In 1920, Poplar Borough Council resolved to pay the same rate to its lowest grade of staff, regardless of whether they were male or female. The cost of living fell sharply in the 1921/22 financial year, but the Council continued to pay its lowest grade of staff the same rate. The district auditor challenged the councillors' decision on the grounds that the pay was excessive and that there was no lawful reason to pay women the same rates as men. The councillors argued that they were merely exercising the discretion conferred on them by the Metropolis Management Act 1855 which gave councils the power to pay such wages as they think fit.
Where is it on the map?At point a.
The auditor won. The House of Lords held that, whilst the councillors had a legal discretion to set wage rates, they had exceeded that discretion by paying so far above the market rate and by paying women the same as men. Lord Atkinson said that the Council had acted unlawfully because they had:
What's the principle of law?"...allowed themselves to be guided in preference by some eccentric principles of socialistic philanthropy, or by a feminist ambition to secure the equality of the sexes in the matter of wages in the world of labour."
Equal pay legislation means that the parts of the judgment which discuss whether it is lawful to pay men the same as women no longer represent the state of the law, but the principle that a discretion should only be exercised in a lawful way is still good law. As Lord Wrenbury said in his judgment:
"A discretion does not empower a man to do what he likes merely because he is minded to do so - he must in the exercise of his discretion do not what he likes but what he ought. In other words, he must, by use of his reason, ascertain and follow the course which reason directs. He must act reasonably."What's it like today?
Poplar Borough Council was abolished in 1965, and is the area it served is now part of the London Borough of Tower Hamlets.
|From London's Coats of arms and the stories they tell, Richard Crosley, 1928.|
Building work has already started.
You can read more about Poplar's radical history, and the circumstances around the Town Hall's sale, here.