Thursday, 27 October 2005
Dáil Eireann Debate
The Bill updates its 1998 namesake to implement some of the recommendations of the working group on the review and improvement of the Parental Leave Act 1998. Sustaining Progress, the Government’s social partnership agreement for the period 2003-05, made a commitment to strengthen parental leave in line with the agreed recommendations of the social partners. A commitment was made subsequently to enact the legislation by the end of the last Dáil session, but we must ask why the Government has failed to act within its own time limits.
I realise that the delay is not dramatic but, if the Adoptive Leave Bill is anything to go by, the measure before us will take a year to enact. Legislation which could make a big difference to some people’s lives can take a long time to pass through the House because we sit on it. That is a shame. It is a pity that the Government cannot meet its own schedule for passing this measure. These delays put people off politics because legislation moves at such a slow pace. Dáil reform is needed to speed things up and this is another example of that problem. I realise that this matter is not solely the responsibility of the Ceann Comhairle because we all have a role to play, but the Government parties have a greater role than the Opposition.
Fine Gael is in favour of new legislation to update the provisions for parental leave. I am glad to see that the Government is finally doing something about it. However, the Bill is still inadequate. It does not provide for paid leave, which means only those who can afford to take time off can avail of it. Once again we have proof that the Government favours those who are already favoured. The Minister has not made any attempt to extend the effect of the legislation. It remains a law that will apply only to the middle classes. By not giving paid parental leave, we are putting at a disadvantage the most vulnerable working people in society — those on low wages.
This failure on the part of the Government to examine the issue of paid parental leave is particularly galling in light of the fact that it was one of the recommendations of the working group that led to the genesis of the Bill. Much rhetoric was expounded on the Adoptive Leave Act to the effect that the Minister of State could not make decisions without checking back with the working group and the review group. In spite of that, he is unwilling to take on board the recommendation from the review group in this regard. The Minister of State appears to have had a change of heart.
While we welcome the Bill and what it will achieve, I remind the Government not to become too smug. We still have a long way to go. A cursory examination of the European context shows us, for example, that Austria has legislated for paid parental leave for up to two years, that can also be taken on a part-time basis. In the
Netherlands and Belgium collective agreements provide for additional payments while employees are on parental leave. In Italy, the employer pays 30% of the parent’s salary for up to six months. Denmark, Finland, Germany, Luxembourg and Sweden, to name but a few of our other neighbours, all make payments to parents. Even in the United Kingdom, a country that hardly leads the way in this area, parents are entitled to some paid leave.
Are our children less important than the children of these countries? Why do we not strive to come anywhere near what is provided in other countries? It has been said that we have come a long way. Such legislation only dates back to 1998. We are part of the European Union and we should be up to speed with the other member states, regardless of the point from where we started. One cannot say on the one hand that we are a great country that is leading the way in Europe while on the other hand say that when it comes to parental leave, we have only recently got our act together and we need more time. That is not good enough. We should aim high. We can do it. It is affordable. We are investing in our children’s future.
Given the week that is in it, we should realise how important our children are and how much they have been neglected over the years by successive Governments. We now have a chance to go a step further and it would be a shame if we missed this opportunity. We will be competing with other countries who have better provisions in this area. In future our children will be competing with their European counterparts for education and jobs and ours may be at a disadvantage.
We will consider amendments on Committee Stage to provide for parental leave benefit, which will be equivalent to an adoptive leave or maternity leave benefit and will have a social welfare credit equivalent. Income levels must be factored into the equation when we consider who can and will avail of these provisions. In the debate on the Adoptive Leave Bill, one argument centred on which parent could take it. Sadly, the Opposition lost that argument. We are sticking to the traditional Irish way of the mother getting it rather than the father.
My reading of the Bill under discussion is that either parent can take the leave and they are both entitled to a 14-week period. I accept they are not entitled to share it and that one parent is not entitled to take both periods of 14 weeks as this could create difficulties for employers. I hope to table an amendment to this Bill to make it clear that both parents are entitled to a 14-week period. It is not stated in the Bill or the 1998 Act that they are not entitled to it nor does it state that they are entitled to it. The Bill should not be open to opposite interpretations. I have not heard that this has happened but we should take the opportunity to make it clear that both parents are entitled to parental leave for a period of 14 weeks each.
This Bill also represents a lost opportunity for us to re-examine the period of parental leave which stands at 14 weeks. Perhaps it would have been worth the Department’s time to examine the issue more closely and suggest an expanded period of leave or even one that could be taken over a longer period but in smaller increments, such as one or two days a week. Parental leave can be taken for a half day or one day a week if employers agree with employees. It is very much down to employers.
The Bill presents us with a chance to include a guarantee of greater flexibility. It states that there should be consultation and everyone should do their best, but I am not sure if that is strong enough to get the point across that we expect employers, where at all possible, to be more flexible. Unless a person wants to take six weeks at one time, it might be easier for employers if the leave were taken incrementally. I am aware of examples of where leave was taken in this way and it appears to have been of benefit to both the employer and the employee. It was less disruptive on the workplace. I accept it is up to employers and employees to work this out but we could be more prescriptive in the Bill.
The National Women’s Council is calling for the introduction of 18 weeks’ paid parental leave benefit for parents of children under the age of five to be paid at the same rate as maternity benefit. This is the view of experts in that area. We should take on board such views and the views of those directly affected. It is their job to call for the optimal arrangement and we should go some way to achieving what they seek. The Bill does not go far enough in terms of meeting this goal.
It would be interesting if research were to be conducted, either by the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform or one of its agencies, to establish how many people are aware of their rights under the Parental Leave Act 1998 and how many of them have availed of them to date and to what extent. Given that parental leave is a relatively new feature of law, people who have taken such leave would be very valuable in terms of the feedback they could offer to the Department.
It is difficult to get information on this area. Does a review group exist which compiles research and information? If so, I would be pleased to read its conclusions. If such a group does not exist, perhaps one should be set up. Undoubtedly, there are people who were not able to avail of their rights under this legislation, for economic reasons, either because they could not afford to take unpaid leave or because there may have been pressure from their employers not to take it. We have no data on this, however, and to my knowledge, no effort has been made to gather any.
Some employers may put pressure on employees not to take parental leave which is their due or, worse, may seek to penalise employees who do. For this reason I welcome the provision in section 9 to amend the 1998 Act with a view to strengthening the rights of employees in this regard. It is important that employees are clear on their entitlements and that they do not suffer any consequence in terms of their job security or prospects, although they will suffer financially during that period. I am not convinced that enough people know about their entitlements, especially first-time parents. I accept there is an onus on people to inform themselves about their rights but it is evident from talking to people that they are not always up to date with such information. There is an onus on us to advertise these facts more widely and to make the issue clearer to people. Employers are unlikely to rush to tell people they are entitled to take time off. If it does not suit them, they may well keep quiet about it, which is understandable. Why would they advertise something that could impact negatively on them?
I also welcome section 5, in which there is provision for parents who become ill when they are due to take parental leave. It is only common sense that such people should not be forced to take parental and sick leave concurrently and this amendment of section 10 of the 1998 Act will serve parents. It is a pity that a similar provision could not have been incorporated in the Adoptive Leave Bill. My Labour Party colleague will no doubt point that out again.
The Bill proposes to increase the age limit under section 2 from five to eight. Many people to whom I have spoken already thought it had been increased to six as there had been some discussion on it back in 2002 and it was among the recommendations of a review group. It appears that some employers had allowed for parental leave for children up to the age of six years. It is great that this was so, although it was not official. Increasing the age from five to eight is not a big jump. Is there any reason we cannot increase the age even further, up to the age of 12 or while the child is in primary school? Perhaps there is some research about which the Minister of State has not informed the House as to why the age should not be increased past eight years.
