Thursday, 10 November 2005
Parental Leave (Amendment) Bill 2004 [Seanad]: Second Stage (resumed).
I propose sharing time with Deputies Ó Caoláin and Connolly. This is a mean-spirited and miserly Bill. It represents no great leap forward and does little to improve the situation of parents. It must be radically transformed if it is to grant parents a substantial increase in the amount of time they can devote to their children. The Green Party wants to see 26 weeks of maternity leave and an additional six months' parental leave to be taken by either the mother or father. We want to see an onus on fathers to take paternity leave and we suggest an obligation on fathers to take a certain amount of parental leave in the first year of a child's life.
The world has changed and while traditional models of parenting still work for many people, fathers should be obliged to spend time with their children, particularly in the first year. I speak both as a father and a Deputy. This proposal can only work if the State makes a strong commitment to parents and if Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats make a substantial increase in parental benefit. I do not see that arising from this Bill. I wait with bated breath, or perhaps jaundiced breath, for significant changes in the forthcoming budget but I do not see a significantly increased commitment to parenting in this Bill.
We want to see a commitment by the State to parents and their children through substantially increased benefits. Concerning the first year of a child's life, it makes sense that the State allow a parent remain with the child full-time. I cannot see that happening in the context of this Bill. We should provide a strong cushion of support for new parents. It is a precious, important period and the State should protect, nourish and encourage parents to spend time with the child.
There are other areas in which we wish to see change. The world has changed and the family based on marriage has changed. Most first-time births in the State are to women who are not married and the State must change to reflect this. Often the institutions of church and State change much more slowly than they should. Our birth rate has increased and parents find themselves in a bind owing to the high cost of child care and the lack of State benefits extended to families. The Bill does not go far enough to help parents and the State should provide a cushion of a year's benefit and full support for that crucial time in a child's life. The State should instruct fathers to spend time with newly born children during this precious time. We should try to remove some pressures so that mothers and fathers feel comfortable with a financial cushion to ensure the child has a good start.
We often refer to the major importance of the early years. The first 12 months set up much for the child's journey through the world. We send signals to society through Bills such as this and the Oireachtas should send the signal that we will protect parents and children and allow them to spend time together.
This is modest legislation and provides for some improvement in parental leave in accordance with the Sustaining Progress agreement. However, the Government should be embarrassed to debate this Bill in the Oireachtas at this time. It is long overdue and implements an agreement that has run out at this stage. This Bill is pathetic when demands are growing and debate is raging though the State on child care, the extent of need and the magnitude of response required from Government. We should be better employed debating a comprehensive Bill dealing with maternity, paternity and parental leave in the context of a range of legislative and fiscal measures to provide a comprehensive child care service. Instead, we are debating this Bill and we must await the impending budget to see what emerges from Government to meet the massive child care needs of the people of this State.
I welcome the Taoiseach's statement yesterday that the Government cannot discriminate between parents providing full-time care in the home and parents who work and pay for child care. I hope the Taoiseach will follow the logic of that statement by ensuring the implementation of the necessary changes in the coming weeks and months. The basic principle is that we must put children first. Putting Children First is the name we chose for our pre-budget submission just over 12 months ago. It has been employed by others since then, but I suppose on the basis that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, we welcome the Labour Party's recent contributions to this debate.
Children and their needs must be at the centre of the child care debate and the first priority is the best care for all children. Parents who wish to provide that care in the home must be allowed do so without suffering the major drop in income that so many experience. Such a fall in income can be crippling and lead to real difficulties in people's daily lives. As things stand, a work-life balance for many families does not exist. Work and the needs of employers are the predominant factors which often prevent people who wish to do so from starting a family. Young couples delay having children because of the situation with the work-life balance. In addition, those conditions prevent people with young children from giving them the care and attention to which they are entitled.
Many young couples now work long hours to service large mortgages, health insurance and many other costs facing those on average incomes who are starting out in life and endeavouring to provide a home of their own. This is before they even take into account the cost of providing for children.
It is frustrating to have to address this Bill when it fails to provide the essential improvements in maternity and paternity leave. Currently, mothers are entitled to 18 weeks' paid maternity leave and eight weeks' unpaid leave. The key demand is for the Government to change the law to guarantee, as of right, 26 weeks' paid maternity leave which, as I have pointed out on many occasions, is the situation north of the Border. The community I represent does not stop at the Border; it takes in a wide hinterland. Despite this, we have this serious differential and inequity in periods of maternity leave North and South. We must ensure that the same supports apply to mothers in this jurisdiction. That measure alone would provide vital relief to thousands of people, but if there is no such provision in the promised package of Government measures, that package will be fundamentally flawed. I hope and trust that this will not be the case and that we will see maternity leave harmonised on an all-Ireland, all-island basis in the Government's proposals.
The Bill omits any reference to paternity leave. Public sector employees receive a minimal three days' paternity leave, but no one has a statutory entitlement to it so people must rely on the goodwill of their employers. That is not acceptable. Many EU member states have legislated for paid paternity leave so that fathers can spend time with their newborn children. Paternity leave ranges from 18 days in Finland to two days in Greece. The absence of such a provision in this Bill represents another missed opportunity. We must await the promised package of measures to see how it will be addressed by the Government.
