Landmark victory for women in in fight for equal pay

The Government has made key concessions in a landmark equal pay challenge by National Health Service speech therapists that could pave the way for up to pounds 100m in back pay and new salary scales for women health service workers.

After more than a decade of resistance, the Department of Health has accepted that Professor Pamela Enderby, former departmental head of speech and language therapy at Frenchay Hospital, Bristol, who pioneered the first claim, and Lesley Gogher, a speech and language therapy section leader with Sheffield Community Health, deserved equal pay with colleagues in the predominantly male professions of clinical psychology and pharmacy.

The two cases were among 19 "lead" claims finally nearing a conclusion at an industrial tribunal in Croydon, 11 years after Professor Enderby became the first of hundreds of speech therapists to lodge a claim under the 1984 "equal pay for work of equal value" regulations, in March 1986. Another 1,500 cases from the 7,000-strong, largely female, speech therapists' profession are waiting in the wings.

Professor Enderby, now professor of rehabilitation at the Northern General Hospital, Sheffield, was yesterday barely able to believe that her 11- year fight had finally ended. "When I started the case I felt that being realistic it would take two years," she said.

The DoH could have taken the decision years ago to undertake job evaluations to ensure female staff doing work of equal value to that of male colleagues were being paid equally. Instead, it instructed individual NHS trusts not to settle cases and chose to spend millions of pounds of taxpayers' money defending the lead claims in a succession of legal hearings. Without the backing MSF, the therapists' union, and the Equal Opportunities Commission, the battle for equal treatment would have been abandoned.

The speech therapists' claim has been through industrial tribunals, the High Court, the Court of Appeal (twice) and the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg before finally returning to the Croydon tribunal this week, making it the second-longest group action for equal pay for work of equal value. The first, by women canteen workers against British Coal, was launched in 1985.

The disparity between Professor Enderby's salary and her clinical psychologist and pharmacist comparators was pounds 4,000 and pounds 7,000 respectively, but the outcome of hers and the other cases could have ramifications for other "female" professions in the health service, such as midwives, physio- therapists and occupational therapists.

If only 500 of the 1,500 pending speech therapist cases are eventually won, the bill against the NHS for back pay alone would be worth up to pounds 30m.

The women's solicitor, Sara Leslie, of the Sheffield law firm Irwin Mitchell, said: "Most people assume that women carrying out work of equal value to men will be paid equally. These cases prove this is not so."

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in