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RAF told to pay woman pounds 33,000: Record compensation to woman dismissed for becoming pregnant

A FORMER RAF servicewoman was yesterday awarded pounds 33,000 by an industrial tribunal - the highest compensation payment made to a victim of sexual discrimination.

Deborah Miller, 28, from Nafferton, Humberside, was asked to leave her job as an aerospace systems operator within two days of disclosing her pregnancy to her commanding officer at RAF Buchan, Aberdeenshire, in March 1987. At the time, the armed forces had a policy of discharging women when they became pregnant.

Mrs Miller is one of 5,500 pregnant women dismissed from the services between August 1978 and August 1990 who are now eligible for compensation payments from the Ministry of Defence. The cost of settling these claims could be at least pounds 50m and some estimates put the bill far higher.

The compensation the ministry must pay is much greater than it would have been, following a decision by the European Court last month. Until then, the maximum amount of compensation industrial tribunals were allowed to award in sex discrimination cases in the public sector was pounds 11,000.

However, the court decided that Helen Marshall, a nurse from Southampton who was involved in an early retirement dispute with her employing health authority, had the right to be awarded more compensation than the pounds 11,000 maximum. This now means that there is no limit to the amount of money that can be awarded in sex discrimination cases in the public sector.

The armed services were exempt from the provisions of the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act until 1990, but that year the Equal Opportunities Commission sought judicial review of the policy on the grounds that an equal treatment directive had come into force throughout the European Community in August 1978.

The commission also supported two former servicewomen seeking compensation in the High Court for being dismissed after becoming pregnant. After the court ruled that their dismissal was unlawful the ministry changed its policy and accepted financial liability for all the other pregnant servicewomen who had been discharged between 9 August 1978 and August 1990.

So far, claims have been received from 3,700 women dismissed from the RAF, Navy and Army; 1,500 have accepted MoD offers to settle and another 1,000 are due to be decided by industrial tribunals. Mrs Miller's award from a tribunal at Croydon, south London, follows a pounds 22,000 out-of- court settlement last month between the MoD and Jacqui Thornber, 33, a former RAF medical assistant.

Mrs Miller told the tribunal that she felt 'degraded and insulted' when she was handed her discharge papers. Women in the forces, she added, were 'almost made to feel dirty' if they became pregnant.

An Equal Opportunities Commission spokeswoman said: 'We are absolutely delighted. These awards reflect their loss of earnings and loss of a career.'

An spokeswoman for the MoD said it would decide whether to appeal against the award once it had seen the tribunal's written judgment.