(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.