Seanad debates

Wednesday, 2 February 2005

Parental Leave (Amendment) Bill 2004: Second Stage.


Question proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

1:00 pm

Photo of Frank FaheyFrank Fahey (Minister of State, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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The Parental Leave (Amendment) Bill 2004 amends the Parental Leave Act 1998 to implement a Government commitment in the Sustaining Progress social partnership agreement. This commitment is to strengthen the parental leave scheme in line with the agreed recommendations of the social partners arising from the working group on the review and improvement of the Parental Leave Act 1998.

The Parental Leave Act transposed the Parental Leave Directive 94/34/EC into Irish law and came into force on 3 December 1998. The key objectives of the directive are the reconciliation of work and family life and the promotion of equal opportunities between men and women. The directive, which was adopted in June 1996, incorporates a framework agreement negotiated between the social partners at EU level. This framework set the broad parameters for parental leave but left much to the discretion and interpretation of member states.

The directive provides that a minimum of three months leave should be available to men and women workers until a child reaches a given age up to eight years to be defined by member states. This leave is distinct from maternity leave. The directive provides that the leave should, in principle, be non-transferable between parents. Employees must be guaranteed a right to return to work and protected against dismissal. Provided the minimum requirements of the directive are met, it is left to member states to determine issues such as whether leave is paid or unpaid, what pattern of leave is to be allowed, the maximum age of the child and matters relating to social security.

In addition to providing for parental leave, the directive provides that workers must be given the right to force majeure leave, that is, time off for family crises resulting from illness or accident. Again, the directive gives member states discretion in developing the details of force majeure leave.

The Parental Leave Act provides an individual and non-transferable entitlement to parents to 14 weeks unpaid leave from work per child to take care of young children. The leave must be taken before the child reaches five years of age, except in certain circumstances in the case of an adopted child. The Act also provides an entitlement to limited paid force majeure leave. This is leave necessary for urgent family reasons owing to the injury or illness of an immediate family member in circumstances where the presence of the employee at the place where the family is ill or injured is indispensable. During an absence of force majeure leave the employee is regarded as being in the employment of the employer and retains all his or her employment rights, including payment of salary.

In accordance with section 28 of the Parental Leave Act 1998 and a commitment in the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness, a working group was established in 2001 to review the operation of the Act. The working group was chaired by the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform and included representatives from the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, the Irish Business and Employers Confederation, the National Women's Council of Ireland, representing the community and voluntary pillar, the Irish Co-operative Organisation Society Limited, representing the farming pillar, the Departments of Finance, Enterprise, Trade and Employment and Social and Family Affairs and the Equality Authority. The report of the working group was published in April 2002 and is available on the Department's website.

As part of the review, research was commissioned by the working group into the uptake of parental and force majeure leave. The research was conducted by MORI MRC, which was selected after a competitive tendering process. The research was based on a sample of 655 employers, representing more than 67,000 employees. Almost 7% of the labour force were eligible for parental leave in 2001 and approximately 20% of eligible employees were estimated to have taken parental leave, with women accounting for the largest share at 84%. Overall, 2% of employees took force majeure leave. As with parental leave, uptake of force majeure leave was higher among women.

The working group also identified a need to conduct research to ascertain the attitudes of employees, employers and trade union representatives to parental and force majeure leave. Newmarket Consulting, which was commissioned by the working group, carried out 25 case studies in Irish organisations in the public and private sectors to gauge attitudes to parental and force majeure leave provisions. The research found that overall awareness levels of the provisions of the 1998 Act were high among employees and employers. Of the 71 employees surveyed for the purpose of case studies, 20% had availed of parental leave, of which 83% were female. Employees rated spending more quality time with their children or tending to their children's needs as the biggest advantage in taking parental leave, while the biggest disadvantage was the lack of payment. The research found that employers considered that the biggest advantage of parental leave to them came from happier, more contented employees. Further details of both research projects can be found in the report of the working group.

In addition to the research, the working group received presentations from the Department of Health and Children, the National Disability Authority, the Equality Authority, the Rights Commissioners and the Employment Appeals Tribunal. Each of these presentations is documented in the report of the working group.

The parental leave working group identified 18 issues for consideration in the course of the review. They included paid parental leave, paternity leave, duration and manner in which leave may be taken, age limits, broadening entitlement and several issues around force majeure leave. The group reached consensus on a number of these issues and made ten agreed recommendations. The more important of these are to increase the maximum age limit of an eligible child to eight years or to 16 years in the case of a child with a disability; to broaden the entitlement to include persons acting in loco parentis of an eligible child; to introduce a statutory entitlement to take the 14 weeks parental leave in separate blocks of a minimum of six continuous weeks; and to allow an employee who is unable to care for a child on becoming ill while on or about to commence parental leave to suspend the period of parental leave.

The group did not reach consensus on a number of issues, including paid parental leave, paid paternity leave and increased duration of parental leave. The Government intends to respect the partnership process by implementing only those recommendations on which both sides of social partnership are agreed.

The 2002 An Agreed Programme for Government included a commitment to improve the parental leave scheme in line with the recommendations of the social partners. This commitment was fleshed out in the 2003-05 Sustaining Progress partnership agreement whereby each element of the agreed parental leave recommendations of the social partners was incorporated into a package of workplace legislation, codes and programmes to be implemented during the course of the partnership agreement. The mid-term review of Sustaining Progress contracted the Government to have the Parental Leave Bill enacted by the summer of 2005. I am confident this deadline will be met.

Implementation of the majority of the agreed recommendations requires amendment of the existing legislation. These amendments will be implemented through the enactment of this Bill. The Bill will significantly improve the existing parental leave scheme by offering working parents greater flexibility in how they choose to avail of their statutory entitlement. It will bring into effect important changes to the existing legislation which represent a progressive response by Government to the changing face of family life in modern Ireland.

I will briefly outline some of the key elements of the Bill. Under the existing scheme, parental leave is available until a child's fifth birthday. The House discussed the upper limit in some depth when section 6 of the 1998 Act was considered. My predecessors took the view that the age of five years was the correct upper age limit within the range of eight years stipulated by the Parental Leave Directive. In 1998, Senators were divided on this with some arguing for three years, others accepting five years by which time children have started school while some maintaining that the upper age limit of eight years should have been provided.

The working group agreed on moving the upper limit to six years. In the course of negotiations on Sustaining Progress, the social partners and Government agreed to raise this to eight years. The decision as to the most appropriate age at which the leave should be taken should be made by the parents themselves. As legislators, we serve parents best by providing them with the right to take parental leave to care for their children at a time suited to their own domestic situation within the parameters set by the directive.

Section 2 provides for the extension of the maximum age limit of an eligible child to eight years thereby offering parents a greater degree of flexibility in managing their parental leave entitlement. In addition, a new provision has been made in the Bill to increase the maximum age to 16 years in the case of a child with a disability. This extension of the age limit will offer further flexibility to working parents of disabled children.

The Bill also implements the working group's recommendation to extend the parental leave entitlement to persons acting in loco parentis of an eligible child. In Irish society today, many children are actively cared for by persons who are not their natural parents. A number of categories of persons who actively parent are not entitled to parental leave under the existing legislation. These include long-term foster parents, partners to the natural parent of a child where the natural parent may be divorced or separated and has formed a new relationship through remarriage or otherwise and other parents in loco parentis.

Provision is also made in the Bill to extend the parental leave element to adopting parents. Under the existing legislation, parental leave is available to adoptive parents where an adoption order has been made and is in force. This excludes adoptive parents who have a child placed in their care and are actively parenting but in whose favour an adoption order has not yet been made. Many months may lapse between placement and adoption with the effect of excluding an adopting parent from parental leave during this time when time off from work for bonding with the adopted child may be most needed. This is addressed in section 2. The inclusion of adopting parents also brings the parental leave legislation in line with the adoptive leave provisions which grant adoptive leave from the date of placement rather than from the date the adoption order is made.

The Bill also provides employees with an additional entitlement to choose to take their parental leave in separate blocks — each block consisting of a minimum of six continuous weeks. This will improve the options available to employees, many of whom are limited by their employers to availing of their statutory parental leave entitlement in a single 14 week block. It is still possible for the employee to avail of the leave in shorter periods of weeks, days or even hours over an extended period if the employer agrees. In many instances, particularly in the public sector, a large degree of flexibility is already on offer from employers.

The purpose of both the parental leave directive and the Parental Leave Act 1998 is to enable men and women workers to take time off work to take care of their children. However, as matters stand, no express provision is made in either the directive or the 1998 Act to deal with a situation where an employee on parental leave becomes ill and so is unable to continue to care for the child. The working group was of the view that where a parent on parental leave becomes unable to care for the child on account of illness, it may reasonably be concluded that the parent is unable to avail of the parental leave entitlement and should be able to benefit from sick leave for the duration of the illness. Legal advice concluded that a legislative amendment was required to clarify the position in relation to the effect of sick leave on the parental leave entitlement.

The working group recommended the amendment of the 1998 Act in accordance with the legal advice received. This amendment is provided for in section 5 and provides that an employee who falls ill when about to commence or while on parental leave and, as a result, is unable to care for the child may postpone or suspend parental leave for the duration of the illness following which period the parental leave recommences. Once the leave is postponed or suspended, an employee's absence from work is treated in the same manner as any other employee absent from work due to sickness and the employee may benefit from whatever sick leave arrangements are available under their contract of employment, including sick pay or disability benefit.

I now turn to the specific provisions in the Bill. Section 1 is a standard interpretation section. I have already mentioned section 2 which implements three recommendations of the working group by providing for the increase in the maximum age of an eligible child from five years to eight years; making a new provision to increase the age limit to 16 years in the case of a child with a disability; and making provision 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". These definitions are required to take account of the extension of the parental leave entitlement under this section.

Section 3, which I also referred to earlier, provides employees with an additional alternative entitlement in section 7 of the principal Act to take parental leave in separate blocks. Each block must consist of a minimum of six continuous weeks at not less than a ten week interval unless the employer and employee agree to a shorter interval.

Section 4 amends section 8 of the principal Act to provide for consequential amendments to the notification requirements of the Act which arise from the new provisions in the Bill to extend the parental leave entitlement to persons in loco parentis and to adopting parents and to take parental leave in separate blocks. Provision for an employee to postpone or suspend the parental leave for the duration of the sickness is made in section 5.

Section 6 amends and extends section 11 of the principal Act to provide for consequential amendments to the postponement provisions arising from new provisions in sections 2 and 4.

Section 7 provides for an amendment to section 15(1)(c) of the principal Act to ensure consistency with similar provisions in the Maternity Protection (Amendment) Act 2004 and the Adoptive Leave Bill 2004, both of which contain provisions necessary to comply with Directive 2002/73/EC of the European Parliament and Council of 23 September 2002. The latter amends Council Directive 76/207/EEC on the implementation of the principle of equal treatment for men and women as regards access to employment, vocational training, promotion and working conditions. These provisions stipulate that on return to work on the expiration of a period of maternity, adoptive or parental leave, an employee is entitled to return to the same job, with the same contract of employment and on terms and conditions no less favourable, and to benefit from any improvement in working conditions to which the employee would have been entitled had he or she not been absent from work.

