I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
Maternity protection is a fundamental right of any pregnant employee and one which has been enshrined in our legislation since 1981. The Maternity Protection Act 1994 further enhanced the existing legislation by implementing the provisions of the Pregnant Workers' Directive 92/85 EEC. It retained all entitlements of the previous legislation and provided additional protection to pregnant employees. The Maternity Protection (Amendment) Bill 2003 [Seanad] seeks to amend the 1994 Act to further improve the existing legislative protections for employees who are pregnant or who have recently given birth.
The Bill implements in full the recommendations made by the working group on the review and improvement of the maternity protection legislation. The working group which reported in January 2001, was set up in accordance with commitments in the Government's An Action Programme for the Millennium and the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness. The working group, which was chaired by my Department, included representatives from all pillars of social partnership, relevant Government Departments, the Health Service Employers Agency, the Health and Safety Authority and the Equality Authority.
The recommendations of the working group were accepted in full by the previous Government with the principal recommendations to extend the duration of maternity and additional maternity leave being immediately implemented in 2001. As a result, in March 2001 the period of maternity leave attracting maternity benefit payment increased from 14 weeks to 18 weeks and unpaid maternity leave increased from four weeks to eight weeks. The remaining recommendations which require primary legislation to amend the Maternity Protection Act 1994 will be fully implemented by the enactment of this Bill.
The Maternity Protection (Amendment) Bill is but one component of a comprehensive package of measures dealing with workplace relations and environment agreed in the context of the Sustaining Progress social partnership agreement. This particular element of Sustaining Progress comprises a package of legislation, codes and programmes which aim to protect employee rights, ensure greater equality, promote health and safety and bring about a better work-life balance.
There is growing recognition in this country of the importance of work-life balance initiatives, not only in the context of assisting employees in combining employment and personal responsibilities, but also in underpinning economic, social and equality objectives. It is fair to say that many of our work-life policies have grown from the need to ensure that women are given an equal opportunity to participate in paid employment. The whole concept of work-life balance has evolved from this basic principle of gender equality to encompass the needs of a far wider group of employees with the goal of making the reconciliation of work-life responsibilities more achievable. It is vital that we continue to meet the challenge of developing innovative measures which reflect the reality of today's workplace for employees and the competing demands on their time due to personal and social responsibilities. We must ensure that both employers and employees see the development of work-life balance initiatives as a win-win situation for all involved. Research shows that appropriately designed work-life balance policies bring benefits to both employers and employees.
From the employer's perspective these can include the retention of skilled and experienced staff, improved productivity and a more highly-motivated workforce. For the employees the benefits include not only the opportunity to better balance their working and personal lives but also a fairer sharing of home and family responsibilities between men and women.
The Maternity Protection (Amendment) Bill 2003 is timely as it coincides with the highest ever participation of women in the Irish workforce. The number of women in work in 2002 was over 678,000 — an increase of nearly 175,000 on the 1996 census and more than twice that recorded in the 1981 census. Recent statistics show that of the number of women currently in employment, over 67.8% are aged between 25 and 54 which indicates that a significant proportion of women in the workforce are of childbearing age. In 2002, 60,521 children were born and indications are that the number of births in 2003 was equally high. Last year, 30,211 maternity benefit payments were awarded to employed or self-employed women representing a 4% increase over the previous year. In this context it is imperative that our legislation recognises the valuable contribution made by working mothers and provides adequate support for them in the workplace, particularly at the time of childbirth.
This Bill contains important new entitlements for breast-feeding mothers who often experience particular difficulty in returning to work after the birth of a child. National and international experts recognise that breast-feeding is the most beneficial method of infant feeding. In its global strategy on infant and young child feeding, the World Health Organisation states, "breastfeeding is an unequalled way of providing ideal food for the healthy growth and development of infants." Their strategy cites paid maternity leave, part-time work arrangements, on-site crèches, facilities for expressing and storing breast milk and breastfeeding breaks as conditions which enable women in employment to continue breastfeeding.
