Serving up common sense

Roger Pearson examines the Yorkshire dinner ladies' House of Lords bid to overcome backdoor discrimination

The recent sex discrimination victory won in the House of Lords by three Yorkshire dinner ladies on behalf of themselves and 1,300 colleagues is regarded as a major victory in the battle to prevent public sector privatisation being used to circumnavigate discrimination laws.

The implications of the ruling will stretch beyond the case of the Yorkshire dinner ladies and could mean that many local authorities throughout the country will have to re-think their privatisation strategies.

Solicitor Mark Berry of the Leeds office of leading union solicitors Brian Thompson & Partners says of the outcome: "The most important message to come from it is that employers cannot hide behind a responsibility imposed on them to engage in competitive tendering of their services and use it as an excuse for paying women less than men.

"This is something that has been prevalent in the public sector and this judgment leaves no doubt that it is unlawful."

Unison associate general secretary Rodney Bickerstaffe claims the win as a "huge success for the staff, for Unison and for common sense".

He adds: "We argued all along that it could not be legally or morally right for any employer to sack local workers and then re-employ them on lower rates of pay with worse conditions."

The dinner ladies won unanimous agreement from the Law Lords that they had been discriminated against when their jobs were privatised and they lost pay parity with other council workers.

Quite apart from the victory for the dinner ladies, however, the case also represents a victory for case management and the swift movement of a matter from the original industrial tribunal hearing through to the House of Lords.

The Lords' decision, given in a judgment running to a mere eight pages, was praised by Berry, who has been with Thompsons since the late 1970s and who specialises in compensation and employment law cases, as a model of clarity.

And as regards the speed with which the case reached the Law Lords, he stresses that this would not have been possible were it not for the fact that agreement had already been reached prior to the dispute as to which public sector jobs the dinner ladies should be compared to.

"The fact that a job evaluation exercise had already been carried out and agreement was reached in 1988 took away the usual need in cases of this nature to embark on a lengthy exercise looking for comparable jobs to those of the claimants. That was a major time saver," Berry says.

An additional problem with a vast number of potential claims, collectively involving large sums of money but individually involving a maximum of £1,500 and in many cases far less, was maintaining the interest of the claimants.

As far as that was concerned Berry praises the grass roots officials of Unison, the union backing the claim.

"They not only played an enormously important role in maintaining the interest of those involved, but also in handling the huge level of paper work necessary with 1,300 potential claimants," he says. "Good organisation is vital in a case of this size and nature and the union played a major part in achieving this by constant liaison with their members."