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Offices Act, 1960 (Regulations)

Volume 649: debated on Monday 20 November 1961

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[ Sir H. Harrison.]

11.55 p.m.

In the short time which remains, I wish to raise the question of the statement of intent of the Government that they do not propose to make regulations under the Offices Act, 1960. Quite apart from the adverse effect that this decision will have on the many office workers who were looking to the regulations for betterment of their working conditions, my submission is that it is completely unconstitutional for a Minister or a Government to say that they will not undertake duties and obligations placed upon them by statute.

The Act lays the responsibility upon the Secretary of State for the Home Department, but I see that the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour is here to reply. I make it clear at the outset that I and, I think, generally those who are interested in this subject are not in the least upset by a transfer of responsibility if that has been effected from one Department to another. What we are concerned about is that something should be done by a Department to implement the Act. Our complaint is that, despite the transfer from one Department to another, there will be no action in the matter.

Before coming to the details of the Offices Act, 1960, the reason for the need for regulations, I should briefly indicate the background to the passing of this Act of Parliament, because the background explains part of the problems with which we now have to contend. The Act is an outcome of the Report by the Committee set up in 1946 under Sir Ernest Gowers to make recommendations concerning the health, safety and welfare of non-industrial employees. That Committee reported in 1949, and it has been a great difficulty to get any legislation to implement its recommendations. We had frequent statements of good intentions by successive Ministers and by all manner of Government spokesmen. Indeed, an undertaking to introduce legislation was given in the Conservative election manifesto in 1955. I doubt very much whether we should ever have got legislation in this direction but for the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich (Mr. Marsh), who utilised his good fortune in the Ballot to introduce the Offices Bill almost exactly two years ago.

On the Second Reading of the Bill, the Minister advised the House to reject it but the House in its wisdom thought otherwise and, on a Division, the Second Reading was carried. Then, quite properly, the Government decided, despite the fact that the House had rejected their advice, that as the House had decided that there was to be legislation on this subject, in Committee they would do what they thought necessary to bring the Bill into what was then considered to be a workable condition. It is surprising how clearly the present difficulties were foreseen in Committee, because a great number of hon. Members in Committee, including myself, made reservations during the passage of the Bill about whether the Government would ever make the regulations that were required.

Early in the Committee stage, there was discussion about the words "The Minister", or "The Secretary of State", "shall make regulations". In its final form, the Act states that the Secretary of State "may make regulations". The Committee was assured that the use of the word "may" was only following precedent and was not in any way intended to give discretion to the Secretary of State in the decision to make regulations. The then Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, now the Secretary for Technical Co-operation, said:
"I Well understand that when hon. Members opposite saw this Amendment they might well have thought that it was a way of the Government's quietly getting the Bill through Committee and then making sure that it did not operate, by using the word 'may' and then not taking any action to lay regulations that that word would require."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Standing Committee C, 24th February, 1960 c. 6.]
He went on to give clear and unequivocal assurance of the Government's intention to implement the Measure unless in the meantime it was overtaken by some new legislation which, he indicated, it might be the Government's desire to introduce. I quote from column 110. The right hon. Gentleman said:
"The Bill will come into force in January, 1962. Many of the regulations may be laid within the same period or within a matter of days thereafter, but there may be some, following the precedent of the Factories Acts, which may have to be laid some time after that. I repeat the assurance that it is our intention to press on with the preparation for laying regulations."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Standing Committee C, 9th March, 1960; c. 110.]
I accept that if the Government feel it would be more advantageous or convenient, instead of operating the Act, with all the difficulties involved in the efforts of Private Members legislation, despite substantial Amendment to which the Measure was submitted in Committee, with all the advantage of Government advice, to have a new Measure, no one will complain. It would take me all the time left if I were to read out one after another the clear undertakings which were given by the Home Secretary and the Minister of Labour both in this House and in discussions with interested parties of the Government's intention to introduce this other legislation before 1st January next, before the date on which the Offices Act was to come into force.

It would also take a long time to read all the undertakings for legislation in this field which were given before my hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich gave the Government assistance by introducing the Private Member's Measure without which, in my view, we should have had no legislation on this subject at all. While the position now is that there is an intention to introduce a Bill to overtake the Offices Act in the next Session, I question what value can be attached to these undertakings now given when undertakings in like form and in express terms given last year and the year before have not been cashed.

The Minister of Labour said on 1st November that he did not intend to make regulations and that new legislation would be forthcoming next year. That was repeated by the Leader of the House on 7th November and by the Prime Minister on 9th November, but when it is the constitutional duty of a Minister to carry out the instructions placed upon him by decision not only of this House but also another place by process of an Act of Parliament, it is not good enough for the Government to think that they can get round it simply by promising to bring in a new and better Bill at a distant date.

