawn.

Yesterday, I was glad to associate my party and myself with a ten-minute Bill on age discrimination, which the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow) introduced. Both he and the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne are present, and I trust that they will elaborate further on their arguments with their usual eloquence, should they be fortunate enough to catch your eye, Mr. O'Brien.

As someone in the middle years of life, I am beginning to understand the Welsh adage: yr hen a wyr, yr ifainc a dybia—the young suppose, the old know. What is it that the old know? They know that age discrimination is an all-too-real aspect of their everyday lives. An ICM poll for Age Concern found that nearly one person in three knows someone who has been the victim of age discrimination at work. Seventy per cent. of the population believe that ageism still occurs, and the public overwhelmingly believe that it should be illegal to discriminate against someone on the grounds of their age.

I know that other hon. Members will discuss other aspects of age discrimination, but I shall make some general comments before moving on to employment issues.

In preparing for the debate, I asked a few constituents for examples of age discrimination. They readily responded, and just a few examples will suffice. As regards health, a patient was told that she was too old to have cervical screening, even though she had specifically requested it. Someone who was recovering from a heart attack said that she was not given access to the rehabilitation services, including dietary advice, that a younger person would have received. She was told off the record that resources were rationed by age, and that was her perception.

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As regards the provision of care, it is too easily assumed that residential care is the appropriate response to the needs of the older person. From my experience in social work and in social work education and training, I know full well that there is a strong move towards care in the community for older people. I am also aware that young people might be maintained in the community as a common-sense strategy, while older people might be admitted to residential care as a matter of common sense. I also have family experience of the value of the independent living fund's support in maintaining younger people with a disability in the home—with the valuable help of the social services and of the voluntary organisations. Would that that support were available to the same degree for older people for whom, too often, the assumption is that residential care is the proper option. We need to shift from this common sense of what is appropriate care to assessing individuals and their needs.

In many areas of Wales, health and care services are not available through the medium of Welsh. That is significant, given the greater proportion of older people making use of such services. For example, the Stroke Association points to the effect of a stroke on language ability; people might lose their ability in their second language. Services in the medium of Welsh might not be available in southern and eastern urban areas, even though the person has no choice but to use his or her first language. That counts as indirect discrimination.

I have a further short example. Last week, I met someone who had applied for motor insurance. She faced a 400 per cent. increase in the cost of her premium. The reason that she was given for the jump was her age—she is over 75. She is a very active person and a student in higher education—so much for assumptions about the capacity of older people—and I understand that she is also a very good driver.

Turning to employment issues, older employees are valued by far-sighted and clear-thinking employers for their commitment, their experience and their skills with people.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy): When I was a youngster, I was an articled clerk to a person of retirement age. He taught me everything that I know about being a lawyer.

Hywel Williams : I thank my hon. Friend for that point. I have met his former colleague, who is as spry as he ever was, and now in his 90s, I understand. Older employees are valued by their employers for their commitment, skills and experience. It is well known that B&Q employs older people—the effect of that policy has been to reduce its staff turnover by 60 per cent. and absenteeism by 39 per cent., so continuing the employment of older workers can be good for employers. However, employers often assume that age implies the existence of other characteristics—it is a proxy for poor health and the lack of flexibility in the workplace, or a lower capacity for work. Those assumptions are not based on the individual's health or work record, nor even on the record of older workers as a group, but they are influential assumptions.

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I hope that the House will forgive me for introducing this thought about assumptions. It has stuck with me since a friend inflicted it upon me and I cannot shake it off. To assume something is to be in danger of making an "ass" out of "u" and "me". The message is that we should assume nothing. People should not be treated as asses; certainly the law should not be one.

The age discrimination that is faced by many workers often leads them to feel that their right to work is less certain than that of other employees. Their commitment might be sapped, their experience disregarded and their skills with people undervalued—those are real problems for older workers. However, the Employers Forum on Age reports that 55 per cent. of managers admit to using age as a criterion for recruitment, and a third have not heard of the voluntary 1999 code of practice on age diversity in employment.

During a debate on the Employment Bill, I raised a point about the unfair dismissal of people aged over 65. Many people find retirement to be a time of freedom and opportunity. Their right to choose to retire should be protected. Others, however, want to work into later life. That is an entirely laudable desire; they want to maintain their networks of colleagues and friends and they want, and need, to maintain their incomes by earning money for work done. That, too, is laudable. An increase in the percentage—8 per cent., according to the labour force survey in spring 2001—of people over 65 continuing to work, perhaps part-time, makes a lot of plain common sense. It can be good for employers and employees. Is it therefore reasonable to maintain a mandatory retirement age, and is it not unacceptable to remark on the financial burden that older people allegedly present while insisting on a mandatory retirement age? Older people should have a proper choice to continue working if they want to.

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion): Is it not ironic that this House, which legislates on matters such as a mandatory retirement age, benefits most from the contribution of people who have passed that age?

Hywel Williams : I thank my hon. Friend for that interesting point. I have been impressed, as I mentioned earlier, by the clarity and incisiveness of the contributions of people who might in other situations be regarded as beyond working age—or perhaps even as being on the scrap heap.

A significant aspect of age discrimination is the age limit of 65 on protection from unfair dismissal. I tabled a new clause to the Employment Bill on Report with the aim of removing the age limit. That would have ensured that an older person would be able to claim for unfair dismissal, just like any other employee. It would have brought that right into line with a great many other employment rights, which are not subject to an upper age limit, such as the right to paid leave and the right to a minimum wage. The right would be consistent with the right to claim unfair dismissal for specified reasons that are automatically regarded as unfair, such as trade union membership.

It was a disappointment, therefore, that there was only the briefest opportunity to discuss the new clause. The hon. Member for Runnymede and

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Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) said on Report that he had much sympathy with the aim of the new clause, and that he looked forward to

I look forward to the hon. Gentleman's remarks this morning.

