The company running non- clinical services at the country's first private finance initiative hospital has been accused of scrapping 'family friendly' shift patterns and forcing 40 cleaners into taking redundancy.

Lawyers for the GMB union made the claim last week as they launched a legal battle to try to prove that Building and Property (B&P) Ltd - the facilities management company at the newly opened Cumberland Infirmary in Carlisle - failed to consult properly more than 100 domestic staff over new work patterns.

The union predicts the cleaners could win compensation payouts totalling more than£100,000. B&P denies the claim.

The Carlisle hearing was told that several cleaners claimed their managers gave them a stark choice that amounted to, 'Accept the new shift patterns or lose your job.' The cleaners - all of them women - previously worked between 8.30am and 3.30pm. Their new hours include permanent weekend or night working, and rotating morning and evening shifts from 7am-1.30pm, and 11.30pm-8pm.

Cleaner Sharon Norris said the first she knew of the new shifts was when managers gave domestic staff multiple choice forms asking them to express a preference from a list of shift options.

Jacqueline Chilcott said she had been a cleaner at the hospital for more than six years, but she now faced redundancy because of the new shifts.

She added: 'There was only one option suitable for my personal circumstances - the 7am to 1.30pm shift.

They offered me two 12-hour shifts which were permanent weekends.'

Barrister Richard Harrison, for B&P, said a B&P manager had encouraged Mrs Chilcott to apply for another suitable vacancy. B&P will argue its case when the hearing resumes in October.