Primary school would be a good cut-off point to give parents more flexibility to be with their children at vital times in their lives. The first five years of a child’s life are the most vulnerable. The primary school years are very important. A recent report shows that a child’s life is greatly influenced in its first three years, during which time it should receive all the love, tenderness and care he or she needs from his or her parents and as many people in the community as possible. It is not for the sake of it that this House is making it possible for parents to take leave because the results of many studies show that children benefit from spending as much time as possible with their parents and families. We are enacting this legislation for them. The provisions are slightly awkward for employers but we must have a proper balance in life. As I stated last week during the first part of my speech, the balance is often tipped in favour of the employer rather than the family, including the child.
I am glad to have been able to say a few words on this Bill. Fine Gael will be tabling amendments on Committee Stage as there is still much to discuss. I ask that the Bill not be shelved for eight months to a year, as was the case with the Adoptive Leave Bill, and that it be passed quickly. We can discuss it properly on Committee Stage and deal with the amendments in a fair manner if leeway is granted on both sides.
There are many different kinds of families nowadays and considerable discussion is taking place at the All-Party Committee on the Constitution on the construction of families and how this should be determined. The Bills with which we have been dealing in conjunction with the Minister and the Department all concern the balance of work and family life, the economy, society and family.
We sometimes forget that clichés emerge from very obvious evidence. The cliché pertaining to the family is that it is the cornerstone of society — it is. I am not certain that the family is as it once was because the nature of family units is changing but recognising change and difference is good for society and broadens our attitudes. Given the publication of the Ferns report this week, a movement away from the type of society it depicted must be welcomed greatly.
The first time I was approached as a public representative on parental leave was five years ago. At that stage, I was asked about the exact position thereon, whether progress would be made and who would be entitled to such leave. As one might well imagine, the person who asked me was a very young mother. Since then, we have all been asking how many weeks’ leave parents will be allowed, whether they will be paid and if a certain age range will apply.
It struck me in the past week or two, while I was awaiting the introduction of this Bill, that the mother in question now has a five-year-old daughter in school. She has manoeuvred her working life around that child and works five mornings per week, sometimes starting exceptionally early to finish before the child comes out of school. She does so without any State support, good, bad or indifferent. Summer time is a nightmare for her in that she must work to keep a roof over her head while her five-year-old is on holidays. During the summer holidays, not only does she juggle work and home life but she also must find some activity for the child. That is really what this legislation is about — it is about how we value society and, in doing so, ensure people can operate within it and be respected for the choices they make.
I note what Deputy English said regarding the Adoptive Leave Bill. It was proposed to change the Adoptive Leave Bill to include some of the elements of the Parental Leave (Amendment) Bill 2004 but we were told this could not be done, although the latter Bill contains what we sought in the former. Those who are in the process of adoption or who have a child placed with them can actually avail of this legislation. It seems incredible that the same Department and draftsman could have produced the two Bills and yet not realise they were interconnected. As a result, the Adoptive Leave Bill was defective while the Parental Leave (Amendment) Bill is narrow and restrictive.
Ms Lynch: However, on considering any of our public services one would be hard pressed to convince anyone of that fact. There are overcrowded classrooms, schools in which the roofs are falling in, schools with temporary accommodation for the past 21 years and accident and emergency units bursting at the seams. We do not have enough general practitioners, nor do we have a proper primary care system in place, yet we are introducing a parental leave Bill that is so restrictive that it represents the very minimum in terms of what we are allowed to do under the EU directive. We could not have done less. The EU directive gives us considerable scope in that it allows national governments to make decisions on who can avail of parental leave and for how long, time limits on children and the types of families that can benefit. However, this Government chose to do the least possible to ensure it complied with the directive.
I know the opposing arguments because I have heard them so often. IBEC will say this legislation will ruin employers and that it uncompetitive — it is all about being competitive. The debate on the price of housing, immigration and the protection of workers is all about being competitive. It is argued that we cannot adopt certain measures because they will make us uncompetitive but, in this regard, one should consider the case of our nearest neighbour and greatest competitor, the United Kingdom. I discovered a Bill, to be enforced in the United Kingdom, to allow for 39 paid weeks’ parental leave from 1 April 2007. Either parent can take it but it is very much directed at fathers or, as is stated in the explanatory notes, the father or person the mother wishes to be the carer of the child. It could be the spouse, partner or otherwise, and does not necessarily have to be the natural father. This form of legislation presents no great burden on employers as the employer pays the paternity leave and is allowed to recoup the cost through the tax system from the Exchequer. Eventually, three years after the introduction of the 39 weeks’ paid leave, the United Kingdom will allow for 52 weeks’ leave.
In France and Germany, one can avail of three years’ leave, while one can avail of 52 weeks in Denmark. These countries are our competitors. As the Taoiseach tells us regularly, they are our neighbours and partners in a community and single market, yet we are offering the women of Ireland far more limited leave. If one examines the statistics and research carried out on behalf of the Minister’s Department, one will note that 84% of the leave taken to care for children is taken by women, irrespective of its being force majeure leave or maternity leave.
This is a restricted Bill that ensures women will spend the next eight years of their children’s lives juggling as I have outlined. According to research undertaken by the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, employers said that giving people extra time to care for their children created a happier, more satisfied workforce. That is very important when it comes to employing someone.
I hope employers will be flexible on this issue because the Bill is not. It states that one must take the leave in six-week lots. One must be very careful and people will probably wait until children start school and take the leave over two summer periods. That is not the aim of parental leave. It is intended to ensure that one has rounded, well developed children who can find their way in the world and be an asset to the country as adults.
I do not know when becoming a mother became the most stressful time in a woman’s life. There are cross children and mothers who are alone, do not have help but do have all sorts of stresses. Normally it should be the happiest time in a woman’s life and one of great celebration. Instead, from the time the child is born the mother worries about who will mind the child and how she will manage because she cannot give up work because the mortgage must be paid. It is an extremely stressful time in a woman’s life. I am sure it is for men too although I cannot imagine what goes on in the workings of any man’s head. Men claim not to understand women. To me, men are a far greater mystery, or maybe they are not. Perhaps nothing at all goes on in their heads.
This is a stressful time for families. In his speech in the Seanad the Minister of State referred to work-life balance. The buzz words and sentiment exist but the action is missing. He spoke about an increased number of child care places and ensuring that people have choices. This is the most restrictive and limited choice I have ever seen for women and the care of children. If the Minister of State is serious about ensuring that children are well cared for, he should not start from here. The Bill is restricted and worryingly minimalist.
We will have to come back and sort out the legislation, as happened in the case of the Adoptive Leave Bill, because parents will demand it. Society will demand it when we discover the effect of this on our children. We must examine the Bill seriously on Committee Stage. Having seen this Minister of State pilot two previous Bills through the House, I am under no illusion that any of our amendments, except the technical ones, will be considered.
It concerns me that because the review group did not reach consensus on certain issues, those issues were not taken on board. Only those issues on which consensus was reached were included in the Bill. The legislation is welcome in many ways, for example, accepting that a parent can fall ill before, during or almost at the end of parental leave and can take that sick leave separately. That provision is not included in the Adoptive Leave Bill. Under that Bill, if one becomes sick, one cannot return to the adoptive leave but must forgo the balance of that leave.
The Bill is interesting, if restricted, but many await it, such as the woman whom I described who heard the clock ticking and knew that if we did not pass this Bill, her child would be eight and she would not be entitled to avail of the leave. There will be much work to do on Committee Stage which will provide interesting debate.
