A CASH-STRAPPED Labour council is risking hundreds of thousands of pounds of taxpayers' money in a bid to keep potentially damning information about sexual discrimination and unfair pay a secret from the public.

In the first case of its kind involving a Scottish public body, South Lanarkshire Council is to appeal to the UK Supreme Court against a ruling by the country's freedom of information (FoI) watchdog.

The local authority has already had its case thrown out by Scotland's highest court, the Court of Session, but is now mounting a last-ditch appeal in London on July 8.

In response, Scottish Information Commissioner Rosemary Agnew has instructed one of the country's most respected QCs to argue her case – Richard Keen, the Dean of the Faculty of Advocates, whose ferocity in court has earned him the nickname "The Rottweiller".

If it loses, the council faces a bill of more than £200,000 for its own costs and those of the commissioner. The latter have already topped £60,000.

South Lanarkshire recently warned around 120 jobs were at risk as part of a £12 million savings package, which included cuts to secondary schools, day-care centres, and a 15% rise in the cost of cremations.

Leader Eddie McAvoy said the next two years would involve some "very difficult decisions".

The freedom of information case involves equal pay campaigner Mark Irvine, of Action 4 Equality, who in 2010 asked the council for details of its pay scales under FoI law.

The aim was to find out if men in manual jobs such as gardening, rubbish collection and gravedigging were paid more than women in jobs requiring equal or higher levels of skill.

In recent years, Scottish councils have been forced to pay out tens of millions of pounds to female staff who have been paid less than male colleagues in equivalent jobs.

If the data asked for by Irvine helped to expose similar bad practice, it could leave South Lanarkshire facing hefty compensation claims.

The council is already being taken to a tribunal by 1500 female workers, who claim they are owed more than £10 million in back pay.

After South Lanarkshire tried to dismiss Irvine's requests as "vexatious", he appealed to the Information Commissioner.

The council then changed tack to claim Irvine had no legitimate interest in seeing the data, and claimed simply releasing the number of staff on various pay grades would be a breach of data protection law, as individual workers might be identified, causing them distress.

The FoI watchdog rejected both arguments and said there was "no reason" to think people would be identified.

The council appealed against the ruling to the Court of Session, but was again defeated.

In an opinion last year, Lords Marnoch, Brailsford and Mackay of Drumadoon confirmed that Irvine had a legitimate interest in the information as an established campaigner, and that it was necessary to hand it over.

However, the council again refused to release the data and appealed to the UK Supreme Court.

Irvine told the Sunday Herald he was sure that, if the information was released, it would show that the council had paid male workers more than their female counterparts for years.

He said: "I think the council has completely lost the plot. What it's doing is unique, as far as I'm aware. It's a huge waste of money after such careful adjudications by the Information Commissioner and the Court of Session judges.

"If there's nothing significant in the information why does the council not just publish it like every other council in Scotland is doing?"

South Lanarkshire Council said: "Our decision to refuse the Freedom of Information request was to protect the sensitive personal data of employees.

"We believe this is an important issue that's worth defending.

"If we released the information that was requested, we believe we would be in clear breach of the Data Protection Act."