GLASGOW: Implementing equal pay remains a challenge for Scottish councils, with around £750m spent on settling claims so far and nearly 27,000 cases still outstanding.
The Accounts Commission reviewed how effectively local authorities have implemented the Single Status Agreement (SSA), introduced in 1999 to harmonise the pay structures of different groups of council employees and to help eradicate historic inequalities.
The local government public spending watchdog found that implementing the agreement was a costly and complex process, and councils underestimated the challenges involved.
Pauline Weetman, commission member, said: “Equal pay is both an incredibly important issue and a legal duty for Scotland’s councils, to eliminate decades of inequality.
“However, implementation of equal pay has been a substantial challenge for local government.
“Councils need to be confident that pay equality is embedded in how they operate. It’s critical that officers ensure that they’re doing all they can to fulfil their duties in relation to equal pay and publicly report this work, and that elected members continue to scrutinise and challenge their progress.”
The 2004 deadline for implementation was missed by 31 out of 32 local authorities and it took more than a decade – twice as long as planned – for all councils to carry this out.
It was finally achieved in 2010.
The commission found local authorities faced difficulties in funding the changes, which slowed progress and that there was a lack of collective national leadership to overcome challenges and address equal pay issues in a timely way.
Since 2004, around 70,000 equal pay claims have been lodged against councils.
The cost of compensation agreements and settling claims, along with legal fees, amounts to around £750m.
The commission has recommended that councils and elected members ensure that their pay arrangements are fair and transparent.
This includes assessing the impact of organisational changes that may affect arrangements in future, and publishing equal pay statements and policies.
Councillor Gail Macgregor, Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA) resources spokesperson said: “COSLA welcomes today’s report from Audit Scotland, which recognises the complex judicial processes and huge costs that councils have faced as they have worked hard to meet their equal pay obligations.
“As employers, councils take their responsibilities to achieve equal pay very seriously, and we are frustrated that there remains a high number of claims outstanding.
“This is in large part down to complex and nuanced legal issues which can frustrate the process and act as barriers to quicker outcomes.
“Councils have endeavoured to settle all legitimate claims as quickly as possible. It is worth nothing that cases can remain ‘live’ in the employment tribunal system even when settled and we have no control over when these are taken down.
“Also, many other remaining cases are ‘class actions’ where the settling of a single test case will resolve a larger number of cases in one go.”