Section 8 applies another element of the aforementioned directive to section 16(2) of the principal Act. This section provides that an employee who is entitled to return to work following parental leave but for whom resumption of the same work is not practicable and for whom suitable alternative work is offered, is entitled to return to an equivalent post on terms and conditions that are no less favourable and to benefit from any improvement in working conditions to which he or she would have been entitled had he or she not been absent from work.

Provision is made in section 9 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 or force majeure leave.

Section 10 makes provision to empower the Equality Authority to prepare statutory codes of practice regarding parental and force majeure leave for the approval of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform. The statutory code will be admissible in evidence in any proceedings before a court, the Employment Appeals Tribunal or a rights commissioner. Any provision of the code which appears to the court, body or officer concerned to be relevant to any question arising in the proceedings shall be taken into account in determining that question.

The statutory code of practice will build on a voluntary code being finalised by the national framework committee on work-life balance policies. This committee was convened by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment with participation by the social partners, the Equality Authority and a number of Departments including my own. Section 11 contains standard provisions dealing with the Short Title and citation provisions.

The Bill has attracted critical comment for not making provision for paid parental leave. The commitment made by the Government as part of Sustaining Progress is to implement the changes to the parental leave agreed by the social partners. In the absence of social partnership consensus on the question of paid parental leave, the Government is not prepared to propose legislative change that are unacceptable to one side of social partnership.

The arguments, both for and against paid parental leave, are strong and the merits of each were enunciated in some depth in the report of the working group. The introduction of measures to reconcile work and life responsibilities is of benefit to employers and employees alike. Employers benefit through increased employee satisfaction, improved attraction and retention of staff, greater productivity and decreased absenteeism. Employees are provided with greater flexibility in combining their work and family or other responsibilities.

Our experience in this State has been that the social partnership model works well in terms of developing economic and social policy. This is particularly evident in the significant developments which have already taken place, through statutory and non-statutory initiatives, in improving work-life balance options for employees. It is widely recognised that the work-life balance agenda cannot be progressed satisfactorily either at national or international level without the inclusion of the social partners. Real change will not be effected without them.

It must also be acknowledged that progression of the work-life balance agenda can only be successfully achieved through striking the delicate balance between improving existing measures at the level of enterprise while remaining economically competitive. It is vital that we create and maintain the economic conditions that will ensure quality employment opportunities and that we do not introduce initiatives without taking cognisance of their effect on our competitiveness in the short to medium term.

Given our acknowledged success in building and maintaining a strong economy in recent years, it would be unwise and possibly damaging to the integrity of the partnership process to introduce paid parental leave without the full agreement of all stakeholders. Progressing the work-life balance agenda presents a complex set of challenges for policy makers, the Legislature, employers and employees. These challenges, both social and economic, do not necessarily dovetail into situations acceptable to all stakeholders.

It would be a mistake to consider work-life balance without addressing the availability of child care. The Government's policy is to increase the supply of quality child care in a way that offers parents the greatest choice. In 1997, there was a serious shortage of such places. The Government set itself the task of addressing this through the equal opportunities child care programme, EOCP, for 2000 to 2006. This is a substantial programme 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.

However, centre-based child care is merely one part of the equation. The Government supports parental choice, be that for centre-based child care, child minding, part-time child care or child care by family members. This has been facilitated by an increase in the levels of income support for all parents, regardless of the care choices made for their children, through record increases in child benefit.

This Bill is the third and final Bill in a suite of statutory work-life balance measures to which my Department is committed under Sustaining Progress. The Maternity Protection (Amendment) Act 2004, commenced on 18 October 2004, implements the recommendations of the working group on the review and improvement of the maternity protection legislation. Its provisions strengthen and improve the employment rights of pregnant women, those who have recently given birth and those who are breastfeeding. The Adoptive Leave Bill 2004 amends the Adoptive Leave Act 1995 in order to implement several recommendations of relevance to adoptive leave from the maternity protection working group. The Bill passed all Stages in the Seanad last year and is progressing through the Dáil.

The Parental Leave (Amendment) Bill 2004 represents the fulfilment of the Government's commitments under Sustaining Progress and the programme for Government to strengthen and improve the existing parental leave provisions. I commend the Bill to the House and look forward to Senators' contributions to the debate.

Sheila Terry (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State to the House to discuss this important and welcome legislation. Any measure that helps the process of combining work and family life must be welcomed. I agree with all the amendments contained in the Bill. However, there are some areas in which I feel the Bill fails to address the needs of parents. The Government has let families down and has missed the opportunity to make this legislation even better by making working life easier for families.

One of the most important issues of concern to parents relates to the management of their child care and the working day. The attempt to combine these two responsibilities creates great difficulties for parents. Where we can provide family friendly policies we certainly get happier employees and children. It is essential we do all we can to ensure we give everybody concerned the best possible quality of life. We are all aware of the stress involved in combining work and child rearing, which tells on families and is transmitted to children. Providing parental leave is a measure in addition to maternity leave that allows parents time off at a time when they need to be with their children.

I am critical of the Government for having missed an opportunity to provide paid parental leave, which was a recommendation of some members of the working group. I am disappointed that the working group as a whole did not recommend paid parental leave. The Minister of State and his senior colleague had an opportunity to take a decision to improve this provision by providing paid parental leave and bringing Ireland up to speed with many other EU nations, which do so. In addition we could have extended the period of parental leave, as the Minister of State is now suggesting. Fourteen weeks is a very short period in a child's life, even for a child up to the age of eight, particularly for parents who have been working from the time of that child's birth following maternity leave. I recommend that we should allow at least 25 weeks' parental leave, which should be paid.

By not giving paid parental leave, we are disadvantaging the most vulnerable in society, working people. As the Minister of State outlined, it is mostly mothers who are being put at risk of not being able to take advantage of parental leave. People on low incomes will not be able to take unpaid leave. Who can afford to take time off without pay when they are on a low income? How could a single parent avail of parental leave without pay? We will compound mistakes we have made in the past by making the difference between being rich and poor the difference between being able to avail of parental leave and not being able to avail of it. It is a major fault with the Bill that those on low pay and single parents will not be able to avail of it. Therefore, we are failing many people in our society.

It is interesting that the majority of parents availing of parental leave are women. While we have always accepted that women are the principal carers and will take time off for parent-teacher meetings or if the child is sick, I must ask why this is the case. The Minister of State's study has confirmed that it is mainly mothers who avail of parental leave. This is because women are generally on lower pay. Cases still exist where women do not get equal pay for equal work. If we provided for paid parental leave more fathers would avail of it, which would be good. Fathers are entitled to this leave and we should make it easier for fathers to do so and get involved with their children, perhaps when they are on school holidays or at other times when they are off school. It is mostly mothers who attend parent-teacher meetings in schools. We should provide paid parental leave as other countries do.

We should make parental leave more flexible. I am disappointed that this has not been provided for in the Bill. Parental leave is non-transferable, which represents a flaw in the Bill. I do not see why one parent should opt for this leave at the beginning. If two parents are involved in the rearing of an eligible child, both parents should be able to avail of parental leave.

An employee seeking a shorter period of parental leave, whether a day at a time, half a day or a few hours, must do so in agreement with the employer. If the employer does not agree to allow the employee to take the shorter period, has the employee any comeback? If the employer decides this is not suitable to him or her, can the employee insist on taking the leave?

I welcome the provisions allowing a parent to postpone or suspend parental leave in the event of sickness, ensuring that an employee availing of such leave cannot be discriminated against and that promotional prospects are not affected, and allowing parents to take leave in separate blocks. These will all enable parents to increase the uptake of the leave. However, I reiterate that I am not alone in expressing my disappointment over the non-payment for this leave. The National Women's Council of Ireland and other groups including One Family have expressed their disappointment at the missed opportunity by the Government not to extend paid parental leave and paternity leave to families. I would like the Minister of State to address this matter and I will table amendments on Committee Stage.

I hope the Minister of State will reconsider these issues, as we are way behind other countries. We must do everything we can to ensure that working families and children benefit from the great contribution they are making to our economy today and that people will continue to stay in the workplace. I notice that many women with a husband on a good salary opt to stay at home. We will create divisions in society if only those who can afford to give up their jobs will do so and this Bill could add to that problem. I thank the Minister of State for listening and I hope he will take on board the points I have made.

Photo of Tony KettTony Kett (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister of State to the House and I thank him for introducing this important Bill. As he said, the Bill proposes to amend the Parental Leave Act 1998. It is also implementing part of an EU directive. It results from ongoing agreements between the social partners and the Government. The Bill is one of many necessary elements of the renewal and review of certain aspects of employment legislation. It further endorses the ongoing relationship between the social partners and the Government in respect of good governance.

There is no doubt that this legislation will give greater flexibility to young mothers and fathers who are thinking of starting a family. It will allow them to strike a balance between the competing demands of home life and work life. Not only will it facilitate the increasing number of mothers who are coming into the workforce, but it will also be extremely beneficial for fathers who would like to participate in the care and development of their children in a more meaningful way. I wish some of the Bill's provisions had been in place when people of my generation were starting their families. If a woman was working in the Civil Service in those days, as my wife was, she would be sent out on her ear if she decided to get married or to have a child. We have moved a long way in that respect.

I take on board the point made by Senator Terry about payment for this type of leave, which can be examined at some stage along the way. It may be something for another day, however, because there is disagreement at the level at which it is being discussed, as the Minister of State said. I do not think 25 weeks' paid leave would be appropriate. The countries that are operating this scheme are doing so at different levels — some of the schemes relate to five days and others relate to the full week, etc. If we are serious about giving leave — and we are — the suggestion that one should have to take leave at one's own expense may be prohibitive in many instances. It may render the legislation unworkable to a certain degree for some people. I do not doubt that many talented people were lost to the workforce in the 1970s and 1980s, particularly in the 1970s, when people had to leave work.

The Bill before the House and the Maternity Protection (Amendment) Act 2004 complement each other. Other legislation that has been passed, as well as Bills currently before the Oireachtas, such as the Adoptive Leave Bill 2004, will also complement the legislation under discussion. The legislation will make life easier for those who want to live and work.

One of the most important aspects of the Bill is that it will protect those who decide to take parental leave. They will be entitled to return to the same job they left and to receive any advances or benefits that accrued to the job in their absence. I welcome the new age provisions in respect of a person with a disabled child. Anyone who has had the additional burden of having to raise a disabled child will agree that they endure greater difficulties as a result. The provisions in question will be of great benefit. While the age limit of 16 years is good, it should be borne in mind that the period between the ages of 16 and 18 can be quite troublesome for the parents of disabled children.

Work-life balance initiatives are important, not only to help employees to combine employment with personal responsibility, but also to underpin the Government's social equality objectives. We need to develop measures which reflect the reality of modern life, for example in the workplace. The personal and social responsibilities of employees should be taken into account.

The increased number of women in the workplace has made a tremendous contribution to the economic growth we have enjoyed in recent years. When the then Minister of State, Deputy O'Dea, discussed the Maternity Protection (Amendment) Bill 2003 in the House, he mentioned that 266,000 women were employed in the workforce in 1976, compared with almost 546,000 women in 2004. That is a tremendous improvement in itself. Approximately 39% of women were in the workforce in 1994, but a commitment was made in the EU Presidency's conclusions on equal opportunities for social inclusion that the figure would increase to 60% by 2010. The Presidency was so sure of that at the time that it thought the figure would reach 57% by 2005.

