POVERTY campaigners are urging older men in the North-East to take up free Government handouts for fuel after thousands missed out last year.

More than 4,500 men last winter failed to claim their winter fuel payments, which are each worth £200.

The payments are made to everyone aged over 60, but only women over 60 and men over 65 receive them automatically.

David Abrahams, the North-East based national director of the Campaign Against Pensioners' Poverty, urged the men to take up the Government's offer.

"People either don't need it or they don't know about it. But the money is there, and it should be taken up."

It came as the Liberal Democrats revealed that 700,000 people failed to claim payments worth up to £98m for the 1997-1999 winters, and 500,000 people missed out on payments worth up to £100m for winter 2000.

Steve Webb, the Liberal Democrat work and pensions spokesman, attacked the Government for failing to ensure everyone over 60 was aware of the hand-out.

"If they can inform women when they're 60 about the payments, why can't they inform men?," he said. "This is a fiasco of the Government's making."

Pensions Minister Ian McCartney said: "The Department for Work and Pensioners does not hold records on men aged 60-64 and so we have to ask individuals to claim."

For further information, contact your local benefits agency, or call the special winter payments helpline on 0845 9151515.