The Prime Minister's wife is a senior member of a legal team resisting claims for enhanced pension rights for hundreds of thousands of Britain's lowest paid workers, most of whom are women. As a leading barrister, Cherie Booth would stand to earn a lump sum of around pounds 25,000 plus pounds 2,500 a day for court appearances, although her chambers last night refused to comment on her remuneration.
The critical hearing begins a week on Monday at the House of Lords which will decide whether part-time employees qualify for back payment of pensions bringing them into line with full-time colleagues. Leaders of the Unison public service union yesterday declared their confidence that they would win and that it could cost the Government and the private sector more than pounds 100m.
Apart from her identification with the Labour Party, Ms Booth's involvement is ironic because the additional rates being sought would mean that most of the workers would cease to qualify for social security benefits at a time when the Government is determined to reduce dependency on the state. Doubly ironic is the fact that the Government is one of the employers fighting alongside Ms Booth who is representing local authorities.
Ms Booth will argue that she is simply doing her job and that she is operating on the "cab rank" principal by which barristers simply take the first client that comes along. However, it is not the first time that Ms Booth's career has been at odds with her husband's position in the Labour movement.
Rodney Bickerstaffe, Unison general secretary, said he hoped the Government would accept the fairness of giving part-time workers full pension rights. "New Labour quite properly say they are different and we believe that this is a matter of social justice," Mr Bickerstaffe said. "... If we win it will send a signal to women in particular that they are valued. I would hope that the Government would treat this realistically and that we don't have to fight a rearguard battle. We consider pensions to be deferred payments and we believe that part-timers have been robbed by the system."
In their fight to win equal rights for part-timers, unions have lost cases at an industrial tribunal and in the Court of Appeal. However, they believe that a new ruling from the European Court of Justice last month will mean that the law-lords will give a decision in their favour. The bill for extra pension payments will fall on the Government, local authorities and a number of private employers.
Unison believes that a typical example of a worker who would be affected by the ruling is a woman who worked half-time for her local authority. Her pay would have been around pounds 6,000 a year and the extra entitlement would be pounds 750 a year in pension payments and another pounds 2,250 as a lump sum.