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Mr. Speaker: The best thing I can say is that, obviously, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will involve himself in a full investigation. I am sure that when it has been completed he will come to the House.

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker—

Mr. Speaker: Order. We are entering into a debate about this matter. There is not much more that I can say about it.

Mr. Gale: The issue directly concerns your own powers, Mr. Speaker, and the defence of the privileges of Back Benchers.

It is clear that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has sheltered behind the opportunity to make a statement to the House. Surely it is open to you, as Speaker and as defender of Back-Bench privilege, to say to the Secretary of State that the opportunity is available to him to come to the House tomorrow and make the statement that he has already indicated to the press he is willing to make.

Mr. Speaker: There is no evidence that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has shown the House any discourtesy. I repeat that he will endeavour to be involved in a full investigation, and I am sure that he will come to the House. I think that the matter is now best left alone.

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Age Discrimination

3.41 pm

Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam): I beg to move,

We have a caste system in this country. It is not a caste system based on race, creed or class; but on age.

Ageism is rife in our country. Ageist assumptions lead employers to cast thousands of people on the scrapheap, and to ignore the pool of talented over-50s. Ageist attitudes lead to arbitrary rationing of access to care on the basis of a person's age rather than a personal assessment.

There is no such thing as a typical older person, and age is a poor proxy for ability. My Bill is intended to confront this ageist mindset head-on.

A poll conducted for Age Concern and published earlier this year found that 70 per cent. of our fellow citizens believe that age discrimination occurs in this country. The same poll found that 65 per cent. believe it is time Parliament legislated to make discrimination on the ground of age illegal.

Quite apart from any moral case for anti-discrimination legislation, there is a powerful economic case. The Employers Forum on Age estimates that age discrimination costs UK plc £31 billion a year. At present one in three people between 50 and state-pension age are out of work—2.8 million. Only a minority of those affected have made early retirement a lifestyle choice. Almost half depend on benefits for most of their income.

Help the Aged recently published the results of a survey of employers. In the case of half the companies surveyed, fewer than 10 per cent. of employees were over 50, and one in 10 employed no one over that age. That is not surprising given that, according to research by the Institute of Employment Rights, more than 50 per cent. of managers admit that they have used age-based criteria for recruitment purposes. The Government's own research reveals that for every £100 spent by companies on training, just £10 is spent on training older workers.

Over the past five years, the Government's response to ageism—particularly in employment—has been to promote a voluntary code of practice to extol the virtue of change, but not to extend the right to protection against discrimination. The code has not worked: it has had little or no impact on employers. Research by the Employers Forum on Age reveals that just one in four know of its existence.

When we delved further, we discovered that employers do not understand the code. Half of them thought that it deals with age limits in advertisements; five per cent. thought that it is about fast-tracking younger workers; and 30 per cent. had no idea what it covers.

In four years' time, the Government will be obliged by the EU directive on equal treatment in employment to introduce age discrimination legislation. Four more years is a long time to wait for legislation that is already long overdue. Legislating now on age discrimination would provide the necessary time and space for a body of

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practice, case law and expertise to develop. Delay runs the risk that age discrimination will always be the poor relation of discrimination.

My Bill addresses ageism not just in the labour market but in the provision of goods and services. Last year, the Government published the national service framework for older people, which aims to tackle age bars in health and social care, but a King's Fund survey of health and social care managers found them ill-equipped to implement the fine words of the framework.

The use of upper age limits across a range of health and social care services is well documented. Most recently, Help the Aged has compiled a comprehensive picture of age discrimination cutting across public policy.

In January, the King's Fund report, "Old Habits Die Hard: Tackling age discrimination in health and social care", reported that three out of four senior health and social care managers believe that age discrimination exists in their local services. Those include policies that restrict access to units, facilities and treatment by setting upper or lower age limits. For example, in several areas specialist rehabilitation services for patients with brain injuries focus on return to work and so have an age restriction of 65. Those findings led the King's Fund to call for age discrimination legislation.

I do not pretend that legislation by itself will make discrimination go away, but it will give public and private service managers the incentive and the leverage to make meaningful changes in their organisations. It may even stop us trying to get care of the elderly on the cheap. The fact that we pay so much less for residential care for the elderly compared with other age groups is itself discrimination—it should not take a Rose Cotter presenting a petition to Downing street to tell us that.

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Legislation will send a signal. Lessons from abroad suggest that legislation has a positive effect on the employment rates of older workers. However, age discrimination legislation will only be as effective as the way it is enforced. That is why the Bill also proposes an age equality commission with powers to conduct research and issue promotional material, to carry out formal investigations of individual or group complaints and to issue compliance notices and back them up with judicial orders if compliance does not take place.

Since 1997, 15 attempts have been made to put age discrimination legislation on the statute book; all have foundered or been blocked. Today, 30 Acts, 38 statutory instruments, 11 codes of practice and 12 EU directives and recommendations make up the body of UK anti-discrimination law. Age barely gets a mention.

Ageism is economic madness—it is costing this country a fortune. Age is a very poor indicator of a person's competence or ability to contribute. It is time that the House put age at the centre of our discrimination law. I urge the House to support the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Paul Burstow, Ms Candy Atherton, Mr. Quentin Davies, Mr. Roger Berry, Andrew Selous, Hywel Williams, Mr. A.J. Beith, Dr. Vincent Cable, Mr. Steve Webb and Dr. Evan Harris.

Age Discrimination

Paul Burstow accordingly presented a Bill to make it unlawful to discriminate against persons on grounds of age in connection with employment or the provision of goods; to establish an Age Equality Commission with the function of working towards the elimination of such discrimination and promoting age equality generally; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 10 May, and to be printed [Bill 113].

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Opposition Day

[12th Allotted Day]

Education and Skills Training

Mr. Speaker: I inform the House that I have selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

3.49 pm

Mr. Damian Green (Ashford): I beg to move,

This Government are energetic at peddling myths. It is one of the defining characteristics of the Government that they never let the truth get in the way of a good story. Nowhere is this more true than in the field of education. Relentlessly, the Secretary of State rushes out press releases announcing how our schools are prospering as never before; how teachers gladly welcome each new day and each new initiative; how head teachers open their post each morning, thrilled by the prospect of another 100 pages of guidance about how to do their jobs; how students and university teachers are grateful for the decisive way in which the Government are dealing with higher education funding; and how training providers and their customers were so impressed by ILAs that the whole system had to be closed down because it was so successful.

The myth is polished every day, and the Secretary of State is to be congratulated on the fact that the central core of her Department—the press office—still functions, unlike in some other Departments. So the polish goes on but, sadly for the Government, the truth is beginning to emerge from beneath the polish. Five years in, the real failures cannot be disguised any longer. When parents see teachers on strike for the first time in 20 years; when they see head teachers threatening industrial action for the first time since state education was introduced; when they notice that teachers are leaving the profession earlier and faster than ever before; and when they see that initiatives

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such as education action zones are introduced one year and ditched the next, they know that the crisis is getting worse, and they know who is responsible.

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