Equality Bill

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Mr. Boswell: To embellish my hon. Friend’s point, would it not be a dereliction of duty by a financial adviser if he or she were not to differentiate the advice according to the age and circumstances of the client?
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John Penrose: My hon. Friend is absolutely right and there are a number of factors that a reputable and professional financial adviser would take into account.
Other sectors are heavily affected. I have already mentioned travel insurance but holiday provision as a whole is important. The two examples most often cited are Club 18-30 and Saga, both of which the Government expressly mentioned in the consultation document. Their starting point for the consultation—the “ingoing” assumption—was that those business models are entirely legitimate and sensible and should be allowed to continue in future.
Interestingly, the Government are less happy with organisations that have a blanket ban on, for example, people under 21. I would be interested to see if I have divined the underlying purpose of the Government’s thinking and would like the Minister to address that. The Government seem to be saying that they are minded to accept things that are of positive benefit to a minority—a particular band of the age range—such as cheaper discounts on food for people over 60, and I am trying to divine a common thread here, but something that is in some way derogatory or negative about a minority group, such as “We don’t like people under 21”, is an example with which the Government are generally much less happy. I would be interested to see whether that is the underlying thread and logic of the Government’s thinking, or whether they are trying to introduce a different kind of principle. It would be helpful to understand that.
I have one additional question, which is to do with enforcement. The range of different areas that have to be covered in the consultation document, which the Government will have to enact in a schedule or secondary legislation, means that the enforcement of the duties might have to take a different form. I expect the Government to say that their approach to enforcement and to preventing age discrimination, once they have defined what is and is not allowable, in the health service is likely to be different from their expectations of financial services firms, which will be different again from their expectations of insurance firms—financial services firms and insurance firms are regulated, but not public sector.
The way in which the Government expect to regulate the hospitality and catering or holiday trade will again be different. I would be interested to know whether the Government envisage this being done, for example, through the tribunal system, which we have already addressed when considering other aspects of the Bill—I suspect that that will not be satisfactory for the matters that I have just described—or whether some of it will be done via the existing regulators. I am not sure that that is a sensible approach, but it would be interesting to understand what the Government are planning, and how they expect to deal with the services provided entirely or primarily through the public sector, such as health and social care.
With those points, I hope that the Minister will accept the different intention behind amendment 30 and the fact that we are trying only to probe the Government’s intentions, which have already been outlined in the consultation document. I hope that she will also accept that we are broadly supportive of much of the approach in that document. Clearly, we will have to wait and see what the results of it are, and perhaps the Minister can answer the questions that I have raised.
John Howell (Henley) (Con): I want to pick up on a point that stems from a remark that my hon. Friend made about interfering unnecessarily. I want to probe where the boundaries lie and try to get a feel for the extent to which the Government are prepared to consider what one might call an additional granularity. I suppose it becomes apparent in the financial services sector, particularly in the insurance part.
I am conscious of the discussion that we had in the fourth sitting of the Committee, particularly the discussion that the Minister and I had, when we looked at the current business model for the insurance industry, which tends to have broad bands. She made the valid point that if we had a band between 65 and 75, the risk lay at the 75 end rather than at 65 plus one day. I would like to get a feel for how “interfering”—if I may use that word; I do not mean it pejoratively—the Government are prepared to be as a result of that, and whether they would look for a different risk model that was more finely tuned.
I know that that prejudges the consultation to a certain extent, but the Government have already prejudged some aspects of it. Page 11 of the consultation report gives an indication of the changes that might come out of such a measure, one of which is that it will be easier to find travel and car insurance. There is be much to be welcomed in that, but there is also a question about whether travel and car insurance will be easier to find at a better and more differentiated cost. In that context, it would be nice to know where the Government see the boundaries—and the boundaries of their actions—starting and stopping.
Mr. Boswell: I suppose that, in a sense, we all have an age, and therefore any of us could potentially benefit from relief from discrimination under the clause. It is probably appropriate for me formally to declare my interest as a pensioner before we start. I welcome what the Government have done so far, as well as the endorsement of my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare. We are edging towards something that looks like a sensible conclusion and, not for the first time, I think that the consultation document is good and workmanlike. It exposes the issues and provides a chance to take us further forward.
Beyond that, two things are welcome. First—a subject touched on by my hon. Friend—is that there is a clear wish to avoid issues of age differentiation that are seen as beneficial to the service user. That seems entirely sensible and to encapsulate it, we could call it the Saga Holidays problem. That is now on the way to being sorted, although I might come back to it in a moment.