The only reason I can foresee being given for failure to implement the Offices Act is that there has not been sufficient time for the necessary consultations which are imposed on the Secretary of State by the Act itself. My information is that very substantial consultations have taken place. The Minister of Labour, as long ago as 20th March last, told the House that 81 organisations had been consulted originally and 39 had been consulted since that time. It is also the case that consultations have been carried out over the last two years at intervals with the trade unions concerned. As recently as 31st July I gather that there were discussions between representatives of the T.U.C. and one of the Government Departments concerned, and that at that time the union representatives went away with the impression that it was the intention either to introduce legislation before 1st January or, after 1st January, to make regulations under the Act.

It is true that some of the matters for which regulations are required might take a long time. No one would complain about that, but some of the simple but necessary regulations, such as for first-aid provisions and sanitary accommodation, could be made very quickly, because the Government have had 18 months' notice to prepare for this. Unless the Parliamentary Secretary has some reason not yet given, not only will all office workers outside but all hon. Members will take a very poor view of the Government in not only being unable to do what is required for office workers but in being unable to carry out clear undertakings given by Ministers to the House from time to time.

12.5 a.m.

I intervene briefly because many of us are thoroughly shocked at the situation in which we find ourselves as a result of the Government's attitude. When I first decided to introduce a Bill it was drawn in the form it was solely because it was physically impossible for a private Member to introduce legislation of the type that was necessary. Our quarrel with the Government is not that they have decided to supersede the Offices Act with a better and more comprehensive Bill. That was the intention of the whole exercise and it has our complete support. Our complaint arises from the fact that the Government have broken their word not on one occasion but on a whole series of occasions. The Government have not uttered "mights" or "may-bes" but have made firm promises which they have broken quite blatantly.

No doubt the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour will inform us later on that it is the Government's intention to introduce legislation in the next Session and therefore there is no need to worry. The answer to that is that, speaking for myself and a large number of people, we have no faith at all in their word. I should like to say why. As has been said, many promises have been made and many broken, and not only on this issue. In 1951, when they came into office, the Government promised to implement the Gowers Report. They promised again in 1953 and in 1957. On a whole series of occasions they promised.

When the Government were faced with specific legislation, in Committee on that Bill which became the Offices Act, I said on 24th February, 1960, of the remarks by the then Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department:
"I understood his original remarks to mean that the Government intend to produce regulations on these issues unless, and only unless, in the same period they produce a Bill which would cover the issue more effectively."
The right hon. Gentleman replied:
"In his concluding words the hon. Member for Greenwich (Mr. Marsh) has exactly summed up the intention of the Government."
There is nothing equivocal about that.
"It is the intention of the Government to produce regulations unless this Bill is overtaken by a more comprehensive and substantial Measllre."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Standing Committee C, 24th February, 1960; c. 13–14.]
The Government's defence of what has happened is that they were left with insufficient time to introduce legislation. That is a fascinating excuse; let us examine it. When the Bill was in Committee three dates were proposed for it to come into operation. I moved that it should come into operation in July, 1961, the hon. Member for Walthamstow, East (Mr. J. Harvey) moved to bring it into operation in July, 1962, and my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Park moved to bring it into operation in January, 1962, The Government supporters on the Committee were obviously in the majority, and so they could have carried the Amendment moved by the Government supporter. But they did not.

The Joint Under-Secretary had this to say:
"..I must tell the Committee that I think the earlier date suggested by the hon. Member for the Park Division of Sheffield (Mr. Mullen) is possible. If it is the wish of the Committee that we should compromise on that date, I should be agreeable, speaking for the Government."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Standing Committee C, 2nd March, 1960; c. 95.]
I am serious and making no party point. Many similar quotations could be given. The Government on several occasions gave firm undertakings that the only circumstances in which they would implement the Bill would be if it were overtaken by comprehensive legislation, which by my understanding of simple English means unless another Bill got to the Statute Book before that one came into operation.

The Government gave a firm promise, but have now broken their word, and now they suggest that we should believe them when they make another promise. Will the hon. Gentleman tell us why we should have any faith in what he is about to tell us in the light of the Government's failure to honour their firm statements in the past? Statements about consultation will not wash. There was consultation before that Measure reached the Statute Book, so much so that the Government circulated draft legislation to hosts of people.

The issue goes much further than that. This is a series of pledges given by the Government but broken, which makes it all a very squalid and unpleasant manoeuvre on the part of the Government.

12.14 a.m.

