The amendment allows the family support agency to provide information and co-operate with other public authorities to assist persons in balancing their work and family responsibilities. It is important this comes within the remit of the agency and I am glad the Minister has brought forward this amendment. We have a poor record in supporting families in trying to balance work and family responsibilities. When comparisons are made it becomes clear that other European countries have been way ahead of us in providing supportive child care and more family friendly work policies. I note the amendment allows the family support agency co-operate with other public authorities. The Equality Authority is one group I would like to see it linking with, and perhaps some initiatives could result from them working together.
The current arrangements are not without their difficulties. We have a combination of career breaks, part-time work, maternity leave, parental leave and carers' leave and there is a need for streamlining and for more information to be given to people. I believe the agency will provide a very good facility for supporting families in that regard. In relation to maternity protection legislation, many employees are running into difficulties. Female employees returning to work are not given their "old" job back but many employers are offering what purports to be suitable alternative employment which, in many cases, is not suitable alternative employment. Such employees believe they are being discriminated against arising from the fact that they took maternity leave. I presume a case of that nature would go to the Equality Authority or the Labour Court but a situation could arise where an individual or a couple needing help in relation to other issues would turn up at a family support agency seeking advice and support. It is important to have that provided for in the terms of reference.
There is another area of difficulty in relation to nurses who want permanent part-time positions and, although there is an agreement to allow that, they are finding it difficult to get the relevant authority to support that option. There is a real role for the agency in examining this issue, becoming well informed on it and working with the other authorities, as provided for in the Minister's amendment, such as the Equality Authority, the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, the employer bodies and the trade unions in order to get information to people on best practice in relation to family friendly policies and the various options. I welcome the inclusion of this in the terms of reference of the agency. We are still at a relatively early stage in relation to this important area, despite much discussion on it, and we are not particularly generous in providing flexible supports. The economic boom has helped and there has been some advance in recent times. However, from the statistics which Deputy Broughan quoted earlier on what is actually available, there is still quite a gap between what is available and what we would like to have available. I hope the Family Support Agency will play a strong role in that regard. I realise it is not really a primary task but, given the importance of this issue, it will certainly emerge in the work of the agency as a key issue.
Last week, in England, there was a very interesting ruling from the courts on the issue of whether employees have to do shift work where they are trying to combine work and family life. The decision was that the employers did not have the right to require the employee to do shift work. This would be seen as almost revolutionary in this country but it may well be indicative of how things will develop here and that employers will have to be more flexible. Irish employers fought against paid parental leave although practically every other country in Europe has introduced some form of paid parental leave. Very limited maternity leave arrangements have been accepted in this country and I welcome the recent changes which the Minister has made in that regard. The previous situation displayed a rather mean approach to supporting women and their partners in combining work and family life. Great credit is due to the many families who struggled to achieve that under difficult circumstances. I hope the agency will come forward with recommendations in this regard, drawing on the experience it will gain from working with families.