Private Members' Business. - Parental Leave Bill, 1998 [ Seanad ] : Report and Final Stages.

I move amendment No. 1:

In page 3, to delete lines 15 and 16.

I am endeavouring to persuade the Minister to implement the legislation before 3 December l998. The arguments were covered in detail on Committee Stage and I will not detain the House. The legislation will have gone through the Houses of the Oireachtas before the summer recess. I realise the Minister wants to give time for employers and others to implement the legislation in the workplace, but they do not need that length of time. I urge the Minister to bring the date forward a good deal earlier than 3 December.

(Mayo): I support the thrust of the amendment. We were very tardy in our obligation on this issue. We missed the deadline and had to seek an extension of time. We are at the tail of the field on fundamental legislation which underpins the right of both parents to avail of parental leave. Given that paid parental leave is not enshrined in the Bill, we should at least avail of the maximum time options and scope provided. I fully endorse the thrust of the amendment and ask the Minister to be as receptive and sympathetic as possible to it.

Deputies O'Sullivan and Higgins favour conferring on employees the right to parental leave immediately the Bill becomes law, but that is not the whole picture. The position of employers must be taken on board. As I explained on Second Stage and at the select committee, consideration of the views of ICTU and IBEC on this led to the inclusion in the Bill of this subsection which fixes 3 December 1998 as the date the Bill will come into operation.

The directive is flexible in nature. This means employers cannot draw on the basic framework in the directive to prepare for parental leave. Until the Bill is enacted the details of the scheme are not certain. Deferral of implementation of the scheme until December would allow employer organisations to provide information for their members, enable systems to be put in place for the operation of the scheme, enable regulations to be made, allow for reconciliation of the parental leave and force majeure schemes with existing non-statutory schemes of special leave and generally permit the smooth introduction of the scheme.

It would be impractical to have such an initiative brought into effect as proposed by Deputy O'Sullivan and supported by Deputy O'Higgins. The operative date of 3 December is in full compliance with the terms of the directive. The European Commission has confirmed that the deferral sought by Ireland fully accords with the relevant clause of the directive which permits additional time to a member state to implement the directive in case of special difficulties.

Obviously the legislation cannot be implemented on the original proposed date, 3 June, but I am disappointed the Minister will not implement it sooner than 3 December. I realise if I were to push this amendment to a vote I would not achieve my aim and, therefore, I will not do so, but I am disappointed.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

I move amendment No. 2:

In page 5, to delete lines 33 to 38, and substitute the following:

"(4) Where it is proposed to make regulations under this Act, a draft of each such regulation shall be laid before each of the Houses of the Oireachtas and shall not come into effect until a motion approving of the draft has been passed by each such House.".

I reintroduce this issue because it is good practice that needs to be laid down in all legislation. It is not right that regulations are brought into play, which may have significance in terms of Bills passed into law, without a fully accountable system to ensure issues of contention can be dealt with in time by Members before they are approved and passed.

I appreciate the Minister's point on Committee Stage that regulations in this Bill may not be contentious, but I have raised this matter on other Bills in the area of agriculture and other areas because we must ensure a principle of good practice is imposed in terms of the work we do here.

To presume the present methodology is always the correct and best one is unacceptable. We must always continue to improve matters. That we will debate a Bill on Thursday which we have not seen yet is an example of how the rules of this House do not always work in the best service of the people.

In this instance regulations can have enormous import and as a matter of course there should be checks on balances as I suggest. If there are other checks and balances that meet the same criteria I have no problem with that, but not to deal with the matter in a fashion that will ensure accountability is an opportunity missed. We should establish best practice at all possible opportunities.

(Mayo): I agree with Deputy McManus if we are to introduce regulations which are directly related to the Bill, it is good practice and in accordance with democratic principles that the measures should be brought before the House for debate and endorsement. We have already gone the road of divesting ourselves, to our cost, in terms of a series of decisions that were once the remit of this House where questions could be legitimately posed and answered. For example, we cannot ask questions on the workings of Telecom Éireann because we hived off that operation to a stand-alone organisation. Although it is directly answerable to the Minister, we cannot ask direct questions about Telecom Éireann.