Within the rubric of the Bill, or at least in the practice of Ministers when looking for exemptions after the consultation process, perhaps we should say that anything that is of positive benefit to the service user is all right. The concerns are about avoiding actions that are discriminatory or derogatory to anyone else who is not able to avail themselves of something, or is excluded from the service. A paradox of the situation is that it has tended to focus on the non-availability of Saga Holidays to the over 50s, rather than the fact that there might be other services that are more appropriate for other people.
John Howell: In the spirit of making an open statement, my hon. Friend pointed towards me when referring to the under 50s. I must tell him that regrettably I am eligible for a Saga holiday.
Mr. Boswell: We must not turn this into a commercial and we shall not do so. I will not ask the Committee collectively to declare eligibility, as that could even amount to harassment. Let us say that if something helps people and widens the market or the range of choice, that is fine.
Speaking as an older person for the purposes of the argument, there will be occasions on which people hear something that may be a little disturbing, such as when someone at the age of 65 has to ring up their insurer and say, “I’m going to Tuscany next week. Am I still covered or is there a loading?” I have had no difficulty with that yet, but I realise that it could become a problem. The consultation paper touches on some of those issues.
John Penrose: To encourage my hon. Friend, if he finds that his existing insurer ramps up the price to what he suspects is too much, research shows that there are other providers out there. The range is narrower, but in most cases people can find themselves insurance in most sectors, although not all, if they look further and provided they refer to other providers in due course.
Mr. Boswell: I will use that opportunity to alter the order of my remarks. A few years ago, the Government introduced a rather good concept, which, like some of their other initiatives, seems to have petered out. It is the concept of no wrong door, which is usually considered in the context of public service. It says, “If we are not the people to deal with the issue, we know someone who is.”
In the same way, one of the areas that is touched on in the consultation paper that is quite important is where individuals find that their particular insurer is getting pricey, maybe just because they do not have particular experience of the market for older people, for instance. The insurer might have some obligation—perhaps built in through the great financial regulation system—to say, “We are no longer economic in this area, but you ought to go and see the following six people.” A fit, older person who wishes to travel does not want to have a row about the particular underwriter. They want the insurance, and they want to get it reasonably simply, without a great deal of hassle.
We are genuinely feeling in the right direction on this. However, I sense a tension and I do not wish to contribute on the next amendment. I feel that there is a genuine concern here, because I have obviously read what I take to be the import of the next amendment. Among those on the Liberal Democrat Benches, there is a wish not to sit back and let the whole thing take a huge amount of time. The benefit of a proper consultation, whether or not the Solicitor-General can bring it to the House before we conclude the consideration of the Bill, or perhaps even after its consideration by another place, I will not debate now, but we need to take our time.
There is one specific that the Minister needs to do concomitantly now, which is to make it clear that the consultation is happening. I have reason to think that Saga will be aware of it. Having reread its earlier briefing, one realises, as it said, “If something is not done, or we do not get clear assurances, we will be illegal and be in potential difficulties.” I am using shorthand here, but it is important that the word go out that there is reinsurance.
People do not have to rewrite their, in my view, reasonable business models now. They must first, of course, contribute to the consultation exercise. They will then have a perfectly reasonable time to restructure their activities. I notice that the Parliamentary Secretary, Government Equalities Office, is nodding. The point is understood: if we are to do this properly, which clearly we are setting out to do, we need to do it in good faith and get it right.
Moving on, I want to make two points, which, in a way, are designed to inform my view of the consultation exercise. The first is something I touched on in earlier exchanges with the Solicitor-General. If one is looking at the negative side of discrimination, one should keep that to the minimum by trying wherever possible—I do not mean in an artificial way—to unbundle and segment the particular sets of business decision being taken.
The case that I was most struck by in the consultation document was that of vehicle rentals. It is well-known that young people have a difficult insurance experience. The question is, should the cost be tailored according to the age at which they take hire of a vehicle? Should it be for service providers to seek objectively to justify age-based pricing or to provide a specific exemption? That is the sort of issue that was set out in the document.
My view is that it is a lot easier to deal with those issues if the particular services are broken down—the car rental and the insurance accompanying a car rental. It may be that people will want to bundle those off. However, if we are concerned to deal with the discrimination, we should look at whether, for example, it is possible to say, “Renting a car has the same kinds of cost per kilometre whether someone is 21, 71 or 51, and that should be a flat rate, although of course we take into account your insurance and driving experience, which might affect the total net you have to pay.” That may sound like a slightly logic-chopping argument in terms of how we get there, but it is designed to expose the fact that there could be covert discrimination, which may or may not be justified in getting to the process.