As we know, the Government confront an equal treatment directive. The short guide to their proposals puts matters succinctly, stating that

As far as I can see, the age limit on protection from unfair dismissal singles people out on the basis of their personal characteristics—their age. However, I understand that the Government are not asking a direct question in the consultation about employment rights for people over 65. I accept that another broad question—question 15.20—might elicit views on that issue; but only indirectly.

I note that the equal treatment directive allows the Government to justify some differences in treatment on the ground of age, such as when there is a genuine occupational requirement. Different treatment can be justified on the basis of employment policy, and relevant differences in treatment may include dismissal conditions. However, I cannot see why the attainment of the age of 65 should be the point at which people automatically lose the employment right of protection from unfair dismissal.

Ms Candy Atherton (Falmouth and Camborne): The hon. Gentleman will be aware that one of the problems that employers and employees face is that of obtaining insurance at the age of 65. That applies in volunteering as well. Will he comment on that?

Hywel Williams : That is a salient problem. I referred earlier to difficulties in that respect in obtaining motor insurance. Clearly, the availability of insurance would facilitate the employment of people over 65.

The bad effects of age discrimination may deprive employers of some of their most valuable employees, at a time when they are most needed. I referred earlier to B&Q's experience of the value of older workers. Losing older employees because of age discrimination can therefore be bad for employers and, in turn, the economy in general, because of lost production, extra benefits paid and lost taxes. The performance and innovation unit report "Winning the Generation Game" estimated that the cost of lower economic activity among the over-50s was £16 billion in lost GDP and between £3 billion and £5 billion in lost taxes.

Discrimination may also undermine older employees' ability to choose to continue working, because their position seems less certain and valued than that of younger employees.

Mr. Philip Hammond (Runnymede and Weybridge): I accept entirely that the main thrust of the hon. Gentleman's argument relates to older workers, but would he acknowledge that age discrimination operates at the other end of the age spectrum?

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Hywel Williams : Certainly, and Plaid Cymru has taken a petition on such matters as the minimum wage for younger workers.

Age discrimination also affects people over 50. The Government have said that they intend to introduce new legislation to prohibit discrimination in work on the grounds of age, but they want to take the fullest period available for consultation on the age strand of the equal treatment directive, up to December 2006. It has been pointed out in earlier debates on an age equality commission that the Government have had commitments to end age discrimination for at least six years, since 1996, which is the year before they were elected. Many older people have the potential of years of work before them. They should not have to wait until 2006 for protection from age discrimination and unfair dismissal.

We are given to understand that the Government's preference is for a single equality commission. Other hon. Members will no doubt speak on that matter, but I shall pose a few questions before finishing. Will such a commission address a broad range of discrimination issues, or will it concentrate on employment questions? Clearly, it should consider discrimination broadly. The establishment of such a commission may be some way off, so what will happen in the interim for the rights of older people? Will the commission be established through primary or secondary legislation? Will we have to wait for a body of case law to be developed?

Will the Minister note my general concern about the danger that issues of age discrimination, so long unregarded, will not have a sufficiently high profile when struggling for attention with other important aspects of discrimination? There should not be a competition between the different "isms"—between issues of discrimination on the grounds of ageism, racism, sexism or disability. Alas, that competition sometimes seems to exist.

In conclusion, by 2006 I shall be in my early 50s and we shall have had another general election. I have every faith in the support of the good people of Caernarfon, but I admit to having a personal interest in the matter.

A debate on age discrimination should cover aspects of discrimination addressed by other equality legislation on employment, access to goods and services, buying and renting property, and so on. No doubt, other hon. Members will address some of those issues. I look forward to the Minister's response.

11.17 am

Ms Candy Atherton (Falmouth and Camborne): I congratulate the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams) on securing the debate. Age discrimination is fast becoming a major issue of political activity and debate. Yesterday we had a ten-minute Bill on age discrimination and I attended a conference on older people in the media, at which my hon. Friend the Minister was the keynote speaker. Recently, we debated my private Member's Bill and Help the Aged launched its On the Scrapheap campaign, which helped to raise the profile of the issue still further. All that is good news for tackling age discrimination across society. In addition, the Government have adopted article 13 of the equal treatment directive and are consulting on how to implement it.

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The hon. Member for Caernarfon referred to the problems faced in the world of work. I could wish that the wholescale discrimination that people faced was to be found only in the workplace. Sadly, the workplace is just the tip of the iceberg, and the iceberg is rather large.

I am a member of Equal Rights on Age, which comprises national organisations such as Age Concern, Help the Aged, the Association of Retired and Persons over 50, the National Pensioners Convention and a handful of hon. Members, such as myself. We have come to some conclusions on how we believe the Government might tackle age discrimination and, as we reach the end of the first round of consultation on age, it seems appropriate to explain our point of view.

We all know the statistics that show that age is becoming the social issue of our time. We are being urged daily to consider working longer, even into our seventies, in order to provide financial security for the future; yet, at 47, I am deemed to be an older worker, as are most hon. Members. The House is one of the few places where a 40-something, as I am, can still find herself referred to as a young thing—one of the great ironies of life. Older people are more likely to watch television, an argument voiced at the Independent Television Commission and Help the Aged conference yesterday, yet older people rarely appear on television and then only in caricatures such as Victor Meldrew, or in parts such as Prunella Scales' role as a somewhat daffy older shopper in Tesco's advertisements. Older people do not appear in the main stream, and they know it.

It is clear that the Government need to set the agenda, and that it must be secured by primary legislation. Regulation provides no legal statutory power, and it has been shown that voluntary codes of conduct are ineffective. Indeed, age equality should be treated in the same manner as sex, race and disability. It will not be enough for legislation to cover only employment. It must cover access to goods, facilities and services, and the management, buying or renting of land or property. The ERA group, not unnaturally, believes that people should not be treated less well than others purely because of their age. The Government and public bodies should, of course, take the lead with positive images.

