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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 24 Jun 1998

Vol. 493 No. 1

Private Members' Business. - Parental Leave Bill, 1998 [ Seanad ]: Second Stage (Resumed).

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

The massive growth in the number of women in the workforce in the past 25 years has contributed significantly to the success of the economy. In the past 20 years, the number of women in the workforce has grown by more than 212,000, reaching 448,000 in 1996. In 1997, more than 512,000, or four in every ten, people in employment were women. In the 25-44 year cohort of women, almost two thirds now work outside the home. In 1977, only 14 per cent of women in the workforce were married but, by 1996, married women accounted for 47 per cent of women workers. This change has resulted from a growing awareness of the need to reconcile family life and work opportunities and the State also has a duty to reconcile these competing demands,

The rearing, conditioning and education of children is vital to future generations and parents have a key role to play. The State should endeavour to facilitate them in every possible way. The introduction of this Bill will serve to increase the number of women in the workforce and will provide an opportunity for fathers to be involved in rearing their children.

Irish society has changed immensely in recent years. One in five children is born to a single mother. We must urgently examine and legislate for the role of the father in a changing society. The State does not facilitate single fathers who wish to fulfil their obligations and responsibilities as parents. Single parents, as of right, should be entitled to a relationship with their children. To date, the presumption in law has been that single fathers do not have such rights and must obtain the agreement of a child's mother to get them. The law facilitates the rights of single mothers to access and rear children but hinders the role of single fathers in fulfilling their rights and obligations. Custody or guardianship cannot be arranged without obtaining the agreement of a child's mother and the State does not facilitate single fathers in establishing guardianship or joint guardianship without the mother's agreement. If the mother's agreement is not forthcoming, the matter must be dealt with in the courts.

Under the law children of single parents are discriminated against in comparison with those of a married couple in regard to their relationships with their fathers. Their relationships have an inferior status in the eyes of the law and society in general. We must examine the role of the father in a changing society. It is important that children have knowledge of, and be exposed to the influence of, their fathers. Children of single parents are also entitled to the acquaintance and friendship of their fathers' families, their uncles, aunts and so on. The State should uphold such rights. While accepting we have made some progress in recognising children who are not born within marriage, including abolition of the concept of illegitimacy, we must nonetheless continue to recognise that families are very different today from what they were in the past. If we continue to promote the principle that parentage is, in effect, tied up with marriage, particularly in the case of fathers, we are not recognising the needs of children born to single parents and are not responding to the direction in which society is moving. We must reform our approach to ensure we do that and reflect the reality of life. It would be nice to think traditional family structures and supports could continue. Four out of five families still adhere to that model but the trend is changing; one in every four children currently born in County Louth is born to a single mother.

Traditionally, fathers wielded a great deal of control within families and mothers were, in effect, dependent on them. That has changed and in many circumstances, fathers are now dependent on mothers for access to their children. It is not acceptable for a mother to have the sole right to grant guardianship of her child to its father. At present, the mother's right is absolute. If a mother agrees to an unmarried father becoming a guardian, the procedure can be carried out very easily.

The role of the father is not sufficiently developed and recognised within Irish society. I am not happy with a society in which so many mothers are raising children on their own and in which children have no knowledge of their fathers, either because their fathers do not want to know them or are prevented from knowing them. Legislation must be drafted to address that. It takes two people to have a baby and it should take two people to rear it. The responsibilities and rights of fatherhood are not being addressed in regard to single parents and sufficient consideration is not being given to the significant changes which have occurred in our society. We must establish fathers' rights in a way which challenges them to fulfil their responsibilities. Deputy McGahon stated that too many single fathers do not face up to their responsibilities to support and have a relationship with their children. If we do not ensure such rights are established, we are simply enforcing a pattern which will not be good for society as a whole or for parents, be they married or single. It is in children's best interests, unless there is a compelling reason to the contrary, to know their fathers and have relationships with them. The emphasis must be on what is in the best interests of the child or children, but we often lose sight of that. The overriding consideration in many marriage breakdowns seems to be what is convenient for the parents rather than what is in the best interests of the child or children. We cannot overemphasise or underestimate the importance of a father figure in a child's life. There is a void in the lives of children who do not have a father figure. As more than 80 per cent of primary teachers are female, many children who are reared by their mother do not have contact with a father figure even in school. Many children are being brought up with only their mother's influence in their lives. That will have consequences for them in later life and that matter should be addressed.

The report of the 1996 constitutional review group in considering the position of unmarried fathers pointed out that a natural father has no personal right to his child, which the State is bound to protect under Article 43 of the Constitution. It also pointed out that section 6(a) of the Guardianship of Infants Act, 1964, as inserted in the Status of Children's Act, 1987, has been construed by the Supreme Court as giving an unmarried father a right to apply to court to be appointed guardian, as distinct from giving him the right to be a guardian, which could be annulled by the courts. A father should have the right to be the guardian of his child. That report also states that any criticism of the fact that a natural father does not have a constitutionally protected personal right in relation to his child can be readily undermined as regards a natural father who lives in a stable relationship with the natural mother or who has established a relationship with the child.

We must face the reality that 12,500 children were born to unmarried parents last year and 700 applications were made by unmarried fathers for guardianship of their children. We must seriously examine what is in our culture that determines the majority of fathers of children who are born outside marriage do not have a relationship with their children. We must consider how we should cope with that position to ensure that children of unmarried parents have as stable a relationship as possible with both parents.

One of the key aspects of a stable relationship is determined by whether one was influenced by one's mother and father. We must do everything to ensure that society recognises the strong role of a father in influencing the upbringing of his child, irrespective of whether he is married to the child's mother. We cannot turn back the clock to make society as it was 15 or 50 years ago. There were many difficulties with that society which are not relevant to this debate.

