OPPOSITION councillors have hit out after being told they cannot discuss plans to sack County Durham’s teaching assistants at a meeting next week.

Liberal Democrat members of Durham County Council had wanted to table a motion calling for the authority to overturn its decision to sack teaching assistants and re-engage them on new contracts.

But legal officers at the council said it could not be discussed because if the motion was successful the authority would be exposed to the equal pay risk it was trying to avoid.

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Cllr Owen Temple, who tabled the motion, said: “If that is the case, how could we have been given a vote in the first place, because that carried exactly the same risk?

“And if the termination of contracts cannot be withdrawn, what exactly is the goal of the negotiations which council, unions and teaching assistants are currently engaged in?

“Is it any wonder that teaching assistants think their dispute has just been kicked into the long grass beyond the election?”

Colette Longbottom, Durham County Council’s head of legal and democratic services, said: “The resolution for the dismissal and re-engagement of teaching assistants was made by the council following legal advice that the current arrangements were breaching legislation on equal pay.

“If Cllr Temple’s proposed motion was successful, the council would again be exposed to the same risk.”

Last May councillors voted to impose the changes, which would mean teaching assistants would be paid during term-time only.

The authority says current contracts leave it at risk of equal pay challenges from other employees because teaching assistants are paid for 37 hours a week, 52 weeks a year but work 32.5 hours a week during term times.

The new contracts were due to be imposed on January 1, but the decision was suspended in December following four days of strike action which saw more than 1,000 workers walk out of schools.

The council is now in talks with trade union Unison and a project team, with input from teaching assistants and headteachers, has been working on the review considering job descriptions, roles and responsibilities.

Cllr Temple added: “I only brought this motion forward because I was approached by a teaching assistant who asked whether it be possible for a councillor to table a motion now asking for withdrawal of termination notices in light of how long they have already suffered for.

“She spoke of really sad stories coming through of colleagues leaving, unable to stand stress any longer, and others who have been caused to go onto sick leave.”