If age is to be treated equally, there should be an enforcement body, which should work to eliminate age discrimination, promote equality of opportunity, encourage good practice and advise the Government on age discrimination. The Government could even adopt a template from those commissions that deal with race, gender and disability. The commission could help people who have been discriminated against, such as the vet in Cornwall whom I have mentioned before, to secure their rights. The House might be amused to learn that my vet, Noel Stewart, has now leapt to fame. From being excluded as a vet working on foot and mouth, he has been nominated as the sexiest man of the year by Radio Cornwall, which shows how life can move on.

A commission could provide information and advice to individuals, employers and service providers, prepare new statutory codes of practice and offer practical guidance. It could provide a conciliation service, investigate the many cases of discrimination, monitor

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the law and initiate judicial action where necessary. All the organisations campaigning for older people's rights believe that those issues could be secured through an age equality commission—and, to coin a phrase, we want it now. Age equality requires that a commission should be created as soon as possible. In the minds of employers and among society generally, a recognition of ageism lags behind that of other forms of discrimination. In order to catch up, it is vital that the Government create a commission to focus on age. Later, the commissions could be melded together, with the different strands of discrimination all being represented in one body.

At the moment, legislation to tackle age discrimination is the great omission. That makes remedial work all the more urgent. Age discrimination must be treated in the same way as the other areas of discrimination. It would be wrong for the message to go out that the Government somehow feel that it is okay for ageism to be treated differently from other forms of discrimination. Older people need to be a visible part of the commission, and it should be sufficiently resourced to serve the millions of older people in this country. It would be wrong on all counts for age to be linked to disability, as has been suggested for the structure of discrimination commissions in future.

The Government should legislate to give employees flexibility on when they retire. By adopting that position, they might show enlightened self-interest. One in four older people say that they have been affected by age discrimination in the workplace, so if we presume that we all have two sets of grandparents, every family in the land has been affected. I urge the Minister to think how warmly those people might take to a Government who effectively and efficiently introduced comprehensive legislation on age discrimination, and who recognised that age discrimination in the workplace cannot be tackled if people cannot get insurance to enable them to work. The Government have tackled pensioner poverty, for which I applaud them, and they could tackle all aspects of age discrimination. Older people are more likely to vote, hence the enlightened self-interest.

The Government could recognise that older people are sometimes the only people who can deliver what is required. For example, 87-year-old Dr. James Van Allen is apparently the only person in the world who can analyse data sent from Pioneer 10 in deepest space to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in the United States. Let us celebrate the contribution that older people make and want to make. Let us enable them to participate by removing the barriers in services. Let us end discrimination that means that the older people are, the more they are seen and treated as second-class citizens.

11.26 am

John Barrett (Edinburgh, West): I congratulate the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams) on his interesting remarks, and my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Ms Atherton) on hers. Like me, she is 40-something and feels relatively youthful in this place. I am not sure who first replied, when asked what they felt about getting older, "Not bad considering the alternatives."

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Like many other people, I have noticed that newspapers tend to give numbers after people's names. At the conference organised by Help the Aged, Kate Adie, 56, talked about the marginalisation of older viewers of television. Reference has been made to the fact that, when considering equality, we should take care to think about age separately from gender, race and disability. The work of the equality commission must not be a battle between those who consider such issues. When legislation is being drafted, we must ensure that those who feel that race, gender or disability has caused a problem for groups in society understand that various problems in relation to age must also be tackled.

Mr. Hammond : The hon. Gentleman referred to the apparent obsession of newspapers with people's ages. Does he suggest that they should not publish the age of the people to whom they refer? When they do not, I confess that I ask myself how old the person is. Whether someone is 18 or 68 makes a difference to how I read an article.

John Barrett : I have no objection to newspapers including an individual's age, but it tends to slant the news coverage if a newspaper names someone and then mentions his religion immediately afterwards. It may be of general interest to know the age of the person speaking, but what if newspapers then mentioned that he was disabled? I would not urge newspapers to stop the practice, or try to legislate against it. I was pointing out why they used it in the first place.

As the hon. Gentleman said, age discrimination is an issue for younger members of society as well as its older members. I want to raise two issues; voting rights and the national minimum wage. On 5 March, voting age was debated in Westminster Hall, so I shall not dwell on that subject for too long, but I should remind hon. Members that we are happy to collect tax from people at 16. I am the parent of a teenage daughter, and when she was 16 she reminded me that she was old enough to get married in Edinburgh. Although she was prepared to help in the campaign, she was not old enough to vote. At a time when our forces are being deployed abroad, we should remember that young people can join the armed forces and the Government can make important decisions about where those forces are deployed, but some members of the armed forces are too young to vote for the Government who will make decisions about where they should go and what they should do.

As the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne has already said, older people are more likely to vote. It is interesting to note that as many as 47 per cent. of 16 to 17-year-olds felt that voting was important and could have considerable influence, but that the figure for 17 to 20-year-olds dropped by 12 per cent. So as young people go into their 20s, they seem to think, for whatever reason, that it is less important to vote. They may change their minds later through self-interest, but the Liberal Democrats believe that if we are to encourage people to take an active interest in politics, the voting age should be 16. The hon. Member for Caernarfon mentioned employment legislation, and there are real problems in relation to unfair dismissal, but I want to talk about the

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national minimum wage. The British Youth Council has been campaigning to end discrimination against young workers. It has said:

It goes on to say:

Other campaigners on that issue include the GMB.

If, when legislation is framed, the House can appreciate that age discrimination takes place at the younger as well as the older end of the spectrum, that will be a step forward.

