Lesbian rail worker loses sex-bias case

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GAY RIGHTS campaigners suffered a major legal setback yesterday when the European Court rejected a lesbian couple's claim for equal rights in the workplace.

Railway worker Lisa Grant and her partner Jill Percey who travelled to Luxembourg anticipating a landmark victory for gay couples, left after the 15-minute sitting, defeated and deeply despondent.

But the ruling which the women described as "scandalous" came as an immense relief to the Government and employers. A decision in the couple's favour would have had huge ramifications for employment law, pensions and social security contributions. It would in effect have paved the way for equal recognition for gay couples under employment law.

Ms Grant brought her employer, South West Trains Ltd, to an industrial tribunal in Southampton after the company refused to extend travel rights to Ms Percey, her live-in partner. Such concessions are automatically granted to the spouses or opposite sex partners of company workers and Ms Grant' male predecessor had been given travel perks for his female partner even though he was not married to her.

But the Luxembourg court, asked by the tribunal for an interpretation of EU law in the matter, said that the case did not involve sex discrimination, which is outlawed by the EU treaty. Rather it involved discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, which is not.

Cherie Booth QC, who represented Ms Grant when the case was heard last year, argued that the train company's policy of denying travel passes to the partner in a same-sex couple was in breach of the equal pay principle enshrined in Article 119 of the EU treaty.

Travel benefits, considered part of the pay package, are granted to a man living with a woman but not a woman living with a woman. The denial of pounds 1000-worth of annual tickets on the basis of Ms Grant's partner's sex was therefore a violation of the equal pay principle, Ms Booth said.

But the court found that the company's policy would also deny travel passes to a man living with one of its male employees. "The rule could not therefore be taken as discrimination based directly on sex, since it applies in the same way to female and male workers," the court said. The ban on sex discrimination was interpreted to require equal treatment for men and women but could not be stretched beyond that.

The ruling will affect the outcome of other cases. Terry Perkins, sacked from the Navy in 1995 for being gay, is waiting for a date for the hearing of his case by the European Court in Luxembourg, but now may stand little chance of success.

One glimmer of hope for homosexuals rests in the judges' reference to the new Amsterdam Treaty which is being ratified and will eventually replace the current treaty. It contains an anti-discrimination clause which covers sexual orientation. But its weakness, as far as campaigners are concerned, is that it confers no direct rights on individuals. New EU legislation would have to be enacted to do this.