Similarly with national primary and national secondary roads, the workings of the National Roads Authority are a matter for the Minister and that authority and there is a problem in terms of the right of Members to ask questions on the matter. The same applies with An Post, CIE, Bus Éireann and so on. When introducing regulations that arise directly from or are related to the legislation, it is right and proper that those regulations should be laid before the House and Members should have the right to comment on, observe or endorse them.

Regulations as envisaged under this Bill are clearly secondary legislation. The distinction between primary and secondary legislation is a long-standing one. Only the Oireachtas can enact primary legislation. Thus the policy element of primary legislation is what is reflected in the Bill which is brought before the Houses of the Oireachtas. On the other hand ministerial regulations involve administrative issues. The power to make ministerial regulations draws on the policy principles enunciated in the Bill. The various provisions which empower the Minister to make regulations are fully within the principles I have just stated while being empowered under the Bill to make regulations in regard to a matter such as the particulars to be stated in a notice to a rights commissioner, section 18; the method of calculation of the amount of compensation to an employer that may be awarded by a rights commissioner, section 21, and the standard format of records of parental leave or force majeure leave to be kept by employers. There is also an explicit requirement in the Bill before making any regulations that there should be prior consultation with employer and employee interests. This is provided for in section 3(4). As I indicated on Committee Stage, I see no need for matters such as those I outlined which do not encompass any substantial policy angle to be submitted for the prior approval of each House. Should some unusual circumstances lead either House to conclude the particular ministerial regulation was ultra vires this Act, it is open to the Members of either House to invoke the procedure in section 3(4) which enables a regulation to be annulled.

Up until 15 years ago, a Seanad committee reviewed Statutory Instruments, but when the new committee system was put in place a committee was not set up to look at them. There is merit in the arguments of Deputies McManus and Higgins regarding the powers of the Oireachtas in this respect, but it is a matter for the party Whips which should properly be discussed at the Committee on Procedure and Privileges to ascertain whether we should in future have a committee looking at regulations and making suggestions about them. I do not have any objection to such a committee if that is desired by Members. The place to take that up is the Committee on Procedure and Privileges and it would be useful for Deputies to initiate a discussion on the merits of such a committee. It is certain that if the committee gets up and running it will not become overheated or overexcited in regard to the regulations which will be made under this legislation.

It is those not expected to be troublesome that usually end up being the most trouble.

So I have found.

The Minister should not presume too much. I accept the Minister made a valuable point, although I suspect the original committee looked at Statutory Instruments after they were made rather than before. The proposal is that they would be drafted and then approved by the House. My proposal is better in terms of ensuring the regulations are considered fully. Not all wisdom lies within the Department, although I have great respect for the people who work there. We have seen regulations challenged in the courts and this is an example of where a practical beneficial outcome is possible if there is closer scrutiny by Opposition Members whose job is to look for faults and weaknesses. It is a pity the Minister has not taken the step forward in this regard.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

I move amendment No. 3:

In page 6, line 11, after "adoptive parent" to insert "or an employee who is in loco parentis”.

This issue was raised in amendments tabled by the ICTU which we did not have in time to table on Committee Stage. Deputy Barnes flagged this on Committee Stage. I accept “in loco parentis” is included in regard to force majeure leave and it is important in that regard. However, there may be a small number of situations where a person would be in loco parentis for a long time during a child's infancy. I accept that tabling the amendment on Report Stage may not be the most effective way to proceed, but I wanted to signal that there may be a small number of cases where a person is in loco parentis for a long time. For example, in a tragic situation where a parent dies, there may be people who would have a genuine need to take parental leave in the interest of the child. I hope the Minister examines the issue. It is important and perhaps it should have been more widely considered at an earlier stage.