11.32 am

Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam): I am grateful to the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams) for his initiative in securing an Adjournment debate on this subject. It is timely, not least because of the ten-minute Bill that I introduced yesterday. As I said then, about 15 pieces of private Member's legislation have been before the House during the past 5 years, attempting to nudge the issue forward, roll this large rock up the hill and persuade the Government that age discrimination requires more than just a voluntary approach; it requires a statutory approach. Perhaps as a result of the European Union directive on equal treatment in employment, there will now be some progress and legislation will be introduced by 2006. However, in common with others who have spoken today, I take the view that we need more comprehensive legislation that also addresses issues relating to the provision of goods and services.

The hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Ms Atherton) was absolutely right when she said that we should celebrate the fact that people are living for longer. However, it is not always the case that extra life is added to those extra years, in terms of the quality of their experience, and that is a problem, but all too often, the language that we use to debate old age is ageist in its assumptions. We use phrases such as "the demographic time bomb" and "bed blockers", which suggest that age is some sort of problem, rather than an opportunity not just for the individuals, but for the wider community. That is why we need to look not just at the employment questions that the hon. Member for Caernarfon rightly tackled, but at the broader picture that he also touched upon. We need to address ageist assumptions, attitudes and practices. A comprehensive age equality Bill has a part to play in dealing with that.

There is a lot of research evidence, both domestic and international, about the extent of discrimination in the labour market. Far less research is available into the causes and extent of ageist assumptions and practices and the wider agenda of public policy and private practice. At the beginning of the month, Help the Aged published a useful and timely report on age discrimination across public policy. I make no apologies for the fact that I shall probably refer to much of its evidence. Help the Aged drew together the existing

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evidence. It looked at the problem and identified a series of age barriers. We often talk about age barriers in terms of access to health and social care, but they are much more widespread than that. In many cases they are being used as explicit devices to ration access to services and public resources. In other cases, they are implicit, but just the same they are used to ration resources.

There is a much bigger challenge than the direct discrimination issues. There is the challenge of how we address indirect discrimination, such as institutional ageism. Many organisations unconsciously discriminate on the basis of age. We need to think carefully about how we address that. Many organisations fail to include older people in the development of policy and the implementation of services. In terms of health, for example, old age is equated with illness and disability. That is wrong. The majority of us will probably not need any form of long-term care. We will pass on never having had to come into contact with social care or the health care services in our later lives. There is also direct discrimination. There are age limits on screening programmes such as for breast cancer. Older people are excluded from clinical trials and have to wait longer in accident and emergency departments.

There is age discrimination in social care too. As the hon. Member for Caernarfon rightly said, assumptions are made about where it is appropriate for an older person to be cared for. We cannot generalise about the care needs of older people. People take a journey through their lives, and part of that journey may entail them being cared for in their own homes. At some point they may need to be cared for in residential care. There are discriminatory elements there too. The maximum fee levels for care homes for older people are lower than the fees that are paid for younger people in care homes. Why? That needs to be looked at critically. Why does it take someone like Rose Cottle to come to Downing street to raise those concerns about underfunding of the care home sector? The practice of limiting expenditure for home care to equate to the cost of residential care is also widespread. Placing that cap denies that person the opportunity to live as independently as they can in their own home.

The same applies in the benefits system. Older people have longer waits for the disability fund. Only 10 per cent. of older people get money from the social fund, despite being poorer, often for longer, than younger people. The mobility component of disability benefits is another serious concern. In the 1970s, for example, people under 65 who qualified for the disability component for mobility, continued to receive it once they reached that age. Someone who becomes disabled after the age of 65 is no longer eligible for the mobility component, as if it is entirely appropriate for them to be stuck indoors, unable to get out. Such forms of discrimination in public policy show that we have a widespread problem of ageist assumptions and practice that need to be addressed.

I have four questions for the Minister with regard to how we can move the agenda forward, and they are not all about legislation. First, what is being done to tackle ageism in public policy? What steps have been taken across Government to audit public policy to get to the roots of where ageism exists? Through its national

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service framework, the Department of Health is at least beginning to do that and may provide a template that other Departments need to follow. Is the national service framework being followed up, and if so what lessons are being learned to ensure that staff are equipped with the tools to enable them to identify and tackle ageist assumptions and practices?

Secondly, we need a change in the law because, as the hon. Member for Caernarfon identified, the voluntary terms of practice for employment have not worked. Most employers do not know that they exist and those who do are confused about what they are for. As the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne and my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, West (John Barrett) rightly said, however, we must go further than employment and have a comprehensive Act that deals with employment and goods and services, and places a general duty on all public bodies comprehensively to tackle age inequality and actively to promote age equality.

Thirdly, we need a mechanism to educate, inform, learn and enforce. An age equality commission is vital and I hope that the Minister will say something about that. We must avoid a situation in which age discrimination always ends up as the poor relation of all the other forms of discrimination. Can further thought be given to the time scales so that such a commission can be running, even if only in shadow form, before other changes take place? A body of skill, knowledge and experience could therefore be built up so that if and when we had a single commission, it would not be overshadowed by others that had been in place for much longer.

Fourthly, we must strengthen the evidence base. We need a series of data, the better to understand what is happening. We do not know the number of people in the work force who are past retirement age, nor do we know the differences in the experience of men and women past retirement age in respect of transport and health care. We do not have information about the interrelationship between age and ethnicity. It would be helpful if the Minister could say what research is in hand across Government to strengthen the evidence base so that there is more evidence to inform policy development.

Yesterday, I introduced a ten-minute Bill on age discrimination. The Press Association produced some copy about how it went and felt the need to describe me as "Paul Burstow (39)". My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, West referred to that. It felt that it had to give my age, which is unnecessary and constitutes stereotyping. What on earth does a reader gain by knowing my age because I have an interest in ageism issues? It adds nothing to the piece and merely stereotypes still further.

We should be moving these issues from the margin to the main stream. I hope that the Minister will respond to my questions, because ageism is clearly a serious issue and a serious challenge for us all. It costs our economy £31 billion and it is time that we all said not only that we will no longer tolerate ageism, but that we will tackle it through legislation and concerted action across Government.

