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    Women entitled to pay rises on maternity leave Thousands of working mothers will be able to claim higher maternity pay after a European court ruled that women are entitled to pay rises awarded during their maternity leave. Michelle Alabaster, a mother of two from Bexleyheath, south-east, London was awarded only £204 after her nine year legal battle, but her case will have far-reaching consequences for working mothers and could cost the Exchequer and employers millions of pounds. The judgment effectively closes a loophole in the Equal Pay Act that requires a woman claiming unfair treatment at work because of her pregnancy to show that a man in the same situation would have been treated differently – an impossibility, as men do not get pregnant. Julie Mellor, chairwoman of the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC), welcomed the ruling but said that it illustrated deep flaws in Britain’s equal-pay laws. “The legislation needs an overhaul and we are delighted that the court has recognised that women on maternity leave do not need to find a male comparator when bringing equal-pay claims,” she said. Mrs Alabaster said that she was glad to have brought the action, even though it had dragged on for so long. “I am proud that I have fought for what is right. Thousands of women will benefit,” she said. The former secretary started her case against the Woolwich Building Society, now owned by Barclays Bank, in 1996 while pregnant with her daughter, Ellie. She argued that her employer broke European sex discrimination law by underpaying her during maternity leave. Although she had been awarded a pay rise of more than 12 per cent while pregnant, which brought her pay to £12,801, it was not taken into account when her maternity pay was calculated. The case was first heard at an employment tribunal in Ashford, Kent, where she said that she had been the subject of sex discrimination under Article 141 of the Treaty of Rome. It then went to the Employment Appeal Tribunal and the Court of Appeal in London, and ended up in the European Court of Justice, in Luxembourg, which ruled in Mrs Alabaster’s favour. Yesterday the Court of Appeal found that English law, as well as European law, allowed her to receive £204.53 plus £65.86 interest. Lord Justices Brooke, Latham and Neuberger accepted a House of Lords ruling that Mrs Alabaster’s pregnancy “was a circumstance relevant to her case that could not be present in the case of the hypothetical male comparator”. On this basis, they concluded, she could succeed in her claim for sex discrimination without finding a man in the same situation. A spokeswoman for the EOC said that thousands of women would benefit from the ruling. Research published by the commission this year found that a fifth of the 441,000 working women who become pregnant each year lose out financially. This can be because their pay is cut or because they are given a lower pay rise than colleagues or because they are denied bonuses. The Department for Work and Pensions estimates that the cost of calculating maternity pay to include any pay rises during pregnancy could come to £1.2 million a year to employers and £16.9 million a year to the Exchequer. Employment lawyers said that it was not clear how far back claims might go. Some gave warning that employers may face claims going back to 1976. Lucy Baldwinson, an employment lawyer at Allen and Overy, said that the ruling would open the door to thousands more claims from women on maternity leave. “As the Equal Pay Act does not just cover pay but contractual terms as well, we could see cases on what other benefits women should be entitled to accrue while on maternity leave,” she said. She added that the lack of clarity about how far back claims could be backdated had “left employers in the dark”. “Employers will now be faced with queries from female employees wondering if they can backdate a claim and they will not know what to tell them,” she said, adding that a new test case would probably have to be brought to settle the issue. “The Times”: 4.5.05