We come to the final point, and I would value the Solicitor-General’s comment on the merits. I continue to have an interest in people of the younger generation, too. Let us consider rentals for persons under the age of 21. Having been a Minister with responsibility for students, I know that occasionally young people are not the best of tenants and that things happen. I can understand why landlords might need to be fairly cautious in their lettings. If that is objectively justified in respect of a particular age group, there is justification for reflecting it in the law.
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It is also possible that people will go from the significant age signature to a proxy, such as students. They are not a protected characteristic in the context that we are discussing. “No students here” or “I don’t let to students” might be an undesirable statement. I personally think that it is, but it might be an understandable variant, although it might amount to indirect discrimination in which case it would not be covered. The Solicitor-General will remind us about that.
If age-related discrimination is helpful to the individual services, we should as far as possible accommodate it. In fairness, the Government are trying to do that. If the age signature can be used as a vehicle for covert discrimination to reduce the choices for an individual, we need to be cautious about it. One of the ways to deal with that is maximum transparency and the pricing structure, so that people know what is going on, as well as the wider issue of what can be caught under other discrimination law if it is taken on the specific age signature.
Given that it would have been great to have got the consultation document out earlier and into the debate before Second Reading, some of the hares have started. That is understandable because people have to be responsible in drawing up their business models and looking at the potential downside of the Bill. It is important that Ministers should now explain to people what is going on and invite them to take an active part in the consultation process. We should not allow ourselves to be unduly rushed or railroaded by disinformation about what will be a constructive process.
The Solicitor-General: On the face of it, the amendment would restrict the circumstances in which a Minister should allow specific exemptions from the ban on age discrimination under the Bill. I am sure that that is not at all what the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare intended because we want to be free to make distinctions on the basis of age and to allow good age discrimination—if I can put it that way. The purpose of the amendment has almost moved away from the amendment itself, but let me reassure him about matters that remain his concern. Perhaps in final reference to the wording of the amendment, we would not want to legislate for problems that do not exist. That is not how we propose to use the power.
I reiterate that we shall exercise the power so that exemptions from age discrimination are in place from the moment that the ban is in place, and the things that are good can carry on happening without interruption. We therefore need to get all the provisions right and frame the exemptions as precisely as we can. That is why we are consulting and providing, in particular, service providers with details of the emerging policy. They can then have the opportunity to consider their own business and help us to get the impact correct and frame the exemptions correctly.
About 750 representations with evidence of harmful age discrimination were presented to us in the original representation, so we had to move on the issue. We hope that on the one hand those representations coming largely from age lobbies—the representors—will be satisfied with the way in which we have started the consultation and how we have set out how we see it. We hope, too, that business will also feel that we have approached it in a satisfactory way.
I take the point made by the hon. Member for Daventry that because the consultation document did not come out early, as it could have done, as the policy change was announced, it has probably already caused some false hares to start running. That is very difficult and a shame. I hope we can all work now to correct those false hares from being incorrect false hares—mixing my metaphors here. If we can stop the idea that political correctness gone mad is somehow going to stamp out the entire insurance industry, it would be a good thing.
Some specifics were raised. I will come to the timetable in a minute, in the perhaps forlorn hope that it might help with the next amendment. The hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare asked how the age discrimination provisions would be enforced. Since it is about goods, facilities and services, it would be through the county court, not the tribunal system. That was one specific question that he raised. He talked about the timetable and I will come to that in a minute.
The hon. Member for Henley talked about age bands and the width, as it were. On pages 135 to 137 of the consultation document we specifically ask for representations about age bands. We do not at this stage see great advantage in prohibiting them for simple things such as travel insurance, but we need to see what comes out of the consultation. In different ways, Conservative Members have made the same point, which is that we want to ensure that, while there is no unjustified age discrimination, we do not make the provisions so complex that insurance companies leave the sector altogether. We do not think that that is likely to follow. We are also interested in the proposal, which I think features in the consultation document and has come from the industry itself, that where a provider might not economically be able to cover a particular risk, it would seek to signpost on to someone who can, so that we have the advantage of choice being available and adequate coverage as well.
The hon. Member for Daventry gave examples—the unbundling one and the one about young renters. He makes the salient point that we have to be careful and go into the whole issue in as detailed a way as we can, so that we do not allow discrimination in any disguised way, and that is what we will seek to do. The hon. Gentleman put his finger on the reason why we should not rush, because, unlike discrimination under the other strands, sometimes discrimination for age is good and sometimes it is bad. It is potentially a vast area and it is a new area, so we need to take our time to ensure that we get it right.
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