I now wish to deal with parental leave, but first I note that the Minister is taking leave of us.
We will live and see, please God. A MORI-MRC survey has shown that only 20% of eligible employees take up parental leave. The survey revealed that parents are not taking up such leave because they are not entitled to any payment. The introduction of paid parental leave would be a positive and progressive step, yet the Bill has failed to provide for such leave. While greater flexibility in how parental leave can be taken, as provided for in the Bill, is welcome, it should go further, and that should be done when a further opportunity presents itself. Perhaps that idea could be taken on board in advance of Committee Stage.
I urge the Minister and his colleagues to prepare Government amendments on Committee Stage to provide employees with a right to request more flexible parental leave arrangements and to oblige employers to consider such requests seriously. Refusal of such requests by employees should only be permitted where the employer can provide evidence of a compelling business case for a refusal. This reasonable proposal has been put forward by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and I urge the Minister to provide for it on Committee Stage by way of Government amendment.
While the Bill is modest, to say the least, the Government's response to the important points raised in the House, including the need for paid parental leave, will be an acid test of its commitment to child care. It will be an opportunity to adjudge all that was said at and following the Ballyconnell meeting, and whether it will translate in real terms.
I hope that by the time the Bill comes back to the House on Report Stage, we will have a comprehensive package of measures before us. Over a year ago, Sinn Féin tabled a Private Members' motion on child care that set out a range of essential measures. This was followed by a pre-budget submission which, as I have already indicated, was entitled Putting Children First. We are happy to have been central to the child care debate which has escalated over the past year. That is due in no small measure to the fact that the Minister for Finance failed to address this major need in his first Budget Statement. The National Economic and Social Forum published a landmark report which I have commended to the Taoiseach on several occasions. It sets out the benchmark the Government must reach. The Minister of State has already noted we are watching and waiting with interest. I hope he and his colleagues will take on board my points on this Stage of the Parental Leave (Amendment) Bill 2004, when preparing their amendments for Committee Stage. This would facilitate a more focused and worthwhile Act.
The soldiers of destiny descended on Inchydoney, the Slieve Russell hotel, and lately, Killarney, looked into their hearts and souls — assuming that they have hearts and souls — laboured hard and brought forth this Bill. It has, however, taken a long time. The Bill arises from a commitment made following the 1998 report of the working group on the review and improvement of the Parental Leave Act. This was not even the last election but a year after the previous election.
They were flush with promises at the time and it was in their hearts to deliver everything in sight to the electorate before, during and after elections. The interval between 1998 and now marks a serious gap in the memory of the then newly elected Government in 1998 and its successor in 2002. Eventually, in 2005, it has been called ashore. Something must have happened in Inchydoney, the Slieve Russell or Killarney to convince the Government to do something about this Bill.
The Bill also arises from commitments entered into in the Sustaining Progress — Social Partnership Agreement 2003-2005, two years ago. That includes a commitment by the Government to strengthen parental leave, with the agreed recommendations of the social partners. The June 2004 mid-term review of Sustaining Progress committed the Government to enacting this legislation before summer 2005.
While there has been a seasonal change due to global warming and other factors, I am not sure the summer has shifted to the extent that it covers the introduction of this legislation to the House before winter 2005. There has been some slippage in the exuberance with which Government delivers on its promises. However, it surely has not slipped to the extent that the seasons have changed.
I welcome the Bill, which is necessary because of changes in work practices and society. I am sure the Minister of State, Deputy Seán Power, from my former constituency of Kildare, now serving Kildare South, is upset at this long delay. The legislation is being dragged into the House, having failed to come in before the summer, and is squeezed in at the eleventh hour before winter descends. It is a commitment of sorts, better late than never.
Society has changed dramatically in recent years and will change even more. The Bill will hopefully recognise and strengthen the position of parents' entitlements to time with their children, and vice versa. By the time parents have arranged for crèches, pre-schools and playschools, sat in traffic jams for two to four hours a day and paid their mortgage and childminding fees, they will have little time out. It is necessary to introduce legislation of this nature to regulate to some extent and provide the level of parental leave that must statutorily be made available.
The proposal to raise the maximum age of the eligible child from five to eight years is progressive and useful. The Bill does not go far enough, however, in increasing the maximum age of a child with a disability to 16 years. There is an even greater need to extend parental leave to care for a child with special needs or a disability. In such situations the parent may save the State a considerable sum by devoting more time to his or her child. Many parents have heretofore devoted their lives to children with disabilities and saved the State the equivalent cost of caring for the child.
The Minister of State might reconsider that section, with a view to introducing amendments to improve that area. One's heart goes out to a parent who cares for a child with special needs. There are many such parents, some of whom receive carer's allowance and many who, for various reasons, do not qualify for the allowance. If more improvements can be made in the degree to which parental leave can be made statutorily available to them it should be done in this Bill. It is unlikely this Bill will be revisited before the next election, particularly given the delay in bringing it forward this time.
The provision to take the statutory entitlement of 14 weeks' parental leave in separate blocks, of a minimum six continuous weeks, is progressive and necessary. The logistics are understandable and welcome, given the parent's need to make arrangements to take that leave. The provision whereby a parent who falls ill and cannot therefore care for the child during the parental leave period, may postpone or suspend the leave for the duration of the illness is also progressive and important. It recognises that a bureaucratic obstruction existed in the past such that parental leave was no great concession to the parent who fell ill during that period. This legislation proposes to address that issue and hopefully will do so in full.
