23.10.09

Lords Debate on Older Workers and What Next?

What a wonderful institution is the House of Lords! As a passionate democrat I never thought I would give such praise to the unelected Upper House, but yesterday they showed their true value when Baroness Turner of Camden used the device of a simple question to facilitate a lunch time debate on older workers. I was impressed at how many peers were willing to miss their luncheon to take part.

Their Lordships were particularly vexed about the iniquities of the national default retirement age, but showed a broader consciousness that actually, this is just the beginning of the dialogue we need to have about the place of people over 50 in the labour market.

I and colleagues from TAEN looked on from the public gallery. It is strange – the bond sensed when some factual nugget of one’s own phrasing appears in a speech, essentially a personal reflection of another individual. You could call it a symphony of the peerers-down and the peers I guess. The fate of lobbyists everywhere. 

We were pleased that several of the speakers hammered the false stereotypes about older workers, making the point strongly that good work is good for you, and developed some valuable issues about the need for more flexibility in relation to retirement and pensions.

TAEN will publish the briefing notes in some form shortly, but meanwhile you can read the whole debate by the miracle of information technology and the efforts of Hansard reporters.

But it has been a busy few days, taking in a quick visit to Inverness and Aberdeen, where we glimpsed into the future. The North East of Scotland is a part of the UK experiencing the issue of workforce ageing as an already pressing constraint on business.

I noticed in the Aberdeen Evening Express, a report of an oil exploration worker bringing a claim of race discrimination against a Norwegian company on grounds of the inferior working conditions he and other UK based employees were receiving compared with Norwegian colleagues. The alleged discrimination covered numerous issues including holidays, flexible working, pay and retirement benefits.

It made me wonder – with Norwegian employers generally being enlightened and following advanced approaches to health and safety and workforce ageing, why when operating in a region of the UK where skills scarcities and demographic change has begun to surface, would they not want to stay ahead of the field?  It seems the experience of being good doesn’t always want to self regenerate when companies move into new legal jurisdictions.

Last week, the press picked up a comment I made on the need for employers to monitor workforces by age profiling. Let me take the opportunity to repeat it. Age audits should become a mandatory part of reporting in order to encourage employers to think more seriously about age issues.

One understands that the business world is ready to scream “burdensome regulation!” and that none of the political parties will really want to open another front over this issue, but how can we realistically get employers to start thinking about age management, including the risks their organisations face arising from their internal workforce age profiles?

There is room for a great deal of flexibility in the way such a concept is introduced. Some companies report on age issues in their annual reports anyway. Virtually all employers carry details of the ages of their workers on their personnel files. Moreover, since these are increasingly held on specialist HR data bases with software designed to facilitate generation of reports, there would be little new work involved in age profiling.

On the other hand, it would make for much greater visibility of approaching needs in relation to manpower planning in organisations. Crucially, age profiling would make it possible for anyone truly concerned about indirect age discrimination to spot problems and consider the existence of “age barriers” that should be removed.

Considering that the necessities of manpower planning have been so intertwined in the passionate embraces of business leaders who defend the national default retirement age, one might have thought my call for mandatory age audits would find succour there - but not so. This makes one suspect that the extent of the claimed age analysis and succession planning in organisations is perhaps not quite what it has been cracked up to be.

All this rather brings me back to their Lordships. Might some of those who contributed to yesterday’s excellent debate, be moved to propose an amendment to the Equality Bill when it enters the Lords shortly? It could call for age profiling and reporting in say, the very largest companies. In my view, it would move the possibilities for action in relation to age inequality at work onto a new level.

Age auditing would entail no more than many good employers in Europe are doing already. (I am sure if the truth be known, no more than many do in the UK too – only often they don’t tell us about it.)