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Seanad Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 11 Dec 1957

Vol. 48 No. 13

Office Premises Bill, 1957—Report and Final Stages.

Government amendment No. 1:—
In page 4, to delete Section 3 (3) (b), lines 36 and 37.
Amendment agreed to.

With reference to amendment No. 2 which reads "in page 4 to delete lines 36 and 37," that is the same thing. It is the same as the amendment we have agreed to. I merely put it down for the purpose of ensuring that it would not be forgotten.

Amendment No. 2 not moved.
Government amendment No. 3:—
In page 8, Section 18, to insert a new sub-section as follows:—
(6) The Minister may make regulations for offices or for any class or description of office requiring that provision be made for fire preventive facilities.

I think I should explain to the Seanad that I did not provide in the original Bill for regulations relating to the provision of fire preventive facilities because I was aware that, under the Fire Brigades Act, a local sanitary authority has power to survey premises, used as offices, within its jurisdiction, and to make orders regarding buildings which are considered to be potentially dangerous from the point of view of fire hazard. I was anxious to ensure there would be no overlapping of functions and I felt that giving the Minister for Industry and Commerce power to make regulations requiring the provision of fire preventive facilities would involve some conflict with the functions of the sanitary authorities under the Fire Brigades Act. However, I think there is no inconsistency in putting this provision in the Bill, but I want to make it quite clear that I do not propose to make any regulations in respect of any matters which fall within the sphere of local sanitary authorities under the Fire Brigades Act.

I should like to ask the Minister a question. I notice the wording is: "The Minister may make regulations for offices or for any class or description of office requiring that provision be made for fire preventive facilities." Would that cover offices not covered by the Act itself?

No, I would not think so. The intention is that regulations may be made for all offices generally, or only for offices of a particular kind where there might be a serious necessity for special regulations, such as offices which would be associated with factory premises.

I was thinking of offices where five or less workers are employed, which are specifically excluded, and classes of premises which the Minister has power himself to exclude. The very comprehensive wording says "for any class or description of office." That might seem to imply offices not covered by the Act. I think it would be better to say "any offices for which provision is made in the Act."

Section 3 of the Act, sub-section (1) says:—

"(1) In this Act ‘office' means any premises, room, suite of rooms or other part of premises in which persons are employed on clerical work."

Sub-section (2) of the same section states:—

"(2) This Act does not apply to an office in which the number of persons employed on clerical work does not exceed five..."

Amendment agreed to.
Amendment No. 4 not moved.

I move amendment No. 5:—

In page 8, between lines 32 and 33, to insert:—

(2) There shall be provided and maintained, for the use of all employed persons whose work is done standing, suitable facilities for sitting sufficient to enable them to take advantage of any opportunities for resting which may occur in the course of their employment.

This matter was discussed on Committee Stage when I suggested that the Parliamentary Secretary might take another look at the section as drawn up. The inference appeared to be that seating would be provided if the work was done sitting. The purpose of the new sub-section was to clarify the fact that, where it was reasonable that the people concerned could sit during working hours, seating facilities should be provided. I wonder could the Minister clarify whether in fact this amendment is necessary in order to provide what the trade unions interested in the problem think is necessary?

The amendment would make no practical difference whatsoever. The vast majority of clerical workers would have reasonable opportunities of sitting without detriment to their work. If there is one type of clerical worker who must stand all the time at his work, it is hardly necessary that the Bill make provision for him. My view is that if there is any necessity to provide something more than is provided in the section as it stands, then it is a matter to be dealt with by regulations.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

I move amendment No. 6:—

In page 10, line 30, to delete "all or" and in line 31 before "any" to insert "save those in respect of cleanliness, overcrowding, sanitary conveniences, fire escape, drinking water, first aid and washing facilities".

This amendment, again, was discussed on Committee Stage. As the Minister may know, it was rather to tie the hands of the enforcing authorities in the exemptions they could provide. A discussion we had brought to light another problem, the fact that we have now a variety of enforcing authorities under the section as it stands. Those authorities would have the right to exempt completely, if they so wished, all and every office under their authority without reference to the Minister, without even advising the Minister and without seeking the advice, or indeed, informing the Advisory Committee. We pressed the Parliamentary Secretary to have a particular look at that aspect of it. I think it was felt on all sides of the House that, in spite of the fact that there is a qualifying period, it was hardly the intention of the legislation that the enforcing authority should have such wide powers without any reference to the Minister or the Advisory Committee.