I hope the strengthened provision to protect the right to return to work is strictly enforced with no deviation countenanced in any circumstances. If the employee is entitled to parental leave, in respect of a child with or without special needs, the right to return to work must remain constant. It is necessary to ensure provision for this when there is a need to expand the workforce and a demand for more employees.
The provision to protect employees who exercise the right to parental leave from penalisation is connected to the previous point. It goes without saying that once legislation is passed providing for a parent to take leave, no circumstances should be tolerated in which that person is penalised, whether in respect simply of the right to return to work, or to return to the work he or she did before taking the leave — a separate issue — or in any other way that affects his or her rights in the workplace. They are entitled to their rights in the same way as if they had never taken parental leave. No penalty should accrue or arise from the right of the person to take parental leave as provided for in the legislation, in whatever manner a person wants to take such leave.
I am concerned for the large numbers of parents who are non-nationals now working in this country. Other speakers have also raised the issue. The legislation will provide for all persons in the workforce but from some of the things we have seen and heard, and some of the experiences we have had, it is not entirely clear that everyone respects the rights of non-nationals with regard to their entitlements while in and out of the workforce.
That also applies to Departments. Apropos the previous Bill which passed through the House, Departments need to look at themselves in the way they dictate policy as it affects non-nationals. It is much more difficult for non-nationals in the parental leave area. If at any time there is a scarcity of employees in the workforce, the pressure is on to get as many people as possible in to work. That is understood. However, whatever else prevails, there must be no situation whereby a national or non-national is in any way discriminated against as a result of his or her entitlement to parental leave in this context. The situation whereby a person's entitlement to parental leave does not arise has arisen in the past and will no doubt arise again.
Special attention needs to be paid to the particular situation as it affects non-nationals who are parents and have their families with them in Ireland. How are those non-national families affected who do not have all their children of relevant age with them in Ireland, the age group already referred to? I wonder if provision is being made in the legislation for such a situation. Such families come from all parts of the world. The emigration services report which I listened to this morning envisaged that in future we will receive more applications for work permits from those who wish to live and work in Ireland because of a number of factors, including our growing economy.
The Government will attempt to take all the credit for the growth but I like to point out that we still have a long way to grow, and a lot of growing to do. We ceased to grow for a long time. Before the Government parties claim that the end of growth was the responsibility and fault of others, I point out that during almost 18 of the past 20 years, government of this State was in the hands of the parties opposite me, or some variation of them. There have been a number of variations. We will not go down that road because if needs be we can apply the odium equally when it comes to the degree to which we can claim credit for the current growth in the economy. We are grateful for that growth, but there is much more growing to be done and much more effort to be made.
We should keep in mind the benefit to the economy of non-nationals coming to Ireland to work. We must give them the same rights and entitlements which the rest of our workforce has, none more so than with regard to this legislation. It comes late, like most things from the Government side, as the Leas-Cheann Comhairle knows from experience, but better late than never. The legislation has fairly sweeping provisions of a beneficial nature, though improvements can be made in some areas. Despite the emphasis on the seasonal changes, only one season has slipped by with regard to the Government failure to deliver before summer 2005. Maybe the climate changes covers that too.
I welcome the opportunity to discuss the Parental Leave (Amendment) Bill 2004. Child care and parental entitlements are a live issue. We saw the report in the Irish Examiner yesterday indicating the concern of people throughout the country about appropriate and adequate child care provisions which would allow some support for the long-suffering parent in the workplace in particular, but also for the long-suffering parent in the home who gets little consideration for the time and effort given on an unpaid basis in rearing children.
An integral part of providing a service is to give rights, entitlements and leave to parents to provide a structure and an ethos whereby we have a parent-friendly workplace. It is amazing that it has taken us so long to even consider that people must rear and educate their children at the same time as they must work at a steady 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. job, and that provisions have not been made. The only way we dealt with the issue in the past was by telling people in the public service and Civil Service that the spouse had to leave the workplace. That was a harsh, uncaring approach, but at least it had the benefit of recognising that children required a lot of caring, and that at least one parent needed to be with children all the time. That parent was of course the mother, and the legislation referred only to the mother. It was only mothers who had to give up their careers in the Civil Service.
Though we have abolished that system, we have not come very far in providing an adequate response so that both parents can remain in the workplace and at the same time contribute meaningfully to the rearing of their children. I say meaningfully because it is not just in the interests of the parents to have reasonable conditions under which they can get time off or leave from work to be with their children. It is in the interests of the State. Good parenting makes for good citizenship. If children are neglected and do not have the warmth, bonding and attachment of their parents at an early stage, there is a danger of them becoming easily dysfunctional and of their ability to cope as good citizens being seriously weakened. The State has a strong role in this area.
I welcome the legislation. It arises from an agreement under the Sustaining Progress social partnership pact 2003-05. I note that the mid-term review in 2004 committed the Government to having the legislation enacted before summer of this year. That deadline has clearly been missed. The Minister of State, Deputy Fahey, who debated this Bill in the Seanad during the previous term, was confident that a deadline of last summer would be met. That was a number of months ago and, because the deadline was not met, we are attempting to bring the legislation through this House before Christmas.
