David Prosser: Older workers: the last victims of employers' discrimination

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The Independent Online

What makes older workers different from black, gay or disabled members of staff? The answer is that they are the only group of people against whom it remains perfectly legal for employers to discriminate.

What makes older workers different from black, gay or disabled members of staff? The answer is that they are the only group of people against whom it remains perfectly legal for employers to discriminate.

The Government's launch this week of new laws to close this loophole should therefore have been excellent news. The trouble is that "Opportunity Age - Meeting the Challenges of Ageing in the 21st Century", as the strategy was grandly entitled, comprehensively fails to do what it says on the tin.

Pensions minister Malcolm Wicks boasted at the launch of the new strategy: "It is about allowing people to work longer if they want to and ending the nonsense of good, able workers being thrown on the scrapheap just because of their age."

Unfortunately, the reality does not live up to this hype. All that's happening on age discrimination is that from 2006, employers will have to consider requests from staff who want to go on working beyond the age of 65.

However, under the new laws, employers will still be allowed to get rid of staff over the age of 65 simply on the basis of their age. Older staff will continue to have almost no employment rights - no automatic entitlement to redundancy if they are laid off, for example, and no option to appeal dismissals to industrial tribunals.

What campaigners such as Help the Aged really want is abolition of mandatory retirement ages. Companies should no longer be able to force staff to give up work once they hit a particular age, the charity says.

All this means in practice is that older workers would get the same protections in law as their younger colleagues. Companies would still be able to reduce staff numbers or get rid of workers not up to the job.

But in the case of older employees, they would have to pay redundancy, or prove their work was sub-standard, exactly the same rules as apply to staff under the age of 65.

This isn't just an issue for people who want to work on in the future. Up to a million people over the age of 65 are already in paid employment - none of them has any legal protection from unscrupulous bosses.

The size of this problem is set to double, however. Wicks says the Government wants to get a million more older workers back into employment. And there will be cash rewards on offer: not least, a lump sum of up to £30,000 for those people who choose to delay drawing their state pension by five years.

Ministers are desperate to defuse the demographic timebomb. The Office for National Statistics says that by 2007, there will be more people in Britain over state pension age than aged under 16. The bill for state pensions continues to rise, and private pension providers are in crisis, too.

The solution is for people to work longer. When Britain's retirement ages were set at current levels after the end of the Second World War, workers reaching the age of 65 could expect, on average, to live about four more years. Today, the figure is more like 15.

However, Wicks can't have things all his own way. If he expects people to take on extra responsibilities - to work for longer as part of a solution to the pensions crisis - he must give them extra rights. Above all, older workers deserve the same basic employment protections as everyone else.

* If you're travelling abroad this Easter, think very carefully about how you spend money when overseas. Credit card analyst Moneysupermarket says Britons waste £344m a year on unnecessary charges when using their plastic on holiday.

Two fees in particular catch travellers out. Many credit card companies charge a handling fee of up to 2.75 per cent of the value of all purchases made overseas. In addition, while all credit card issuers charge for cash withdrawals, many plastic providers levy 2 per cent extra for money taken out of foreign ATMs.

Savvy travellers can beat the charges trap by carrying the cheapest possible plastic while abroad. For the record, Moneysupermarket says Nationwide and Lombard Direct are the market leaders.

Water bills soar - but you could pay less

Don't be too pleased about the beginning of spring: better weather may be on its way, but April will also bring some nasty increases in your household bills.

Council tax rises of about 4 per cent were announced this week, but water bills are to rise by almost three times that rate, with the average household in England and Wales set to pay an increase of 11.8 per cent.

The good news is that there is a way for many people to reduce their water bills. Just one in four households currently has a water meter fitted, even though many people would be better off if they only paid for the water they actually consume.

This is because fixed water bills are calculated on the basis of the rateable value of your home. No account is taken of who lives in the house. So, if you use less water than the average property - because you live by yourself, for example - then you may be able to save money by switching to a meter.

Your water company should be able to advise on whether a meter will save you money. Alternatively, you can use an internet site such as Uswitch.com, which provides free calculators to help you work out whether a meter will cut your bills. The company reckons that many households could save £125.

There's nothing to lose. Water companies don't charge to install meters. And if you don't end up saving money after all, you have the right to switch back to fixed bills, as long as you make the request within 12 months.

d.prosser@independent.co.uk

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