The complexity of the issues arising from the amendment belie its apparent simplicity. When the Bill was developed careful consideration was given to defining the parents who would be entitled to parental leave. It was decided to confine eligibility to natural or adoptive parents because to do otherwise would create major practical and legal difficulties. I am not sure how the Deputy envisages this provision working in practice. Any number of situations could arise in which someone is in loco parentis and each presents its own unique difficulties. It is not clear whether under the proposed legislation the right to parental leave would apply to a person in loco parentis and to the natural or adoptive parent of the child.

Does the Deputy envisage that several people would be entitled to parental leave in respect of the same child? If the Deputy does not intend to give a multiple right to parental leave in respect of the one child, does she intend to deprive the natural parent of the right to parental leave? If so, what criteria would be used to decide this? To attempt to deny a natural parent the right to parental leave or extending such a right to another person would entail significant constitutional, legal and practical difficulty.

Another difficulty relates to the steps which must be taken by the employer to establish whether an employer or an employee is acting in loco parentis. It should be borne in mind that in this context it will fall on the employer, not the courts, in the first instance to determine whether to grant leave to the applicant. The proposed amendment would put the employer in an uncertain position in deciding the granting of parental leave. Given the difficulties presented by the amendment and the complexities of the issues involved, I will not accept the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendments Nos. 8, 9, 10 and 11 are consequential on amendment No. 4 and may be discussed together.

I move amendment No. 4:

In page 6, line 13, to delete "14" and substitute "18".

We debated this on Committee Stage. The purpose of the amendment is to allow for a longer period of parental leave than that provided for in the Bill by substituting 18 for 14 working weeks. It proposes to give a greater amount of time off to parents where they feel it is in the best interests of their children for them to be at home rather than at work. There may be many situations where a parent would be torn between the needs of the child and those of the workplace. The purpose of the amendment is to give broader scope in the Bill and I ask the Minister to consider it.

(Mayo): I support the thrust of Deputy O'Sullivan's amendment. I do not know why when we introduce measures such as this, which was anticipated with bated breath for a considerable time, we should always go for the minimalist approach. We do whatever we do and at the same time characterise it as a grudging concession rather than a right. It is only when one examines the comparisons with other countries that one realises how minimalist is the approach. For example, the Scandinavian countries, Denmark, Finland and Sweden, are among the most generous in terms of provisions for working parents. Danish mothers can get up to one year's parental leave if their children are under the age of eight and 60 per cent of the rate of unemployment benefit is payable. In Finland, either parent is entitled to 158 days' parental leave over and above maternity leave, for which special parents' allowance is paid. In Belgium there is a system of career breaks which can range from six months to five years, when parents receive an allowance corresponding to unemployment benefit. Yet here we are not able to concede any social welfare concession other than the standard maternity benefit. There is no question of payment involved, except in the unlikely event of it being offered.

What we are offering is minimalist by comparison with other countries. Employers will say that from the point of view of economic competitiveness they need to be as tight and competitive as possible. Nobody could seriously suggest that either the Danish, the Swedish, the Finnish or the Belgian economies lag behind our economy. Our economy has improved in considerable measure in recent years but these are successful economies too. The economic argument that we are making ourselves less competitive simply does not stand up. These other countries have very tolerable, flexible, understanding regimes and are in no way disadvantaged as a result.

The point was well made on Committee Stage that by introducing a flexible, tolerant regime we could enhance the relationship in the workplace between the employer and employee. This would help the employee to build a positive attitude towards the employer while, at the same time, employer and employee would manage, collectively, to produce a much better return in terms of economic results. I am sorry that on the request for a mere four weeks' unpaid parental leave there is no indication the Minister has changed his mind since the debate on Committee Stage.