The provisions of the Bill have been well rehearsed in terms of the increase in the age of eligibility age from five to eight, or 16 in the case of children with disabilities, and the extension of parental leave to persons acting in loco parentis, relatives and separated people. The entitlement to take 14 weeks parental leave in separate blocks of a minimum of six weeks each provides a better way to address this issue. Sick parents may postpone parental leave for the duration of their illness. The strengthened protections on the right to return to work are important, as are safeguards for employees who are parents against penalties arising from taking parental leave. It is easy for parents to be penalised upon their return to the workplace. The Bill also provides for a statutory code of practice on parental leave. These measures are all desirable.
This legislation was negotiated under the Sustaining Progress social partnership of 2003 to 2005. It is a shame these entitlements, which do not present significant costs to the Exchequer, were not introduced earlier. While the negotiators might have believed that further entitlements would not be granted, the provisions as they stand are far from what is needed. I imagine that the next social partnership process — the establishment of which appears to be in rocky waters because of the Irish Ferries debacle — will seek many more concessions in the area of parental entitlements and child care. The absence of paid parental leave is a critical issue and is often remarked upon. Parental leave has to be taken at one's own cost and does not entail genuine entitlements.
This Bill amends the Parental Leave Act 1998, which in turn implemented the parental leave directive adopted in 1996. The provisions are an enhancement over previous legislation and give greater flexibility to parents or those who are in loco parentis. The purpose of the Bill is to facilitate working parents to spend more time with their children and to assist bonding amongst them. It is extremely important from that point of view. It is also more parent centred. The original Act was employer centred.
The Bill strengthens protections on the right to return to work. A parent is now entitled to return to the same job and control of employment on terms no less favourable than when he or she left work. These conditions apply equally to maternity and adoptive leave. Clearly, a parent who bears the responsibility of bearing and raising children and supporting them financially should not be penalised by dismissal, unfair treatment or unfavourable changes in conditions of employment for exercising the entitlement to parental leave.
Policing of the legislation under the statutory code of practice prepared by The Equality Authority is probably the most welcome provision. I fear a situation where somebody who takes full parental leave is made subject to a diminution of entitlements upon his or her return to work. It is important that people do not suffer in that way.
A glaring omission in terms of this legislation is the absence of provision for paid parental leave. This issue arose when the 1998 legislation was debated. I do not know whether progress has been made on this issue, although I am sure the Minister of State has words of wisdom for us on the negotiations he has conducted——
——in the backrooms of the Civil Service in terms of what compromises he is prepared to make and how these will relate to the forthcoming budgetary considerations. Given that it was decided in 2004 that this legislation would be enacted by last summer, the Minister of State should have taken a leaf from the book of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform because he is a great man for introducing legislation. He leaves Bills hanging around so that they come to resemble snowballs in terms of amassing amendments and, by the time they are enacted, have become entirely different legislation. Such an approach is sometimes good and, more often, bad because the Minister is inclined to include the kitchen sink.
There is an opportunity to consider a modest gesture to parents by bringing an amendment that would provide for at least a modicum of paid parental leave. It is not too late to do so because amendments may be considered even on Report Stage. The difficulty for the Opposition in tabling amendments in this respect is that any amendment we put forward will be ruled out of order on financial grounds. Therefore, such an amendment will have to come from the Government. The best we can do is to record on Second Stage the unanimity among the serried ranks of the Opposition with regard to parental leave measures. We would not set a precedent by introducing such measures because many other countries have already legislated for similar provisions. The best practice in other European countries should be made available to our citizens. Now is the time to make such a provision because it is impossible for any Minister to claim at present that we cannot afford to do so.
Much of our current legislative discussions concern the workplace, such as our debate on the Employment Permits Bill. The economy is booming and, because there are insufficient Irish workers to satisfy the demand for labour, we need migrant workers from the EU and elsewhere. In trying to attract highly skilled individuals by means of the permits legislation, a somewhat undesirable two-tier system is being developed. Highly skilled workers who earn more than €60,000 will be fast-tracked to residency and citizenship entitlements after two years, if we can believe the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment. The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform — who is encroaching on this territory — claims that the relevant measures will be introduced shortly. Less skilled immigrants who expect to have earnings of around €30,000 will have fewer entitlements. There will also be an unskilled pool of labour. Much work remains to bring order to this issue.
With regard to the issue of parental leave, we are a booming economy with wealth levels second only to Luxembourg and that should be reflected in the services we provide to our citizens.
Too often the workplace is dealt with in terms of units of production and of labour. We are attracting women back into the workplace to fill the labour gap, not as part of a career or as something that is beneficial in terms of the whole person. We have attracted large numbers of women back into the work force — although often they do not have very much choice because of the cost of mortgages and crèche facilities — but we are now penalising women in every sense and the family is being heavily penalised by the manner in which we have done so.
It is time to look at the broader issue of the quality of society rather than just the quantity of work and number of workers. Every day in the Dáil the Taoiseach asserts that there are now 2 million workers here, which is 500,000 more than we had in the mid-1990s. That is true but we also have greater gross national product and gross domestic product and are in a better position to provide the services that should be provided.