Therefore, the amendment is all the more necessary, in my view, because of the fact that no Government amendment has been brought forward to cure what we thought was a slip in the Bill. I would ask the Minister whether he could not accept the change which would in some way curtail the power of the enforcing authority in regard to giving exemptions?

I do not think there has been any slip in the preparation of the Bill. The section has a very definite purpose. If it is not accepted as it is, the powers in the section could lead to widespread difficulty. In order to comply with certain of the provisions of the Bill, it will be necessary in very many cases, perhaps, to have premises reconstructed or extended, or to have plumbing or other services installed. It would be unreasonable not to make statutory provision so that an adequate period of grace can be allowed in such cases.

The power of exemption was fairly widely provided in the Factories Act. So far, the need for the exercise of it has not arisen very frequently; but the need has arisen in some cases and serious difficulty would have resulted had the power of exemption not been put into effect. Therefore, our experience in the operation of the Factories Act would indicate the need for a similar power of exemption for a period in this Bill. The exemption, as the Bill stands, is limited to a maximum period of three years after which any benefits suspended must be provided.

I do not think there should be reference to the Advisory Committee in a case of this kind. The application for exemption may involve the disclosure of confidential information concerning the business of the firm. One reason a firm may not be able to do the work within the time specified is that they have not the money and they may not want to advertise their financial situation in a case like that. It would be wrong to require in the Bill that cases of that kind should be referred to the Advisory Committee. There is no point at all in referring it to the Minister because he has no means of carrying out the investigation necessary to decide whether exemption was required or not.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

I move amendment No. 7:—

In page 11, to delete lines 16 to 23 and substitute:—

(f) with respect to any matters under this Act, to question, and to take in writing a statement from, every person whom he finds in an office or whom he has reasonable cause to believe to be or to have been within the preceding two months employed in an office.

This amendment was discussed on Committee Stage and it is not necessary to go into the arguments advanced in support of it. The Parliamentary Secretary indicated, and I quote from Volume 48, column 987 of the Seanad Reports:—

"If the enforcement of the Bill as an Act would not be prejudiced in any way by the removal of this, I do not think the Minister would have any great objection to it."

He undertook to bring the matter back for consideration. The real point in relation to a measure such as this is that in a measure which it is not anticipated there will be any difficulty in enforcing, the powers are rather wide and are open to certain objections. They can be used in a way that would not commend itself to members. Perhaps the Minister may be able to indicate he is accepting this amendment?

Perhaps the Chair will allow me to make some general observations arising out of certain discussions which took place in the Seanad on this and other Bills. It is obvious that objections—both reasonable objections and other kinds of objections— can always be put forward to proposals which give powers to inspectors responsible for the enforcement of Acts of the Oireachtas; but, in my view, there is little point in enacting legislation to bring about certain desirable situations, if the powers of the officers who are responsible for enforcement are watered down to a point where offenders can readily evade their obligations or evade the requirements of the legislation.

In practice, little or no enforcement is required at all in the case of a good employer. The good employer will normally seek to obey the law and will be conscientious in making arrangements to ensure that there will be no departure from the letter of the regulations in matters under his control. Other employers may be indifferent and careless. They can generally be brought into line by the mere issue of a warning notice. But there will be always a minority group who will not comply with the law, if they think there is the slightest chance of evading it. It is in fairness to all employers affected by legislation of this kind that provision must be made to ensure that enforcement will not depend on the goodwill of an unco-operative minority. For that reason, it is always desirable to draw the relevant sections of Acts of this kind in such a way as to ensure that the intention of the Oireachtas will not be defeated in the very small minority of cases where the desire of the individuals concerned is not to obey the law and to avail of any loophole the Act gives them of avoiding obeying it.

In this case, the changes which the amendment suggests should be made in the paragraph of the section are, I think, undesirable, particularly in so far as it is sought to remove from the inspector the power to require persons to make a declaration of the truth of the statements made. Perhaps it is hard to visualise the circumstances under which the enforcement powers of the Office Premises Bill will be called upon; but we have some experience in the administration of factories legislation and it was decided to frame the Bill in as close conformity as possible with the Factories Act. The same enforcing officers will be operating in many cases and in any event the only experience we have to guide us is in the administration of the Factories Act.