I do not propose to accept these amendments. The parental leave directive stipulates a minimum entitlement of three months' parental leave. Bearing in mind the novelty of parental leave in this country the duration of the leave is set at 14 weeks. There is already a statutory entitlement to 14 weeks' maternity leave, as well as four weeks' additional maternity leave. The parental leave will be added to the existing entitlements. As the Bill stands where both parents are eligible for parental leave they can, between them, have 28 weeks for each child.

My Department has received many submissions from interested individuals and organisations about the Bill. My officials and I have consulted representatives of both employers and unions in developing the provisions of the Bill. As indicated to the select committee, I have met the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and the Irish Business and Employers' Confederation since the Bill was initiated.

As indicated, the Bill complies with the requirement of the directive in respect of the duration of parental leave. I said on Second Stage that the scheme of parental leave had been developed from scratch. Deputy O'Sullivan seems to suggest it was, therefore, open to me to arbitrarily select a figure higher than 14 weeks as the maximum duration of parental leave and to impose it on employers. Doubtless such a move would be welcomed by some working parents. On the other hand I am certain employers would not share the zeal of Deputies O'Sullivan and Higgins and would have opposed any such zeal on my part because effectively I would be going beyond the requirements of the directive.

My objective is to achieve a balance between the needs of employers to manage their businesses and the aim of putting in place a satisfactory scheme of parental leave. I reject the claim that the Bill is minimalist. It is not and I have outlined the reasons on numerous occasions. I have pointed out the provisions in the Bill where I have exercised my discretion pursuant to the directive in an imaginative way. In the circumstances and given the views of all parties I consider that the period of 14 weeks' parental leave strikes the right balance.

Is the amendment being pressed?

I am disappointed the Minister is not able to move in this regard. While not pressing the amendment, when reviewing the legislation I ask that favourable consideration be given to an extension of the time.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendment No. 5. Amendment No. 6 is an alternative. I suggest that amendments Nos. 5 and 6 be discussed together.

I move amendment No. 5:

In page 6, to delete lines 15 to 17.

I am seeking to ensure that all children, whether the upper age is five years or eight years, are covered under the legislation. All children under that age should be covered by the legislation in relation to parental leave. Subsection (2) excludes children born before 3 June 1996. In effect it excludes a sizeable number of children in the State who would otherwise be covered by the legislation by virtue of being under the maximum age. I urge the Minister to accept the amendment.

This subsection is out of step with the legislation. On the one hand the Minister is saying the parents of all children under five years of age are entitled to parental leave and on the other he is saying that those born before 3 June 1996 are not entitled to parental leave. This is not consistent. The Irish Congress of Trade Unions has serious concerns with regard to this aspect of the Bill because it was one of the parties which negotiated the framework agreement with employers at a European level. In its interpretation, this subsection goes against what was negotiated. In that context the Minister should give serious consideration to accepting the amendment.

(Mayo): Essentially, my amendment seeks to do the same. The reality is that in introducing this measure only the parents of children up to two and half years of age will qualify. Children born on or before 3 June 1996 do not qualify. Effectively parents have been shortchanged and there was no indication this would be introduced. The Minister, in defence of the provisions of the Bill, said there is a need for a run in period. I acknowledge that if one accepts the thrust of Deputy O'Sullivan's amendment or mine, it would increase the number of parents who would qualify. This Bill is not so much about parents but about children: their rights and entitlement to the protection, care and nurturing of their parents in their home at a time when they are at their most sensitive and when key developments are taking place in relation to their emotions. There is a need to provide the maximum degree of contact on a one to one basis between parents and children. What we are seeking is to broaden the scope of the Bill from the point of view of the number of parents and children who will qualify and benefit from it. It is a simple, modest provision and I cannot see why this cannot be done as a gesture to the Opposition and to parents and children, because there is no cost involved.

The Minister said this would produce disruption for employers but neither the Bill nor the directive fell out of a clear blue sky — they were well flagged in advance. If ICTU knew about it, so did IBEC and ISME. Individual employers knew this was coming and were aware of the basic thrust and tenets of the legislation, so there should be no surprise. There is already a cushion in the form of the run-in period, because this will not come into force for six months. There will not be a great rush to avail of this because it takes a certain amount of time for people to become aware of the rights, the practice and the procedures. Why can the Minister not make a modest concession in this regard?

