Parental Leave Bill, 1998 [ Seanad ]: Second Stage (Resumed).

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

(Mayo): I am appalled and outraged that the Government has decided against the provision of unpaid leave for parents of children under eight years and is confining it to parents of children under five years. Was this decided at the drop of a hat? How come it did not decide on a figure of three and a half years or two and a half years? It is scandalous. The Government is one of the few uncaring members in the European Union. The other member states have decided on a figure of eight years. As usual, only lip service is given to the welfare of our children by this Government. It decided to give the minimal basic rights.

I have here a letter written by a low-paid civil servant with two children aged six and eight years. Her husband is also in a low-paid and insecure job. The person has been working for the last 20 years and has an impeccable record in terms of attendance. She could not be described as a layabout. In all those years she has never had enough free time to give adequate time to her children. They have been dragged from babysitter to babysitter. They have been sick at times and unable to cope, but had to make do with the situation. Sometimes it was necessary to lumber grandparents with the children. This woman, in common with many parents, was looking forward to spending time with her children this and next year considering that one of them is aged six. She was granted maternity leave when the children were babies for which she is more than grateful. However, if her children turn out to be delinquents, she will lay the blame fairly and squarely on the Government's shoulders because of its hypocritical attitude towards children. She concludes by stating:

I am keeping a copy of this letter to show to my children in later life so they will have no illusions about Government policies. We will breed another generation of cynics.

This is only one example of a deluge of letters that I and the other spokespersons have received. We have received a torrent of correspondence from people who waited in anticipation for this measure. They hoped that when the EU directive eventually found its way into law, it would provide the type of relief, sustenance and free time for them to spend with their children. Unfortunately, their hopes have been dashed.

The Bill is not primarily about parents but children. It is not essentially about parents' rights but children's rights to the care and nurturing of their parents in their homes. It is about children's rights to a childhood with their parents. The Constitution is the underpinning proof positive of our nation's commitment to the family, recognising it as the "fundamental unit" and as "a moral institution possessing inalienable and imprescriptible rights, antecedent and superior to all positive law". It recognises the family as "indispensable to the welfare of the Nation and the State". Article 41.2.2º states:

The State shall, therefore, endeavour to ensure that mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home.

On 15 May last, the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs, Deputy Dermot Ahern, launched with considerable fanfare another manifestation of a commitment to the family, the final report of the Commission on the Family. The report is strong on analysis and recommendations. However, within three weeks of its publication, the Parental Leave Bill, 1998, appeared and was greeted with justified disappointment and criticism. As the correspondence I outlined stated, the measure was long anticipated. There was a sense of expectation that the long overdue measure would be put in place immediately, that it would be flexible and introduce a practical regime which would enable scope for working mothers and fathers to participate in their primary role of parenting.

In hindsight, perhaps it should have been obvious that what eventually appeared would not, by a long shot, meet the expectations of many parents. The Bill's place on the legislative ladder can be gauged by the fact that Ireland failed to meet the EU deadline of 3 June. If it had not been for the ominous scales of Brussels or the prospect of being hauled by Irish citizens before the European courts, there is little doubt that the measure would not have seen the light of day.

Despite the Minister's comments, the approach is recognised as grudgingly minimalist. The decision not to enshrine any provision for payment for parental leave has given rise to considerable controversy. This is particularly the case given that the Commission on the Family report sets down three suggested options — a parent allowance, PRSI-funded extended parental leave up to three months or a special rate of child benefit for all children up to three years of age. The decision to allow only parents of children born on or after 3 June 1996 to qualify for the new parental leave is further evidence of a reluctance on the part of the Government to embrace the spirit behind the EU directive.

It is difficult to comprehend why it is not possible to extend retrospectively parental leave to 1994 to enable the maximum number of parents to qualify. The EU directive allows member states to permit parents of children up to eight years of age to avail of the leave, yet the Government has decided to restrict it to parents of children up to the age of five. This is difficult to understand, particularly given that no payment is involved and elaborate provision is made for advance notification, for liaison with and approval of employers in order to minimise disruption of employment patterns and productivity.

This curtailment in permitting only parents of children up to the age of five years to take parental leave is another indication of the Government's tardy acknowledgment of our internationally imposed obligations to parents and children. It is difficult to understand, particularly given that no payment provision is made, why it is not possible to avail of the maximum time scope as provided for and recommended by the EU directive.

In 1993, only three countries in Europe had no parental leave scheme, Ireland, Britain and Sweden. By 1998 only Ireland had not fulfilled its obligations in this regard. It is worth putting our minimalist approach in context. The Swedish scheme entitles mothers, or fathers if they wish, to a year's career break following maternity leave with the option of taking the leave as two years' part-time work instead. Germany offers 18 months' parental leave after maternity leave with a low flat rate payment for six months and a variable payment depending on the family income for the final 12 months. Italian mothers receive six months' parental leave at 30 per cent of earnings on top of their five month maternity leave.

In these countries women's working and mothering lives have become built into their socio-economic culture. In Ireland, however, many women feel forced to return to full-time work or to family unfriendly work through lack of choice. Most EU countries, in addition to the three I mentioned, have managed to find positive ways of combining family and work. Unfortunately, however, Ireland has taken onto itself the self-centred individualism which has characterised other countries for many years. As a result, we are less child-centred than was previously the case.

The concept of the rights of each partner has moved centre stage. Our rights to individual fulfilment are taking priority over what should be our lovingly accepted duty to ensure as parents that our children's rights and fulfilment are what really count. As a society there is the ever constant assertion of and emphasis on rights and entitlements without any sense of reciprocal or correlative duties attached to such rights. If society is to regain a healthy and balanced attitude and approach, it must revert to the old altruistic principle of "others have rights, I have duties".

To assert children's rights in such strident terms and to emphasise parental selfishness sometimes offends political correctness. To allege that a growing number of parents are putting their happiness before their children's interests is to run the gauntlet of being condemned by what can be labelled as the "progressives" in society. However, parents will have to reappraise their perceived right to unbridled self-realisation. It is time we grappled with the issues parenthood raises and the responsibilities it imposes, which go right to the roots of society.

As the Minister said, there has been a major change in the pattern of parenting in the past 30 years. A small number of households had both parents working 30 years ago, and few children had two unemployed parents. By 1991, 50,000 families with children under five years had both parents working. The Minister has given us the figure for women in the workforce, but the relevant issue here is the number of families with children and both parents working. Job-sharing was introduced as a novel experiment to enable one or other parent to stay at home with small children and is still with us, but it is conceded on a relatively small scale with a fair amount of resistance from employers, not least in the public sector. The number of families with both parents working has risen dramatically. I have given the 1991 figure, and the 1996 census indicates that 128,523 family units had children up to 14 years old and both parents working, which is a substantial increase.

There is a crucial need to get the correct balance of rights. For far too long the balance has been weighted in favour of parents' rights. If we are to get society back on an even keel, we must shift the balance back in favour of our children, and the State must play an active supporting role. The December budget distributed the largesse of the Celtic tiger, and when the percentages were stripped away it managed to bring child benefit for the first two children to a total of £7 each per week. Only Spain makes worse social provision for its children than we do. France, Germany and the Scandinavian countries leave us blushing with their comparative financial commitment to their children. Examining the various welfare benefits of the different countries, we fare well compared to most of the social welfare benefits, but we fall far behind in the area of child support. One need only look at the income tax code: there are personal allowances for mortgages, PAYE allowances and health insurance allowance, but there is no tax free allowance for children if one is married.

We, as parents, must come to grips with the difficulties of modern childhood and child rearing. Peer pressure on children who do not get proper parental guidance, encouragement or psychological support from balanced parents is impossible to withstand. The pressure to conform to what is socially and morally wrong but which is universally accepted by a child's friends is overwhelming. The daily onslaught on standards from the appalling violence on cable television and videos and the warped view of life pushed by popular cable channels are all constantly thwarting attempts to define values and to uphold decent standards in society. The failure of parents to set moral guidelines or establish limits, whether through selfishness, indifference or the fear of being tainted as conservative, is not fair to the child, who is crying out for limits to be defined and enforced. Children are big losers and society is the ultimate loser.

A survey published in The Irish Times recently indicated that three out of four women see their primary motherhood role as providing for their families. However, the degree to which society facilitates this is fast disappearing. To buy a modest semi-detached house in any of our cities or large towns will cost a couple approximately £90,000, with repayments of £750 per month. This must be found before electricity, food, clothing, footwear, telephone and car repayments can be made. There is no option; both partners must work to pay the mortgage and to keep body and soul together. The primary financial preoccupation is to get enough money each week to survive.

It is becoming more and more difficult in such a situation to afford children the central role to which they are entitled and which they need. Economic compulsion is eating into the child's entitlement to parental time. Such economic compulsion dictates the age at which children enter primary school. The mandatory age is six, yet the vast majority of children go to primary school as soon as is permissible when they reach four. It has been pointed out that children enter primary school earlier here than in virtually any other country in the world. I accept that this country has a tradition of children entering primary education earlier than in other countries, but the element of choice has been removed because of the economic compulsion which dictates that most parents must work to sustain a relatively modest lifestyle. The old allegation that a second wage was for a second car and continental holiday is now redundant.

Women working in the home reacted angrily to the publication of the report of the Second Commission on the Status of Women, which was understandable. They were angry that the commission, having examined the diversity of work done, the perceived low status of women in the home, their dependent role, taxation and social welfare, decided against payment for mothers who stayed at home to rear their children. The report stated: "In essence, the homemaker, although of benefit to society, is primarily a private benefit to the earning partner, and as such could hardly be deemed to warrant a State payment."

Society must acknowledge the role of women in the workplace and their right to work. Disincentives to women joining the workforce must be removed. However, society must value the role of the mother in the home equally. This value was tangibly demonstrated in monetary terms in a survey some years ago when insurance companies estimated that to replace the work of the mother in the home would cost from £300 to £400 per week. That was five years ago, and one could add at least £150 per week to that figure now.

