Payments in cases of sex bias at work rise sevenfold: Average award is now almost pounds 22,000

VICTIMS of sex discrimination at work are now winning an average of almost pounds 22,000 in compensation - seven times awards being made before European law lifted the ceiling on payments a year ago.

Last year, for the first time, compensation in discrimination cases passed the million-pound barrier. Even if the recent high- profile, high-award cases involving pregnant servicewomen sacked by the Ministry of Defence, are excluded the increase remains sharp. The average award by industrial tribunals of non-MoD cases, which made up about one-third of the 241 cases brought since 1993, has increased by about 45 per cent.

The study by the Equal Opportunities Review concludes that record increases - some women have been awarded more than pounds 400,000 - means employers cannot ignore equal opportunities.

Yesterday, Gary Bowker, its author, said: 'There is now a clear financial incentive for employers to take equal treatment seriously and import the principles of equality law into their decisions.'

The report concludes: 'The removal of the compensation cap and the awarding of interest will have a significant impact on the size of compensation awards for unlawful discrimination.'

Until the beginning of last year industrial tribunals were limited to a maximum payment of pounds 11,000 to anyone who could prove that he or she had been illegally discriminated against. But following a test case in the European courts, the ceiling was lifted. Until then the average tribunal award was a little over pounds 3,000.

There had long been calls for a change in law and practice, which many thought left women in particular barely compensated for loss of jobs or career opportunities.

The flood of servicewomen's claims, which have distorted the figures, arise from an earlier European Court ruling in 1990 that the policy operated by the MoD of dismissing servicewomen in their 16th week of pregnancy had been illegal since 1978.

However, the large number of high awards to service personnel, which have already cost the MoD more than pounds 17m and threaten to cost tens of millions more, are likely to be moderated in the light of an Employment Appeal Tribunal ruling, which stated that some of the higher awards had been 'manifestly excessive' and out of proportion to the wrong done to the women, and set out new guidelines for tribunals.

The first example of this came last week when a former army lieutenant, claiming pounds 78,000 for dismissal after she became pregnant, was awarded only pounds 6,537. According to the study, until now MoD case awards have averaged about pounds 35,478.

The review, which also looked at incidents of racial discrimination, found that compensation for injury to feelings, particularly in racial harassment cases, had increased with average awards up by 42 per cent to nearly pounds 2,000.

Taking the Cap Off Discrimination Awards; Equal Opportunities Review, 18-20 Highbury Place, London N5 1QP; pounds 145 by subscription.

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