Stefan Cross: The equal-pay lawyer who fell out of love with Labour

Picture: Sean Elliott

First published by The Herald on 2 October 2018

STEFAN Cross was once a committed Labour man. So deep was his involvement with the party that the interview for his first big job – with trade union law firm Thompsons Solicitors – took place at its 1985 conference and he went on to serve as a Labour councillor in Newcastle between 1990 and 1998.

His love affair with the party waned, though, when he started to uncover widespread gender-based pay discrimination at English local authorities and took up the fight for pay equality on behalf of the affected women. Now, having taken that fight north into Scotland over a decade ago, he says emphatically that he is “no longer a Labour man”.

“[The fight for equal pay] has significantly disillusioned me with all political parties,” Mr Cross says. “The hypocrisy and cant is quite overwhelming. All three political parties say the right words but then they don’t do anything about it.”

The “complete apathy or even hostility” of the unions whose support ensured Labour controlled so much of local politics was also a turn-off for one-time trade unionist Mr Cross, who found himself obstructed at every turn when he started bringing claims against English authorities in the mid-1990s.

Although his organisation, Action4Equality Scotland, is now working together with the GMB, Unison and Unite to try to broker a deal for 13,000 Glasgow City Council employees, he says Scotland has not been immune to the kind of cosy relationships that put party and politics first and employee rights last.

“We launched our first case in Scotland – against Glasgow City Council – almost exactly 13 years ago,” he recalls. “The same thing as had happened with Birmingham City Council happened here: as soon as we started doing cases the trade unions ran off to the councils to do a deal with the women to stop the cases going forward.”

Despite this, as the scale of the equal-pay scandal became apparent, Mr Cross was subsequently able to bring claims against all but one local authority in Scotland, most of which agreed to settle without going to full litigation.

Glasgow and North Lanarkshire differed, with both unsuccessfully defending the Employment Tribunal claims against them. The former fought its staff all the way to the Court of Session before the current SNP administration finally agreed at the start of this year to negotiate a settlement deal.

Nine months later and talks over that settlement are still ongoing, with no sign of an agreement being reached. For Mr Cross this is a mark of how complicated the process has been north of the Border when compared to the cases he fought and won in England.

“There have been a lot more fights over procedural matters than we had in England so everything has taken much longer to do in Scotland than in England,” he says.

“In terms of authorities, Glasgow and Edinburgh have been the most difficult because both of them were particularly full of themselves and much more difficult to persuade than the others.

“Local politicians also have much more significance in Scotland – politicians weren’t directly involved in any of the cases in England. That can have positives and negatives. In South Lanarkshire the involvement of the council leader allowed us to reverse a roadblock but in Glasgow it was the exact opposite.”

While Mr Cross admits to being frustrated at the speed of progress in Glasgow, he remains confident that a deal can be done, not least because he says there has been a “significant cultural change” in the attitude of the unions at the local level.

“Glasgow has the opportunity to follow through and do something quite dramatic but whether people can deliver, at the end of the day, is a massive challenge,” he says.

Either way, Mr Cross, who was made an honorary QC in 2013 in recognition of his work on equal pay, has vowed to keep fighting until the Glasgow women get what they deserve.

“We promised we would deal with this in 2005 and we haven’t delivered on that promise yet,” he says. “When I started off doing this I thought if I was really lucky it would take five years and if I was really unlucky it would take 10. I got that spectacularly wrong.”