The need for society to look at the urgency of family support measures is crucial. I agree that it is extremely difficult to turn back the clock. Economic compulsion has made it very difficult in many cases for the second parent to stay at home and engage in full time parenting. In some cases a mother finds the seclusion and isolation of the house difficult to cope with and welcomes the opportunity to work. For this reason job-sharing and properly structured part-time work is ideal. There is an onus on the Government to mediate and to facilitate in situations where there is resistance to such flexibility. We must inject an acceptance of job sharing and part-time employment into our business culture. We must put the family centre stage and get our priorities right.

I will be tabling a series of amendments on Committee Stage in relation to availing of the maximum amount of time off as envisaged by the spirit of the EU directive. I hope the Minister will see his way to dispensing with some of the in flexibility and rigidity which characterises a measure so many parents pinned their hopes on for so long.

I welcome the introduction of this Bill, because parental leave is both pro family and pro society. I will be seeking to have the Bill amended in a number of crucial areas, but it is important that parental leave is being introduced. In order to fulfil the terms of the directive we should have introduced it on 3 June. While the Minister has indicated that there was no requirement to look for a deferral, nevertheless to fail to bring it in on the date envisaged in the directive did require serious reasons. I do not accept that there were serious reasons for not bringing in this legislation in time to have it fully implemented by 3 June. We were well aware that it was coming up. It is extremely unfortunate that we are being asked to wait until 3 December. I ask the Minister to look at bringing it in sooner. If it passes through both Houses of the Oireachtas before the summer recess, I see no reason for waiting until 3 December to implement it.

Deputy Higgins has been eloquent in describing reactions since the terms of this Bill were published. Mothers and fathers were awaiting the implementation of the directive and had very definite plans for themselves in terms of spending more time with their children. They have been disappointed that the Bill is not as wide-ranging as they hoped and particularly disappointed that parental leave will be unpaid.

Some people who have opposed this legislation have described it as part of a raft of EU-inspired measures which they contend threatens the competitiveness of our economy. I disagree with this view. If we are to have a balanced, sane and family-friendly society, it is essential to incorporate provisions in legislation that allow the nurturers of the next generation the opportunity to balance their workplace responsibilities with their family responsibilities.

The first time I had the opportunity to vote was in 1972 when I exercised my franchise in favour of joining the EU. When I made that decision I would have been in a minority among people who voted on the left of the political spectrum at that time. Looking back, I think I made a very wise and mature decision. Despite the fact that the EU is primarily an economic entity, it has initiated a range of measures that have required a balance between the interests of employers and the interests of workers which has been very positive and which would not have come about without broad agreement among member states. Without this consensus the employers' lobby would have been too strong. The argument about the need to be competitive would have held sway.

We have implemented quite a wide variety of these measures, and we are competitive. It is crucial that so many of these measures have come in agreement among EU member states. In effect, that has taken away the argument about competitiveness within Europe because we are all on a level playing pitch. I have no doubt that if we were not in the EU many of these measures would not have been implemented and the fear of losing competitiveness and of people's jobs being threatened would have held sway. I very much welcome the fact that we have been able to bring in so much legislation that has originated in the EU which has protected workers and potential workers in this country.

It is interesting to note that in 1972 one of the main arguments people on the left who were opposed to entry to the EU used was that we would lose our neutrality. That argument is still being put forward in the context of the recent referenda. However, 26 years later, we are still neutral. Our economy is good. Unemployment is consistently falling, at least in the recent past, and we have gained a huge level of self-confidence in our ability to compete with other nations on an economic and trade front. The worst route we could have gone down for our people would have been a low wage, unprotected working environment. The route we have taken has been one of educating our people so that we can compete as educated people with skills to offer. That route was very wisely taken. It is a route that perhaps we would not have been able to take in the way we did if we had not been able to protect workers along the way. Economies in the East where that route was not taken have not necessarily been protected in the broad economic competitive world. We should be proud of the route we have taken.

Measures such as maternity leave, unfair dismissals legislation, equal pay, protection for young and part-time workers etc., have been absorbed and incorporated in the workplace economy, and we are not falling behind competitively as a result. The reality of more and more parents combining career with family is here to stay and we must facilitate it. There is no point in pretending it is not a reality. There is no point in saying we can go back to a situation where there was always an adult, usually female, to step in in a family crisis and take full responsibility for rearing children in those crucial early years. Four out of ten people in the workplace are women, and nearly two thirds of women in the 25 to 42 age group where the main child rearing is done are in the workforce outside the home. This is a reality we must deal with.

It is incumbent on us to ensure the flexibility that enables parents, men or women, to spend time at home with their young children. It is crucial that where women or men stay at home to mind their children they have the opportunity to get back into the workforce, that we have more opportunities for flexible employment and that we bring in measures like parental leave which is meaningful and allows people to take it up.

This Bill addresses family responsibilities primarily in two aspects. One is the right to take leave following the birth or adoption of a child, particularly as that right applies to fathers for the first time. The other is the issue of force majeure leave where there is a family crisis due to injury or illness. I cannot fathom why some people say this is not a necessary measure. I was amazed at some comments I heard, particularly from Senator Quinn in the Seanad who described it as a disastrous proposal. The most important thing any of us can do is to do the best job we can in helping our children to develop their personalities on a base of security and self-worth. Fathers as well as mothers have that responsibility and that right. We have denied it to them for far too long. The very idea that we should criticise putting into legislation the right of parents to take time off work when there is a serious family crisis is amazing. It is one aspect of the Bill on which I congratulate the Minister. The suggestion that workers will treat force majeure leave as an extension of sick leave is insulting to workers. It will bring great relief to thousands of conscientious parent workers who currently have to pretend they are sick when their child is sick and needs their undivided attention. Contrary to what has been said, this measure will allow people to be honest with their employers and doctors. I do not believe it will be abused. Any GP will say that parents coming into surgery with a sick child often pretend they too are sick because that is the only way they can get time off work. That is wrong. It is particularly wrong that parents have to do that in front of their children to get permission to stay off work. It is correct that we will now allow parents to be up front and say that it is their child who has the problem. I would like to know why the word “injury” is used in the Bill — I understand the word “accident” is used in the directive.

Parental leave that allows fathers to spend significant time with their babies has been available in many of our neighbouring European countries for many years. I had a conversation last week with a 26 year old Swedish postgraduate student of political science. She told me that when she was born 26 years ago her father took paternity leave. The Swedish and other Northern European economies, where they have had paternity leave for quite some time, have not fallen apart. This young woman's experience was that the opportunity for bonding in the early months of her life made spending time with her a priority for her father throughout her childhood. Parental leave is not so much about taking turns to change nappies and get up during the night — although that too could be crucial in maintaining a relationship at times — as about giving parents that space to concentrate on the young developing life for which they are uniquely responsible.

As a society we are bombarded with demands on our time and have become so stressed that we need to make provision for issues that should have priority. This is not so much about Government as about social attitudes, but Governments can inform and direct social attitude by ensuring that the law facilitates and underpins social and parental responsibility. In this context we must inform parents of their rights and ensure there is an educational element to this measure in terms of informing the public.

I have some problems with the legislation but, on a positive note, I welcome the amendments made in the Seanad including those in relation to the Garda Síochána and the Defence Forces and the proposal on multiple births which was of particular interest to Senator Kathleen O'Meara, who is one of triplets. Parents of twins and triplets have mentioned this proposal to me. I welcome also the Minister's amendment on the question of not having to give advance notice of force majeure leave.

A proposal was put forward in the Seanad on giving the forthcoming Equality Authority a role in terms of information on parental leave. The Minister of State, Deputy Wallace, stated in the Seanad that she would examine that proposal. Will consideration be given to it on Committee Stage?

I welcome the Minister's reassurance in his contribution this morning on social welfare and PRSI contributions and the fact that people's records will be maintained. That matter was raised with me by trade union interests. They were concerned about the possibility of continuing superannuation contributions so that people would not lose out. Perhaps the Minister will convey his intentions in that respect.

I have already indicated that I would like the Minister to consider introducing this measure before 3 December. I am disappointed the legislation will only apply to children born after June 1996 i.e. after the directive was first adopted, the reason being that people might be able to back-date claims. I would have thought a simple clause inserted in the Bill would safeguard against that. Will the Minister examine that aspect again because many parents with children under five who were born before June 1996 have contacted us to say they will be unable to take advantage of parental leave? That should not be the case.

I am extremely disappointed the legislation does not cover children up to the age of eight. I know that was not obligatory but it was the age used in the wording of the directive. It will not add significant cost to extend the legislation to cover children up to the age of eight. Many parents have said they would like to avail of parental leave and spend more time with their children during the early primary school years.

That parents who take parental leave will not be paid will create an even bigger divide between the "haves" and the "have nots" in our society because people on low pay, who do not have much disposable income, will be unable to take parental leave. That is extremely disappointing. The Minister should give further consideration to that aspect, even at this stage.

Deputy Higgins said the report of the Commission on the Family recommended paid parental leave. That section of the report states:

The Commission considers that, if parental leave in line with the EU Directive is to provide practical assistance to parents who wish to have the opportunity to spend time with their young child, the issue of paid leave or compensation for loss of earnings must be addressed.

The Commission has stated in Chapter 5 that providing direct support to parents at a time when the childcare responsibilities are at their most demanding, and initiatives to facilitate parents in taking time out of the paid workforce if this is their preferred choice in relation to the care of their young children, are priority considerations in formulating future policy in support of families with their childcare responsibilities.

Furthermore the Commission agrees with the view put forward to it in a submission that unless the period of parental leave is paid it will not fully realise key family objectives which include providing real opportunities to mothers and fathers in balancing their work and family responsibilities, promoting equality for working parents in the workplace and in the home in the sharing of childcare responsibilities.