It is realised that under the Factories Act, circumstances may arise where court proceedings may well follow upon an accident which might involve loss of life and an accident might, in certain circumstances, lead to criminal proceedings in court. In these cases, it is necessary that the inspector should have power, not merely to question people for the purpose of getting information, but to require people who make statements to him to sign a declaration of the truth of the matters to which they have testified.

It would be most undesirable to take that power out of this section, even though I recognise that, in the case of offices, it is not likely that the circumstances which arise in factories will arise very often. Apart, therefore, from the desire to keep the legislation relating to factories in as close conformity as possible with the legislation relating to offices, I do not think we should attempt to weaken the enforcement provisions in this Bill, having regard to our experience in the enforcement of the corresponding provisions of the Factories Act.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Government amendment No. 8:—
In page 14, Section 39, to insert before sub-section (2), line 15, a new sub-section as follows:—
(2) An offence under this Act alleged to have been committed by the owner or occupier of an office may be prosecuted by a person employed in that office or by an official of a trade union of which that person is a member.

This amendment is different in many respects from amendment No. 9. I want to make it quite clear that while I have no objection to giving persons employed in an office, or an official of a trade union of which such a person may be a member, the power to institute proceedings in respect of an offence committed by the employer of these persons in respect of the offices in which they are employed, I could not contemplate a situation in which a worker might prosecute a colleague for the breach of some section which imposed an obligation on the employed person. I could not contemplate a situation in which a person employed in one office could prosecute the owner or employee of another office. I think it would be most undesirable to provide that prosecutions could be taken only in the case of the neglect of the enforcing authority. I think the section meets the main point the movers had in mind.

I would agree that the amendment put down by the Government largely meets the point of view expressed in the next amendment. Would the Minister, however, clarify one little point for me? There is reference in the amendments to an official of a trade union. I should imagine that it would be the trade union, as such, that would take the action and not the official as an individual. Has the Minister given thought to that aspect of the matter? I should imagine that the trade union would be the people concerned. Its members would take the legal action and not an individual official of the trade union itself.

I think that would be dangerous. The only definition of a trade union that I know of is contained in the Trade Union Act of 1913 which describes a trade union as follows:—

"The expression ‘trade union' for the purpose of the Trade Union Acts, 1871 to 1906, and this Act means any combination, whether temporary or permanent, the principal objects of which are under its constitution statutory objects."

I think it is far better to give this power to an official of the trade union and thus avoid any legal argument arising on that point.

I want to ask a question which relates to terminology. I feel sure that this is along the usual lines and in the language usual in these cases. I notice the phrase—it occurs also in another section—which says "any offence under this Act may be prosecuted". To the layman it would be more normal to say an offender should be prosecuted. Is the phrase I have referred to a set phrase?

I think that is the set phrase. It is the offence that is prosecuted.

The Minister gave a definition of a trade union under the Trade Union Act, 1913, but a number of offices covered by the Bill would have people employed who might not be members of a trade union of the kind the Minister described. There are workers in the smaller types of offices, the kind of workers more in need of protection, and they would not be in a trade union. Does "trade union" in this amendment include staff associations?

In the last resort, a prosecution can be taken by one of the persons concerned.

I accept that, but from the point of view of the members of the staff, it might be more convenient that a prosecution would be taken in the name of the staff association.

I should not like to get into an argument as to whether a staff association is or is not a trade union. We would need a judicial explanation of that.

Amendment agreed to.
Amendment No. 9 not moved.
Bill, as amended, received for final consideration.
Question proposed: "That the Bill do now pass."

This is an important Bill to those people interested in the campaign to improve office conditions. The Bill, as such, is not as good as some of us would wish it to be, but it is certainly much better than the Bill we got from the Dáil. I should hope that the Advisory Committee would be appointed quickly, and that they would tackle their job immediately. I hope they will meet with all success. I know that is the wish of the people concerned with the organisation of office workers that the job should be taken in hands immediately.

There is one final point I want to make. The fact that this Bill is much better than the Bill we got from the Dáil is due largely to the patience and, indeed, the skill of the Parliamentary Secretary. We gave him a very tough day here last week and he certainly impressed us all with his patience and skill in dealing with the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.