11.43 am

Mr. Philip Hammond (Runnymede and Weybridge): I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams) on obtaining the debate. I am

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genuinely delighted that he was successful, because he drew the short straw twice in the Standing Committee that considered the Employment Bill and on Report, when he tried to raise this important issue, but fell foul of the timetabling procedures. I am glad that he has had an opportunity to elaborate on the points that he was forced to make in 90 seconds on Report. I hope to have the chance to respond more fully than I was able to then, when I had the last 15 seconds before the guillotine fell.

I am glad that the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow) has clarified his status in the great age debate as someone rapidly approaching the 40 watershed. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Ms Atherton) referred to being one of the 40-somethings taking part in the debate, and the hon. Gentleman is shortly to join us.

Ms Atherton : I never referred to 40 as a watershed; I merely said what age I was. The problem with stereotypes—saying that a person is 40-something, or 30, and that it is a watershed—is that they perpetuate ageism.

Mr. Hammond : If we are to have a serious debate on the subject we must avoid political correctness for its own sake. People are interested in a person's age; it is a relevant piece of information. As I said earlier, when I read a newspaper report of a trial or criminal proceedings, knowing the age of the person involved helps me to form a mental picture of them. I want to know lots of things about them.

It is perfectly possible to address the issue of unjustified discrimination without going to the extreme of suggesting that it is always wrong, or always unjustified discrimination, to want, out of curiosity, to know a person's age. It tells me something about the person and I am not ashamed to admit that.

Mr. Burstow : Is there any other information that the hon. Gentleman would expect to have—for example, whether a person has a disability, and, if so, what it is? What does it tell him to know a person's age? What are the lessons to be learned from knowing a number?

Mr. Hammond : It depends on the circumstances. We have all sorts of information about a person if we are watching them on television because we can see them. When we read something in a newspaper we have to imagine what the person looks like and knowing how old they are helps us to build up an image of them. It is human nature to want to have that information. I shall say something about education versus legislation later.

If we set out fundamentally to change human nature it is likely to be a long haul. I hope that we do not attempt to do so as I have sensed a large degree of consensus in the debate about what needs to be done, which is relatively unusual in this place. We should exploit the benefits of that consensus and see what we can do with it, rather than trying to drive wedges between us by citing extreme examples.

It is a great pleasure to see the Minister in the Chamber; I am glad that the national minimum wage was mentioned because whenever I see the hon. Lady that subject inevitably comes into my mind. However many times I debate with her, I doubt that we shall have

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the pleasure of spending as many hours together as we and the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne did on the Standing Committee on the National Minimum Wage Bill. The debate, introduced by the hon. Member for Caernarfon, has focused on employment issues, which the hon. Gentleman raised in debates on the Employment Bill.

I was particularly pleased that the need for a flexible approach to health and social care for older people was raised. The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam and I have discussed those important issues on many occasions. The hon. Gentleman was right to say that ageist assumptions lurk throughout the structure of society. In the late 1940s and 1950s, the age of 65 was a sort of magical marker which became institutionalised and it will take a great effort to shift it. Since then, especially in the last 20 years, the transformation in people's life expectancy and in their expectancy of a fit and active older age has made the watershed of 65 increasingly irrelevant and absurd. That is the underlying premise of the hon. Gentleman's remarks.

This debate takes place in the context of the European Union equal treatment directive and the obligation on the United Kingdom to legislate by 2006. The hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne mentioned the distinction between primary and secondary legislation. Although 2006 is still a long time away, will the Minister confirm that there will be primary legislation to implement the directive?

The Government's preference so far has been for voluntary codes to try to achieve progress, despite the clear position set out by the right hon. Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney). As Opposition spokesman in 1996, he said categorically that an incoming Labour Government would introduce comprehensive legislation to outlaw age discrimination. The Labour party in opposition said many things that have not translated clearly and unambiguously into Government programmes, and that is certainly one example.

The Conservative party's position is clearly in favour of flexibility. I can tell the hon. Member for Caernarfon now, as I would have told him on Report had I had enough time, that the official Opposition will be supportive—

John Barrett : On the question of flexibility, should not the hon. Gentleman point out that the Conservative party's policy in Scotland, which is for long-term care for the elderly, is the exact opposite of that in England?

Mr. Hammond : I am certain that we do not have a policy in England against long-term care for the elderly. The approach of the Westminster Government is different from that of the devolved Government in Scotland with regard to the provision of so-called free long-term care for the elderly. Indeed, we have questioned the definition of free nursing care—as the Government desire to call it—on many occasions, but I suspect that we stray from the main theme of today's debate.

I should like to place on the record that we will support carefully thought out proposals to abolish blanket mandatory retirement limits in employment, so that people's individual circumstances can be properly taken into account. We believe in flexibility. It fits

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clearly with our core principles of flexibility in labour markets, the supremacy of the individual and a rejection of blanket, one-size-fits-all solutions.

The Government have also talked about flexibility in relation to retirement. They mention a flexible decade of retirement, but it is not clear what that entails. Perhaps the Minister will clarify the situation. Is the flexible decade from 65 to 75 or 60 to 70? Will she elaborate how the mechanics will operate in practice?

I am glad that the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne had an opportunity to speak this morning. The Opposition were anxious to see her Bill taken in Committee, because we could have had a genuine exploration of some of the issues needing further debate. Unfortunately, it was not to be.

There has been a good deal of consensus in the debate so far. However, legislation is always a blunt instrument. I realise that the EU directive requires legislation, so we will have it, but it does not automatically change people's attitudes. I urge the Minister to consider the educative process alongside the legislative process. The Government must be proactive in educating employers about the advantages of employing older workers and the disadvantages of an arbitrary, mandatory retirement age.

Mr. Burstow : Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, although legislation might not change attitudes, it provides a mechanism for challenging them? Does he also agree that we must ensure that the legislation that is on the statute book is sufficiently comprehensive to address not only employment, but the goods and services issues?