It is the Commission's view that the introduction of a statutory right to paid parental leave would be an important first step towards these family objectives.

The Commission would urge that consideration should be given to an extension of the PRSI maternity benefit scheme to cover parental leave with the payment of a weekly benefit to the parent availing of parental leave. This would meet the need for basic income security during the period of leave for parents who are likely to avail of the option.

This measure was costed at £40 million per annum. That is a sizeable sum but, as Senator Henry stated in the Seanad, the economic consequences to the country of bad parenting may well be a much larger sum than the cost of paying for parental leave.

Family income supplement is directly related to a person's income. If there were some adaptation of the family income supplement, which is means tested, it would exclude parents earning high incomes who can afford to take time off work without pay but would include the people who simply cannot afford to take parental leave. Perhaps the Minister will consider that worthwhile suggestion in conjunction with the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs. It is not an option I have heard discussed before but it is one that might be adaptable to the concept of parental leave.

Deputy Higgins detailed the provisions in various EU states, the majority of which pay for parental leave out of their social insurance funds. That seems to be the standard method. I accept there should not be an onus on employers in that they should not have to pay for parental leave. That would not be practical in terms of balancing the books. The onus should be on the State rather than on the employer and that seems to be norm in most EU countries.

In an appendix to Chapter 8 of the report of the Commission on the Family, the full details of payments in various European countries are outlined including individual rights, the payments, where the money comes from and the percentage take-up. It is interesting to note that the countries in which there is a high take-up are those which offer a reasonably good payment. The highest take-up is in Sweden with 90 per cent of women and 78 per cent of men taking up parental leave. That is interesting because in Germany, only 1 per cent of men take up parental leave although the leave is much more restricted in Germany than in the Scandinavian countries.

I take issue with the part of the Explanatory Memorandum which states that the introduction of parental leave will not affect Ireland's competitive position vis-à-vis other EU member states given that most of the existing parental leave schemes are more generous than that in the Bill. I am sure that makes ICTU and other employers feel good but it is not something of which we should be particularly proud. We should be as generous as other EU countries because we must balance the social benefit of allowing parents to stay at home with young children against the economic aspects of such a measure. Countries which offer generous parental leave do not appear to have a problem in regard to competitiveness. That must be taken into account also.

I accept there are cultural aspects to a measure such as this. It probably is the case that Irish men will be fairly slow to take up parental leave, particularly if it is unpaid, but it should be an important issue for fathers. I feel sorry for men who in the past were put in the position where their children were told: "Wait till your father gets home" or, as in the words of the song, "if you're not asleep when the boozers close you'll get a belt from your da". It was unacceptable to be put into that kind of role and fathers are no longer willing to accept that. Many fathers would welcome a balance in roles in terms of earning money and being directly involved in parenting in the home.

I do not know if many people watched "Amongst Women", the adaptation of John McGahern's book, or read the book, which eloquently describes the dilemma of the traditional Irish father who found it difficult to show tenderness and seemed to lay the heavy hand when he wanted to extend the warm hand. That is a tradition which most men would like to leave behind and we should assist them in that.

The culture in countries such as Sweden is totally different. An article written some time ago by the Prime Minister of Sweden states:

The truth is, we can no longer afford to be patriarchal, to be sexist, and to discriminate. In order to make economic progress, we need social progress. The work, the creativity, and the decision-making capacity of women are desperately needed in order to make Swedish business and society competitive.

This doesn't answer the question "why?" some may object. Yes it does. A mere change in the traditional roles and patterns of women means stopping half way. Merely breaking down the barriers faced by women on the labour market and in public life is not enough.

The next breakthrough is a change in men.

That indicates a different way of looking at matters. It indicates that the economic activity of women is needed in order to bring out the best in the economy. Similarly, male parental involvement is needed in order to best fulfil the social role of families. There is a need for cultural as well as legislative change.

The Employment Equality Agency carried out research on how flexibility in the workplace can be positive rather than negative in terms of its impact on employers. It states:

Surveys carried out indicate that people employed under a more flexible arrangement have less absenteeism, sick leave, and higher productivity for the proportion of hours worked.

Many small businesses in Ireland are already accommodating their employees' personal circumstances.

This ‘personal touch' has yielded high dividends in the local community with positive responses to the employer and the business. For bigger organisations a more formal arrangement is required.

An interesting aspect of this matter is that if employees' needs are met, employees will work harder than if the employer is heavy-handed and does not understand their needs.

We should see this measure as an opportunity rather than a burden. Research carried out by the Commission on the Family indicates that in some countries parental leave and other such measures are considered as a way of tackling unemployment because work is divided among more people. With flexible hours, part-time work and parents taking time off to be at home with their families, there is need for more people in the workplace. That has positive results in terms of unemployment figures. Parental leave should, therefore, be considered as a positive measure from the point of view of the economy and it should be taken on board.

As Deputy Higgins said, there are huge economic pressures on parents to earn money. It is often not from personal choice that both parents of young children go out to work. Ideally they should have the option of spending time at home, and this legislation gives them that option. The Bill, however, does not go far enough in terms of the main areas I have outlined, particularly in that no pay will be given for parental leave. That will rule out many people who would love to spend time at home with their children in their formative years but cannot afford to do so. Will the Minister consider the option I suggested as a way of providing payment for parents who most need it. The provision regarding the upper age limit is extremely disappointing and I also ask the Minister to consider that.

A three year review has been promised, but we should not have to wait three years to have these measures incorporated in the legislation. It behoves us to incorporate the spirit of the directive in the legislation we implement, particularly at a time of economic progress when we are relatively well off compared with other European countries. Everyone will admit there is a growing divide between people who are not doing well out of the economy and people who are doing well. If we do not bring in family-friendly measures that have positive social consequences at a time of economic prosperity, it will be much more difficult to bring them in when there is not as much money in the economy. We should be as generous as possible in legislation such as this. If we do not bring in measures such as parental leave so that parents can spend time at home with their children, whether it be force majeure leave where there is a particularly urgent problem or in the formative years when it is crucial that children have a positive and strong feeling about themselves, we are failing our children and future generations. While I very much welcome the introduction of parental leave, it should have been introduced in a broader and more generous fashion.

I support the Bill. Under the terms of Partnership 2000 the Government promised that this legislation would be introduced by June 1998 and we are on target with that. The legislation complies with the terms of existing EU directives in this field. Impetus was given to this legislation by the needs of the increasingly large number of female employees in Europe — in this country alone the figure is just less than 500,000 or 46 per cent of the working population.

I note from the Bill there will be expense involved in administration. Costs will be incurred by either of the two ministries concerned, the ministries for Justice, Equality and Law Reform and Enterprise, Trade and Employment, which will recoup their expenses from the Oireachtas.

The Bill gives legal effect to a practice which has obtained in many firms for a long time. Employers may have many assets, they may own a business, property, plant and machinery, but enlightened employers have always realised that their most valuable asset is the goodwill of their workforce, without which they could not function effectively. In the past such employers allowed for staff rights and concessions which were not written into the working conditions. Among those was the right to parental and compassionate leave, which was granted on request by some employers as a token of the goodwill between employer and employee.

Unfortunately, not all employers had the same perception of leave on humanitarian grounds. Some would have seen the absence of staff on any grounds as a cost to the business. They would see an empty work station as loss-making. Many did not realise employees had a home life outside the workplace. That thinking has no place in the Ireland of today. That is why Bills of this nature are being enshrined in law. The provisions of the Bill must be passed under current EU regulations. It is right that it should become law, even in the absence of such directives. I would like to think this Bill would have been passed in any event. We have come a long way from the work practices of the Victorian era and the Dublin of the lockout in the early part of this century. The employer of today knows his business returns are not dictated solely by market forces and are equally dependent on the goodwill, commitment, and dedication of staff and a will to succeed — essentially ingredients for a successful business.

The Bill is well thought out, although some Members of the Opposition may disagree. Since I have come to the House I have learned that the role of the Opposition is to take a different view to legislation put forward by the Government. I am sure the Government does likewise when it comes to Private Members' Bills. The scope of the leave allowed will be greatly expanded. Part I deals with the standards provisions and ensures the terms of the Bill are binding on all parties concerned. It gives discretion in the case of more favourable existing terms. It states that the Bill comes into force on 13 December 1998. Part II lays out the full entitlements in relation to unpaid parental leave and the mechanism used to ensure its implementation, which is very important for employers and employees.

Part III deals with the protection of employment rights and ensures the granting of such leave does not have any adverse effect on the employee. Part IV refers to the procedures to be used in the event of a disagreement between employer and employee in the interpretation of the terms of the Bill. Members of the Defence Forces are excluded from the terms of this provision because they already have a redress system.

Part V, which is important, gives priority to the provision of compensation due to an employee in the event of a company ceasing to trade for any reason. It protects the rights of employees unfairly dismissed while on parental leave and defines the methods of recording parental leave, which is vital. It contains a clause ensuring a review of the terms of the Act within two to three years — indeed, not later than three years.

Long before this Bill was drafted, a form of compassionate leave was the custom in many companies, as was parental leave in response to some circumstances. This practice was in line with the thought behind the force majeure leave. Force majeure leave covers the need for limited paid time off in the event of a family crisis involving illness or injury. It is limited to three days per annum or a total of five days in three years and will be granted to an employee who must care for a sick family member. Its terms embrace the immediate family of the employee and would include brothers, sisters, parents and grandparents.

Notice of intent to avail of this leave, as stated in the Bill, must be given in advance, if possible. If not, it should be given in writing as soon as it is practical after the leave has been taken by the employee. The notice must state the reasons that necessitated the absence from work.

