Friday, 20 July 2012
This week's Hamilton Advertiser carries an excellent article by Carol Fox - from Fox Cross Solicitors.
As well as putting the local trade unions firmly in their place - Carol gives a flavour of why the Employment Tribunal decided that the council's job 'in-house' evaluation scheme (JES) does not comply with the Equal Pay Act 1970 and the Equality Act 2010.
Now this is a devastating decision for the council - because job evaluation schemes and the pay arrangements which flow from implementing a JES - should be completely transparent and easy to understand.
Which is certainly not the case in South Lanarkshire - where the council refuses to publish the pay rates of traditional male jobs - despite the fact that such information is freely available in every other council in Scotland.
Lawyer for South Lanarkshire equal pay claimants hits back at UNISON criticism
‘Unison has continued to deduct monthly subscriptions from the very same women who they have failed to help’
THE ongoing battle for equal pay against the Council in South Lanarkshire has recently generated more heat than light from the local union representatives, not least Stephen Smellie, UNISON representative and local branch secretary, writes Carol Fox .
He has made public and critical comments of professional solicitors which could land him in even hotter water should we have the time or energy to pursue his misinformation through the courts.
We have received many angry calls from our South Lanarkshire clients and numerous copies of recent press articles. We have called for an apology for our claimants from the union, which is not yet forthcoming.
This at least is our right to reply on behalf of thousands of low-paid workers who are the backbone of public services in South Lanarkshire.
Since this equal pay battle started, with the first legal case lodged in November 2005, our sole focus has been on achieving justice and equality for thousands of low paid, predominantly female, public sector workers.
It is a great pity that the union locally has not shared the same principled aim.
We presently have no interest in wasting our time or resources on union representatives who remain wilfully ignorant of the facts but we will take a short time to set the record straight.
The truth is that, firstly, Stefan Cross Solicitors in Newcastle and then Fox Cross Solicitors Limited have represented thousands of Unison members and non-union members alike, in their determined battle for equal pay during the past seven years. Unison, meanwhile, failed to raise one single claim.
Even if they had believed the protestations of the council that, unlike any other place on earth, South Lanarkshire had no inequality in pay, to protect the legal position of the women the union should have lodged claims while they investigated matters further.
This happened in other councils so why not in South Lanarkshire?
If you want to negotiate from a position of strength surely you take basic steps to protect your members’ interests?
When an equal pay complaint is lodged with the Tribunal potential compensation is calculated from five years before the date of the claim.
This means that for those women who made early claims in 2005 their back-pay may be calculated back to 2000 and is then ongoing until the case is resolved.
So, for some women the council may face a bill of 12 years’ compensation or more. We expect that, as our cases continue to grow since our success at the Employment Tribunal, we will soon represent 3000 claimants or more.
UNISON now protests that they have lodged 100 claims in 2012. But this is much too little, much too late.
These cases can only go back five years until 2007, so what about the seven years’ potential compensation lost to these employees? Will the union make up the difference?
Perhaps that is the real reason for UNISON’s anger, the growing realisation of the potential cost of their very expensive mistake in failing to act for their female members in South Lanarkshire.
Comments by Mr Smellie in the Advertiser’s issue of June 28 – in which he was quoted as saying: “Not every one of these cases is going to win and I don’t want people to buy a new three-piece suite thinking they are going to get a big payout” – were grossly insulting to low-paid workers, many of whom work in several part-time jobs and are the main breadwinner of the family.
These comments betray the sexist assumptions of male trade union officials who still believe that women work for “pin money”.
We have much greater respect for the hard work of our claimants.
Rather than address their own failings, UNISON has instead been quick to criticise “no win, no fee” agreements, which have afforded access to justice for thousands of low-paid women, without union support, who would otherwise have had no ability to pursue any claim.
We act for cleaners, dinner ladies and home helps. The fact that we now have in the region of 2700 cases (and growing) is testament to the integrity of this no win, no fee agreement.
