Tuesday, 27 January 2004

Questions (17)

Liz McManus


139 Ms McManus asked the Minister for Health and Children when he expects the draft regulations regarding smoking in the workplace to come into operation; if any comments have been submitted or objections raised by other EU member states; the procedures that will be put in place to monitor and ensure compliance with the regulations; the planned start-up date for implementation of the prohibition on smoking; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [2105/04]

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Oral answers (12 contributions) (Question to Minister for Health and Children)

A report commissioned by the Office of Tobacco Control and the Health and Safety Authority on the health effects of environmental tobacco smoke in the workplace was published in January 2003. This report was prepared by an independent scientific working group. The conclusions of the expert group are quite blunt on the risks to health from environmental tobacco smoke. Environmental tobacco smoke is a cause of cancer, heart disease and respiratory problems. Employees need to be protected from exposure at work. Current ventilation technology is ineffective at removing the risk to health. Legislative measures are required to protect workers from the adverse effects of exposure.

A draft of regulations to prohibit smoking in the workplace was notified to the Commission in April 2003, and during the three-month standstill period, which allows member states to voice opinions on the measure, no objections or reservations were put forward. The Commission was notified of two amendments to the draft regulations in November 2003 to allow for exemptions for prisons and outdoor work areas and for psychiatric hospitals, nursing homes, certain charitable institutions and sleeping accommodation in hotels, guest houses and bed and breakfast accommodation. As a result of these amendments, it was necessary to change the commencement date for the introduction of the ban. The standstill period for the amendments notified will end on 4 February and 16 February 2004.

Surveys carried out by the Office of Tobacco Control show widespread support for smoke-free workplaces, and the trade union movement is strongly in favour of the measure.

The owner, manager or person in charge of a workplace is legally responsible for ensuring compliance with health and safety requirements, including the prohibition on smoking in the workplace. As part of the process of monitoring compliance with the smoke-free workplace requirement, authorised officers from the health boards and the Office of Tobacco Control will visit premises. I expect that the vast majority of employers, employees and the public will respect the new measures which are primarily to protect people from exposure to toxic environmental tobacco smoke. I will make a decision on the new date for commencement of the smoke-free workplace regulations in the near future.

Is the Minister aware that he is being criticised for creating a political and administrative muddle that has now become a farce, that this is not my criticism but that of the media, and that he has shown himself to be remarkably inept in trying to achieve a goal supported by the Opposition and approximately 60% of the population? Despite such considerable support — I cannot say the same for the support he receives from his backbenchers — he has failed abysmally to deliver the ban he promised. Why can he not tell us when the ban will become law? He has had to revoke the date he set. I understand the ban was to be introduced on 4 January. He has twice amended the statutory instrument, a sign of the muddling and bungling in an area for which he is responsible.

Regarding the implementation of the regulations, there remains an issue which he has again failed to deal with. Who will monitor workplaces other than those where food and drink are sold? This is not within the Minister's competence, as it is the responsibility of the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, but I would like him to answer the question. It is clear these workplaces will not be monitored by environmental health officers, nor by staff of the Health and Safety Authority, without new legislation, as I understand it. Does the Minister propose to introduce — at some stage — a ban on smoking in the workplace without the means and staff to implement it in a large sector of working environments which do not include pubs and bars in restaurants and hotels?

Is he going to wait for the Tánaiste to bring it in for him?

I reject the charges made by the Deputy regarding the introduction of the ban. We have had a very significant debate over the past year which has resulted in a significant public consensus being built up. I and others engaged in that debate in order to convince people of the merits of this approach. The ban will be a major milestone in public health legislation in this country.

The Minister will have to convinceThe Irish Times of that.

I will take criticism on the chin. It does not worry me. I keep my eye on the big picture.

That is part of the problem. The Minister should listen a little more.

He said he would have the legislation on the ban ready.

The Minister without interruption.

I gave the Deputy latitude to make her points without interruption. I am keeping my eye on the big picture, which is the introduction of this measure. It is a very significant milestone in terms of protection of public health and one which people want to see implemented.

When we debated these regulations, all the Members on the other side of the House implored me to grant exemptions for the areas I have mentioned, such as psychiatric nursing homes. We took a cautious approach in deciding to create legal exemptions as per the regulations. Under the European transparency directive, they must be notified to Brussels. Even though the main regulations have been notified without any objections or observations, and one might argue that there was no need to notify the exemptions, we did so in order to be safe. The standstill period will end shortly. No objections, opinions or reservations have been articulated. Once the standstill period ends, we will be able to give a definitive date. It is wise to wait until the standstill period concludes, particularly relating to 4 February, and that is one of the issues which is a factor in terms of the definitive date being announced.

We sought legal advice on cross-authorisation, and the Office of Tobacco Control has powers under the Public Health (Tobacco) Act to cross-authorise. We are in discussions with the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment and the Health and Safety Authority regarding the issues raised by the Deputy.

Is legislation needed?

No. There is a very explicit provision in the Public Health (Tobacco) Act which facilitates cross-authorisation.