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Last Updated: Sunday, 30 September 2007, 20:27 GMT 21:27 UK
Ageism - still a grey area?
By Clare Matheson
Business reporter, BBC News

Older person working on computer
The changes have led to more over-65s in the workplace
One year on from the launch of ageism laws - has the UK seen a difference?

There's certainly been an increase in legal action - more than 2,000 tribunal claims have been filed.

And with the legal cost of cases coming in at an average 5,800 a claim, the new laws could prove to be costly.

Meanwhile, companies have also seen an increase in grey-haired staff as the over-65s age group is growing faster than any other in the workplace.

Awareness of the law may have doubled, but firms are still breaking the rules.

Legal concerns

More than quarter of companies believe they are at medium or high risk of a claim - particularly on retirement and recruitment grounds, a survey by legal firm Eversheds found.

Meanwhile, firms are continuing to pay older people more, manage younger workers differently to older ones, and overlook younger staff for promotions irrespective of experience, a study by the Employers' Forum on Age (EFA) found.

And despite nine out of 10 people knowing it is illegal to discriminate on the grounds of age at work, more than half of workers claim to have witnessed ageist behaviour in the workplace over the past year.

"I think it's taken a while for us to see the impact of age laws," says EFA chief executive Sam Mercer.

She adds that figures from the Employment Tribunal Service show ageism cases are now "on a par with racism cases" with 200 being lodged each month.

"All projections showed these laws would be significant and that looks set to come true," Ms Mercer adds.

"The experience in the Netherlands shows that a year after the laws came in there was a five-fold increase in claims."

The new UK rules affected recruitment, training, promotion, redundancy, retirement, pay and pension provision.

Ageing workers

After the law came into force, retirement ages were effectively raised from 60 to 65 - with staff able to apply to stay on at work even longer.

14% of the 150 firms quizzed had received an age related complaint
80% firms say new laws have done little to change stereotypical attitudes to age in the workplace
73% of firms say laws are ineffective in changing age discrimination at work
*Source: Eversheds survey

As a result a total of 1.62 million people above retirement age are now at work - up a sixth on last year, Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures show.

The situation remains a complex one - while staff may want to work beyond the new default retirement age of 65, employers can still force them to retire.

In fact, 10 of the government's 15 departments have chosen to have a mandatory retirement age of 65 - including the Department for Business.

This state of affairs still has sparked concerns among organisations battling for age equality, with Age Concern calling it "an ineffective mask for poor employment practises".

It has also prompted the charity's membership organisation, Heyday, to ask the High Court to seek a preliminary ruling from the European Court of Justice on whether new rules on age discrimination, allowing employers to retire staff forcibly at the age of 65, breach an EU directive.

A decision in the case is due next year.

"Employers are using the new regulations to force people out over 65, knowing they cannot be accused of unlawful discrimination," says Heyday director Ailsa Ogilvie.

No age limit

But when people consider the implications of the new laws, they tend to think about the effect on older workers and forget all about the younger ones.

Paperboy doing paper round
The new laws are not just limited to older people

The British Youth Council is calling on the government to end its "deeply discriminatory" three-tier minimum wage system.

The call comes as minimum wage levels have just increased to 3.40 an hour for 16 and 17-year-olds , 4.60 for 18 to 21-year-olds and 5.52 for those aged 22 and over.

"BYC believes the age-tiered minimum wage system contravenes the spirit, if not the letter of the Employment Discrimination (Age) Regulations 2006," said spokeswoman Jo Field.

"BYC is campaigning for equal pay for equal work, regardless of age, and this is a human rights issue.

"The government needs to take a positive step towards creating cultural change by sending out the clear message that young people have equal 'worth' in the labour market," Ms Field added.

Looking to the future, ageism won't solely be limited to the workplace.

Wider remit

Already charities and organisations including Age Concern are calling for the legislation to be widened to the provision of goods, services and facilities.

The EFA argues that widening the laws will also help many employees to avoid being sidelined when they hit 65.

We think there has been a benefit to having the legislation, there is evidence that things are changing
Sally Brett, TUC

Current insurance costs can make it far too expensive to employ people past the age of 65, and as insurance is viewed as a benefit - which must be available to all - it cannot be relied upon as an "objective justification" for getting rid of workers.

As a result, the EFA claims, many firms are enforcing default retirement ages.

"As there's no goods and services discrimination cover, insurers can charge what they want," says Ms Mercer.

"Companies can't cap their risks and until that is resolved the problem will go on."

The government itself is working to resolve the problem, launching a new "umbrella" body - the Commission for Equality and Human Rights - to tackle all forms of discrimination.

One of its first jobs will be to look at widening ageism legislation.

And 12 months on, there is still plenty of work to do, says the Trade Union Congress.

"We think there has been a benefit to having the legislation, there is evidence that things are changing - there's more awareness, and a willingness to challenge stereotypes and views," says TUC equality policy officer Sally Brett.

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