I am sure there will be differences of opinion and interpretation in the early states of the enactment of the terms of this Bill. This is inevitable and all new legislation has teething problems. I am glad this has been comprehensively addressed in section 4 and I congratulate the Minister who has included a section in relation to a rights commissioner who may initially adjudicate on any point in dispute between employer and employee. Failure to resolve differences will automatically involve reference to the Employment Appeals Tribunal. There is provision for further appeal. The tribunal may refer points of law arising in the dispute for determination by the High Court. The Minister has covered every conceivable aspect in this section. This mechanism will ensure the protection of an employee's right to parental leave and will involve the payment of compensation in certain cases.

It is important to note that each parent will be entitled to 14 weeks unpaid leave for each child born after 3 June 1996. I agree with that date because we must start somewhere and I am not sure how far back we can go. The leave must be availed of before the child is five years old. There are provisions for flexibility in the case of adopted children. Parents cannot pool their joint entitlements and a parent taking this leave cannot also avail of his or her partner's period of 14 week should he or she decide not to take it. The leave may be taken in a manner agreed by both parties to the agreement.

Parental leave is not paid but perhaps the Minister might leave it open and give the employer an option to pay the employee if they so decide. Every employer has different business circumstances and financial constraints and some may be able to afford to pay the employee depending on the number of employees seeking parental leave.

It is important to note the leave is reckonable in the context of the rights of an employee. Each person in the workforce must complete one year's continuous employment before availing of parental leave. There is an exception where a child may reach the age of five and the employee has not attained a full year's service. There is provision for pro rata leave in this instance. Under the terms of the Bill, children are deemed to be one child in cases of multiple births.

The Bill clearly lays down the terms under which parental leave may be claimed and granted. It is important that those terms are observed by employers and employees to ensure the full and fair implementation of the Bill. Notice in writing must be given by employees at least six weeks before the period during which such leave is required. This note must specify the dates during which parental leave is required. If an employer so requests, an employee must furnish details of the birth or adoption of a child for whom the leave is requested. An employee must sign a confirmation document four weeks before the date of the commencement of leave. If there is a need to amend the period specified, this should be done with mutual consent between the employer and the employee.

Employers rights are also given cognisance in the Bill. They may postpone the date of the leave period in certain circumstances. The Minister has struck the right balance in this regard. If the employer believes taking leave at a certain time may have a substantial adverse effect on business, he may defer the leave. I see this happening where leave is requested in a business which has clearly defined seasonal peak periods. There is also a stipulation that an employer may postpone the leave for a reasonable period if a suitable replacement for the applicant is not available and it would be reasonable for an employer to refuse leave in such circumstances. This could be expected in the case of jobs requiring certain skills.

An employer must consult the employee and give an acceptable explanation as to the reasons which apply to the postponement of this parental leave. It is important to note the rights of an employer to defer leave under the relevant section does not apply in instances where a confirmation document has already been signed by both parties.

Parental leave is granted on one condition only — so that the applicant may take care of the child. It may sound as if I am stating the obvious but it is important this is clearly defined. It should not be claimed or used for any other than purpose other than to take care of the child. A refusal to grant this leave must be given in writing and must state the employer's reason for not acceding to the application. A reason for such a course of action would be that the employer has definite knowledge or reasonable grounds to believe that the parental leave would not be used for the specified purpose. Employees have the right of reply and the machinery to enable them to disprove such assertions if inaccurate. Such safeguards are fundamental to the integrity of this legislation.

It is, as always, a pleasure to speak in favour of the Minister's enlightened legislation. I am glad the days of employer abuse of the workforce are a thing of the past. Some 99.9 per cent of employers treat their employees with the respect they deserve. My father worked 12 hours a day out of necessity and returned home late at night. I recall being told there were no morning breaks in the 1950s or early 1960s in certain types of businesses, and of others who tried to have a cup of tea in the morning, using the billycan. When the boss came along they kicked over the billycan so that they would not been seen sneaking a cup of tea. This was long before morning breaks were introduced.

I have read about the miserable wages paid to people unfortunate enough to have to tolerate those conditions to supplement the family income. I can imagine the reaction of some of the business magnates of the bad times of the past to the minimum wage of £4.40 per hour which it is proposed to introduce in the next few years. They would have thought a worker should not be paid this hourly amount for even a month's wages. It is right and proper that today's society will no longer tolerate those appalling standards. I am delighted we are moving forward in worker and employer relations. Most employers now treat workers as partners in their companies because they see the tremendous benefit from having that type of arrangement in place. One gets the best out of employees if they are treated as partners and allowed to be part of the decision making process and to help to promote the business. There is much to be said for rewarding employees. I hope more employers will share more of the rewards and the fruits of their work and labours with their employees. From my own experience, ones gets more commitment from people by doing so.

I congratulate the Minister on this enlightening legislation, for which I hope every Member will vote to ensure its smooth passage through the House. I hope it will become law as soon as possible.

Like other speakers, I welcome the fact that the right to parental leave is being enshrined in our legislation. It is an important feature of modern life on which to have legislation and as such I welcome it. In doing so I express my deep alarm at the restrictive nature of that right to parental leave. There is a very simple maxim in all areas of equality legislation, it is the basic rule of thumb that if a right is not universal, it is nothing more than extended privilege. We need to think about that in relation to this Bill. In this instance parental leave will be the privilege primarily of those who can afford to do without an income. Because it is unpaid, what is being provided for here is parental leave for the better off. This approach appears to contradict flatly the Government policy as stated in An Action Programme for the Millennium:

We are committed to protecting the family through political, economic, social and other measures which will support the stability of the family. In particular, we recognise that many families are forced to live in situations of poverty which inhibits them from carrying out their role. The new family focus by Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats is designed to make families central to policy-making.

Unfortunately, these admirable sentiments do not extend as far as instituting practical measures that will assist parents as well as focusing on parents on lower incomes. Instead the approach the Government has adopted in this Bill is in line with other policies it has pursued and which are clearly manifest in the last budget. At its simplest, it is a policy best described as rewarding the rich while penalising the poor. Looking at that record one should not be too surprised that we have been presented with a minimalist Bill which does not rock the boat but, at least, we are entitled to expect that it helps to rock the baby. It does not do this sufficiently.

Today parenting is being recognised as a crucial factor in the stability of our society. It is a good thing that there is that realisation and understanding because for so long it was carried out by women in the home who did not have access to power or influence. Because of that it was taken for granted. Today there is a great awareness of the importance of good parenting. We need to ensure that awareness is matched by legislation, family supports, training and funding. Yet this Bill is not just conservative, it is inappropriate for the times we live in.

The economic boom has created unprecedented wealth. Profits have soared, fortunes are being made, companies enjoy low tax regimes, stable industrial relations, stable wage costs. Those conditions have not happened by themselves. Workers and their trade unions have been central to creating the kind of economic growth that is the envy of Europe. Workers are entitled to gain from those benefits. They are entitled to a pay back for their pay restraint, flexibility and contribution in the past. So far what they have actually got is spiralling house prices and now indications of upward inflation.

We are living in a society where the social services are not keeping up with our economic growth, where profits are untrammelled while family supports are still under developed. The Minister cites seven other EU countries that have paid parental leave and dismisses the possibility that Ireland might join these countries. Many people today would ask why not? Will we forever depend on the poor mouth to get us through? I do not believe this approach reflects the way we see ourselves any more. This new found confidence among Irish people is at total variance to the concept that Ireland is still the poor relation of the EU.

Young Irish parents know only too well that we are no longer the poor relation. They have only to look at the property pages to know that there is so much money sloshing around that it is driving house ownership out of their reach. They are reminded continually that this country is doing very well economically. They are being reminded yet again by the Government that they will not be sharing fairly in the benefits.

The Minister states that paid parental leave would be too costly for individual employers and would damage Ireland's competitive position. He does not say the absence of paid parental leave will be costly in human terms and damaging to the well being of families whom this Government has already dedicated itself to protect. Neither does he say what the Commission on the Family report states:

Investment in support of young children and helping their families can pay dividends later in terms of a good positive experience in childhood, assisting parents in rearing their children to be contributing members of society, developing parents of the future and preventing social problems.

This is a cost to providing family support. The Commission on the Family proposals add up to a considerable amount of money, £400 million. The Minister's estimate is £40 million, although I would dispute it. Deputy O'Sullivan has dealt with this issue in relation to scaling in terms of income. If we were to truly meet the needs of the Commission on the Family, investment would have to be on such a scale as to require a totally new political approach by the Government.

Let us not sell parents short by using the financial argument on the debit side only. The returns to society are considerable in terms of stability and security and in economic growth when families are supported adequately.

Employers need to be educated as to the benefits of social measures that support families, particularly those on lower incomes. Employers need to be given a lead from a Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform who, in his day, was not behind the wall in speaking up for the unborn child when he sought a referendum on the issue of abortion. When it comes to the born child, somehow he seems incapable of taking a lead. The Bill exposes the true nature of Government policy towards families. The fine words in the programme for Government have turned into the weasel words of the Bill.

We all know and recognise that parental leave is a central issue for families, not just in Ireland, but across Europe. The profile of the typical worker has been transformed. Two-income families are becoming the norm. The steep increase in the number of women in the workforce and the increase in the number of women raising children alone are having a significant influence on political requirements. That is a fact of modern family life. It has led to the drawing up of Council Directive 96/34/EC which is the first directive on social and employment matters negotiated between trade unions and employers at EU level. Recent research shows widespread support for the principle of paid parental leave. It is only because the directive has forced the Government to introduce the Bill that it has been introduced in the first place. There was no choice in the matter. It would probably have liked to have had a further derogation but there would have been such a political storm that it would have had to have performed a U-turn and not for the first time.