Before social partnership and the economic boom of the 1990s, many people would have liked to have had to balance their work and social lives. Many people did not have any work lives in those days, unfortunately. We have come a long way and it is an achievement in itself that we are discussing such a balance today. It is a demonstration of the tremendous success of the Governments of the past ten years, in particular, in generating employment for people.

The value to us as individuals in achieving a good work-life balance does not simply lie in achieving a better working environment. Each of us possesses a finite amount of energy and the secret is to try to use it in all the facets of our daily lives. It is clear that achieving a work-life balance does not simply involve limiting the number of hours one works. It involves giving people the autonomy to determine their own working lives and to manage them in a way that is more flexible and more suitable to their needs. That requires the Government, trade unions and everyone else concerned to examine a long-term approach to the matter. We are doing that to some degree as we move the agenda forward.

We should take account of individual priorities as our careers progress and our circumstances change from time to time. The demand of citizens and consumers for 24-hour, seven-day services is fuelling a need for a new approach. Technology allows us to extend the boundaries of our working life to such an extent that it can be difficult to determine whether one is at work or at home. I refer to workers involved in the technology sector, for example. Technology is a great enabler. It has the potential to deliver the flexibility we require in our working lives. People who work from home have to be careful to ensure that they do not become slaves to their computers. One should continue to enjoy one's work-life balance.

We might encounter difficulties if we do not continue to pursue this agenda as we are doing, for example, by developing new ways of thinking and ensuring that we do not have a shortage of workers or skills. If we continue to pursue the agenda as we are, we can retain a competitive edge at the coalface of business. I do not doubt that some changes in the legislation will lead to a certain amount of pain, particularly among small industries as they reorganise their businesses. On balance, I believe that nothing but positive progress can emerge from this process. It would allow skilled and loyal staff to be retained. It would certainly reduce absenteeism, increase productivity and result in more highly motivated staff. In those terms, it is a win-win situation for all concerned. I hope that as we move the agenda forward we can continue to improve working facilities for employees, particularly the good ones who want to do well and work in conjunction with their employers. I wish the Minister of State well as he moves the agenda forward and I commend him on this Bill.

Photo of Joe O'TooleJoe O'Toole (Independent)
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I wish to share my time with Senator Norris.

Rory Kiely (Fianna Fail)
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Is that agreed? Agreed.

3:00 pm

Photo of Joe O'TooleJoe O'Toole (Independent)
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I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I appreciate that he, in his role prior to the Cabinet reshuffle, was very open to recommendations and proposals from the trade union side. I welcomed that openness. This must be borne in mind because it is with a sense of déjÀ vu that I will make the rest of my remarks. I would welcome a sense of openness to change on the part of the Minister of State. I warn him that the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, to which he has moved, has a very solid reputation for being less than flexible. I hope he and his advisers will go against the natural tendency of the Department to stick with proposals as made.

This Bill is important and I welcome the points the Minister of State made thereon. The progress it reflects, which I acknowledge, has been well recorded by him. However, it is with some disappointment that I make my contribution because I am making a speech I made in the House previously drawing attention to the measures that are not in the Bill. I fully expected certain provisions on same-sex couples to be included in the Bill on the basis of agreements and commitments made. I would like to hear the Minister of State's views on their absence.

The main problem with the legislation is that the leave is not paid leave. When a parent or couple have just had or adopted a new child, they should be entitled to paid leave considering the associated expense and difficulties. I spoke recently to a couple with a new child to obtain a general view on the cost of prams, cots, child minders and other expenses. Having a child can be very expensive and the couple in question need to be conscious of the kind of car they buy and the nature of the holiday they will take. The child affects every aspect of their lives, albeit in a very pleasurable way, and they were not in any sense complaining. We should recognise the expense involved in having a child and the forces of the establishment should ensure that we relieve the pain involved rather than add to it.

The introduction of parental leave in the first Bill, introduced some years ago, was very important. However, at that time it was argued that we could not really afford paid parental leave. We now have the fastest growing economy in Europe and of all the OECD countries and we have the spare shillings to provide paid parental leave. I do not seek too much and the Minister of State should take on board an amendment I intend to table to ensure we at least give consideration to and vote on the issue of paid parental leave.

Senator Terry has put this issue on record and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions made the most serious representations to the Department thereon. Countries such as Austria, Denmark, Finland, Germany and Italy all make some payment to people on parental leave. I fully acknowledge that the position is not the same in every country and that the Government might not be of a mind to give fully paid parental leave in all cases. However, I cannot accept that no move whatsoever has been made in this direction by the Government. Will the Minister of State consider the proposal by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions to introduce a new benefit for those on parental leave? It is too much to ask people to take a complete drop in income when they have just become parents, taking on new responsibilities and facing all the associated costs. This is wrong and I ask the Minister of State to address it.

The Minister of State should consider the question of paternity. Paternity leave is very much hit or miss in Ireland. It is widely available within the public service but limited in terms of the number of days for which it can be taken, usually three days. It is good that it exists but there should be paid paternity leave for all workers. Surely we can afford it and it would be in the spirit of our Constitution. The Minister of State should give to his officials the two articles of the Constitution on the family and ask them what they mean and whether they should be reflected in this legislation. I discussed this with the Minister of State years ago and know that he would be open to paid paternity leave if those who handled the purse strings were prepared to loosen them. I ask him once again to make the case for paid paternity leave on our behalf and on behalf of those who require it.

If the United Kingdom, which has consistently opposed almost every social measure of the European project, including absolving itself of the commitments regarding the support for workers in every European country, has introduced two weeks paid paternity leave, surely Ireland can at least follow suit. If it is available in the North, the Minister of State should ask his officials to read the Good Friday Agreement and take on board what is meant by the proposal to have parallel legislation on both sides of the Border. The word "parallel" was not used in the Agreement — I cannot remember the exact term — but the proposal was such that there should be shadow legislation on both sides of the Border. This is a way forward and provides the Minister of State with strong grounds for argument.

We are seriously out of step with the rest of Europe on this issue and need to recognise the role played by fathers. A minimum of five days paid paternity leave is not too much to ask at a crucial time in a father's life and it should be provided for. It would be welcomed by all political parties. I know IBEC would whinge a bit about it but we listen to it whinging regularly. Let it say what it must. It will agree with the proposal in time. No doubt at the next round of pay negotiations, it will find some reason to use paid paternity leave as an argument for not giving as significant a pay increase to workers as the workers feel entitled to. However, a balance would be achieved at some stage. Let us face up to the matter. The Minister should step up to the plate and implement my proposal.

I welcome the increased flexibility in the Bill. The issue that concerns me most is the absence of any reference to the need for force majeure leave to be available to same-sex couples. I do not know why it is not provided for. While the Bill was in its final stages of drafting, a major debate was taking place in Ireland and the United States, during its presidential election, on the question of gay marriage and related issues. People were outlining arguments for and against it. Clearly, the need for force majeure leave to be available to same-sex couples is an issue of justice. This is why we fall into the trap of putting ourselves behind the eight ball time and again. There is no just reason a same-sex couple, committed to each other in a clearly established long-term relationship, should not be able to avail of force majeure leave. It is fundamentally wrong that they cannot do so. I plead with the Minister of State to make progress in this area and to articulate and manifest the socialism of which the Taoiseach spoke. No reasonable person on this island would object to the fact of two people living together, supporting each other, working for each other, and will not oppose a situation where such people are helped in their relationship. It is good for society and reflects well on us. It is needed and should be made available.

There are instances that should be considered in allowing people qualify for force majeure leave. One given was an emergency in school, such as a child having an accident, when a parent must take time off to rush to attend to the safety of his or her child.

Significant issues arise from this Bill and my colleague will raise that of same-sex couples in particular. I would not like that to be regarded as the view only of the gay community. It is widely believed in civilised society and I urge the Minister to take on board my previous arguments and add this to them.

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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I am very grateful to Senator O'Toole, not only for giving me the last five minutes of his time but also for making such a strong, coherent and dispassionate case for the inclusion of same-sex couples in this Bill. This is an important matter.

Usually the explanatory memoranda of Bills are helpful but not in this case, which assumes a familiarity with the principal Act that busy parliamentarians do not always have. It does not make sense unless one knows the principal Act well. A greater understanding of the deficiencies of we parliamentarians, and more detail, would be helpful.

One of the interesting issues in the context of parental leave is that we are in a somewhat anomalous situation in terms of payment. Austria, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and Sweden make payments. In Italy, the employer pays 30% of the salary up to six months. In the Netherlands and Belgium collective agreements provide for additional payments while employees are on parental leave. Austria has legislated for paid parental leave for up to two years, which can also be taken on a part-time basis.

We are introducing this legislation, as is clear from the Minister of State's speech, in response to a directive from Europe. The move is not generated domestically. We are simply catching up with the rest but we have not caught up enough because parental leave is theoretical unless people can afford to take it. We understand this in terms of public policy because the public sector has three days leave but the private sector is not required to have the same. The legislation allows for flexibility, and many employers are very good in this regard. While I understand the financial restrictions imposed on them, there are many old-fashioned workplaces where this is not respected.

I am glad that Senator O'Toole spoke on the force majeure provisions and the absence of same-sex couples from the ambit of the legislation. It is astonishing and, I fear, part of a developing pattern. Of the social welfare cuts made last year those that remain in place involve the exclusion of partners in gay relationships and so on. There has been a succession of such measures. The Minister of State's speech today opens with the statement that the Bill is intended to "implement a Government commitment in the Sustaining Progress social partnership agreement." Why "a commitment" and not the various commitments of the partnership? One of the principal commitments, which was agreed with the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, was the granting of parental leave for same-sex couples. It is a pity and a shame that this is not done, and I wonder why.

As Senator O'Toole said, there was no reference to this in the Minister of State's speech. A working party was established which looked at 18 areas. Did it look at this one? Was it asked to and, if not, why not? The Government seems to be avoiding this and in so doing it is out of touch with the rest of political life in Ireland.

The directive provides that leave shall be non-transferable between parents. There is probably a very good reason for this but I do not know it. The Minister of State does not say why. Among the interesting facts the Minister of State laid before the House is that in various surveys only 20% of eligible employees took the leave and, of those, more than 80% were women. The Minister of State could analyse that further.

I compliment the Minister of State on the Government's generosity when it looked at different age limits, two, four, six, eight years, or whatever. The working party recommended six but the Government chose eight. That is the kind of movement I like. It is a good idea. The Minister of State also said that certain groups are not entitled to this leave when he stated, "including long-term foster parents, partners to the natural parent of a child where the natural parent may be divorced or separated and has formed a new relationship through remarriage or otherwise and other persons in loco parentis". No reason is given for the exclusion of these people and we need a reason for exclusion from a benefit. It is important that a Minister state why any category of persons is excluded from a particular benefit.

The Minister of State spells out the benefits of parental leave for employers who, "benefit through increased employee satisfaction, improved attraction and retention of staff, greater productivity and decreased absenteeism". Why does the Minister of State or his advisers believe these factors do not come into play with same-sex couples? I hate to have to reinforce the point by saying I am a perfectly ordinary human being, the same as everybody else. If these factors affect heterosexual people they affect us just as well. If it is of benefit to the employers in the case of married or heterosexual persons living in committed relationships, exactly the same is true for homosexual persons.

