Orders of the Day — Age Discrimination

– in the House of Commons at 9:43 pm on 23rd May 1995.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Burns.]

Photo of Richard Ottaway Richard Ottaway , Croydon South 10:17 pm, 23rd May 1995

I wish to raise the subject of agism. It is a matter of great concern in my constituency, which has many professional middle-class people who have had the misfortune to find themselves redundant and who, as a result of their age, are unable to work their way back into the job market.

Legislation has been considered by the House in relatively recent times against discrimination in the workplace on the grounds of disability, gender, sexual orientation and ethnic origin. I am sure that the entire House shares the widespread public distaste for any act of discrimination, and I am sure that the majority of employers in the United Kingdom have come to realise the foolishness of allowing such prejudice in the workplace.

Legislation does not mean that discrimination has been overcome. Ethnic minorities in this country continue to experience higher rates of unemployment, people with disabilities continue to feel that they are regarded as second-class citizens in the workplace, and there are still too few women in senior positions in the UK.

However, a primary cause of prejudice in the workplace, agism, remains an accepted practice, unregulated in law, with no commission responsible for tackling the problem and no formal course of redress for those discriminated against on the ground of age. It is ironic that one cause of discrimination that can affect all of us at one time or another is the one that has been given the lowest priority by Governments and employers.

I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department of Employment is to reply to the debate, since she herself said: We know that as many as 40 per cent. of employers discriminate simply on the grounds of age. They set age bars to recruitment—sometimes as low as forty, or even thirty in some occupations. They refuse to promote or train older workers and they select the oldest first for redundancy". My hon. Friend attempted to address the problem with her Department's campaign "Getting On", which sought to highlight the unfairness of age discrimination and to persuade decision makers at all levels that we must solve that problem if we are to have a healthy and a thriving economy. I recognise and welcome the efforts of the Government in that regard, and I applaud my hon. Friend for finally getting the matter on the agenda where it belongs.

Although the Government and other institutions, such as the Institute of Personnel Management, argue that age should not be used as a primary discriminator, research suggests that such discrimination at the point of recruitment is still widespread. Recent advertisements suggested that an audio secretary in Scotland and an assistant manager of a department store in Nottingham should be in the 23 to 35 age group. To be a secretary for a firm of accountants in central London, one would be considered past it if one had reached the grand old age of 26.

People who happen to be 26 may feel comforted by the knowledge that they are in the most desired age group, as more than 69 per cent. of employers stated in a recent survey that they were seeking candidates of that age. However, if one is unfortunate enough to be 45 years old, one is six times less likely to be considered for employment than one's younger counterparts.

A recent survey undertaken by Labour Research found that 46 per cent. of job advertisements effectively excluded applicants aged more than 40 years. Out of 250 advertisements open to the middle age band, a 26-year-old was deemed to be eligible for 173; a 34-year-old had access to 133; but the chances of 36-year-olds were already diminishing, with only 93 jobs open to people of that age.

I recently visited the Victoria street job centre in Westminster. Of 16 advertisements for clerical jobs in February, four specified an age range from 21 to no more than 28 years—more than 35 years from retirement age, and one is already considered too old to be employed in a clerical position.

Photo of Mrs Teresa Gorman Mrs Teresa Gorman , Billericay

Does my hon. Friend not agree that, despite the very best efforts and the extreme good will of our hon. Friend the Minister, age discrimination exists in the Westminster employment agency here on the Back Benches? Many people who are more than 50 years old come to this place and find that their talents are ignored because of their age.

Photo of Richard Ottaway Richard Ottaway , Croydon South

I must disagree with my hon. Friend. I have no idea how old she is—perhaps thirty-something—but her talents are well recognised on the Back Benches. I think that she is underestimating her talents and those of her colleagues who are of a similar age.

I have been informed that job centres now encourage employers to advertise job vacancies without a specific age criterion. When employers refuse to do that, I am assured that the job centre will send any suitably qualified person for an interview, regardless of whether he or she falls within the age range sought by an employer. Reasonably often, that supposedly unsuitable candidate is appointed to the position. I think that that clearly shows the folly of age specifications in advertisements and the fact that the requirement that candidates be of a certain age is based purely on prejudice.