The Government had to introduce a Bill but it is the quality of it that is at issue and that is the subject of the debate. The Government must take responsibility for the provisions it makes and the changes these can make to people's lives. In formulating those provisions, the Minister had a clear choice as to the nature and make up of parental leave, its extent, its provisions and whether it was paid or unpaid. These are all matters of political judgment and the Government must accept full responsibility for the grave shortcomings in the Bill. The directive was confined to the minimum level acceptable at EU level and it is stated that it is a base line. It provides a threshold below which no country may fall. It does not provide a model for countries to adopt, especially those living through spectacular economic growth and which are governed by parties which claim to have a new family focus or, in the hyperbole of the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs, Deputy Dermot Ahern's, words: "a Government committed to adopting a families first approach".

The Bill is most notable for what it is not. It is not about adopting a "families first" approach. Is it not about having a family focus nor is it about the centrality of the family in policy making. It is about scraping through our obligations as an EU member state with the minimum cost, the minimum disturbance and the minimum benefit. It is inadequate in many aspects, whether it is the date of implementation, the age of the child, the timeframe for parents or that the leave is unpaid. All these are negatives which must be addressed. It is petty minded, foot dragging and reactionary legislation which is an expression of begrudgery against the hard fought advances made by men and women across Europe who believe in the principle of equality, both in the house and in the workplace, and who insisted this be put on the European agenda. To add insult to injury, the Bill is also late.

We should not be surprised. The character of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform has hardened considerably since the Minister took office. He represents the worst kind of old style thinking in the area of individual rights. His record on refugees is a case in point. The carefully constructed Refugee Act passed by all parties of the House has been dumped by him. It was progressive and enlightened legislation which recognised our changing role in a modern Europe, our responsibilities and our rights. The Minister is now busy replacing that with bureaucratic procedures which are leading us backwards instead of forward.

This Bill is produced by the same kind of mind-set. It belongs to the past and not to today's world. That is regrettable because we have a tremendous opportunity to help parents and children by way of a parental leave Bill. It is regrettable parents are being short-changed in this way. I sympathise with the Minister of State with responsibility for equality and law reform as she is in an invidious position. Equality is her brief and yet the principle of equality is missing from the Bill as parental leave will be unpaid. The principle of equality has been missing in much of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform's actions since taking office.

The Bill is supposed to assist families and it will assist some of them. I recognise that it has benefits and I welcome them but only some families will benefit. If the Bill is passed as it stands, it will ensure inequality is enshrined in law. If parental leave is unpaid, only those who can afford to do without will be able to afford to take up such leave. The reality of doing without such income can be realised by examining the situation of many young parents in meeting their housing needs. I calculate that an average mortgage in the Dublin area costs about £800 per month. I may be playing with statistics but it is an example of how much money is required and of how out of kilter the proportion of income to mortgage which applies to house buyers has become. A young couple setting out to buy their first home in which to rear their children require £400 a month each before they can begin to feed or clothe themselves or their children. How many young couples struggling with a mortgage will be able to take up the option of unpaid parental leave? They have young families, their incomes will not be as high as those of older people because they are not that long in the workforce and they are buying houses. How many will realistically be in a position to take up this option?

The Committee Stage of the Bill is being taken tomorrow which is a short timeframe for the House to consider the many shortcomings of the Bill. It is being rushed through the House in a manner which will inevitably mean it will be difficult to make major improvements to ensure the Bill meets people's needs. We will be limited in what amendments we can table because of the central issue of whether leave is paid or unpaid. I and others will table amendments on Committee Stage because it is vital that the Bill be modified and improved. There is an onus on the Minister to ensure the best deal for parents is obtained if he is to comply with his Government's policy statement. Otherwise, we will have a Bill which will not work for the vast majority of families and which will not have much meaning in terms of taking parental leave to parent and care for children — the central function concerning men, women and children.

We must ensure balance is provided for couples who are now both working outside the home and who are trying to juggle everything. I do not envy them that because it is extremely stressful and difficult to take all responsibilities together. However, the Bill, if amended, will make a considerable difference to the lives of parents who are doing a job willingly and out of love for their children but often despite the conditions in which they find themselves, be they as a result of income limitations or the rigidity and inflexibility of the workplace. We have the opportunity in the Bill to significantly support parenting and families. However, the Minister will have to do better than this Bill if we are to make a real difference. I hope on Committee Stage we will see a more positive, open and modern approach to parental leave than is encapsulated in this Bill.

I wish to share my time with Deputy Hanafin.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I welcome the opportunity to speak and congratulate the Minister on such welcome legislation. This Bill implements the EU directive on parental leave, the key objectives of which are: the reconciliation of work and family life and the promotion of equal opportunities and treatment between men and women. The Bill entitles parents to a limited period of leave to take care of young children and gives employees limited leave in times of family crisis.

This Bill is of great significance, particularly to women in the workforce. The numbers of working women has dramatically increased in the past 20 years, reaching 488,000 in 1996. The Government recognises the need to introduce measures in line with the EU directive to facilitate the changes in the structure of the workforce.

In general, parental leave must be taken before the child reaches five years of age but exceptions are made in the case of adopted children. The employee must have had one year of continuous service in employment, except where the child is reaching the upper age limit. Parental leave must be taken as a continuous block of 14 weeks or may be spread over a number of periods by agreement with an employer. The employee and employer must confirm the leave four weeks before it is taken.

An employer may postpone parental leave for six months if it could have an adverse effect on business. The employer may refuse to grant leave or terminate it if he believes there are irregularities. The Bill also provides for force majeure leave. This entitles an employee to leave if he or she is urgently needed because of injury or illness of a family member. This leave is limited to three days per year or five days in three years.

An employee on parental leave or force majeure leave will retain all employment rights other than the right to remuneration or pension rights while on such leave. Even though the leave is unpaid, the employee will continue to accrue service for the purposes of increments, annual leave etc. The Bill contains provisions to deal with the resolution of disputes about parental leave or force majeure leave. Disputes, except disputes about dismissals, can be referred by an employee or employer to a rights commissioner. A decision of a rights commissioner may be appealed to the Employment Appeals Tribunal. A rights commissioner may introduce measures to redress certain situations. These include compensation of up to 20 weeks pay for the employee, granting parental leave at a particular time, extending the upper age limit of the child, postponing the leave because of its negative effects on business or varying or curtailing it because of a change in the circumstances of the employer or employee.

The Bill addresses the needs of both employee and employer. It will give new rights to employees, granting more equality in the workplace and will provide back up systems to employers to deal with the abuse of the system. I welcome the Minister's commitment to give more parental leave in the case of the birth of twins or in the case of multiple births. This focuses our minds on the major issue of child care.

The Minister should ensure that the Government commits more resources to child care. There is little communication from health authorities when children are born — usually this only involves a visit by a public health nurse. Many community organisations, FÁS schemes and the student summer jobs scheme are used to make and maintain contact with families with children, particularly those with twins or multiple births.

In many situations where both spouses are working there is not the family and community support. This House is not setting a good example given that we have no creèche facilities. However, child care is the most important of the issues involved. That is why I am glad this legislation is the first step in showing that we have a pro-family approach and a family friendly policy.

Each spouse is entitled to 14 weeks parental leave and twice that in the case of twins. A week's paternity leave could be more important than long periods of extended maternity leave. One could reduce the parental leave in favour of a paid period of paternity leave. I also welcome the fact that parental leave is available up to the child reaching five years of age. Arguments have been made in favour of three and even eight years, but five years is a good balance. I have also heard objections to the force majeure provisions. These provisions are not disastrous. We have heard these arguments before concerning sick leave and disability benefit and I welcome the provisions for times of family crisis.

The Minister stated that paid parental leave would cost £40 million. I hope he will be able to obtain £40 million for child care as it is a very important issue. The important time for parents to be with children is the years before they begin formal schooling and this is why I welcome the age of five as the limit specified in the Bill. It is a reasonable age up to which parental leave can be taken. Much will depend on flexibility and co-operation between employers and employees. This will be very important to the success of the Bill.

I welcome the Minister's commitment that the Bill will be reviewed. We must ensure there are provisions for reviewing legislation such as this and the Minister has committed himself to such a process. The Bill also emphasises the role of the father in rearing children and allows working fathers time off to spend with their children. Some small businesses have noted that, through a combination of maternity and parental leave, an important employee could be off work for up to 36 weeks. Situations such as this can be dealt with by co-operation. This is a voluntary system and it is not necessary for the 14 weeks to be taken in one block, in fact one does not have to take the full 14 weeks.

Job sharing is becoming more prevalent and important. There are situations in which both spouses are working and there are flexible working arrangements for one or both spouse. In this spirit the Minister might consider provisions for transferring parental leave between parents.

In time there will be paid parental leave. In the past we had arguments about not being able to afford maternity leave and benefit. If we do not have paid parental leave there will be tax credits for child care. The focus should be on child care and children. The Minister has stated that such provisions would be very costly at present.

This is an enlightened Bill. I congratulate the Minister and look forward to Committee Stage and getting the Bill through the Houses as quickly as possible.

I welcome this Bill on the basis that it recognises the role of women in the workforce and the equality of both parents in the home and the workforce. The Bill is part of Fianna Fáil's overall policy to reconcile work and family life. Our programme for Government sets out three specific measures of value to the family. First, we refocus the tax and welfare system in favour of the family unit. The second relates to the introduction of parental leave and the third to the promotion of the status of women at work, in business and in the home. Despite being only one year in office, the Government has made many positive moves. It has established an expert working group on child care, which is to report next December, and child care provisions increased from £800,000 in 1997 to £2.6 million in 1998. The budget provided for increased child benefit and family income supplement and, in his budget speech, the Minister for Finance promised to review the possibility of tax relief on child care in his next budget. The Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Martin, has introduced the early education forum which is considering children from nought to six years and training, recognition and accreditation for Montessori facilities, play schools, crèches and so on.

