HL Deb 22 January 1996 vol 568 cc795-7

2.43 p.m.

Baroness Turner of Camden asked Her Majesty's Government:

What are the total legal costs incurred by the respondents (the Secretary of State and Frenchay Health Authority) in defending the speech therapists' equal value claim brought by Dr. P. Enderby, and how long have these proceedings taken.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Baroness Cumberlege)

My Lords, the costs of the respondents' defence so far have been in the order of £400,000. The legal proceedings have taken almost 10 years.

Baroness Turner of Camden

My Lords, does the Minister agree that it is amazing that so much public money should be spent resisting a claim which the European Court of Justice has decided should be conceded in principle? How much longer will these very committed women—most speech therapists are women—have to wait before they receive justice and equal pay?

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, when the speech therapists and MSF (the Manufacturing, Science, Finance Union) set out on that path, they knew that it would be very long and tortuous. From 1988 the Government have not lost a single hearing. I appreciate that it is in all our interests to have this case settled as quickly as possible. But it takes two to tango. I again point out that the Government have not yet lost a single hearing since 1988.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that speech therapists have been making a vital contribution to the recovery of people disabled by strokes or similar conditions, following the first few, who assiduously helped servicemen with head wounds in World War II, as I witnessed when I spent over a year in the ward of a brain surgeon? I should add that in my case he was operating on my back and not examining my head, as uncharitable friends have suggested.

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, I should like to endorse my noble friend's view. Speech therapists do an enormously valuable job, not only among elderly people who have had strokes, but also among children. One only has to consider how very few young people today have stutters or speech impediments. I believe that much of that is due to the work of speech therapists.

Lord Ashley of Stoke

My Lords, I am president of the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapy. Dr. Enderby was chairman of that body last year. Can the Minister tell the House whether the Government are genuinely seeking a solution of the problem or whether they are trying to save money at the expense of speech therapists by prevarication and procrastination? Is she aware that it is not true that the speech therapist assumed that there would be a very long case? Is she further aware—as a fair person I am sure that she is aware—that speech therapists treat their patients very considerately? Is it not time that the Government accorded the same courtesy to the therapists?

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, the noble Lord is right in that Dr. Enderby is an exceptional person. She is somebody of international standing. I believe that that has caused some of the problem in using her case as a comparator with other cases. But, as I said, it takes two to tango. In fact, between 1986 and 1991, it was the applicants who asked for judicial review. They lodged two appeals without asking for the proceedings to he expedited. I believe that that has been the cause of some of the delay.

Lord Peston

My Lords, I should declare an interest in that my wife is a speech therapist, but, happily, she has retired, so there is no financial interest involved. Dr. Enderby is very distinguished. I am absolutely staggered that the Government find themselves on the other side. Would it not be rather more reasonable if the Government were on the side of the speech therapists and if this case had not happened in the first place? Is she aware that I find it doubly puzzling because I know exactly the Minister's views on this matter, which, if she could state them—which perhaps she cannot—would be exactly the same as mine; namely, that it is about time that the speech therapists—most of whom are women—received a little justice in this matter?

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, the noble Lord is a little presumptuous in believing that he knows exactly what is in my mind. However, I know that Lady Peston is also a very distinguished person in her own right. I should point out that in this case the industrial tribunal found that the machinery that we have been using to determine pay is completely free of any sex discrimination. Secondly, the counsel for MSF is withdrawing 1,000 cases. Surely that is an admission that for these claims there is no case to answer.

Baroness Turner of Camden

My Lords, the Minister said that it takes two to tango. Is she aware that the union would not in the first place have started on that path, eventually leading to the European Court of Justice, which, incidentally, found for the union, had it been possible to negotiate decent terms and conditions for these very valuable people at the outset?

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, there was an error of judgment in the first place because the speech and language therapists decided not to opt for the pay review body system of pay determination; they decided to stick with the Whitley system. I believe they would now say that it has not served them well in terms of increases in pay compared with other professional bodies. That group, and the MSF who is representing them, were clearly knowledgeable in regard to the tortuous path they intended to take; indeed, when they started they said that they would take it to the highest court, the European Court.

Baroness Turner of Camden

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that the MSF has had the support throughout the proceedings of the Equal Opportunities Commission?

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, this is a long and tortuous case. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Peston, and others that the sooner it is resolved, the better. But it is wrong to think that only speech therapists have a case. From the point of view of the Government, this is an important settlement, not only for the NHS and public pay, but also for the whole economy. It is right that it should be contested.