AGENDA: Why Should the Victims of Ageism Put Up and Shut Up? Two Years Ago This Week, Age Discrimination Became Unlawful in This Country. but Lorna Findlay, Head of the Employment Group at St Philips Chambers, Asks Have the New Rules Already Come of Age?

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Byline: Lorna Findlay

It is two years since age discrimination in the workplace became unlawful in the UK, but it would appear that the laws have done little to change attitudes. If the furore surrounding reports that Selina Scott is set to sue Channel Five News after being allegedly "passed over" in favour of a younger female reporter is anything to go by, it seems that complaints of ageism are seen as laughable in some quarters rather than matters of real concern.

The Scott sensation follows on from last year's storm over whether Moira Stewart, the popular news presenter, had lost a presenting job because she was considered "too old".

Whilst many commentators were sympathetic to Ms Stewart, the general tone of the reaction to Selina Scott's claim was scathing, with the implication being that age discrimination - real or perceived - is not generally seen as a proper subject for complaint here in the UK.

The ever youthful Michael Winner was moved to describe Ms Scott's concerns as "pathetic" and her pursuit of her claim as "nutty".

He went so far as to infer that he did not wish to see "old dears" reading the news anyway, and included the likes of Dame Joan Bakewell and Mariella Frostrup in his list of unreasonable, and, apparently, aged, complainants about the subject.

Libby Purves (dare I say it, no scone of yesterday's baking herself) pondered, writing in The Times on September 3, on the "dangerous inadvisability" of Ms Scott publicly revealing her age (57) and her apparently "litigious" nature.

The unspoken basis of such commentary appears to be that persons finding themselves in the situation in which Ms Scott believes herself to be, really ought to just "put up and shut up" and accept that their time has passed and that job prospects will lessen as they get older.

It hardly suggests that age discrimination in employment, as a concept, is being taken terribly seriously in society as a whole.

Employment tribunal statistics for the period April 2006 to March 2007 showed that only 972 claims of age discrimination were lodged in the first six months after introduction of the law. This falls far short of the rush of claims predicted by responsible organisations such as ACAS prior to the introduction of the Age Discrimination regulations in October 2006.

Yet in a YouGov survey of more than a thousand people, conducted for the employment advice organisation Croners in 2008, more people (11 per cent of the total) said that they believed they suffered from age discrimination in the workplace than from any other kind of unlawful discrimination.

It is worth remembering that age discrimination at work covers not only less favourable treatment of older people but also on the grounds of youth, or of apparent youth or age.

Thus an individual might lose out on a responsible job because she is young (despite having appropriate actual experience or qualifications) or because she appears to be younger than she is.

A man may be made redundant or not offered a job because he is older and may, quite wrongly, be regarded as less energetic or stuck in his ways. In the current economic climate most of us are aware of how serious premature loss of employment, or loss of the opportunity of advancement, can be not just for the individual concerned but for his or her wider family.

Loss of income can lead to loss of a sought after and hard-won home, with a knock on effect on educational and other social opportunities.

The relatively low number of claims currently coming before the employment tribunals may rather be a reflection of the unwillingness, at present, of individuals to put their heads above the parapet and make such claims, (or of lack of awareness of the ability to do so) than the infrequency of this type of discrimination occurring. …