Once this Bill moves into the public domain various groups will lobby us, such as the National Women’s Council which has produced an excellent document on it. Childminders of Ireland met Members. All this legislation is societal. It is not confined to children, mothers or fathers but deals with the society in which the Minister of State and I must live in our old age. When we reach that point, the children of whom we speak will be adults. I wonder how they will reflect on what we have done.
Why has it taken so long for this legislation, which seeks to implement a commitment made under Sustaining Progress, to come before the Dáil? The term of that agreement is now over. Negotiations on a new agreement were due to start soon. What is the point of commitments and partnership agreements if these commitments are not met within their timeframes? It is no wonder unions are more reluctant than ever to enter partnership when they must wait this long for the implementation of such meagre commitments.
This Government lacks an overall vision as to how children should be cared for. Instead, this issue is considered from an impersonal business and economic perspective, namely, what to do with the children while their parents perform their duties as cogs in the economic machine. Progress on the work-life balance occurs at a pace dictated by shadowy figures within IBEC.
The problem is that leave entitlements and child care policies are not driven by a vision of the kind of society we want to create. Parental care must be a key element of a child care strategy. We must work to enable parents, where it is their preference, to care for their children in the early years of their lives. This is in the interests of children and parents. Proper parental leave legislation is important to help workers achieve a balance between work and family life. It also plays an important role in an overall child care strategy. This Government has not grasped the extent to which parental leave can be used to alleviate the child care crisis.
According to the MORI-MRC survey carried out as part of the review carried out by the maternity leave working group established in 2001, almost 7% of the labour force were eligible for parental leave in 2001 but only 20% of eligible employees were estimated to have taken up the parental leave. This very low take-up rate should be of concern to the Government. If the Government was genuinely committed to parental leave and believed in its benefit for both children and parents it would promote it and seek to encourage maximum take-up.
According to the MORI-MRC survey, employees rated spending more quality time with their children as the biggest advantage in taking parental leave, while the biggest disadvantage was the lack of payment. Clearly, the absence of a payment in respect of parental leave is the primary factor in the lack of take-up. Why then is the Government not amending the legislation to introduce payment in respect of parental leave? This is the biggest barrier to take-up of the leave. It is also the case that the current situation favours the better off who can afford to take the leave. I agree with the contributions by the two previous speakers in this regard. It is of no value to low income families for whom it would be unimaginable to forego income for the duration of the leave.
The failure to introduce payment in respect of parental leave in this State contrasts with the situation in many other EU member states such as Austria, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Italy, Luxemburg and Sweden. Why is this State so backward? Is it because of the excessive influence of business on Government policy?
The research I referred to also found that employers considered that the biggest advantage of parental leave to them came from happier, more contented employees. The inability of workers to achieve work-life balance and the failure of the State to enable them to achieve this is a growing cause of workplace stress. This is ultimately bad for business, employers and workers.
The review group report stated that paternity leave should be dealt with as part of the Parental Leave (Amendment) Act but this Bill does not deal with it. It is quite incredible that in this day and age there is no legal entitlement to paternity leave, paid or unpaid, in this State. A new father cannot take as much as one day off when his child is born. This is truly scandalous and I find it hard to understand how the Government can stand over this situation, though I should not be surprised since it is the Minister of State at the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy Fahey, who has responsibility for the equality portfolio. Never was a person more unsuited to an equality portfolio.
I am not interested in hearing waffle from the Minister of State regarding why we cannot do this because of social partnership. Ireland ranks bottom of the list in terms of paternity leave. Most countries in the EU offer paid paternity leave, from two days in Spain to two weeks in France, while in Norway new fathers are entitled to a full four weeks. Fathers north of the Border are entitled to two weeks’ paternity leave yet in this State adjoining the North there is no entitlement.
This situation simply cannot be allowed to continue. My party is demanding the immediate introduction of two weeks’ paternity leave. This is the minimum to which fathers should be entitled. We are talking about very little time. Given that most families nowadays only have two children, we are talking about ten days twice in a lifetime. These days are nevertheless vital to allow fathers to offer necessary support to mothers in the first days of their children’s lives and in giving fathers the time to bond with their children. We should be facilitating fathers playing an active role in their children’s lives. Are we to persist in being backward in regard to this because IBEC does not like the idea of paternity leave? This is a scandal.
The element of greater flexibility in how parental leave can be taken is to be welcomed, though it does not go far enough. The Irish Congress of Trade Unions is proposing that the legislation be amended to provide employees with a right to request more flexible parental leave arrangements and to oblige employers to seriously consider the request and further provide that refusal of the employee’s request should only be permitted where the employer can provide evidence of a compelling business case for refusals. This is an eminently reasonable proposal to which I would expect the Government to accede. Ordinarily I would expect that, but unfortunately, given the two previous Bills handled by the Minister of State, Deputy Fahey, I doubt if the proposal will be accepted.
With regard to force majeure leave, workers who are in same sex relationships should be entitled to that leave from their employers in the event of serious illness to their partners the same as other couples. Sustaining Progress has committed that “steps necessary to give effect to the issue of force majeure leave for same sex partners will be addressed.” It is unacceptable that this Bill fails to fulfil that commitment. Force majeure also needs to be extended to deal with other situations where parents must leave work where issues arise regarding children and child care. Given the time constraint I will deal with this issue in greater detail on Committee Stage.
That gives us an insight to the basis of the legislation. The provision alone should not be read as a family-friendly initiative. While increasing parental leave is a first step in the right direction, the Parental Leave (Amendment) Bill has quite a negative feel to it. While it purports to protect new parents from being penalised for taking time off to care for their children, it does not provide for adequately flexible child care and parental leave options and does not provide additional financial assistance.
If the Parental Leave Bill is truly intended as a family friendly document it should tackle the cause of the increase in the numbers of late pregnancies. Looking at some of the documentation in the British Medical Journal, for example, and the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, there has been a major increase in the number of women delaying their pregnancies beyond the age of 35.
It is important to consider such studies when we look at how policy is affecting the longer-term costs. It is easy to calculate what leave of ten or 20 weeks will cost in today’s terms but when one looks, for example, at the increase in the incidence of high blood pressure and diabetes in women in the post-35 group, and certainly those over 40, a health care cost is involved, and a cost to the individual. Our lack of understanding of why people are choosing to postpone pregnancies until much later has a long-term consequence with which we are not adequately dealing.
We need a strategy for dealing with families. While we have a reputation for being a family friendly country, it is difficult to see where our policies tie in with that reputation. Most families now have only two children — the average being a little above that, so over the employment lifetime of perhaps 40 or 50 years we are talking of quite a small cost for this particular initiative. There is no reason why there should not be a payment in respect of that.
One of the most stressful times for people is when a new baby arrives. Due to the costs of accommodation, commuting and furnishing homes, people often postpone having babies until their financial environments are less pressurised. However, late pregnancies can bring risks including Down’s syndrome, the incidence of which among children of 30 year-old mothers is one in 1,000 but one in 30 in the case of 45 year-old mothers. Ways should be explored to ensure workers who take time off to care for children are not penalised and the role of families should be re-considered.
When I was a member of the Commission on the Family during the mid-1990s, my eyes were damaged from the amount of material I was required to read. The financial pressures on society has changed vastly in the ten years since that commission finished its work. We need to move on by understanding the influence of public policy on the choices people make. Yesterday, during discussions with the Committee on Finance and the Public Service, members of Congress noted the significant increases that will apply to the cost of pensions if the birth rate does not increase. Issues such as these need to be factored into long-term planning. Finances currently dominate the choices that people make because the Government is trying to resolve issues on the cheap.
