The one-day-a-week job that costs the taxpayer pounds 92,803 a year and achieves precisely nothing

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The Independent Online
The government-appointed Commissioner for Protection against Unlawful Industrial Action, who cost the taxpayer pounds 92,803 last year, was unable to help any of the three people who asked for her assistance.

According to official accounts presented to Parliament last week, the commissioner, Gill Rowlands, was paid an annual salary of pounds 13,992 before she stepped down from her one-day-a-week post last May.

But she received a further pounds 28,015 for her other part-time job - which she conducted from the same Warrington offices - as Commissioner for the Rights of Trade Union Members, for two days a week.

Perhaps in recognition of the productivity of the double-headed commissioner, Ms Rowlands' replacement in both posts - the former chief executive of West Glamorgan council, Gerry Corless - has been put on a total salary of pounds 35,000, a cut from her pay rate of more than 16 per cent.

In her role as Commissioner for the Rights of Trade Union Members, which cost the taxpayer a total pounds 336,646, Ms Rowlands was able to offer concrete assistance to only eight applicants in the year to last April.

For an overall cost of more than pounds 400,000 for the two commissions, each successfully completed case therefore cost the Exchequer about pounds 50,000.

But because Ms Rowlands was doing what Parliament had asked her to do under the terms of the Employment Act 1988, and the Trade Union Reform and Employment Rights Act 1993, the Comptroller and Auditor-General, Sir John Bourn, could hardly complain about a gross waste of resources in accounts published last week.

Ms Rowlands conceded in her last annual report as Commissioner for Protection against Unlawful Industrial Action: "As in previous years, and as far as I am aware, there have been few, if any, instances of unions becoming involved in unlawfully organised industrial action."

However, she then added: "If this is the case, it is my view that the current industrial relations legislation and my role within that legislation are proving to be effective deterrents."

According to her report, "Three formal applications for assistance have been received during the reporting year." None of the applications fell within the scope of her powers.

Perhaps anticipating criticism, Ms Rowlands also said: "The real value of my office is apparent when one considers the potential financial and personal cost of a one-day strike at national level by comparison with the annual budget of my office."

As for her other role, as Commissioner for the Rights of Trade Union Members, Ms Rowlands preferred to concentrate on the number of enquiries that her office has dealt with over the year - more than 1,000 - rather than the actual cases involving material assistance in court proceedings.

Ms Rowlands said: "I would prefer union members to settle their differences with their unions through internal procedures. When this occurs, because of the deterrent factor of my office, or when the matter is resolved because I have informed the member that I will not assist unless internal procedures to resolve the issue have been exhausted, I consider it a success for this office."

In her valedictory report on the year's work, Ms Rowlands said: "During the year, there has been a wide range of complaints, including those relating to removal from office contrary to rule, failure to allow access to accounting records, and breaches of rules relating to disciplinary proceedings.

"Many people have also contacted my office assuming that I can investigate complaints on their behalf and referring to me as the union ombudsman. I have made the nature of my role clear to them; that I have neither the power to investigate nor to provide advice."

Close reading of the account of the commissioner's "caseload activity" shows only eight cases "successfully resolved" with her help.

"Following the grant of assistance, the commissioner withdrew her support from four applicants; eight applicants failed to progress their applications after initial contact with the office; 22 applications were found to be outside the scope of the commissioner's powers ... The remaining 48 (although they were within the scope of the commissioner's power to grant assistance) were not assisted."