The trend of births outside marriage will continue to rise. The State must recognise that and ensure that children know their fathers, their values and ensure that they influence their children. A child should grow up to recognise that a father and mother have a role to play in his or her upbringing. The State must send a strong signal that co-operation between parents should be the norm. We must send a signal that the State recognises changes in society and that more than 20 per cent of children are born outside marriage. The State should signal that co-operation between both parents is expected, that it is there to facilitate such relationships and it expects fathers and mothers to be fully involved in rearing their children. There is no such thing as a one parent family. Every child has two parents and we must ensure that both are involved in a child's upbringing.

I wish to share my time with Deputy Boylan.

That is agreed.

I do not welcome or agree with this Bill. I would support Government legislation to give women the opportunity to stay at home to raise their children. Over the years many Governments have talked about introducing such legislation. Many women would like to stay at home, but they have to work out of necessity. I know I will come under pressure from my two women colleagues at a later stage for saying that.

It is no wonder so many people voted against the Amsterdam Treaty when we see the type of rubbish that comes out of Europe at times. The next move will be to put pressure on employers to pay those who take 15 weeks' parental leave, but small businesses cannot afford to pay that. The average industrial wage is approximately £300 per week and employers have to pay their share of PRSI which brings that figure up to approximately £350 per week. It would cost an employer approximately £5,000 to pay an employee on an average industrial wage 15 weeks' parental leave. The next move will be to introduce paid parental leave on a statutory basis. That would be fine for the State because they would pass the tab on to the taxpayers and small businesses would have to pass on that cost to their customers. That is how the system works.

I was proud of my mother who raised 13 children. She worked hard inside and outside the home. In those days one got nothing for nothing. One had to work. Many housewives and mothers had to go out to earn a living because their husbands were good for nothing and there are still a few of them around. They were no good when it came to bringing up their family. The mother is the crucial figure in any home. She looks after the family and she is the parent who should be supported.

Many years ago Garret FitzGerald talked about introducing a scheme to help women who wanted to stay at home. That turned out to be only talk in the run up to the election. Like all parties, when his party got into Government it did nothing about it. The Opposition has all the answers, but when parties go into Government they do nothing to address the problems. That has happened since the foundation of this State. That is why in the run-up to the last few elections most parties did not promise women they would provide for them to stay at home to raise their families and return to the workplace at a later stage. The Government could help women by increasing the children's allowance and giving them some payment to encourage them to stay at home. Many of them would stay at home because by the time they collect their children from playschool and pay their child minders they have very little money left and they still have to pay their mortgage and provide for the household. Many women would love to stay at home to rear their children until they had reached the age of seven or eight years and then return to work, but they cannot afford to do that.

There is much talk of the Celtic tiger, but people are under more and more pressure. Mortgages are increasing and it is difficult to cope. People who work are not entitled to a medical card or any other assistance from the State. The State takes from them all the time. Over the years Governments have not assisted families in the way they should have. They have not assisted women who wanted to stay at home and raise their family and return to work at a later stage. Many women would do that if they had the opportunity to do so.

Employers are worried about this legislation. They are afraid they will have to pick up the tab eventually. There have been many daft EU directives and we have implemented them, but we should do what the Italians do. We should take everything that is good from Europe, the money, but leave the directives on the back burner. Italy has done that for many years. They have taken the money, but not worried about implementing the directives. I have seen the results of these directives in the west of Ireland and they are ridiculous. People in Europe are trying to justify their jobs by dreaming up schemes and directives to be implemented in the Union. The attitude appears to be, "If we cannot justify ourselves, somebody else might be given the job". They have too much time to dream up schemes, some of which are daft. These people would be better off listening to women, mothers and families and introducing directives that would help them financially to raise their families. That would be better than women having to go out to work as well as raise families and help children with homework at night.

I have the utmost respect for the women of this country. They were brilliant over the years and they are still brilliant. They have worked hard under difficult circumstances and were never given the respect they deserved from Governments or from men. For too long women were put down by men. Thankfully, those days are over and they are well able to defend themselves and to fight for their cause. Long may that continue. They were long enough working during the week and not being allowed out on a Saturday night.

I am reminded of a case I encountered a few days ago regarding a petition to the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform. I wrote to the Minister about the petition but he was unable to do anything because of a decision by a District Justice with regard to a former Minister for Justice. In this case the husband was convicted of drunken driving and fined approximately £800. That did not stop him drinking but every week his poor wife had to take a few pounds from the social welfare payment and put it away to pay the fine.

The gardaí have been calling to her door every week because a directive was sent by the Commissioner — another man who is good at issuing directives — to all stations instructing that all such debts be collected. I would prefer to see the gardaí searching for murderers, robbers and drug dealers instead of knocking at women's doors seeking payment of their husbands' fines. The woman in this case is dependent on social welfare. Every week she puts £10 of her social welfare payment in a box to pay the fine and lives in hope that her husband will not find it. If he does, it will be spent on drink. He does not care if he is imprisoned but she does. She must look after the house and worry about the children and whether they need money for school or for a school trip. She carries the responsibility because her husband has washed his hands of it.

The women of this country are great and they should be given greater assistance, probably through their child benefit payment because it is the only income they receive. They spend that money wisely. Governments should help women to stay at home. Many of them would love to do so although many others prefer to work outside the home. That is their right and it should be upheld. However, I am referring to women who wish to stay at home and look after their families.

I hope there will be new policies in this regard in the near future. Fianna Fáil Deputies in Opposition, like those of Fine Gael, talked about what they would do in Government. They have now been in Government for a year and I hope progress on this issue will be made in the next budget. Last December an extra £150 million was collected by the Revenue Commissioners. Some of that money should be used to support the family and to assist women who want to stay at home. It should make life easier for women, unlike in the past when life was made difficult for them.

