Women's pounds 800,000 sex bias victory: Sixteen women win pounds 800,000 over unfair retirement policy. Barrie Clement reports

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SIXTEEN women, two of whom have since died, waited eight years to win pounds 800,000 compensation for sex discrimination.

After a prolonged legal battle, British Gas yesterday agreed a record out-of-court settlement for the women, who were compulsorily retired five years earlier than their male colleagues.

The women, most of whom were showroom and clerical staff, will receive compensation varying between pounds 25,000 and pounds 67,000 each. They were made to retire at 60 while men in similar jobs were allowed to work until they were 65.

British Gas could face a huge bill over its unequal retirement policy, which it has subsequently changed. Unison, the public services union, said there were 300 similar cases in the pipeline. The union fought the privatised company through the British courts and appealed successfully to the European Court of Justice on behalf of the 16 women.

The case was referred back to the House of Lords which remitted the case to the London South industrial tribunal to make an award. An agreement was struck yesterday when the case was due to resume.

Alan Jinkinson, the union's general secretary, said: 'It is a great pity that the women had to wait so long for decent compensation. Sadly two of our members are no longer alive to enjoy it.' He said that despite 'biased' legislation, introduced by the Thatcher and Major governments, which was designed to minimise the rights of working people, 'unions are alive and kicking and looking after the interests of their members'.

Bruce Piper, Unison's legal director, said that a further 100 members had similar claims against organisations in the electricity industry. Mr Piper said the case made clear that British Gas and other public utilities were bound by a 1976 European directive. Under this law, organisations given powers by the Government to carry out a public duty must offer the same retirement age to both men and women, Mr Piper said. 'This is a victory which has pushed back the frontiers on law against sex dicrimination.'

Under the Sex Discrimination Act of 1986, all employers must equalise retirement ages for men and women, but its provisions did not come into force until 1987 - too late for the British Gas staff.

Joyce Copeland, former manager at the company's Southampton showrooms, said she was delighted. 'Justice has been done, albeit rather late. I never wanted to retire.'

A spokesman for British Gas said management was pleased the issue was settled out of court. The spokesman said the company had consistently supported greater flexibility in retirement ages.

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