NICOLA Sturgeon will today warn council chiefs that she is ready to hit them with tough new penalties if they continue to drag their feet over wage equality for thousands of female workers.

The First Minister, in an address to the Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC) in Dundee, is expected to announce that if she is re-elected next month she will explore sanctions that the Scottish Government could impose on town halls if they refuse to honour equal pay obligations.

It is understood that the feasibility of imposing fines on local authorities through their financial settlement will be considered, if they fail to resolve disputes by a deadline of April next year.

A string of councils face compensation claims after paying women less than men, with around 6,500 at Glasgow Council due to share a £100 million pay-out following a long-running dispute.

The SNP leader will say that while some councils have taken action to deliver equal pay, others continue to "lag behind".

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Ms Sturgeon is expected to say: "The Fair Work agenda is one of the key priorities of both the SNP and the STUC - and if re-elected, I am committed to improving gender equality in the work place.

"A re-elected SNP Government will explore what more action we can take to apply penalties to those councils who do not honour their obligation to deliver equal pay."

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Last year, around 1,500 local authority workers in Fife learned they would receive backdated pay and compensation with the equal wage saga in Scottish local government stretching back more than a decade to the implementation of a new pay deal.

It was intended to harmonise the pay and conditions of different groups for local government workers but threw up huge disparities in what male and female workers were being paid for similarly graded work.

During 2014/15, 24 councils settled nearly 4,000 equal pay claims, worth a total of £24.9 million, with current estimates that about 30,000 cases remain outstanding. Local Authorities had put aside £117 million last year in anticipation of further payments, according to Audit Scotland.

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Ms Sturgeon is also set to confirm a commitment to abolish fees for employment tribunals in Scotland to delegates at the three-day Dundee conference.

She will state her strong opposition to the UK Government's Trade Union Bill, and say that if the SNP is re-elected, she will enter discussions with unions to establish a fund to support trade union modernisation.

Her address follows Kezia Dugdale's speech to the conference yesterday. The Scottish Labour leader made the case for tax rises to protect public services, with the message well-received by delegates.

She said that under her leadership, public contracts would not be handed to companies that avoid tax, CalMac ferries would be kept in public hands and that Scotrail would be brought into public ownership.

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Ms Dugdale also announced plans for a new work and skills agency, Skills Scotland, to replace Skills Development Scotland and Scottish Enterprise. It would be co-chaired by a STUC nominee and also have control over new powers over the work programme, alongside the functions of the quangos it would replace.

Grahame Smith, general secretary of the STUC, used his speech to call for party leaders to bring forward "bold ambitious policies" in the current campaign in light of new powers destined for the Scottish Parliament. He also hit out at SNP tax proposals.

He said: "Tax policy needs to be bolder and more creative, particularly from the parties with a social democratic bent. To be fair, Labour and the Liberal Democrats have signalled their intention to increase income tax, in an effort to mitigate the impact of public spending cuts.

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"But the SNP's position, especially the pathetic excuses for refusing to increase the marginal rate of tax for earnings over £150,000, is hugely disappointing.

"I've said it before and I'll say it again: The Nordic-style society the SNP continually say they aspire to simply cannot be created and sustained on current levels of taxation."

He also launched an attack on Ruth Davidson, the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, who has insisted she is on course to become the leader of the opposition on May 5.

Mr Smith said: "She certainly presents a more convivial demeanour than George Osborne. But by failing to seriously challenge austerity, welfare reform and the Trade Union Bill she is entirely complicit in the UK Government's attack on society's most vulnerable people."