Account settled: striking an equal pay deal

In April, North Cumbria Acute Hospitals NHS Trust negotiated an out of court settlement for 1,500 equal value cases worth about £100m – the largest ever in Europe. Shirley Chipperfield joined the trust as executive director of HR in December 2003, mid-way through the legal process. She talks to Mike Berry about her experience.

What was it like coming into the midst of this legal situation?
The claims had first been submitted in 1997 and for the past four years the Independent Job Evaluation experts appointed by the employment tribunal had been working through the numerous categories to prepare their reports.

In the month I joined the trust the comprehensive findings of these reports had just been released and dates for the hearings being planned for 2004.

It was a case of getting up to speed very quickly with all the legal arguments, making sure the Department of Health and the trust board were fully briefed about the implications of this case, which was quickly becoming the biggest equal value case in Europe.

What has HR’s role been?
My role has been to work closely with the legal team and barristers to provide the best value-for-money outcome for the trust. The negotiations took place over four months and this involved negotiating a commercia,l out of court settlement for 1,500 cases worth approximately £100m.

While this type of deal may be usual in the private sector, it was certainly not something I had been involved with before and, in terms of complexity and scale, it is unique within the NHS.

How have you dealt with it personally?
The legal team offered me excellent support throughout and it has been a great learning experience. Employees within the trust have also been very understanding and many are grateful that the trust has taken the initiative to bring this long-standing matter to a conclusion.

However, the day job has still had to continue, in terms of ensuring the trust hit all the national clinical performance targets and implementation of Agenda for Change, the new NHS pay structure. 

How did you work with the union?
The two main unions involved have been Unison and GMB. These negotiations have been very different to anything we had previously experienced in terms of handling a local issue.

I am pleased to say that the final master agreement reflects the sheer hard work and creativity that was required by both sides to broker this deal to a satisfactory conclusion.

Any comments on the length of time the case took to conclude?
The trade unions in Cumbria were, to some extent, trail blazers when they first launched their claim in 1997. The changes to the Employment Tribunal regulations in October 2004 will certainly now fast track the time taken for future cases.

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