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Dáil Éireann debate -
Friday, 20 Feb 2004

Vol. 580 No. 4

Maternity Protection (Amendment) Bill 2003 [Seanad]: Second Stage.

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.

I wish to share time with Deputy Gay Mitchell.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I am glad to have an opportunity to comment on the Bill, which I welcome. There is little wrong with the legislation but we cannot pat ourselves on the back in this respect because it is not introducing many new measures — it is more like window dressing. While the Bill tidies up matters, there are areas for improvement and we could do much more, as I am sure the Minister of State would admit. However, the legislation represents a good start towards getting things right.

Will the Minister of State clarify that the Bill, when enacted, will be retrospective for those who are currently on maternity leave?

I welcome the Bill, which aims to improve maternity protection for employees. A large number of women contribute to our economy and it is only fair that their employment should be protected while taking time off to have children. Many women feel under pressure in this respect and, as the Minister of State said, it is difficult for parents to balance family life with a job. It is becoming increasingly stressful to do so in modern Ireland because work no longer entails 40 or 50 hours per week and, in addition, people have to commute for 20 to 25 hours per week. As the working day has become longer, it is becoming more difficult to take time out to start a family. When the cost of living is added to the equation we can understand that it is getting harder to balance work with family life. In this regard, while the Bill deals with certain aspects of maternity protection, it does not go far enough.

The Bill implements the recommendations made by the working group on the review and improvement of maternity protection legislation, which was established in accordance with the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness. The group consisted of the social partners and various Departments, including the Department of Finance, the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, the Department of Social and Family Affairs, the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, and the Department of Health and Children. The Health and Safety Authority and the Equality Authority were also represented on the group. However social these partnerships may be, their interests do not always coincide precisely, so it is perhaps almost inevitable that any legislation devised in such a way would be somewhat timid, as evidenced in the Bill, which does not go far enough.

Nevertheless, I welcome the Bill as it marks a step forward in terms of protection and is more progressive than the 1994 Act, which has already been extended to afford protection by means of a statutory instrument. The other recommendations, however, required primary legislation.

I welcome the reduction of the pre-confinement period to two weeks, which some members of the review group felt would serve the needs of pregnant women. It is well known that many women applying for maternity benefit put false dates on their application forms because they want more time off after the baby is born. This amendment, which was made in the Seanad, will now allow new mothers greater flexibility in managing their leave entitlements in a way which best suits their personal circumstances. In this regard, when the Bill is enacted, it is likely that the Government will be regarded in awe by the World Health Organisation for its ability to stop the vast majority of premature births by a new medication called the Maternity Protection (Amendment) Bill. We are gaining something from this legislation.

I also welcome section 4, which safeguards an employee's entitlement to the extended minimum period of 18 weeks' maternity leave in instances of premature birth. While the reduction of the pre-confinement period to two weeks is a welcome measure, it will also be good for the planning and organisation of businesses. It can be awkward if when unexpected news arrives, an employer has made plans assuming that he or she will lose certain staff on a certain date. It is good for everyone and I am pleased to see it provided for. Although it was highlighted a number of years ago in the Seanad, it is a pity it took so long. Like everything else, it takes time but is good when it happens.

While section 5 is also welcome, it simply amends the principal Act of 1994 by incorporating the provisions in the extension of period of leave order of 2001, which increased additional maternity leave entitlement to a maximum of eight weeks. I understand that is a sufficient period of time as the child is usually progressing well and the parents wish to get back to work. However, this should be monitored and, if there is a demand, we should be open to considering the provision of more time, especially where difficulties arise.

Sections 6 and 11 provide that additional leave ceases if the mother falls ill, and that the absence from work due to sickness shall be treated in the same manner as any absence from work of the employee due to sickness. It is welcome that the employee can choose to transfer from unpaid additional maternity leave to sick leave. This is a good provision for all involved — children, parents and employers. I am open to suggestions on the issue of allowing maternity leave to resume after sick leave and I look forward to the Minister of State's views on this.

