Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: At last, we oldies can assert our rights

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New Labour spinners, as is well known, are good at keeping back bad news on their government's failures. What they are even more skilled at is concealing their progressive policies, so that Middle England is kept content. Middle England - New Labour assumes - believes that equality laws are a backdoor route to communism or mean stealthy integration into the dratted European Union. Which is why one of the most transformative pieces of legislation ever was slipped through last week by Alistair (Dalek) Darling, the uniquely turgid Secretary of State for Trade and Industry.

Poor Sarah Montague had stay awake and deal politely with his interminable drone on the Today Programme. The sharp presenter tried to inject some sparkle but some things are not humanly possible. We were not gripped, nor stirred - and we should have been, even Middle England, which has more than its fair share of grey people - by the fact that age discrimination is now prohibited by law. And we have the EU to thank for this. Detractors have long claimed such laws unfairly privilege women, blacks and the disabled. Now every one is a potential beneficiary because age affects us all.

The Employment Equality (Age) Regulations now make it illegal for employers to directly discriminate against people for reasons of age, and outlaw procedures that could indirectly exclude from a workplace people of particular ages. An example: a fashion company using health and fitness tests on potential employees as part of their selection procedures would have to demonstrate certain levels of fitness are essential for the job. Otherwise they would illegally be excluding older people.

All workers, including part timers and contract staff, are covered. And there is scope for what is called "objective justification" - genuine and rational reasons for age discrimination. A gym cannot discriminate to keep out workers in the reception area who are not muscular, 23-year-olds, but could argue that a personal circuit trainer has to be young. An 18-year-old can be discriminated against if applying for a post that requires sound experience. So far, so excellent.

And there is more to gladden one side and madden the other. In the workplace, individuals may not be harassed and intimidated because of their age. So no more sniggers about balding gents and drooping breasts, if you please. And let puppyish commentators think again before saying Ming is too old to lead the Lib Dems and that the House of Lords is a restive graveyard.

This new regulation gives us oldies RESPECT and we never shot at anyone to get it. It also recognises the rights of the young to be movers and shakers to break through the barriers of envy. When Lucy Tate, 19-year-old law student, became the country's youngest magistrate recently, the old Tory brigade raised the usual chorus of disdain mingled with resentment. Some such codgers sit on employment tribunals. It will be interesting to see how they deal with the young and bright and fit and white taking on employers who discriminate against their vitality and abilities.

Other usual suspects have come out yet again to object at what they see as the trampling of their right to exclude employees on grounds of poisonous prejudices. The law firm Eversheds carried out research with 150 companies which found that most thought the age discrimination law confusing and "oppressive". They say it is too restrictive and will damage businesses. They whinge and whinge. And so they did in the 1960's, the 1970's, and all the decades since.

I am so old that I recall the cacophonous complaints that followed the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act and the 1976 Race Relations Act (30 years old this year) from businesses - and they were exactly the same, except then they had the grace not to describe the laws as "oppressive". Their friends in Westminster, including Mrs Thatcher, tried to scupper the 1976 Bill and were defeated by a coalition of Labour, Liberals and enlightened Tories all magicked together by the esteemed Roy Jenkins. The skies didn't fall in then, as race and gender equality pushed into British institutions and companies. But there they were again, the little-and-large capitalists, when the anti-discrimination laws and regulations arrived to protect disabled citizens.

I accept that small companies do find equality requirements take up too much time and reduce small profit margins. There should be some exemptions or adaptations made to reduce punitive impacts of legislation on such businesses. However, the CBI and other fat-cat collectives want nothing at all to check their practices, even when the economy is buoyant yielding untold wealth for shareholders and CEOs.

Age discrimination cases will now set precedents, and in time change our ageist culture so that we will not be forced to apologise for still being alive at 55 and expect to be working, laughing, dancing and making love. Recently I bumped into an infamous Tory lothario at the BBC Daily Politics studio. I teasingly asked him why he had never attempted to seduce me - an attractive, sensual woman. I am in truth a committed monogamist but that doesn't mean I shouldn't be invited to be naughty.

He was outraged, more I think by my age than my gall. Helen Mirren and Meryl Streep's ageless appeal remains as exceptional as shooting stars in a winter sky. For we women, increasing age diminishes our physical appeal, an added insult to the injurious presumptions that the over fifties in general are useless dullards, incapable, unimaginative and a drain on any cool company. Just ask any female TV reporter or newsreader. A woman looking exactly like Alan Sugar would never get on to our screens to display brilliant belligerence.

Men growing old have their own particular nightmares. They find it harder to accept the ageing process. It can dissipate their sense of self, their masculinity which depends on work and peak sexual function.

Men and women, for generations, have been accustomed to the idea of a particular age of retirement, and that too must go now that we have the new laws. Many of us have no desire to put up our feet and retire to the country or wear beige cardigans. If God grants us good health we intend to carry on working until the end.

By the year 2015, only 17 per cent of the labour market will be aged from 16-24. Employers will have to suck up to us. The best among them will attract the best oldies and Young Turks. The successful companies will be those that properly understand and implement anti-discriminatory policies. The future looks good. Time to celebrate. Now where are my five-inch heels?

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

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