Last Wednesday I presented a new law to Parliament that would ban age discrimination in the workplace. Speaking to the House of Commons after a rowdy session of Prime Minister’s Questions, I set out why age discrimination in the workplace must end.
This law started life in one of my regular MP surgeries. Stephen Horne, who lives in Deal, came to see me about a problem he was having at work. Stephen is a train diver who works at Eurotunnel. He was approaching his 66th birthday when he received a letter from his employers. They told him that while they could not sack him on grounds of age, they were going to end his health insurance and death in service benefits.
Looking into Stephen’s case, I was shocked to discover that this type of age discrimination is legal. The Equalities Act is supposed to provide protection for older people against age discrimination – but there is an exception for insurance benefits. Companies are allowed to take away insurance benefits from workers if they choose to work beyond the state pension age.
Of course, employers can carry on treating older workers the same as younger workers. But they don’t have to and are allowed to take away things like health insurance and death in service benefits. That’s clearly unfair and wrong. Just as has happened in Stephen’s case, if employers are allowed to discriminate on the basis of age, then the evidence is that they will do so. That’s why I presented a new law to end this kind of age discrimination.
There are those who say this reform to end age discrimination would be costly to business. They used to say that about women who went on maternity leave. Yet as we know, employers found retaining women in the workplace didn’t just benefit mothers – it benefited the businesses themselves. Businesses were able to retain the vital skills and knowledge of female workers.
Increasing numbers of people are working for longer. More than 1.5 million people now work over the age of 65. The areas in which older people work include health care, social work, education and technical areas. Older workers bring valuable experience, skills and knowledge that is useful to employers. Unfortunately, many workers over the age of 50 experience age based discrimination. They can find it harder to get work. It is important there are robust laws to protect them.
My employment equality bill received huge support from all parties – including the DUP and the SNP. As more older people decide to stay in the workforce, the impact of this issue will be felt more widely. I hope that Stephen’s Eurotunnel law will mark a turning point for protecting older workers in the workplace in the years to come.