We are out of kilter with most European countries in terms of parental leave payment, which should be a given in any genuinely family friendly society. I hope the Government will take the opportunity on Committee Stage to put forward amendments to that aspect of the Bill because, in the absence of payments, opportunities are limited to the small number of people who can afford to take time off.
Mr. Healy: Striking a balance between work and family life is an important policy objective at national and European levels and was the intention behind the 1998 Act and this legislation. The impetus for the original legislation came from a 1996 EU directive, while the Bill before us arose from the Sustaining Progress review group on parental leave. I welcome certain provisions in this Bill, such as the increase in the age of eligible children from five to eight years, the extension of parental leave entitlements to persons acting in loco parentis and the opportunity to take parental leave in separate blocks. However, the Bill merits further examination on Committee Stage.
Even at this late stage, I make the case for paid parental leave. There is no doubt that our refusal to pay parental leave is out of line with many of our European partners and limits the take up of such leave, particularly among families on low incomes. During discussions on this matter by the review group, a number of parties including the Equality Authority, the National Women’s Council of Ireland and the Irish Council of Trade Unions, recommended that the payment of parental leave be similar to maternal leave benefit. However IBEC claimed that the cost to industry of such a payment would be too high and argued that the payment would put pressure on the social insurance fund. It is odd that €635 million was taken from the fund by the then Minister for Finance in the year these discussions were held. Paid parental leave, the annual cost to the Exchequer of which was estimated annually at between €34 million and €78 million, could be easily covered by the social insurance fund. Even given that updated estimates will need to be made, the cost will not be huge. The issue should be re-visited while this Bill passes through the Oireachtas.
The issue of paid parental leave should be considered in the context of the general Government balance. I tabled a question to the Minister for Finance ten days ago asking him to indicate the general Government balance, in other words, the Government surplus, on revenue account for the past eight years. The Minister indicated in his reply that, on a cumulative basis, there was €39 billion of a Government surplus over those years. In 2004 alone, there a surplus of €6.7 billion.
I made the point previously, and I make it again, that those surpluses should be used to prioritise the provision of human services in the areas of health, education, housing and parental leave. The most important infrastructure a country has is its people. A well educated, well housed and healthy population is vital for future development in society. Those surplus balances are being used to build roads and bridges, in other words, for capital projects.
In any other modern western European country, it would be good economics and the norm for capital infrastructural projects to be funded through borrowing. It is in order for us to engage in prudent borrowing, the repayments on which we would be well able to meet and the normal EU rules in this regard with which we would be well able to comply. We could easily fund those capital projects from borrowing rather than from the Government surpluses we have had over recent years and will continue to have into the future. All that is lacking to provide for the payment for parental leave is the political will to do so. I ask the Minister of State to review this area and to deal with it on Committee Stage.
A number of areas are covered in the Bill, including the one to which I just referred, that need to be addressed. Echoing what Deputy Lynch said, it appears that none of the issues which were raised but not agreed by the review group has been brought forward in this legislation. The service requirement eligibility for parental leave is a year’s service in the same employment. I had hoped that the service requirement would have been removed or that service in a number of employments would have been taken into consideration. That point was made previously by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, the Equality Authority and the National Women’s Council of Ireland.
There is provision in the 1998 Act, and that provision remains unchanged under this Bill, whereby an employer can postpone parental leave. That provision should be changed. Most of the authorities, including State agencies, have indicated that they believe that should be the case. There are other anomalies in the legislation, namely, that an employer has the right to terminate parental leave, although the legislation states that it would be done after consultation with the employee. However, effectively, an employer can, on an arbitrary basis, terminate parental leave. That should not be possible. If this is proposed, the decision should be made by some independent agency such as a rights commissioner.
While I welcome the Bill it does not go far enough. It does not address the provision of payment for parental leave. I referred to the question of service requirement, an employer’s right to terminate parental leave and that an employee cannot avail of parental leave twice in a 12-month period. Those areas need to be examined and dealt with on Committee Stage, and I look forward to that being done.
Mr. Dennehy: This is a relatively small but important Bill dealing with child care provision. Child care related matters have always been given high priority. The majority of members of the community have supported any initiatives taken over the years in the area of child care and to improve matters for children and for parents. Given the major changes that have taken place in the make-up of the workforce over the past decade or so, the need for new initiatives has taken on much greater significance and a much higher profile in the hierarchy of priorities for individual politicians and also political parties.
In the period from 1975 up to now, the number of women in the workforce has more than doubled and now stands at 480,000. That development has generated a specific need and there is a much greater need for child care assistance and services now than in the past. This need has been generated by social changes which everybody accepts. Changed work patterns and arrangements such as people commuting long distances have led to identifying a need in this area. In addition to that, there are also the needs that existed in this area, such as the need for maternity leave and related matters and the need to provide care for children with special needs. We are trying to deal with some of these.
The needs in some of those child related services is obvious but they have not been met, despite efforts through tax benefit inducements to provide crèches and so on. There is great potential for introducing new initiatives and for innovative thinking in the provision of those services. Most of us would argue that there is a need to present a variety of solutions. For example, four or five measures can constitute a package of provisions. The obvious ones, including the provision of additional money to cater for the needs of children under five years of age, were mentioned. Such a scheme may not be easy to administer because of a tradition here that the State does not take back anything it has given. I cannot envisage parents being told that when their child is five, they will no longer be given such money. However, that is a matter for others to work out.
There is much legislation relating to child care. I refer to the 1998 Act, which this Bill amends, which specifically implements aspects of the EU directive on parental leave. Deputy Lynch referred to the Adoptive Leave Act 2004 and the Maternity Protection (Amendment) Act was introduced around the same time. There are other legislative measures dealing with child care sponsored by various Departments such as the Department of Finance, the Department of Health and Children, the Department of Education and Science or the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. Is it time a consolidation Bill to deal with child care services was introduced? It could deal with the services I mentioned and others that are required. All these matters are on the same topic. Deputy Catherine Murphy referred to the cost of accommodation after the birth of a child and other costs, and there are changes that may have to be made. There is a range of issues involved.
Given the various items of legislation affecting more or less the same topic, it is confusing when a constituent comes seeking advice on his or her entitlements. I am aware that there are reams of information sheets available. Without being critical of those supplying the advice, it remains complicated. We need to examine and simplify such advice. Child benefit is under the remit of the Department of Social and Family Affairs, tax incentives are under the remit of the Department of the Finance and health care is under the remit of the Department of Health and Children. Those of us who were members of health boards found that in the case of young people with special needs, the greatest impediment to making progress for the past 20 years or more was the split between the Departments of Education and Science and Health and Children and the reluctance of either to accept full responsibility until ordered to do so by the Supreme Court. We should have grasped that nettle much earlier and allocated the responsibility, under legislation, to a particular Department.
In the area of child care, we could do much more. One of the three primary objectives of the Bill, out of the eight listed, is the raising of the maximum age of an eligible child from five to eight years. I expect Opposition members to say the age limit should be higher and will suggest examples such as the cut-off date for primary education or the teens. It is a progressive step. As far as I am aware, it was the level recommended by the working group set up to review the 1998 Act. I stand open to correction but I believe that is correct.
The second important objective is that of raising the age of an eligible child with disability to 16 years of age. All of us in the public arena are aware of the extra duties, responsibilities and stresses that usually result from catering for a child with special needs. It is important to give recognition to it. We should factor in means to deal with those extra pressures in all legislation enacted. When people were becoming more aware of the environment in general, it was suggested that the legislation be proof read to see how it affected the environment. The same needs to be done in this area in respect of special needs cases, not in a patronising but rather in a practical way.