Paid parental leave would be a very valuable support for those on low incomes. Such people cannot afford to take unpaid parental leave. That is the problem with this Bill. It is a bit like the Ritz, in that it is open to everybody but if one is not able to afford it, then one will not get past the door or, if one gets past the door, one will not get to sample its delights. The benefits of unpaid parental leave are more accessible to those who are well-off, particularly if there is one strong earner in the household. This, in turn, raises another issue, in that it will almost always be the female who will have to leave the work force because, in general terms, female remuneration lags considerably behind male remuneration.
It will be more difficult for people with low skills from disadvantaged communities to avail of the statutory entitlement. It will also be more difficult for women if the entitlement, as proposed, remains because they are likely to be the lower earner in the household. It will always be the lower earner who is expected to take the unpaid parental leave so that sufficient money will still come in to pay the exorbitant costs of running a household.
What of lone parents? How can a lone parent take unpaid parental leave? Let us address that issue. If one is a lone parent, raising one or more children, what does one do? Does one take unpaid parental leave? The only thing one can do is give up one's job. If one takes unpaid parental leave, one has no income. Even if a concession was made in that regard, there are instances in which certain categories of workers will obtain the entitlement to unpaid leave but will not be able to avail of it under any circumstances. Consideration must be given to this issue. Unpaid parental leave is a right that the rich, or the reasonably well-off, will be able to avail of but which will be beyond the reach of the poor.
I referred earlier to the fact that it will be women rather than men who will be forced, through economic circumstances, to avail of parental leave. This compounds the gender discrimination that already exists in our society. Unpaid parental leave will always result in such discrimination. More fathers would be able to take parental leave if it was available without loss of income to the household.
The concept of parental leave is fabulous but the implementation leaves so much to be desired that it will not work in practice in any fair manner. Some people will be quite happy with the entitlement. Those who have formidable incomes will have no problem. They will be delighted to be able to take leave and return to the workplace when it suits them, with no diminution of rights, and their households will do fine because their income is good and steady. However, the vast majority of people are being given a right without the resources to implement that right. Not only are we not giving them the resources to implement it, we are providing the right in a way that will constitute discrimination. It will discriminate against women in the workplace, lone parents and certain categories of workers who will never be able to avail of that right.
While there are financial considerations and implications for paid parental leave, there are few for unpaid parental leave, certainly with regard to the Exchequer, whatever about individual employers who may have to find substitute staff and so forth. Given that fact, would it not be possible to increase the length of time during which unpaid parental leave is available? The Bill provides for 14 weeks parental leave in separate blocks of a minimum of six weeks. Is there any reason unpaid parental leave should not extend to six or 12 months?
We have only just begun to tease out the concept of parental leave and the problems that arise. Parental leave must become a major part of the provision of child care. It is an important part of child care in that it allows for parental contact with children at an early stage of their development, permitting the bonding process to take place. Should it not be a more structured and larger part of the overall child care package?
Parental leave should be given a structure and framework. It does not have a real framework at present and to have one, it would have to tie in with the provision of continuous child care that would cover the critical years from age one to four. Such child care would have different dimensions but parental leave should be tailored in this legislation in a way that will allow it to dovetail into other provisions, namely maternity leave, parental leave, paid parental leave, career breaks, unpaid parental leave and various provisions regarding crèches and pre-school facilities. I would like to see this issue dealt with in that context, as a package that would benefit parents in the home and in the workplace.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Parental Leave (Amendment) Bill. The legislation is very important and this debate provides us with an opportunity to deal with the issue of parents and parental leave. It also gives us an opportunity to examine in detail the role of parents in society, particularly this modern society. We have regular debates in this House and in the wider political field on the role and the value of the family, often comparing the modern family to that of the past. It is important, while discussing this legislation, to examine the role of parents and the family.
When one examines research and the reality for most people in our communities, it is clear that a strong and healthy family will lead to a strong and healthy society. We have seen the downside of dysfunctional families, and the problems this causes children, parents and the wider society, particularly as a result of alcohol or drug addiction. It is important to deal with these issues when debating the Bill.
In modern Ireland there are a number of different types of families. The family unit must be respected, regardless of its make-up. While people inside and outside the House may disagree with me on this issue, the definition of the family and the changing society are issues that must be dealt with.
I was to raise the role of single parents because there is a negative image in broader society, particularly in sections of the media, of single parents and their contribution to society. However, I find the opposite is the reality. One should examine the positive contribution single parents make to the economy, the workforce and communities. This goes back to my previous job in a north inner city school where the backbone of my parents council and board of management was single parents who made a massive contribution to the school and their blocks of flats. They dealt with the drugs issue and were very involved in youth groups and community groups. These positive images must be considered. We must challenge the prejudice and negative image that exists of single parents.
Another issue that must be dealt with is that of adoptive parents. I thank and commend these people for their huge contribution to Irish society and the community as a whole. I know from direct family experience, and also from friends of mine who are adoptive parents, that the work they do and the strong healthy families in which they bring up their children make a major contribution to society. We have an opportunity here today to thank adoptive parents for their valuable work and commend them on it.
Another related issue is the role of foster parents. These are fantastic and brave people who help children. They take them from dysfunctional and violent situations where they suffer severe neglect and bring them into their homes. I call them the patriots of Ireland in 2005 who do their bit for their country and society. I commend them on and thank them for their significant contribution to society.
