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Ms Julia Drown (South Swindon): My hon. Friend talks about the dignity of older people. Does she agree that the Bill would also be a big boost to their families, to the carers of those who are a little more vulnerable and to those who volunteer to work with older people?

Ms Atherton: I agree with my hon. Friend. Volunteers, carers, the wider community and the families of older people would all benefit from the expertise that a commission could provide.

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Let us consider the evidence. B&Q found that, "You could do it if you B&Q it", whatever one's age, and that mature employees could offer skills and experience that made them an essential and highly productive part of the work force. Back in 1989, B&Q decided to dispel the myth by opening up a store staffed entirely by people over 50. Over the next six months, monitoring showed that profits were higher, staff turnover lower, the skills bases increased and customer satisfaction increased. B&Q has now gone further in updating its retirement policy by allowing employees to review their working life and decide what is best for them with reference to safety and their own situation. One employee in Swindon has now reached 86, and proves his worth, I am sure, on a daily basis.

The problem of age discrimination in employment is complex, and I am sure that that will be one of the first issues addressed by the Minister. However, that does not mean that it cannot be tackled. There is a positive consensus on this. The Trades Union Congress and Confederation of British Industry recognise the debilitating effect of discrimination in employment. There is a genuine business case to be made for action and a commission can make that case. Because of demographic change, the problem can only get worse and a commission can be a means to publicise the issue, educate business and prepare society as a whole for the changes to come. The time is right to take action. The problem is made more complex by the link between employment and financial services. One of the problems facing older workers and their employers is that the costs of insurance can rise. That is particularly true for the voluntary sector.

My hon. Friend the Member for Conwy (Mrs. Williams) cannot be here today, despite her support for the Bill. She raised with me the particular question of volunteers, so often the mainstay of charities. To work, however, they need insurance, and this can be an obstacle. Some charities are forced to turn away volunteers because they cannot get the necessary cover. It is especially important because while by 2006 there will be legislation to tackle age discrimination in employment, that may not apply to the voluntary sector.

My legislation, article 13 of the EC treaty and the equal treatment in employment directive are certainly a step in the right direction, and the Government put much energy into negotiation of the directive. However, like many pieces of legislation that originate in Europe, implementation of much of the detail can be left up to member states. I very much hope that the Government will implement it in a way that is effective and serves its defined purpose. I know that consultation on the implementation of article 13 is imminent, and while the Government already have an age advisory board looking into this question, what better means than a commission to aid this process? It would play an invaluable role in preparing us all for this legislation.

As I have said, my legislation on employment will not be enough. A study for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation showed that anti-ageist employment legislation in other countries was far more effective when working in conjunction with other policies. That is why there must be a comprehensive step forward which can consider a variety of solutions through legislation and otherwise.

Arbitrary discrimination in financial services is one of the most galling forms of discrimination for older people. One case brought to my attention was of a man whose car

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had broken down but he could not hire another, even in an emergency, because he was over 75. My own mother's travel insurance doubled overnight when she reached 70. I accept that there must be a gradual change, but such arbitrary jumps in the space of 24 hours are hard to take. I am aware of older people being denied access to telebanking or other modern innovations. I think that this is on the spurious, patronising grounds that they will not understand or will not be able to cope. I gather that one bank offers free insurance with a credit card as an incentive, but not, I gather, if someone is 65 or older. Such decisions are probably being made by smart-suited 20-somethings without the vision to look beyond the stereotype.

Only the other week, I read of a new generation of surfers in my home county of Cornwall riding our wonderful waves in their 50s—"the silver surfers." But these same people are denied the chance to do their banking when surfing the net, despite the fact that, according to Microsoft, over-50s are signing onto the internet at twice the rate of those under 30.

We now reach 50 with a healthy expectation to reach 80, but the doors of opportunity, in the workplace and elsewhere, are being shut in our faces. We know the excuses—that the market will regulate itself. There are companies that specialise in providing insurance or services to older people, but we know that that cannot be guaranteed. We also know that industries can rip people off. That is why in Ireland, the Equality Authority can investigate whole industries to root out discrimination. And that is why such a commission is needed in this country.