Sections 7 to 12, inclusive, allow maternity leave to be postponed if a child is hospitalised, which is fair and welcome. If a child is hospitalised and the mother is able to go to work, the mother may prefer to do this and take the postponed leave with the child when he or she leaves hospital. While I welcome this, I am also concerned that the time left must be taken in one block. If a child of that age is sick, he or she would generally leave hospital but might soon return. I understand that parents have seven days before they must return to work. However, a child might often have to return to hospital within two weeks even though it might suit a parent to go back to work. It is perhaps too harsh to stipulate that the leave must be taken in one block. I would appreciate the Minister of State's comments on this.

Section 8 provides paid time off work for expectant mothers to attend one set of ante-natal classes. This is misleading as the mother must attend the last three classes at her own expense unless the employer agrees otherwise. This arises because of an anomaly in regard to the change of pre-confinement time from four weeks to two. Parents should attend the last three ante-natal classes unpaid, with these classes spread over three weeks. It was assumed that the mother would be on maternity leave at that stage of a pregnancy and that, therefore, the classes were not an issue. However, a mother might still be at work for one of the three classes. I ask that this be addressed to ensure that mothers need take unpaid leave only for the last two classes. This would make the provision fairer and as family friendly as possible.

I am glad to see that there is provision for fathers to attend ante-natal classes before the birth of the child. However, why does it allow for only two classes? Why is the father not entitled to attend the same number of classes as the mother? Both parents are encouraged to attend and this should be allowed for in the Bill. While the Bill goes far by allowing fathers to be paid for attending two classes, I am told that the two classes before the last class are the most important, as the last class is generally concerned with what happens after a birth, and goes as far as teaching how to put a baby in a car seat and so on. In view of this, mothers would prefer to have their partners attend for four of the five classes. Ideally, they would like their partners to attend all classes and perhaps the Bill should make provision to encourage this. I understand many of the classes are held in the evening so it would not cost much. It would set a good example and make a statement that we expect fathers to try to attend more than two classes.

If classes are available both day and evening, could an option be provided whereby an employer could compensate a mother in order that she could work as well as attending the class at a more convenient time? While it is not a major issue, there should be scope to enable employers and employees work out arrangements which suit them best, rather than forcing employees to take time off. It would be good if an employee was allowed to take time off but she might not necessarily want that. Members will understand that some businesses find it hard to manage without certain staff, especially key staff. I would find it hard to survive if my assistant — my boss, as I call her — had to take time off. It would be good if other arrangements could be made and I would be grateful if the Minister of State could clarify this point.

Section 9 refers to breastfeeding breaks and allows time off from work or a reduction of working hours for women who are breastfeeding. While this is welcome, there are no indications in the Bill as to the length of the period that the mother is entitled to breast-feed at work or an indication of the number of hours that she is allowed to have off in order to breastfeed. I understand this will be clarified by regulations and that the issue of time periods and the number of hours will be dealt with later, but I would like to hear more from the Minister of State on this. He mentioned a period of six months in this regard, which is the recommended level. The period was changed in the Seanad from four months. I am not convinced this change is any great achievement because maternity leave is currently 18 weeks plus eight weeks extra unpaid leave, if that is wanted, which is a total of six months. The change is not significant because the majority of mothers would take as much maternity leave as they could. Perhaps the period should be increased to 12 months. I understand that a high proportion of mothers are not breast-feeding, which is why it is being encouraged. To increase the period of leave even to nine months would be an improvement, but given that it is common for mothers to breast-feed for longer, a 12 month period would be preferable.

Employers are not obliged to provide breastfeeding facilities if the provision of such facilities would give rise to a cost, other than a nominal cost. While this is fair, why has it been included in the Bill because it will make it easy for employers not to bother providing facilities? While I am perhaps underestimating this, it is not question of providing new rooms or having new wings built onto buildings; it is concerned with providing a suitable setting, such as a room with basic facilities. It would not cost much but, by including this provision, we may be giving employers too easy a way out if they do not provide such facilities. I will revisit this issue on Committee Stage.