I do not accept the amendment. The directive on parental leave does not specify any form of retrospection. The amendment would mean that, on the passing of the Bill, all parents with children up to the age of five would become eligible for parental leave. Parents of children now aged three or four would seek to take their leave before their child reaches the age of five, which would mean a large demand for parental leave in the initial years of the scheme's operation.

I mentioned on Second and Committee Stages the strong views put forward by IBEC that there should not be any form of retrospection. On the other hand, the ICTU has argued that the directive entails eligibility for all children up to the age limit fixed by the member state. I am satisfied the directive does not oblige Ireland to provide for retrospection. We therefore had to balance employers' concerns about the backlog which would be created if full retrospection was granted against the expectations of parents with young children, and decided parental leave should be given to parents of children born on or after 3 June 1996, the date the directive was adopted. This is a workable compromise.

I will press the amendment because the Minister is not correctly interpreting the directive.

Question, "That the words and figures proposed to be deleted stand", put and declared carried.
Amendment declared lost.
Amendment No. 6 not moved.

I move amendment No. 7:

In page 6, line 20, to delete "5 years" and substitute "8 years".

This relates to the same point — Deputy O'Sullivan and I are seeking that parents of children up to the age of eight will qualify for parental leave. It should be considered but unfortunately, given the Minister's inflexibility and intransigence on Committee Stage and now, we are not optimistic. One would be extremely tempted to push this to a vote, if it were not being taken tonight.

It is bewildering that a minimal concession like this could not be made. Parents will look with envy at what is allowed in other countries — I will not go through the various regimes — while we cannot make a concession. The Minister has not agreed to extend the leave period from 14 to 18 weeks and on Committee Stage he refused to allow parents of children up to age eight to qualify for this leave. This is disappointing and, to repeat Deputy O'Sullivan's remarks, I hope that when the legislation is reviewed in two years we will see the folly of our ways and there will be no undue disruption to the commercial interests of people who, in their tété-a -tétes with the Minister, determined that we should go thus far and no further.

I also urge the Minister to accept the amendment. As Deputy Higgins said, we have already seen that the Minister will not apply the Bill to children born before 3 June 1996 and the leave period will not be extended from 14 to 18 weeks, but I ask the Minister to take this proposal on board. The directive mentions the age of eight and I am sure the collective wisdom of those who formulated it was that this was the appropriate age. We have had many representations from parents of children aged between five and eight who wish to take parental leave in the interests of their children. Will the Minister consider accepting the amendment?

Unfortunately I cannot. It was possible under the terms of the directive to set the upper age limit anywhere between two and eight. If the Government wished to do only the minimum required by the directive it could have fixed a lower age limit, but we decided against this. There appears to be a misconception that eight years is the EU norm but only two member states, Sweden and Denmark, have such an upper limit, with most setting it at three years. We decided on five years, by which age almost all children have started school. This strikes a fair balance.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Amendments Nos. 8 to 11, inclusive, not moved.

Amendments No. 13 is an alternative to amendment No. 12, amendment No. 14 is related, and all three may be discussed together.

I move amendment No. 12:

In page 9, lines 38 and 39, to delete "for such period not exceeding 6 months as may be specified in the notice" and substitute "to such time not later than 6 months after the date of commencement specified in the relevant notice under section 8(1) as may be agreed upon by the employer and the employee".

The purpose of these amendments is to define the scope of an employer's power to postpone parental leave. Their effect is that an employer is entitled to postpone the start of parental leave to a time within six months of the start date requested by the employee, but the employer and employee must agree the new start date. The notice of postponement must state the reasons for postponement.

