HL Deb 03 June 1997 vol 580 cc565-8

2.48 p.m.

Lord Ashley of Stoke asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they intend to support the principle of equal pay for equal work for all speech therapists, following the settlement by the Department of Health in the case of Dr. Pamela Enderby and Lesley Cogher.

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Baroness Jay of Paddington)

My Lords, I am delighted that the first oral Question which I am answering as a Minister should be from my noble friend, with whom I have worked so closely. My noble friend may, of course, be assured that we support the principle of equal pay for work of equal value where it has been proved.

My noble friend will be aware that the cases of Dr. Enderby and Mrs. Cogher, which were settled in March after protracted legal proceedings, are the tip of a large and complicated iceberg. The new Government are considering the possible implications of those cases for other claims for equal pay lodged by speech therapists. This dispute has dragged on for more than 10 years. We are now looking at all the possible options as we assess the position on the legal cases which are still in progress.

Lord Ashley of Stoke

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that that is the kind of answer that we did not receive until recently? It is really positive and constructive. I love opposing and criticising but in the light of that reply I have merely one question to ask. If the Government really support the principle of equal pay for equal value—and that is the principle on which Dr. Enderby won her case—will the Government agree to pay all speech therapists accordingly?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his kind remarks about the positive nature of my first reply. I hope that he will be equally pleased to know that representatives of both sides in the issue have agreed to hold exploratory talks later this month, without prejudice for legal reasons, when the details of the cases will be discussed.

Baroness Turner of Camden

My Lords, can my noble friend the Minister tell the House how much taxpayers' money the last Government spent in opposing such cases for over 12 years instead of negotiating a reasonable settlement with the union which would always have been open to them? Further, in view of the recent successes achieved by Dr. Enderby and her colleague, will my noble friend give consideration to ensuring that these speech therapists are entitled to back pay in respect of the losses they have sustained during the 12 years they have been waiting for a successful conclusion to such cases?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I am sorry to have to tell my noble friend that the total as regards legal defence costs in such cases so far amounts to around £1 million. So far as concerns retrospective payments, I am sure that they will be the subject of the preliminary talks which, as I said in response to my noble friend Lord Ashley of Stoke, it is proposed to hold later this month.

Lord Quirk

My Lords, does the Minister agree that fully trained speech therapists like Professor Enderby, formerly Dr. Enderby, are a very special and valuable resource and that one of the ways in which their lot could be relieved, as well as the issue of equal pay, is the support of a cadre of well-trained speech therapy assistants to whom could be delegated some of the work that is reconstitutive after the properly expert therapists have made the appropriate diagnosis?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his suggestion. As he said, Professor Enderby is an extremely distinguished member of her profession with an exceptional international reputation for both academic and practical work. I shall draw the noble Lord's suggestion about additional support to the attention of my honourable friend the Minister for Health in another place who is looking in detail at the practical outcome of the issue.

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, as the Minister was critical of the previous Government's action in contesting this case, would she like to assess the costs of the 1,000 withdrawn cases which were being promoted by the MSF and which the courts decided were no longer pertinent? Further, in her supplementary reply to her noble friend Lord Ashley of Stoke, was the Minister suggesting that this Government will be retrospectively compensating people for the Government's failure to foresee the future'?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for those points. As I said in response to my noble friend, the details of such settlements, both for individuals and for the profession as a whole, are under general consideration and will be the subject of the preliminary talks, without prejudice, this month. I understand that there are still 1,500 cases remaining to be settled. Therefore, the question of their position will obviously be of crucial importance.

Lord Ashley of Stoke

My Lords, I rise simply to point out that I forgot to declare my interest in the matter as I am president of the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapy. I apologise to the House for that omission. However, is my noble friend the Minister aware that we will be monitoring the negotiations as they continue?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I am absolutely sure that my noble friend will, as always, be acutely observant of everything that the Government are doing.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, does the Minister agree that it is especially important for children to be able to communicate properly? Does she also agree that there is a dearth of speech therapists and long waiting lists of young children needing their services? It is important that any problems children may have should be dealt with as quickly as possible as soon as they are diagnosed. Can the Minister expedite any negotiations so that young people are encouraged to train as speech therapists and thereby ensure that the number of such waiting lists can be cut?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Countess, Lady Mar. Of course it is important that children should be helped as early as they can be through the professional activities of speech therapists. However, the relationship of that issue to the question of the pay claims is not direct. I shall draw the suggestions of the noble Countess for practical change in the profession to the attention of my honourable friend in another place who is examining the question. I agree with the noble Countess that this longstanding dispute about pay has cast rather a pall over the profession of speech therapy and may have contributed to the problems she described.