I ask the Minister to examine the petition system with a view to introducing legislation which will assist women such as my constituent. There is no system in place to help them at present and, ultimately, it is the mothers who must worry in such situations.

I thank Deputy Ring for sharing his time and for giving me the opportunity to contribute to this important discussion. I welcome the fact that the Bill has generated this debate. Deputy Ring made a wideranging contribution and outlined a number of serious problems which beset many families. I was also impressed by Deputy Neville's excellent contribution. I hope these and other contributions will not be lost on the Minister and his officials.

The worst thing the Dáil could do is build up the hopes of women that, at last, it will do something for housewives and then proceed to do nothing. That would be a grave injustice to the hardworking, decent women who have strived so hard in difficult times. Much has changed yet nothing has changed. People say that housewives had a hard time in the 1940s and the 1950s. That is true but there are as many pressures now even though there is a different climate.

It is the natural instinct of a mother to be with her children. When I got married it was traditional for women to cease working either when they married or when the first child was born. The wife stayed at home and reared the family. That was grand, particularly for people who could afford it. There were not as many pressures or anxieties and ambitions were probably not as high as they are now. This is a different era and there are tremendous pressures on families and on children.

One-upmanship is one such pressure. Children do not understand if money is not available for the right clothes and they are constantly bombarded by television advertisements and programmes. They create demands which result in wives having to struggle while their husbands work. Alternatively, the husband might have neglected his duties and the wife might be obliged to work. A growing industry is the provision of créches to take care of children while women work. There is tremendous pressure on a wife who might have to get three children ready each morning to leave them with a childminder. That is not her natural instinct. She is then obliged to do a day's work, probably under pressure from her boss or the company for which she works. There are tremendous strains in that lifestyle.

We can articulate those strains but how do we address them? This Bill will not do it. Perhaps large multinationals can absorb the costs involved in this legislation but small businesses cannot. There is no point passing this Bill and believing it will deal with the problem when it will not. How can extra income be put into households so wives can stay at home for longer?

The children of today are the adults of tomorrow and the formative years from infancy to teens are immensely important. If they are neglected, the nation will pay a price in the future. Children will not understand the difference between right and wrong if they are not taught it by their parents. The home is where this teaching takes place and where the character and personality of children are formed. It is a mother's instinct to do that.

However, we must consider the cost of living and the cost of putting a roof over one's head. It is the aspiration of every couple to own their own home. It is a particularly Irish trait, unlike in Europe where rented accommodation is more popular. I always encourage members of my family and people who come to my clinics to buy their own house. Buying a house makes a statement about the future. If somebody is renting property they have nothing at the end of the day. At least if one is paying a mortgage one owns the roof over one's head.

However, two incomes are now required to meet a mortgage. There is something radically wrong with that. The mortgage is the biggest pressure on families. One income is gone because the wife's income must pay it. The family, therefore, continues to be a single income family. The Government has tried to address the problem of house prices but it has not succeeded. They continue to spiral even though the price of bricks and mortar has not increased. However, the profit margins for speculators have increased dramatically.

Cavan County Council tried to address the problem by providing start up homes for young couples. I congratulate the county manager on his initiative. The urban council set aside a five acre field for a pilot scheme of low cost, three bedroomed houses to give young couples a start in life with their first house. That is the first issue we must address if we are sincere in our desire to help families.

Deputy Ring said that wives usually take responsibility for meeting the household bills. That is probably not true of all cases because about 80 per cent of husbands take their responsibilities seriously. However, everybody is aware of wayward husbands and sad, traumatic situations. At the end of the day, the children suffer. They must do without, no matter how much this breaks their mother's heart, as the bank, the ESB and Telecom Éireann have to be paid and the television licence bought.

We do not live in an ideal society. Many couples with reasonably good jobs have said to me that they are not benefiting in the Celtic tiger economy. The cost of child care is extremely high. When combined with the cost of running a car and other expenses, what is the real income of a working mother? About ten or 12 years ago Garret FitzGerald suggested that stay at home wives should receive a sum of £9.50 per week. The equivalent figure today would be about £80 to £90. If stay at home wives were in receipt of this amount, how much better off would they be during a child's formative years? This is an investment we have to make if we are to avoid the worst aspects of human behaviour such as soccer violence through the lack of parental control.

In addressing this problem the Minister should not pass the buck to employers, many of whom will not be able to meet the additional costs associated with this change. Job sharing, perhaps on a week on, week off basis, has potential in this respect.

Although not directly related, I ask the Minister to consider the position of fathers who neglect their responsibilities. A portion of their income, whether from employment or the State, should be deducted at source to meet the cost of maintenance. This is one of the consequences — for the want of a better phrase — of loose living; too many young men believe they have no obligation to the children they have fathered. While we can appeal to the churches, the State has a role to play in protecting young girls. This is a problem we must address.

I wish to share time with Deputy Sheehan.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate on parental leave which is an extremely important issue. The debate in the Seanad and in this House has been fascinating and merits much reflection and thought. The themes which have emerged cover wide areas of Irish life, including children's rights; the obligations, duties and rights of employers; whether profits should be interfered with; the connection between the workplace and the family; paid and unpaid leave; the unpaid work of women over generations which we have finally come to recognise and value; the values which are driving decision-making in this House about where we want to put our resources in the Celtic tiger to support families and children, to help people to combine work and family life and to ensure men and women have equal opportunities.

Traditionally, women have mainly been responsible for child care. As we approach the new millennium, they are operating not only in the private world of the family but also in the public world of work. Thankfully, men have moved into the private arena and are more involved in looking after their children, emotionally and physically. This is, therefore, an interesting time in terms of the change in relationships within the family and work practices. This presents new challenges.

