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Seanad Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 3 Dec 1947

Vol. 34 No. 15

Harbours Bill, 1947—Committee and Final Stages.

Sections 1 to 3, inclusive, agreed to.

I move the following amendment:—


Before Section 4 to insert the following new section:—

4.—Section 19 of the Principal Act is hereby amended by the substitution therein for sub-section (2) of the following sub-section:—

(2) a member of the harbour authority who is absent from more than six consecutive meetings of such harbour authority shall vacate his office unless the harbour authority decides that there is good reason for such absence

and the said section shall have effect accordingly.

I hope, Sir, I am not interfering with the atmosphere of the House in asking that this small amendment be inserted in the Bill. The amendment is of rather trifling importance but it seeks to deal with a matter which has caused some difficulty in the case of harbour authorities and I take it the Minister will not have any strong feeling against accepting it. I want to draw attention in the first place to the provisions of sub-section (2) of Section 19 of the Harbours Act, 1946. That sub-section provides that if a member of a harbour authority is absent from more than half the meetings of the harbour authority during any period of six consecutive months he shall vacate his office unless the harbour authority decides that there is good reason for such absence. Normally, one would say that that would not create much hardship but in fact it creates a rather undesirable situation, both from the point of view of the officials of the harbour authority and from the point of view of members of the harbour authority.

You will observe that disqualification arises where a member is absent during any period of six consecutive months from the majority of the meetings of the harbour authority. In order to keep track of the attendance of members, the secretary of the harbour authority after every meeting has to check the attendances to see whether during the past six months a particular member was absent from the majority of the meetings. Let us say there were nine meetings in six months. If the particular member was absent from five he is automatically disqualified from membership unless, of course, the harbour authority decides that there were adequate reasons for his absence. In practice, what has happened in the case brought to my notice is that a member of a harbour authority who was absent from more than half the meetings over a period of six consecutive months was notified that he was no longer a member. It is true that his absences were due to his interest in other public works. He was attending meetings of Dáil Eireann. If he were to write a letter to the harbour authority explaining that his absences were due to that cause there is no doubt, of course, that the harbour authority would be entitled to reinstate him to membership. But it is an unsatisfactory position that a man who is performing public duties as a public representative should be notified in these circumstances that he has ceased to be a member and should have to make that appeal. I am not quite sure but I know that at one stage he decided that he would not make any appeal to be restored to membership.

It seems to me the amendment is simple and straightforward and is in keeping with the practice in respect of most local authorities. It seems to me much more intelligible that the absences should refer to absences from consecutive meetings rather than to isolated absences spread over any six consecutive months because, bear in mind, the six months period does not necessarily run from the 1st January or the 1st July. For the purpose of the Act it has been held that the six consecutive months may run from any date. It may be the 1st January, the 1st April, or the 1st November. It is obvious that the arrangement I suggest is preferable and more easily understood. It is easy, too, for a person who has occasion to absent himself from meetings of this kind for good and sufficient reason, to follow his position in relation to attendances and to know when in fact he has missed six consecutive meetings. That is preferable to the position of not knowing at any time how he stands in relation to attendances until he is told by an official of the harbour authority that he has ceased to be a member.

I do not think this is a desirable amendment. A similar amendment was moved in the Dáil by a Deputy who, I understood, based his case for it on his own experience but, when it was clear that he was under a misunderstanding, he withdrew it. It would be foolish, I think, to consider the rule that it is desirable to have in this connection merely upon the basis of the experience of an individual who happens to be a member of the Dáil and is necessarily absent from harbour board meetings when the Dáil is in session. I think we should have in mind primarily the case of the individual who is elected as a representative of a particular interest to a harbour board and pays no attention to his duties there and whom it is desirable to remove so that the particular interest concerned can substitute a more attentive member.

I think it is desirable and I undertook in the Dáil to consider urging secretaries of harbour boards to adopt as a practice the sending of a notification to each member when he had reached the position that absence from the next meeting would render him liable to disqualification. I will undertake to do that. It would be obviously a desirable practice to establish, but I would ask the House to keep in mind that in any event the decision rests with the harbour board. If they consider that the absence of a member from half of the meetings in six consecutive months is due to causes which are explainable and understandable, then disqualification does not follow. It is only where there is no such explanation satisfactory to the harbour board that disqualification takes place.

I think also that Senator Duffy is basing his case upon one instance, and is assuming that the circumstances of that case could apply in other cases. The rules laid down by the Harbour Acts for harbour boards apply to all harbour boards, large and small. The Dublin Port and Docks Board meets weekly and has always had a rule that any member absent from half of the meetings in a period of six months is disqualified, and possibly the Limerick Harbour Board also meets very frequently. But, there are smaller harbour boards that meet only once quarterly. If we were to substitute the Senator's amendment for the position in the Act, one could conceive a member being absent from every meeting for 21 months before being liable to disqualification. I do not think the rule in the Bill is a harsh one. It has been the practice of a number of harbour authorities up to this, and I think it should be retained, subject to the desirability of establishing the practice of notifying a member that his continued absence would render him liable to disqualification if he misses the next meeting.

I think the Minister does not feel very convinced that the present arrangement is a good one. His argument certainly is self-destructive in many points. The Dublin Port and Docks Board will meet weekly——


Very good. In that case, there are 12 meetings in six months and a person who is absent from seven of them is disqualified.

Is liable to be disqualified.

The section is clear—he is disqualified. There is no doubt about sub-section 2 of Section 19—"He shall vacate his office".