I am concerned that the Bill may discriminate against mothers who are bottle-feeding. While I understand that we are trying to encourage breastfeeding because it is good for the child, there are also mothers struggling with jobs and responsibilities who bottle-feed rather than breast-feed. Should they not be entitled to feeding breaks? What is the intent of the Bill in this regard? If a mother works near her home, is it intended that a child minder would bring the child to the workplace during breaks so that it could be breast-fed? If so, such mothers would have the luck to spend more time with their children but this would lead to jealousy among other mothers who, by choice or not, do not breast-feed. Should they not be allowed to bring their children into the workplace to bottle-feed and spend time with them? I raise this matter because I have heard such questions asked when speaking to people about it.

I am happy that the Bill protects women's entitlements and rights while on maternity leave and additional maternity leave, as laid out in sections 14, 18 and 19, the provisions of which are necessary and welcome. Women are the only sex which can bear children at present, unless science changes that, and it is only fair that they are not placed at a disadvantage in their place of work when taking time off to give birth and have time with their new-born babies. A significant number of queries that the Equality Authority receive are related to pregnancy, time off etc., and I hope the Bill will give some comfort and clarity to women who fear that their positions in work will be in some way jeopardised due to pregnancy.

While the Bill is welcome and family friendly, it is a missed opportunity to go a step further at a time when most parents are in employment and seeking improvements in the position and flexibility of working arrangements, because modern life demands flexibility. The Bill is a start in the right direction but more should be done to help working families. It is difficult to provide child care in most areas and, while it is fine to give people time off, we must go further. Child care must be provided close to where people work and at an affordable price. The Minister of State has heard that child care can cost up to €900 in some Dublin areas, whereas in Navan it can be €150 a week. Even with child benefit allowances, this is a large amount of money, especially after tax is deducted. Is enough being done to facilitate child care? There needs to be more investment in non-profit child care facilities and more incentives to encourage employers to provide crèches. If there is a restriction in the provision of such facilities, employers should allow employees to work from home. There has to be more of an effort because the cost of access to good quality child care is very high.

In the Dáil, we do not set much of an example to employers, as there are no crèche facilities. Some Deputies, God love them, have to bring their children to their offices and let them play on the computer. It is not always a female issue, as this morning I noticed two male Deputies with their children. One Minister who wanted to have some time with his son had to bring him into the restaurant which was full of us lugs talking politics. The Minister, who probably works a 140-hour week, simply wanted an hour with his child, but there is nowhere else to go but the restaurant.

So much for family-friendly sitting hours.

Recently, I was speaking with Deputy Enright, the other baby in the Fine Gael crèche, on how sitting hours affect rural-based Deputies. It is said that the only crèche in the House for us youngsters is the Fine Gael Party. It is difficult for rural-based Deputies if House sittings increase to five days per week. The Dáil could sit six days a week and I would not be affected as I live in Meath and have no family. However, for rural-based Deputies, I wonder if we are going down the right route by increasing sittings just for the sake of keeping the media happy. The Fine Gael Party is calling for an overall reform of Dáil sittings. It does not matter to me or to most people if the House sits late on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday nights. However, it makes a big difference if another day is added. A rural-based Deputy will not be at home at 3.30 p.m. on four days to spend time with his or her children.

A Member referred to the having a family as a factor in keeping women out of politics. Deputy Enright disputes this, claiming that there is nothing stopping a 20 year old coming into politics because she may plan for a family when she is 30. However, there is no maternity leave for a Deputy. I agree it is not possible to give a female Deputy three months off because she will probably lose her job. However, more paid time could be given to the father.

Many young mothers get confused with maternity benefits, thinking that they will get full wages for the 18 weeks. There are information booklets on maternity benefits but for many mothers it does not occur to them until their employer informs them that they will not get their full wages for the 18 weeks. Maternity benefit is only 70% of income to a maximum of €233 which is not much money. For a person on a wage of €400 per week, 70% of that income means he or she is over the maximum threshold. How can one survive with rents alone costing €800 per month? I understand money cannot be thrown around but these benefits should be examined. People need to be made aware sooner that they will not have all their wages.

