Too old to work here? Not any more, you're not

New laws to stop over-50s being 'dumped on the scrap heap' will take effect this autumn
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The Independent Online

You can't teach an old dog new tricks, they say. But, from this autumn, that attitude could get you into trouble in your workplace.

On 1 October, new legislation comes into force outlawing age discrimination at work. Employers will, for example, no longer be able to exclude older staff from training courses. In worst-case scenarios, such discrimination could lead to an employment tribunal and the payment of compensation.

The change in the law should also encourage older staff to carry on working to bolster their pension or simply to earn extra income.

Broadly, the major reforms can be broken down as follows:

* It will become an offence to deny a job, promotion or training to anyone on the grounds of their age, whether they are deemed too old or too young.

* The "default" statutory age for retirement will be 65; any company that asks people to leave before this will need a special reason for doing so, such as the job making unreasonable demands on older employees' health.

* You will have the right to ask your company to let you carry on working after 65, although it will have the right to say no.

* Upper, and lower, age limits for redundancy payments will be scrapped. Today, anyone over 65 or under 18 has no right to a statutory minimum redundancy payoff (a sum based on the length of employment and the employee's weekly salary). Unless an employment contract spe-cifically includes redundancy terms, companies can, if they wish, get rid of the under-18s and over-65s without paying a penny. The upper age limit, 65, for unfair dismissalclaims will also be removed

* Companies must write to employees at least six months ahead of their retirement, helping them to plan for their life afterwards.

And that's not all. In five years' time, the Government will review compulsory retirement ages to see whether they need to be scrapped altogether. But, it adds, this will have no bearing on the age at which the basic state pension is paid.

Prejudice based on age and being old is the most common form of discrimination in the workplace, according to Age Concern. Nearly a third (29 per cent) of people interviewed by its researchers said they had experience of it.

The report Ready, Willing and Able, published last week by the TUC, highlighted poor employer practices; it claims one million workers over the age of 50 have been "dumped on the scrap heap".

"[Companies] won't recruit older workers or retain the ones they already employ by investing in training," says Frances O'Grady, deputy general secretary of the TUC.

Jim Fitzpatrick, the Employment minister, has attacked backward-looking companies that rely on what he calls unjustified prejudices. Speaking in June, he said: "Ill-founded concerns that older employees take more time off sick, or are slower, or are more likely to have accidents, mean that we are currently wasting a huge amount of human resource and potential."

Paul Griffin, an employment specialist at the law firm Norton Rose, echoes the Government's fears. "Evidence suggests there's a mindset that older people cannot cope with changes in technology - that they're not going to be with a company for very long [so why bother with training?]"

As a nation, we're getting older fast. Demographic projections from the Office for National Statistics show that nearly a third of the UK workforce will be over the age of 50 by 2020. And while the number of people under 50 is set to fall by 2 per cent by 2016, the number aged between 50 and 69 is set to increase by 17 per cent.

Keen to keep a lid on costly means-tested state pension benefits, the Government would like more workers to carry on earning in later life and save into private pensions. But as the workforce grows older, it's also crucial for productivity that workplaces become free of age-related prejudice.

"From 1 October, somebody can't be earmarked for a round of job cuts simply because they're close to their retirement age," says Mr Griffin. "It'll also have an effect on quips about being long in the tooth or wet behind the ears."

The new law will throw up a number of difficulties for companies. Some people may successfully claim the right to go on working for many years past the age of 65, leading to problems in hiring new staff.

Mr Griffin adds: "It's quite sad that the only way out for an employer is to treat somebody on a discriminatory level of capability [ie, to tell them they aren't up to the job]. This isn't a good way for any member of staff to go."

There could be difficulties, too, when staff who ask to stay on are refused permission by their bosses. If turned down, you can appeal just once to the company involved- and not to an independent arbitrator. Failing twice is the end of the road at that particular employer.

Although under the new rules your employer doesn't have to tell you why you have been refused permission to stay in your job, it's likely that bosses will choose to be open with staff, says Mr Griffin. "Somebody who has worked for years [at a firm] won't just go in and be told no."

The rules are designed to be fair to employers as well as employees, he stresses. For example, if a staff member is close to retirement and new training costs, say, £20,000, then a company could have what the Government calls a "justified objection" to refuse.

However, the legislation is all about making sure such decisions are not made on the basis of cost alone, says Mr Griffin.

Steve Williams, director of the conciliation service Acas, says there could be problems if companies apply lower retirement ages for workers because a job is physically demanding.

"If a 65-year-old can physically perform [his work] task, then that's fine. You need to be judged by your ability, not your age."

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