A NORTH-EAST council has been ordered to pay £131,000 to a female social worker who was a victim of sex discrimination.

In one of the highest awards of its kind in recent years, Durham County Council was ordered to pay Barbara Miller £80,000 for loss of earnings, £41,000 for loss of pension rights and £8,000 for injury to feelings. A further £2,000 was awarded for aggravated damages.

The tribunal heard that the problem came to light in November 2001 when a laddish culture led to Ms Miller being passed over for promotion in the council's social services department in favour of a man who did not have the required qualifications for the job.

She took the authority to a tribunal, which found wholesale breaches of procedure had led to contempt for equal opportunities.

The tribunal concluded the rules were changed to allow selection of the chosen candidate when there was no doubt Ms Miller was the most academically qualified for the post.

Tribunal chairman Peter Rennie said the job interview and selection had been manipulated by a senior manager, who deliberately misled personnel so that his preferred candidate could apply.

Ms Miller, 53, of Witton-le-Wear, County Durham, who welcomed the decision, said: "After a flawed internal investigation I was left with no choice but to take the case to tribunal.

"The most senior managers in Durham County Council were aware from the beginning about what had happened, but chose to do nothing.

"My position has been vindicated, but this sorry state of affairs should have been dealt with long before I was forced to take legal action. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to the GMB."

Iain Birrell, of law firm Thompsons, who represented Ms Miller, said: "The award of aggravated damages is unusual and reflects the ordeal Durham council put Barbara Miller through."

A Durham County Council spokesman said: "We are aware of the tribunal's decision and are now studying the make-up of the award to ascertain what challenge we will be making, if any. Disciplinary proceedings are still an option for the future and an investigation is still ongoing."