Mr. Hammond : The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. Legislation changes people's superficial attitudes. With regard to that, I offer the example of race discrimination legislation. It is relatively easy to put in place legislation that carts people off to court for overt racist behaviour, but it is much more difficult to change people's fundamental attitudes. That requires an education process—not merely the heavy hand of legislation.

I do not disagree that both approaches are needed, but I hope that the focus on legislation—and the European Union requirement for legislation—does not lead us to lose sight of the need for a parallel process of education because, particularly with regard to employers and employees in the workplace, there is a genuine win-win possibility here. To some extent, people are not exploiting that because they are not aware of it—they have not had the opportunity to understand the full possibilities that are available to them.

Ms Atherton : I am listening with great care to what the hon. Gentleman is saying. Does he agree that a commission would be able to spearhead the educative part of the process of tackling age discrimination?

Mr. Hammond : That is a responsibility of Government, and a commission is one way of achieving it. When the Minister replies, I would be interested to

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hear about what the Government are doing, not with regard merely to relying on future legislation, but to setting in train a process of preparing public opinion—of changing attitudes and educating people.

I return to the point that I was making. There is a job to be done in educating employers about the advantages of employing older workers. It is also important to overcome some of the stereotyping, to which several hon. Members have referred. There is also a job to be done in educating employees, by persuading them of the need continually to upskill, so that they do not inadvertently reinforce the prejudice that older workers are likely to have less relevant skills. It is clear that, as people become older, they must upskill and retrain themselves, to ensure that they have the relevant skills that are needed in the workplace throughout their working lives.

Fiscal incentives are always a good way for Government to persuade people. I notice that the Minister is smiling, and I remember that she was a Treasury Minister in the previous Administration. Nothing is as effective as a fiscal incentive in changing people's behaviour, as I am sure that she is aware. Fiscal incentives will be an important tool in ensuring extended participation in the work force, with a staged departure from it at a time that is appropriate to the individual's needs—rather than at a time that is imposed by an arbitrary limit.

I also urge the Government to lead by example. The Government are a large and, I suggest, a relatively rigid employer throughout the nation. When the Minister replies, will she describe how the Government are leading by example in addressing the question of fixed retirement limits in the public sector and other matters that have been mentioned in previous debates? As the Government are a large employer, they can lead by example on the issue, as is the case with regard to all employment-related matters. The probing of Ministers during the Standing Committee that dealt with the Employment Bill made it clear that although the Government were willing, in several areas, to lecture employers about the benefits to themselves of adopting more flexible and family-friendly employment practices, they did not always take the lesson of that lecture to heart by practising what they preached in their role as an employer.

The core of the point that the hon. Member for Caernarfon wanted to raise during consideration of the Employment Bill and today is compulsory retirement. I should be grateful if the Minister would clarify whether her interpretation of the European Union directive is that the Government would be required to outlaw blanket arbitrary and compulsory retirement at a certain age. May we address the practical concerns that would follow from that?

I hope and assume that all hon. Members agree that if people need to retire because they are no longer able to perform their role in the work force effectively, there must be a mechanism to achieve that. I argue—I am sure that all hon. Members in the Chamber agree—that a blanket age limit is a crude and ineffective way in which to achieve that. If we say that a person should not be required to retire at a certain age and we should instead examine their capability to do a job, is the Minister confident that we would not fall foul of another anti-discrimination provision? For example, if fitness and

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capability to do a job were the criteria rather than age, could we fall foul of anti-disability discrimination legislation? It is important that we look across the piece at the different anti-discriminatory provisions that are in place and ensure that there will be an effective way for employers to address people who no longer have the ability to perform the function that they have performed in the work force.

Mr. Burstow : I am listening closely to the hon. Gentleman's argument. He suggests that discrimination legislation on disability is framed to give an advantage to disabled people rather than requiring reasonable adjustments to allow them to use properly the abilities that they have.

Mr. Hammond : I was raising a genuine issue of concern. Presently, we have a crude and arbitrary test of fitness to continue work that is based on an age limit. All hon. Members will agree that that is pretty irrelevant. People do not become unfit to work in a certain role when they are aged 65 and a day if they were fit to perform the role two days before. There will have to be other tests, and I foresee that problems will arise from them. Although employer organisations are becoming more receptive to the increasing unsustainability, inefficiency and ineffectiveness of a blanket age limit on retirement, they are worried about how we will deal with future issues.

The Government's consultation document raises all those issues, but it does not suggest any answers. Responses to the consultation are due by the end of March, and I hope that the Minister will accept what hon. Members have said in the debate as a response to the consultation process and take that into account.

Perhaps unwisely, I confessed to my own weakness earlier in the debate by telling the Chamber bluntly that sometimes when I read about somebody in the newspaper, I wonder why it does not give his or her age. I make a confession of the latent ageism that I suspect we all have. As I have grown older, I look at people—especially professionals such as lawyers and accountants—and think, "Good God! He can't possibly be old enough to give me legal or financial advice."

Ms Atherton : I am listening with some interest to the hon. Gentleman. If he reads about a Sam Brown or a Leslie Brown representing a person, does he know whether that person is a man or a woman? Does that flavour his judgment about the person who makes a statement?

Mr. Hammond : That depends on the context, but there are certainly times when I am interested in someone's gender, when the name does not betray it. I do not feel in any way ashamed to admit that. I think that it is natural human curiosity. I am merely telling the Committee, in all honesty, what has happened as I have grown older and become 40-something—I am actually not far from becoming 50-something now.

Ms Atherton : Another watershed.

Mr. Hammond : As I have grown older, I have started to find, inevitably, that more and more people in positions of authority with whom I deal are younger

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than I when once they were older than I. That is a perfectly natural experience, and I find it interesting, in the context of this debate, to examine my own reactions and instinctive prejudices. We all have those, and to pretend that we do not is not a sensible starting point for the debate. I hope that we are all mature enough to recognise that they are largely irrational and absurd, part of the conditioning that all of us 40-somethings have because we grew up in a world where people were assumed to retire at 65 and cease to be economically effective or participate in the work force from then. That is the era in which we grew up, and it will colour us.

