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Unemployment (Older People)

Volume 453: debated on Monday 27 November 2006

8. What recent representations he has received on help available to unemployed people over the age of 50 years. (102903)

There are 1 million more over-50s in work than a decade ago. We have received a number of representations on what more can be done, none of which advocates the abolition of the new deal 50-plus, but perhaps we are about to hear the first.

The Government have a stated aim to get more older workers back into work and the Secretary of State for Education and Skills has said that we must be more focused on employability skills. If the Government want to demonstrate any joined-up thinking on this issue––I doubt they can––could they tell me exactly what representations his Department have made to the Department for Education and Skills?

We have a joint project with the DFES and we are a playing an active role in the consideration of the Leitch review and the skills gap. As the hon. Lady’s party will be aware, the Welfare Reform Bill will play an important part in the skills agenda for the over-50s. About half those on incapacity benefit are aged over 50. An enormous amount is being done to support such people in their efforts to get into work. Indeed, in the past year there has been an increase of more than 200,000 in the number of people aged over 50 coming into the labour market.

Over 50s reported that one of the main barriers to work was the attitude of employers, who saw them as over the hill and not worth employing. Has my hon. Friend detected any change in employers’ attitude and an improved work-entry rate since the introduction of age discrimination legislation?

A variety of initiatives, including the “Age Positive” and “Be Ready” campaigns, are aimed at changing perceptions of older workers. In advance of the age discrimination legislation, there was a remarkable increase in the number of older workers staying in the labour force or returning to it, so there have been improvements. However, my hon. Friend is right that we have further to go in supporting the ever-increasing number of those aged over 50 who wish to work, in order to give them the chance to get back into the labour market.

Surely the best way to help unemployed people aged over 50 is to help them back into work. Does the Minister have any plans to visit Poland and the Czech Republic to see what lessons can be learned from their education and training systems, which have been so successful in equipping people with the skills necessary to take up jobs available in the UK economy?

I have no plans to visit Poland or any other part of the European Union in connection with the issue of over-50s in the workplace. Of course, one important part of our over-50s agenda is the new deal 50-plus, which is supporting such people and giving them the chance to get back into work. It has enabled some 160,000 job entries and job starts, but it was opposed by the Conservatives. I wonder whether they continue to oppose the new deal 50-plus, which, as I say, is an important part of our agenda and is supporting such people in getting back into work.

Although we have made some progress, my hon. Friend will realise how difficult it is to change the culture among employers. Surely we as a Government should do what we can to emphasise the benefits and qualities of the over-50s and the experience that they bring to the work force. How would he feel if he heard an organisation used the term “bed blocker” for experienced employees? Will he give an assurance that the Labour party, our organisation, will never use the term to describe our experienced Members of Parliament?

My hon. Friend is right. Some two thirds of the growth in the labour market in the past decade has been among the over-50s. That reinforces the need to support more people, especially those who are inactive and perhaps locked into a culture of benefit dependency through incapacity benefit, half of whom are over the age of 50, and emphasises why we need to continue the roll-out of pathways and seek support across the House—which we have had so far—for the Welfare Reform Bill, so that we can support those people to get back into work.

I have a simple question and I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to give me a simple and positive answer to it. I have been approached by many people over 50 whose skills have become redundant, but they have to languish in unemployment for six months or take a cheap, badly paid job that does not use their potential skills. Will the Government consider introducing a scheme that would reskill people more quickly, so that they are not out of the labour market for such a long time or forced to take low paid, unskilled work?

The reason that there is a qualifying period for the new deal 50-plus is that the vast majority of those aged over 50 find work in the first six months. The new deal is aimed at tackling and eradicating long-term unemployment in the 50-plus group and among young folk. However, we continue of course to listen to representations and will pay close attention to the report by Sandy Leitch on the future skills agenda.