Moves need to be made on the spatial strategy and decentralisation programme. It is hard to be a working parent living in Navan and commuting to Dublin for up to three hours. Many of these jobs could be based outside of Dublin, allowing people more time at home with flexible hours. Flexible hours are useless for people working in Dublin and living in, say, Navan, as the journey time back and forth takes three hours. A policy of putting jobs beside homes must be developed. The Government must admit its failure in not getting jobs to follow the thousands of houses built in Navan, Kildare and Wicklow in recent years. The spatial strategy and decentralisation programme are only just talked about with no action being taken.

I am glad that some of the Seanad amendments have been taken on board. There will be more amendments to the Bill in the Dáil. Despite some missed opportunities in the Bill, I will be supporting it.

I welcome the general thrust of this Bill. It is important that the rights of spouses be enshrined in this Bill. However, we constantly give rights through legislation but do not bestow responsibilities.

It is right that the policy of breast-feeding, as identified, should be encouraged and supported. However, I notice that in the event of somebody not taking a breast-feeding break, they can take time off in lieu. It could be easy for someone who is not breast-feeding to claim she is doing so and take time off. What safeguards to prevent this will be in place? Will everyone get time off once they claim they are breast-feeding even if they are not?

Is the Deputy looking for evidence?

The problem is that these procedures become automatic after a while and yet the breast-feeding policy will not be advanced.

I am glad to see that certain rights are being given to fathers, as many have felt hard done by. I believe John Waters is right when he gives voice to those fathers. At times, in the politically correct society, fairness does not govern what is acceptable as commentary. When John Waters tries to make a case, he ensures it is valid. There is a case to be made for men which is not often articulated by others. For that reason alone, the courage John Waters has shown in raising these issues for fathers is important. I do not want anything I will say about fathers to be misunderstood. We have to be fair, reasonable and careful to both parents in any situation.

As we are bestowing rights on fathers, we should also consider bestowing responsibilities too. This is particularly the case where fathers leave all responsibilities regarding children with the mothers. Some fathers make no effort to contribute to the support of their children but instead enjoy the Bohemian life while the mother is tied to the child, even if she is working. I support John Waters in his argument for giving men a fair crack at the whip. However, there is also a case for men to take on their share of parental responsibility, particularly those who might not be in the family home. In the House, we are constantly talking about rights but it is time we also spoke about responsibilities. It is one of the ills of society that we all look out for our own rights but none of us seek to identify our responsibilities. Happily, most fathers, like most mothers are diligent and attentive, whether married or living together. Most fathers want to spend time with their children. I do not wish to make a general allegation or adverse comment, but many fathers do not take their responsibilities seriously and, literally and metaphorically, leave the mothers carrying the babies. That should be borne in mind and considered. When we come to tackle the rights of fathers we need to look at the responsibilities of both spouses.

I am concerned about the level of male suicide, although it is not covered by this Bill. The Minister of State referred in his speech to the increase in the number of women in the workforce In 2002, there were more than 678,000 women in the workplace, an increase of almost 175,000 on the 1996 census and more than twice the number recorded in the 1981 census. Much of this is due to women finding freedom and not being compelled to stay at home, which is welcome. In many cases the absence of both parents from the home has not been replaced by some other support for young males in particular. What contribution is this making to the level of young male suicide which appears to be at epidemic levels? I am not saying that mothers or fathers should not be out working. Nowadays both parents often need to work simply to pay the mortgage because house prices are so high. They are entitled to choose to work. Our economic growth would not have been possible without the contribution of women to the workforce because the participation of women had been so low heretofore. If we were to experience growth at the same level for the next ten years, we would not be able to draw on that. We would have to bring in immigrants.