The introduction of the Parental Leave Bill fits easily into the Government's overall programme. At last we are giving recognition to the dual role of every parent. All parents have a full time commitment as a parent as well as a full time commitment to the labour force. This Bill, in conjunction with the Employment Equality Bill, will improve the status of women in the workforce. The current participation of women in the workforce here runs at approximately 39 per cent, moving towards the European average of 47 per cent, which I anticipate we will reach in the next few years. It is particularly interesting to note that half the increase in the labour force is due to the employment of married women. Various reports, including those published by the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Women's Rights and the Second Commission on the Status of Women recognise that child care is essential for the equitable participation of women and men in family and working life.

Parental leave has been introduced in a number of European countries and we are bringing ourselves into line. The Bill, which grants 14 weeks leave to each parent up to a child's fifth birthday without loss of increments or annual leave, is very positive. In many countries, fathers have not made significant use of parental leave, with the notable exception of Sweden, where at least part of the leave is non-transferable. I welcome the section which does not allow one parent transfer leave to the other because most fathers would tend to transfer all or part of their leave to the mothers. It is important that men play their role in family care.

In countries where the leave is unpaid, as will be the case here, it has been found that finance is not the only factor which prevents men from taking up the option. In Holland studies have shown that the unsupportive workplace culture is more responsible. Taking leave for family reasons is seen as a less than legitimate reason for men, particularly in companies where success and competition are measured in the workplace. A study of career breaks in the postal services carried out in Ireland in 1993 showed that men who took career breaks for domestic reasons said it was for study leave. In introducing this Bill, we need to change the culture of the work environment to encourage both parents to avail of parental leave.

Another positive move is the force majeure for family crises which will be paid. I note this will apply particularly to a member of the family, that no age limit applies and that it can be taken at short notice. As this will be paid, parents will not be reluctant to take the leave.

The Government's overall pro-family plan is very positive. However, a number of initiatives still need to be taken and each Minister needs to put pressure on the Minister for Finance. The population trend in recent years has resulted in half the population being under the age of 30. When half the population was under the age of 25 we invested more money in education. These are now young married couples with children who are trying to buy houses and we must invest in them. We should follow up on our commitment to give tax relief for money spent on child care in registered child care facilities while recognising the value of the work done by parents in the home in looking after children. We must relieve pressure on young couples who have exorbitant mortgages because of the increase in house prices. We must recognise that the under 30s are the people who are investing in the future of pension holders, who are generating money in the economy, who have created the consumer society and who are making the best contribution to the economy. The Minister for Finance must take steps in this regard. I have already outlined a number of measures taken by other Ministers during the lifetime of the Government. I am pleased the Bill will shortly be taken in committee. This means we will be able to implement the EU Directive which will lead to the reconciliation of work and family life and promote equal opportunities and treatment between men and women in the workforce and in the home.

Ba mhaith liom comhgháirdeas a dhéanamh leis an Aire as an méid atá déanta aige go dtí seo. Is minic a chloistear daoine ag tabhairt amach faoi na fadhbanna sa tír seo. Ni minic a chloistear moladh as an meid atá déanta cé nach bhfuilimid sa rialtas seo ach ar feadh bliana.

Fáiltím roimh an mBille seo agus fáiltím roimh na dlithe go léir atá rite ó tháinig mise anseo bliain ó shin. Ach deirim anois go mbeimid ag cur brú níos mó ar na hAirí go léir níos mó a dhéanamh ar son na dtuismitheoirí óga seo.

I wish to share time with Deputy Gerry Reynolds.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

When one is transposing an EU directive into law one must consider the Irish position and consult interested parties such as IBEC and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions to come up with a formula and a Bill that suits the various organisations and the Irish scene. Some EU directives take longer than others to transpose into Irish law. This directive was introduced in 1996 and we are transposing it into law now. A directive on health and safety on fishing vessels was introduced in 1993 and was due to be implemented in November 1995. The EU threatened court action against our Minister in the latter part of last year unless the directive was transposed into law. I am concerned that it has taken such a long time to transpose that directive into our law and, unfortunately, there have been a number of tragedies on fishing vessels. Therefore, health and safety on those vessels is vital. The previous Government introduced the working time directive Bill, but I expressed the belief at that time that, like the UK Government, we could have got a derogation in regard to its implementation. I vividly remember the Tánaiste, Deputy Harney, the Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Tom Kitt, and the Minister for Public Enterprise, Deputy O'Rourke, being very much opposed to the working time directive legislation. They are now in Government and the process of implementation is taking place.

I welcome the directive and its implementation as a positive step in the right direction. I have followed the discussion in both Houses and perhaps am at variance with some of the comments which have been made. It is populist to say that in the context of the working time directive people should be paid for taking leave. The issue of inequality was raised. However, people should reflect on what they mean by inequality. Fifty per cent of the workforce works outside the home and another 50 per cent decide to be housewives and work in the home. Quantitative surveys have shown that if the latter group was paid for housework wages would be astronomical in the context of the hours worked. If in the context of this Bill people received enhanced child benefit, enhanced social welfare and were paid by an employer, we would rightly be criticised for introducing a degree of inequality to the system. Housewives could rightly claim that such people were being victimised by the system. How many times in the past have we spoken about recognising the role of the housewife in the context of property? I know it is populist to make statements on radio that they should be paid. However, if that happened in this situation we would introduce a degree of inequality.

Senator Quinn has been criticised for making what he regarded as very valid comments. I read what he said and think his comments were sincere. It is very easy to criticise a person who does not seem to be going with the mood of specific legislation.

The Bill is desirable because, due to the Celtic tiger and the much improved employment climate, many wives have decided to work outside the home, something which is good. Many do so out of economic necessity as they must meet mortgage commitments, etc. The legislation is good as it provides that a person with children up to five years of age who decides he or she needs special leave due to certain circumstances has the freedom of taking 14 weeks. Regarding the timescale, it is a matter of finding a middle line between provisions in other countries and what we should do. Senator O'Toole said that even an age limit of three years was acceptable. However the Bill could have provided for parents of children aged over five years, as the most valuable developmental years for young children are between four and eight years according to psychologists. Provision for parents with children up to eight years of age would not impinge on the Bill or what the Minister is trying to achieve.

Section 16 mentions force majeure circumstances and the provision here is very desirable. I agree with Senator Quinn's comments about people who say they had sick leave coming to them. He made the point that if legitimacy is given to a sick pay period, it becomes an absolute necessity afterwards. A classic example concerns the blue flu where gardaí were on sick leave which, I presume, will be recognised for sick pay time. Senator Quinn was criticised for making the point that in the context of force majeure circumstances, medical evidence should have to be furnished, something with which I agree. Not so long ago a programme highlighted certain doctors who gave out medical reports without finding out whether a person was sick. When people put forward a balanced, rational argument such as this they should not be criticised as they are reflecting reality.

I am concerned by the increasing number of EU directives and the possibility that as a growing and emerging economy we might in time find it difficult to meet some of their demands. Sometimes we are pitched in with the Scandinavian model, the countries of which appear to have a tremendous advantage over us in the context of the type of welfare system they operate. In recent times in France and Germany there have been many concerns over the welfare system which was regarded as benign. Attempts were subsequently made to claw back on provisions because of demands on the respective economies. It is important EC directives transposed into Irish law are realistic and compatible with our demands. We can aspire to the ideals of other countries, but reality must prevail.

Leaving to one side the qualifying age of children, be it five or eight years, the provision of 14 weeks leave is good. The Minister said that, based on the maternity leave system, it would cost £40 million when introduced if people were paid for leave. I do not know how this figure was arrived at as he said that in Germany, where the provisions extend to the male workforce, only 1 per cent of males took parental leave. This is very significant as we perceive the Germans as being very progressive.

The Bill is a very welcome step in the right direction and many people will be extremely happy with the provision of parental leave. Those taking maternity leave often take the optional four weeks in addition to the 14 weeks. People have said the Bill should be implemented immediately. However, as in any new legislation, the employer must adapt his system and personnel records. We must be realistic and allow a period before implementation. It is not possible to implement legislation the day after it is signed into law. There must be a period for employers to get used to the provisions of the Bill, put their personnel records in order and implement the provisions accordingly. For this reason I do not disagree with the provisions of the Bill being implemented in December.

On Committee Stage people said they would put forward amendments. I was anxious to speak on this issue, although I have enough to speak about in the context of marine issues and I do not want to be at sea when I speak about justice issues. People will sometimes take the populist approach and preach equality which may lead to inequality for another section of people, namely, housewives.

I compliment the Minister on introducing this Bill in which I believe he has struck the correct balance. I was amazed to read in The Irish Times recently that some trade unions and political parties were calling for paid parental leave. That would not be feasible; the concept of parental leave is good but we must be realistic about the manner in which it will operate.

Deputy Finucane referred to Senator Feargal Quinn's comment that if sick leave were to become part of a scheme, people would take it as an accepted right. That could give rise to a very dangerous situation. If parental leave were to become an accepted right and be paid for, most parents would take leave just for the sake of taking it, not because they felt the need to bond with their children but to get more money out of the system. When this legislation is introduced, we must provide an incentive to people who genuinely need or want parental leave. That is one of the most fundamental aspects of the Bill.

In his speech, the Minister pointed out that four out of every ten people in employment are female. Research suggests this figure will rise dramatically in the future. Many university faculties such as veterinary, medicine, law and teaching, which used to be predominantly male preserves, now have a majority of female students. In ten years' time perhaps all of the professions will be predominantly peopled by females. That will give rise to a major change in society. We will probably need to introduce legislation at that stage which would grant parental leave to house husbands.

The biggest social difficulty we will face in the coming years will be the fate of young males who will find it difficult to secure employment as most of it will be taken up by females. I do not intend to be anti-female; statistics suggest that females will dominate many of the professions in the next 15 to 20 years. If payment were introduced for parental leave, it would convey the wrong impression. The Minister has hit the right note in this legislation and has achieved the proper balance. In a number of years' time, amendments may be made to it through necessity.