The hon. Members for Sheffield, Park (Mr. Mulley) and Greenwich (Mr. Marsh) are experienced in, and, I accept, sincerely interested in, this type of legislation. Both know from experience that this is not such a simple matter to make regulations about as one might have been led to believe by some of the words which have been uttered tonight. They know quite well that it is very difficult to bring about the complete coverage which is desired and required.

Before seeking to give an answer to them, I should apologise or rather explain why I am standing here tonight. I am replying because, although the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Scotland are formally responsible under the Act, the Minister of Labour is dealing, in a practical sense, with matters under the Act. My reply tonight implies, therefore, no formal transference of functions from the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Scotland to the Minister of Labour. It is merely a practical arrangement because we in the Ministry of Labour would be responsible for making regulations under the Act, if regulations were to be made under it.

The hon. Member for Greenwich will appreciate, I think, that in what I am about to say I have no intention of discussing the merits or demerits of the Act which bears his name. I do not wish to make debating points of that kind. But I know that he is one of the first to realise that his Act was a partial Act. That being the case, if it was going to be overtaken by—to use a word already used—a comprehensive Government Measure, it would be sensible perhaps to restrict the making of Government regulations until the comprehensive Measure was on the Statute Book.

The hon. Member for Sheffield, Park said correctly—I do not think he did his arithmetic, but I will do it for him—that already more than 120 separate organisations had been consulted. This is quite a formidable undertaking, not only for the Ministry of Labour officials, but, of course, for the organisations which have to be consulted. If one were to consult them in order to bring in regulations under a partial Act, and then go back to them again when a new and more comprehensive measure was introduced, as one would have to, one would have to go again over the whole process.

This is not a very sensible procedure. It would be very wasteful. I am sure none of us wishes to waste anybody's time, let alone his money or effort. We are, therefore, brought down to whether or not the Government are to be believed when they say they will bring in a comprehensive measure in the next Session. If they are to be believed, the amount of time that lies between us is one Session.

It would take several months under the 1960 Act to make consultations and then some more months again before it would be reasonable to expect regulations to be enforced, because the people who would have to put them into practice would have to have some time in which to do so. In view of this, regulations under the existing Act would catch up with the regulations it would be necessary to make anew under the Government's comprehensive Bill, and we should be asking people to do twice in the period of a few months what really they should be asked to do only once.

We are thus back to the question posed by the hon. Member for Greenwich, namely, whether or not the Government will bring in this comprehensive measure in the next Session.

The hon. Gentleman used the word "comprehensive" for describing the new legislation. I understood that to cover a wider field, including shops and railway premises and not merely offices. What matters concerning office regulations are not possible under the wide scope of the present Act?

That is a fair point, but the hon. Member knows that the fire regulations need to be dealt with and that there are other points. It boils down to whether one goes through the laborious and difficult process twice in the same field or not.

We are therefore back to the point properly posed by the hon. Member for Greenwich, as to whether we shall have a Government Bill in the next Session which will be comprehensive and will cover the field more widely and do the job properly and comprehensively. I can only repeat the assurances given by my right hon. Friend that this Bill will come in in the next Session. That is all I can do. I cannot speak further for them than they have themselves spoken on this matter. Nor do I think that I need to.

The reason why the Bill cannot be brought in in this Session is that there is not time. But it is promised for the next Session. Both hon. Gentlemen are entitled to their views about whether this matter will be dealt with in the next Session. But I suggest to them strongly that it is nonsense to have one set of Regulations under an Act which covers the field only partially, and I think the partial nature of the existing Act is agreed between us, and then later go back over the same field at considerable length and at considerable cost.

What will be saved? I agree that some months will be saved and this is important. But, precisely because this is an important matter, I would have thought that it would have been more advisable to do the thing once under a comprehensive Bill, and I think the hon. Member for Greenwich agrees that a comprehensive Bill is necessary, than—I will not say bore the people in the organisations concerned because that would be the wrong way of putting it—but than waste a great deal of their time and effort.

Will the hon. Gentleman say whether he thinks that the quotations I read constitute a Government promise to introduce legislation in this Session unless overtaken?

It all depends on what is meant, and this is a debatable and debating point. I do not want to make debating points.

Consultations are still going on. When the new Bill is introduced in the next Session people who have the responsibility not only of advising on what shape the legislation should take but also of being responsible for putting it into operation in shops, offices, railway premises and anything else covered by it will have a lot of work to do. If, having already put in a lot of work, we were to ask them to go over all that work again, we should destroy the care which people other than the Government have for the field work, and at the end of the day we should not have achieved the results so properly desired by both hon. Gentlemen.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-three minutes past Twelve o'clock.