The purpose of the Bill is to provide for office workers protection similar in character to that provided for industrial workers by the Factories Act in regard to such matters as cleanliness, temperature, lighting and general safety of the places where they work. As the title suggests, the Bill concerns itself with the physical conditions in offices, and places on occupiers an obligation to provide safe and healthy offices for their workers. It also gives the Minister for Industry and Commerce power to go beyond that general obligation by making regulations which will prescribe in a detailed way the standards to be observed in particular instances. In making these regulations the Minister will have the assistance of a representative advisory council to be set up under the legislation and in fact he will be obliged to consult the advisory council before making any such regulations.
When the Factories Act was being framed, we could draw on our long experience of the operation of legislation relating to factories. We were able to turn for guidance to the legislation of other countries and approach the whole task of framing the Bill in the realisation that we could make a fairly good job of it. The preparation of legislation for office workers was an entirely different matter. So far as can be ascertained, there is no similar legislation elsewhere and there is no I.L.O. Convention on the subject. I should add that we have sought the advice of a number of interested bodies. In some cases there was a notable lack of comment, but in other cases some useful proposals have been made, a number of which were incorporated in the Bill during its passage through Dáil Éireann.
With the text of the Bill an explanatory memorandum was circulated, but there are one or two points I should like to underline at this stage. The Bill will apply to offices in which there are more than five clerical workers employed. We are, so to speak, feeling our way on this initial attempt to legislate for office workers and the obligations imposed by the Bill may involve expenditure by occupiers and owners in many cases. While that expenditure will, perhaps, press fairly lightly on the larger and more solvent concerns, there is a danger that if the Bill were to be applied to smaller concerns some of them might decide to disemploy one or two workers rather than to face up to expenditure on improvements and to the prospect of inspection.
The second point which I wish to make is about enforcement. It is not proposed to set up for the purpose of this Bill a new and separate inspectorate for its enforcement. Offices in factories and Government offices will be inspected by officers attached to the existing factory inspectorate in the Department of Industry and Commerce. In the case of all other offices the Bill proposes to place responsibility for enforcement on the various sanitary authorities throughout the country. On the whole, this is the best arrangement to make, and, in any event, it is desirable to avoid amendments which will involve additional administrative costs.
The Bill was welcomed generally in the Dáil and can be regarded as an agreed measure. The text is similar to that which was circulated in February last by the previous Government. The amendments, which were relatively few in number, were, for the most part, incorporated so as to give effect to suggestions made by Chambers of Commerce and other interested parties.
I think we should approach this first piece of legislation for office workers with the aim of having a practicable, workable and reasonable measure rather than that we should strive towards some theoretical ideal which may be unattainable in practice, or try to draft a code to regulate in every detail the working conditions of office staffs. If we can secure an effective measure which will deal in a reasonable way with matters of health, safety and welfare for office workers, we will have done all that is practicable in present circumstances, and hence it is that I recommend the Bill to the Seanad.