The provisions of the Bill will bring Ireland closer to the international provisions for breastfeeding mothers. Section 9 provides that an employee who is breastfeeding and has informed her employer that she is doing so shall be entitled until the child is six months old to breastfeeding breaks, where facilities for breastfeeding are provided in the workplace, or to a reduction of working hours, without loss of pay in either case. This important new statutory entitlement will facilitate breastfeeding mothers on their return to employment. The recommendation of the maternity working group precisely mirrored the 1994 national breastfeeding policy recommendation that "mothers should be encouraged to practise exclusive breastfeeding for at least four months and thereafter with appropriate weaning foods".
After the publication of the Bill in May 2003, the Department of Health and Children advised that Ireland was party to a resolution on infant and young children's nutrition, adopted at the World Health Assembly in May 2002. This resolution approved the World Health Organisation's global strategy on infant and young child feeding which recommends:
As a global public health recommendation, infants should be exclusively breastfed for the first six months of life to achieve optimal growth, development and health. Thereafter, to meet their evolving nutritional requirements, infants should receive nutritionally adequate and safe complementary foods while breastfeeding continues for up to two years of age or beyond.
The Minister for Health and Children consequently announced the revision of the national breastfeeding policy on 5 August 2003 to promote exclusive infant breastfeeding for the first six months. The Bill was amended on Committee Stage in the Seanad to reflect this policy change.
The health advantages of breastfeeding more than justify the introduction of these provisions. Medical research indicates that these advantages are maximised when breastfeeding is sustained for longer periods. Research commissioned by a number of health boards shows that returning to work can influence the decision of Irish women to cease breastfeeding. In a study commissioned by the Midland Health Board in 2000, for example, 30% of respondents cited returning to work as their reason for ceasing breastfeeding.
After the Second Stage debate in the Seanad, I undertook to examine the possibility of reducing the pre-confinement period of maternity leave. Under the present four-week compulsory pre-confinement maternity leave arrangements, many pregnant employees collude with their doctors to have false confinement dates included in their medical certificates so they can avail of a longer period of maternity leave after the birth.
I was not entirely satisfied with the legal advice made available in the past. It was argued that a reduction in the compulsory pre-confinement period would be interpreted as a reduction in the level of protection afforded in the Act to pregnant employees, which would contravene the pregnant workers directive which prohibits regression. When I raised this matter with the Office of the Attorney General, the point was made that introducing a more flexible entitlement would enhance the statutory protection available, rather than diminish it. I subsequently received legal advice stating that the reduction of the period of compulsory pre-confinement leave in section 10(1) of the Maternity Protection Act 1994 to two weeks does not reduce the level of protection and is not prohibited by Article 1.3 of the pregnant workers' directive, provided that employees can avail of non-compulsory pre-confinement leave in excess of the two week period. This amendment will, in effect, allow new mothers to take up to 16 weeks of their paid maternity leave after the birth of their child. It gives them greater flexibility in managing their leave entitlements in a way which best suits their personal circumstances.
During the course of its review, the maternity working group examined a proposal for paid time off for attendance at ante-natal classes. When it consulted the institute of obstetrics on the issue, the institute argued that a pregnant women needs to attend a complete set of ante-natal classes in the interest of her health and safety during the course of childbirth. Ante-natal classes form an intrinsic part of the ante-natal care package, particularly in a woman's first pregnancy. While the Maternity Protection Act 1994 provides, in accordance with regulations, for time off without loss of pay for ante-natal and post-natal care, the definition of ante-natal care does not include ante-natal classes. Accordingly, in line with a recommendation of the working group, section 8 provides a new entitlement for mothers to paid time off from work for the purposes of attending ante-natal classes.
Fathers can offer invaluable support to expectant mothers during the pre-confinement stage. Their attendance at and participation in ante-natal classes provides them with an insight into and preparation for the birth, at which many fathers choose to be present. Information on the practical skills required to help care for a baby is also provided. Work commitments can mean that it is not always possible for fathers to attend ante-natal classes, however. Section 8 Bill seeks to address this by giving expectant fathers a once-off entitlement to time off work without loss of pay to attend the last two ante-natal classes in a set.