I have spoken to many people in their early 40s or 50s who feel that their age has been a serious disadvantage when seeking employment, especially if they are trying to find work after a period of unemployment. After several unsuccessful interviews, omitting information or even lying about their age on a curriculum vitae or application form became an accepted practice in an attempt to overcome age prejudice.

My constituent Mr. Todd has been unable to get back into the job market, having been made redundant at just over the age of 50. [Interruption.]

Photo of Miss Janet Fookes Miss Janet Fookes , Plymouth Drake

Order. The hon. Members for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) and for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) are quite old enough to know that I deplore seated interventions.

Photo of Miss Janet Fookes Miss Janet Fookes , Plymouth Drake

That is a very feeble excuse.

Photo of Richard Ottaway Richard Ottaway , Croydon South

Perhaps my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) and the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) are feeling their age.

The Institute of Personnel Management recently stated that all its 50,000 members should be aware that decisions based on age are never justifiable, are based on fallible suppositions and lead to the ineffective use of human resources. Although, within 15 years, more of the population will be over 60 than in the 16-to-44 age group, most commentators would agree that the position is getting worse.

The problem, however, is not limited merely to vacancies. The same stereotyped attitudes often prevent management from selecting older workers for training programmes or promotion. The idea that older workers are harder to train and the adage "You can't teach an old dog new tricks" are quite ridiculous.

A senior employee with perhaps 30 years' service has probably altered his way of working several times over the years, and is usually more than capable of learning new skills and techniques. Older workers bring the welcome addition of experience and maturity to training courses.

Early retirement packages are considered preferable to redundancy programmes, yet they are often the sole method of reducing staffing levels, and they directly target older workers. However, it is not all bad news. Some employers, notably B and Q, W. H. Smith, the Nationwide building society and Sainsbury, recognise the waste produced by agism, and are starting to take advantage of the untapped potential in the unemployed aged 40 to 50 who have been overlooked by other employers in favour of younger workers.

In 1989, B and Q reassessed its employment policy and decided to target older workers. Its store in Macclesfield was set up as an experiment, using staff all over the age of 50. The managers who developed the plan hoped that such a move would provide the company with a stock of experienced and customer-friendly staff. Their faith in older workers was repaid threefold. In the words of B and Q's personnel manager, the workers were found to be reliable, conscientious staff who have shown a built-in regard for customer service". No significant productivity difference was discovered and, although some workers were perhaps slower than others, that was more than compensated for by the greater likelihood of older workers getting things right first time, and the lower risk of accidents due to their taking greater care.

The entire work force benefited from the presence of older workers. Relationships with younger members of staff were good, particularly when the older employee took on the role of mentor to his younger colleague. Another store has since been opened along the lines of the one in Macclesfield and the chain is seeking to increase the number of older workers in all its outlets throughout the country.

Photo of Bob Spink Bob Spink , Castle Point

Can my hon. Friend confirm that the experiment found that sickness and other absence was actually lower?

Photo of Richard Ottaway Richard Ottaway , Croydon South

I can confirm that trend. Older workers tend to be more reliable. Having been trained, they stay longer and there is less absenteeism.

In my opinion, companies such as B and Q deserve praise for having the foresight to develop such schemes. They do not, however, deserve our thanks. They are not doing society a service by taking on older workers; they are making a sound business decision by doing so, and their businesses are becoming fitter and more profitable for it.

Photo of Mr Dale Campbell-Savours Mr Dale Campbell-Savours , Workington

Does that mean that the hon. Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) will not only be a purchaser from B and Q DIY departments, but she will be able to work for one when she leaves the House after the next election?

Photo of Richard Ottaway Richard Ottaway , Croydon South

Following the theme of the debate, I hope that anyone of any age and of any party will be able to work for B and Q after the next election. It is dangerous for the hon. Gentleman to count his chickens before they are hatched.

The Carnegie Third Age Programme inquiry was set up to examine the specific problems of people aged 50 to 70. It discussed at length whether to press for immediate legislation against age discrimination, as operates in the United States, but concluded that the best approach would be first to do everything possible on a voluntary basis, and to press for legislation only when it was clear that employers had failed effectively to deal with discrimination.

I feel strongly that enough time and energy has been spent in recent years trying to promote such a voluntary approach. Despite the efforts of my hon. Friend the Minister, it has been only a partial success. The time has now come to legislate against such foolish and bigoted practice.

