Grocery retailers are shining in areas where the government is failing, says Simon Howard

On the whole, I am a mild-mannered man. Tolerance is perhaps my biggest virtue - closely followed by modesty. However, the increasing burden of employment legislation that government is forcing on private sector employers is beginning to really rile me.

I read a quote last week from a training and development adviser at the Defence Procurement Agency. Supporting his view that more employment legislation would be a ‘good thing’, he said that it “will help give companies a broader viewpoint.

“It will open them up to different responsibilities and show them that they need to celebrate diversity. That will certainly help them to be more competitive”.

Excuse me, who’s he to talk? Setting to one side the fact that defence procurement has been responsible for some of the most spectacular cost over-runs and squandered billions of taxpayers money, we’ll take his words at face value; representing as they do, a commonly held view of the legislation lobbyists.

For a start, ask yourself as a retailer whether you need the force of law to ‘open up your views and become a more diverse employer’ - or better still, ‘more competitive’?

Well, let’s take the most significant piece of legislation currently in the pipeline - age discrimination - and see how the government, as an employer, is faring against retailers.

The law will fully come into force in 2006 and in the government’s own words will eliminate age discrimination which “happens because assumptions are made about employees - young and old - that are based on inaccurate, outdated, and inappropriate stereotypes”. And this legislation will “result in increased participation for older and younger workers…leading to a wider pool of workers”.

Ah, ha? Well as someone who does not live on the Planet Zog, I happen to believe that retailers are a shining example of encouraging participation of older and younger workers as well as tackling the thorny issue of retirement age. In fact, I can’t see a single benefit that legislation will bring to the sector.

But it’s the hypocrisy of the government that really sticks in my throat. If you want to look for one sector which amply displays “assumptions based on inaccurate, outdated, and inappropriate stereotypes”, it’s the government’s own back yard.

For a start, the civil servant who carefully crafted those words will have a ridiculously early retirement age and can look forward to an index-linked pension - as can many of the uniformed services (perhaps most notoriously the firemen who can retire in their early 40s).

Or how about older people trying to join the government employ? Education is crying out for teachers, but the barriers placed in the way of older applicants are legion - not least, the pitifully small allowances paid while in training.

Our prisons are crying out for good management - but there is no entry scheme for older experienced managers.

In fact, it’s difficult to find any single area where the government (in all its forms) has anything to teach the retailers - quite the reverse.

However, the deeper problem I have with age discrimination is the whole premise that legislation is the answer.

As you can see on the left here, I’m neither young nor old (no need to comment) although I was once young and will soon be old. I am also white and male. However, I will be white and male my whole life, but I will always be a different age.

Unlike race or sex, age discrimination is trying to hit a moving target. Throughout my 25-year career I could have argued at any point that my age may have positively or negatively influenced my progress (or decline).

It’s quite right to get rid of unjustified age barriers, but to try and throw a legal blanket over the whole issue can only mean more money for the lawyers and more wasted time at tribunals.

Of course, what would make the whole thing easier to swallow would be if nanny put her own house in order before hectoring others to do so. But hey, nanny knows best, and that’s the end of it.

n Simon Howard is a founder of Work Communications and writes the Jobfile column for the Sunday Times.