An employer may only postpone the commencement of parental leave or a period thereof under section 7(1)(b) once or, if the proposal is because of seasonal variations in work, twice. This will ensure that an employer cannot postpone leave indefinitely. The reasons that leave postponed for seasonal variations is treated differently from that postponed for other reasons is to avoid having an employee making an application for parental leave in one year, knowing it will be refused for seasonal reasons, then making a further application for leave at the same time in the following year in the certain knowledge it will be granted.

I consider Deputy McManus' amendment to be adequately addressed in amendment No. 12 and therefore do not propose to accept it, but I acknowledge that the point was well made by her on Committee Stage and I trust it has been addressed to her satisfaction. I thank her for her intervention in that respect.

I will withdraw my amendment in favour of the Minister's amendments and congratulate him for going beyond the point I was pursuing. This improves the section considerably and protects employees from employers who wishes to take advantage of them. The Minister has been willing to take on board certain arguments, although there are instances where we would disagree. It is good that improvements have been made as a result of Opposition amendments and I thank the Minister for it.

This is an improvement which covers various aspects of an employer blocking a parent from receiving an entitlement and ensures in as far as is practicable that an employer cannot abuse that power. I hope that is the end result. I presume sections 3 and 4 will become sections 5 and 6 and that those subsections will be maintained.

Amendment agreed to.
Amendment No. 13 not moved.

I move amendment No. 14:

In page 9, between lines 42 and 43, to insert the following:

"(3) A notice under subsection (1) shall contain a statement in summary form of the grounds for the postponement of the commencement of the parental leave concerned.

(4) The commencement of parental leave in respect of a particular child may not be postponed more than once under this section unless a ground for the postponement is seasonal variation in the volume of the work concerned; and, where that is a ground for the postponement, such commencement in respect of a particular child may not be postponed more than twice.".

Amendment agreed to.

Amendments Nos. 15 and 16 are related and may be discussed together. Is that agreed? Agreed.

I move amendment No. 15:

In page 9, line 47, to delete "a period of".

These are technical amendments. Their purpose is to make it clear that an employer may postpone the commencement of any individual period of leave which is being taken in broken form under section 7(1)(b) as well as leave which is taken as a 14 week block.

Amendment agreed to.

I move amendment No. 16:

In page 10, between lines 9 and 10, to insert the following:

"(6) In this section, references to parental leave include references to a period of parental leave specified in section 7(1)(b).".

Amendment agreed to.

Amendment No. 17 has been ruled out of order.

Amendment No. 17 not moved.

Amendments Nos. 18 and 19 are related, amendment No. 20 is an alternative to amendment No. 19 and all may be discussed together. Is that agreed? Agreed.

I move amendment No. 18:

In page 10, to delete lines 18 to 26 and substitute the following:

"(3) Where parental leave is terminated under subsection (2), the employee concerned shall return to his or her employment on the day specified in the notice under that subsection concerned and any period between the date of such return and the date of the end of the period of the leave specified in the confirmation document concerned shall be deemed not to be parental leave.".

These amendments address concerns about the employment rights of an employee whose parental leave is terminated because of abuse of that leave. Under the section as amended, the termination of the leave will take effect until the date in which the employee is required to return to work. The employee will be either on parental leave or back at work, but not in any intermediate situation.

Furthermore, the employer must give the employee seven days' notice of the termination of the leave. This is separate from the seven days provided in section 12(6). The amendments represent an appropriate response to the views expressed about the provisions dealing with abuse of parental leave, particularly the concerns voiced in this House by Members of the Opposition and by the ICTU about employment rights of an employee whose leave has been terminated. My amendment encompasses that put down by Deputy Jim Higgins. However, I acknowledge and thank him for his contribution to this section.

Amendment agreed to.

I move amendment No. 19:

In page 10, line 22, after "concerned" to insert "unless the employer consents to same".

Amendment agreed to.
Amendment No. 20 not moved.

I move amendment No. 21:

In page 11, line 11, to delete "as husband or wife".