There is a great need to raise public awareness of agism to the same level as that of discrimination on any other grounds, such as gender or race. That need can be met only by legislation against agism, in a form that will demonstrate society's disapproval of such morally unacceptable behaviour.

I do not argue that changes in the law will in themselves eradicate discrimination, just as I would not argue that the presence of the criminal law has eliminated burglaries and assaults. The fact that the problems may still exist after legislation, however, is not a valid argument against seeking change.

Other acts of discrimination are, unfortunately, still taking place regularly in our society, but that would not be seen as a valid reason to repeal the Race Relations Act 1976 or the Sex Discrimination Acts. Just as a job advertisement must not specify gender or racial exclusions, so it should no longer be possible to specify an age range.

Photo of Malcolm Wicks Malcolm Wicks , Croydon North West

I apologise for missing the opening of the hon. Gentleman's speech, but I hope that I may intervene on my Member of Parliament. Is he concerned about the fact that employment rates among older workers have declined during the last 15 years of Conservative government?

Photo of Richard Ottaway Richard Ottaway , Croydon South

Of course one would be concerned about that. If the hon. Gentleman had been present for the earlier part of mmy speech, he would know that I initiated the debate precisely because I believe that there is prejudice against older workers who have been forced into redundancy and are finding it difficult to get back into the job market.

The vital role that the law can play in discrimination cases is to allow any individual the opportunity to seek redress through an industrial tribunal or court. Those who are treated prejudicially owing to gender or race are already afforded that right; it is now time to ensure that those who suffer the same discrimination through agism are given the same standing in law.

Photo of Ann Widdecombe Ann Widdecombe , Maidstone 10:31 pm, 23rd May 1995

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway) on obtaining the debate, and on raising such an important subject. It has generated far more interest than debates of this kind, at this hour, usually generate. I should record the presence throughout the debate of the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours), and the presence of the hon. Member for Croydon, some compass point that I never get right—

Photo of Ann Widdecombe Ann Widdecombe , Maidstone

Labour gain in 1992; Conservative gain later in the 1990s, whenever it may be.

My hon. Friends the Members for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman), for Castle Point (Dr. Spink) and for Colne Valley (Mr. Riddick) have also come along, because they recognise the supreme importance of the subject. There have, indeed, been many interventions. My hon. Friend the Member for Billericay suggested that there was age discrimination even in the House. I always give the same advice to people who complain to me about age discrimination: never, ever give up. I commend that advice to my hon. Friend.

The hon. Member for Croydon, North-West (Mr. Wicks) interrupted at a late stage to say that there had been a decline in the employment of older workers under the Conservative Government. He should distinguish between unemployment and economic inactivity. He will, I am sure, appreciate that there has been a rising tide of early retirement. Whether or not he makes a value judgment on that one way or the other, it is not the same as unemployment, and does not necessarily stem from redundancy or forced early retirement.

Let me turn to the main thesis of my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South, who set out the problem so ably. Despite the light-heartedness of some of tonight's debate—I think that all the participants should have declared their interest; we are all of a certain age—a serious problem exists. By the year 2000, some 40 per cent. of the work force will be aged 45 or over.

But we know from surveys that about 40 per cent. of employers openly admit to practising some form of age discrimination—and those are only the ones who openly admit it. It is practised primarily in recruitment, but also in promotion, and certainly in training and in retention policies when putting redundancy programmes into effect.

Such discrimination is bad for the individual who faces being on what is sometimes popularly called the scrap heap. It is also bad for the economy, because if we do not make use of our older workers, we will be sentencing to economic inactivity a growing percentage of our work force because of the way demographics are moving. It is also extremely bad for British business and for employers, who are missing a great wealth of talent and a great deal of experience. Therefore, it is essential for us to address this problem.

There are great myths about employing older workers, the first of which is that somehow they are not trainable. I recently ran a nationwide competition to find older trainees, not people training at home in the hope of getting work or people taking an Open university course, but people who were in work, whose employers believed that they were a worthwhile investment, and who were training for a qualification. We found many people in their late 50s and early 60s. Furthermore, they were training in quite unusual subjects, such as information technology, which employers sometimes, quite erroneously, believe older workers cannot be trained in. Therefore, I know it is not true that people cannot be trained in later life.