This highlights the glaring lacunae in the Bill. Senator O'Toole has indicated that he will table one amendment which I will be happy to second, if he requires me to do so. I propose putting down an amendment to section 13(2)(f) which will have the effect of including same-sex couples. I will ask Senator O'Toole if he will be kind enough to support this matter. This omission is a type of discrimination.

In a briefing note to me, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions states:

Congress believes that workers who are in same sex relationships should be entitled to force majeure leave from their employment in the event of serious illness of their partner in the same way as other couples are.

Same sex couples are currently excluded from the force majeure provisions. Congress has campaigned to end this inequality and secured a commitment as part of the recent national agreement Sustaining Progress ,that "the steps necessary to give effect to the issue of force majeure leave in respect of same sex partners will be addressed."

The Minister of State has not addressed them. I propose to and I expect the Minister of State to accept the amendment because the Government has given a commitment which this legislation does not fulfil.

Otherwise, it is quite good legislation. The Government gave that commitment but did not get around to implementing it this time. I will help it do so but I expect the Minister of State to agree and accept the amendment. The Irish Congress of Trade Unions points out that this commitment from Government can be achieved through changes to section 13(2)(f). Congress states:

This section allows the Minister to prescribe other classes of persons who may avail of force majeure. Congress is calling for the Minister to fulfil the commitment in Sustaining Progress and amend the legislation so that same sex couples can have the same rights as other couples at work in relation to being available in emergency situations in respect of their partners. (Congress believes that this request is further supported by the rights given in the ECHR Act 2003).

I support Senator O'Toole strongly in requesting that force majeure leave is made available to parents where there is an emergency in school. If a child is in a serious accident or taken to hospital it is unrealistic to expect his or her parents to place their jobs in jeopardy simply because they are caring parents. I urge the Minister of State to also take this on board.

Photo of Maurice CumminsMaurice Cummins (Fine Gael)
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I welcome what is a good Bill but one which needs to be significantly improved on Committee Stage. The greatest barrier faced by employees who want to take parental leave is the simple fact that they cannot afford to do so, which is a telling point. Parental leave is not paid in Ireland. If employees want to take such leave, they must be able to survive without wages for a period, which many cannot do. The vast majority of employers do not make any payment to employees in respect of parental leave. No social insurance benefit is available to support working parents to take the leave to which they are entitled. If we are serious about wanting to assist working parents to have a family life, action must be taken to ensure that parental leave attracts a payment.

Other speakers have noted that parental leave offers crucial recognition of the caring role of fathers. It facilitates the possibility of bonding between fathers and their children, and provides the opportunity for fathers to offer essential support to mothers at a time when they and their babies are in their greatest need. Fathers should be paid to give that type of support. We are out of step and falling far behind other EU member states in this regard. The UK has only recently introduced the right to two weeks' paid paternity leave and Portugal, Spain and Sweden also have a statutory entitlement to leave for fathers at the time of childbirth.

The current legislation provides that employers and workers can agree more flexible arrangements. However, while there are many excellent examples of businesses operating flexible parental leave schemes, too many workplaces still take an old fashioned approach. Some do not even allow requests for flexibility to be made.

It would be interesting if research was carried out by the Department to ascertain progress to date, as suggested by a number of groups working in the area of parental leave. Following such research, legislation could be introduced and improved upon in light of the experience gained. However, research such as this should be conducted.

The National Women's Council made a number of suggestions as to what should or could have been included in the Bill, one of which was for a further increase in the funding for the equal opportunities child care programme, which is availed of throughout the country. In my constituency, the areas of Lismore and Dungarvan have not to date received any aid in this regard. West County Waterford is one of the worst served areas of the country in terms of the provision of child care facilities. This should be investigated and Lismore and Dungarvan should be given grant aid under the equal opportunities child care programme. The National Women's Council made a number of other valid suggestions which should have been taken on board by the Department.

Parents should be entitled to paid parental leave. One-parent families in particular need that type of support. The Minister should consider the suggestions made by various speakers and address them on Committee Stage.

Photo of Mary WhiteMary White (Fianna Fail)
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I support the contributions of other speakers, in particular the point made by Senator Kett that the Minister should immediately make arrangements to raise the upper age limit concerning a handicapped child to 18. The Bill as it stands is thoughtless in this regard. The Senator noted that the hormonal changes in young people aged 16 to 18 are critical. This change would be important for parents of handicapped children and should be made without further debate or discussion. Senator Kett in his professional role deals with handicapped children and knows what he is talking about. I am glad he made his point.

Ireland is now the richest country in the world. It is pathetic we are not prepared to pay a contribution towards paid parental leave and amazing we cannot raise the required funding. It is the same old story. We are dragged, kicking and screaming, by European directives into making the payments that other countries, such as Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and Sweden, have made.

The Minister of State, Deputy Fahey, referred to child care. While I do not want to be personal and recognise that the Minister of State is a good politician, and I commend him for raising the matter of community employment schemes within the parliamentary party last year, his statement on child care does not provide the full picture. I wrote an article on child care for yesterday's edition of the new newspaper, Daily Ireland. In addition, I will be holding a public meeting on child care on 24 February in the Catherine McAuley centre on Baggot Street. It is the biggest issue facing the 18 to 42 year old age group at present.

Reference was made to the equal opportunities child care programme, which has led to a 33% increase in child care places in the South since 2000. However, the number of places is still woefully inadequate to cater for the needs of all communities and there is a shortage of child care places across the country.

The Government's use of child benefit as the only fiscal instrument to support child care is totally wrong and narrow minded, and will have to change. Child benefit for the first child is approximately €35 per week. With all due respect to the Minister of State, this is not enough if one is paying a minimum of €88 to €100 for a community, non-profit crèche, as well as food, clothing, etc. The former Minister for Finance, Mr. McCreevy, stated this was to be the method used. While Mr. McCreevy and the current Taoiseach were both first-class Ministers for Finance, in this case Mr. McCreevy was wrong to use child benefit as the only fiscal instrument supporting child care.

I recently discussed the issue of community, non-profit crèches with the Minister of State, including the lack of availability of places and cost. In the private sphere, to have two children in child care at €500 per child per month is the equivalent of a €260,000 mortgage. Therefore, two children at €500 per child per month is the equivalent of a couple having a second mortgage with no tax relief. That is the reality. Young married couples and single parents are under severe pressure given the shortage of child care places, the cost of providing non-profit community facilities, and the cost of expensive private care. Nobody is making a killing because the private sector cannot provide a service below cost. It is very expensive to provide a private child care place.

There should be a new Department for children and the family. Currently, 11 Departments deal with children and child care issues. I understand why it is under the aegis of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform but I think that is the wrong Department. We are living in a society where divorce is now available. In some cases, children of divorced families require counselling. My sister has a private counselling service. She told me that children from broken marriages are waiting for a year to receive child care counselling in the public sector. Just think about it — little children of seven or eight years of age whose parents are divorced, and who need counselling, are waiting for a year to get it. If one has the money one can buy such counselling but, if not, one must wait. It is thoughtless to oblige such children to wait so long for counselling services.

Society is changing and we must face facts: divorce is now available and many such cases will be acrimonious. In addition, Senator Norris and Senator O'Toole referred to same-sex couples. It will be a poor show if the people who are drawing up this legislation put their heads in the sand and refuse to wake up and see that society has changed.

The British Government has produced a vision for a ten-year child care strategy whose effects will be colossal. Schools will be open later so that pupils can attend them in the afternoon. When the British Labour Party Government introduces these proposals after the general election, which it looks as if it will win, people in Northern Ireland will have a pretty sophisticated child care service, while parents down here will be tortured by the costs involved.

It is always the poorest in our society who suffer most because parental leave is unpaid. In the past, only 20% of parents have availed of such leave because it is unpaid and, consequently, they cannot afford to stay off work. In addition, we need 30,000 economic immigrants to sustain the economy. The Lisbon agenda seeks a target of 60% of women participating in the workforce, whereas the figure is still approximately 56%.

As Senator Kett said, we have come a long way. In 1969, I had to give up my Civil Service job when I got married, so I know what discrimination is about. Ireland was dragged, kicking and screaming, into the modern era by EU directives. In 1973, an EU directive stated that women did not have to give up their jobs in the Civil Service when they got married. As Senator Kett said, his own wife was affected by those regulations. We should think about the talent that was lost to the Civil Service because such women had to give up their jobs. Younger people cannot imagine what it was like to have to give up one's job because of the Civil Service marriage bar. Women who got married were cut down and that was it. I remember my boss in the Board of Works tried to help me. I am sure some of the ladies in the Gallery, who are very welcome, had to give up their jobs when they got married.

The 20% figure for parental leave uptake is an indication that such unpaid leave is not good enough. It is good that parents can take the leave in blocks, so that it does not have to be taken for 14 weeks consecutively. It can, thus, be divided up by agreement with employers.

I support the points that were made earlier about staff being motivated but I wish to raise a small caveat, namely, not all employers have a perfect relationship with their staff. There should be some way of giving women senior management positions. Why have we got so few women directors on management boards? Why do men not appoint more women to boards? Are they afraid the women will be off on maternity leave or otherwise unavailable? A legal framework must be put in place whereby if a person takes time off work, either for paid maternity leave or unpaid parental leave, he or she will be guaranteed to keep his or her job. A watchdog body is needed to ensure that there is no discrimination and that such people will not lose out in terms of their future careers.

In making these remarks to the Minister of State, I am not being personal but I have to state the truth. After the Northern Ireland peace process, my number one issue is that of child care. I intend to pursue this matter until we obtain improvements in that regard. That is what Senators are here for. I ask the Minister of State to arrange for the measures to apply to 18 year olds and handicapped children.

I am not being personal. I know it may sound awful but I am just being honest with the Minister of State. There is no point in being otherwise. We are here to help change society and improve the quality of life for everybody. We are the richest country in the world so why can we not make a financial contribution? We want to lift more people into the middle classes, although I hate using that term. We want to get everybody up to a higher standard of living. That is the bottom line.

Sheila Terry (Fine Gael)
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Will the Senator be tabling amendments?

Photo of Mary WhiteMary White (Fianna Fail)
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I am going to fight it.

Sheila Terry (Fine Gael)
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What the Senator has to say is important.

Mary Henry (Independent)
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I am delighted to hear a Government Senator, such as Senator White, speaking with such courage and conviction on this important issue.

Sheila Terry (Fine Gael)
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Hear, hear.

Mary Henry (Independent)
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She is absolutely right — the child care situation here is appalling. It is more difficult for people to bring up their children in this country than anywhere else. When one considers that we have always placed such emphasis on the child within the family, it is extraordinary that we should be in this deplorable situation. I salute Senator White's courage in raising this matter. I hope the Minister of State and other members of the Government will listen to what she has said. I also hope she will have support for the seminar she is organising. I will certainly try to attend it. It is good to see one of the Government Senators proposing such an initiative.

It is extraordinary the way we go on, as though we are doing something great for parents. We are doing this for the benefit of society as a whole, which is for our benefit also. It is not just parents who will benefit from such changes, but children also. That means that in future we will have citizens in this society who are brought up as well as possible.