A commission would help the Government to co-ordinate policy making; it would also focus our society on the need to deal with this problem. It is a philosophical argument whether legislation reflects or leads society's attitudes. I would say that on the issue of discrimination above all we recognise where Government and the law can make a difference. On race, gender and sexuality, there has always been a need for legislation to help undermine prejudice and intolerance. I say that with great certainty as a woman Member of Parliament.

Changing attitudes to ageism is all the more necessary because it lags so far behind other discrimination in terms of public awareness. An evaluation of the Government's existing code of practice flags up how unrecognised age discrimination is by both employers and employees compared with other forms of discrimination.The Carnegie Trust has already used research by the Employers Forum to show that only 25 per cent. of employers knew of the Government's code and only 4 per cent. were aware of its purpose.

One of the main arguments that I have had since I took up this Bill was about whether we should have one all-embracing commission to deal with all forms of discrimination. There are models for this, such as that in Northern Ireland, which is favoured by some in business and elsewhere, but I believe that we need an age discrimination commission here for us in this country, and I commend the Bill to the House.

9.55 am

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough): I warmly congratulate the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Ms Atherton) on her good fortune in drawing

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such a high place in the ballot and on the skilful and committed way in which she moved the Second Reading of her Bill this morning. I am sure that the whole House will want to congratulate her.

I declare a personal interest. Having attained the age of 51, I fall within clause 2's definition of an older person.

Mr. Swayne: Shocking.

Mr. Leigh: It is written that

The Book of Proverbs obviously had my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) in mind.

Regard for age is a sign of a civilised society. Those who are elderly and have experience of life deserve respect. Those who have the wisdom that is born of the years deserve to be listened to. The hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne has done a service to the House in bringing the matter before us for debate. If her intention is to encourage people to have more regard for age and experience, her aim is entirely laudable, and is one that I and the whole House will share. Sadly, respect for age is not so great now as it was in the past; the House has a right to be concerned about that.

We all know that having dealings with older people can be enriching for younger people. I am aware of a group of teenagers from one school who became involved in a local scheme to fit security locks to the windows of elderly people living in nearby council houses. The practical benefits of increasing home security are obvious, but perhaps more beneficial were the relationships that the young people developed with the older people. Long after the locks were fitted, some of the young people maintained friendships that they have continued to enjoy.

We all know that there is discrimination in some aspects of employment, but from a purely commercial point of view, discriminating against older people is pure folly. Young adults do not have the experience of those who are older, and the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne has rightly mentioned the example of B&Q, which makes a virtue of employing older people because they bring people skills and expertise to the job. We are all aware of some worrying examples of discrimination in the NHS.

The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow) mentioned on 15 May 2000 the case of Mrs. Marge Terry, a 91-year-old whose stay in hospital was characterised, according to her daughter, by neglect. Bedside tables were left dirty and sticky; bins were unemptied; medical records were badly maintained; and she was left in bedclothes soiled with blood. She waited four days to see a doctor after developing a serious chest infection and a further two days for an X-ray. Staff failed properly to assist her with eating, and even with the administration of medication. After four weeks in hospital, Mrs. Terry died. The NHS has rightly apologised for her appalling treatment, and the whole House should unreservedly condemn any organisation that holds older people in less respect or fails to give them the care they need.

The House is united on those points, but what should be done? Is the Bill the right way to address the problem of lack of respect for age? I do not believe that it is the

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way to achieve the hon. Lady's laudable aims. Laws should be made only when they are necessary to achieve a result, and when they can achieve that result. I fear that the Bill fails the second test.

It is good that we are holding this debate and that we raise these issues. That is our responsibility, but not all the problems in society can be addressed by legislation. Surely the House must be able to recognise a problem—in this case, a serious problem in society—and draw attention to it, but without concluding that it must always legislate.

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