Cash-strapped Cumbria council hires new human resources director to steady the ship

Cumbria County Council has recruited a pay and reward specialist to revamp its human resources (HR) function following the outcome of a long-running equal pay case that could cost the authority up to £60m.

Jim Savege has this week taken up a newly created role of corporate director of HR and organisational development at the council, following a four-year stint as deputy HR director at Staffordshire County Council. It follows the departure of Susan Thompson, previously head of HR, who took early retirement in June after more than six years with the local authority.

Last week, an Employment Appeal Tribunal upheld its decision concerning a pay discrimination claim for 1,500 women, who were employed by the council in a variety of low-paid roles. The workers originally won their claim for equal pay at an employment tribunal in March 2006.

Savege, who will lead an HR team of 50, told Personnel Today that service improvement and staff performance were the most important tasks for his new role. “I want to focus on business first and HR second. Concluding the single status [equal pay] agreement and bringing in modern pay arrangements is also a priority.”

He said the climate created by the pay dispute case would be “challenging”. The council has already set aside £21m to cover its eventual liabilities on equal pay, and has been budgeting for future savings.

Sharon Mee, a spokeswoman for Unison, the union which is representing the female workers, said the latest tribunal ruling was just another hurdle in a long legal process that was nowhere near an end. “It’s a tragic scenario because many claimants have retired and are waiting for a payout, and a few have even passed away since the case began in 2003,” she said.

Cumbria’s three-year legal battle

In September 2005, the UK’s biggest ever equal pay case for female council workers began at an employment tribunal in Carlisle. Two unions – Unison and the GMB – lodged claims for about 2,300 women after it emerged that male road workers formerly employed by Cumbria County Council were paid more for comparable work.

In March 2006, the tribunal ruled that care workers and some other staff were entitled to pay rises and compensation. In May 2006, the council appealed the decision, which has now been upheld.

Cumbria has been given the go-ahead to argue that market rates defined how much staff were paid. It will make the claim at a further tribunal, likely to be held in Newcastle next year.

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