I WAS just five years old old when the Equal Pay Act 1970 received Royal Assent. In moving the bill, its main architect, Labour employment minister Barbara Castle, told the House of Commons that “the concept of equal pay for equal work is so self-evidently right and just that it has been part of our national thinking for a very long time.”

Employers were given a generous five-and-a-half years to get their house in order, so it did not come into force until the end of December 1975. Like everyone else, I believed that would be the end of the matter. Equal pay was now law, and women were on course for full equality in every other sphere of life. Oh, how naïve we were.

Last week – a mere 42 years later – Scotland’s public spending watchdog, the Accounts Commission, publicly reprimanded Scotland’s local authorities for their abysmal failure to sort out an equal pay dispute that has been raging on across the UK since the end of the last millennium.

The Single Status Agreement was supposed to bring to an end to historical inequalities of pay rates within local councils. It was a deal between trade unions and employers to ensure equal pay for work of equal value. It was supposed to end the pay gap between those in traditionally “female” occupations, such as school cleaners and dinner ladies, and those in “male” roles such as janitors and street sweepers.

No disrespect to the men delivering these vital services, but it was the women who were being robbed. And it was all supposed to be ironed out by 1999.

That was until councils — overwhelmingly male in composition – decided that it would cost too much to treat women fairly and compensate them for the money they had lost. So, they dug in their heels.

It has to be said that the hierarchy of certain trade unions – again male-dominated – were complicit with this scandal. In 2004, when I was an MSP, I argued till I was blue in the face with some otherwise progressive left-wing trade unionists and socialists that this injustice should be ended, whatever the cost.

Back then, incidentally, the Labour-LibDem coalition did not have to struggle to balance the books every April because of austerity budgets enforced on them by the UK Government.

The year I was elected, I was incredulous that the Scottish Parliament had underspent its budget by just less than £400 million, and by 2006 had amassed an £800m surplus. So, when the same Labour politicians today attack the current Scottish Government for failing to spend money that it doesn’t actually have, I can’t help but think of all the things they could have easily have done during the economic good times.

But back to justice for women – an outrage that should have been sorted out once and for all. This is not a party-political point because, to varying degrees, almost all councils are still “dragging their feet,” in the words of the Accounts Commission.

Last week, SNP-led West Dunbartonshire Council refused to settle the balance of its debt to up to 3000 women on the grounds that they had failed to lodge a claim for what they were entitled to.

Respected pro-independence campaigner and Vale of Leven councillor Jim Bollan, of the Community Party, said: “It’s unacceptable for one woman to suffer injustice, but 2865 is quite incredible.” Predictably, Jackie Baillie joined in the fray, with plenty of sound and fake fury but zero credibility.

In adjacent Glasgow, the council which was at the time led by her party had to be dragged up before the Court of Session because of its refusal to do the right thing. The ruling went against the council, which had just fallen under the control of the SNP – and now the city faces a £500m shortfall. And I wearily expect that, if and when the new council has to make hard choices to compensate tens of thousands of women, Jackie Baillie’s Labour colleagues will cynically up the outrage to maximise political advantage from the mess they bequeathed.

It’s now time for all councils to take responsibility – even if that means picking up the tab left on the table by their political rivals. Back in 2004, when the first, now famous equal pay claims were won, I heard many people – or to be precise, many men – condemning women for pursuing their claims through the courts via “no win, no fee” lawyers. They were made to feel ashamed of taking legal action. They should have relied instead on collective negotiations by trade unions, so the narrative went. And if they insisted in pursuing justice, councils would face bankruptcy and jobs would be put at risk.

It was not the finest hour of Scotland’s public-sector trade unions. Bizarrely, they were only finally dragged onto the battlefield by private-sector lawyers.

The overall bill for equal pay claims could have been minimised if councils had paid up properly in the first place. The costs could have been managed year on year – and the legal bills for battling against women could have been avoided.

It’s not that I don’t agree with collective action. But when the collective reinforces structural inequality in society, it fails.

And let’s hope that when it comes to the outstanding claims, our current crop of council leaders, whatever their political allegiances, don’t make the same mistake all over again.