Age prejudice `costs Britain pounds 26bn a year'

Employment rights: Four million older workers are out of jobs, and the skills of millions more are under-used
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WORKERS WHO find themselves discriminated against because of their age may soon be able to take their grievance to industrial tribunals.

As the Government launched its code of practice against age discrimination yesterday, a report by the Employers' Forum on Age claimed that the practice cost the economy pounds 26bn a year. In eight years, it is estimated, one- quarter of the working population will be over 50 but while there are now 9.3 million people in Britain aged 50-64, 3.7 million of them are not working.

The draft code, which businesses will be asked to follow from next year, covers recruitment, retirement and promotion, and urges employers to treat staff according to ability, not age. The Employment minister, Andrew Smith, said he would consult the heads of industrial tribunals over the possibility of age-related cases being heard.

But charities for older people said that the new code of practice was "unimpressive" and signalled a retreat by the Government from legislation.

Mr Smith said legislation had not been ruled out but he warned that it would be complicated. Other countries, such as the United States, New Zealand and France, had run into problems.

"The code is a big step forward in tackling age discrimination because it will establish new standards," he said. "Customers and workers will have a basis to complain to a company and to the wider forum of public opinion. The more widely the code is accepted, the more appropriate it will be for industrial tribunals to take account of it."

The new code urges companies not to use age limits or phrases such as "young graduates" in job advertisements, to use interviewing panels of mixed age and to promote staff on merit, irrespective of age.

The charity Age Concern welcomed the code as an important first step, but added that only legislation would get rid of ageism. "With a recession predicted next year, even more older people will be in fear of losing their jobs and never working again. These people need to know that the law is on their side," Age Concern's director-general, Sally Greengross, said.

Mervyn Kohler, head of public affairs at Help the Aged, said the move would contribute to consultation as it was "the only show in town. But we have real worries about the code and feel it is a very unimpressive start." he said. "We need proper laws to tackle discrimination."

Debra Allcock, of the Industrial Society, said that voluntary codes usually worked better than legislation in the long run because people were more likely to respond well to them. But, she added: "What legislation can do is get people thinking about the issue, as was the case over equal opportunities."

She said the priority for the Government should be to push education to make people aware that ageism was unacceptable.

Helen Garner, campaigns director for the Employers' Forum on Age, said the code was a start. "But I think it will need strong support from the Government to work," she said. "They need to put funds into monitoring it and making sure all their departments and policies reflect the code."