Unless the harbour authority decides there is a good reason for such absence.

His colleagues, then, decide whether or not he will vacate his office. In the case of the smaller authority meeting quarterly, there are only two meetings in six months. If the member is absent from one, in other words, if he attends one meeting in six months, he is entitled to remain a member of the board. In the case of the Dublin Port and Docks Board, if he attends five he is disqualified. Therefore the suggestion contained in the amendment is more straightforward. It is a better arrangement to provide that a person who is absent from six consecutive meetings, whether weekly, monthly or otherwise is disqualified.

I quite agree that it seems a very long time to permit a member who is absent from six meetings to remain a member, if they are quarterly meetings; but it seems to me that the harbour authority that meets once a quarter is not charged with a very heavy responsibility and that its members as a whole do not consider themselves a responsible body if they are satisfied with quarterly meetings. I understand that, in many cases, the larger harbour authorities meet fortnightly or at least once a month. The harbour authority which does not meet once a month is simply leaving the whole management in the hands of a permanent official and they have no check over his work.

It is wrong to say that my amendment is similar to one moved in the Dáil. It is quite different. That moved in the Dáil was to the effect that a person would not vacate his office unless he were absent for six consecutive months. My amendment proposes six consecutive meetings. It is similar to the provision in the Local Government Acts, so I think the Minister may have a sound reason for opposing it but he has not stated it. If the practice in regard to local authorities as a whole is satisfactory, it cannot be unsatisfactory in the case of a harbour authority.

An ounce of practice is worth a ton of theory. Another member, as well as myself, is an active member of the Dublin Port and Docks Board. Under Senator Duffy's proposed amendment, it would be possible for a man to lose his seat, though he may be a most assiduous member of the board. For instance, there are many sub-committees and I am a member of three. I attend those meetings and also the statutory meetings of the board, but if for some unforeseen reason I was debarred from attending the statutory meetings on a Thursday —though I might have attended a subcommittee meeting the day before— under this amendment I would be disqualified. It is on actual practice that we must base our action and I submit seriously, from my experience, that the present situation is better than that suggested in the amendment. The Dublin board is very active and many of us attend the various sub-committees. There have been cases where men have forfeited their position on the board because of their absence, but the board then considered the special circumstances in at least two cases and reinstated the persons concerned, on the production of evidence which satisfied the board as to the reasons for absence. The present position is a satisfactory one and should not be disturbed.

Before this hare gets further, let me catch him right now. The Senator is completely misinformed as to the purpose of the amendment. The present position in the Dublin Port and Docks Board is that a member can attend 40 sub-committees in any period of six months but if he is absent from more than half the regular fortnightly meetings during that six months he ceases to be a member.

I have just said so; but it is at the discretion of the board.

In the case the Minister referred to, a Deputy of Dáil Eireann was disqualified by the Limerick board because of Section 19 (2). In that same period of six months there were 19 committee meetings at which he was entitled to be present and I think he attended 15, yet he was disqualified under that law as it stands, no account being taken at all of attendances at the sub-committee meetings. I am not proposing to change that in the amendment—I simply want to take a clearcut issue and say that, if he is absent from six consecutive meetings, he is disqualified, rather than if his attendance is less than half the regular meetings of the authority. It is really a question of whether or not you want the present complicated method of calculating attendances. I am endeavouring to substitute a straightforward method, clear to every member of the local authority, for the present system which is not straightforward and in respect of which each individual member has a six months' period of his own.

I am honestly convinced that the amendment is undesirable. The present rule is quite workable. It has been the rule in the Dublin Port and Docks Board for 75 years and has not caused any serious upset to that organisation. Frankly, I think that, if a member accepts election to a harbour board, he should be expected to attend a reasonable proportion of the meetings and if he does not do so those who sent him there—whether they be cattle traders, shippers or others— should be given an opportunity of replacing him. In any event, I want to emphasise that the final decision rests with the harbour authority and if it decides that the absence is justifiable there can be no disqualification.

Is the amendment being pressed?

I do not want to divide the House on an amendment of this kind, but I do think the present position of the Act of 1946 is a bad one. I know the Minister will stand over it because it is here. There is no argument in favour of the situation, but it is the practice that, when a Minister brings a proposal to this House, he is adamant that there is no better proposal.

I am not bringing a proposal here. The Senator is proposing to change the law because one member of his Party was disqualified from Limerick Harbour Board.

No. I quoted the instance to show how the present legislation works, but I am endeavouring to bring this law into conformity with the law relating to local authorities generally and the Minister has gone out of his way to make it otherwise.

As far as local authorities are concerned, the Act of 1925 provides disqualification for absences over three months—much more stringent.

Three consecutive months. The question of consecutive absences is distinct from this in-and-out method which has to be calculated by the officials of the board in respect of each person separately. I suggest it is a bad system and, if I do not make a great mistake, Section 19 (2) is not that originally introduced in the 1946 Bill.

It is the section that the Dáil asked me to insert.

Exactly; the Minister himself had a different view as to how absences should be calculated. The amendment was put up in the Dáil by a person who may or may not have appreciated all its implications and because that amendment was inserted we are told that it is sacrosanct.

It was inserted with the consent of every Party in the Dáil.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Sections 4 to 12, inclusive, Schedules and Title agreed to.
Bill reported without amendment.
Agreed to take the remaining stages to-day.
Bill received for final consideration and passed.
Ordered: That the Bill be returned to the Dáil, without amendment.