28 January 2005
Trade and Industry Secretary Patricia Hewitt has ruled out any extra government cash to fund equal pay despite union warnings that prevaricating could cost it more in future.
Hewitt said it was 'not realistic' to expect the government to plug the equal pay gap, put at £2bn in local government alone. Instead, she said, leaders and managers in the public sector should look to 'balance funding demands' such as efficiency and improved services 'while combining moving to better pay'.
'Average pay is now higher in the public sector than in the private. The pay gap is 10% in the public sector and 20% in the private sector. I would like to say "here's a blank cheque to solve all equal pay problems", but that's not realistic,' she told Unison's Women at Work seminar on January 24.
But Dave Prentis, general secretary of Unison, warned that with the onset of no-win-no-fee lawyers and a legal precedent that allows disadvantaged women workers to claim a maximum of six years' back pay from local authorities, the cost of equal pay was beginning to soar.
'Don't take too long to come to terms with the fact that we need more money,' he added. Hewitt said that she 'increasingly recognised' the argument for strengthening the Equal Pay Act and wanted to look at the 'whole issue of a duty to promote equality'.
Labour MP Angela Eagle urged the government to create a single equality Act, which could be introduced first in the public sector and would cover gender, race, religious and sexuality equality.
However, a change in the current legislation is likely to be among the recommendations of the Women at Work Commission announced by Hewitt in July last year.
Margaret Prosser, chair of the commission, said the current legislation was too weak compared with the 'advancements' under other contemporary Acts, such as health and safety.
'Something must be done to build in the requirement that what goes on in the world of work is more closely monitored,' she said.
Prosser added that the commission's recommendations, due to be published this autumn with interim findings this spring, would have to be agreed by all those around the table.
This could prove a challenge, with disparate representatives from trade unions, supermarket Asda, the CBI business lobby and the Equal Opportunities Commission.