Published: 17/02/2005, Volume II5, No. 5943 Page 9

Women hospital workers in north Cumbria could win massive compensation payouts as part of Europe's biggest-ever equal value pay claim.

While the Department of Health insists no final deal has been done, Unison said this week that it is now negotiating for a compensation package worth up to£300m for 1,400 female claimants, most of them nurses from Carlisle's Cumberland Infirmary and Whitehaven's West Cumberland Hospital.

The union's lawyers say NHS pay structures have unfairly discriminated against women for years.

Independent experts have already ruled in the union's favour on 14 test cases, including D-grade nurses.

The experts ruled that virtually all were being paid thousands of pounds a year less for work that is of equal value to NHS jobs done traditionally by men, including joiners and electricians.

Despite confusion over the final value of the claim, Department of Health sources confirmed at the weekend that the two sides are 'near' agreement. Lawyers for both sides have spent weeks in secret negotiations. The nurses' claims are due before an employment tribunal next week.

Carlisle-based full-time Unison official Peter Doyle, who has led the equal value campaign, said that until last week the government believed the deal would cost far less than the Union's estimate of£300m. 'It is not over yet, ' he warned.

'If we do not get the deal, then I would encourage women NHS workers who have not put in claims to do so, because if we do go to tribunal we'll win.'