The third major change, to which previous speakers referred, is the extension of parental leave entitlements to persons acting in loco parentis in respect of an eligible child. It was important that this change took place. None of these changes need to be looked at in the negative. The Bill provides for five other changes but I shall not deal with those at present.
I appeal to employers to give cognisance to the thinking behind the Bill and to realise that it need not be a burden but reflects the reality of modern life. They should also realise that it can benefit them in terms of retention of skilled employees, employee goodwill, reduced absenteeism and so on. Many years ago I argued a case for a social and sports committee in a particular industry. An otherwise excellent CEO made the comment, when I raised the issue of funding and mentioned morale, that one cannot bank on morale. I quickly pointed out that he was technically correct but that one can certainly bank the results of good morale. I ask employers to look at the Bill in that regard and they can take initiatives further than the basic requirements.
To those who have argued against Europe and Ireland’s involvement therewith in recent years, I must point out that a great part of the good social legislation on the Statute Book comes directly from EU directives. Some of the good conditions in society came about as a result of such directives. That aspect should be considered in any discussion on participation within the EU.
Mr. Carey: I welcome the opportunity to speak on this important progressive social legislation. As Deputy Dennehy reminded the House, while the Bill proposes to amend the Parental Leave Act 1998 it proposes also to implement the EU directive on parental leave. I agree with him that were it not for the EU we would be very far behind in the area of social protection legislation. The Bill arises from ongoing agreements between the social partners and the Government and further endorses the ongoing relationship between the two in respect of good governance. The Bill is one of many necessary elements of the renewal and review of certain aspects of employment legislation and aims to further reconcile work and family life and to promote equal opportunities between men and women. It forms an additional part of progressive social legislation which in the current climate is important. While it is a short Bill the implementation and policing particularly of sections 7, 8 and 9 will be critical for its success.
The Bill has developed from the efforts of a working group established in 2001 to review the operation of the Parental Leave Act. The group identified 18 issues for consideration in the course of the review. These 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 issues and made ten agreed recommendations.
The most important of these recommendations are to increase the maximum age limit of an eligible child to eight years or to 16 in the case of a child with a disability; to comply with disability legislation there is probably a good case to be made for increasing the age limit to 18; to introduce a statutory entitlement to take the 14 weeks parental leave in separate blocks; and to allow an employee who is unable to care for a child on becoming ill to suspend the period of parental leave. These are significant areas of agreement and they must be welcomed. There are some particular areas of the legislation on which I wish to comment. Much of the impetus for the legislation is to better improve the work-life balance in Ireland. Research carried out by the working group highlighted that employees rated spending more quality time with their children as the biggest advantage in taking parental leave. At the same time, employers considered that the biggest advantage of parental leave to them came from happier, more contented employees. It follows, therefore, that the reconciliation of the work-life balance is important to workers and employers. In the case of employers, the difference is they will have to pay for it and, in my experience, are reluctant to do so.
We are striving to develop measures that reflect the reality of modern life, that reflect the reality of the modern workplace. In these measures, the personal and social responsibilities of employees should be taken into account. Achieving a greater work-life balance 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. In making parental leave more flexible, this legislation certainly improves the position and, therefore, I welcome it. In saying that, however, some areas need to be examined further.
I am disappointed the working group as a whole could not agree on the issues of paid parental leave, and I am not alone in this. By not giving paid parental leave we are disadvantaging some of the most vulnerable in society, namely working people and especially working mothers. Deputies English, Penrose and I were members of the child care working group of the National Economic and Social Forum which grappled with the issue and we came across the same reluctance on the part of employers in particular about extending this measure.
Mr. Carey: From experience in dealing with parents in my constituency, I can see that it is mostly mothers who are put at risk of not being able to take advantage of parental leave. 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. For example, it has been clearly shown that 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. This is why I look forward to the enlightened measures I have no doubt the Government will introduce in the area of child care, which will make provision for people to stay at home with their children and not be financially disadvantaged.
Furthermore, 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 are serious about giving leave, but taking leave at one’s own expense may be prohibitive in many instances. There is maternity leave and maternity payment. We introduced carer’s benefit to go with carer’s leave and it has been successful. On this issue, we have to start somewhere. As a Government, it is time to look at other measures and treat further development seriously.
Paternity leave is very much hit or miss. 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 we should consider some form of paid paternity leave for all workers. We need to recognise the role played by fathers in parenting. Paternity 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 at their greatest need. Fathers should be paid to give that type of support. I ask for consideration to be given to five days paid paternity leave. It would be welcomed by all fathers, by all families and by all political parties.
Today, 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. It would therefore be a mistake to consider any work-life balance initiatives without addressing the availability and cost of child care. The difficulties associated with the cost of child care have been pointed out many times in this House. To many families, the cost is like another mortgage. People find themselves going into debt even though it might be a short time before their children start school. It is a significant burden that is making life particularly difficult for many young couples.
The Government’s policy to increase the supply of quality child care is the way that offers parents the greatest choice. In 1997, there was a serious shortage of such places and shortages still remain. However, the Government has set itself the task of addressing this through the Equal Opportunities Childcare Programme 2000 — 2006. This is a substantial programme and its scale demonstrates that it is the first Government to recognise the need for the State to act in this area in a meaningful way. It is time for this discussion to move beyond the narrow concept of child care as a means of facilitating labour force participation by women, to a more inclusive understanding where the central focus is on child development and where care and education are inextricably linked.
We must realise that 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 our 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.
A few suggestions for improvements in this area would be to better co-ordinate policy for early childhood care, where services are patchy and often delivered in an unco-ordinated fashion. For example, as we point out in our document, seven Ministers or Ministers of State currently share responsibility for child care. It is time to consider appointing a single authority to assume responsibility for this area. There is a need for a wider involvement of parents, families and communities in this area and to acknowledge formally the role of parents in the child care sector. The possibility of establishing partnerships with the business sector needs to be considered. The business sector is aware of the value early childhood education plays in the longer term.
Some people find themselves out of the house from early morning to late evening with no time spent with the children. Therefore, anything that can be done through primary or secondary legislation to make it easier for parents to be involved in the upbringing of children must be welcomed, particularly ensuring that children are given the basic skills to go on to live a successful life.
Progressing the work-life balance agenda presents a complex set of challenges for policymakers, employers, employees and families alike. These challenges, both social and economic, do not necessarily merge into situations acceptable to all stakeholders, and in this regard I am thinking specifically of paid parental leave. However, it is important that we 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. For these reasons I commend this Bill to the House.
Mr. P. Breen: I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak on this Bill. While I welcome some areas of the Bill, some areas cause concern. Over the years the Government has been reluctant to consider extending parental leave. In its rush to put financial capital before social capital the area of parental leave and parental issues has been neglected in the past eight years. During campaigning for the by-elections earlier this year and the local elections last year members of the Government parties and others discovered that child care represents a major issue. Following the uproar caused by the introduction of tax individualisation, the Government rushed to patch up some of the damage it caused by discriminating against families and homemakers, and creating additional tax credits for home carers. The real problem for homemakers lies in housing policies. The legacy of bad planning and no planning has created a jungle of dispiriting suburbs. Similarly housing inflation has not been tackled condemning many couples to a form of bonded slavery to the banks for decades to come, which further impacts on family life.
