Scottish ministers have been accused of encouraging councils to pay women less to protect frontline services.

The startling claim from GMB Scotland cames after what they described as a "dismaying and alarming" comment from the SNP's Joe Fitzpatrick when he was local government minister.

When the union wrote to him asking him to intervene in the equal pay row, the Dundee West MSP - who was sacked by John Swinney in this month’s reshuffle - claimed the administration's priority was “to ensure a balance is struck between continued delivery of sustainable public services and ensuring equal pay policies apply across the public sector.”

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Cara Stevenson, who leads GMB Scotland’s women’s campaign unit, has written to Shona Robison, who has taken over the local government brief, to ask if this is still the Scottish Government’s stance.

She told The Herald: “There is no balance to be struck between women being treated as equals and not being treated as equals and it is dismaying and alarming that ministers might think there is.

“Women council workers should not be asked to accept less because ministers will not give councils more.

“Fairness and protecting frontline services cannot be mutually exclusive.

“There is no circumstance when councils should be allowed to treat women unfairly and to pay them less than male colleagues doing comparable work.

“For a Scottish Government minister to suggest otherwise is dismaying but explains why councils feel they can drag their feet and refuse to engage with equal pay claims with impunity.

“If the Scottish Government, which controls the purse strings, does not understand the clear, moral and urgent need to pay women fairly then why on earth should councils?”

The union has warned claims for pay rises and backdated pay could soon total tens of millions of pounds and risk sinking local authorities without government intervention.

Scotland’s councils are already struggling. An Accounts Commission report last week estimated  a collective budget gap of £585m. 

The last budget saw local authorities allocated £13.25bn, plus an extra £144m to fund a council tax freeze, and an additional £63m to help local authorities meet this ambition.

However, the watchdog said councils were still struggling to balance budgets.

They warned that without further action councils could face an estimated cumulative budget gap of £780m by 2026-27.

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Equal pay has been a long-running issue for Scotland’s councils. Some, including Glasgow, are in the process of settling claims that run into hundreds of millions of pounds.

The union says that some authorities are taking too long to act.

Louise Gilmour, GMB Scotland secretary, said: “Scotland’s councils are approaching equal pay claims like the Titanic approaching the iceberg.

“Councillors have their heads in the sand and executives have their fingers in their ears but these equal pay claims will come, will be won and will need to be settled.

“It is understandable that our councils are refusing to acknowledge the reality because the reality is unthinkable and the scale of these claims unimaginable for local authorities already being forced to cut services.

“Women who have been underpaid for far too long will still win these claims, however, and, unless that process is properly managed now, the impact on our councils and the communities they serve could be disastrous.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “Councils are responsible for meeting their legal obligations to their employees, including on equal pay.

“In the face of a profoundly challenging financial situation, the Scottish Government is making available record funding of more than £14 billion to councils in 2024-25 – a real-terms increase of 2.5% compared with the previous year.”