It does not do any good to look at the past through rose tinted spectacles and imagine that everything was absolutely wonderful. Women and children as well as men had to endure much hardship. Equally, we have to look realistically at the realities of modern society. We cannot speak about the world of work as if it was totally different from the world of the family. There are interconnections. I imagine this debate reflects some of the debate that took place when provision was made for the introduction of maternity leave, and on whether people should be entitled to take holidays from work and whether there should be canteens. It is an interesting debate as it raises key questions about the allocation of resources at State level and the obligations and responsibilities of employers, the State and families and the interaction between all three. It reflects those complexities.

I hope the Minister and his advisers have noted carefully the different themes which have emerged and will seriously consider the amendments being suggested, some of which make economic as well as social and personal sense for families. It has been suggested, for example, that the age limit should be raised to eight years. The question has been asked, since children generally attend pre-school at four years of age and primary school at five years of age, why should provision be made for parental leave up to the age of eight. I would put it another way. If there was more flexibility, parents could make better decisions. It may not suit every family to take parental leave while children are under the age of five, even if we all believe that this is best. The more flexibility we can build into the legislation the better it will be for employers and employees. I urge the Minister to consider where further flexibility can be built into the legislation.

The Minister and the Minister of State have rejected the suggestion that this is minimalist legislation. However, in terms of the position of other EU member states on this issue, Ireland was one of the last three countries to introduce parental leave. The Bill contains a number of good aspects, such as the credits and that time taken off will be allowed for reckonable purposes. They are most important provisions and I welcome them. However, on the scale of parental leave schemes that are available, it is a relatively minimalist approach. That no payment is involved means it will not be available to people who need it and would probably benefit most from it. The recommendations of the Commission on the Family highlighted the importance of supports for vulnerable children and families. If the benefits of parental leave are to reach those children, it must be feasible for people to take it.

Funding is a difficult issue and employers have huge concerns about being faced with bills in this area. When this type of legislation is discussed, Members tend to concentrate on the costs to employers as opposed to the advantages. Ireland is facing a skills shortage. Approximately 47 per cent of women are working and we will reach a position soon where good employers will provide paid parental leave and more child care facilities to keep employees. This has happened in England and elsewhere and Ireland is probably moving in that direction in terms of good employment practice.

It must be acknowledged that if a workforce has good child care arrangements, it is more productive and contributes more to team spirit. There are huge advantages in that. This is recognised in literature and increasingly on the ground. People tend to talk about the cost of these types of measures but we do not examine sufficiently the competitive advantages that good quality social legislation provides.

In the context of the Asian tiger and what has happened to it, no child care provisions were made in that economy. The economies which are performing best are those which have been generous in their support for child care facilities and people who wish to combine work and family life. This model should drive us as much as possible.

I do not suggest these issues are simple. They are complicated, but for a society which talks so much about valuing children and families and which establishes commissions on the status of women and the family which make major recommendations, a key issue is how people can be helped to combine work and family life. How do we ensure there is good parenting and good child care practices? All the reports have agreed that extensive parental leave is one aspect of that aim.

Society values children and says it values the work of women in the home. Many Deputies said society valued the contribution made by mothers in previous generations in unpaid work. If that is the case, we must also value the opportunity that parental leave provides to society to be more supportive of families. This is the key point. If we want to be consistent in our values, giving parental leave in the most generous way possible is totally in line with the philosophy we say we espouse. We should move as far as we can in the direction which other countries such as Sweden and Germany have taken. This makes economic and social sense, but it also makes sense from a parenting point of view.

Deputy Higgins mentioned a letter from a woman who is keen to take parental leave although her children are over the age limit. She hoped there would be paid parental leave and one can sense her disappointment that she will not get the space with her children that she wants. Increasingly people are under such financial pressure that two jobs are essential. Therefore, it is important to be as generous as possible with parental leave. I hope the Minister will be more flexible regarding the provisions of the Bill.

From a child's perspective, people are pressurised in today's world. The Bill is an opportunity to build in a little flexibility to the world of work and family life. This is welcome. I disagree completely with some speakers in the Seanad and some articles in newspapers who dismissed the Bill as irrelevant, unnecessary and flossy and who said it was an optional extra and it was outrageous that it is being implemented. However, fundamental values are being expressed in the legislation about the type of society we want. We are considering reality and acknowledging that women are increasingly involved in the workplace as well as family life. The issue is how best to support women and men in being good parents in a changing world.

The Bill provides a new entitlement for men and women to avail of unpaid parental leave to enable them to take care of their young children. The Bill incorporates EC Council Directive 96/34 of 3 June 1996 on the framework agreement on parental leave reached by UNICE, CEEP and the EPUC. While the EU directive set certain minimum standards for parental leave, it also affords substantial discretion to each member state regarding the components of its parental leave scheme.

I am pleased the Bill will apply to parents of children born on or after 3 June 1996. Each parent will be entitled to a total of 14 weeks leave for a child, provided the leave is taken before the child reaches the age of five years. Parental leave is not transferable from mother to father. Therefore, the father cannot take the mother's share and vice versa. The 14 weeks may be taken in one continuous block or in separate blocks by working reduced hours by agreement between employer and employee. While parental leave is unpaid, at least it is recognisable for the purpose of employment rights other than superannuation. Limited force majeure leave, supported by a medical certificate, is encompassed in the Bill to overcome family crises. Employers may postpone parental leave in certain circumstances and disputes about entitlements under the Bill will be in general referred to a rights commissioner.

By and large the Bill is not as attractive as it appears. There is no crock of gold at the end of the rainbow for parents who take parental leave. I cannot visualise a stampede of applicants to participate in the scheme. There are no handouts for anybody concerned. Every working mother is already entitled to maternity benefit and few couples could afford to take 14 weeks of unpaid parental leave. Even the force majeure leave is curtailed to a maximum of three days in 12 consecutive months or five days in 36 consecutive months. This is not such a big deal after all.

