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Pounds 90m blow for equal pay cases

The hundreds of equal pay cases that could have cost Strathclyde Region's 12 successor authorities up to Pounds 90 million in back pay were further undermined this week when the union representing heads of pre-five centres withdrew its legal support.

Three heads claiming parity with nursery headteachers were left adrift at an industrial tribunal in Glasgow on Monday following the decision by Unison, the local government union. The union acted following last week's Court of Session ruling against 10 women members of the Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association.

The heads now have a week to find legal backing if they want to continue their claim, initiated in the wake of the SSTA test case. The SSTAmembers were seeking parity with men principal teachers and claimed discrimination under the Equal Pay Act 1970.

Three appeal judges in Edinburgh overruled earlier verdicts in the teachers' favour by an industrial tribunal and the Employment Appeal Tribunal. West of Scotland authorities were facing a potential bill of up to Pounds 20 million and the case had ramifications for councils throughout Scotland.

The latest twist involving the three pre-five heads could affect 80 similar cases in the former Strathclyde area. The councils involved face claims totalling up to Pounds 5 million but their greatest fear is that if 2,000 nursery nurses joined the "gravy train" and claimed equality with nursery teachers the bill could reach Pounds 64 million.

Linda Marsh, a former assistant director of education in Strathclyde and co-ordinator of the councils' defence, described the pre-five heads' claim as "opportunism".

Ms Marsh said: "It became easier to get more pay if you used the court system than the collective bargaining process. There are important lessons about how to operate personnel policies and employment law procedures that do not leave authorities wide open to speculative claims, many of which, up to date, have shown they can succeed."

The Court of Session judgment could also affect the councils' forthcoming appeal to the Employment Appeal Tribunal in Edinburgh over the decision of an industrial tribunal to back special school instructors in their claim for parity with special school teachers. Up to 160 staff could be affected.

Heads and deputes of outdoor education centres in the former Strathclyde Region are also claiming equal pay with headteachers and their deputes. Twenty-six staff are involved.

Keir Bloomer, director of education in Clackmannan and former Strathclyde depute director in charge of personnel, said the Court of Session's verdict showed "sanity is beginning to return".

Mr Bloomer commented: "The essence of it is that nothing that Strathclyde was doing was based on sex discrimination and therefore the use of equal pay legislation to correct injustices, real or imagined, was inappropriate. I think all Scottish authorities will be pleased about that."

He praised the appeal judges for taking account of the costs involved in translating the verdict to all staff and not just the 10 women who brought the test case.

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