While the overriding purpose of the review of the maternity protection legislation was to enhance the protections available to employees who are pregnant or have recently given birth, the working group took account of the costs to employers of its recommendations. Some of the Bill's provisions will have minor cost implications for employers. Employer costs will be incurred in the provision of paid time off to attend ante-natal classes, the provision of breastfeeding breaks, where breastfeeding facilities are provided, or a reduction of working hours and the preservation of certain employment rights while on additional maternity leave. The Irish Business and Employers Confederation, the Department of Finance and the Health Service Employers Agency, which were represented on the working group were particularly mindful, as employers, of the cost element of the recommendations.
The working group also considered the concerns of female employees about combining pregnancy and caring for new-born babies with work commitments. It consulted a report, New Mothers at Work, commissioned by the Employment Equality Agency and published in 1999, which documents the difficulties experienced by 30 women in combining motherhood and the demands of the workplace. A strong theme which emerged from this research was that the women who were interviewed wanted to stay in the labour force, but felt inadequately supported by legislative and other measures in exercising their preferred choice. Some women indicated that the dual pressures of motherhood and work were too much and that they were reluctantly withdrawing from the workplace. While it was a small survey, it is indicative of the pressures faced by Irish women which may force them, unwillingly, out of the workforce. It is hoped that the Bill's provisions can help to alleviate such pressures by providing greater protection to pregnant employees and breastfeeding mothers returning to work after childbirth. There are gains for employers, as a reduction in the number of women dropping out of the workforce after childbirth will lead to a reduction in recruitment and training costs.
Turning to the specific provisions of the Bill, section 1 is a standard provision, dealing with interpretation. Sections 2 and 5 incorporate SI 29 of 2001 which gave effect to the working group's recommendation to increase the periods of maternity leave and additional maternity leave. The implementation of the recommendation to increase both the period of maternity leave and additional maternity leave, as mentioned earlier, has been in effect since March 2001. The implementation of this recommendation was fast-tracked ahead of the implementation of the other recommendations to ensure that the benefits of the increased leave entitlement would be realised as soon as possible. The consequent revocation of SI 29 of 2001 is provided for in section 26.
Section 3 is a new section, which was inserted into the Bill on Committee Stage in the Seanad. As I explained earlier, it provides for the reduction of the compulsory period of pre-confinement maternity leave from four weeks to two weeks. Section 4 safeguards an employee's entitlement to the extended minimum period of 18 weeks' maternity leave where premature births are concerned.
Section 6 provides that in the event of the sickness of the employee, she may, with the agreement of the employer, terminate her period of additional maternity leave. Once terminated, the employee will not be entitled to take the remainder of the additional maternity leave at a later date. Any absence from work due to illness following the termination of the period of additional maternity leave shall be treated in the same manner as any absence from work due to sickness. Section 11 applies similar provisions to fathers who are entitled to such leave under the principal Act, in the event of the death of the mother during the course of her leave.
Section 7 provides that in the event of the hospitalisation of the child an employee may, with the employer's agreement, request to postpone her maternity leave and/or additional maternity leave and return to work on an agreed date. It will be possible to postpone maternity leave only where the employee has taken at least 14 weeks' maternity leave, four of which are after the end of the week of the birth. Where the employer agrees to a postponement and where the employee has adhered to certain notification requirements, the employee will be entitled to take her postponed leave in one continuous block known as resumed leave. This resumed leave must commence not later than seven days after the discharge of the child from hospital. If the employee is absent from work due to sickness during the period of the postponement, the employee is deemed to have commenced her resumed leave, unless she opts to forfeit the right to resumed leave. The absence from work due to sickness shall be treated in the same manner as any absence from work due to sickness. Section 12 applies similar provisions to fathers in certain circumstances.
I have already given a broad outline of the provisions included in section 8, which gives pregnant employees a new entitlement to attend ante-natal classes. A limited exclusion is provided in the case of members of the Defence Forces, the Garda Síochána serving overseas or in other exceptional circumstances. It can sometimes be the case that a pregnancy does not go to full-term, for example, because of premature birth. In such cases, the mother may not have availed of her entitlement to attend a complete set of classes and, hence, section 8 also provides that the set of classes may be attended during one or more pregnancies. This allows time off from work for attendance at the missed classes in a subsequent pregnancy. The detailed arrangements relating to issues such as the amount of time off to be allowed for attendance at ante-natal classes, the terms or conditions relating to such time off, the notification procedures and the evidence of attendance to be furnished to the employer, will be covered by detailed regulations.