Another issue which is covered in the legislation relates to families of children with disabilities and their significant contribution to society. Gone are the days when children with disabilities, particularly intellectual disabilities, were locked away and it was frowned upon to have a mentally handicapped son or daughter. Thankfully, those days are over and people are beginning to respect the rights of children and adults with disabilities. As legislators, we must provide them with maximum support and services. I say "well done" to the families of children with disabilities and thank them for their great work in this area and with the voluntary organisations which are the backbone of the community.
In last year's budget, significant investment was made in services for people with intellectual disabilities and I commended the Minister on this extraordinary contribution to the development of these services. The Government listened to the voices of parents and families of people with disabilities, especially children with disabilities. We need to continue this work over a five or six-year period to ensure that all these people are given these services as of right.
During the week I met an important group of people, namely, the carers in society. I commend the carers' association for its magnificent work. There are 150,000 carers in the country who should be supported in the budget. They should also be supported under this legislation. If one examines the statistics, it is obvious that carers have made a huge economic contribution to society. Last year alone, the great human and kind work they did with the elderly, those with intellectual or physical disabilities and people who suffered strokes saved the Exchequer approximately €1.5 billion. Despite this, they were given just €250 million in last year's budget. I ask the Minister to listen to groups such as the carers' association and to ensure they are given back-up and support services.
When debating the Parental Leave (Amendment) Bill 2004, it is important to examine the changing role of women in society. Over the past five or six years, women have made a massive contribution to this economy. This country would not be able to function efficiently if tens of thousands of women were not involved directly in employment. We must support these people and realise that they make an economic as well as a significant tax contribution. This is an issue which must be taken into consideration. Given the changing role of women in society, the upcoming budget must target issues such as child care, disabilities and carers.
We must accept that the debate on the economy and its efficiency is over and that it must focus on how we distribute wealth and resources. This is the real issue and the Minister for Finance will have a perfect opportunity in December to do something about it.
The main provisions of the legislation are as follows. It proposes increasing the maximum age for eligible children from five to eight years. The maximum age for children with disabilities has been increased to 16. There is also the extension of parental leave entitlements to persons acting in loco parentis in respect of eligible children. The Bill provides a statutory entitlement to take 14 weeks' parental leave in separate blocks of a minimum of six continuous weeks. An employee who falls ill and is unable to care for a child may postpone or suspend the parental leave for the duration of the illness, which is a positive aspect. The legislation strengthens the provisions protecting the right to return to work, which is important for the economy, society and the community. It provides that employees who exercise their right to parental leave are protected from penalisation, which is important. Many people want to be involved directly with their families but they also want to make a contribution to their company and society.
Section 2 deals with the entitlement to parental leave. It implements three recommendations of the working group by providing for an increase in the maximum age limit of an eligible child from five years to eight, making a new provision to increase the age limit to 16 years in the case of a child with a disability and providing for the extension of the parental leave entitlement to persons in loco parentis and to adopting parents of an eligible child. New definitions are provided in this section including "adopting parent", "disability" and "relevant parent". The emphasis is important for adoptive parents and parents of children with disabilities.
Section 9 provides for the protection of employees from penalisation by way of dismissal, unfair treatment or unfavourable change in conditions of employment for proposing to exercise or having exercised an entitlement to parental leave. It is important to recognise that there are problems in families and society. One of the one frequent issues backbench Deputies are asked to deal with is anti-social behaviour. This is not just a policing issue but a parents issue. Where there are strong, healthy, vibrant, stable families there is less anti-social behaviour. I know this from direct experience. I have worked in the poorest parts of north inner city Dublin for 20 years and have seen people live in areas riddled with drugs and heroin, yet their children were able to attend school in their uniforms, to be clean, against the odds, and to have their homework done. That happened because they had a strong stable family unit in the middle of all this negativity.
I would like to see research done on such good examples of families assisting children and to see this whole area explored by those who deal with problems in society, especially those who deal with social and family affairs issues. This is relevant to the debate. We must examine how some parents can do it against the odds and we must ensure those people are rewarded. There are many skilled young people in disadvantaged areas of the State who never get into trouble and make a fantastic contribution to the society. There can be in the region of 80% of such people in most communities.
We must reach out to those families, support them and not turn our back on them. While we may be coming late to the issue of parental leave and the broader debate, this is the opportunity to assist those people. The way to do it is to assist those families most in need and set the agenda which must include the weaker sections of society. Some 25% to 30% of people in parts of the State are excluded. Much is said in the House about social inclusion but let us do something about it.
I wish to make a constructive proposal. There are a number of projects in the Departments of the Taoiseach, Education and Science and Social and Family Affairs through which resources could be targeted at the most needy areas and streets. In parts of my constituency there are housing estates where, compared with average stable middle class homes, 52% of the children before the age of four are not eligible to start primary school. That issue will have to be examined.
I ask the Minister of State to think about the family unit, pre-school services, language development, literacy and providing support to assist in creating a stable child. This would save a great deal of money in future and would create vibrant young people who have would have a vision and a belief in their country. We have learned from experience that people who work hard and come through the system against the odds are the people who will never turn their back on and will be supportive of their community. The Bill is not just about parental leave but the broader issue of the family, parents and the way children are treated in society. That is an important issue and it should be taken on board. I urge the Minister of State to take account of these issues in the run-up to the budget in the next few weeks. Parental leave, families and children are important.