Some people hold the view that somehow older people are unfit and cannot keep going quite as long as their younger counterparts. I ran another competition to find the oldest worker in Britain, and found that the oldest male worker who was still working six days a week and giving full satisfaction to his employer was aged 93. The oldest female worker, also working six days a week and giving full satisfaction, was 92. If people of 92 and 93 can give satisfaction to their employers, what is the problem about taking on people who are 40 years younger? The point of that campaign was not to persuade people to work into their 90s but to be able to say to employers, "If people in their 90s can do well, what is your problem with people in their 50s?"

The other great myth is that somehow older workers are not as committed as younger people, that the employer will not get as long a work period out of them. But precisely because it is so difficult for older workers to find a job, particularly if they are in their late 50s, those who have jobs tend to be extremely committed to them. An employer who takes on a man of 55 is likely still to have him at the age of 65. Statistically, it cannot necessarily be said that a man taken on at the age of 20 is likely to be with that employer when he is 30.

My hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South proposed legislation as the answer. I disagree, but I do not do so lightly or because of some preconceived notion. We carefully studied some 20 countries, and looked particularly at those which have some form of anti-agism legislation. We particularly studied the United States, which has just about the most comprehensive anti-agism package of them all. The United States has approximately the same percentage of unemployed older workers as Britain, so that legislation is not delivering. We took the view of people in those countries with legislation, and their view was that it was not delivering.

I am not interested in cluttering up the statute book for the sake of it. I want to persuade employers to change their minds and to see the errors of their ways. That is what has informed my "Getting On" campaign. To put it cynically, if the way to convince an employer of the desirability of doing something is by commercial advantage, then all employers should be convinced of the advantages of a mixed-age work force.

The campaign that I launched so far has consisted of a very successful booklet giving advice to employers—not advice from Ministers, but advice from other employers who have already got mixed-age work forces and who have found solid business benefits from them. They have them not because they are a nice thing to have but because they bring them solid benefits: customer satisfaction, productivity, the use of experience. That is what the first part of the campaign was about.

Photo of Malcolm Wicks Malcolm Wicks , Croydon North West

I agree with the Minister and my hon. Friend—he is my friend—the Member for Croydon, South, (Mr. Ottaway) but I disagree with her about legislation. Inevitably, the state has an interest; despite the Minister's campaign, economic activity rates, especially among male older workers, are in decline. If, because of so-called downsizing, people are retiring or being made redundant—there is a fine balance between the two—in their early 50s, they may be retired people for a third of their lives. That in turn has major implications for state expenditure.

Perhaps the Minister should therefore think again about the implications for legislation.

Photo of Ann Widdecombe Ann Widdecombe , Maidstone

Indeed the state does have an interest, and, as I was saying, the British economy too has an interest in using the talents and experience of older workers. So far, we can agree.

The hon. Gentleman is a little ungenerous to say, however, that my campaign has not worked. He should spare me a little; I launched it in 1993, and we are not even halfway through 1995 yet. He will well know that statistics are not precise over that sort of period, but we know that surveys done three years ago were showing 40 per cent. of employers openly practising discrimination, whereas a survey done at the end of last year showed that about three quarters of employers expect to take on older workers in the foreseeable future.

I do not suggest that there has been a swing of that order of magnitude—the surveys were not done in exactly the same way, or with the same groups—but we can see that employers are becoming seized of the problem and expect to have to change their ways. So a little patience is called for before we start rushing into legislation, which has not worked elsewhere.

The second stage of my campaign was to give older workers the advice that I gave my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay: never give up. It came in one of the Department's best-ever selling booklets, called "Too OldWho Says?" It is aimed at employees, not employers, giving them advice on what to do.

The next part of the campaign will be aimed at recruitment agencies, which is where many of the problems start. Advertisements for people to work as recruitment consultants include stringent age bars, so it is not surprising that they work through into employers' recruitment policies.

Finally, the Government have tried to be our own best example of what we want. We have raised training for work from an upper age limit of 59 to 63. We have scrapped age limits in central civil service recruitment. We have instructed our job centres to resist age bars in advertisements. When they have no choice but to take an advertisement, we have instructed them to send along people outwith the specification as well as those within it. I take every opportunity I have to promote the older worker. It is this sort of campaign which I believe will work. At any rate, we ought to try it, and to do so seriously, before we rush into legislation which may prove to be more decorative than useful.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at sixteen minutes to Eleven o'clock.