Further, the fact is that, during the past seven years, none of our claimants in South Lanarkshire has paid a penny in legal fees for their equal pay case against the Council.
Yet Stefan Cross personally has fronted all costs and expenses for seven years, which has included engaging advocates, barristers, solicitors, trainees, equal pay experts, QCs, paralegals, admin staff, secretaries and receptionists so that we can provide the best possible legal service to our claimants.
Our principled stance and our track record demonstrate that we would have no truck with any agreement that is not in the interests of our claimants.
Meanwhile, the brazen cheek of Unison resulted in them joining the case very late last year and then taking advantage of all the hard work undertaken and paid for by those that they now seek to criticise – yet they fully adopted all the legal arguments and submissions made by our legal team.
Our claimants ask where is the integrity in that approach? Answer that if you will, Mr Smellie.
Meantime, Unison has continued to deduct monthly subscriptions from the very same women who they have failed to help.
Mr Smellie and the local branch should hang their heads in shame at their hypocritical misinformation. They will now only make any progress with their 100 cases on the back of work already undertaken by us.
Frequent references are also made to “private lawyers”. We are not aware of any other “public” lawyers involved in this case. If the distinction is between ourselves and so-called trade union lawyers, then once again our approach as a professional law firm is open and transparent. The same cannot be said for others.
People in glass houses really should understand the very real danger of throwing stones.
Despite all of this we know that good people work in UNISON. We know because we have worked with them in the past. Before my incarnation as a solicitor I was a full-time official with Unison in London and previously worked for seven years for their trade union lawyers.
We know full well what is going on behind the scenes. We also believe that those at the top of Unison did not set out to create the difficulties they are now in, and that nationally at least they appear to be willing to reappraise the situation.
What is being said behind closed doors cannot yet be published in the local papers because of local and national union politics.
Most disappointingly, our clients advise us that even local politicians, MSPs and councillors don’t appear to have the courage to speak out and grasp the truth. Our claimants have lobbied councillors and politicians to no avail.
The people of South Lanarkshire, who will continue to foot the ever-rising legal bills of the council, need to be made aware of the true facts so that they can also raise questions locally and nationally with elected politicians.
It appears to us that good people are content to do nothing; for our claimants this is hugely disappointing.
We fully expect that the council will appeal the recent decision of the Employment Tribunal.
This will only result in more cases and greater costs because we say that this is a problem the council cannot solve with a strategy of appeal after appeal. The hole they are in is already enormous and they should just stop digging.
During the tribunal one of our claimants was giving evidence about her job in a school kitchen when she explained that her job had become much harder since the council reverted to healthy eating – moving away from serving up turkey twizzlers.
The solicitor acting for the council cross-examined her, challenging her evidence saying that the council had never served turkey twizzlers. Quick as a flash, she replied, “Oh yes they did!” – and the tribunal believed our claimant.
Moreover, the senior personnel worker from the council described their job evaluation scheme as “hieroglyphics”.
Arguments about turkey twizzlers and hieroglyphics have, we are told, now cost the council at least £500,000 in external legal fees.
Does anyone reading this article think any of this makes sense?
The council might hope that they can emerge victorious from this fight but we say that the councillors and politicians should be listening to their low-paid employees who know the reality of the situation.
The job evaluation scheme, known as the 555 Scheme in South Lanarkshire Council, has been ruled not to comply with the provisions of the Equal Pay Act 1970 or the Equality Act 2010. The council should now face this fact.
Our battle is focused against the council and we will fight on until the workers of South Lanarkshire can rely upon a lawful job evaluation scheme which is valid and transparent and delivers equal pay for both male and female workers in South Lanarkshire.
We have called upon the council and the unions to get around the table with us now to reach a settlement in the interests of the claimants, the council and the council tax-payers of South Lanarkshire.
Will they now see sense or will they appeal, spending more money on unnecessary legal costs arguing about turkey twizzlers?