Wetherill and others v Birmingham City Council,
County Court, 10 July 2006
The 19 claimants all began their employment with the council before 1993, and were designated essential car users. Car-user allowance was paid at four different bands. In October 1993, the council unilaterally decided, without consultation, to make changes to these bands. This resulted in the claimants receiving lower car-user allowances.
The council claimed it had an express power contained in the claimants’ contracts of employment to vary the terms, and said it was free, but not obliged, to use any or some of the bands. The claimants argued that the allowances had been incorporated into their contracts by reference to the National Joint Council for Local Authorities’ Administrative, Professional, Technical and Clerical Services (the Purple Book). Some of the claimants continued to work and, for a short time, included notices of “protest” prepared by their union when they submitted their car-user allowance claim forms.
Over the next decade, these claimants began various court proceedings, including tribunal claims, and they brought county court proceedings for breach of contract.
The council argued that it had an express power to vary the provisions. It also argued that if there had been a unilateral contract variation, the claimants had accepted it by continuing to work and accepting the lower-band car allowance. But the judge ruled in favour of the claimants, and the council was obliged to adopt and implement all of the bands set out in the Purple Book. As the claimants remained designated essential car users, the council had breached their contracts of employment by removing the upper-band car user allowance.
While this decision relates to specific facts involving a local authority, it highlights the difficulties that can arise when changing employment terms and conditions, particularly when the changes are imposed unilaterally.