It is fine for the EU to issue directives, but they should be backed up with finance. The pressure to make loan repayments make it necessary for both parents to work. Créches and babysitters are readily available, but at an exorbitant cost. Those facilities also have disadvantages, as children naturally need their parents, particularly their mothers, during their tender years. The saying "a mother's love is a blessing" will never be forgotten by children who are reared in a home where a mother can give them care and attention.

If the Government introduced a scheme giving husbands a 100 per cent tax free allowance on their earnings, it would be an incentive to the mother to relinquish her employment and mind her family while they are young. This would create a job for someone else. I am very critical of this Bill; there will be no stampede to avail of its provisions. What parents — except the very rich — can afford to spend 14 weeks at home without receiving a penny? EU directives are fine, but does the EU realise that if these directives are to be imposed on member states they must be backed up by finance?

The Bill is not worth £1 to the parents concerned. There is glamour associated with its introduction, but fine words butter no bread for those concerned. The one redeeming feature of the Bill is the right of both parents to avail of unpaid parental leave with the knowledge that their jobs await them at the end of that leave if, according to the Bill, other unforeseen obstacles do not arise. I refer the Minister to section 16, which states that where an employee is entitled to return to work pursuant to section 15, but it is not reasonably practicable for the employer to permit the employee to return to work in accordance with that section, the employee shall be entitled to be offered by his or her employer suitable alternative employment under a new contract of employment.

Will the Minister explain how this will happen if the employer goes into liquidation or if the job is not suitable for the person on leave? The Minister is opening a can of worms it will be very difficult to close. I ask him to think again before introducing a Bill which is not worth a tráithnín to those concerned.

I wish to share my time with Deputy Browne.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I welcome this Bill in principle. We must accept that we are part of the European Union. Some people like to pick out aspects of Europe to condemn, refusing to accept many good things we have because of our involvement in the EU. Some homes still have many difficulties, but I remind Members of the difficulties experienced in rural Ireland, especially where there were no incomes, before we entered the EEC in 1973. Things were very different from today.

This Bill gives parents certain rights, such as 14 weeks' leave for both father and mother to stay at home at different times, separate from maternity leave. That gives an opportunity to parents to become closer to their children. Deputy Neville referred to the high percentage of children born out of wedlock, but we must still encourage families which want to act like families with the true Christian attitudes we are advised to follow, where the father, mother and children all live at home. We must try to allow parents to be with younger children in particular for as long as possible, and this Bill does try to do so.

Nowadays, in most families, both parents must work and this is partly a result of the lack of effort by successive Governments in trying to keep house prices at realistic levels. Young couples must pay between £80,000 and £120,000 for a simple home, and both of them will have to work for the foreseeable future. We must look at giving some form of help to the parent who stays at home to create a proper environment for children, as has been suggested in the past. Many children are brought up by nannies and in créches, but the best possible home life is one where one parent spends time with the children.

We must take into account the effect of this legislation on small industries. The Minister said it was impossible to get agreement between industry and the trade unions. One can see how much the workforce depends on small industry in my constituency, and one can only imagine how the family which owns a small business will cope with workers being off work for 14 weeks. Even though those workers will be unpaid, it begs the question of how this legislation will operate. Thought will have to be given to how small industries can continue in business if this is implemented.

I know this matter was under review before the Minister came into office, and it is a difficult one to address, but some degree of support should be given to one of the parents in order that he or she can stay at home for a continuous period. The employer can then plan an approach whereby somebody else can fill in.

Deputy Neville referred to the fact that 25 per cent of children born in Dundalk have single parents. A single mother gets a lone parent's allowance and a rent allowance if she lives in a rented flat. However, a married couple do not get anything. A couple came to my clinic the other day wondering whether they should have taken vows or whether they would have been better off if they had done things differently. It is sad that a couple with a new baby who are blissfully happy in many ways should have to ask that. He earns £12,500 a year, which is taxable. He has to pay £50 for a two-roomed flat, the walls of which are damp. To heat it with an electric heater costs a bomb, and there is no other form of heating. How could he afford to take 14 weeks unpaid leave to be part of that family unit?

There are many difficulties with this Bill. I appreciate that the Minister has to work within the directive, but if we are genuinely committed to maintaining as many children as possible within a proper family structure, we have to level the playing pitch. The county council is about to allocate houses in Monaghan town. For all sorts of reasons, it is much more likely that single parent families will get houses than that the young couple I mentioned will get one.

The Bill is part of our involvement in the EU. We can work it in our best interests or in the worst possible way. The Minister has shown that he is prepared to implement it in the best possible way, but without some degree of Government support for families like the couple I mentioned to allow them to have rights at least equal to those who do not choose to go that way, this Bill could have disastrous effects, particularly for small businesses. However, as it stands I support it.

(Carlow-Kilkenny): Tá seanfhocal againn a deir “Mol an óige agus tiocfaidh sé”. Bhí an seanfhocal sin ciallmhar fadó, is tá sé ciallmhar fós. Ach ní féidir an óige a mholadh mura mbíonn daoine i láthair sa teach leo nuair a bhíonn siad an-óg, agus de réir dealraimh tá an Bille seo ag cabhrú chun é sin a dhéanamh. Ach deirim de réir dealraimh mar i ndáiríre an mar sin atá an scéal? Ní dóigh liom gur mar sin atá an scéal. Sílim gur sort dallamullóg atá á chur orainn, agus nuair a bheidh gach éinne in a bhfuascailt, beidh scéal eile ann. Sílim fhéin pé scéal é.

