A cash-strapped council is facing a £10 million wages bill because of years of underpaying its female staff.

Further job cuts and increased pressure on council taxes are predicted in Brighton and Hove as wages for as many as 600 women employees are brought up to the level of their male equivalents and up to six years' backpay is covered.

Negotiations between unions and the council should be complete by the end of the month but both sides have admitted the ten-year Government deadline, set in 1997, will not be met.

The national equal pay settlement was intended to bring mainly women cooks, cleaners, care workers and support staff up to the same wages as mostly male refuse collectors and maintenance staff.

A deal was struck for two years' backpay but a series of European judgments means women are now entitled to up to six years' back pay instead.

Although Brighton and Hove City Council has increased pay for some women staff, union Unison estimates two-thirds of the work remains incomplete.

If a deal is not agreed with the union, the council faces mass litigation and strikes, according to Alex Knutsen, Brighton and Hove's Unison secretary.

The union estimates wage increases and back payments will cost the authority between £5 million and £10 million.

Mr Knutsen said: "Because it has taken ten years, we expect the full settlement straight away, within this year's budget.

"We understand the council has financial difficulties and we have to balance that against a fair and equal wage for our employees.

The negotiations, when they have taken place, have been useful and positive, just a bit slow."

The council has included just £1.25 million in its budget for the next 12 months to fund the pay deal.

Simon Burgess, leader of the city council, warned of more job losses if the full six years' backpay was demanded.

Councillor Burgess said: "We do not have this money in provisions and we cannot find these amounts of money without significant job losses.

"But we need to address the anomaly where women are doing the equivalent-value post but being paid less than men.

"I do think we have a strong position because of our partnership with the unions."

He hopes to come to an agreement with unions on backpay to avoid cuts or council tax increases.

This is the latest in a series of financial blows to hit the council in the past six months.

A ballooning social services bill and other pressures led the authority to slash £12 million from the budget, which has led to 120 job losses.

Last month, tenants voted against council plans to sell their homes to a housing association, leaving the authority with a £100 million shortfall to bring the properties to the Government's basic standard by 2010.

And town hall bosses predict the council may see no extra money from the Government this year. Opposition councillors have warned the budget agreed last month, which starts on April 1, could be derailed because of insufficient provisions for the pay settlement and an over-optimistic inflation figure.

A caveat within the budget lists the pay settlement and the possibility of successful appeals as a risk.

Green councillor Keith Taylor said the budget had been drawn up on "a wing and a prayer".

A spokeswoman for the council said it could not put a figure on the payout as negotiations were continuing.

She said "Bringing together the terms and conditions of thousands of employees is a complex business and it is important for us to achieve fairness for all our staff.

"To that end, we are making sure we carefully consider the detail and will continue negotiations beyond the end of March."

The city is one of many to face tough negotiations with unions over equal pay, although other authorities in Sussex are not believed to be facing such steep payouts.