Plans by the Government to outlaw age discrimination provoked a furious response yesterday from trade unions, charities and MPs attacking suggestions that employees could be forced to work to 70.
Business also criticised the proposals, predicting that they would lead to an avalanche of industrial tribunals and legal cases from older workers.
The long-awaited consultation paper on tackling ageism in the workplace was hailed by Patricia Hewitt, the Trade and Industry Secretary, as a huge step forward.
Ms Hewitt said that the paper, Equality and Diversity: Age Matters, would tackle the "last bastion" of lawful unfair discrimination. "We must challenge the ageist assumption that younger employees make the best workers. It is a sad fact that thousands of people in their 40s and 50s who have been made redundant never work again," she said.
"It is vital that we widen the pool of workers so that employers can make the most of the full range of talent and skills available."
Under the plans, workers would be able to claim unfair dismissal for discrimination on the ground of their age, and firms would not be allowed to set age limits in job adverts or prevent staff going on training courses if they believed they were too old.
The plans are designed to meet an EU directive banning discrimination by 2006 and anti-ageism groups did welcome many of the suggestions.
But critics seized on the most controversial element in the document, which would create a "default" retirement age of 70, with groups from Age Concern to the TUC highly critical of the idea. They complained that the proposals would not solve the country's pensions crisis, could undermine occupational pensions and compel more people to work into their late 60s.
Bob Crow, general secretary of the Rail Maritime and Transport union, said the Government should be encouraging people to retire earlier. "We are all for an end to age discrimination, but we don't want to see people forced to work until they are 70. This could undermine occupational pension arrangements, which could lead to people working until they were 70, even if they don't want to," he said.
Derek Simpson, joint general secretary of Amicus, said: "Working longer is not the answer. There has to be compulsion on employers to protect pensions." Brendan Barber, the TUC general secretary, said the proposals should help to change attitudes, but he added: "The proposed regulations must not be used as an excuse to delay or downgrade entitlement to pensions and put pressure on people to work for longer against their wishes."
John Cridland, deputy director general of the CBI, said age discrimination was difficult to define and he warned there was a risk of an "explosion" of employment tribunals.
"Employers need to be clear, whether at recruitment or retirement, that they can take common sense decisions that are inside the law," he said. David Yeandle, deputy director of employment policy at the Engineering Employers Federation, stressed that legislation should not be seen as a "panacea" to the pensions crisis.
Gordon Lishman, director general of Age Concern, England, said: "Introducing a compulsory retirement age of 70 would do little to stamp out age discrimination and still make it acceptable for age to be used as the arbiter of workplace rights."
Dave Prentis, Unison general secretary, said: "The pressure for change should come from employees who want to continue working because of increased job satisfaction, not because the rules of the pension scheme force them to stay."Reuse content