If the gender equality unit of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform conducted research into the manner in which parental leave has been availed of up to now, taking into account those who are aware of the leave but have not availed of it and those who have done so but feel it could be improved, the Government would gain more insight into real life than just taking the views at the doorsteps every few years. Quality of life issues do not come within the ambit of the Government’s mindset except as something that might be bought at a convenience store.
The same sad legacy is all too apparent in the case of parental leave. The Government made a commitment in Sustaining Progress to strengthen parental leave in line with the recommendations of the social partners, which was supposed to have been delivered before the end of the last Dáil session. It has now scrambled to pull together some if its caring clothes before the next general election. When the Minister for Finance unveils his budget I am sure parental leave and child care will be very much on his mind. The Government has finally given some acknowledgement that parents exist and are not just cogs in the machine of the economy, and that having more time to spend with their children might be good for society as a whole.
However, there is a sting in the tail of the Bill. Other speakers have spoken about the missed opportunity to introduce paid leave, a glaring omission that takes all the good out of the Bill, which contains some good provisions. The usual pandering to money can be recognised in the unpaid leave provision. If one can buy one’s own free time, one is welcome to it. If one can afford to suspend one’s income flow and rely on savings, one is welcome to take time off. Otherwise, one must forget about quality time with one’s children, clock in and put up with it. The rush to a Boston model of economic development will pay dividends in due course. However, this kind of dividend is wrong. It will wreck social partnership, create resentment among the lower paid and foster support for radical parties. We are well on the road to an unequal society and despite the Government’s efforts, it has failed to convince anybody that it has discovered its caring side. How could it be caring when it is not in touch and cannot remember what it is like to have a social conscience?
Let us look at some European examples of child care and parental leave. Austria has paid parental leave for up to two years. The Netherlands and Belgium provide for additional payments while employees are on leave. Italy, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Luxembourg, Sweden and the United Kingdom all provide for some type of subsidy to parents on leave.
Over the weekend, Fianna Fáil had its annual Ard-Fheis in Killarney. On Friday, the Taoiseach said his party intends to commemorate 1916 with a military parade but I remind the Minister of State what the Proclamation of Independence says about children. It states the Irish Republic will cherish “all the children of the nation equally”. Does this Bill cherish all the children of our nation equally? It does not. How could it when it does not treat all the parents of the nation equally? It creates division among parents by discriminating against those of limited means and those who are financially stretched because of the Government’s incompetent housing policies. For such people, the notion of availing of unpaid leave is totally unimaginable because they must pay so much for their house, in terms of their mortgages, as well as other expenses.
My party will propose amendments to this Bill on Committee Stage, particularly with regard to parental leave benefit, which would be the equivalent of maternity leave benefit. We will propose a social welfare credit equivalent, since income levels must be taken into account if parental leave is not to be for the rich only. Our amendments will propose to extend benefits from 18 to 26 weeks, which is very important. We will propose the introduction of 18 weeks paid parental leave for parents of children under the age of five, to be paid at the same rate as maternity benefit. We will also seek to establish part-time parental benefit for parents of children up to the age of 11 and to introduce a means-tested parental allowance payment for parents of children under the age of five and under the age of 11. We should work towards the goal of providing one year’s leave for either parent, to allow him or her to stay at home to mind children. Although this may take time to implement, it is something we should examine seriously. We are all aware that many school children go home in the evening to find no parent there for them. That is a major problem which can cause many other problems for our society.
I urge the Minister of State to consider the amendments my party will be tabling on Committee Stage. They are child and family friendly and will provide a lesson for this Government in implementing meaningful child care policies that will address the pressures on families.
There are some positive aspects to the Bill. I welcome the provisions related to sick time, discrimination, dismissal and promotional opportunities. In addition, giving parents the right to take leave in separate blocks will encourage more of them to avail of leave, while the raising of the maximum age of the child for whom the leave applies from five to eight years is also welcome.
The issue of parental leave is very closely related to the issue of child care and has been treated in a similar fashion by the Government. If this Bill is enacted in its current form, there will be a rush to amend it when the message comes through at the doorsteps that voters do not like its contents. Just as child care has been ignored over the lifetime of this Government, so too has parental leave. People at the doorsteps will look at this with disdain when the Bill is enacted.
Some aspects of the Bill attempt to bring equality to the issue, but overall it is not family friendly. Society is crying out for family friendly policies that will put Ireland on a par with its EU neighbours. In its current form, the most glaring inadequacy in the Bill is the failure to provide for paid leave. In that regard, I would not like to be knocking on doors during the next general election campaign.
Mr. Eamon Ryan: This Bill shows clearly how out of touch, uncaring and plain stupid this Government is in its continued desire to serve vested interests rather than the general public interest, for the betterment and development of society. The Government is addressing the issue of parental leave in this Bill in a threadbare, bare minimum, bargain basement manner that reflects its general attitude to how we raise children. It is disgraceful that it is presenting such a limited and narrow Bill.
This Bill does not go far enough. It sticks to the bare minimum that we are forced to achieve under European regulations of 14 weeks. The Minister of State should double that figure and then come back to the House to see what type of reception he gets.
The Bill divides our society by not allowing for paid parental leave, as exists in so many other European countries which do not seem to have a problem in making such provision. The Government is treating the children of this country differently. It is saying to wealthy parents that by all means they can have parental leave because they can afford it. If parents are poor and cannot afford to take parental leave because of a loss of salary, the Government is saying it is sorry it is not for them. There is a disgraceful gap in this legislation. This is an example of how the Government seems to be run by the needs of IBEC and its short-term view of what is good for the economy, rather than by a proper analysis of what is really needed.
The Bill provides no real flexibility but rather introduces minor changes in terms of allowing people to take parental leave in blocks. This is only a fraction of what could and should have been achieved if the Government was to take a genuine approach to provide what parents of young children want, which is flexibility. Parents do not want to be back in work as soon as maternity leave ends. They want choices and flexibility to reflect the realities of life with young children. There are occasions when parents have to be at home, if children are sick or there are other problems. There are occasions when parents want to be at home to enjoy those precious early years when their children are developing.
This Bill does not go far enough in terms of what it could introduce. I could not agree more with Deputy Carey, who acted as the Government’s opposition from its own benches, and made the case for paternity leave so fathers can get involved from the very earliest stage and get to know what it is like to raise children. Fathers could also return to parenting at a later stage if we had a proper parental leave system. This Bill does not go nearly far enough to introduce the changes that parents in this country want. It is a remarkable mistake on this Government’s part, at a time when we are beginning to really debate the issue of how we want to raise children, to produce such a narrow, limited and mean Bill.
We must look at the experience of parents with young children, at what we want and what they want. They want choice but the Government has restricted choice. Individualisation means that the parent who stays at home and works is disadvantaged to the tune of €5,000 a year as against the parent who does not choose to do this. This is unequal treatment of people who wish to make different parenting choices. It is a remarkable effort in trying to affect the way people raise their children.
It is difficult for parents to make choices. It is up to them to choose what is best for their children. Parents may decide it is right for them to go back to work and that their child care arrangements are satisfactory. My experience is that there should be flexibility for parents to be able to make these choices. They do not want to go back to what they have being doing for the past ten or 15 years, working from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. or 6 p.m. and taking the long commute home. While parents with young children may want to continue working, they want flexible arrangements such as part-time working arrangements, term time working arrangements and extensive parental leave, which will allow them to take lengthy breaks and not just continue working, getting home at 8 p.m. and having a short time before putting the children to bed and starting again the following day.
