Nothing Less Than Equality and Human Rights

Age Equality and Human Rights

By Tessa Harding

Over the last four years or so, there has been gradually increasing recognition that age discrimination is at the root of many of the difficulties that older people experience.

Of course we know there are problems – that many needs are not being met, that older people may not have equal access to universal services, that the quality of older people’s services often leaves a lot to be desired, that they do not always get the treatment they need from the NHS and that it is difficult for older people to get heard. But it is only relatively recently that we have begun to understand that age discrimination is the common thread running through these problems.

The first signs of change came with the publication of the National Service Framework for Older People in 2001.  This had as its first standard – proposed by a group of older people brought together to advise the Department of Health – that age discrimination should be ‘rooted out’ of health and care services. This caused a flurry of activity within the NHS as Trusts examined their written policies and changed those that explicitly denied services to older people. But other priorities intervened before a lot of the less obvious ‘custom and practice’ rationing of health services on the basis of age had been addressed.

A second driver in the same year was the requirement by the EU that all member states should ban age discrimination in employment and training. This is due to come into effect in October 2006 but has caused huge debate amongst employers and others.  There is very good evidence that older workers are discriminated against in the workplace, to the detriment of their own incomes and quality of life, the national skills base and the economy as a whole.  But old prejudices die hard and age and capacity are still linked in people’s minds.

However older people experience discrimination in a wide range of other aspects of life. Help the Aged published a collection of older people’s accounts of the discrimination they come up against called ‘Everyday age discrimination’ , and this includes examples of age discrimination in travel and car insurance, car hire, banking, special offers from retailers, educational opportunities, advertising and the media (the language that is sometimes used about older people has to be seen to be believed), social security, public life, volunteering, health services,  social care and so on. 

This discrimination can have a profound effect on people’s lives.  It can affect their incomes, their opportunities and their well being, and make them feel that they are no longer valued customers and members of society.  For example, people who become disabled before the age of 65 are eligible to apply for Disability Living Allowance and for assistance from the Independent Living Fund, while those who become disabled over that age are only eligible for Attendance Allowance, which is less generous and does not  include a sum (which can be  up to £41 a week) to help with mobility. And yet the government says that it wants to enable older people to remain independent for as long as possible…

One important piece of legislation which came into effect in 2000 is the Human Rights Act.  This guarantees certain fundamental rights and freedoms, like the right to life, the right to be free from inhuman or degrading treatment, and the right to privacy and family life. These apply to everybody, whatever their characteristics, simply by virtue of being human; the Act bans discrimination on any grounds including age. All public services are legally required to respect these rights and freedoms, but it has become clear that most of them still need to take these rights to heart. In health and social care in particular, the human rights of those receiving these services are particularly at risk, since people may literally be dependent on those services for the quality of their lives, and when things go wrong, they can go very badly wrong. There is a lot to do to make human rights a reality for a lot of older people .

Fortunately, there are strong signs of progress on the horizon.  The Government is proposing to set up a Commission for Equality and Human Rights by 2007, which will include age in its remit, alongside race, gender, disability, sexual orientation and religion or belief .  This Commission will have a duty to promote equality and human rights and the power to enforce anti-discrimination legislation.  Age is still a long way behind some of the more readily recognised forms of discrimination: while we will have legislation to ban age discrimination in employment and training, there is as yet not law against age discrimination with regard to goods, facilities and services and (in most parts of the UK) no duty on public bodies to promote age equality.  But alongside the establishment of the new Commission, the Government has promised a review of equality legislation, to create a simpler and more consistent legal framework. This will be our chance to ensure that age discrimination is taken just as seriously as other forms of discrimination and has equal legal protection.  Older people and their friends and families need to make it clear that they will stand for nothing less than equality and respect for their human rights.

Tessa Harding


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