Published: 12/09/2002, Volume II2, No. 5822 Page 8 9

Independent experts are backing female hospital workers, including nurses, who are fighting for equal pay with better-paid male colleagues such as electricians and plumbers.

Around 1,400 female staff - most of them nurses - from North Cumbria Acute Hospitals trust have joined a Unison-led legal campaign which aims to prove that they are paid significantly less than male NHS workers doing comparable work.

Now the union has claimed its first 'victories' after independent experts ruled that several women workers - including D-grade nurses, telephonists, and clerical assistants - are doing work of equal value to that done by betterpaid male staff such as electricians and plumbers.

Unison believes the finding could have significant national implications - and potentially increase the pay bill from the Agenda for Change negotiations.

Peter Doyle, the Unison officer behind the campaign, believes big pay rises are now inevitable.

Three of the 14 test cases are£17,500-a-year D-grade nurses, whose work was judged equal to that of a£26,500-ayear electrician.

Mr Doyle said applicants have the right to have pay increases backdated by 11 years, potentially giving a typical nurse a payout of more than£100,000.

'There is no way the trust can wriggle out of paying these women this extra money, ' he said.

'It is the beginning of the end of low pay for women in the NHS. It also has national implications - We have succeeded in Cumbria and we can now do the same in every other trust.'

Unison national secretary Karen Jennings welcomed the ruling from the experts and said she expected similar backing for other staff groups - including healthcare assistants and domestics.

She added: 'The ruling should support our negotiations in the NHS Agenda for Change, which is undertaking the colossal job of modernising our health service pay scales.

Royal College of Nursing acting employment relations director John Humphreys said the case 'reflects and underlines the importance of equal pay in the new system' being negotiated in the Agenda for Change pay talks.

But he added that the specific outcomes in the Cumbria case 'may not necessarily be reflected in the new system' because the bespoke job evaluation scheme drawn up for Agenda for Change might show different 'relativities' between jobs. 'The outcomes may not be reflected across the piece.'

Mr Humphreys also warned that funding of the new system was still 'a concern'.

The independent experts - appointed by a Newcastle employment tribunal - have so far released 10 reports, with 18 more to follow.

Keith McIntosh, director of human resources at North Cumbria, said: 'The trust has been co-operating with the independent experts, and it must be stressed that while the first batch of reports have been submitted to the tribunal, the case is still ongoing and will not be concluded until the tribunal meets to examine all of the findings and other relevant issues.

'In the circumstances, the trust does not consider it appropriate to comment further at this stage.'

The reports - part of Europe's biggest-ever equal value claim - will be considered by the employment tribunal when it reconvenes in Newcastle in November.