Court wants change to retirement law

Campaign for employees to carry on working expects MPs to amend legislation
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The Independent Online

Campaigners fighting to end the mandatory retirement age have pinned their hopes on a Government review of the law after losing a key legal battle in the courts.

The High Court yesterday upheld the law which permits UK employers to force workers to retire at the age of 65. But in his ruling the judge said that there was a compelling case for a change in the compulsory retirement age. The Government has agreed to bring forward its review of the law which many pensioners and age-concern charities believe will lead to an increase in the age of compulsory retirement.

The fate of millions of people who want or need to work beyond the age of 65 now lies directly in the hands of MPs and peers‚ claimed Age Concern and Help the Aged who had brought the legal challenge.

Andrew Harrop‚ head of public policy at Age Concern and Help the Aged, said: "The ruling does not spell the end of our campaign to win justice for older workers – in fact‚ we will be stepping up our fight. Despite the judgment today‚ ministers still have the opportunity ... to give real help to people in their 60s by outlawing forced retirement. They should amend the Equality Bill which is currently making its way through Parliament."

The charity brought the case against the UK Government in summer 2006, arguing that the retirement age was in breach of European Union law.

Employees have the right to request to continue working beyond the date when the employer wants them to retire, but the employer can refuse the request and the law does not require them to give any reason for that decision.

A judgment from the European Court of Justice in March confirmed that the UK Government would have to robustly justify why such a policy was needed.

The charity said it took the case to the High Court because thousands of dedicated and experienced employees are being arbitrarily sacked purely on the basis of age‚ even though they want to work and can prove their competence. This completely undermines and contradicts the Government's aim of encouraging longer working lives.

Joanna Blackburn, head of employment law at Mishcon de Reya, said that the compulsory retirement age of 65 was unlikely to remain for much longer.

"The fact that the High Court has indicated that any attempt to retain the retirement age at 65 beyond that review was unlikely to meet the requirement for the retirement age to be proportionate is likely to be a further spur for change. Retaining the status quo beyond the review is likely to mean that the retirement age would fall foul of the age discrimination laws."

The ruling means that more than 260 cases pending in tribunals are now likely to be dismissed. These pensioners had been seeking compensation for discrimination.

The majority of people retire before 65, but 1.4 million people work beyond state pension age.

Case study: 'I still felt I had plenty to offer'

*Jean Rumbold, 67, refuses to accept that her age should be a barrier to her carrying on working.

After 34 years loyal service as a receptionist at a Southampton doctors' surgery, Mrs Rumbold was told that she would have to give up the job she loved so much. "I was told I could appeal the decision but was only given an extra six months beyond the retirement age," recalls Mrs Rumbold.

In the same week she also found out she would also have to stop running her local Brownie Pack, a voluntary interest she had enjoyed for 32 years.

"It all happened at once and it was as if I had crashed into a brick wall. But I still felt I had plenty to offer and did not want to retire. It seemed stilly to me that all my experience should count for nothing just because I had reached the age of 65.

"The surgery said that their decision had nothing to do with my ability and that they still valued me as a worker."

Mrs Rumbold, who has three grown-up daughters, refused to give up without a fight and was determined to find a way to keep working. A few days after losing her job she signed up with a local employment agency.

"I was given a job with a NHS hostel. My experience did prove to be very useful and I worked very hard building it up. It's a great job and I really enjoy it." But this month Mrs Rumbold was given six months' notice to leave. And just like tens of thousands of other pensioners who are forced to prematurely end their working days, Mrs Rumbold discovered the law was not on her side.

"I'm not ready to stop working, I have so much to offer. The law discriminates against people like me and as a result employers are missing out on a committed and experienced workforce. It's time the government did something to end this discrimination," she said.

Robert Verkaik