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Men to get free prescriptions at 60

Equal rights: Ministers forced to comply with European directive after pensioner's two-year legal struggle

Legal Affairs Correspondent

The Government bowed to a European Court equal rights ruling yesterday by giving free prescriptions to men at 60 - the same age as for women - at a cost of pounds 40m a year.

Ministers had the choice of raising women's age of entitlement to 65, but decided not to risk the electoral unpopularity.

Gerry Malone, the Health Minister, told the Commons he was complying completely with yesterday's ruling; there would be a further pounds 10m to pay claims retrospectively over the last three months. Men can apply for their free prescriptions and refunds from today.

According to the Equal Opportunities Commission, the state retirement age is now academic for many people; half of men are not in full employment when they reach 65.

The judgment upheld a 1979 European directive on sex equality, and fuelled Tory Euro-sceptics' fury over what they see as unnecessary interference in Britain's right to set its own laws.

Tony Marlow, MP for Northampton North, called the decision an outrage: "I am not aware that a decision was ever made by the British people that a decision on who should or should not get free prescriptions should be made by a bunch of foreign judges."

Yesterday's ruling was a personal victory for Cyril Richardson, 66, a former college lecturer from Walsall, who took the Government to court.

Mr Richardson said he was angry that he had to wait five years longer than his wife, Evyleen, for free prescriptions. "It seemed to me a terrible injustice and I am delighted that it has been put right," he said.

Mr Richardson, who suffers from asthma, spends pounds 50 a year on prescriptions, which currently cost pounds 5.25 each.

The Government had already made provision to equalise the retirement age at 65 for both men and women between 2010 and 2020, and the prescription age will go up at the same time.

The directive gave states the discretion to delay equal state pensions, but the EU court ruled yesterday that the equal provision of prescriptions could not be similarly exempted, because it was not "inextricably linked" to the pension age. Since the directive came into force 10 years ago, men have had to pay the prescription charge until they are 65.

The Government had contested Mr Richardson's case from the start, arguing that the British prescription charges system was not covered by the European directive.

It had never disputed that the national rules amounted to sex discrimination.