Women and Equalities Committee says government is failing to enforce age discrimination laws

age discrimination

Discrimination is the root cause of the fact that more than one million individuals in the UK aged 50-plus are not working, despite being willing to do so, according to a report published today (17 July 2018) by The Women and Equalities Committee.

The report on older people and employment also states that the government and the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) are failing to enforce the law on age discrimination.

The committee says that the government needs to take a clearer stance on the fact that age discrimination of any kind, from outright prejudice to casual ageism in the workplace, is unlawful under the Equality Act 2010.

In addition, it asks that the EHRC responds with a plan to tackle age discrimination in employment. This plan should include an agenda to combat discrimination in recruitment, an agreement with the Equality Advisory Support Service to identify and refer claims of age discrimination in employment as a priority for legal support, and actions to examine whether the public sector is complying with its duties regarding the need to eliminate age discrimination.

The report makes it clear that the public sector must lead by example when it comes to adapting to the realities of an ageing workforce.

The committee recommends improvements to the government’s Fuller Working Lives strategy, including working with EHRC to agree enforcement actions that can be included as specific commitments in the strategy.

The recruitment industry is noted as a particular source of concern. The committee suggests that the government works with representatives from this industry to develop a plan to ensure that outdated stereotypes do not cause illegal age discrimination in recruitment. It also recommends that the EHRC submit specific timeframes to investigate, intervene and enforce the law regarding discrimination based on age.

To enable parents, carers and older workers to participate in the labour market on an equal basis, the committee recommends that the government should legislate to ensure that all jobs are advertised as flexible from the beginning, unless an employer can demonstrate an immediate and continuing business case against doing so. It also states that public services should immediately introduce these flexible working policies.

The committee recommends the introduction of a statutory right to four weeks’ unpaid carer’s leave per year, and an additional five days’ paid carer’s leave. 

To ensure an engaged older workforce in the future, the committee suggests that the government conducts a review of the specific support available through the Jobcentre Plus network, and recommends that the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy develops a national skills strategy focusing on lifelong learning, and challenging the assumptions that certain forms of training are only relevant to younger employees.

The report also makes note of the effects of gender pay gap reporting, and recommends greater transparency and data analysis regarding average age of employees, and areas in which older workers are being excluded.

Maria Miller MP, chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, said: “Age discrimination in the workplace is a serious problem, as many older people have discovered. Yet despite it being unlawful for more than a decade, the scale and lack of enforcement uncovered by our inquiry is both alarming and totally unacceptable.

“The government and the EHRC have failed to get to grips with this. They must be more robust in providing a remedy to potentially unlawful working practices in the recruitment sector. Strategies such as Fuller Working Lives and the Industrial Strategy are not coordinated and lack any plan to ensure that existing legislation is being implemented and enforced.

“As a country we face serious challenges recruiting and retaining an experienced and skilled workforce. Until we tackle discrimination against the growing number of over 50s, they will continue to be consigned to the ‘too old’ pile instead of being part of the solution. The business case for an age-diverse workforce is clear. Despite this, employers continue to organise workplaces around an outdated, inflexible model that this inquiry and our past inquiries into fathers in the workplace and the gender pay gap show no longer works.

“It’s time for a mandatory approach, with flexible working being the default from the time jobs are advertised onwards.”

Anne Willmot, age at work director, Business in the Community, said: “Business in the Community warmly welcomes today’s report on older workers and employers from the Women and Equalities Committee, which adopts many of the recommendations we have called for.  Supporting flexible working from day one and specific paid and unpaid leave for carers will enable employers to retain the skills and expertise of workers of all ages – older and younger alike – which is vital for the UK economy, recognising the UK’s ageing population and workforce.  In light of the gender pay gap reporting, we are particularly keen to see measures that support older women, particularly those in low paid roles, to gain, sustain and progress in work.

“We also support the recommendation for larger companies to report publicly on the age profile of their workforce. While we recognise that this will require some additional administrative effort by employers, many leading employers already analyse their workforce data, and we believe that it will be a strong catalyst for action and will enable employers to reap the tangible benefits of retaining, retraining and recruiting older workers.”

Richard Woodman, head of employment law at Royds Withy King, said: “We agree with the Committee’s report that age discrimination is a serious problem in the workplace but would argue against further legislation or enforcement actions. The legislation that exists is robust and is very clear: employers cannot discriminate on the grounds of age, race, sex (including pregnancy and maternity), disability, religion or belief, gender reassignment or sexual orientation.

“Employees and workers have these rights enshrined in legislation which can be enforced in the tribunals; however, we acknowledge that this is ‘cure and not prevention’ and it is incumbent upon employers to embrace diversity in the workplace to ensure employees and workers do not need to resort to the courts to enforce these rights.

“We find the suggestion that recruitment agencies take responsibility to collect and report on discriminatory practices as unusual to say the least. Recruitment agencies, like all employers, need to operate within the current laws, and we do not believe they are best placed or indeed the right businesses to police workplace discrimination.

“If the committee wished to see meaningful change it would be better to perhaps call on the government to introduce a mandatory reporting requirement for businesses over a certain size, as it has done with gender pay gap reporting.”

Dr Brian Beach, senior research fellow at ILC-UK, who gave oral evidence to the committee, said: “Tackling ageism in the labour market and promoting age-friendly employment standards are vital steps to ensure that older people have the opportunities they want to work in later life. We support the committee’s call for stronger, clearer action by [the] government and EHRC to address this issue.

“Older people are not a homogeneous group, and the committee [is] right to call for the government to commission research into the diversity among older people and their access to work opportunities. We are ready to work with other stakeholders to develop this evidence base.”