The Minister of State should recognise that this is not the treadmill upon which parents want to be. He should provide for the flexibility that would go some way towards providing what parents want. If he does not do so, parents will choose not to stay in the workforce and not to follow the Government or IBEC’s wishes, because it does not work. It does not work if parents must work long hours while trying to raise children. People are missing out on the precious things in life. It should not be about competitiveness and nothing else, which is all the Government considers because it knows the value of nothing.
The Minister, Deputy Brennan, said recently that we could engage in a Dutch auction in regard to child care facilities. He is correct that we should be careful in this regard. We should begin from the premise that we treat all parents equally in the choices they make. However, the Minister should not make such a statement because, one week later, when the legislation was introduced, the Taoiseach said he was concerned that we were engaged in a race to the bottom. This form of thinking by the Government drags us down to the bottom. The Government is pulling us down to the bottom. In those circumstances, it cannot but be a political issue whereby other parties will say they are sorry, that this is not the type of Ireland they want. We want to follow a European social model that works, gives parents real flexibility and, in the long-term, will be better for the economy. It is a political issue, which the Government got wrong, and I assure the Minister of State that this side of the House will do things differently if in Government.
I do not know whether the Minister of State can wake up to this fact on Committee Stage. Yesterday, the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform introduced a new Bill on Committee Stage so there is no reason the Minister of State cannot do so. He should wake up, smell the coffee and realise that this Bill does not reflect the modern Ireland and the changes people want. The hope is that the Government will get rid of some of its arrogance, stop listening to one or two vested interests that dominate it and begin planning society on the basis of what is good for people and good for the economy in the long-term. Until the Government does this, there is no hope for it.
I welcome the Bill before us today. We in Dáil Éireann should be more aware than anyone that our society is changing and new issues and values are emerging every day. It is our job as legislators to ensure that we produce the best possible response to these changes and leave behind us a legacy of which we can all be proud. There is no need for me to elaborate on the fact that Ireland has changed immeasurably over the past decade or so. We have had to anticipate these changes and challenges to the best of our ability and proceed accordingly.
Parental leave legislation can be viewed within this context of change. The family unit is less strictly defined now than in the past and social patterns have changed so that the husband or father is no longer per se the household breadwinner. An increasing number of women are entering the workforce. Their right to work must be both adequately recognised in law and reconciled with their role as potential mothers. In 1976, there were 266,000 women in the workplace and, last year, there were more than 500,000. Females now out-number males in Ireland, 49% of who work. Figures like this cannot be ignored, especially by a Government committed to equality, as this one is. I am pleased, therefore, that we are taking another step forward in the reconciliation of work and family life and the promotion of equal opportunities between men and women.
The original Parental Leave Act 1998 represented a new departure in the recognition of both parents’ right to work while simultaneously raising a family. The EU directive of 1996, from which it was conceived, leaves member states a great deal of freedom in how they wish to see it implemented. In 1998, when the original Act was being formulated and debated, the two main issues in Ireland were the age limit of the child set within the Bill and whether parental leave would be paid. Today we find ourselves readdressing one of these issues. If the Bill passes through the House, as I am sure it will, a parent will have the right to take leave at any stage up to their child’s eighth birthday. This means Ireland will be able to count itself among the select group of member states to have approved the maximum age limit of an eligible child as set down in the original EU directive.
Many might argue, and did so in 1998 when the original Parental Leave Act was being debated, that this maximum limit should have been set from the beginning. At the time, the EU directive on parental leave was adopted, Ireland, along with Luxembourg and the UK, were the only EU member states that did not already have some kind of statutory parental leave. This in many ways puts us in an enviable position. We were starting with a fresh canvass, enabling us to put in place a brand new scheme specifically designed for Ireland’s needs heading into the 21st century.
Perhaps when embarking on this project in 1998, we should have had the foresight and courage to legislate for the maximum age limit. However, the argument that five years was an appropriate age limit, given the fact that most children have started school by then, seemed entirely appropriate at the time. That we are now set to readjust that age limit should not be berated, but praised. Anyone who has spent time studying the issue will know that no two member states have the same arrangements for parental leave, whether it is Sweden, Germany or Britain. Each has developed a model to suit the needs of its own society.
A working group established here in 2001 to review the operation of the 1998 Act found that an extension of the upper age limit would benefit children in the formative years from four to eight, and their parents who find that the greatest difficulties balancing work and child care responsibilities occur when their child is of schoolgoing age. We are addressing this issue now. This process of review and amendment is crucial to our role in catering for the needs of the population.
The other question that arose in 1998 that will surely come into contention again during the debate on this Bill is whether parental leave should be paid. The 2001 working group failed to reach a consensus on this, therefore, parental leave will remain unpaid. It is obvious to me why this decision has attracted criticism. At the same time, equally convincing is the argument of those representing employers opposing paid parental leave. Employers cannot be expected to pay for two employees to carry out one job, which is effectively what they would do in drafting in a temporary replacement while funding another person’s leave.
I spoke earlier about the need for progressive legislation. Scandinavian countries such as Sweden and Denmark are renowned for their liberal social welfare structure. They have put in place parental leave, with some form of payment. However, their governments tax heavily to provide for this and to support their social welfare policy. The issue of paid parental leave is difficult to cut through. While I fully understand why it is not being implemented here, I sincerely hope those who contributed to the 2001 working group, particularly the Departments, will continue to grapple with the problem of how to provide financial assistance for those who wish to take parental leave. We should continue to debate this issue and I look forward to further revisions of the Parental Leave Act 1998. We will only be able to improve our system and provide citizens with the best service through review and readjustment.
Child care is inextricably linked to this provision. While parental leave is an excellent scheme, child care has a much larger part to play in a child’s upbringing. As with housing, for example, the realisation that the pace needed to be stepped up in the provision of child care options dawned late in the day. In 1997, under Partnership 2000, an expert working group on child care was established because changed economic and social conditions and expectations had resulted in more women opting to combine work and family life at a time when the availability of child minders and places in child care centres was contracting. Our economy requires a labour force and, therefore, women who wish to enter the labour market should be facilitated. Insufficient and expensive child care is detrimental to this aim.
The Partnership 2000 working group, in a report published in June 2005, found a significant increase in the provision of early or pre-school child care places in recent years. This should be welcomed and highly commended. However, the same report concluded there had not been a parallel increase in the provision of places to cater for the child care needs of schoolgoing children outside of school hours.
The legislation extends the upper age limit of children eligible under the Parental Leave Act 1998 in recognition of the difficulties faced by parents balancing family and work responsibilities once their children have reached schoolgoing age. We are faced with a disparity in our approach to child care. The provision of out of school child care needs to be increased to accommodate parents whose working day does not fit the school timetable.
The school age child care recommended by the June 2005 report is what the country is lacking but also what it needs. The legislation will give parents further flexibility in their decisions to take parental leave but a well planned system of school age child care services will give them flexibility when they need it in their day-to-day working lives. School age child care has been widely provided throughout mainland Europe for many years. Our neighbours in the United Kingdom have concentrated their efforts in this field and their provision has expanded considerably over the past few years.
While the form of provision varies, Ireland is one of the few member states in which it is a relatively new concept and this can be used to our advantage. It gives us the opportunity to formulate a first class range of facilities to suit the needs of Ireland’s working parents. There should be no temptation to adopt stop gap or short-term measures to deal with this challenge. This will not work and will not satisfy parents. We need not only to address the current scenario but also to anticipate the future and act accordingly.
I welcome recent statements by the Minister for Social and Family Affairs regarding child benefit. I welcome the legislation but I hope, following this Bill’s enactment, further action will be taken in the child care sphere, which, one day, will make us the envy of countries, not only in Europe but throughout the globe.