Other Senators have outlined why parental leave should be paid and I am sorry it is not. In the majority of cases, only well-off people will be able to take advantage of such leave. We may, in fact, be depriving children of parental support who are in serious need of it. I regret that is happening. I welcome the fact, however, that more extensive leave is at least being offered.

We act as though people will be off work for years as a result of parental leave. The average family size here, at just over two children, is now about the same as the European average. So, in general, we are talking about a mother or father who will be taking time off to deal with two children.

I realise there are problems with regard to small businesses. However, it is not the majority of people who will have problems, and we are doing this for society as a whole not merely for the individuals involved. In terms of the generation being brought up at the moment, we are increasingly told that were it not for the 45,000 immigrants who come into this country every year, we would not have enough people for the workforce. Current family size means we are at about replacement level. If we do not cherish these children in the way the Proclamation urged us to do, we will have to rely even more on immigrants. Mr. Peter Sutherland, speaking in Davos last week, said Europe needed far more immigrants than were coming. I presume he would include Ireland as part of the group that needs immigrants.

We do not do a great deal to help people who are having children. As I said, and as Senator White has so eloquently said, we have grave problems regarding child care. Since I became a Senator, I have heard there would be crèche facilities. I recall the former Minister of State, Deputy Mary Wallace, and myself heading into the new millennium block and believing that there would be a crèche there at some stage. We will have a swimming pool before we have a crèche.

Another circular went around the other day asking for our views on where we would build a crèche or whether we would use a crèche. I certainly will not be using a crèche. There is a very large number of staff in particular who would like a crèche, but our commitment within the walls of this institution is so thin that we have not even managed to get around to putting in services for our own staff and Members.

There are estimates all the time of how much it costs to bring up a child. At the moment we give one-parent families €148.80 for the parent and €19.30 for each dependant child under the age of 18 or 22 if the child is in full-time education. I wonder how on earth anyone could possibly manage, no matter what subsidies they get by way of rent allowances, medical cards and so forth. It must be remembered that all these payments are means tested. I declare an interest here because I am the president of One Family, formerly Cherish. The main aim of such an organisation is to try to get people, if they did not finish school, to go back into schooling; if they finished school, to try to get some training; and if they have training to get out into the workforce as soon as they possibly can because otherwise they will be in poverty for the rest of their lives. There are splendid surveys done at the moment as to the percentage of the population consistently at risk of poverty, and 33% of one-parent families are consistently at risk of poverty compared to 9% of the population. Only 10% of the population are in one-parent families. These are mainly headed by women but some are headed by fathers. It is sad that 33% said they cannot afford new clothes — they must buy second-hand clothes, and that does not mean they want expensive new fashion garments; 31% experienced debt from ordinary living expenses; and 24% stated they went without heating at some stage in the year.

I mention this because I was pretty put out, to put it mildly, by Dr. Ed Walsh, former president of Limerick University, coming forward with his own sociological ideas as to the cause of one-parent families. He seemed to have the opinion that State supports act as an incentive. Would that people planned that far ahead when having a family. Unfortunately, this is not so. Dr. Walsh might find out more by addressing the unfortunate problem of teenage alcohol consumption. The Crisis Pregnancy Agency will confirm that alcohol is frequently involved in someone becoming pregnant rather than that she has planned to get the one-parent allowance. The morning-after pill is not easily available. The family planning clinics have started to open on Saturday and Sunday mornings to dispense it but it could easily be given over the counter. I understand the Irish Pharmaceutical Union wants to become involved in more dispensing. This is one area it might examine. I could not agree with Dr. Walsh's premise that State supports encourage people to start families on their own. Being in a one-parent family is a very tough job, as most people in one-parent families would confirm. They must meet housing costs. It is very difficult to get accommodation in the private sector and there is not much public sector accommodation available.

It is extraordinary that Dr. Walsh should refer to studies in the United States of America. I never thought I would see the day when we in Ireland would be urged to take our child rearing policies from the United States of America, which probably has more problems with juveniles than any country in Europe. In the United States of America at the moment teachers can insist that children are put on Ritalin before they go to school, that children go to school medicated if teachers feel they are too disruptive in class. Senator Kett is nodding. I am quite sure, given his background, that he would not like to see such a development here. It is quite astonishing that children who are difficult to deal with at school are medicated. Mercifully, we still have teachers here who are in a position to deal with them. Taking child rearing policies from the United States of America is something we should resist. Wisconsin Works is often pointed out as an example of where the number of lone families taking benefit has decreased. It has, but where are they getting money given that there is no evidence that more of them are in employment? I do not know what is happening. However, we know there are serious problems with children being left unsupervised during the day when their parents must leave them at an age when it is quite unsuitable to leave them alone or where they leave them with people who are unsuitable to act as child minders.

Many Senators have mentioned the role of fathers. I was very interested in an article written in The Irish Times recently by Professor Tom O'Dowd, professor of general practice in Trinity College. He wrote about the role of the father in one-parent families, how little the father may have to do with the life of the child and how he is deprived of his role as father. We need to be careful not to exclude fathers because fathers are extraordinarily important in family life. In a family which is, perhaps, not very stable, the father's presence, even for some of the time, may be even more important.

Matters have improved from the time when, if there was any evidence of cohabitation, payment to the young woman was disallowed. Now the father can make an appearance on the scene and it is considered normal that he should want to have some association and some involvement in the upbringing of his child. I am a great believer in stability if at all possible when children are being brought up. If a couple do not want to be in a more formal relationship such as marriage, it is important that fathers are at least encouraged to take a good interest in their children and this is seen as good not only for the child but also for them. I suggest that the Minister should read Professor O'Dowd's words. In his article Professor O'Dowd wrote that one of his patients was a man who while in prison became literate, sat several examinations and eventually became a great reader of history. Professor O'Dowd wrote that if he could become so involved and so interested in really important aspects of European history, perhaps he could also become more involved in fatherhood and in making a contribution to the life of his child.

He said he felt this man had much to offer. I suggest we try to realise that whatever supports we give to parents of small children are to our benefit and the benefit of the parent and the child but the greatest benefit is to society in general. If we do not foster the upbringing of these children, who will run the services when we are old and pay the taxes to support the State?

Margaret Cox (Fianna Fail)
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I am pleased to contribute to the debate on the Parental Leave (Amendment) Bill. There are a couple of issues to which I wish to draw the attention of the Minister and his officials. As the Bill moves from Second Stage to Committee Stage perhaps we can deal with some of the difficulties caused by its implementation. I speak as a mother of four children and an owner-manager of a small business.

The Parental Leave (Amendment) Bill and the changing of the statutory entitlement to take the 14 weeks parental leave in separate blocks of a minimum of six continuous weeks will cause huge difficulty, in particular for small businesses. Small businesses in Ireland suffer from continual regulation being imposed on them by various Departments, particularly in the area of company law and finance. For a small organisation to lose an employee for six weeks gives it neither the opportunity to train a person to take over that person's job nor is it worthwhile to take on a temporary employee to cover parental leave. It then has to say "No" to an employee and postpone the leave, which cannot be postponed on a second request. We should try to facilitate people to take parental leave but we need to recognise — as does congress — that some organisations could live with 14 weeks parental leave in that they could take people on for two weeks before the commencement of the 14 week period, train them in and have cover for three or four months. That makes sense when one is taking on a person on a temporary contract. To balance that, it is difficult for people to take 14 weeks unpaid leave unless one's partner or spouse is in a well-paid job. For any family with young children, taking 14 weeks without pay is difficult. As a Government, we need to look seriously at the issue of paying parental leave benefit. We introduced carer's benefit to go with carer's leave and it has been successful. There is maternity leave and maternity payment. However, maternity payment goes nowhere near making up for the salary one might usually take home if one were not on maternity leave. We have to start somewhere.

If we are serious about our commitment to family we have to look at how we can support businesses in Ireland, particularly indigenous industry, to provide the leave and supports we want for the family and must examine how we can provide supports for employees. We need to consider paying some type of benefit to those on parental leave. Let us start at a low level and increase it over time so that in five or six years, we will have achieved a certain objective in terms of amounts of money. If we were in a position to do that we could say six weeks is too short for many small organisations. For smaller businesses, with fewer than 50 employees, to lose an employee for six weeks, three times in two years, is disruptive. If that business employs 50 people, it is contributing to all those families and it should benefit from some protection. While congress is strong on this issue and has fought hard on it, we need to send a clear message that enforcing six weeks leave as a right will create difficulties for smaller companies.

I am pleased the maximum age of eligible children is being raised from five to eight years. I welcome also the increase in the maximum age of the eligible child to 16 years in the case of children with disabilities. There are many good provisions in the Bill.

On the issue of force majeure leave, I ask the Minister to listen carefully. I also declare an interest. I wish to refer to recruitment agencies or employment agencies. The Minister will be aware I am an owner-manager of a recruitment agency in Galway. All recruitment agencies are faced with a problem. The legislation provides that force majeure leave is payable by the organisation liable for the wages of the temporary employee. Temporary employees are those employed in a contract of employment or a contract for employment. Is the agency liable to pay the wages or is the user company, as defined in the Unfair Dismissal Acts, liable to pay the wages? Obviously, if the temporary employee involved were not working in the organisation there would be no liability on the agency to pay the wages or the liability would rest with the user company. Until the legislation is tested, the position is unclear.

Let us say we choose either the agency or the user organisation. The nature of temporary work, particularly in the larger centres, is that temporary employees move from one assignment to the next and may work for various temp agencies during that time. One could spend two weeks with agency A and two weeks with agency B and so on. When I am with agency A I may start a two week assignment and on the second day I may apply for force majeure leave because of an emergency at home or wherever. Who will pay the force majeure leave, the agency or the employer organisation? If it is granted and paid by either organisation, where is the control to monitor what happens in two weeks time, when that individual moves to a different employment agency and to a different user company, where he or she can again apply for force majeure leave and take three days this time and so on, given that there is no central registration to record what payment has been made under force majeure leave? This leaves either the user organisation or the employment agency open to exploitation, which probably means that at the end of the day the temporary employee will not get the full benefit of his or her right, which is not what we want to do. I ask the Minister and his officials to focus on that section. While some changes are being made on codes of practice for force majeure, we need clarity. Employers, who use temporary employees, and temporary agencies need clarity on the issue of who is responsible for the payment in order that it can be included in the charging and, therefore, can be paid to the employee. We need a system to ensure people cannot go from one agency to another and so on and continue to claim force majeure which is beginning to happen. As people become aware of this facility, claims are being made weekly to many of the organisations.

In the whole equality area which goes back to the issue of continual regulation of organisations, if we are to be committed to family friendly policies and supporting women at work, we must recognise this carries an additional burden for small companies. Two people job-sharing in a small company is more expensive in terms of management than having one person doing the job. The provision of flexitime or mother-friendly working hours is much more difficult for a small organisation to deal with. It is important to tie these welcome and necessary legislative changes into the taxation system and the tax credits system. I suggest, for instance, a double tax credit on the salaries of two people who are job-sharing could be set against the employer's corporation tax as a form of recognition by the Government of the commitment of smaller organisations — and even big organisations — in this area. This type of support from Government would allow for a follow through into the operations of organisations and their acceptance of the need to move towards family-friendly policies.

