Councils face bills of millions of pounds amid hundreds of fresh equal pay claims from women

Deputy Political Editor Anushka Asthana has the latest on an ITV News exclusive, as hundreds of women across the UK launch fresh equal pay claims

Councils all over the country are facing hundreds of fresh equal pay claims from female workers that could leave them facing crippling bills running into tens of millions of pounds, ITV News can reveal.

Glasgow council has already paid out £770 million and Birmingham has admitted liabilities of between £650 and £760 million.

But now the GMB union is launching cases all over the country as they claim to find "discrimination" against women council workers "under every rock".

Hundreds of women are launching fresh claims in Cumbria, Coventry and Dundee with evidence being collected in another 20 councils.

Our revelations have led to warnings that councils will be unable to cope financially - and could be forced to cut back on "non-essential spending".

The chair of a significant parliamentary committee has warned that could impact on things like regular bin collections, grass cutting, and the maintenance of libraries.

Among the councils facing new claims are:

  • Two in Cumbria - in Cumberland and Westmorland and Furness - where 400 women have lodged claims with the mediation service, Acas, with another 150 expected by the end of this month. They claim that the wages of carers - who are mainly women - have not kept up with the huge jump in required skills for the jobs.

  • Coventry City Council, where there are 200 claims to the employment tribunal that include allegations of preferable working practices for refuse workers and those in fleet services, who are primarily men.

  • In Dundee there are 400 cases, with claims that bricklayers, joiners and roofers get preferable bonuses to caterers, cleaners and carers.

Overall the GMB say they are collecting evidence in 20 more councils - with claims likely to be launched in at least six more this year - including huge councils that could face a pay bill running into the hundreds of millions of pounds.

Deputy Political Editor Anushka Asthana explains what this could mean for council budgets

Asked if this could affect every council, Rhea Wolfson, head of internal and industrial relations at GMB, told us: "At the moment we are still evaluating how far and how deep this discrimination goes. But everywhere we look we find some form of discrimination."

Examples include what she called "job creep" where the roles of carers or teaching assistants have changed dramatically over time and are much more skilled and demanding now than in the past.

But the pay has slipped behind - and more so in female dominated roles than male ones.

Other examples include male dominated jobs - getting higher bonuses, or better perks - either linked to annual holidays or something called task and finish, in which workers can either go home, or earn overtime, after finishing a specific task.

The GMB say they don't object at all to task and finish - they object to the roles with more women workers not being offered it as well.

Union organiser Maddy Wilkinson explains the pay disparages to ITV News

Ms Wolfson added: "Employers across this country need to wake up and take their responsibilities on equal pay seriously so they don't find themselves in a situation where they are liable for millions and millions of pounds."

The question for councils is, if these claims are successful (or more likely they choose to try to settle them) then who pays?

Clive Betts MP - who chairs the local government select committee in parliament - told me that councils had faced some of the most severe cuts during austerity, with "non-essential" spending already badly squeezed.

With a statutory requirement to provide social care and children's services - it was other areas that got hit, he added.

Mr Betts said: "To ask their council tax payers to face more cuts on top of cuts they've already had to basic services like emptying the bins, libraries, buses etc., is almost unachievable. So, I think we have to look to central government and say we need extra help for councils."

So far the government has made clear it does not want to bail councils out.

When asked about Birmingham council, Rishi Sunak said he would not step in to fix the council's "financial mismanagement".

"The council just needs to do a better job of managing the figures properly," he said.

In Glasgow the battle on equal pay has been fought for almost two decades.

At the forefront has been Frances Stojilkovic, who set up a Facebook group labelled "equal pay for equal work".

It began with a handful of carers, and now has thousands of people.

Sitting in her backyard in Glasgow - with Rosemary McGowan and Yvonne Crawford - she told me how they had just received a second payment from the council.

She said friends had died waiting for the payments - and they are still waiting for Glasgow to complete a new job evaluation process that will set the pay levels going forward.

Frances Stojilkovic talks about the last message she received from a friend who died waiting for payment

The leader of Glasgow City Council, Susan Aitken, said she was proud of the progress that had been made on equal pay.

“The price of discrimination is a high one and Glasgow will be paying it for a long time," she said.

“However, if years of fighting women workers that were seeking justice was perhaps the worst thing this council has done; then I believe the effort over the past five years to bring us to this point has been among the best.

“It has been a hard road. It has been fraught and it has been painful at times – but it has been essential to right an egregious wrong.”

ITV News went to every council we mentioned. Some said it was too early to comment, but most made clear that they wanted to fix the problem.

A joint statement from Cumberland Council and Westmorland and Furness Council - two councils that replaced Cumbria County Council - said: “Both Unitary Authorities in Cumbria are committed to providing fair and equal pay for all employees within our new organisations, and we plan to review our approaches as to how we pay and reward our workforce in consultation with all recognised Trade Unions.”

In Coventry they said they wanted to remove one perk - task and finish - from the more male roles in waste services but said the Unite union was opposing that.

“This may have been a historical way of working but it is now being challenged as unfair by another union," they added about the GMB's equal pay claims.

“What is clear is that simply continuing with task and finish will lead to more equal pay claims that will lead to additional pressure on the Council, its taxpayers and have a negative impact on the hundreds of services we deliver to residents and businesses ever year.”

It is certainly the case that unions themselves appear to have played a big part in all of this - defending the rights of their male members, but also now fighting for the rights of their female ones.

In South Lanarkshire a review of care roles recently led to a deal in which the salaries were raised from £12.59-£12.76 to £15.36-£15.80 per hour.

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