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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 28 Nov 2001

Vol. 545 No. 2

Family Support Agency Bill, 2001: Report Stage.

Acting Chairman

Amendments Nos. 1 and 2 are related and may be discussed together by agreement.

I move amendment No. 1:

In page 5, line 10, after "matters" to insert "and in this regard to co-operate with other public authorities in providing information to assist persons in balancing their work and family responsibilities".

This amendment relates to section 4(1)(d). Deputy Broughan raised this amendment on Committee Stage. At the time I pointed out that policy responsibility for this issue falls within the remit of the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment. The Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, the Employment Equality Agency and the social partners also have responsibilities or commitments under the PPF which are relevant to this issue. I agree there is an important role for the family support agency in working in co-operation with the key interests in the field in promoting information directly to families and their local communities about the developments in family friendly working arrangements and the options which might be available to better support parents in balancing work and family commitments. The amendment I am proposing is designed to expand the information function being given to the agency in section 4(1)(d) to include information to assist families in balancing their work and family responsibilities. The role of the family support agency in promoting awareness of the importance of this issue for families will be further strengthened by the potential for it to undertake research on this as provided for in section 4(1)(f).

I warmly welcome the Bill. A few years ago the Committee on Family, Community and Social Affairs got a very interesting briefing from the family unit in the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs which illustrated in a very comprehensive way the manner in which the general gambit of family issues was being pursued in a more coherent way under this Government. It is one of the areas on which I commend the Minister and the Government.

Following Committee Stage the Minister sent me a list of promises made by him in 1997. Of about 40 promises, at least a dozen are totally unfulfilled. This is after the longest period in office of any Government in the history of the State, and I will return to this issue.

We need to move forward.

Acting Chairman

Perhaps this can be raised on Report Stage. We will not have crossfire here on promises forgotten.

One of the matters included was the renaming of the Department to include the word "family", in line with the practice in our European partner countries. That was a good initiative and I commend the Minister in that regard. In relation to the amendments before us, the Minister has gone some of the way to meet the concerns of the Labour Party in relation to section 4 on the functions of the agency. We regarded it as a key function of the agency to address the issue of family-unfriendly work practices. In the recent era of the Celtic tiger, we have had a more cut-throat economy, particularly in areas of services where people are expected to work on contract and, very often, under fairly bad conditions. Shift work, night work and weekend work has come to be expected rather than, as in the past, being governed by reasonably good labour protection legislation. Also, some 48% to 50% of women are engaged in the workforce and that figure is increasing. The area of caring duties, both for men and women, must be highlighted.

The difference between the two amendments before us is that, in the Labour Party amendment, we include the role of advocacy. The primary function of the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment is concerned with job creation, replacement jobs, liaison with FÁS and competition in the economy, including issues relating to the introduction of the euro. The agency needs a stronger role. In the latest issue of Family Friendly News, which is circulated by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, there seems to be a striking dichotomy between two surveys which were carried out. An IBEC survey indicated that, in the manufacturing and wholesale areas, some 73% of companies have flexible and family-friendly working arrangements. The figure for the financial services sector was 64% and 73% for the retail sector. However, from the perspective of employees in manufacturing and wholesale, the number of employees with flexible work arrangements was only 9.5%, in financial services it was only 19% and in retail only 27%. There is a huge gap between the number of companies which say they provide family-friendly facilities to workers and the number of workers who can actually avail of this. The number of workers in permanent part-time employment is only 2.2% and only 0.5% of workers have real job sharing arrangements, according to the IBEC survey. Only 4% of workers are on flexitime, the number on career breaks is 0.2% and the number with flexible hours is 1.4%. Those are the most up to date figures from the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment. There is an issue in that regard in terms of family life being greatly disrupted. As we try to become one of the wealthier countries of the European Union, people are expected to work all hours of the clock. In this House, we should bow our heads in shame in relation to the hours we demand of ourselves and our staff who are on duty now and will still be here later tonight until, perhaps, 12 midnight. Some other parliaments, such as the Swedish parliament, have tried to bring in fundamental reforms of this antediluvian system. Parliaments which have approximately equal proportions of men and women have had some success in operating a nine to five arrangement. The Minister may say that, in our own arena, we have the possibility, after Christmas, of more normal and coherent working hours for public representatives and for the staff who provide such strong support.

The dissemination of information would be a very appropriate role for the Family Support Agency. The figures I have quoted would normally reach only a small number of people, perhaps professionals and public representatives, but they should be made known more widely. I accept the Minister has come some way in this regard and I know he has been reluctant to accept amendments, particularly on the Social Welfare Bill. I hope the Labour Party and Fine Gael will not have attempt to amend that entire Bill when it arrives in a few weeks' time. However, on this Bill, I ask the Minister to give further consideration to giving the Family Support Agency an advocacy role. In other words, the agency should be in a position to chase Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment people who have a different brief – their brief is to keep this country moving and, in general terms, they do that very successfully and the Department has some brilliant officials. I believe the Family Support Agency will see a need for a role in balancing work and family responsibilities. I thank the Minister for moving as far as he has done and I ask him to go the whole mile by accepting the Labour Party amendment.

I welcome the Family Support Agency Bill which puts down an important marker in providing services to families who are facing crisis. It brings together a number of different strands, including the work of the community resource centres, the family mediation services and the counselling services currently available to families. We will now have an agency with an umbrella over these groups, promoting and supporting their work. Families are under a variety of pressures – social, economic and psychological – and people need to know where to go for help. I hope this agency will reach out to communities and that, through the developing resource network around the country, people will be more aware of the work of the agency and the family mediation service. On Committee Stage, I raised the issue of the pressures on families in relation to the tragic deaths of 16 young children in the past 20 months. The Minister said he hoped the Family Support Agency would undertake research on this issue and identify the pressures on families where matters deteriorate so dramatically and so tragically. That area should be examined by the Agency with a view to bringing forward recommendations and taking new policy initiatives. I commend the Minister's announcement in that regard during Committee Stage.

In relation to the amendment before us, I am glad the Minister has agreed to put an obligation on the Family Support Agency to provide information to families about balancing work and family responsibilities. Perhaps there is, unfortunately, less information for people in this country than in other countries about the supports available to them in this area. We have been behind our European counterparts in relation to making it easy for men and women to combine work and family responsibilities. It is a phrase which trips easily off the tongue but it hides a multitude of pressures, demands, struggles, difficulties and challenges that families face in combining work and family responsibilities – and ever more so since we have more women working outside the home. It is a very big issue for everyone.

I agree with Deputy Broughan that the Agency should have a role in providing information, although I would prefer if it involved more than just giving information. However, information is very important and it will be a way of empowering people by providing information on the different options and choices in relation to job sharing, part-time work and so on. It is important to have a place where people can discuss these issues. Women, in particular, can feel isolated when faced with decisions of this kind and it can be difficult to get the required response from employers. Very often it means a drop in income for women also. It is interesting that it is mainly women who avail of these part-time options.

Debate adjourned.
Sitting suspended at 1.30 p.m. and resumed at 2.30 p.m.