Ask the panel

March 17, 2006

Worried about your employment, maternity, pension rights? Send your questions to The Times Higher advice panel.

I am approaching 65, which means obligatory retirement at my university. Because of prudent additional voluntary contributions I have made, my Universities Superannuation Scheme will be paid up before then. But this year the Government has to legislate to implement the European Union Working Age Directive, which would make it illegal to force people to retire because they are 65 or 60. Can those in my position refuse to go? If we can stay on, can we continue to contribute to the USS? And why has the Association of University Teachers remained silent about this human rights issue?

* It seems only fair to let our AUT panellist respond first.

She says: "Legislation to outlaw age discrimination will come into force on October 1, 2006. The regulations have just been published and will be laid before Parliament. They differ little from earlier draft regulations."

The AUT's response to the final government consultation on the draft regulations is available at http://.aut.org.uk/media/pdf/1/k/comingofage_submission.p... The panellist says: "The AUT is extremely concerned about weaknesses in the draft regulations, including several exemptions and the fact that it will still potentially be lawful to directly discriminate on the basis of age if this can be objectively justified.

"The draft regulations introduce a default retirement age of 65. Dismissal by reason of retirement at or above age 65 will not be deemed to be age discrimination. The regulations also introduce a 'duty to consider'

procedure. Your employer must write to you not more than twelve months and not less than six months before the intended date of retirement and tell you of your right to request to work beyond this date. If you make the request, a meeting must be held to discuss it. If your employer refuses, an appeal meeting must be held. However, employers are not obliged to give reasons for refusal.

"The draft regulations also exempt most age-related rules and practices in occupational pension schemes. But the rules of the USS are being amended with effect from April 6 so that a scheme member can accrue more than 40 years' service. Where a member has contributed additional voluntary contributions and achieves 40 years' pensionable service before 65, employer and employee should continue to contribute. Once 40 years' service has been achieved, employers can opt not to pay further. Employees, however, can continue to pay."

* Natfhe 's panellist says: "Employers must consider your request to work beyond 65, but the right is very weak, because they do not have to give a reason if they refuse. The right of appeal does not even specify to a higher authority.

"The only grounds on which employers can be taken to court is if they have not followed procedure."

* Our panellist from the Equality Challenge Unit says: "We do not know exactly when this reader will be 65, so it is worth noting that employers cannot be penalised for decisions made prior to October 1, 2006, that could have been discriminatory if regulations had been in force. The Department of Trade and Industry published the final regulations and accompanying notes on March 9, including guidance on transitional arrangements for staff who are due to retire/be retired shortly after October 1, 2006."

She recommends the ECU's Briefing Paper 2 on the draft regulations for information.

* Our Universities and Colleges Employers' Association panellist says: "The Government's current proposals would mean that employers can still have different retirement ages.

"If this is under the age of 65, they will need to have objective reasons to justify it. If it is age 65 or more, the employee would inform the employer, six months in advance, of the right to request working longer and hold a meeting to discuss the request. If this is turned down, the employee can appeal."

This advice panel includes the Association of University Teachers, Natfhe, the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association, Research Councils UK, the Equality Challenge Unit and Rachel Flecker, an academic who sits on Bristol University's contract research working party.

Send questions to advicepanel@thes.co.uk

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