June 14, 2008

Age Discrimination is Alive and Well and Living in the UK

By Jeff Salway

IF AN election were held this week, personal finance would be at or near the top of the agenda. The recent local elections in England and Wales proved as much, with consensus that the scrapping of the 10p tax band was the stick used most frequently to batter Labour campaigners on the doorsteps.

There's little chance of an election before 2010, but money matters will be at the heart of the debate then too, when the declining standard of living endured by many pensioners in the UK will surely become a greater subject of debate.

In the past two weeks, we have learned that over 300,000 more elderly people have fallen below the poverty line in the past year; around two million pensioners rely on their children for financial support; and that the average Scottish worker is set to retire with a weekly income of just GBP 169, just over a third of national average earnings.

That's just a random selection and I could fill this column with statistics illustrating a retirement crisis that will only get worse.

There are so many measures that could improve the chances of those facing retirement doing so without falling into poverty. One concerns the right of employees to continue working after retirement age.

When new legislation was introduced in October 2006 making it unlawful for employers to discriminate against workers on the basis of age, campaigners hoped it would lower the barriers against working beyond state pension age.

But while the regulations prohibit age discrimination in most workplace situations, there are a number of exceptions where discrimination is still lawful, and people over the mandatory retirement age can still be refused employment or forced to retire. According to the Heyday charity, part of Age Concern, this means the government effectively allows companies to sack employees at retirement age.

Next month Heyday will dispute the UK legal retirement age of 65 at the European Court of Justice, as it claims that, in imposing a mandatory retirement age, the government is in breach of EU equal treatment directives.

Whether you want to work past retirement age or not - and record numbers do - is not necessarily the point. Retirement provision is such that many people can't afford to retire anyway. Given a choice between work and living in poverty, a large proportion of people would choose work.

When my mother reached retirement age in early 2006, she was refused permission by her employer to continue working. So while she enjoys the extra time she has on her hands, her quality of life has noticeably dipped because the income on which she lives is meagre. Given the chance to work again she would jump at it, not necessarily because she wants to work, but because she needs to. Unfortunately, few organisations take on people past retirement age, regardless of what they can offer.

A cultural shift is needed before companies stop discarding valuable and capable workers because of their age. As with other discrimination battles, however, this needs to be lead by a change in law.

ON A more lighthearted note, if you're hitching a caravan to your car before embarking on your summer hols, you can feel grateful you don't live in England's midlands. Research from AA Caravan Insurance revealed this week that 4,000 caravans "vanish" every year, although stolen would be a more accurate term, with the majority taken from driveways and motorway service stations. But the area bordered by Leicester, Coventry, Birmingham and Nottingham form a "Caravan Bermuda Triangle", said the AA, with 10 per cent more caravans taken than anywhere else. So, don't say you haven't been warned - you might have to cross Coventry off your holiday wish list this year.

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