I wish to share time with Deputy Kelleher.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I welcome the opportunity to make a brief contribution on this Bill. It is welcome as it is a major step in the right direction for this State and brings Ireland into line with the EU directive on parental leave. There was some recent criticism in the press that we were among the last countries to adopt this directive.

I congratulate the Minister for bringing the Bill forward in this Dáil term. It implements the EU directive on parental leave and will give parents an entitlement to leave from work to take care of their young children. It will also give employees a limited right to time off work for family crises.

I was disappointed by the statement by Deputy McManus when she spoke on this Bill some time ago. She said the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform went out on a limb in calling for a referendum in regard to unborn children but does not appear to have the same concern for children who are born. The Minister is an outstanding family man who prides himself on family values.

The parental leave directive adopted in June 1996 incorporates a framework agreement which was negotiated between the social partners at EU level. It set the broad parameters for parental leave but left much to the discretion and interpretation of member states. The directive stipulates a minimum of three months leave for each parent to be taken to care for children up to the age of five years. 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 must be protected against dismissal as long as 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.

Those who decry parental leave as useless because it is unpaid should bear a number of factors in mind. The Bill's provisions represent major improvement and progress on existing conditions by seeking to reconcile workers' occupational and familial obligations. To suggest, as some have done, that unpaid leave in such circumstances will never be availed of alleges that all parents, or the overwhelming majority of them, give priority to mercenary considerations over parenting and family obligations and commitments. Such an assertion is unfair and unjustified and is an unwarranted indictment of Irish parents. The overwhelming majority of parents are prepared and willing to make sacrifices and demonstrate that commitment in the interests of their children by their determination to provide care, concern and support for their welfare.

In drafting the Parental Leave Bill, the Minister stated his Department examined existing schemes in other countries, including EU member states. However, because of differing social security systems in the various member states and the diversity of parental leave schemes in operation, it was difficult to draw firm conclusions. From examination of the position in other member states, it is difficult to speak of any kind of norm. In almost every respect, whether it be the upper age limit of a child, the pattern of leave available or the issue of payment, there is much variation between member states. Domestic legislation dealing with maternity protection and adoptive leave also provided useful precedents but, as maternity and adoptive leave are both based on particular events, the current Bill differs from earlier legislation in many respects.

I welcome the Minister's statement that he is in consultation with his colleague, the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs, to ensure that time spent on parental leave will be credited for social welfare purposes where it applies. This means a worker will not lose out on his or her long-term or short-term social welfare benefits because of time spent on parental leave. The arrangements do not form part of the present measure but will be put in place by the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs once the Bill is enacted.

The parental leave directive, 1996, which follows the course mapped out by the Charter on Social Policy, 1989, sets down minimum requirements for member states. However, great flexibility is given to each member state to decide on issues such as the maximum age of the child, whether the leave is to be paid and matters relating to social security. Therefore, the Bill is in full compliance with the terms of the directive. While the directive leaves the question of paid or unpaid leave to the discretion of each State, it is important to emphasise that the social partners decided on the terms of the framework agreement which imposes no obligation to provide paid leave. In an ideal world we would all like to have paid leave provided for parents, but those who are most loud in demanding it must state if they believe the taxpayer should foot the Bill, if other areas of public funding should suffer or if the employer should pay. Such an imposition, even in times of economic boom, would be resisted by employers or, worse, would cause job losses.

The Bill heralds a major change in working life. It makes it mandatory henceforth for employers to take account of parental and family duties of their employees. Where this has not happened on a voluntary basis, the implementation of this legislation will herald a significant cultural change for those working parents who will benefit from it. When the legislation is revisited, as is required, this legislation will be referred to as a significant milestone on the road to equality and support for the family. I compliment the Minister and his Department on it.

It is welcome the legislation will be reviewed in three years' time as that will give us a chance to assess whether its provisions are working. The provisions are not cut in stone. I am pleased the Government is not fixated on set provisions and that it is prepared to try out provisions and to return to the negotiating table if problems arise with them. The main aspect of the legislation is the flexibility it allows. It requires co-operation between employers and employees and workers have a responsibility to respect their place of employment.

I agree with the provision governing unpaid leave. Ireland is a small country with a large number of small businesses. It would be totally impractical and unrealistic to expect employers to pay the salaries of people on parental leave. That would potentially crucify the economy. As the Minister stated, in countries where employees are paid for such leave only 1 per cent of parents take it up. In Ireland mothers on maternity leave often take up their entitlement to unpaid leave. Regardless of whether parental leave is paid or unpaid, people who wish to avail of it will do so in the interests of their children.

By allowing fathers and mothers to avail of parental leave, the Bill will provide both parents with the opportunity to take an active part in the care and upbringing of their children. This new leave recognises emergencies occur which can require a parent's absence from work to tend to a sick child or other member of the family.

The Bill recognises the role of the father in rearing a family. It allows fathers, for the first time, to take time off work to spend with their children. This option will give many fathers a chance they have not had until now and this leave will also give mothers more time. It is very difficult for parents, particularly mothers, to juggle all their responsibilities at once, such as housekeeping, shopping, helping with homework and fitting in time to have fun with their children.

The introduction of this Bill is of great significance, particularly to women in the workforce. The number of women in the workforce has increased in the past 20 years and reached 488,000 in 1996. The Government recognises the need to introduce measures in line with the EU directive to facilitate the changes in the structure of the workforce.

An employee on parental leave will retain all employment rights other than the right to remuneration or pension rights while on such leave. Even though the leave is unpaid the employee will continue to accrue service for the purpose of increments, annual leave etc.

The Bill contains provisions to deal with the resolution of disputes about parental leave. Disputes can be referred by an employee or employer to a rights commissioner and a decision of a rights commissioner may be appealed to the Employment Appeals Tribunal. A rights commissioner may introduce measures to redress certain situations. These include compensation of up to 20 weeks pay for an employee, granting parental leave at a particular time, extending the upper age limit of the child, postponing the leave because of its negative effects on the employment or varying it or curtailing it because of a change in the circumstances of the employer or employee.

The Bill addresses the needs of the employee and the employer. It will give new rights to employees granting more equality in the workplace and will provide a back-up system to employers by providing measures to deal with abuse of the system.

I welcome the Bill and recognise it will be of major benefit to family life. Those in favour of paid parental leave must recognise it would pose a major imposition on employers. The burden they must carry in terms of trying to cover the leave parents will take is heavy, but they are committed to carrying it because they took part in the consultation process which led to this Bill. While it will be most beneficial for parents and family life, a burden also falls on employers. I congratulate the Minister on introducing the Bill and commend it to the House.

I welcome this Bill and its timely publication. We have accrued many benefits from Europe, but the directive on foot of which this Bill is being implemented will benefit our young people for many generations to come. This is a balanced Bill which has been introduced following consultation between representatives of employers and employees. Neither group will be totally happy with the outcome, but a balanced approach had to be taken and this Bill represents a balanced approach to both sides.

Psychologists and members of the medical profession will confirm that the most important stage in young people's development is their early childhood. For that reason alone this Bill is welcome. Not only are there difficulties in society, but members of many families often spend a good deal of time apart because of the necessity for both parents to work to provide for the household. This arrangement will allow parents to take turns to provide for the wellbeing of their child at the very early stages of life.

I come from a constituency where there is a good deal of social deprivation and a high degree of welfare dependency. At some stage in the future we should introduce some form of means tests through the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs to ensure parents on low income who apply for parental leave will receive some benefit. Parents on higher incomes will be able to afford to take parental leave. Social studies reveal that children from areas of high unemployment and low income families tend to be the ones most at risk. I understand the Minister will review this legislation in a numbers of years, but this is an area we will have to consider in the very near future.

If a mother on low income took leave for the number of weeks allowed under this Bill, that would create major financial constraints and put an increased financial burden on the household. Some people would argue such leave is voluntary, but if this right exists the people who are entitled to avail of it should be able to do so. The income of parents in low paid employment should be bolstered by the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs to allow them to give as much time and energy to the raising of their child as the parents of a family on a higher income. That mechanism would allow that to happen and I am conscious that the Minister will review this legislation.

While some employers would argue the provisions of the Bill are too extreme those on the other side would argue it is minimalist. I have no major reservations about how it will work when implemented vis-à-vis employers and employees. The Bill is well laid out and there are many provisions to cover that. If a problem arises it can be referred to a rights commissioner, from there to a tribunal and then to the High Court. However, as the guidelines are clear there will be little reason for confrontation between employee and employer.

This legislation will benefit society as well as the individual. Its purpose is to allow parents to give as much time and energy as possible to raising their offspring at the most delicate stage of their lives. That will have a positive effect not only on the individual but also on society.

The Bill also refers to abuse of parental leave. How are its provisions to be enforced? What monitoring arrangements are in place? Will the leave be based on trust and goodwill or will inspectors check if employees are involved in child rearing or playing golf? If widespread abuse takes place early in the period after the Bill is enacted, it might cause difficulty for genuine applicants in securing parental leave. What procedures are in place to ensure genuine applicants will not have difficulty in securing parental leave?

The provision for flexibility is a positive step. There must be flexibility for employers, particularly those with seasonal businesses. If a number of people apply for parental leave at the same time from a company involved in seasonal work, it would be almost impossible for the company to survive. There must be certain constraints to protect the company and the employer in such a situation.

The Bill provides for protection of employment rights. There is always concern that legislation such as this might diminish an employee's entitlements. However, in-depth study of the Bill shows that an employee will qualify for all benefits he or she would accrue had he or she been working for the 14 weeks. Most importantly, he or she will qualify for social welfare entitlements in the event of losing the job after returning from parental leave.

The Bill has a balanced approach. Given the make up of families, the number of women in the workplace and the pressure on families to sustain a household in the current climate of inflated house prices and so forth, people have a fundamental right to take leave from work to look after their children if they so wish.