I ask the Minister of State to consider the two areas which I have referred to before Committee Stage is dealt with. I ask him to suggest to the Minister for Finance the need to offer some form of financial support to the SME sector in order to implement these policies which we all wish for and which are of benefit to society.

4:00 pm

Kathleen O'Meara (Labour)
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I welcome the Minister of State to the House and apologise for not being present for the entire debate due to other commitments. I welcome this legislation as a move in the right direction for the extension of parental leave. This is a matter of the utmost importance to an increasing number of people. I am merely stating the obvious when I say that this country has undergone a transformation in respect of women's participation in the workforce. Approximately 50% of women are now participating in the workforce. As people in the workforce become parents, the issue of who minds the children becomes critical as does the issue of parental leave.

While this Bill extends the range of parental leave, it is to a minimal extent and does not go far enough. The needs of a child in the first year of life are critical. All parents, particularly mothers who have stayed in the home with children, recall the day when they must return to work following maternity leave. It can be one of the most difficult experiences. The parent wants to go back to the workforce but her mind is at home. It is a very difficult wrench to leave a very young baby when the parent has been the full-time carer. It is an extraordinary concept that parents hand over the almost full-time care of very young children to strangers in crèches. I congratulate all the minders and crèches and all those relatives, neighbours, friends, grannies and in-laws who do a magnificent job in caring for babies.

As a legislator and as a mother I ask the Government to examine the impact on family life of the lack of an infrastructure where parental leave is only one part of a planned and integrated approach to the care and education of young children. The Leader of the House is arranging a debate on the matter. There needs to be a significant extension of the right to parental leave. The Government should consider making it possible for parents to be the full-time carers of their infants up to the age of one year so that every child is cared for by its parent for the first year of its life. This will ensure an excellent head start in life for the child and will be of economic benefit to the State.

The welfare of children, particularly very young children, must be a priority. Many babies are being looked after in large crèches and are not being cared for on a one-to-one basis by the same carer. Experts in the field of early childhood development do not regard this as an ideal situation.

My eldest child is nearly 21 years old. It does not seem to have done him any harm when at the age of about one he went into a crèche and had more than one minder. In the first year of his life he had the benefit of a wonderful woman minding him full time. Experts in child development will attest to the importance of a child having a single carer and the best carer of a child is its parent. Priority must be afforded to infants. I ask the Government to examine the introduction of a system of parental leave available for the first year of the child's life.

Senator Cox made a point about family-friendly work policies. We want to achieve an infrastructure which supports all parents who work. Such infrastructure must include a family-friendly work environment. In Denmark the system is that the two parents work one and a half jobs, each parent working three quarters of a job. This allows the parents to spend time at home which both the child and the parents require in order to form the family unit which is the fundamental cornerstone of a properly-functioning society, a happy family and a happy community.

The impact of parents having very little time with their children must be considered. Some parents must leave home at 7 a.m. and may not see their children until 7 p.m. that evening. They may have worked all day and commuted home. I know from my own experience that both children and parents can be tired and only a small window of opportunity exists in which to spend time with each other. This is not a satisfactory quality of life for parents. It is then not surprising that many women opt to downsize in their job and opt for job-sharing or flexitime if possible. It is statistically borne out that in some cases women are leaving the workforce in order to have more time with their children because they cannot organise a flexible arrangement.

I have sympathy for the case of small employers as referred to by Senator Cox. I know a person who works in the public service outside Dublin. She praised the public service system of family-friendly work arrangements such as half-time and term-time working. Many parents, both men and women, avail of these arrangements. I asked her how the office work is managed when so many people are not in the office. She replied that they simply do not answer the telephone. The current approach is not working and I ask the Minister of State to examine it. The objective of family-friendly work policies is not to hammer the customer who needs to avail of a public service.

It is great if a large number of parents working for an employer take the summer off to care for their children. However, given that this significantly reduces the workforce for a short period, how is a small or medium-sized employer supposed to cope in terms of productivity and so forth? This difficulty must be taken into account. A partnership approach between the Government, IBEC and the employee bodies is required to produce strategies which work, not only for working parents but also for employers and the economy.

As studies carried out in other countries have shown, the availability of parental leave for the first year of a child's life makes economic sense. Women who are allowed to spend the first year of a child's life at home are more likely to return full time to the workforce, whereas when women are forced to leave the workforce it results in a major loss to the economy.

It is a rarely stated fact that one of the reasons for the wonderful economic expansion and prosperity of recent years is that one of our under-utilised resources, namely, educated women, have entered the workforce. As educated and less-educated women have joined the workforce, the economy has significantly expanded. It would be worthwhile to examine how we can support parents at work. Although employers recognise that this is an economic issue, it appears the Government does not view it likewise. Investment in child care under the equal opportunities programme has created much greater availability but it is minimal when compared to the amounts other countries invest in child care. It equates to less than the funding provided by Government to the horse racing industry.

We have a crisis in child care, with parents struggling to cope with its financial and emotional burden. What price are we paying for the difficulty families face in functioning, particularly from Monday to Friday when children go to school and after school arrangements are sometimes ad hoc? Parents rely on favours between neighbours, friends and so on which can come apart at short notice, causing major pressure and distress, particularly for those who commute. I know many people in this position.

While we have raced ahead and created a working economy, we have failed to ensure that a fundamental part of infrastructure, namely, the care and education of young children, matches economic progress. This is particularly the case in terms of the infrastructure required to support the many working parents who form a necessary part of the workforce.

The Minister is only one of seven Ministers who share responsibility for child care. We need a single Minister to assume responsibility for this area. In Britain, for instance, a separate infrastructure is being established to support working parents and meet the need for a high-quality system of care and education for young children. This is a recognition of the considerable evidence to show that a high-quality pre-school education system tackles disadvantage at its source. It is the only approach that will reduce our school drop-out rates which, despite economic prosperity and more investment in education and communities, are still stubbornly high in the post-primary sector. The reason for this is that the communities which badly need investment in the early years of children's lives are not receiving it. It would be worthwhile for the Government to target investment in full-time crèches and pre-school facilities in poorer areas. Someone told me this week that one year spent in a good quality pre-school facility with trained workers before primary school age yields five years at the other end. Children who benefit from this early head start are much more likely to successfully travel through the education system.

While I welcome this important legislation in principle, it is minimal and marks a small step forward when giant steps are needed.

Photo of Mary O'RourkeMary O'Rourke (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister of State and the Bill. The legislation was promised under Sustaining Progress. It is the result of the social partnership process and endless discussions between all the relevant bodies, including employee and employer representatives and the voluntary pillar.

Listening to Senator O'Meara, I recalled my days of child rearing when parental leave was not available. Teachers who gave birth to a child went to work the following Monday, which was amazing and awful at the same time. No provision was made for those who adopted a child, as my husband and I did with our second child. In the cases of birth and adoption, one went to school the next morning if one wanted to continue teaching.

I agree with Senator O'Meara's comments. The next generation of my family includes two daughters-in-law with young children. One daughter-in-law has two children, while the second has a baby with another due in early April.

Maternity leave has already been addressed in legislation. This Bill on parental leave is one of three Bills aimed at improving social legislation. We have so many reasons to be grateful to the European Union.

Photo of Mary WhiteMary White (Fianna Fail)
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Hear, hear.

Photo of Mary O'RourkeMary O'Rourke (Fianna Fail)
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Were it not for our membership of the EU, I do not believe we would have had any of this legislation.

Kathleen O'Meara (Labour)
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That is certainly the case.

Photo of Mary WhiteMary White (Fianna Fail)
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We all agree.

Photo of Mary O'RourkeMary O'Rourke (Fianna Fail)
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There is still a grudging attitude towards entitlements such as parental leave. This is an example of a deep-seated chauvinism which holds that women can stay at home and mind their children, notwithstanding the fact that employers are screaming out for employees, education can contribute to our economic well-being and we can ill afford to have people with talent and ability outside the workforce. That is an economic fact as opposed to a social concern expressed by do-gooders.

It is commendable that parents are given paid leave in the public sector and some larger companies, including the banks. However, I am not aware of many other companies which provide paid parental leave. The legislation makes advances, particularly in the area of adoptive leave and the extension of the age threshold to eight years which is still a young age. Moreover, it provides that, in the case of a child with a disability, parents may take leave until the child is 16 years. These are helpful, proper and timely changes.

We received a briefing from the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, which I assume is accurate. It states that Austria, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and Sweden make payments in respect of parental leave. In Italy, 30% of salary is paid by the employer for up to six months, while in the Netherlands and Belgium collective agreements provide for additional payments during maternity leave. Austria has legislated for paid parental leave for up to two years. It can be taken on a part-time basis. Congress is looking for a social insurance payment. It is fine if one can afford to take parental leave and not have that income coming in and if one does not work in the public service or in one of the major banks. Perhaps when the Minister of State replies, he will indicate which employers give paid parental leave. I would be keen to know those industries which give paid leave. I presume all the public service gives paid leave.

Photo of Frank FaheyFrank Fahey (Minister of State, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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Photo of Mary O'RourkeMary O'Rourke (Fianna Fail)
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I thought the public service gave paid parental leave. I would be keen to know which employers give it. I would like to know why we are so out of step with all those other countries — it is quite amazing. I think France has excellent paid parental leave which can be taken by mothers or fathers until the child is two years of age. It is only right that is the case. A grudging attitude is still with us that it is the mother's job to mind the child and she should stay at home. I can only call that kind of talk "gab talk". It is so wrong. I understand teachers get paid parental leave but I thought all public servants got it — I am quite amazed they do not.

There are worries for the employer when a woman opts to take parental leave. I like the flexibility in the Bill, which is interesting, worthwhile and is a step in the right direction. I note the Minister of State said the social partners could not agree on the issue of paid parental leave. Of course they could not reach agreement because I would say the employers did not want to give it and the employees wanted it. The trade unions would want paid parental leave while IBEC or those representing employers would not.

I sometimes find it defeatist the way Ireland must be dragged to the post to provide for measures such as this. Luxembourg gives paid parental leave and has the lowest unemployment rate in Europe next to Ireland, so it must be doing quite well. I cannot help but remember that when I started in public life, there was a vote at a county council meeting on whether women should stay at home and should not look for work in the workforce. The economy of a country is worse off without the inclusion of both women and men in the workforce.

I wish to move on to an issue not covered by this Bill on which my colleague, Senator White, speaks and on which it is worth commenting. I agree with the Minister of State that there has been a great leap in the provision of crèche places through an equal opportunities measure which has been very helpful. While the provision of places is important, the cost of those places is the issue. It is not facile to say that, in most instances, couples pay more for their crèche place than they pay on their mortgage. Is the world topsy-turvy or what has gone wrong? People try to make other arrangements; they invoke the help of in-laws or a child-minder in a house. I think a person can look after four or perhaps five children without being registered as a crèche.

