Unison has claimed victory in a landmark sex discrimination case which could see hundreds of NHS staff in Cumbria win thousands of pounds of back pay. But the case may be far from over.
Unison’s press release of 14 February said they had “won £300m for women working for North Cumbria Acute NHS Trust” and suggesting that the Employment Tribunal had finally ruled in the workers’ favour.
This isn’t entirely true. Following several weeks of negotiations with the Trust, Unison’s national officers say that they reached agreement “on all substantive matters”, which would provide “compensation” for the workers concerned, in return for Unison withdrawing their Tribunal applications.
Unison say the deal is worth £300 million but since the deal was leaked to the press managers at Cumberland Infirmary have been quick to deny this, saying “Although much progress has been made an overall agreement has not been reached. Until such a time it would be inappropriate to prejudge the outcome… it is premature to state that a deal has been agreed and financial estimates of the settlement, as quoted by Unison, are wildly exaggerated.” The Department of Health has said there was “no deal as yet”.
Even Unison admits privately that the Trust expects the deal to be worth only £60 million.
The case has massive implications for every other NHS worker. If the Carlisle case can establish a legal precedent, then every other low paid NHS worker can argue that they should be entitled to a similar payout. The women in Cumbria were being paid on a national payscale, after all, and if this can be proved to have been discriminatory, everyone paid on the NHS payscales could argue the same.
Indeed, that very possibility was the driving force behind the NHS employers’ determination to introduce Agenda for Change — a so-called “equal pay proof” pay system for the NHS. Unison’s officials worked hard to secure agreement from Unison’s members for the new system, despite widespread fears that it would make equal pay cases like the Carlisle case even harder to wage in future.
The news that the union may now agree an out-of-court settlement will trouble many UNISON activists. It is time the union got serious about winning equal pay entitlements for all NHS staff and stopped worrying about the financial difficulties this would pose for the Government. Of course it was a long wait for the 1000 women in Carlisle, and no-one wants them to have to go through years of future legal argument, but the value of the work done in this case must be applied to all NHS workers, not just the applicants in this particular case.
Unison leadership must use the opportunity to put the issue squarely on the agenda of the national talks over the implementation of Agenda for Change, including threatening to pull out of implementation if the back pay question is not addressed immediately.