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Last Updated: Thursday, 19 October 2006, 23:00 GMT 00:00 UK
Battle lines drawn over discrimination laws
By Julian Knight
Personal finance reporter, BBC News

A Nurse
Ageism in healthcare provisions could become unlawful

Age discrimination pervades almost every part of life.

On 1 October discriminating against someone on the grounds of age in the workplace became unlawful.

But already campaigners are trying to extend the legislation to cover other areas.

The next battle will be over age discrimination in the provision of services.

What would this mean in practice?

We want a new age law to extend and cover many aspects of life not just the workplace
Andrew Harrop, Age Concern

The term services is a bit of a catch-all. It can mean big things like healthcare provision, banking, housing or insurance.

Alternatively it can mean small things.

For example, banning age discrimination in service provision could make it unlawful for doormen to deny entry to pubs, bars and nightclubs on the grounds of someone being too old to enter.

"We want a new age law to extend and cover many aspects of life not just the workplace," Andrew Harrop, Age Concern policy officer, told BBC News.

"From access to healthcare, through insurance to denial of entry to gyms and clubs, this has to be all-encompassing - bringing it into line with race and sex laws."

Legal umbrella

In its manifesto, the Labour government has committed itself to introduce a Single Equality Bill.

The idea of the Bill is to draw together legislation regarding sex, race and religious discrimination under one legal umbrella.

It is an opportunity to apply some spit and polish to the patchwork of current discrimination laws, and could offer the best opportunity to have extensive anti-age discrimination law adopted.

As if to confuse matters, last February the government introduced the Equality Bill. It set up a new commission, headed by Trevor Phillips, as a single point of contact to oversee existing anti-discrimination legislation.

This is not the same as the promised Single Equality Bill - which campaigners now hope will make an appearance in November's Queen's speech.

"The Bill could possibly include a ban on age discrimination in the services sector," says Mr Harrop.

"The door is very much ajar to this."

Mr Harrop added that the Department of Health's decision voluntarily to ban ageism in the health service was a further indication of the government's willingness to tackle the problem.

Heading for Brussels

Campaigners are also taking a tilt at Europe.

It is quite likely that if there are competing demands for treatment then it may be focused towards younger people
Pauline Ford
Royal College of Nurses

Groups representing older people from nine EU countries recently submitted a draft directive to the EU outlining how age discrimination could be banned in all walks of life.

This was not back-of-a-fag-packet stuff.

The directive was drawn up by Robin Allen, head of chambers at barristers Cloisters, a leading employment expert, and if adopted would "outlaw most instances of discrimination on the grounds of chronological age, age banding and age groups".

But on an EU level, the appetite for further age laws - the UK's recent outlawing of age discrimination at work was in response to an EU directive - is not great.

The reason given by campaigners is a preponderance of centre-right governments in the EU - looking, instinctively, to step away from potentially costly and disruptive lawmaking.

UK the key

Still, if the groups lobbying the UK government get their way and see a Single Equality Bill, this will be the key that unlocks the door.

For healthcare service provision the implications could be considerable.

"If an older person is on an acute medical ward then it is quite likely that if there are competing demands for treatment then it may be focused towards younger people," Pauline Ford, Royal College of Nurses adviser on nursing for older patients, told BBC News.

She says doctors and nurses who want to work with older people are often warned they could harm their careers by doing so.

"Government has acted on ageism and the worst excesses - such as people being denied investigative operation because of their age - have been ended," she said.

"But the NHS remains ageist because it is part of an ageist society. A lot of work needs to be done."

But some powerful interest groups would line up against the extension of age laws to services.

You can not get away from the fact that age is a relevant factor when quoting for insurance
Malcolm Tarling, Association of British Insurers

In particular, the insurance industry will see any move to apply age discrimination to its business as unwelcome interference.

"You can not get away from the fact that age is a relevant factor when quoting for insurance," Malcolm Tarling of the Association of British Insurers told BBC News.

"Think about it: if you are older you are more likely to get ill on holiday, therefore travel insurance premiums are higher.

"And it works both ways. Teenage drivers are ten times more likely to have an accident than older ones."

According to Mr Harrop, insurers should still be able to take age into account when quoting as long as they have an "objectively justifiable" reason for doing so.

But the Bill would stop some insurers from simply refusing to quote on the grounds of age.

"We get lots of complaints from people who can't get insurance full stop or have a very limited choice of insurance, merely because they are considered too old," he said.

"This can lead to them not going on holiday or giving up their cars."

Mr Tarling, however, argued that the amount of competition in the insurance market ensured that there would be plenty of choice for consumers - and that there would be a market for specialised cover for either younger or older people.

Battle ahead

The opposition of the insurance industry is not to be underestimated. It has form.

Back in 2005, they successfully lobbied against a proposed European directive which would have made it unlawful for insurers to use gender as a factor in calculating premiums.

This would have meant more expensive car insurance for women and cheaper for men, with the reverse being true for annuities.

"Applying age laws to insurance would be counterproductive for the industry and consumers, rest assured we will be pointing this out at any given opportunity," Mr Tarling said.

With the guns of such a powerful - well-funded - lobby ranged against them, the suspicion is that the age campaigners will have a real battle turning any future Single Equality Bill to their own devices.

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