The government is to outline new equality plans that will outlaw age discrimination in the provision of products such as insurance, and address pay gaps between male and female workers.
The new Equalities Bill aims to end age discrimination in the provision of all goods and services, from the NHS to travel, health and motor insurance. Other measures include encouraging employers to favour female candidates and those from ethnic minorities during the hiring process.
Critics say this last measure will result in white men being discriminated against in tiebreak job vacancy situations.
However, Harriet Harman, the equality minister, says progress is needed to end inequality towards women in the workplace.
“Most women are going out to work and they are just as committed to their jobs. The money that they earn is important to the household budget so they should be paid fairly,” she said. “You can’t challenge discrimination when it’s kept swept under the carpet.
Age discrimination has been banned from the workplace since 2006, but pensioners are still subject to restrictions based on their age when it comes to NHS treatment, and insurance cover. Many find premiums increase when they hit a certain age, or cover is withdrawn completely.
The bill has been welcomed by campaigners against age discrimination. Michael Lake, director of charity Help the Aged, says: "For a long time the government would not accept that age discrimination was a problem. Legislation must be enacted without delay so older people can be on a truly equal footing as soon as possible.”
But the insurance industry argues that it does not practice age discrimination, and that higher premiums for older people simply reflects the higher degree of risk they represent.
Nick Starling, the director of general insurance at Association of British Insurers, says: “The government, organisations that represent older people and the insurance industry agree that insurance premiums should reflect the risk presented by individual consumers.
"Legislation, no matter how well-intentioned, could have the unintended negative consequence of forcing some insurers to withdraw certain products altogether, reducing competition and availability and pushing up prices for all age groups.”
Some insurance providers, such as Saga, offer insurance products specifically aimed at older people.
Paul Green, spokesman for Saga, says many customers do not know where to go to get cover if their general insurers refuses them on the basis on their age. While he condemns age discrimination, he warns that the new equality bill could adversely impact insurance customers.
“Compulsion to provide cover from non-specialists will simply lead to high prices,” Green explains. “Instead insurers ought to be required to direct them to an independent source of information so the customer can easily find a provider that better understands their needs and will provide cover, because of their specialism. "