The outcome of a battle for equal pay for women could cost the National Health Service £20 billion plus.

In a test case brought by the public service union Unison a NHS Trust has been ordered to make payments to workers estimated to be worth between £35,000 and £250,000 each.

Following an eight-year legal battle, North Cumbria Acute NHS Trust has been forced to pay up to £300m in compensation to its female employees for 14 years of discrimination.

The sums involved though do bring in the question whether the trust is able to afford to pay the award, which is expected to be made throughout the health service.

Under legislation on equal pay for work of equal value, a panel accepted that the work of a range of employees from nurses to catering staff should carry the same wages as specific jobs mostly held by male employees. That ruling has yet to go before an employment tribunal, which will calculate the compensation due.

The NHS say that the appropriate point on a pay scale has not been agreed though, Unison feel the trust had little room to manoeuvre.

The equal pay claims at the Cumbrian trust started in 1997 for 14 jobs using five male "comparators the women ranged from nurses to catering, domestics to clerical officers, sewing machine assistants, porters and telephonists. They compared their pay with that of joiners, building labourers, craftsmen, supervisors and maintenance assistants. Pay, hours of work, pensions, weekend working rates and sick pay were all included in the comparisons to determine that women were treated unfairly by the old system.

Under current legislation women are entitled to claim up to six years back pay, although a number of the claimants at the Cumbrian trust are entitled to 14 years of compensation including interest at between 50 and 60 per cent according to Unison.

Unison, say it's been a long, hard struggle, but it is a fantastic result for the members involved, and only goes to vindicate the arguement, that there has been historic widespread pay discrimination in the health service against women.

The union now say that they can now claim for back pay for other health service staff who have suffered from an unfair pay system, though they intend to resolve the issue by negotiation with NHS management rather than litigation.