I note from the details of the financial implications that no significant costs are anticipated in connection with the legislation either in its administration or compliance with its terms by employers and employees. There will be some cost implications for employers arising from the broadening of the parental leave entitlement to employees in loco parentis if replacement staff are required to cover staff absences. This is an issue that must be faced to ensure the stability of jobs. We must understand small business people who are under pressure and who need consistent staff to assist them in running their companies. We will have to be flexible in that area also. However, as parental leave is unpaid this cost will not be significant.
There will be benefits for employers and industry to the extent that the legislation will facilitate the increased participation and retention of women in the labour force. The focus of the Bill is to ensure we retain people who want to work and make a contribution to society. When speaking about women in the labour force, we must remember there are many who are not given the opportunity to develop their skills and leadership qualities within companies or the public service. It is sad that many talented people are being lost.
There is also the role of men in society. Men have changed in Ireland during the past 20 years and, despite negative comments from some quarters, have made a massive contribution to child care and rearing families. They have become directly involved in their families. Frequently I meet young couples and young parents. Their voices should be heard on this issue. Nowadays both parents are involved and both are directly involved in the child care issues. It is important to get the balance right and that both parents are involved in the rearing of the child. If one is serious about the equality agenda, we must ensure both parents are allowed to develop their economic abilities and skills, whether in a private company or in the public service.
This debate on the Bill is about creating strong and healthy families and creating a better and healthy society. If there are quality families and good supports, we have a healthy society, a better economy and a stronger community with sound values and a vision for the future. I commend adoptive parents, foster parents and families with children with disabilities on their massive contribution to society and the country as a whole. I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for the opportunity to speak on the Bill.
I apologise on behalf of the Minister of State at the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy Fahey, who is away on Government business and was detained. On his behalf I thank Deputies from all sides of the House who contributed to an interesting and wide-ranging debate not alone on the Bill but also on child care. These issues are inextricably linked. The Government is acutely aware of the time and cost pressures on working parents. This Bill is before the House during a time of wide public debate on child care and I am confident that, in his budget next month, the Minister for Finance will respond by announcing new initiatives in this area. I will return to the issue of child care.
Deputies English and Morgan commented on the delay in enacting this legislation. As Deputies are aware, the Bill meets a commitment in the Sustaining Progress partnership agreement and I am hopeful that the Bill will be enacted in this session and before the expiry of Sustaining Progress at the end of the year. In the past 18 months alone, this Government achieved the enactment of four other pieces of equality related legislation, the Maternity Protection (Amendment) Act 2004, the Equality Act 2004, the Disability Act 2005 and the Adoptive Leave 2005. In this context, cries of delay from the Opposition benches ring hollow.
Several Deputies have called for the introduction of paid parental leave which the Bill does not provide for. Those of us who are parents would be instinctively inclined towards maximising the amount of parental leave available and having it paid at the highest possible rate. In reality, a balance must be struck when enhancing employment rights which have a consequent impact on the cost of labour, productivity and competitiveness.
The issue of payment was debated in depth in the partnership process but a consensus could not be reached on paid parental leave. The working group report outlined a number of payment options and costed some of these for the Exchequer. Extrapolating one of these options to the present day gives a rough estimate of cost to the Exchequer of somewhere in the region of €200 million per annum. This estimate is based on the qualifying criteria for the maternity benefit scheme, with an equivalent payment, and takes into account both the cost to the social insurance fund and public sector employer costs.
I should also caution that this estimate assumes a high uptake of parental leave by women and a much lower uptake rate for men on the basis that, even in other countries where a social welfare type payment is available, men generally do not take parental leave in great numbers.
Deputy English suggested raising the upper age limit of an eligible child to 12 or to the age a child leaves primary school. The directive stipulates an upper age of eight and the Bill matches this, except in the case of children with disabilities where the limit is 16. The upper limit of eight years was sought by ICTU and the National Women's Council of Ireland, and the Government and employers agreed this in the course of negotiations for Sustaining Progress. In the Civil Service, the State as an employer has already implemented the higher age limit of eight after discussions with the unions rather than awaiting the enactment of the Bill. This was done incrementally. Initially the upper age limit was raised to six and perhaps this is the origin of Deputy English's question on age limits.
In response to further points made by Deputy English, I confirm that both parents are already entitled to parental leave under the Parental Leave Act 1998, which is entirely unambiguous on this entitlement. All employees who have eligible children qualify for 14 weeks parental leave in their own right. The information material published by the Equality Authority, for example, is crystal clear on this. Information and promotional material produced by unions and employer groups also make this clear.
On a related awareness point, the Parental Leave Act contains strong provisions protecting the jobs and employment conditions of employees who take parental leave. Again, a wealth of information is available to employees about this matter and the Equality Authority periodically promotes awareness through publicity and events like the annual national work-life balance day. The working group which reviewed the 1998 Act commissioned an attitudinal survey on parental leave entitlements which found that employee awareness was high at close to 90% of those surveyed. Further details on this survey are included in the 2002 report of the working group which is available on the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform website and in the Oireachtas Library.