The Bill means well, but it is the kind of Bill one would find in Utopia. Even in a booming economy commonsense must prevail. We must be wise enough to look to the future when, on the law of averages, we will have moved from the boom to where we will not be doing nearly as well. It is important that parents should be able to look after children when they are young, and despite this being the age of equality I still think mothers have much more to give to younger children than have fathers. It is their natural instinct with which nature provides them. It does not mean that fathers can bypass their responsibilities and leave it all to mothers to look after children. However, no matter how well-meaning they are they do not have the same scope as mothers.

What does this Bill really mean? What percentage of the workforce can do without 14 weeks pay? It is such a small percentage that one would not bother working it out. If they can afford that, they can afford to pay for services that can compensate for their absence. It would make far more sense to extend maternity leave with pay. It would also be important, if the mother of a new baby were seriously ill, that a father would be given leave of absence with pay. Martin Luther King had a genuine dream, but this Bill is the kind of dream that deals with unreality. The people who want to avail of it cannot afford to do so.

If we were to take the next step and provide that people would be given paid leave and that business would have to pay, that would create another problem. We would need an almighty boom in the economy if business people were to be able to pay a double salary for 14 weeks. We can dream all we like, but that is the reality. What is being proposed will not benefit anybody. It does not make sense to provide that those who want to take 14 weeks will be paid because most firms could not afford it. The point has been made already that people who work for the Civil Service may be able to get this kind of money, but there is a limit to what taxpayers can be asked to pay. Nobody would be able to get this leave.

I would like to see more support for families. It is vital that children should grow up in a situation where they have care. It should not follow that only the mother will give that care. We need to come up with a better idea than giving 14 weeks leave, with or without pay, to a father who may want to avail of it. The Minister should seriously consider extra leave with pay for the mother on the birth of a child or if someone is sick. There will be cases where that will be vital. A global extension of leave does not make sense. The previous speaker said it made economic sense. I take the opposite line and say that it is economic nonsense. Good intentions are not enough. EU directives that are pie in the sky will do nothing for mothers or fathers or for business people.

I thank all the Deputies for their contributions. I have listened to divergent views, and it has been a most stimulating debate, worthy of a Bill such as this which is pioneering legislation.

I will deal with the Deputies' points as far as I can. The Fine Gael spokesperson on Justice, Deputy Jim Higgins suggested that we failed to meet the deadline set by the directive. He misses the point that the directive allowed for an additional year in the case of special difficulties. The EU Commission has confirmed that we will be fully in compliance with the directive if parental leave is in place by 3 December 1998. This is in recognition of the fact that parental leave is a new concept in this country and, as I outlined, it is our intention to have this legislation in place on 3 December 1998. There is no mystery about the reason for that. We wanted to give employers the opportunity of learning about the legislation, knowing that it is in place, and thereby having the opportunity to plan for the date of its implementation. That was a reasonable approach to take and fair to employers.

Some have argued that employers should have been aware of the directive. It is true that the directive was adopted on 3 June 1996 but it must be recognised that its provisions were not directly transposed into Irish law. A degree of discretion in relation to various matters was allowed for and those opportunities were taken.

Deputy Higgins also criticised the fact that we did not provide for full retrospection, in other words, that we applied parental leave only to children born after 3 June 1996. It is important that a degree of discretion in the implementation of the directive was conferred on the member states. We were not obliged, under the directive, to provide for any retrospection. We also had strong views from IBEC that there should not be any retrospection. IBEC was seriously concerned that any retrospection would impose an undue burden on employers in the first year of the scheme's operation because of the backlog of eligible children. We put in place a compromise in regard to the views of IBEC, the expectations of parents and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions.

A difficult balance had to be achieved throughout this legislation — the balance between the trade union movement on the one hand and employers on the other, always recognising the rights of parents and the needs of children. That is a difficult balance to achieve but in so far as we could achieve it, given the complexities of what we faced, we have succeeded to a degree.

Deputy Jan O'Sullivan asked why section 13, the force majeure leave, refers to illness or injury while the directive uses the words “sickness or accident”. We included the word “injury” on the advice of the parliamentary draftsman because the word “accident” was imprecise and could cover a host of other situations. For example, a traffic accident which delayed rather than injured a family member or an accident which obliged somebody to wait for a plumber or an electrician are not the types of incidents envisaged by force majeure leave. The word “injury” covers an injury resulting from an accident and does not bring in the other looser situations which would be covered if we used the word “accident”. I am satisfied that the wording of the legislation as presented is in full compliance with the directive.

Deputy O'Sullivan also questioned the reason the introduction of the scheme should be deferred until 3 December 1998. I have explained the reason for that and I believe the interval is essential. Parental leave is new to the country and practicalities will have to be worked out by employers before the scheme commences. IBEC pressed strongly for the legislation to be postponed until June 1999 because it believed there was an insufficiency of time for its members and employers generally. I had to strike a balance and by providing for the legislation to come into operation on 3 December, we have managed to strike the correct balance.

The directive offers little guidance to employers. The delay until December will give employer organisations the opportunity to advise their members who can then plan ahead with some confidence. Obviously systems will have to be put in place for operating the scheme at the level of the individual workplace, which is where it must be operated. Government Departments also will have to get used to the scheme and put measures in place for its successful operation. It may be accepted by Deputies that the delay, which is minimal but necessary, is reasonable.

Deputies Higgins and O'Sullivan raised the question of providing a payment for parental leave. I must emphasise there is no obligation on member states to provide paid leave within the meaning of the directive. Costings prepared by the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs estimate that if paid on the same basis as maternity leave, parental leave would cost in the region of £40 million per year. That figure is based upon a 95 per cent take-up by women and a low take-up by men, in the region of 1 per cent, which is the take-up figure in Germany where the leave is paid.