I try to walk to the House most mornings and I see mothers and fathers looking harassed and bothered with their off-spring looking similarly so. I pass a crèche coming down a street and see children bouncing in at 8 a.m. or 8.15 a.m. with mothers with their make-up ready for their next task on their way to their job. I also see fathers shooing in two or three children. Of course, it is not the ideal arrangement. How could it be? It would be if the child had the same carer, and I take that point which is solidly made. We will be dragged screaming to giving paid parental leave and to extending the time span so that parents may bond with their child. Bonding is not just fuzzy women's talk. The bonding between a child and its mother and father is very important and fathers should share in that bonding process. Long ago the father said it was the mother's job to mind the child while he went about his very important business, sporting and other engagements in pubs and elsewhere. The mother had to struggle in all sorts of ways. That day has gone because I see young fathers, including my two sons, share equally in the care of the young baby. That is to the good. It is not only the mother who should get up in the middle of the night when the child cries but the father should also get up and tend to the child. I can see the fellows smirking.

Photo of Mary WhiteMary White (Fianna Fail)
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Senator Dooley.

Photo of Mary O'RourkeMary O'Rourke (Fianna Fail)
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Senator Dooley is a young father. Does he get up at night to tend to his child?

Photo of Tony KettTony Kett (Fianna Fail)
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He is only coming home at that stage.

Photo of Mary O'RourkeMary O'Rourke (Fianna Fail)
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That is what I call an Irish joke and I do not like it; I do not believe it is right. I used to say to Enda, God rest him, "I was up twice last night", and he would say, "Were you dear?" That would be that but he changed his tune later on.

Photo of Timmy DooleyTimmy Dooley (Fianna Fail)
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He was a wise man.

Photo of Mary O'RourkeMary O'Rourke (Fianna Fail)
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Babies need to know there are two people minding them.

The Minister of State has great gumption and he would do well to try to bring about a reconciliation between employers and employees on this matter of paid parental leave. Many people cannot afford to avail of it and to be out of the workforce for that length of time so that they may lay the foundations of a happy child and for themselves.

After having a baby, a woman is quite spent and bothered and while everything may have gone well with the pregnancy, she may feel a little under the weather, may suffer from post-natal depression and may not feel 100%. There is then the worry of leaving the baby with somebody while she goes out to work because she needs the double income. Young people now need double incomes in order to live, pay mortgages and child care. I am speaking from practical experience and I now see my two daughters in-law trying to cope. One works in a bank and received full pay while on leave. Their baby will be seven months old when she goes back to work but she added on unpaid leave. The other works for a private employer who does not provide such a payment. I know the Minister of State will attend to giving paid parental leave because we will be dragged screaming to it quite shortly. We will be the last country in Europe to give paid parental leave as a right.

Force majeure leave allows, in an extreme circumstance, a parent leave work quickly but to be kept on the payroll. One has the right to go back to the position in which one was before one took time off to have a baby. One must not suffer the discrimination of one's job having been given to somebody else and one having to fight one's way back.

It is not so long ago that employees in some sections of the Civil Service had to take a case on this issue, which they won on the basis of the relevant EU directive.

People are by choice having fewer children, but there will come a time when we will desperately need workers. Already the shortage of skilled workers has led to an increase in demand for women in the workforce. This Bill is welcome in so far as it goes but it goes only a few steps. Much more is required.

Fergal Browne (Fine Gael)
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Senator O'Rourke spoke as a mother and grandmother while I speak as an uncle.

Photo of Mary O'RourkeMary O'Rourke (Fianna Fail)
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That is good.

Fergal Browne (Fine Gael)
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That is my experience in this area.

Photo of Timmy DooleyTimmy Dooley (Fianna Fail)
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Is Senator Browne seeking time off as a consequence of that role? That is stretching it in order to get several weeks off work.

Photo of Mary O'RourkeMary O'Rourke (Fianna Fail)
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Senator Browne will get around to the role of parent sometime.

Fergal Browne (Fine Gael)
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My three sisters each have young children and I hear much about this issue, which has been raised consistently by Senators Cox and White in the Chamber. It will be one of the most significant issues in the next general election campaign.

Photo of Mary O'RourkeMary O'Rourke (Fianna Fail)
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I agree.

Fergal Browne (Fine Gael)
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It is interesting to hear Senator O'Rourke speak about the lack of maternity leave when she was teaching. Great strides have been made in this area in recent years, including the extension of maternity leave entitlement to 18 weeks, improved provision for unpaid maternity leave and the increase in child benefit. There have also been advancements in the availability of job-sharing opportunities. One of my sisters has availed of this option and it makes her life considerably easier.

However, much work remains to be done. Other than parents, those most affected by the non-availability of child care are grandparents. Instead of seeing their grandchildren occasionally, many are forced to take an active role in rearing them. In place of short visits on a Sunday afternoon, children are arriving on their grandparents' doorstep at 8 a.m. or in the evening. Grandparents may be obliged to collect children from school because their parents are working. When they should be relaxing and enjoying life having reared their own children, such people are rearing their children's children. This is an important issue.

It is ironic that we are debating this issue in the House. Leinster House must be one of the worst examples in this regard, with no child care facilities in the building for staff and Members. Although steps are under way to rectify this, it is appalling that such a situation should pertain in 2005. The life of a politician could not be more unfriendly to the needs of a young family. I am unsure what the solution is. Few young females and parents of young children are entering politics because they are aware of the immense pressures.

Senator O'Meara observed that the sharing of responsibility for this area among seven Ministers is a problem. One Minister with full responsibility for the issue should be appointed as a matter of priority. This will ensure there is a consistent line of responsibility instead of matters being passed between different Departments. The Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, for example, is responsible for the funding of some crèches. There was a unique situation in Carlow when a crèche was opened by the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform only for an announcement to be made some weeks later that its funding had been cut. Although this matter was subsequently resolved, there would be no such problems if one Minister had overall responsibility in this area.

The fees for child care are astounding. As a single male, I am flabbergasted to hear stories of people with two children paying up to €1,500 a month for child care places. This is a significant amount of money, constituting more than an average mortgage. The State must consider the possibility of paying the staff in child care facilities. The option of introducing tax credits holds the potential danger of causing inflation in this area, in which case those parents availing of crèche facilities will be no better off.

The State pays the wages of staff in primary, second and third level education facilities and should do the same for staff in child care facilities. This would bring costs down by ensuring that crèche owners have no excuse for increasing fees. I have spent time in France where I observed the écoles maternelles, which I understand are state-sponsored, for children of two years and above. State payment for staff in child care facilities will help to control costs and will also allow the State to have an input into the quality of child care.

Those earning the minimum wage and on short-term contracts will gain little from this Bill. I understand one must be in employment for 12 months before availing of parental leave. Lone parents on the minimum wage and employees on short-term contracts are those most in need of assistance but will obtain no benefits from the legislation. Its provisions serve to help the middle classes more than the working classes.

Other speakers have commented that the leave is unpaid, an issue which the Minister of State addressed in his speech. It is an issue that must be examined, not necessarily for the benefit of those in a financial position to take unpaid leave but for those employees, such as a lone parent earning the minimum wage, who cannot afford to take time off work. The Minister should address this problem urgently and should focus his energy in this area. It is worth noting that no child benefit is paid in the United States and the maternity leave entitlements are much less generous than in this country. It is good to see that we are already far ahead of that country in this area.

An issue on which the Government must hold its head in shame is the changes introduced in the budget before last relating to benefit-in-kind. Those changes are having an impact in this area. Employers who wish to reward long-serving employees by providing health insurance, a company car or child care benefit, for example, have found their hands tied. This issue must be reconsidered. The Government should not prohibit an employer from acknowledging the role played by an esteemed employee through benefit-in-kind provisions.

This Bill represents a first step. I was interested to hear Senator O'Rourke's comment that it is part of a trio of Bills. Much more must be done and I acknowledge the role played by the EU in this area. If it were left to the State, the measures contained in this Bill would not have been undertaken.

Photo of Timmy DooleyTimmy Dooley (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Bill and the discussion that has taken place about it. From the Minister of State's perspective, this is about equality. Several Members have mentioned that responsibility for this area is spread across several Departments.

As I understand it that is an issue pertaining to Europe, particularly the equality issue. The Minister of State has succeeded in bringing equality to the issue of parenting regarding leave of absence from work, which helps address the age-old imbalance the Leader spoke about. Society has moved on considerably in the past ten to 15 years. While fellows with a bit of bravado in the pub or at the game might make certain comments, in reality women have recognised their position as equal in Irish life. For quite some time they have addressed that balance and it is important that legislation be in line with this to ensure that from an employment point of view, the same conditions that are available to males are also available to females. I welcome this change.

The rights of return to work and protections against dismissal are vital. Many people, particularly women through their decision to have a family, found themselves returning to work to a lower grade position or one in which they might not be able to work, or an environment which they found hostile because it was different from where they worked before. Obviously their pay scales were retained because through existing legislation employers could not tamper with them. However, some employers saw an opportunity where a young woman had got married and might have been about to start a family. When she did so, they sought to prevent her from progressing through the company unlike some of her male colleagues. The work of the Minister of State regarding equality legislation is very welcome in this regard.

I welcome the provision allowing for force majeure leave, which is obviously important. It is good that the anomaly regarding placement for adoption has been addressed. In reality the child was with the parents and all that was required was the order. It is good to have this situation regularised to ensure that the facilities are available to the children. Changing the age limit from five to eight is welcome and I particularly welcome the new age limit of 16 for children with disabilities. There is considerable talk about the Disability Bill with certain interest groups having their views on the matter. I am on record as saying that I believe the Disability Bill is excellent legislation. Here is a practical measure giving parents the opportunity to assist a child in what in many cases are very difficult circumstances.

Regarding parenting, we have many debates in the Seanad through statements on drug addiction or criminality among young people, alcoholism and the damage it is doing to young people. As a country we probably have not focused as much as we should have on early intervention with children. That early intervention starts from the time the child is born. As a result of the way the economy has grown, many people are out of the house and dependent on child care facilities, which have been mentioned, or pass their children to child minders to effectively bring them up. With the kind of lifestyle people now have they find themselves out of the house from early morning to late evening with no time spent with the children. Anything that can be done through primary or secondary legislation to make it easier for such parents to be involved in the upbringing of children must be welcomed, particularly to ensure that children are given the basic skills to go on to live a successful life. That early intervention is critical. It is too late by the time they get to primary school. The formative years from the time they begin to crawl right through to when they go to primary school represent the most important period.

I speak with a little bit of experience as the father of a three-year-old and a four-month-old and it is in this context that I make these comments. My wife who is obviously off work at the moment with the younger child will seek to return to work and the kinds of provisions set out here will assist her as it will many other young mothers in similar circumstances.

While I know it does not fall within the remit of this legislation and may not even fall within the brief of the Minister of State, it is worth making some comments on child care, which has been fairly well covered in this debate. It is clear that we have a significant issue which the Government will need to tackle. The Leader rightly pointed out the difficulties associated with the cost of child care. When my two children go to a child care facility the cost is like another mortgage. People find themselves going into debt even though it might be a short time before they start school. However, it is a significant burden that is making life particularly difficult for many young couples. This problem needs to be addressed in many different ways. While this is probably not the time or place to discuss the issue, I would welcome any views the Minister of State might have or any input he would like to give from the point of view of the equality section of his Department.

