Women win equal pay fight against city council

Thu, Oct 25, 2012, 01:00

NEARLY 200 women have won one of the most significant court battles over equal pay for 40 years, following a Supreme Court victory in London yesterday over Birmingham City Council. The women were seeking bonuses that were given to male council employees but not to them.

During the hearing, the judges heard that men and women working for the local authority received the same basic pay, but men employed as binmen, road-sweepers, street-cleaners and gravediggers could almost double their pay by qualifying for bonuses.

Five years ago, Birmingham City Council paid major compensation to serving female staff including women who worked as cooks, cleaners and care assistants. But the council argued that former employees had to appeal to an employment tribunal within six months of leaving.

However, former employees persuaded judges that they could bring claims in civil courts, where there is a six-year limit.

Birmingham City Council has spent hundreds of thousands of pounds in legal fees fighting the action taken by 174 former staff, but it lost at the High Court in 2010, at the Court of Appeal late last year and now before the Supreme Court.

The significance of the case is illustrated by the fact the women won their action before the Court of Appeal in London late last year, only for the local authority to take it to the Supreme Court for a final decision.

Five Supreme Court justices, by a three-to-two majority, ruled that compensation claims by the women can now be taken to courts for losses suffered after 2004, because their legal claims were first lodged in 2010.

The women’s solicitors, Leigh Day Co, said the decision to extend the time for equal pay claims to be lodged from six months to six years is “the biggest change to equal pay legislation since it was introduced in 1970”.

Yesterday’s result has implications for local authorities throughout England and Wales since male-dominated jobs traditionally were given bonuses, while female-dominated posts received only a basic salary.

“This is a great day for equality and for all those women massively underpaid over many years within public and private organisations,” said Chris Benson, a partner at the legal firm.

The differences in pay are stark: a female worker on Birmingham City Council’s lowest manual grade would have received just over £10,000 in 2005, while a man on the same grade received £16,300.

In other cases, women received little more than £12,000 a year while men on similar grades earned £30,000. One former home-help worker, Joan Clulow, now aged 71, said she had felt “absolutely gutted” when she learned of the discrimination: “The way they treated us is abominable. We did everything [in our jobs] – we washed, dressed, cooked, cleaned . . . everything.”

The ruling comes at a difficult time for the council, which this week warned it would have to make “cuts across the board” if it is to save the £600 million required under government-imposed spending plans.

This year councillors voted for cuts that led to 1,000 council job losses, while 2,000 more will be shed next year.

However, the Local Government Association was hopeful that yesterday’s judgment would not lead to a sharp rise in claims throughout England and Wales, arguing that most councils had sorted out their legacy equal pay issues more than six years ago.

It argued that the ruling that cases can be taken to court, rather than to employment tribunals, will not make the court route more attractive since claimants bear the risk of heavy legal bills if they lose.