The Equality and Human Rights Commission has withdrawn funding for an equal pay case being brought by 800 women against Cleveland Borough Council.
Britain’s equalities watchdog said it was concerned that a ruling in the case could hamper other councils negotiating out-of-court settlements.
It said that with thousands of equal pay cases outstanding, the only way forward was negotiation and mass hearings where hundreds of cases are dealt with in one go.
It estimated the current load of cases brought by underpaid local council workers may triple, up to 150,000 equal pay cases by the end of this year, putting further strain on the already pressured employment tribunals.Trevor Phillips, chairman of the commission, said: “There’s no point in us throwing petrol on this legal forest fire by supporting even more individual cases going through the tribunal system. Instead we need to come up with some radical solutions.”
The commission is now set to argue for a two to three-year period where employers can delay paying women equal amounts to men while they negotiate settlements. Representative actions should then be introduced so claims can be sorted quicker, it claims.
“I wish I could wave a magic wand and sort this crisis out, but it’s far from simple,” said Phillips. “The Equal Pay Act has reached its sell-by date. It’s time for new legislation, fit for this century, to help sort out this age-old problem. These women have been underpaid for far too long; they’re not interested in yet more legal paperwork and shenanigans. They deserve money in their pockets.”
He added: “These women deserve justice now, not justice in another decade.”
Sarah Veale, head of equalities and employment rights at the TUC, said: “Prevention is the best cure for Britain’s equal pay crisis. Collective agreements with employers address both the pay structures and the policies that cause discrimination.
“But where employers are unwilling to take action, trade unions have taken the fight for equal pay to the courts. Sadly, this process is unnecessarily expensive and time-consuming, and leaves underpaid women in limbo for far too long. The equal pay act is out of date and in urgent need of reform.”