Equal rights for men at the chemist's

Clare Jenkins

Clare Jenkins reports on a retired lecturer's campaign to halt unfair discrimination against male pensioners.

By the end of this month, retired lecturer Cyril Richardson should know if he's won a ground-breaking victory, not just for himself, but for all men approaching retirement age: the right to free medical prescriptions from the age of 60. It is a campaign he has been waging for three years.

It all began when he was 62. Suffering from asthma he accompanied his then 60-year-old wife to the chemist and discovered that while she had become entitled to free prescriptions he still had to pay Pounds 4.75 each time he renewed his nasal sprays and inhaler.

Other men might have just shrugged their shoulders and thought; "Roll on 65." But not Cyril. The former accountancy and business lecturer at Sandwell College in the West Midlands - and town crier for Walsall - is no stranger to causes. "I'm a bit of a Don Quixote," he says. "I dislike injustices."

Ever since taking early retirement seven years ago, he has been an active member of the Campaign for Equal State Pension Ages (CESPA), the non-party political organisation founded in 1986 to promote the equal treatment of men and women - and "to keep the Government on its toes". CESPA's main campaign is for equal state pension ages. But it also fights other smaller anomalies in the rules governing social security benefits - and has even challenged swimming bath charges. Two years ago, following a successful case in the south of England which ended up in the House of Lords, Cyril persuaded Walsall council to abolish swimming bath charges for men over the age of 60.

Now, with the backing of the 1,000-member CESPA, the Association of Retired Persons Over 50 and Help the Aged, he is championing the fight for equal prescription charges. He contends that the Government has unfairly discriminated against men for more than 20 years (since the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act) by offering women free prescriptions from the age of 60, but only allowing them to men from the age of 65. Cyril claims the Government is thereby breaching European directive 777 which lays down equal treatment of the sexes in social security matters.

A ruling by the Luxembourg court two years ago decided that discrimination was lawful only if the benefit was "necessarily and objectively" tied to the difference in pension ages. Cyril argues that it is not.

This case, which so far has cost Pounds 5,000 with another Pounds 5,000 bill to come, was heard last year by the High Court in London and was referred to the European Court in Luxembourg.

Last July the court's Advocate General favoured Cyril's claim. In his view, prescription charges do fall within the scope of the social security directive, and free prescriptions do not need to be linked to the age of retirement. The court is not bound by what the Attorney General says but, according to CESPA, past experience suggests that nine out of 10 judgments follow the preliminary opinion.

"The prognosis is good," says Cyril. If the court rules in his favour, the Government will probably have to equalise free prescriptions at the age of 60 rather than 65. And the ruling could be made retrospective. The Government reckons this will cost it Pounds 30 million a year. However CESPA disputes that figure. The TUC research department puts the cost at Pounds 15m, explains Cyril, an accountant who spent 25 years in FE.

"It's nonsense to have a Sex Discrimination Act, but then put through legislation that discriminates," he adds. "In his Budget speech of 1993, Kenneth Clarke said women can wait until they're 65 to retire but that this won't come into effect until 2010. Why are they messing about with our state pension ages? Why are they putting it up rather than bringing it down? Why not change it to 63? That wouldn't cost anything. Or why not offer a choice over a 10-year period? So people can retire at 60 or, if they prefer, at any time up to 70. The Government thinks that's too difficult to achieve. Yet most of the insurance companies in the world do that sort of thing."

CESPA's advice to men aged 60 to 65 is to keep prescription receipts to ensure they can claim if Cyril's case is successful. Further details about CESPA from 27 Alderley Road, Winnington, Northwich, Cheshire CW3 4BS.

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