Older Workers — Question for Short Debate
Lord Young of Norwood Green (Government Whip (technically a Lord in Waiting, HM Household); Labour)
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lady Turner on initiating this wide-ranging and stimulating debate. I genuinely mean that and it is proof positive of the liveliness of the cerebral cortex of those of us who passed the age of 60 a few years ago. I have probably an impossible task in answering every single point that has been made, but I will do my best in the limited time available. If I cannot do so, I will communicate with noble Lords in writing.
There is no doubt that older workers make a critical contribution to our economy. With the demographic changes that are upon us, the proportion of over-50s in the workforce is set to rise from about 24 per cent now to just under one-third by 2020. We are committed to ensuring that older people have choice and opportunity to work up to the age of 65 and beyond. That means that older workers will play an important part in the economic recovery—indeed, in our economy—now and in the future. They will need to be as skilled and productive as younger workers, and keep up with technological advances and changes in working methods. That is why we are committed to ensuring that people of all ages and backgrounds, both within the workforce and outside, can enjoy and benefit from the wide range of learning opportunities on offer.
Our age discrimination legislation has helped to protect older workers' employment rate by making age-targeted redundancy generally unlawful and by making compulsory retirement ages below 65 generally unlawful, but we need to continue our efforts. Extending working life and raising the state pension age over the longer term are essential for pensions sustainability in our ageing society. The noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, talked about relieving the pressure. The proportion of people of working age to people over state pension age was expected to fall from 5:1 in 1950 to just 2:1 by 2050, but by raising state pension age to 68 by 2048, we can hold the dependency ratio at 3:1. I note what the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, said about the noble Lord, Lord Turner, and his recent comments that in hindsight he would have been more radical. We have already committed ourselves to restoring the earnings link, and I welcome the conversion to that policy by the opposition Benches.
A number of noble Lords addressed redundancy in recession. Workers of all ages have been affected by the recession. The employment rate of people aged 50 to state pension age has gone down only slightly, down by less than 1 percentage point over the past year, compared to the rate for 25 to 49s, which has gone down by 1.8 percentage points, and for 16 to 24s, which is down by 4.4 percentage points. That shows that attitudes to older people in employment are changing, maybe not as fast as we would like, but those figures are interesting.
In response to the current economic downturn, the Government have committed half a billion pounds of additional support to help prevent people who are out of work from becoming long-term unemployed. The noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, asked about early intervention. We have doubled the resources available to the Rapid Response Service. The service offers support across the country for those facing redundancy with immediate help and advice, including skills assessments and retraining, to ensure that people get back to work as soon as possible. The noble Lord also talked about apprenticeships, and we have taken away the age barrier on apprenticeships. He will be pleased to know that there were some 27,000 adult apprenticeships last year. We have done away with the concept that apprenticeships are just about vocational careers for young people. They are a valuable contribution to people retraining and reskilling.
My noble friend Lady Turner talked about helping people of all ages through the recession. We have provided our Jobcentre Plus advisers with extensive training to ensure that they are able to help all jobseekers. We will continue to develop our advisers and our range of support so that individual jobseekers—older and younger—receive effective help. In addition, the Flexible New Deal is being rolled out from this year and will offer individually tailored help to meet the needs of both younger and older jobseekers.
My noble friend Lady Turner talked about the fact that many requests to defer retirement are turned down and fewer employers are using flexible pension rules. The survey of employers' policies, practices and preferences will explore these issues. Business organisations such as the CBI and EEF say that most requests are accepted, but we need to examine that evidence, which is critical. My noble friend Lady Turner commented on the judge's comments on the Age Concern judicial review and said that the Government's review of default retirement age should take place immediately. That request was also made by the noble Baroness, Lady Neuberger. We announced earlier this year that the review of the default retirement age will be brought forward from 2011 to 2010, so the direction of travel is right. The judge endorsed that approach—