Women's pay battle to go to Europe: Equality body's patience runs out

FRUSTRATED by 12 years of ministerial opposition, the state-funded Equal Opportunities Commission is to take its battle with the Government over women's pay to Europe.

This important decision comes after the Department of Employment rejected proposals to make legislation more effective in an internal document sent to the EOC in July. It was the last in a series of rebuffs received since Margaret Thatcher came to power, but it has exhausted the statutory body's patience.

In its latest reply, the Government turned down suggestions for speeding up the process of law. It rebuffed a proposal that would mean that an award of equal pay could be extended to other women doing similar work.

A statement from the commission also welcomed a decision by the Trades Union Congress to make an official complaint yesterday to Brussels over a law to abolish wages councils, which fix minimum rates for 2.6 million workers, more than 80 per cent of whom are women. Employers in sectors such as hotels, catering and retailing will be able to set their own rates from next Monday.

While the TUC is making an official complaint to the European Commission over wages councils specifically, the EOC asks for a ruling from Brussels on British equal pay law in its entirety.

The EOC believes that UK legislation 'fails to provide effective access to justice for individuals'; that British statute has proved ineffective in complying with the principle of equal pay in Article 119 of the Treaty of Rome and that Britain is failing to enforce laws and administrative provisions to ensure compliance with the EC's Equal Pay Directive.

The decision to refer criticisms to Brussels is a baptism of fire for Kamlesh Bahl, who took over as EOC chair in June. Ms Bahl, a former Conservative Party activist, was appointed by the Prime Minister.

The EOC submitted its last major document on equal pay to the Government in 1990, and waited three years for a reply. Ministers have also rejected the opinion of leading counsel consulted by the EOC which argues that British law may be in breach of European legislation. A document being drawn up by the EOC is expected to be sent to Brussels in September.

The TUC argues that the abolition of wages councils will lead to more discrimination and widen the gap between the pay of men and women. The TUC wants the EC to take the Government to the European Court.