Analysis: new age discrimination laws will discriminate against children

25 Feb 2015 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 26 Feb 2015

New age discrimination laws

Policy makers responsible for Northern Ireland’s long awaited age discrimination legislation are themselves being accused of age discrimination.

For many years campaigners have attempted to persuade the Assembly to pass laws making it illegal to discriminate against people on the grounds of their age in providing goods, facilities and services.

After a long and tortuous consultation process which was beset by rumours of behind the scenes political wrangling, proposals were finally laid forward this week.

This proved good news for AgeNI and others who have campaigned for the new law on behalf of older people.

However children have been excluded, leading to howls of indignation from the childrens’ sector and allegations that the proposals themselves are discriminatory.

The legal position in Northern Ireland is therefore likely to be similar to that in GB where the legislation specifically excludes children.

Advocates of a similar situation here argue that children have less “wisdom”, education and maturity than adults and are in many ways more vulnerable, therefore including them in legislation would have to contain so many exceptions as to render it pointless.

Examples put forward include prohibition on alcohol sales, sales of tobacco products and restrictions on voting. There is also the issue of parental responsibility and how giving children rights not to be discriminated against in availing themselves of goods facilities and services might cut across that.

All these are legitimate concerns which were well aired and debated both at Stormont and in Westminster in the run up to the preparation of legislation.

Yet these have also been subjected to forensic legal scrutiny. Two years ago the Equality Commission and NICCY jointly commissioned one of Britain’s leading employment lawyers, Robin Allen QC, to examine the implications of excluding children from age discrimination legislation.

He concluded that doing so would be in itself discriminatory, observing: “It would be unthinkable that discrimination law in relation to other grounds such as sex, race, colour, ethnic or social origin, generic features, language, religion or belief, only applied to adults. Anti-age discrimination legislation is no different.

“For instance, it is an absurd consequence of the current legislation in Great Britain that two persons aged 17 and 19 could suffer exactly the same discrimination by being refused admission to a hotel, because they were both thought to be under 21, yet only the latter could bring a claim.”

Allen argued that exceptions to discrimination against children could be easily covered off in legislation and that any new law would not affect existing age-based laws, such as the right to vote or that to purchase alcohol. He also argued that parental responsibility was not in any way compatible with a child’s right not to be discriminated against.

Although he recognised that it was sometimes appropriate to limit services to young people on the grounds fo their age, he added: “Arbitrary age-specific services which served no social purpose would be prohibited on the grounds that they would be discriminatory whereas important age-specific services would certainly be allowed to continue.

"Finally, because we proposed that age discrimination could in limited circumstances be justified, the legislation would force service providers to have a good rationale for their acts.”

It all seemed to make a lot of sense at the time. But it would appear that, when it comes to age discrimination in Northern Ireland, whilst older people will now be protected, children will not.

So what difference will that make? And how are children being discriminated against at present?

The Childrens’ Law Centre has summarised key areas of discrimination as follows:

  • Children being unfairly refused entry to public services such as libraries, leisure centres, sports facilities, museums and art galleries;
  • Babies and their parents facing difficulties using public transport, including being refused access to buses due to inadequate space for and intolerance of prams;
  • Young people being unable to access accommodation due to landlords perceptions of them due to their age;
  • Ambulance services failing to take children’s calls seriously;
  • The installation of high-frequency ‘’mosquito’’ devices to deter teenagers by giving out a high-pitched noise, which can also be heard by babies and young children who may be unable to alert carers to their distress.

It would seem that as a society we are ready to stand up to challenge discrimination on grounds of gender, race, disability, religion and sexual orientation. This is all good and as it should be.

The new laws around age discrimination will be warmly welcomed by older people who have suffered considerably through the lack of them, not least in the field of health provision.

It is ironic then that the only grouping to which legislation does not apply is the most vulnerable of all: children.

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