Local authorities are spending up to £1.3m each in legal fees fighting equal pay claims.
Unison, the union which represents local authority workers, used the Freedom of information Act to find out how much 50 authorities in England and Wales were spending on legal fees to fight equal pay claims lodged by low-paid female workers.
It said more than £11.5m was spent between 2003 and 2009 by the 50 councils it investigated, a figure it believes is the tip of the iceberg.
Unison said Sandwell Council has spent £1.32m on external legal advice and representation, which put it at the top of the spending list. It was followed by Coventry at £1.24m and Bury at £607,477.
Responding, Sandwell Council deputy leader and Cabinet member for improvement and equality Pauline Hinton said: “The idea that Sandwell is resisting equal pay for low-paid women is laughable.
“Like all other councils nationwide, we are legally obliged to bring in a new single status agreement for staff – and we are now less than three months away from what promises to be a successful launch in January next year.
“More than 10,000 employees – well over 90% of those involved – have said they are willing to accept the deal. And the facts show that about 5,000 of them whose pay is going up – by an average of £820 a year – are mainly female employees in historically lower-paid jobs.
Hinton added: “The legal fees incurred do not relate solely to litigation, but also issues in relation to the introduction of the new single status pay and grading structure; for example, advice on the council’s attempts to reach a collective agreement and alternatives which it has had to consider since it became clear tha a collective agreement was unlikely.”
Other high-spending councils named by Unison included Rotherham (£473,689.96) and Northumberland (£400,000). The highest-spending Welsh authorities named in the survey are Cardiff, which spent £216,332, and Newport City, £138,926.47.
The union said the figures meant that Sandwell has spent £124 per female employee resisting equal pay while the equivalent figure at Rotherham is £115 and Coventry £104.
“The spending,” said Unison, “is in shocking contrast to the earnings of the low-paid members of Unison. Some local government employees including cleaners, cooks, and care assistants earn as little as £6.30 per hour, or £12,145 each year.”
Unison general secretary Dave Prentis said it was a “national disgrace” that local authorities were spending so much money on fighting to keep women’s wages down.
“What a waste of money. Councils are stuffing money into lawyers’ pockets to put off the inevitable. Expensive lawyers are raising tiny technical points and fighting issues the councils have already been advised they will lose.
“Cases drag on for years and women have died by the time legal arguments are resolved. Taxpayers’ money is simply being poured down the drain and low-paid women continue to be underpaid for jobs that society simply couldn’t function without.”
Other councils’ spend on equal pay legal fees, according to Unison, include:
- Leeds £1.17m, including £298,648.10 external costs
- Hartlepool £165,788.75
- Liverpool £90,478.89
- Bridgend £76,420.91
- Bolton £100,467.98, including £40,033.87 external costs
Councils who refused to supply information or wanted more than £450 to do so, according to Unison, included Hackney, Warrington, Blackpool and Caerphilly. Councils that have incurred no costs included Isle of Wight, Guildford and Kensington & Chelsea.