That raises the question whether leave being paid or unpaid increases the attractiveness of the scheme to men. The argument could be made that the take-up by men in Germany might be replicated here, although we do not have any way of determining that. The £40 million estimate is based on a take-up of 10 per cent of men. The take-up in Germany is as I have outlined. If all men and women who are eligible to take up leave availed of it, the cost could be as high as £100 million per annum. That figure covers only employers who pay full PRSI. There would be extra costs for civil servants and other public servants who do not pay full PRSI, and the Department of Finance estimates this extra cost could be in the region of £30 million per annum. Those figures will, perhaps, surprise some Members, but I am reliably informed that, based upon the percentages I have outlined, they are correct.

Deputies Higgins and O'Sullivan raised the question of age limit of the child. Deputy Higgins stated definitively that other EU states have an upper age limit of eight years. I do not know where the Deputy got that information or whether he is being over-enthusiastic and over-exuberant because according to the information available to me, only Denmark and Sweden have an upper age limit of eight years. Most other countries set the limit at about three years. The directive allowed us to set the age limit at between two and eight years, and I picked five.

(Carlow-Kilkenny): The number of fingers on one hand.

We were trying to strike the correct balance. It is not because there are five fingers on one hand but because in general terms the school-going age is five — many children start school at four. In those circumstances, and since most European states have set the age limit at about three years, we have gone beyond the EU norm. That is an illustration that we are not minimalist in our approach.

Deputy O'Sullivan referred to a Labour Party amendment in the Seanad on the provision of information to the public about the parental leave scheme. I agreed to consider that matter and it is my intention to move an appropriate amendment on Committee Stage to deal with the constructive criticism made in that regard.

Deputy O'Flynn made the point that the question of unpaid leave should be left open in the legislation, that the legislation should remain neutral in that respect. He asked that the option be left open to an employer to pay the employee during parental leave if the employer wishes to do so. While I do not propose to oblige an employer to pay an employee who is on parental leave, I do not intend that the Bill should preclude such payment. The Irish Congress of Trade Unions suggested that the Bill should be neutral in that respect and that if there are future negotiations concerning the question of social partnership, as no doubt there will be, the opportunity should be left open to, at the very least, discuss this question. I am considering the Bill closely and it is my intention to ensure it is neutral so that future options can be explored without there being a legislative or statutory prohibition in that regard.

Deputy McManus, in a characteristic contribution, stated that the Bill is minimalist and that it does not rock any boat. I reject emphatically her description of the Bill as minimalist or conservative. The Bill will provide a fundamental right to employees. For the first time, employees will be able to take time off work to care for their children. Let us be fair and honest, this is a major change in Irish working life and Members should not be begrudging of it.

The Bill goes beyond the minimum required by the directive. It sets the age limit at five, and I have outlined why that is not a minimalist provision. In setting that age limit, we have out-flanked most European states which have set the age at three. We have allowed for leave on a flexible basis, which is different from the way most European Union member states legislated. We made parental leave reckonable for annual increments and other service. That is by no means a minimalist move nor could it be described as such. Employer organisations were not pleased with that proposal. We made the leave reckonable for the purposes of long-term and short-term social welfare benefits, and that is not a minimalist provision. We allowed retrospection to 3 June 1996 when we could have allowed eligibility only for children born after 3 June 1998. This Bill is neither minimalist nor conservative.

This is pioneering legislation. It is imaginative, innovative and progressive. It interprets the directive in a refreshing and liberal manner. It should be borne in mind that since the Bill has been published we have faced criticisms not only from employees' organisations but from employers' organisations. Employers have voiced concerns about the cost implications of the scheme and have stated emphatically that we have gone too far in our interpretation of the directive. On the other side of that coin, we were criticised by the ICTU and we had to try to strike a balance. There was no foot dragging or old fashioned thinking. Anybody who believes the legislation represents any of those epithets is not living on this planet. Deputy McManus referred to the philosophy behind the legislation as being the same as that which underlies the issue of illegal immigration. When I asked the Deputy at a committee recently to name a country which had abandoned all its immigration laws, I received no reply. I do not take that criticism seriously — nobody could.

Deputy Michael Kitt asked that we consider the transfer of leave from one parent to the other at a future stage. The legislation, as it stands, forbids the father transfering leave to the mother or vice versa. The directive provides that parental leave should, in principle, be non-transferable between parents. The idea behind this non-transferability is to prevent parental leave from becoming solely a women's issue. Experience in other countries, such as Sweden, as Deputy Hanafin pointed out, shows that where transfer between parents is allowed, the traffic is almost invariably one way — from men to women. That is not the intention of this legislation. It is a recognition of the joint responsibility of both parents and seeks to enshrine in law a facility or mechanism so that both parents have the opportunity to exercise that responsibility. I note Deputy Hanafin's comments on the desirability of non-transferability. She identifies clearly why the legislation should not provide for transfer of parental leave between father and mother and vice versa.

I noted Deputy O'Sullivan's comments on the possibility of abuse of force majeure leave and I agree with her the Bill will allow parents to be up front about taking leave for family crises instead of pretending they are sick. Most people do not want to pretend they are sick in the event of a family crisis but have no alternative under current legislation. This Bill gives them the opportunity to take leave. It should be noted that leave in this instance is paid.

The employer organisations would not be in favour of paid leave, although the trade union movement, the Irish Congress of Trades Union, would want all leave to be paid. One must strike a balance within the context of the resources available. The force majeure leave provisions are not an opening for extra holidays for employees but are a recognition that family crises arise from time to time.

The inequality between workers in the home and employees is an important point raised by Deputy Finucane, who was by no means at sea despite his protestations to the contrary. He made a very interesting point about the implications of providing social welfare benefits or enhanced benefits to people on parental leave. He mentioned that such payments might create inequalities vis-à-vis parents who do not work outside the home. That is a valid issue to raise and is one which must be borne in mind in the debate on payment for force majeure leave. Deputy Finucane's comments illustrate the need to take account of the range of interests, not to mention the costs involved in parental leave, and not to look at this issue from one perspective only.

