News story

New armour to stop age discrimination in the NHS

Dignity and respect will be firmly at the centre of every NHS and social care service from October, as a ban on age discrimination comes into effect, the government announced today.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

The move follows a public consultation led by the home office which looked at how age affects the way people are treated in every aspect of public and private service provision.

In the past, the needs of older people have sometimes been ignored and they have been treated without the dignity and respect they deserve. Many of the solutions lie with the local NHS, social care providers and others. But government has a part to play too - and is fulfilling its promise to implement the age discrimination ban with no exceptions in health and social care. This means that all people, regardless of age, will receive a personal, fair and diverse service, based on their individual needs, not their age. 

Home secretary and minister for women and equalities Theresa May said:

‘We want to make sure everyone can realise their potential; part of this means ensuring people are treated fairly regardless of their age. Having consulted widely and considered the evidence carefully, we have found that there are some areas where older people are at particular risk of unfair treatment. So we are acting to put that right.

‘This legislation will be targeted, fair and proportionate. The vast majority of businesses and organisations will be able to continue to operate as usual and certain areas will be exempt from the ban altogether. We are confident that the action we are taking strikes the right balance between business and consumers’ interests.’

Care services minister Paul Burstow said:

‘We know that older people are not always treated with the dignity and respect they deserve because of ageist attitudes - this will not be tolerated. There is no place for age discrimination in the NHS or social care.

‘Our population is ageing as more of us live longer.  The challenge for the NHS is to look beyond a person’s date of birth and meet the needs of older people as individuals.’

Age discrimination in the workplace is already unlawful, but until now there has been no equivalent legal requirement on public and private services. This has led to inconsistent practices and unfair treatment, with the needs of older people in particular being ignored.

There will be specific exceptions from the new law, for example insurance companies will still be able to use age when assessing risk and deciding prices and travel operators will be able to offer free bus travel for over-60s. The exceptions provide clarity for private and public sector organisations - and their customers - over exactly where the line should be drawn.

The provisions in the equality act 2010 will take effect in October 2012, but the government has been clear that legislation is not the only answer to tackling discrimination. This can be seen in the voluntary agreement reached with the insurance industry in April this year to make it easier for older people to get motor and travel insurance and provide greater transparency on how decisions are made.

Today’s announcement will prevent unjustifiable discrimination, while also making common sense exceptions to allow business to operate as usual. It will protect young adults as well as the old.

Examples of the type of harmful discrimination the ban aims to end include:

  • making assumptions about whether an older or younger patient should be referred for treatment based solely on their age, rather than on the individual need and fitness level;
  • assuming older people cannot sign a contract without the help of a younger person to explain things;
  • not referring people for a particular treatment or intervention just because the treatment is usually considered mainly for younger or older people;
  • not considering the wellbeing or dignity of older people;
  • a gym refusing membership to an older person because they don’t fit in with the gym’s ‘youthful’ image.

Paul Burstow went on to say:

‘I have heard numerous stories from people who feel that they have been discriminated against.  One 84-year-old lady told how her doctor had been treating her for angina for years. Two years ago, she had an appointment to have an operation on a bunion on her big toe. However, because of the angina they sent her for a heart scan.

‘They found that it was not angina, but actually a leaky valve. She asked if she could have this fixed and the doctors said “What are you bothered about, at your age?”. I am pleased to say she stuck to her guns and said she wanted the job done. At long last, she has managed to get an appointment but the whole experience made her feel pushed aside.

‘This is exactly the kind of discrimination we want to rule out in the NHS.’

However while there are cases of discrimination there are also many other examples where staff in the NHS and social care are making a real difference to peoples’ experiences. For example the central and North West London NHS foundation trust who are redefining their older adults metal health services to make sure that age is not a factor for access.

The government is clear that age discrimination has no place in society and more importantly in the NHS and care services.

Notes to editors

1. To view consultation response click here - Act/Age discrimination/

2. Link to the equality strategy progress report -

3. The new ban, including appropriate exceptions from it, will take effect in October 2012. The ban will apply to all of Great Britain, but not Northern Ireland.

4. The ban applies equally to the old and young - it will be just as unlawful for a company to unfairly refuse service to someone because they are 25 as it will be to refuse service to someone because they are 85. However, the ban does not protect children aged under 18.

5. For details of what the new rules mean for health and social care, contact the department of health press office on 020 7210 522.

Updates to this page

Published 12 June 2012