Several Deputies asked about the absence of a statutory entitlement to paternity leave. In the public sector, employers provide three days paid paternity leave to civil servants, teachers, health service workers, gardaí, prison officers and members of the Defence Forces. While also under no statutory obligation to do so, many private sector employers provide a short period of paternity leave without deducting pay.
In the course of their deliberations on paternity leave, the cost implications for employers, both in terms of the absence of the father from the workplace and the monetary cost arising in the event of such leave being paid by employers, were considered by the review group. Concern was expressed over the adoption of any new measure which would result in increased costs for employers in view of the economic climate at that time and the need to maintain international competitiveness. It was counter argued that fathers should have a legal right to paternity leave and that such leave should attract payment. A statutory arrangement to allow for a father's entitlement to leave around the time of childbirth would enhance arrangements for the reconciliation of work and family life. However, in the absence of agreement with the social partners on the issue of paternity leave, the Bill makes no provision for an entitlement to paternity leave paid or otherwise.
The option open to employers to postpone parental leave was questioned by Deputy Healy. The legislation would be unworkable if an employee could unilaterally decide when to take parental leave without having to pay any regard to the needs of the workplace. The provisions of section 11 of the Act are balanced however, in that the employer can exercise the option to postpone parental leave only for objective operational reasons or in the event of a crisis in the workplace and following consultation with the employee. Furthermore the employer has only a narrow timeframe within which he must act to seek to postpone the leave.
Deputies Lynch and Morgan called for employees to have the right to request more flexibility in the manner parental leave might be taken. Many employees are already able to avail of their parental leave entitlement in a "broken" format such as blocks of weeks, days or hours as a result of reaching agreement with their employer. The 1998 Act provides for this in section 7. I would expect that issues like this pertaining to the detailed application of the provisions of the Act will be addressed in the context of the development of a statutory code of practice as provided for in section 10.
I refute some Deputies' comments that the Government's policy on children and child care lacks coherence. Ireland is one of the few countries in the world with a ten-year plan to improve the lives of all children. The national children's strategy which dates from 2000 is rooted in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. It is an interdepartmental response to improving children's lives and was developed with the expert assistance of NGOs and academics. The National Children's Office is a Government agency, established to support the Minister of State with responsibility for children, Deputy Brian Lenihan, to drive implementation of the strategy and to ensure better co-ordination of services for children.
An essential element of this Government's policy on children is the equal opportunities childcare programme. One of the key findings of a recent survey conducted by the ESRI for the forum on the workplace for the future is that access to affordable, good quality child care and family-friendly work practices is now a critical aspect of Ireland's labour force management capability. The Government is committed to fulfilling its responsibilities towards meeting this challenge. This includes increasing the supply of quality child care available to parents and to do so in a way that gives them the greatest choice. When we first came into office, there was a serious shortage of such places. We set ourselves the task of addressing the matter, through the Equal Opportunities Childcare Programme 2000-2006.
The programme is substantial and its scale demonstrates that this is the first Government to recognise the need for the State to act in this area in a meaningful way. Centre-based child care is just one part of the equation and the Government supports parental choice, the choice to use centre-based child care, childminding, part-time child care, or child care by family members. This has been facilitated by increasing the levels of income support for all parents, regardless of the care choices they make for their children, through record increases in child benefit.
Working parents are well supported through our taxation and child benefit system. This is borne out by the findings of a recently published OECD report, Taxing Wages 2003/2004, which found that the taxation rate of Irish workers is one of the lowest in OECD countries. The report, which looks at personal income tax and social security contributions in OECD countries in 2004, found that of the 30 countries surveyed, a married one-earner couple with two children in Ireland received more money in cash transfers from the State than they paid out in income tax and social security contributions. I understand that only Luxembourg is in the same league as Ireland in this respect. The Government is now actively considering a range of options to make further improvements to assist parents to manage their work and family commitments. I am confident the upcoming budget will contain several initiatives in this area.
Another conclusion from the recent ESRI survey for the forum on the workplace of the future was that:
Work/life balance arrangements in the workplace and parental leave arrangements are an important aspect of choice in relation to caring for children. More workplaces need to implement flexible arrangements and develop a supporting management culture that ensures that those who avail of these arrangements are not disadvantaged in terms of their career advancement prospects.
The Government is committed to playing a full role in helping employees to balance their work and family responsibilities and I urge all employers to play their part as well. Statutory provision is just one part of the equation. Employers too must take some share of the responsibility for ensuring that working parents can better reconcile the pressures of family and work commitments. Flexibility in working arrangements is the key. Many of our most successful enterprises have thrived in fiercely competitive markets while simultaneously affording generous flexibility to their employees in how they manage their work commitments.
Deputy Ryan proposes the European social model as the way forward while several other Deputies mock partnership as catering solely for the needs of business. These arguments fly in the face of reality. The economy has been transformed to one with an enviable fiscal position, close to full employment, rising living standards and low personal taxation. This is due in large part to this Government's rejection of the European social model which is characterised by stifling high taxation. Partnership has also played no small part in our economic success through a process of dialogue, consensus and compromise. The Parental Leave (Amendment) Bill has emerged from this process and should be viewed as a step forward acceptable to both sides of industry.
The Minister of State at the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy Fahey, looks forward to more detailed analysis of the Bill on Committee Stage. I commend the Bill to the House.