Winter fuel cash cheats men, says court chief

A RETIRED man aged 64 won the latest round yesterday in his legal battle to show that the Government's winter fuel payments to pensioners discriminate against men.

John Taylor took his case to the European Court of Justice, claiming that for men to wait until they are 65 before receiving the payments is unfair. Women are eligible from 60, a clear breach of European Union equality laws, he said.

Yesterday the Advocate General of the court said he believed the rules were covered by the laws. If the judges follow his opinion, which they usually do, the Government will be forced to reconsider the basis for allowing an age difference in the handout of winter fuel payments. Such a change in practice could benefit up to 800,000 men.

The key issue is whether pegging payments to differing pensionable ages of men and women in the United Kingdom is legal under the EU Treaty. European equality law bans discrimination, but previous cases have ruled that different retirement ages for men and women are not covered by EU regulations.

Mr Taylor, a former postman from Malton, North Yorkshire, went to court over the pounds 20 winter fuel payment introduced in 1998 for anyone on a state pension, and on the same basis - in other words men at 65 but women at 60. The Government suggested referring the case to Luxembourg after Mr Taylor's complaint was heard by the High Court last October.

Mr Taylor said: "I am one of 1.2 million men aged between 60 and 65 in the UK, the majority of whom are unemployed and, but for their age, would receive state pensions, winter fuel payments and travel concessions." He added: "I'm amazed at this discrimination, especially since the Government has recently signed the Amsterdam Treaty."

Philip Leach, legal director of the campaign group Liberty, who is backing Mr Taylor, said the payment rules were "obviously unfair". Mr Taylor pays pounds 500 a year for his three- bedroom house with gas central heating, shared with his wife, Ann. Liberty said it believed the rules were contrary to an EU directive on the "progressive implementation" of equal treatment for men and women in areas of social security.

David Lindsay, the legal adviser of Parity, the campaign for an equal retirement age, said: "This is part of an on-going campaign which will also involves bus pass entitlement and other issues, and we hope it will eventually culminate in equal treatment regarding the state pension age."

A spokeswoman for the charity Help the Aged said: "Twenty thousand people die of cold-related illnesses every year and the cold doesn't discriminate between those who are over 60 and those over 65. We fully support this battle."

The Department of Social Security said: "It would be inappropriate to say anything further until the judges of the European Court give their ruling on the case."

The Government's winter fuel payments to pensioners total pounds 200m a year. Lowering the age for men would add pounds 20m.