Age shall not wither their job chances

The UK's new law on discrimination against young and old has come into force at last
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The Independent Online

There have been regulations in place to prevent both racial and gender discrimination in the workplace for 30 years. Only on Sunday, however, has legislation been introduced to tackle age discrimination - which the TUC and unaffiliated trade unions say is the most widespread form of all workplace prejudices.

Many employers aren't prepared, according to the Recruitment and Employment Confederation (REC), the recruitment industry's trade body. The REC's online survey of its members, conducted before the legislation came into force, found that 76 per cent of them had not been consulted for guidance on the new law by their clients, while 79 per cent said that the employers were aware of the new law but had taken no action thus far to deal with the changes, and 66 per cent said they had recently been asked by clients to discriminate on age grounds.

The new legislation outlaws age discrimination across all areas of employment and training, including entry to further and higher education. It also introduces a national default retirement age of 65, meaning forced retirement before that age is unlawful unless it can be "objectively justified" - by the armed forces, for example, who could reasonably argue that a 65-year-old wouldn't be cut out for the front line; or a casting director.

"There's a huge amount of information out there about the new laws, but our survey showed that, while there's a lot of awareness, many companies still haven't done anything about it," says Tom Hadley, the director of external relations for the REC. "A lot of people think the changes are very cosmetic - just changing the wording of job advertisements - but you actually need to dig quite deep across the whole recruitment process. Individuals may end up, in this case, being more aware of their rights than companies."

The UK has been dragging its heels on age-discrimination legislation since the EU directive making it compulsory was issued in 2000. The year 2006 was then given as the last possible date to introduce the new laws. Ireland introduced similar legislation as long ago as 1998; today 19 per cent of all the country's employment lawsuits are on the grounds of age.

The changes also have negative implications for employees, argues Roger Kline, the head of equality and employment rights for the University and College Union (UCU). Kline is not satisfied with the new regulations. "The Government has done as little as possible as late as possible," he says.

"One of the major problems with the legislation is the extent to which people have the right to work after the age of 65. Many people these days are still paying off mortgages at that age. In universities, especially, this is going to be a problem. Many of the greatest intellectual breakthroughs of past decades have been made by academics older than 65. The issue of choice is very important to us, but we anticipate most people who want to work after 65 not being allowed to."

Should an employee wish to work after they reach this default retirement age, the new rules stipulate that their employers must agree to a meeting to discuss the possibility, but should they refuse to continue employing the individual following both the first meeting and an appeal, they are exempt from further action and need give no more reason.

Heyday, the campaign wing of Age Concern, is demanding a judicial review of this aspect of the legislation, and it maintains that it doesn't meet the requirements of the original EU directive. A survey of more than 60,000 baby boomers, conducted by Age Concern, found that 80 per cent thought there should be no forced retirement, and 65 per cent plan to work beyond the state pension age.

"The Government is giving conflicting messages," says Kline. "They've been telling us we'll have to work longer because pensions aren't as secure, and yet with these new laws they're making it harder to do so."

Tom Hadley thinks the new legislation presents more of an opportunity than companies have given it credit for. "Employers should embrace this new legislation," he says.

"It's to their advantage: the labour market is tight, and this widens the pool of possible employees. They should be asking themselves, for instance: 'Does somebody really need five years' experience to do this particular job?' I think it will galvanise the debate on recruitment."