Paid leave, as requested by some Senators, would be very welcome. Very few of us are fortunate enough to be in a position to take unpaid leave and live in the modern economy with all the burdens and costs that go with it. A recent report pointed to the level of borrowing by individuals. While the economy is doing particularly well, much of this progress is on the back of people no longer saving money to the extent they did in the past, obviously for the good reason that they cannot afford to do so. They are borrowing to make provision for matters like child care. It would be very welcome if we could look at the area of paid leave.

Photo of Frank FaheyFrank Fahey (Minister of State, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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I thank all the Senators who contributed to a very useful and interesting debate. I take on board all the points that have been made. All of us, particularly those who are parents, would have a natural inclination to have the maximum amount of parental leave paid at the highest possible rate. In reality we must strike a balance on the matter. The issue was debated at great length in the partnership process and the consensus reached is what is before us today. A high cost is involved in paid parental leave, which was a major issue in the debate this afternoon. Based on the qualifying criteria for the maternity benefit scheme, for an equivalent payment taking into account the social insurance payments costs and the public sector employer costs it would cost €129 million in 2001, which, given the increases that have taken place, at today's costs would be estimated at approximately €200 million in social insurance payments and public sector employer costs for public sector employees, which is a very significant amount.

In reality the partnership groups, IBEC and ICTU, in the talks on Sustaining Progress could not agree that payment should be made and the consensus they came up with is the one by which the Government is now bound to a certain extend. This is why we have opted to go along with the agreement reached when negotiating Sustaining Progress. The success of this economy since 1987 has been based on partnership agreements which were rigorously negotiated between employers and trade unions. It is because of that formula that we now have the difficulties we have concerning parental leave, child care, etc. We did not have such problems in 1987 because we had serious unemployment and we did not have as many opportunities for women as we have now.

As a parent, I agree with many of the comments made about the desirability of paid parental leave, but as Minister of State I have to acknowledge it is not possible to reach agreement on it among the social partners because there is a high cost involved. Having taken those points into consideration, the best possible formula has been reached in this Bill. While it is not perfect, it has been the subject of general agreement. All the issues raised by Senators will be considered. While it may be possible to examine some suggestions, it will not be possible to reconsider this proposal. I take the point made earlier by Senator O'Toole about the desirability of re-examining certain matters, but there is not much scope for consideration in this case.

A number of the Bill's technicalities were raised by various Members. Senator Terry asked about broken leave. The Bill allows for an employee to take leave in six-week blocks and states that the employer must accept that. An employer and an employee can agree to any flexible arrangement.

Senators Cox and Browne mentioned the burden on the small business sector. There was some rigorous negotiation between the social partners in this respect. It was agreed that there should be a minimum break of ten weeks between the two six-week blocks of leave to provide some protection to small companies.

Many Senators spoke about the need for a family-friendly balance between work and other parts of life. Society needs to encourage as many initiatives as possible in this area, in the public service as well as in the private sector. A great deal of progress has been made in this regard. We have come a long way from the dark days described by Senator O'Rourke, when it was impossible for two parents to go to work. We should acknowledge the progress being made in the public sector, where a series of work-life balance initiatives has been introduced. A broad range of options, such as term-time working, paid paternity leave and unpaid leave for domestic purposes, is available, in addition to statutory entitlements such as maternity, adoptive, parental and carer's leave which are now commonplace in the employment sector. I accept that we need to do more and I am sure we will do so. As time goes by, I am sure we will recognise the significant changes taking place in society. We need to strive on a continual basis to achieve the flexible and positive family-friendly balance between work and life that we would all like to have.

Senator Terry spoke about the Government influencing men to take up paternity leave. Other Senators compared Ireland with Europe in this regard. Many countries, particularly in mainland Europe, offer an attractive paternity leave regime. While we know about the benefits the European social model can bring to workers in mainland Europe, we also know about the grave difficulties it is causing for economies across Europe. When I spent two and a half years as Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment with responsibility for labour affairs, it was clear to me at meetings of the Council of Ministers that many European countries are having significant problems with the social model in which they operate. There has been significant political upheaval in Germany, Austria and France, which are examining the social model carefully because they cannot afford it. In the competitive global economy in which they have to operate, they cannot afford the social model that has been generous to them in the past.

When we compare Ireland with other European countries, we should compare like with like. Ireland has been the most successful economy in Europe over the past 20 years. It has been successful because it has struck a balance between an important social conscience with growing social supports, as it could afford them, and an important physical and economic model which has caused the economy to grow in a significant way over the years. If we compare ourselves to mainland Europe, we should consider the balance this country has struck. We should bear in mind the disadvantages of the European social model. We demand more money to be spent in all areas all the time, without much consideration of where it will come from.

Statistics clearly demonstrate that the percentage of men availing of parental leave is quite low throughout Europe. The level of benefit which can be enjoyed is quite low in comparison with wage levels. Most men in Europe do not take up parental leave as a consequence. The Government will consider the argument that people on lower wages, particularly women, would benefit from paid parental leave. I am sure the social partners will address that issue anseo amach. I hope the position in that regard will change as the economy grows and we can afford to spend more money.

The transferability of parental leave from one parent to another was raised by a number of Senators. The EU directive does not allow leave to be transferred from one parent to another, unfortunately. It grants an individual right to parental leave to each parent. The Office of the Attorney General has advised us that we are not in a position to transfer that individual right from one parent to the other.

Senator O'Toole spoke about paternity leave, to which there is no statutory entitlement in this country. It is fair to say that employers across the spectrum are quite generous in allocating paternity leave. We heard examples of such generosity from some Senators today. Senator O'Rourke asked about public sector employees, such as teachers, health service workers, gardaí, prison officers and members of the Defence Forces. All such employees are entitled to three days paternity leave. Many private sector employers also provide a short period of paternity leave without deducting any pay. When I was Minister of State with responsibility for labour affairs, I noted that the private sector was quite generous in providing paternity leave. Companies that scrounge on such initiatives usually show such greed in their bottom line. Generosity is repaid in spades by employees after they have completed their celebrations. Some Senators spoke about a grudging attitude to parental leave. As I have said, a grudging attitude will usually bear poor results.

Sheila Terry (Fine Gael)
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Why not provide for that in legislation? Why leave it to chance?

Photo of Frank FaheyFrank Fahey (Minister of State, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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It is fair to say that it is a question of resources and of agreement between the social partners. We have come quite a long way and I am the first to accept that we have a long way to go, but a balance must be struck. Senator Terry's proposal has significant cost implications. Everything goes when one is in Opposition, but if Fine Gael were in Government tomorrow, choices would have to be made between a number of proposals that were made by Senators in the Opposition benches today. Very cogent cases were made for child care workers to be paid by the State, for payments for those on parental and paternal leave and for child care benefits to be increased considerably.

Sheila Terry (Fine Gael)
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Such cases are coming from the Minister of State's side of the House also.

Rory Kiely (Fianna Fail)
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The Minister of State, without interruption.

5:00 pm

Photo of Frank FaheyFrank Fahey (Minister of State, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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The reality is that choices need to be made.

Senators Norris and O'Toole mentioned force majeure leave and the need for parental leave when children are hurt in accidents or are ill. As I stated, the parent is entitled to take time off under the force majeure provisions of the principal Act.

Both Senators Norris and O'Toole referred to force majeure leave for same-sex couples. The parental working group recommended that the issue be addressed. Section 12(4) of Sustaining Progress contains a Government commitment to examine the steps necessary to give effect to this recommendation. I have much sympathy for the case made by both Senators. There is no doubt there is a discrepancy in that heterosexual couples can avail of force majeure leave to look after each other as well as parents, brothers or sisters, for example, while same-sex couples cannot do so for each other. It is not necessary to make provision in this regard in this Bill. If the Government decides to grant statutory entitlement to force majeure leave to same-sex couples, it can do so by ministerial order under section 13(2) of the Parental Leave Act 1988. In the context of my role as Minister of State with responsibility for equality, I believe there is a case to be made for force majeure leave for same-sex couples. I will be recommending it to my colleagues in Government. It is a matter for Government but the case made by both Senators merits positive consideration.

On the question of obtaining leave in respect of a child until it reaches the age of 12 months, as raised by Senator O'Meara, family leave is available for this period. If one adds up the 24 weeks of maternity leave, 16 weeks of which are paid, the 14 weeks of parental leave for a father and the 14 weeks of parental leave for the mother, one will note that it amounts to a year's parental leave. Arguments were made about the attractive periods of leave available in other countries. It is a question of making progress by degrees.

Senator Cox raised two issues in respect of the blocks of leave. This was debated in the talks on Sustaining Progress and it was agreed that there would have to be a ten week gap to provide for the difficulties experienced by small companies. We accept the point made and will re-examine the issue to ascertain whether there is scope for improvement. However, we are bound by the agreement negotiated in the talks on Sustaining Progress.

On force majeure leave in respect of agencies or temporary working arrangements, whoever pays the wages of the worker is generally responsible for all elements of that pay. However, I cannot state the exact position on the question raised by Senator Cox in this regard, particularly in respect of the difficulties associated with a temporary agency worker moving continually from one employer to another and perhaps seeking force majeure leave in each employment. We will certainly consider this and revert to the Senator thereon at a later date.

I have confirmed the position on paternity leave for Senator O'Rourke. In answer to her question, I am not aware of any employer in Ireland making a parental leave payment.

Senator O'Rourke asked about the entitlement of an employee to return to the same job, under the same contract of employment, on the expiration of his or her period of maternity or paternal leave. This is possible under Directives 2002/73/EC and 2004/207/EC. Section 7 of the Bill provides for this important entitlement.

Many Senators, including Senator O'Rourke, mentioned child care. I must stand up for the older men of this country and state that I do not accept the age of chivalry died long ago. I accept that today's fathers may be better than those of the past but I do not accept Senator O'Rourke's description of older men. There may have been cases where they left all the work to the mother, but this was not the case in every household.

During the local election campaign of 1995 there was no mention of child care on the doorsteps, yet it was the main issue during the 1997 general election campaign. I distinctly remember this because I became Minister of State with special responsibility for children shortly afterwards. Over the course of two years, child care became the main issue due to the great and immediate improvement in employment possibilities and the very positive development whereby women were able to gain access to employment in much greater numbers than was previously the case. It was only in 2000 that I, as Minister of State with special responsibility for children, introduced the very first set of regulations to govern child care. There were no regulations governing crèches, playschools or any type of child care until then.

Child care is a very recent area of priority. While I accept all the points made, to the effect that there are not enough child care places and that child care is too expensive, and while we must certainly address the issue, it is only fair to refer to the very positive developments in this area. Some 33,000 new places are being created under the initiative launched a few years ago. In 1997, child benefit was €37 per month and the cost to the State was €505 million. This year, child benefit has increased to €141 per month and the cost to the State is €1.9 billion, or approximately four times that of the 1997 level. There has been no greater increase in any area of public expenditure than in child care. It is only proper that we recognise the work done and being done. I accept the point made by Senators that there is much more to do, that we need to increase the number of child care places and ensure that the cost of child care is kept down. That is a central element of Government policy.

I thank the Senators for their contribution to the debate this evening. We will reflect carefully on all the points. There are unfortunately several issues we cannot change but I welcome the positive tone of this debate. It will help me and my officials to consider amendments before we return to this House and go to the Dáil.

Question put and agreed to.

Committee Stage ordered for Tuesday, 8 February 2005.