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House of Lords

Monday, 15th January 2001.

Reassembling after the Christmas Recess, the House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of St Albans.

Age Discrimination in the Professions

Lord Janner of Braunstone asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they will seek to promote the employment of professionals over the present retirement ages where there is need for their services and they are competent to perform those services.

The Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment (Baroness Blackstone): My Lords, the Code of Practice on Age Diversity in Employment already sets the standard for good employment practices for all, including professionals. It promotes a flexible approach to retirement that does not use age as the sole criterion. It is being vigorously promoted with employers. Retirement arrangements should take individual and business needs into account. The evaluation of the code's impact will inform further plans for promoting the benefits to employers.

Lord Janner of Braunstone: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. Does she agree that to force people out of work because of their age when they are fit and capable and there is need for that work is totally unacceptable institutionalised ageism? Bearing in mind that many Members of this House have a personal interest in her answer, perhaps she will give an affirmative, friendly, positive and constructive answer to this first Question of the new year; namely, what steps will the Government take through legislation to ban ageism and institutionalised ageism of this kind?

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, I accept that there is much interest in this House in a Question of that kind. As I grow older I daily become more interested myself. The Government's view is that we should be much more flexible about this matter where people over the age of retirement continue to make a positive and worthwhile contribution in whatever employment they are in. The Code of Practice on Age Diversity in Employment encourages employers to be more flexible in that respect. It is a complex issue so far as concerns legislation. I cannot respond other than to say that the issue requires a great deal of thought before we go down that road.

Lord Renton: My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness on reaching the Privy Council. I have some sympathy with her not wanting to legislate on this

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rather delicate matter. The professions vary a great deal, but is she aware that lawyers do not always reach the prime of life until they are about to retire?

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his kind remarks about my elevation to the Privy Council. It is not for me to comment on when lawyers reach their maximum level of performance; there are many better informed noble Lords who can comment on that matter. We need to take a sensible, commonsense approach to the employment of older people. I am sure that Members of your Lordships' House will agree that many people over the age of 65 can make a contribution, just as many noble Lords do in this House. I am glad to say that there has been an increase in the number of people over the age of 50 in employment. Over the past two or three years the figure has risen by 6 per cent.

Lord Borrie: My Lords, has the Minister's attention been drawn to an article in the Sunday Times a few weeks ago which indicated that the voluntary code to which she referred in her first Answer is not widely known among employers, and is certainly not widely adhered to? Perhaps she can say something more about the promotional activities to which she referred also in her first Answer?

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, I did not see the article in the Sunday Times. However, I accept that there may be many employers, particularly smaller employers, who are not yet familiar with the contents of the code. My department is in the process of evaluating its impact. It is perhaps too soon to tell my noble friend Lord Borrie what its impact has been and what further promotional activities are necessary. I hope that my noble friend and other noble Lords who feel this is important will help the Government in making clear to employers that age discrimination is unacceptable.

Baroness Warnock: My Lords, does the Minister agree that often in the professions it is ageism which makes people anxious to get rid of older people and that, at least in the case of the teaching profession, it is the expense of employing older people rather than younger people? Does she further agree that many schools are desperate to have turnover among staff so that they can employ the cheapest teachers, who are the youngest and beginner teachers?

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, there are many reasons why employers want to retire older people earlier than is perhaps necessary. Sometimes they are good reasons. Perhaps an older employee does not have the skills and qualifications needed to carry out their particular job in different conditions.

In relation to the teaching profession, there was a substantial increase in the number of teachers retiring early in the early to mid 1990s. But the previous Government made sensible proposals for reducing the number of early retirements by making the cost fall on the employer rather than on the national scheme. As a

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result, over the past two years the numbers taking early retirement in the teaching profession have reduced substantially to around 2,500 a year.

Baroness Strange: My Lords, does the Minister agree that in this House noble Lords do not reach the full prime of their maturity until they achieve the age of 80 but that the rest of us are all trying?

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, that puts me in a very difficult position. Quite a few Members of your Lordships' House reach maturity a little under the age of 80 but some may not get there until they are nearly 90.

School Playground Injuries: Liability

2.43 p.m.

Lord McNally asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What action they intend to take to mitigate the impact of no-win, no-fee litigation on school liability for injuries incurred during the playing of traditional schoolyard games.

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, the Government see no need to take any new action. The numbers of injuries to pupils in schools have reduced over the past three years. We have published guidance on making playgrounds safe. Schools can reduce the risk of litigation by having effective procedures for handling parental concerns and complaints. But where local education authorities or schools have concerns about the potential cost of litigation, they can take out insurance.

Lord McNally: My Lords, as the Minister may know, my Question is based on research carried out by the University of Keele, published just before Christmas, which suggests that this kind of litigation is having an effect on schools. If the noble Baroness had been watching ITV Channel 3 at a quarter to two this afternoon, she would have seen an advertisement by Claims Direct specifically aimed at litigation for accidents to children. In the Manchester Evening News on Thursday 11th January an article stated:

    "Britain has gone compensation crazy. Analysts estimate that compensation is costing taxpayers 9 billion a year".

According to the article, Manchester City Council has already complained to the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor about the effect on council budgets and council services of paying compensation. I have raised this issue on previous occasions. I am afraid that the noble Baroness shows the same complacency as did the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack.

Noble Lords: Question!

Lord McNally: My Lords, how long will we tolerate going down this slippery slope, with everyone being afraid to provide services because the lawyers will be at their throats?

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, I am not aware of the research published by the University of Keele to

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which the noble Lord referred but I shall certainly try to get hold of it. There is no evidence of an increase in the number of cases being brought as a result of injuries to children in school playgrounds. The DfEE monitors the position and I shall ensure that we keep a close eye on the impact of changes in the legal system. The noble Lord referred to advertisements on television. It is perfectly reasonable that people with good cases should be entitled to know where services are available to them. Provided that the companies which advertise them do so with propriety, I think that they can extend access to justice.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that one of the reasons for the reduction in the number of incidents is the reluctance on the part of teachers to engage in various activities? They are vulnerable and often defenceless when it comes to defending their part in taking young people on adventure training or walking in the country. Sadly, some of these activities are now on the decline in schools. It is disappointing that our young people should not be enjoying canoeing, walking, riding and hiking.

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