The provision regarding force majeure is also welcome. Over the years many people lost jobs because, as a result of an accident or an untimely illness, they were unable to take a few essential days leave to look after loved ones. This is a humanitarian measure which, ultimately, will bring employers and employees closer. Under this legislation a person has a right, in the event of illness or a tragedy striking a family, to take a few days leave to look after a loved one or to deal with the family's affairs.

People often argue about the pros and cons of EU directives. This one, however, should be implemented. There are companies in which there are good relationships between employers and employees and where the provisions of this legislation have been implemented on a discretionary basis. Employees in such companies have no trouble applying for leave of absence to look after a family member.

I welcome the Bill. The legislation is a positive step towards ensuring that young people are given a positive start in life. However, it can be argued that the Bill will not bring immediate benefit to some. In the long-term, the Minister should consider the provision of funding and a means testing mechanism whereby people on lower incomes will have an equal right to apply for and secure parental leave. I look forward to the speedy passing of this legislation.

I always experience a sense of déja vu when legislation is introduced which affects women in the workplace. Each time a painfully small step is taken in the most modest manner possible. The threat of wholesale suffering on the part of employers and the destruction of the economy is usually forecast if a modest step of this nature is taken. It is always taken as a result of our membership of the European Union.

Listening to Members raise fears about the workplace, employers and the ravages that might result from this small step, one can come to two conclusions. The first is that it is a miracle any progressive legislation is introduced with regard to work and employment. The second is that, in the case of this Bill and when maternity leave was introduced, one would think that every employee, male and female, was about to become pregnant and bring the country to a standstill even though biologically and practically that is not the case.

These matters must be put in context instead of this constant invocation of the worst possible scenario. I would like to be a member of a parliament and of a society which one day might, on the introduction of legislation that affects the family and is positive in supporting women and removing the obstacles they face, welcome and support such legislation. Indeed, such legislation might even go beyond the minimal boundaries behind which we always appear to stay in our laggard approach to meeting our responsibilities in the context of European legislation.

I am reminded of the hysteria that seized this country in 1976 when the spectre of equal pay was visited upon it. Reluctantly, the then Government sought derogation; Ireland is always a special case. Women were told there would be no jobs for them if they had the temerity to seek equal pay. In 1977 employment equality legislation was introduced. Again, it was forecast that society would collapse. Women were threatening men's jobs and employers would not be able to provide or adapt facilities so women could enter workplaces traditionally held by men. There followed years of struggle, delays and derogations to facilitate employment equality. Surprisingly, women contributed at an extraordinary level and the economy began to grow.

The next crisis was the introduction of maternity leave in 1980. Again there was hysteria. Regrettably, maternity leave in Ireland is abysmally short, particularly compared to other countries. Not only is child benefit pitifully small but we do not recognise the importance for the next generation of families rearing children. There is no positive encouragement to recognise what society and the Constitution believe, that ours should be a family and child centred society. Mothers are entitled to 14 weeks paid leave and four weeks unpaid leave. Because of the difficulties encountered in breast-feeding and weaning the child and in making suitable child care arrangements many mothers made the ultimate sacrifice and stayed at home. Others were forced, out of financial necessity, to work outside the home at huge cost to themselves in terms of guilt. There was a lack of adequate child care facilities. By not giving women the same opportunities as men to work outside the home we reneged on the commitment to ensure equality of opportunity about which there was much talk.

On this occasion we are, once more, doing the very minimum. Fathers will be entitled to leave but it will be unpaid. While we have to be aware of the difficulties of employers, we lack the political will to introduce enabling legislation with an eye to the future of society. It is almost as if the industrial revolution was only beginning. Thankfully, the workplace is changing. It was appalling that men as the breadwinners were required to work long hours and were denied the opportunity to bond with their children. This is reflected in Irish literature by dysfunctional families and the lack of role models for fathers and sons. While the damage caused by the subservience of family life and relationships to the workplace is being questioned, we are still reluctant to change work practices to make the workplace more family friendly. This would help to ease some of our other difficulties such as road congestion. We have failed to show enlightenment and innovative thinking.

I wish to quote from the book published to accompany the BBC education series "Breaking Glass". It is stated in the chapter dealing with the workplace of the future:

In Professor Charles Handy's vision of the future, women and men will move in and out of work, family and education, selling their portfolio of skills and experience to a variety of clients. They will operate from a portable office supplemented by a regional or local club which will provide technological back-up as well as the opportunity to socialise with and "spark off" colleagues and friends.

Intelligence, rather than conventional buildings, systems and hours of work, will be an essential component of this concept. However, it also means that fashionable rhetoric about valuing people must become a reality. As Charles Handy says:

"For a long time now, corporate chairmen have been saying that their real assets were their people, but few really meant it and none went so far as to put these assets on their balance sheet".

Profits and losses, takeovers and mergers are the stuff of balance sheets. Yet we know that the assets which produce the profits are people but they do not appear on the balance sheet.

It has been shown in other countries where provision has been made for parental leave with incentives that men need to be kick-started. In Norway where there are tax and social security incentives for men to take parental leave the take up rate is very low because there is a view that career men should not take time off for parental responsibilities. It is seen as a disadvantage in terms of career progression. This mind-set has to change. What will the take up rate be if leave is unpaid?

Every person who pays PRSI contributes to the paid maternity fund. The Minister should consider funding parental leave in this way. It is a social function, not a selfish luxury on the part of two people, to have children. France and Germany have discovered to their cost that when parents, women in particular, find the cost of having children too high in terms of work opportunities the birth rate falls to such an extent that there are not enough workers to pay the pensions of people like me. It, therefore, makes good economic sense not only to encourage couples to have children but also to ensure they receive the required level of support. This is not the case at present and this Bill will not create that position.

Given the current state of the economy and the sacrifice skilled trained professional women, who are joining the workforce in greater numbers, must make, they will consider the cost of having children in the future. They will have to bear the responsibility of the cost of child care to enable them to work or they will be forced, as they are forced now, to leave the workplace despite attaining skills, qualifications and job satisfaction. Aside from family friendly terms, in financial terms the country cannot afford that.

I hope the Minister will consider amendments to the Bill. I am aware that he wants the legislation enacted as quickly as possible, but Committee Stage will be taken hastily and there may not be time to debate the full depth, breadth and aspirations of the Bill as in more leisurely times. I ask the Minister to take on board the sincere contributions from all sides and to recognise that amendments are necessary to improve and strengthen the legislation. He should not leave too long a gap before it is reviewed.

The birth rates in Germany and France fell so dramatically that huge incentives were built into legislation and work practices to allow people to have children. Large financial benefits are given if parents have a third child. We should learn from the experience of those countries. The Minister should consider developments in Europe. Schemes have been successful in Scandinavian countries because incentives are incorporated in them. Parental leave is paid and firms have been rewarded for encouraging fathers to take such leave. Government policy is to give special grant funding to them as an encouragement.

The Minister should consider the experience of France and Germany where the birth rates dropped because couples felt they could not afford to have children and work. We should use the advantage of our late development in this area by using that experience and considering the good and bad elements of various schemes. We should incorporate the good elements in our legislation and avoid making the same mistakes or suffering the same difficulties they experienced.

I ask the Minister to consider the development of decent parental legislation in conjunction with all the other supports such as child care and tax allowances for highly qualified paid child care services. These should be given willingly. Ireland has thankfully achieved economic growth to an astonishing degree. I remind the Minister that a recent ESRI report pointed out that one of the reasons for the current state of the economy is the sacrifices made by women who stayed at home. They sacrificed their careers for the training, education and careers of their children.

In an age of supposed equality, women should not be asked to continue to make that sacrifice. I am a veteran and I am aware of what women contributed in those years. I ask the Minister to invest in this legislation and provide the financial resources to ensure that women do not continue to sacrifice their freedom and economic independence.

I welcome the Bill. It is an important measure in improving the quality of life of children. It is effectively a Bill for children and will enable parents to improve their role in the rearing of their children. I congratulate the Minister on introducing the legislation.

There has been much social change in the past 20 years and greater involvement by women in employment, which is welcome. Undoubtedly, the growth of the economy is in no small way due to the involvement of women in employment outside the home. This change has affected family life. The old community and family support network which existed in the past has disappeared in urban and rural Ireland. The same support for the family no longer exists in society.

The support provided by extended families has also disappeared. In former times a person had access to their immediate family but also to their grandparents, who often lived nearby, uncles, aunts and cousins. This support system is absent today and means fewer facilities are available to children to communicate their difficulties, stresses and concerns outside their immediate family. This aspect has been considered in the context of suicide, a topic which is in the news today. In previous times young people had immediate access and a close relationship with their cousins, uncles and aunts. In some instances, they were closer to them than their parents and could communicate some of their difficulties.

The Parental Leave Directive, adopted in June 1996, incorporates a framework agreement negotiated between the social partners at EU level. The directive stipulates a minimum of three months leave for each parent to be taken in the initial years of a child's life up to the age of eight. The leave is different from maternity leave and should not be transferred between parents. Employees must be protected against dismissal and guaranteed the right to return to work. In addition to providing for paternal leave, as provided for in the Bill, the directive also provides that workers must be given leave for family crises resulting from illness and accidents.

The workplace is moving towards becoming more family friendly. It is beginning to recognise the role of both parents and the necessity to ensure that the next generation is reared with the influence of both parents who should have the opportunity to transfer their values to their children. At present the workplace is family unfriendly. One almost has to give notice that one is leaving work to attend to a family crisis such as the illness of a child or difficulties a child may be experiencing. One must justify oneself for leaving rather than employers accepting that people have to respond to family crises.

There has been a massive growth in the number of women at work in Ireland over the past 25 years. In the past 20 years the number of women in the workforce has grown by more than 212,000, reaching a total of 448,000 in 1996. In 1997, the number of women at work was more than 512,000, or four in every ten workers.

Debate adjourned.