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11.47 am

Mr. Edward O'Hara (Knowsley, South): I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Ms Atherton) on introducing the Bill and on her extremely effective presentation.

The Bill is not a Bill for older people—it is a Bill for all the people. It is rare that I agree with the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh)—sadly, he is not in his place to witness this rare occurrence—but I did agree with him when he said that the one inescapable fact is that all young people become old. I am reminded of the joke about the young lad who meets an old feller in the street. He looks at him and asks, "How old are you?" The old

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feller says "I'm 88." The young lad says, "I don't want to grow up and be 88 like you", to which the old feller replies, "You will when you're 87." To put it more soberly, let me quote Horace, who wrote:

Which translates as "Alas fleeing Postumus, the years glide by, nor will piety bring a delay to wrinkles and advancing age." We all get old eventually, and there is nothing we can do about it.

Horace's words about pious efforts not being effective illustrate the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne, who amply demonstrated that in all sorts of areas Government exhortation has been seen to require the support of legislation and, in many cases, of a statutory body to enforce that legislation. The Commission for Racial Equality and the Equal Opportunities Commission are examples of such bodies. Several hon. Members have mentioned that some political parties have acknowledged the need for active intervention to achieve gender balance in their representation in Parliament. Legislation on disability that was first ventured by the last Conservative Government needed strengthening by the first Labour Administration of 1997. There is ample evidence of discrimination on grounds of age, across a wide spectrum. Mention has been made of the NHS and certainly the national service framework recognises the problem of discrimination on the ground of age across the service. The jury is out on how effective the national service framework will be in eliminating that discrimination, and an age equality commission might be able to do some useful work in that area.

My hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne mentioned age discrimination in financial services, giving the example of her mother. We could all add our own examples. The debate has concentrated on employment, and there are welcome indications from the Government that more than exhortation may be needed in the shorter, rather than the longer run to enforce their pious exhortations not to discriminate on grounds of age in employment.

The implications underlying age discrimination are that older people are less worthy, deserving, capable and valuable. They are certainly not less worthy or deserving. As the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Prisk) pointed out, it is wrong in principle that people should be discriminated against on the ground of age. We are all equally valuable, young and old alike. Moreover, older people have their deserts because of their contribution to the common wealth and to the opportunities now being made available to younger people, from which older people are too frequently excluded.

Older people certainly are not less capable. For a second time in this debate, I can agree with the hon. Member for Gainsborough—this is indeed a rare occasion—who accepted the B&Q experience. It can make sense to employ older people. They are not less valuable and they bring to their work maturity, experience, people skills and stability in their personal lives. Older people are not distracted from their work, as some younger people can be, by difficulties in their

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personal lives. Older people also often have a greater commitment to work than younger people, not least sometimes because they appreciate the fact that they are being employed in their more advanced years.

An age equality commission would address a need, but it is not a heavy-handed proposal. The Bill says that the commission would monitor and advise the Government and other agencies on age discrimination. The commission would serve the interests of those who suffer from discrimination and it would serve the nation, by ensuring that it does not lose the valuable resource of older people, who are healthy, active, still of working age and anxious to give of their efforts to the labour market. After all, older people are healthy and active for longer than has been the case in the past, a demographic fact with which the labour market has not yet caught up.

Older people are often dependent on benefits because they are prematurely and involuntarily unemployed. Many would rather be in work and self-sufficient. Nothing could be more in line with the mainstream thinking of the Government than the argument that people should have every opportunity to be self-sufficient, responsible for their own lives and able to work to achieve that.

The proposal for the establishment of an age equality commission is modest, but eminently sensible. I hope that the Government will look favourably on the Bill and give it the time it needs. I commend it to the House.

11.55 am

Mr. Andrew Rosindell (Romford): I commend the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Ms Atherton). The intentions behind her Bill are right, although I have some concerns that I shall outline. I entirely support the comments by the hon. Member for Kingswood (Mr. Berry) about discrimination not only being wrong in principle but making no economic sense. That is true.

The older generation in this country are people who deserve better. They fought for this country, they have paid taxes all their lives and worked hard for a long time. They deserve better than they are getting today. However, we should be careful how we approach the issue. It is not necessarily always the best approach to introduce more legislation or to set up more self-perpetuating quangos, but more needs to be done to enhance what we do for our senior citizens.

I am a strong supporter of our senior citizens and have a lengthy record of campaigning for a better deal for them. In my constituency of Romford, in the London borough of Havering, I have worked closely with local organisations such as the Havering Pensioners Forum, the Association of Retired Persons and a new group, established two years ago, called Havering Action against Home Closures. Several council-run residential homes in the borough are being closed and I have worked closely with all interested parties, including the groups I have mentioned, to fight those proposals.

As I said in my maiden speech, only four months ago, the older generation, especially in my constituency, are suffering at the hands of a Labour council determined to close the residential homes I have mentioned. As we all know, such closures, in turn, create bed-blocking problems in the NHS. My constituency contains two excellent residential homes, Marks Lodge and Hampden Lodge. Both are threatened with closure under the Labour council's proposals. The hon. Member for Hornchurch

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(John Cryer) has an Adjournment debate on the issue later. That policy is unacceptable, and I will certainly campaign alongside the older people—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman must address his remarks to the Bill rather than to the issues to which he has been referring.

Mr. Rosindell: That is what I now propose to do, Madam Deputy Speaker.

I fear that the measures in the Bill would give no guarantees and offer no practical solutions to many other issues identified by countless reviews and investigations by charities and organisations suggesting that the older generation is a victim of widespread discrimination. I accept that such a commission would, as the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne says, seek to create a lobby and pressure for measures that would alleviate many problems facing the elderly population, and that is an honourable intention. However, I question the added value that a new quango would bring to the situation.

Ms Atherton: Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the Bill refers to the over-50s, and that its brief goes wider than he appears to believe?

Mr. Rosindell: Yes, I am aware of that. I am not sure whether it means that my comments are not relevant to the situation. I understand that the commission would focus on people over 50. I am simply saying that the creation of another quango—another body to interfere—is not necessarily the right answer. I agree with many of the points of my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh).

It is difficult to find a single document on the subject that does not already demonstrate how the elderly are treated differently in terms of the job market, access to health care and travel insurance, to name just a few examples. None of those groups is shy in putting forward its ideas on how issues can be resolved. Considering that our very large civil service is more than able to consult them, I am puzzled as to why we need to spend yet more taxpayers' money on yet another body to tell us what existing structures should be competent enough to work out for themselves. Indeed, we in this Chamber are elected to represent our constituents and to raise these issues. I do not believe that it will help to create yet another body of bureaucrats to speak up for the older population when that is what we are elected to do. The commission is unnecessary if Members of Parliament do their jobs properly.

One area in which there is a clear need for urgent action, however, is the national health service. The number of people who write to me and come to my weekly surgeries to complain about the national health service is staggering, something with which I am confident every Member in this place is all too familiar. It demonstrates the depth of crisis and disarray in the health service.

What most disturbs me and should, I believe, concern every Member of the House is the attitude seemingly shown towards our old folk. It is all too common to hear of elderly patients being treated as if they were second-class citizens. I find that utterly unacceptable and shameful. For example, Age Concern reports that it

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receives a call a month from people reporting how their clinical notes, or the notes of ageing relatives, were marked "not for resuscitation".

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