I thank the Minister for coming into the House to respond on this issue. The EU Commission, in a reasoned opinion issued to the Government on 3 April, confirmed that the Irish Parental Leave Act of 1998 is in breach of the EU parental leave directive. The Act allows mothers and fathers to take up to 14 weeks unpaid leave from their work to take care of children up to the age of five.
We speak a lot in this country about helping parents to combine work and family but the reality is that we do very little to help parents achieve that objective. We have the lowest provision of publicly provided child care in the EU – what I would call primitive maternity leave – with provisions which badly need to be updated and extended, no paternity leave and unpaid parental leave. The Government went further when bringing in this parental leave legislation and set a cut-off date which excluded many children and parents from benefiting from what the EU directive had in mind. Under the directive, leave could have been given to parents of children up to the age of eight. The Government chose the age of five and also contravened the directive by setting a date by which children must be born in order to be eligible.
The formal notice first issued on 11 March 1999 to the Government states that the directive does not contain provision permitting member states to set a date by which children must be born and that by requiring children to have been born after the date of the directive's adoption, that is, 3 June 1996, the Government has added a condition which is not permitted by the directive. After the formal notice was issued in March, the Government did not accept what the Commission said but argued against it, and thus we have arrived at a situation where the Commission rejected the observations made by the Government and has issued a formal legal opinion, known as a reasoned opinion, confirming that the directive does not contain provision permitting member states to set a date by which children, in respect of whom the right to parental leave is exercised, must be born.
A number of questions now arise. Does the Minister intend to take any action to cover those parents and children who have been unjustly excluded and are now over-age? Will the Minister clarify what he intends to do now about changing the parental leave legislation? Does he intend to appeal the opinion or do the honourable thing and bring in the necessary changes?
I ask the Minister to increase the parental leave available to parents of disabled children and extend the age of children whose parents can claim this leave up to eight years of age. The reality in Ireland is that we only have unpaid parental leave which in effect means that most parents will be unable to avail of it, unlike the position in a number of other EU member states. The complete resistance to any form of paid parental leave in this country is unacceptable and must be changed.
Will the Minister provide information – if not tonight then perhaps at a later stage – on the number of parents, male and female, who have been able to avail of the legislation to date. I would like to pay tribute to the work the Irish Congress of Trade Unions has consistently done in trying to ensure that Ireland's provisions in this area are of the highest quality.