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Mr. Gardiner: He is sitting in the Gangway next to me; my hon. Friend has convinced him to join us.

23 Nov 2001 : Column 593

Mr. Berry: Never have I had such success in a debate; I shall keep the hon. Member for Gainsborough here. The private sector knows that age discrimination is economically inefficient. There is a massive list of companies that support the Employers Forum on Age, including Sainsbury's, BAE Systems, HSBC bank and the Nationwide building society. The forum is not a fly-by-night or unrepresentative organisation; it represents British business and the public sector. Many local authorities support it, as do public sector bodies and Government Departments. When such an organisation says that we are throwing away £30 billion a year as the result of age discrimination, we should take that seriously, even if, just for a second, we have to question our faith in an unfettered free market.

It is wrong that for both moral and economic reasons we allow age discrimination to continue without adequate address. I pay tribute to the Government for taking action; they have done more on the issue than any previous Government. The 1999 voluntary code of practice and the Government's commitment to the EU directive are welcome. Taking five years to introduce legislation to tackle age discrimination in employment is certainly better than no commitment at all, but it is not the best that could be done; five years is a long time to wait when one is on the receiving end of discrimination. Moreover, the Government currently have no clear proposals on discrimination in areas other than employment.

In conclusion, I am sure that all Members agree that discrimination is wrong. To deny people employment or access to services simply because they happen to be of a particular race or gender, have a disability or are of a certain age is unacceptable in a society that says that it is committed to human rights. We therefore need legislation to tackle age discrimination. However, the admirable Bill presented by my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne does not go as far as that. It asks the House to show that it takes the problem seriously, to establish an age discrimination commission to advise Government and move on from there. The Bill has my full support, and I am sure that, with only one or two exceptions, it will have the full support of the House.

11.10 am

Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam): I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Kingswood (Mr. Berry), who is a highly regarded campaigner on disability rights and on anti-discrimination more generally. He makes a powerful case for the Bill, which I and my party support. The initiative of the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Ms Atherton) in presenting the Bill does the House a service and does a great service to the many in our community who face age discrimination in the workplace and beyond.

I shall set out the issues and recap some of the points made in the debate. In the next 25 years, the number of people aged 50-plus in this country will rise by 6 million. I have an interest to declare, as do many other hon. Members: in that period, I will become one of those 6 million people. Hon. Members should bear that figure in mind during the debate.

Over the past 20 years, the number of men between 50 and state pensionable age who are out of work has doubled. That is not a matter of choice. As the hon. Member for Kingswood said, it has not come about

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because people are suddenly blessed with ample resources, allowing them to enjoy a life of unfettered leisure; quite the contrary. It is the result of ageist assumptions that lead employers to cast their older staff on to the scrap heap.

By 2020, 1 million more over-50s will be thrown on to the scrap heap, unless Parliament takes action now. It is those millions of individuals whose potential has already been stifled and those whose potential will be stifled in the future who should be the cause of concern for the House, and lead us to introduce legislation to deal with discrimination on the basis of age. That is why the Bill should get a Second Reading today.

Further delay and half-hearted consultation over the coming months and years is not good enough. Parliament should send a clear signal to the Government, to employers and to the people that there can be no place in our society for ageism, which denies people their dignity and liberty and makes no economic sense. Even the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) accepts that it is folly not to employ older people.

It has been estimated that age discrimination in the workplace costs our economy £16 billion a year. The Employers Forum on Age believes that the figure could be as high as £26 billion a year. The cost to the taxpayer, in terms of lost income tax and other tax revenues and extra benefits paid out, is put between £3 billion and £5.5 billion a year. What a waste of people, talent and public resources.

Although I shall focus primarily on age discrimination as it impacts on older people, and there is, perhaps, a tendency for it to be couched in those terms, we must recognise that there are aspects of discrimination that affect not just the older members of our society, but the young. In framing anti-discriminatory legislation, the House must address that.

Ageist language permeates our society. For example, talk of demographic time bombs ignores the fact that the age shift that we think will occur in the future has already occurred, to a large extent. The time bomb has already exploded, but we seem to be coping with a much larger elderly population. Another example is talk of bed blocking, which too often victimises the person in the bed, as if it was their fault that they have become a delayed discharge statistic.

We Liberal Democrats believe that there should be comprehensive age discrimination legislation on the statute book as soon as possible. The Bill will not deliver that end, but it is an important milestone. I hope that the House will allow it to make progress today and in future.

As we heard from the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne, the Bill establishes an age equality commission to monitor existing and future legislation and advise the Government, business, the voluntary sector and the wider public on issues relating to age discrimination. I see the commission in much the same light as the commissions that already exist to deal with disability rights, equal opportunities and racial equality.

An age equality commission with the powers and resources necessary to back individual older people—to be in their corner and on their side—would give them the ability to seek redress and to challenge discrimination in the workplace and in their everyday lives. Everyone deserves to be treated as an individual. It is important to bear in mind that there is no such thing as a typical older

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person: each of us is unique. There is no such thing as a typical disabled person. There is as much difference between a 20-year-old and a 40-year-old as there is between a 60-year-old and an 80-year-old, yet all too often, in the delivery of service and so on, we bracket people together.

We rely too much on people's date of birth, which can blind professionals and others to their uniqueness. For example, it can lead to arbitrary decisions about access to health care. In the case of not-for-resuscitation orders, it can determine who lives and who dies. The hon. Member for Gainsborough spoke about the NHS and quoted an example that I presented to the House some years ago. I welcome the fact that through their national service framework, the Government are tackling age discrimination in the health service. Audits have been undertaken and we await the outcome. It remains to be seen whether the voluntary approach will be adequate in the NHS. I hope that it is successful, but it may not be.

In the past, the House has taken steps to outlaw discrimination on the basis of gender, race or disability. Those laws have played a crucial part in changing attitudes in our society. They set a benchmark against which behaviour could be judged. They may not have changed society as much as we would have liked, but law can make a difference by setting the tone and clarifying the direction in which we wish to travel. On age discrimination, the Government have clung far too long to the idea that a voluntary approach through a code is the way to deal with it.

On the horizon is article 13 of the EU directive on equal treatment in employment, which provides a touchstone to which we can refer. It must become part of our law by December 2006, but I hope that action will be taken sooner. Why should we have to wait five more years before older people have the law on their side? Why limit the law to employment?

The present Minister for Pensions was keen to send a positive message back in 1996, when he was shadow Employment Minister. He said:

Quite right, too.

What happened? In government, Labour had second thoughts. Rather than legislating, the Government opted to tread the path of the voluntary code. Although we have heard some suggestions that the code is working, the evidence that I have read so far suggests that it has worked, at best, at the margins. The Government's own research casts doubt on its effectiveness. Surveys found little or no change in employment policy among the employers surveyed.

Dr. Pugh: My hon. Friend made the point that the scope of age discrimination stretches wider than employment. Does he agree that there have been clear instances of age discrimination in some public bodies? I refer him to Merseyside police authority, whose staff have to withdraw at the age of 70.

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