I have probably gone on for far too long already, but I have one or two more points. Whatever people think about the moral arguments against ageism, there is clearly an unanswerable economic argument against the current mandatory retirement age. As we all live longer, it is simply not an option for us to expect to work for 30 years and then live comfortably for another 30. The country cannot afford that and we as individuals shall not be able to afford it unless we are prepared to consume a very much lower percentage of our product during our working years, and I suspect that most of us are not willing or able to do that. We all face a private challenge as we examine the huge benefits of longer life expectancy. There is also a public challenge for the state, in examining how to encourage us to remain economically active and contributing for longer periods of our lives.

I urge the Government to lead by example and to recognise that, although legislation is needed to satisfy the requirements of the EU directive, that cannot be a substitute for education. The key challenge for the Government is to educate employers and employees in the concept of a flexible approach to retirement. If we are to have a mature debate, the Government should acknowledge that all forms of discrimination are not necessarily wrong. We are here talking about unjustified and irrational discrimination.

The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam mentioned health care, and he and I have discussed that before. There will be cases when the clinically appropriate treatment for a person differs, depending on whether they are 18 or 80. It would be a great shame if, in trying to tackle inappropriate, unjustified, irrational age discrimination, we allowed the debate to be hijacked and lost sight of the fact that there are areas and issues where discrimination on age grounds is appropriate.

The hon. Member for Caernarfon cited the car driver who could not get insurance, or was charged a large sum for it, because she was over 75. There are many other car drivers who are grateful that their car insurance premiums are very low because they are over 50 or over 55. Those differences are actuarially justified.

My party and I have an instinctive sympathy with the position set out by the hon. Member for Caernarfon, which underlines the importance of individuals and of dealing with each person's position on the basis of their individual characteristics, capabilities and needs. The arbitrary blanket retirement age is the opposite of that. We have here a rare, genuine win-win opportunity by which employers, employees and the public purse can all benefit from a change in attitudes, which can be underpinned, but not solely brought about, by

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legislation. I hope that when the Minister replies she will specifically address education and the Government's role as a major employer in leading by example.

12.10 pm

The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Mrs. Barbara Roche) : The debate has been extremely good. I agree that the time for this issue has come. There is a great deal of public interest in it, and there is certainly a great deal of interest in the House.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Ms Atherton) said, the conference held yesterday by Help the Aged and the Independent Television Commission enabled us to consider in more detail the representation of older people in the media.

The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) talked about general education, which is very important. I am pleased to see him opposite me again because our paths have not crossed since those heady days on the National Minimum Wage Bill. Indeed, there were heady nights as well; we spent not only days but nights on that Bill. We set the record, which was about 36 hours, for the longest sitting in Standing Committee. You will be relieved to know, Mr. Taylor, that given the limits of Westminster Hall I do not intend to repeat that today.

It is clear that unfair discrimination on the grounds of age is not tolerable. We need to counter the unthinking prejudice that blights not only people's lives, but our economy. Older people are a major and growing section of the population, and we need their skills, talents and contributions if we are to create a successful society and economy. Although it is right to say that the over-50s suffer most from age discrimination, it is not the exclusive province of older people. Younger people also experience ageist practices, as the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (John Barrett) pointed out. We have all heard, for example, about whiz kids doing well in the City, but we have also heard about people who cannot get jobs in IT because they are over the hill at 30. The hon. Gentleman referred to training and to the need to keep skills up to date. Much of the research actually shows that older workers are the most assiduous in following modern technology and practices, and in making sure that their skills are competitive.

There has been a great deal of discussion today on the question of whether ageist employers miss out on the skills and experience of a diverse work force. Reference has already been made to the fact that the estimated cost of that is £31 billion according to the Employers Forum on Age publication "Ageism: too costly to ignore". The Cabinet Office report "Winning the Generation Game" discusses similarly large sums of money.

The Government are determined to tackle discrimination against older people. We are taking action for older people right across Government through legislation outlawing age discrimination for the first time, and in the Age Positive campaign initiated by the Department for Work and Pensions, the new deal 50-plus and the Department of Health's national framework for older people. Through our Age Positive campaign we are challenging ageist employment practices, and I shall speak about that legislation in a moment.

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Many employers are already committed to employing a diverse work force. As champion employers, they have shared their experience of good practice along the lines suggested by the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge. There is good practice out there, and those employers who have good policies implement them not only because they are nice people, but because to do so makes economic sense and gives them a competitive advantage. Those employers are astute.

Through the new deals we are helping older people to find work. For the past four years the employment rate for the over-50s has increased faster than the overall employment rate. During the first 21 months of the new deal 50-plus, more than 61,000 people have been helped through the programme. That is a tremendous number of people.

Ms Atherton : Is my hon. Friend aware that even people who have found employment through the new deal are turfed out on certain dates because the employer or voluntary organisation to which they are offering their services cannot obtain insurance cover for employment or work undertaken in a voluntary capacity? If that barrier in the goods and services insurance industry is not tackled, there will never be a resolution to the problem.

Mrs. Roche : I know that my hon. Friend feels strongly about the matter. I understand why and will deal with it in a moment.

On education, learning can play a major contribution in helping older people to fight discrimination by giving them the confidence and skills they need to compete for interesting and rewarding employment.

I turn to the important matter raised by the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams), whom I congratulate on securing the debate, and by the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow)—health and social care. The national service framework directly addresses age discrimination against older people in accessing NHS or social care services. It sets out, for the first time, national standards for the care of older people and will ensure that older people are not unfairly discriminated against when accessing NHS or social care services because of their age. Action plans are being drawn up to deal with any unfair policies that have been identified as age based. Ageism is intolerable and NHS treatment should be based on clinical need, not age. We cannot say that too often because it is important to get that message across.

