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Council budget concerns should not trump justice

SO South Lanarkshire Council has lost its Supreme Court bid to allow it to continue withholding information relating to pay scales.

Does the council leadership truly believe this legal battle amounted to £100,0000 of public money well spent?

It is very difficult to see how. The local authority, which is currently fighting a £10m back- pay claim from 1500 female staff, must have known there was a high probability of losing. After its arguments had been rejected first by the Scottish Information Commissioner and then by the Court of Session, there was clearly a substantial risk that the Supreme Court too would rule against it, but the council ploughed on regardless. Now it faces a huge legal bill at a time when money is tight.

South Lanarkshire council tax payers could be forgiven for being angry. Such a sum of money would make a significant difference to any number of cash-strapped services funded by the council. This is the council, after all, that has warned 120 jobs are at risk as part of a £12m cuts package. Its legal costs are hefty and South Lanarkshire should not have risked incurring them; instead, it should have agreed to hand over the information when the Scottish Information Commissioner ordered it to do so.

It is not only the council's unwise decision to risk wasting money pursuing the case to the Supreme Court that is at issue. It is also the fact of having proved itself so unwilling to be open about the information in question in the first place.

South Lanarkshire is not the only council to have faced equal pay claims. Many others have had to face up to their obligations. Whichever council it may be, it is not hard to understand the dismay councillors and officials must feel at the thought of potentially having to fund costly pay-outs to some workers at a time of fiscal retrenchment, but budgetary concerns cannot be allowed to trump the interests of justice. Where there is the suspicion that women have been discriminated against by being paid less than men for doing similarly skilled jobs, every council has a duty to investigate and right any wrongs that emerge, promptly. Where South Lanarkshire is concerned, its vehement attempts to block publication of pay banding information that might reveal whether women have been discriminated against, leave it open to the suspicion that it is less interested in rooting out examples of sex discrimination than in keeping its bills down. That is what will infuriate workers and rightly so. The current spate of sex discrimination claims being brought against councils are about trying to put right a long-standing wrong. Councils perceived as resisting what is right, will be judged, by employees and by voters, as acting dishonourably.

The equal rights campaigner Mark Irvine has called on South Lanarkshire council leader Eddie McAvoy to resign, as being "ultimately responsible" for this waste of public money. The council certainly has questions to answer about the decision to push this serially unsuccessful case so far.

Contextual targeting label: 
Local government

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