THOUSANDS of women who are due equal pay awards after decades of wage discrimination are to have chunks of their payouts taken away to settle council tax debts.

In a move on lawyers criticised as "mean-spirited", Glasgow City Council is to claw back at least £10 million from more than 2,000 women.

Of those, around 200 women will end the 14-year-long battle for equality empty-handed as their debts to the council exceed the award they would receive for loss in wages.

Campaigners say many of the women may never have been in debt had they been paid correctly in the first place.

One lawyer working with the underpaid women claims the council refused to soften its stance on the plans during negotiations, describing officials as "dogmatic" in their attempts to recoup the cash.

Some women have had debt collectors and bailiffs sent to their homes – even though the council knew their impending equal pay offers would cover their debts.

The local authority said the policy of deducting debts was "standard practice" and had been agreed by all parties in order to settle the dispute.

However, one lawyer involved in the case said: "This is an issue for poor working people, who have fought for equal pay for years. A lot of them are completely gutted.

"There are women who have had their settlements completely wiped out as a result of their debts. It is gut-wrenching."

Stephan Cross QC, from Action4Equality Scotland, which represents thousands of the women affected by the unfair pay regimes, said: "The principle of people paying for their debts we have no problem with. Our problem is how they have gone about it and their lack of flexibility and empathy with people in difficult circumstances.

"They were incorruptible and dogmatic in the way they went about this. We didn't have a choice. If it was our choice, we would have been more flexible in the way it was applied."

He added: "There are some who are philosophical about [the council tax deduction] because, for them, they are better off as a result – their debt is gone or they have reduced their amount. For others they built up their hopes and expectations and they have been dashed."

The revelations come after the council announced the first of the thousands of payments to address equal pay had started hitting women's bank accounts this week.

Susan Aitken, leader of the local authority, said it marked the day where “hundreds of millions of pounds starts to find its way into the pockets and purses of thousands of people who earned it and who always should have had it”.

She added: "Today is the day we can finally allow ourselves to say we are making good on equal pay and a promise of justice for thousands of women workers."

Mr Cross said: "We took the view that their should be a minimum level, for example that they wouldn't pay debts below £1000. That would at least give an incentive for everyone who is eligible to sign up and sort this out and people would still have some compensation.

"That was our proposal and it was rejected by the council. Their attitude is 'you owe us money, we're going to get it back'.

"The general tone and attitude of council departments towards these people ... it is mean-spirited and there is no empathy whatsoever. It is just a blanket approach of 'If we can do it, we will'.

"The council astonishingly are still sending in debt collectors and bailiffs to people who they know they are collecting the money from their settlements. We have had bailiffs coming in to people whose debts are being cleared. It is all because one department has not told another department."

Equality campaigners also say that the women, many of whom were in low-paid jobs such as cleaners, carers, and canteen workers, may never have ended up in debt in the first place if they had been paid correctly from the beginning.

Emma Ritch, director of women's equality charity Engender, said: "Many of the women concerned will have got into financial difficulty precisely because they weren’t getting equal pay for equal work. The payments being made by Glasgow City Council represent a resolution to decades of injustice. We hope the Council will work with trade unions and local advice services to find a better approach than righting a wrong with one hand and taking from women with the other.”

Equal pay charity Close the Gap agreed with Ms Ritch. Executive director Anna Ritchie Allan, said: "Pay inequality is a driving factor in women’s higher levels of in-work poverty. Many low-paid working women have struggled to make ends meet precisely because the work they do has been systematically undervalued in pay and grading systems.

"Valuing ‘women’s work’ and paying all staff fairly means that women are less likely to encounter financial problems.”

A Glasgow City Council spokesman said: “This is standard for any claim and part of the approach agreed with claimants’ representatives and subsequently approved by committee in February.”

The spokesman said that debt collectors were held off in some cases when they knew there was a potential for arrears to be settled, however when cases were already being dealt with by debt collectors, this remained in place.

He added that there was no recollection by council negotiators of the suggestion that debts up to £1000 were not collected, but due to the number of meetings held over 12 months, he could not guarantee this was not mentioned.