We are committed to the principle of extending opportunity to everyone, regardless of age, and to tackling age discrimination in the workplace. A key element of that process is the new deal 50-plus, which has already helped more than 50,000 people move into work since its launch last year.
Given that age discrimination is not only an injustice, but a waste of talent and experience, what plans does my right hon. Friend have for enforcing the code of conduct on age diversity in employment? I am sure that those measures will be effective, but if they are not, will he consider introducing legislation to protect against age discrimination in employment?
My hon. Friend will know that the Government are committed to introducing legislation to strike against discrimination in terms of the European directive that was agreed earlier this year. There is a code of practice whose evaluation will be ready fairly shortly. My view is that, although a code of practice is all very well, I am not sure that it will achieve what we all want. In particular, we need to ensure that we can raise general awareness of age discrimination.
I am concerned that people in too many organisations do not think about the consequences of discrimination or about the fact that they are wasting an asset, very often in their own company, by not keeping or encouraging people who are over 50. It is very important that we tackle the problem. It cannot be right that a third of the whole population over 50 are economically inactive and out of work. Too many of them depend on benefits for most of their income, so it is a priority for the Government to do something about it.
I have listened with interest to what the Secretary of State has said about the position of over-50s in the workplace. Given that unemployment in Scotland increased by more than 27,000 in the last quarter—more than half the entire increase for the United Kingdom—does he agree that it would now be appropriate to establish official targets to cut unemployment, just as such targets are set for inflation?
The hon. Lady may know, although she might not want to admit it, that this Government set themselves the objective of reducing the very high unemployment that we inherited and have made substantial progress in doing that throughout the whole country, including Scotland. It is wrong of her to paint a picture suggesting that life in Scotland is somehow completely different from that in the rest of the United Kingdom. She will know that, in my constituency and hers, unemployment has fallen dramatically since 1997. She is right to highlight the fact that there are pockets in different parts of the country where unemployment is far higher than it should be. The Government will make proposals in the not-too-distant future specifically to address that problem.
One of the problems that we have found in Aberdeen is that there is a skills shortage, while at the same time, many companies, especially in the oil industry, force people into retirement once they reach 50. That mismatch of needing to fill the jobs, but at the same time encouraging people to retire early, seems out of kilter. Will my right hon. Friend encourage employers to keep employees once they reach 50? Ending the waste of enormous talent would help them to bridge the skills gap that we are experiencing in the north-east.
I agree with my hon. Friend. Many employers lay off people—in my view, shortsightedly—simply because they are over 50. At the same time, they claim that they cannot get skilled employees. Many people over 50 are motivated and skilled, and could easily be brought back into the work force. One of the specific tasks of Jobcentre Plus, which, as my hon. Friend knows, has an office in Aberdeen, is to do more to match job vacancies with the people available. In the past, we did not do enough to match individuals with the vacancies, and back that up with the required skills and training. Sometimes people could have returned to work if they were given the right skills and training. My hon. Friend is right to highlight the problem that many employers lay off people over 50 who have a lot more to give. [Interruption.] In reply to Mr. Willetts, as I approach 50, such matters are much on my mind.
I know that you will find it hard to believe, Mr. Speaker, but I must declare an interest because I am over 50 and liable to be laid off any minute.
I wholly endorse the Secretary of State's comments, but may I urge him to rely little on codes of practice because they have a limited effect? The problem is so serious and so bad for the morale of those whom it affects that he and his Ministers should take every opportunity—I am sure that they do—to emphasise that such discrimination is unacceptable and deeply injurious to the financial health of this country.
I have no doubt that, after the last election, the hon. Gentleman was glad that he did not need the new deal for over-50s; he is all right for a year or two yet. I agree with the serious point that he made. I am sure that I am not the only Member of Parliament who finds that an increasing number of over-50s with skills and training attend surgeries. In areas such as my constituency, where unemployment is just over 1 per cent. and there is an acute skills shortage, I come across people who cannot find work. One cannot help but believe that there is an element of discrimination against over-50s by employers. In places where I have worked, I have heard people saying, perhaps unconsciously, "Of course, he's over 50. Let's give the younger person a chance."
I take the matter seriously, and I believe that the Government have to do more, but employers should also begin to rethink their attitudes. They cannot claim that they want to get rid of skilled, motivated over-50s and also say that they cannot get people to work for them. In today's climate, there is no better time to start thinking about the over-50s. The hon. Gentleman has reached 50 already; others have still to get there, but we should all approach the problem as if we were personally affected.
Does the Secretary of State accept that although the unemployment rate has fallen in almost all constituencies, that has not been matched by an increase in the employment rate? The answer that he gave a moment ago, that the Government will pay equal attention to putting people in touch with the labour market and to increasing the numbers of jobs, is therefore good news for our constituents. When will the Government be able to introduce ideas to effect that?
My right hon. Friend knows that unemployment has fallen dramatically in most constituencies. As I said earlier, unemployment remains stubbornly high in some parts of the country and people have been out of work for a considerable time. The over-50s are especially badly hit there. We need to do more. I have already mentioned the new deal for the over-50s, and Jobcentre Plus will do far more to match individuals with jobs and back that with skills and training. However, further measures are necessary to get as many people as possible into work. I assure my right hon. Friend that the Government will introduce such measures.
I join the consensus, and declare that I, too, have reached the magic age of true maturity. Does not the Secretary of State accept that, even by comparison with other new deal initiatives, there is a danger that the costs of the new deal for over-50s will be high and that the personal adviser's skills may not always be able to cover the individual's precise needs?
The most common deficiency among this age group is probably a lack of information technology skills, because the subject had not been invented when we were at school. Will the Secretary of State have a word with his colleague, the Secretary of State for Education and Skills, about the scrapping of individual learning accounts, which is likely to be a kick in the teeth for such people's chances of re-employment?
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the new deal for the over-50s. This new deal is voluntary, which sets it apart from some of the other new deals. That might explain why not as many people as I would like have taken advantage of it; we need to keep that matter under review. There were particular problems with individual learning accounts, to which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills has referred.