Age discrimination in the workplace has been the focus of much of our discussion. Too often in the past, older workers have been written off although they have much to offer. Nearly 70 per cent. of people between 50 and state pension age are in employment, but for the remaining 30 per cent. finding and retaining suitable employment can be a serious problem. We welcomed the employment directive because it is important in ensuring equal opportunities for all workers in this country and elsewhere in the European Union. However, legislating against age discrimination is not simple. The House knows that article 13 of the directive introduces some new strands.

Mr. Hammond : Can the Minister tell me what has changed since 1996 when her right hon. Friend the

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Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney), now the Minister for Pensions, said that an incoming Labour Government would introduce comprehensive legislation outlawing age discrimination? She is now saying that it is not so simple.

Mrs. Roche : There has been no change. We are absolutely committed to implementing the directive, which is what we shall do. Our consultation document highlighted some complexities and I shall deal with them now.

Legislating against age discrimination is not simple. Complex and sensitive problems must be resolved so that the eventual legislation is practical and helpful to employers and employees. For example, the directive recognises that differences of treatment are sometimes justified on the ground of age. The challenge for implementation is thus to identify which differences of treatment are acceptable, and which are not. That means that we must carefully consider the response to the consultation.

The consultation will be in two stages. The current consultation on equality and diversity seeks views on several broad issues. We want to discover what people think about mandatory retirement ages. That issue was raised by the hon. Member for Caernarfon who initiated the debate. With regard to justifications, we aim to find out what practices employers have, why they need them and why they need to retain them. The consultation finishes at the end of the month. We will then develop specific proposals in the light of the responses to it, and consult on them later in the year.

Mr. Hammond : While the Minister waits for responses to the consultation, what has she done to examine the way in which the Government treat their employees, and their view on mandatory retirement ages, especially in the civil service?

Mrs. Roche : The hon. Gentleman is more impatient than I remembered. He will have an answer if he can just contain himself a little.

Mr. Hammond : That is what Ministers always say when they are about to run out of time.

Mrs. Roche : I will return to that issue, if the hon. Gentleman can just contain himself.

The hon. Member for Caernarfon was concerned about the rights of older workers and the upper age limit for unfair dismissal in the Employment Rights Act 1996, as his amendment to the Employment Bill showed. We will consider that as part of our overall approach to the implementation of the directive.

There have been several questions about goods and services. On Second Reading of her private Member's Bill, my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne eloquently drew attention to the difficulties that some older workers experience. There should, of course, be no identifiable differentiation in the provision of financial services or credit. The banking code is voluntary, but it is followed by almost everyone in the banking industry; it includes undertakings on non-discrimination. However, the directive applies only to employment and training, which is a major step in itself.

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We must resolve several issues before we can introduce the legislation, and it would not be sensible to be distracted at this stage by the further complexities that legislation on goods and services would pose. For example, should we outlaw 18 to 30 holidays because they are ageist? Should concessionary travel continue to be available to pensioners? What about other concessions, such as the television licence?

Demographic and economic factors will provide powerful incentives for shops and service providers to change their practices towards older customers. I use the phrase "demographic factors" positively, not as the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam used it.

Mr. Burstow : Will the Minister at least reflect on the fact that there is rarely an opportunity for primary legislation, and that it would be a loss to pass up the opportunity to legislate on goods and services when the Government are legislating on employment?

Mrs. Roche : I will, of course, listen to what hon. Members have to say, as the House expects me to. However, I do not want people to underestimate the number of difficult and complex issues that we will have to resolve if we are to implement the legislation to which we are committed. That is our priority.

Hon. Members referred to an age commission. We are determined to put in place effective arrangements for advice, support and guidance for individuals and employers. Those will cover all the new discrimination strands in the directive—age, sexual orientation and religion. It is not clear that an age commission is the best way to proceed, and such a course could raise questions about cost-effectiveness and overall coherence. It is essential that the Government study the issue in the round, and it does not make sense to establish new single-issue arrangements before we have thoroughly considered the strategic and practical issues for all the new strands. It is important that we take the issue forward in that way.

The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam asked about research, and officials at the Department of Trade and Industry are working with officials at the Department for Work and Pensions. DWP officials also work on the Age Positive campaign, which is led by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Pensions, and on commissioning research. I agree that it is important that we do that.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about tackling ageism in public policy. I take his point that we must look at the issue throughout the Government. The Cabinet sub-Committee on older people, which is chaired by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, is taking a close and active look at age issues across Government policies. It is also examining the Government's role as an employer, and the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge is right that the Government should act as an exemplar on the issue.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the flexible decade of retirement. The current consultation seeks general views on the retirement age, and we shall consult on specific proposals later in the year.

The hon. Gentleman asked how we would incorporate the policy strands. The document said that we aimed to prepare separate items of legislation for

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each strand and to use regulations under section 2(2) of the European Communities Act 1972 to implement the directives where possible.

As regards the Government acting as an exemplar, the Cabinet Secretary has written to permanent secretaries about the need for the civil service to ensure that it takes that role seriously.

The hon. Gentleman asked about mandatory retirement ages. There is, of course, no legal retirement age, and employers are responsible for setting the retirement age for their employees. Through the document, we are consulting on whether there should be mandatory retirement ages. It is probably one of the most complex issues in the document and in the consultation process.

The process of developing legislation to outlaw age discrimination at work is nearing the end of its first stage as the consultation exercise draws to a close, and I look forward to considering the responses. That is why this debate, which was initiated by the hon. Member for Caernarfon, is timely. I undertake to ensure that I take account of the comments that have been made. I also look forward to consulting on the specific proposals later this year.

These are important issues, and this has been an extremely good debate. I look forward to working with hon. Members to take the agenda forward.

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