Page last updated at 02:54 GMT, Wednesday, 2 July 2008 03:54 UK

Court fight centres on retirement

By Sue Littlemore
BBC Social Affairs Correspondent

Anna Johns is angry that she has been forced to retire

Employers across the UK could lose the right to make people retire at 65, as a result of a case being heard at the European Court of Justice.

British law, which has also been adopted in Northern Ireland, allows managers to choose to force staff to leave once they are 65 or older.

Campaigners believe any upper age limit on work amounts to discrimination.

The Confederation of British Industries says fixing a compulsory retirement age is an essential management tool.

The case comes before European judges in Luxembourg on Wednesday.

Age Concern, the charity behind the case, is asking: "Is it right to force someone to give up work because of their date of birth?"

It believes not only is it wrong, but against European law, as well.

In 2006, although the British government introduced a law against age discrimination at work, it decided to allow employers the choice of setting a compulsory retirement age of at least 65.

It's not just unfair, it can have a devastating impact on someone's income for the whole of their retirement
Andrew Harrop, Age Concern

Behind the legal arguments are the stories of hundreds of people in their 60s and 70s who feel angry, unfairly treated and poorer since they were forced to retire.

They include 260 people in England, Wales and Scotland who took claims of age discrimination to employment tribunals and whose cases will not be resolved before the outcome of this case.

Anna Johns, aged 72, is one of those whose claim is on hold.

She had to retire from her job with a newspaper distributors in Southampton before she felt ready to.

She reluctantly left when she was 65, but was re-employed a year later. However, she was finally forced into retirement aged 70.

'Waste and insult'

In her role in customer services, Anna worked from 5.30am to 9.00am dealing with queries and complaints from the firm's clients.

She told the BBC that she felt the decision to force her to give up was outrageous.

"I was very angry. I was good at my job. I loved it. I thought, how dare they tell me I must retire."

Age Concern believes Anna is among many older people watching and waiting for the outcome of this case with keen interest.

Andrew Harrop, head of policy at Age Concern England, said: "Forcing talented people to retire at 65 is a terrible waste for employers and an insult to older workers.

"Since we began this case we've heard from hundreds of people who have been forced to retire against their will.

Employers need to plan workforce accession and to be able to retire employees with dignity

Confederation of British Industry

"It's not just unfair, it can have a devastating impact on someone's income for the whole of their retirement."

The charity estimates that two-thirds of UK employers no longer operate a fixed retirement age and 1.2m people are carrying on work beyond the normal retirement ages of 60 and 65. According to Age Concern, they are the fastest growing group of workers in the UK.

Some managers will mind if they lose the right to set an age limit altogether. Others would not be so relaxed.

Right to postponement

A spokesman for the Confederation of British Industry told the BBC: "The CBI believes that the normal retirement age of 65 is an essential management tool and must be retained.

"Employers need to plan workforce accession and to be able to retire employees with dignity."

The CBI also believes that a rule which means employees can ask to work beyond a fixed retirement age has been successful.

"There is a right to request postponement of retirement and employers have a duty to seriously consider requests - the right is operating very well.

"Around one in five employees have made a request since the rules were implemented in October 2006 and almost three quarters of those requests have been accepted."

However, campaigners argue these rules are not particularly binding on employers and allow bosses plenty of room to go through the motions and then simply insist a member of staff must retire.

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