Deputy Kelleher dealt with the possibility of abuse of parental leave and wanted to know how it would be monitored. It would not be realistic to have an inspectorate policing how employees use parental leave. We stipulated in the Bill that it must be used to take care of the child. Section 12 provides that an employer may terminate parental leave if it is being abused and may refuse leave altogether where he or she has reasonable grounds to believe it will be abused. There is also provision in section 27 which obliges the employer to keep records of parental and force majeure leave. These records will help guard against abuse, particularly by employees who change jobs. I have taken note of suggestions from IBEC about centralised monitoring of parental and force majeure leave. In conjunction with other Departments, I am examining how this might be done in a practical way. There will be an opportunity to look again at this issue when the legislation is reviewed.

Deputy Barnes raised the issue of providing a small amount of paternity leave for fathers. This is a separate issue from parental leave. We are legally obliged to treat men and women equally in transposing the parental leave directive into Irish law and we could not provide paternity leave as part of parental leave. Paternity leave is a different issue for another day.

Deputy Ring commented on the undesirability of the principle of the Bill. He referred, in his usual colourful manner, to the raft of legislation from Europe and the adverse impact on employers of such legislation. While I would not favour the Germanisation of Ireland there have been some valuable regulations and directives from Europe which have benefited the country.

There were some bad ones too.

This Bill recognises the reality of modern life and does no more or no less. I am not qualified to lecture Deputy Ring but the reality it addresses is that over 40 per cent of the workforce are women. Many women prefer to work and feel perfectly capable of minding their children. That is the position. Deputy Ring also said this Bill was only about women minding children. This Bill is not for women alone, it is for both parents to help them to share in the upbringing of their children.

It is the greatest disaster.

It is to juggle work and family life. Deputy Ring does not like the legislation and there is very little I can do to entice him to be laudatory about it, except to say the legislation recognises what is going on in society. If Deputy Ring is here long enough he may well see far more surprising things.

Like Mayo winning the All-Ireland. The Government got a close call with the Amsterdam Treaty referendum. People are copping on.

Deputy Ring suggested we might leave the directive to one side. That is as unlikely an event as what he has just referred to — though I sincerely hope Mayo win an All-Ireland soon. We cannot leave the directive to one side.

The Government left some directives that did not suit aside.

I do not mean to sound canonical about it.

(Carlow-Kilkenny): Monsignor.

My colleagues and I are fully committed to meeting our obligations under the EU Directive, arising from EU membership. I remind Deputy Ring that I understood his party was in favour of even greater European integration, unless he wants to secede unilaterally on behalf of his own county, but I do not think the farmers of Mayo would thank him.

Employers and employees at European level agreed to the basic framework in the directive. The introduction of parental leave is also a commitment in Partnership 2000. The Deputy referred also to helping women who stay at home to look after their families. I do not think for one moment Deputy Ring was suggesting, nor would I be unkind enough to say so, that women who work do not look after their families.

I did not say that.

What Deputy Ring was saying was that women who choose——

I am well able to speak for myself. I do not like smart alecs.

Perhaps the Deputy would not provoke the Minister but allow him to continue without interruption.

Yes, if he has something to say.

Deputy Ring was not suggesting that women who work do not look after their families; what he was suggesting was that women who choose not to work should be catered for in some way by the State.

That is correct.

Had Deputy Ring allowed me to finish my point there would have been no need for him to interrupt in the first instance. The comments by Deputy Ring in this respect support the general point about seeking balance in bringing in this measure. We have to look at the whole situation in the round and balance all the issues and the interests involved. I feel sure the Deputy will accept that in good faith.

Deputy Frances Fitzgerald referred to the whole question of paid leave and expressing in legislation the values which the State espouses. Much of the debate has focused on the issue of whether parental leave should be paid and to what extent it addresses the needs of parents in a changing society and in the altered world of work today.

I have not, for the reasons explained, made provision in this legislation for paid leave but I stress this legislation is a pioneering measure. It is different from any previous legislation in many respects. It is different in that it does not just address the question of the mother and child rearing, it addresses also the question of the father and child rearing. Ten or 15 years ago legislation such as this would not have been expected. Neither could it have been anticipated that women would participate in the workplace to the extent they do today. It could not have been imagined there would be statutory provision for parental leave. Earlier I described this as a pioneering measure. It is impossible in the context of recent history, or one's interpretation of it, to say how this measure will have developed in ten years' time. However, I am certain it will have developed because all the trends are in that direction.

Deputy Sheehan asked about section 16 which gives the employee the right to return to employment. He said it was impractical for the employee to be offered the job he or she had before going on parental leave and in that event asked what would happen. This section is the same as the Adoptive Leave Act, 1995, and the Maternity Protection Act, 1994. Obviously, if a firm goes into liquidation and there is a redundancy the employer would not be obliged to take the employee back. In any event these situations are provided for by other legislation.

I am pleased the legislation has succeeded in stimulating the level of debate it has. There were some very interesting contributions and the legislation will be all the better for it. When it is ultimately interpreted by the courts, this debate will have provided an invaluable insight into what the Oireachtas thought of the measure. There were varying and divergent views but, in the final analysis, the Parental Leave Bill, 1998, will be a milestone, not just in the evolution of labour law in Ireland, but in the evolution of society. It represents a benchmark and also a signpost to the future. It is indicative of how we have matured as a society and reflects society's complexity. It also recognises why we must continue to progress in innovative and imaginative ways which recognise the importance of equal responsibility in all our affairs.

Question put and agreed.