Cecilia Keaveney: This Bill is related to the directive adopted in June 1996, the principal objectives of which were the reconciliation of work and family life and the promotion of equal opportunities and treatment in employment between men and women. The directive provided that a minimum of three months should be available to men and women until the child reached a given age up to eight years as defined by the member state. It provided that the leave should be non-transferable between the parents and that employees who availed of parental leave had to be guaranteed a right to return to work and protected against dismissal.
The directive also provided that parental leave is distinct from maternal leave, which was available as a statutory right to mothers consequent on pregnancy and child birth, and paternity leave, which is not a statutory entitlement but which many employers grant to fathers when their children are born. In addition to providing for parental leave, the directive provides that workers must be given the right to force majeure leave.
The working group established in 2001 reviewed the operation of the Act and identified 18 issues for consideration. These included paid parental leave, paternity leave, the duration and manner in which parental leave may be taken, age limits, broadening the entitlement and several issues relating to force majeure leave.
The group reached consensus on a number of these issues and made ten recommendations. The most important of these were to increase the maximum age limit of an eligible child; broaden the entitlement to include persons acting in loco parentis of an eligible child; introduce a statutory entitlement to take 14 weeks parental leave in separate blocks of a minimum of six continuous weeks each; and allow an employee who is unable to care for the child on becoming ill, while on or about to commence parental leave, to suspend the period of leave.
The working group recommended that extension of the maximum age limit of an eligible child to eight years would offer working parents a longer timeframe within which the leave might be taken, which was welcome. It also recommended a new provision to increase the maximum age limit to 16 years in the case of a child with a disability, which is a sensible measure that has been awaited by many people.
The extension of the parental leave entitlement to persons in loco parentis of an eligible child is important because many children in our society are cared for by persons who are not their natural parents. There is also provision for the extension of the parental leave entitlement to adopting parents, which is important as society evolves.
A new entitlement was proposed where a person could choose to take parental leave in two separate blocks, each consisting of a minimum of six continuous weeks. Such flexibility is essential. The two-block entitlement is important because it will allow parents to use their parental leave to care for children during the long school break over several summers. It will still be possible for an employee to avail of the leave in shorter periods of weeks, days or even hours over an extended period if the employer agrees and, in many instances, particularly in the public sector, such flexibility is on offer from employers. Where a parent on parental leave becomes unable to care for a 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.
These recommendations will lead to an improvement in conditions, which must be welcomed. However, they can only be considered as one part of a package for child care provision. More capital expenditure on child care facilities is needed and the issue of early education must be addressed. During the Fianna Fáil think-in in County Cavan, the issue of child care was linked to early education and it is one of the most important issues.
The concept of child care should not be looked on as finding a place for one’s child while one is at work but as the beginning of an important phase in the child’s life. I am chairman of the Joint Committee on Arts, Sport, Tourism, Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs and delegations repeatedly tell us that the most important phase of a child’s development is not between the ages of four and eight, as has been stated by many Members. By the time a child reaches the age of six, 50% of his or her concept of right and wrong has been established. If his or her parents walk, the child will walk; if they play football, the child will play football; if they play musical instruments, the child will probably do so; and if they sit at the computer drinking coffee from one end of the day to the other, the child will consider that the norm.
Parental leave is important in its own right and the issue of who pays for it is also important. The question must be asked if such leave is provided so that parents can enjoy the child’s first few years or so that they can do so while giving the child the best opportunity to develop. This is at the heart of the debate.
It is important that we should discuss social legislation which is accompanied by a social infrastructure. The Government has performed well in the provision of capital infrastructure. Social capital has not caught up with building capital or infrastructural capital investment. From the perspective of a female Deputy, the idea of parental leave can be amusing. One Saturday night a man phoned for a colleague who had gone to hospital to have a baby. When he was told this he replied he would phone back in the morning. How will we arrive at a situation of equal opportunity where all such issues can be ironed out? I would like to work out how parental leave would work in such situations.
A woman and a man should each be able to work or remain at home. My father was a chef, did the washing up and spoiled the girls. People assume a man’s place is at work and a woman’s place is in the home. There should no longer be an assumption that is normal. Either parent can work or both may work. In new Ireland we must recognise new situations.
I take the opportunity to point out that Greencastle community child care, Quigley’s Point Community Child Care Limited and St. Mary’s kinder care and community nursery in Fahan seek community grants under the crèche scheme. I hope the examination of parental leave will expedite the long list of people making applications to the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. As a Deputy, one sometimes sees different sections or Departments not communicating effectively. I urge the Minister of State to communicate with the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to expedite some of these cases.
The cost of provision for consumer and supplier is an issue and I refer to a case study of a person offering private facilities. A key issue that emerged from the think-tank is that parents want to be at home for the first year. That choice should be available. There is no fortune made by private providers and many are making a loss. This is particularly true of those caring for children under the age of one. If possible, maternity should be increased to six months and a mechanism should be found to support the choice of remaining at home for the first year.
Music is a facility to develop language, rhythmic co-ordination and many basic skills a child needs. Beyond those already converted, there is little understanding of the serious role music can play in the pre-natal and post-natal stages and up to the age of six. If we are serious about reducing money spent on intervention in schools in respect of dyslexia, dyspraxia, ADD and ADHD, we should examine the role of music for children under six years. There is much international proof that we are failing in our duty not to put it centre stage in early child care.
The Lifestart programme intervenes in families throughout the country. It must be funded more centrally and its funding source must be assured. Interventions where people assist parents in the home to cope with a new child are important. One does not receive a handbook with a new child. Some argue the Lifestart programme works better in some areas. In my area it is working particularly well and I urge the Minister of State to make progress on this.
I welcome this Bill and its many positive measures. I agree with the need for an overall package to support and cater for children from birth until the stage where they can better deal with themselves. A work-life balance must be struck and employers’ and employees’ considerations must be taken into account. A happier employee will be a more effective employee. I wish the Minister well on the passage of this Bill and the introduction of necessary supporting legislation.
I agree with Deputy Keaveney on the importance of music. I have personal knowledge of this through my family and other children. We are beginning to build social infrastructure after decades of focusing on building our capital infrastructure through employment outside the home. We must also value work in the home and the crucial task parents have of rearing children and preparing the next generation.
The early years are very important and events in this period can have a major bearing on the later life of the person as a child, a young adult and an adult. In my previous experience as a counsellor I dealt with children’s personal difficulties. One technique used was to examine the earliest memories of the child. Invariably, we found that the behaviour of a problematic, troubled child could be traced to the early years. In one instance, a child of 14 who was constantly in trouble at school recalled being left alone at home at the age of two and a half or three years. He spent the day sitting inside the front door crying. Much of his anger could be traced to these times in his life when he felt neglected by his mother. It is important to expand, examine and debate parenting, the role of families and how we can support parents in that crucial role.
The take-up of measures introduced in the Parental Leave Act 1998 is approximately 20%. This was the finding of the review of the Parental Leave Act by the Department in 2001. Perhaps this figure has increased since then and I would be interested in the current figures. The Minister of State can address this in his response to this debate.
This raises the question why more people do not avail of measures in this Act. Can people not afford it, are they unaware of it or are they discouraged from availing of it? Is the mechanism for application overly bureaucratic? The Minister can provide us with the benefit of his wisdom on this matter. There is no point in a provision on the Statute Book if people are unable to avail of it. It will be interesting to discover the reason for the low take-up of this beneficial measure.
A colleague spent three weeks on holidays with his two children. After three weeks in a caravan park in the west, he wanted to go back to work. Entertaining and minding two toddlers for three weeks was really hard work. That is my first point.
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