The entitlement provided in section 9 to facilitate breastfeeding mothers in the workplace is an improvement on the recommendation of the working group. As I explained earlier, the improved entitlement to either breastfeeding breaks in the workplace or a reduction of working hours, without loss of pay until the child is six months old, mirrors national breastfeeding policy. Employers will not be required to provide facilities for breastfeeding breaks in the workplace where the provision of such facilities would give rise to more than a nominal cost. Where breastfeeding breaks are not provided, the employer shall be required to agree a reduction of working hours with the employee without reducing pay. The detailed arrangements relating to breastfeeding breaks or a reduction of working hours with respect to the amount of time off and the number and frequency of breastfeeding breaks to be allowed, the reduction of working hours to be allowed, the terms and conditions relating to breastfeeding breaks and/or reduction of working hours, the notification procedures and the evidence to be furnished to the employer concerning the date of confinement, will be prescribed further in regulations.
Section 10 incorporates the increased periods of leave entitlement provided for in Statutory Instrument No. 29 of 2001 for fathers where the mother dies during the period of her maternity leave. I have already referred to sections 11 and 12, which apply corresponding provisions to fathers as provided to mothers under sections 6 and 7, which deal with the termination and postponement provisions respectively.
Section 13 amends the definition of "protective leave" in the 1994 Act and provides that the period of leave taken prior to postponement and the period of resumed leave after postponement shall be treated as separate periods of protective leave. Section 14 provides that employees absent from work on additional maternity leave will be treated for the purposes of all employment rights, other than remuneration and superannuation benefits, as if they remained at work. It also adds new rights to attend ante-natal classes or to breastfeed to the list of absences in section 22 of the Principal Act, for which the employee shall be treated as if she were not absent from work. Employees who avail of the new entitlements to ante-natal classes and breastfeeding are afforded protection under sections 15 and 16 with respect to the termination or suspension of their employment.
Section 17 is a technical amendment to clarify that the provisions of the 1994 Act regarding periods of probation, training and apprenticeship, apply to both female and male employees who are absent from work on protective leave. Section 18 strengthens the provisions relating to the return to work of an employee who was on protective leave to give effect to the 2002 gender equal treatment directive. An employee returning to work from protective leave will have a statutory entitlement to any improvement in the terms or conditions of the employment to which she would have been entitled if she had not been absent on protective leave.
Section 19 applies to employees returning to work on the expiry of protective leave who are offered suitable alternative work because the resumption of the work which they carried out before their protective leave is not practicable. In such a case, the terms or conditions of the alternative work shall not be less favourable to the employee than those of her contract of employment immediately before protective leave. An employee in this position will also be entitled to any improvement in the terms or conditions of the employment to which she would have been entitled if she had not been absent on protective leave. This section gives effect to the 2002 gender equal treatment directive. The remaining sections deal with technical amendments to the 1994 Act.
The Bill is part of a wider package of statutory work/life balance measures to which my Department is committed under the Sustaining Progress partnership agreement. The Government has also approved the drafting of amendments to the Adoptive Leave Act, which will apply the appropriate outstanding recommendations of the maternity protection review group to the adoptive leave legislation.
I am also pleased to inform the House that the Government has approved a proposal to increase the adoptive leave period by two weeks to 16 weeks. The increase in adoptive leave is linked to the proposed reduction of the compulsory pre-confinement period of maternity leave as provided for in section 3. It effectively means that once the legislation is enacted, both natural and adopting mothers will be able to avail of 16 weeks leave with payment of Department of Social and Family Affairs benefit from the time a child is born or placed into their care. The amendments to the adoptive leave legislation will be published shortly in a new Bill. In addition, the parental leave legislation is also due to be amended in line with the agreed recommendations of the working group on the review of that Act. Work is currently under way in my Department on the necessary heads of a Bill and I expect that legislative proposals will be brought to Government in the coming months.
I look forward to the contributions of Deputies on this legislation, which will both strengthen and improve the employment rights of pregnant mothers and women who have recently given birth, and to those who wish to resume work while breastfeeding. I commend the Bill to the House.