The use of the term "as husband or wife" was raised by the ICTU. It is not an inclusive term in defining a person with whom someone is living.

This amendment will have the effect of giving an employee entitlement to force majeure leave because of the illness or injury of a person with whom the employee is living. A person with whom the employee is living is a very loose term and could encompass a range of persons who happen to be living under the one roof. The term “living together” could be applied to flatmates or house sharers. It could refer to an au pair, someone in digs or even a servant, although such an instance is rare. It might even include a long stay visitor to the house.

Given that force majeure leave is intended to be for family reasons, I am not disposed to include in this section a term which could include many people who could not, by any stretch of the imagination, be described as family of the employee. I am sure Deputies will agree that the legislation should be precise and that it is unwise to include in legislation a term, the meaning of which is uncertain and open-ended.

I wish to draw attention to the power given under section 13(2)(f) to prescribe other classes of person in respect of whom an employee is entitled to force majeure leave. That power can be used should it transpire in the course of the Act's operation that there is a gap which needs to be filled in the classes of persons covered by paragraphs (a) to (e).

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

I move amendment No. 22:

In page 11, line 29, to delete "part only" and substitute "part, being more than an insignificant part,".

This amendment deals with a person who is absent from work on force majeure leave for only part of a day. I accept there has to be some limitation on what part of the day that may be. The example I gave on Committee Stage was that of a child who has an accident at 4.30 p.m. while the parent is due to finish work at 5 p.m. This should not be considered a full day in terms of force majeure leave. Substituting “part only” with “part, being more than an insignificant part,” would ensure that a small part of the working day will not be counted as force majeure leave. It is a reasonable amendment and I urge the Minister to accept it.

What is meant by "insignificant" in the context of a working day is open to interpretation and could be the subject of considerable dispute between an employer and an employee. The problem is that we do not know whether it is a matter of minutes or hours. The effect of the amendment would be to give the employee an unlimited amount of force majeure leave provided that it is taken in insignificant amounts.

It would be unwise to have such an imprecise and open-ended provision in legislation which could give rise to considerable conflict. The Bill in its present form states clearly the employee's entitlements in relation to force majeure leave. The setting of such limits is in line with the directive on parental leave. Therefore, I cannot accept the amendment.

The word "nominal" in terms of costs to the employer was inserted in the Employment Equality Bill. My use of the word "insignificant" is no more vague. We inevitably must use the English language in a way which is not always as precise as we would like it to be.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

(Mayo): I move amendment No. 23:

In page 14, line 9, to delete "6 months" and substitute "1 month".

The amendment is self-explanatory and shortens the period of notification to the rights commissioner from six months to one month. I am not saying that a one month period is the answer, but six months seems to be a relatively long period.

When section 18 was considered on Committee Stage, I introduced an amendment to increase the figure of three months. An identical amendment was put down by Deputy McManus. Deputy Higgins has proposed that the figure in the section should be one month. The subsection is concerned with the time within which an employee must avail of the procedure permitting reference to a rights commissioner of disputes about entitlement to parental leave which may arise between an employer and an employee.

The timeframe of six months proposed in the Bill is consistent with other equality and employment legislation. I cannot accept the Deputy's amendment as it would confine the employee to a very restricted timeframe in which to bring a case to a rights commissioner. A timescale of one month would be unfavourable to an employee who, before entering a formal dispute process with his or her employer, might wish to consult his or her union representatives, the employment equality agency, or might wish to take legal advice.

Having a deadline of merely a month to tease out such matters might cause the employee to initiate the referral process in some haste before the dust has settled on the dispute. Taking these factors into account, it is preferable that the Parental Leave Bill should remain in line with other equality and employment legislation where a six months' timeframe is the norm for reference to a rights commissioner. I regret, therefore, that I cannot accept Deputy Higgins's amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Question proposed: "That the Bill do now pass."

I thank Members who contributed to the debate on all Stages. The purpose of the Bill is to implement a Council directive on parental leave dated 3 June 1996. Enactment of this legislation also fulfils a commitment in the Partnership 2000 agreement that legislation would be introduced by June 1998 to give effect to the terms of the directive.

The Bill represents a milestone in Irish working life. It introduces a statutory scheme of parental leave for the first time and, as such, is pioneering legislation. Many members referred to the fact that parental leave will be unpaid. For the reasons I have outlined, I have not provided for paid leave. Since the Bill was published it has attracted strong reaction. Some have criticised it as being mean spirited while others claim it is too generous. My approach in developing the legislation was to achieve a balance between the needs of employers to manage their businesses and putting in place a satisfactory scheme of parental leave. I am confident I have struck the correct balance in the Bill. When I spoke on Second Stage I quoted several statistics which illustrate the marked change in the country's workforce in recent years. The statistics paint a picture of Irish society for whom availability of parental leave will be highly relevant.

The key objectives of the parental leave directive are the reconciliation of work and family life and the promotion of equal opportunities and treatment between men and women. The parental leave Bill represents a landmark in putting these objectives in place. The enactment into legislation of the directive is keenly awaited. This is evident from the many parents who contacted my Department in recent weeks seeking information about it.

The necessary steps for implementing the legislation will be commenced in the coming weeks by my Department. I hope I can look forward to the continued co-operation of ICTU and IBEC when preparing the regulations under the Bill. I thank them for their contribution to the legislation. I am also very grateful to Deputies for their wide range of views and I thank them for affording a speedy passage to this truly historic legislation. I also sincerely thank the officials in my Department who worked extremely hard in preparing the legislation and who were of tremendous assistance throughout.

(Mayo): I join the Minister in paying tribute to the officials who have done tremendous work in drafting the legislation. I agree wholeheartedly with the Minister in respect of the significance of the Bill. We are introducing another measure along the road towards combining work and family life and the compatibility of one with the other. The crucial role of the family in society must be underpinned and I have no doubt this measure is a gesture in that regard.

I hope attitudes will have thawed, particularly those of employers and the Government, before the review takes place in two years' time. As I stated on Second and Committee Stages, the workability of the legislation will depend on whether people can be released from the economic compulsion and the realities of daily life, namely, putting bread on the table, paying the mortgage, the banks and building societies. Unfortunately, I was not allowed move an amendment to double child benefit. It was a minimalist approach that simply sought to increase the benefit from £1 to £2 per day. It would have been a gesture of solidarity with parents who, through economic compulsion, will not be able to avail of parental leave. However, we might be pleasantly surprised. The uptake might be more significant than we think. In the absence of some financial support, however, it will be extremely difficult for this measure to achieve the potential it offers to family life.

I welcome this positive step on parental leave. Obviously, I would have preferred if some aspects of the legislation were changed and, like Deputy Higgins, I hope they will be considered in the review. When employers see how this measure benefits workers, they will realise that an even more generous interpretation of the directive would benefit the workplace as well as the family. I hope there will be a large take-up of the leave and that the public is properly informed of its existence.

Deletion of the words "without pay" will not only allow generous employers pay employees for the leave, it will also enable the Minister and the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs to consider the possibility of providing funding for families who could not otherwise afford to take parental leave. I thank the Minister for accepting a number of the amendments and welcome this historic legislation.

I, too, thank the Minister and his officials for the work they have done on this Bill, but it is still a matter of unfinished business. Until we have paid parental leave, even though this measure will be written into law as a matter of right, parental leave will simply be a privilege for those who can afford to avail of it. For many on low incomes, particularly young families who will want to avail of this measure, it will be beyond their capability. The deletion of the words "unpaid leave" is at least a signal that it is unfinished business. It also reinforces the idea that we are willing to take from Europe, but do not always apply general European standards. This Bill shows that while we may be good Europeans, we are not yet great Europeans. We need to move forward in terms of social reform so that all the people to whom this measure applies can benefit.

Question put and agreed to.