Have we left a vacuum in the home? Is it necessary to conduct a study on the relationship between the changes in the home environment over the past ten or 15 years and the level of young male suicide? Deputy Neville is the expert on this topic in the Oireachtas. He confirms that part of the problem is that young males have lost their way or their sense of a role. The man is no longer the breadwinner, the person who goes out to work while the wife stays at home. While there is nothing wrong in that, we have not taken into account any of the drawbacks to which that change may have inadvertently or directly contributed. It is a matter to which we should give some attention.

While I welcome the general thrust of the Bill, and women, like men, make a significant and necessary contribution to the workforce, some of the tax incentives, especially individualisation, suggest to women who work in the home that their work is less valuable. That is not right. We should recognise the rights of women in the home as equal to those of women outside the home. If someone chooses for whatever reason to stay at home, because her children are at a certain age, as a temporary decision, or to take a few years break from the workforce to spend with her family, that should be construed as working. Those women are working in the home and they should be supported to work at home. There is a feeling among some that the work of women who choose to do so is not regarded as important.

It may not be a fashionable view but this is important work. My colleague, Deputy John Bruton, has raised this in the past pointing out that the contribution of a mother to the home is not assessed in measuring gross national product. A mother can contribute not just to a happy home but to a happy community with all the implications that has for the future of society and the ability of young people to succeed. We need to examine the way we measure such aspects of society. Women working in the home should not be set against women working outside the home or vice versa. We should value both equally. Some women will find that they wish to do both throughout their careers. We should be flexible and support and recognise both because both make a significant contribution.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this important Bill which I broadly welcome and will not oppose on this Stage. Of all the Bills that have come and will come before us during this session, such as the safety, health and welfare at work Bill, the health and social care professionals Bill and the adoptive leave (amendment Bill) Bill, the Maternity Protection Bill is one of the most important. Anything which affords more protection to our pregnant workers, is to be welcomed. However, it is outrageous that in 2004 we are tightening up legislation which should have been in place for many years as in other European countries. We are lagging far behind our European counterparts in dealing with such issues. More women are in the workforce and, in recent years, women have been targeted to enter the workplaces. While there is no doubt that some opportunities have opened up for women, many issues and obstacles remain in their path.

The statistics bear out just how many women have joined our workforce between 1976 and 1996. By 2001, women in the workforce stood at 50% while the number of women with partners and children working increased from 44% to 50% in recent years. Numerous obstacles prevent women from participating fully in the workplace. The Maternity Protection Bill could go some way to ensuring this would no longer be the case. The Bill needs to address how to make it easier for women to make the transition from maternity leave back into the workplace, if that is what they wish. This Bill achieves that end.

One major obstacle which stands in the way of women returning to the workplace, is cost and the lack of affordable child care. Ironically, this is not addressed in a Bill which deals with maternity rights, but we must consider this. Previous speakers have addressed the issue. While the contents of this Bill are welcome, we must deal with this issue if we are to be serious about helping women to enter the workplace.

The Labour Party believes it is the responsibility of the State to provide child care and not that of the private sector which dominates the market. Every year, parents wait with bated breath for some help from the Government in the budget, only to find themselves repeatedly excluded. Parents are forced to make their own child care arrangements, as public child care facilities are not available in many cases. One of the biggest barriers in accessing child care is cost. Many people, particularly lone parents, earn less than €19,000 per annum. The Irish Congress of Trade Unions has estimated that nearly one third of that income is spent on child care before rent or mortgage payments or any other bills.

Those earning between €19,000 and €24,000 spend an estimated 21% of their income on child care. The ICTU also found that 72% of women who work part time cited child care costs as the reason they work part time. More than 33% of women in the workforce work part time, predominately in the low-paid sectors of employment. How can a mother, who is on the minimum wage, afford to go to work unless we address child care issues?

While being a Deputy entails long, hard work, it has its benefits. However, there is no great encouragement to Deputies considering starting or adding to their families. There is no maternity leave afforded to Deputies, there is no crèche and there are no specific facilities where a mother can breast-feed her child. Politics is not a family-friendly business. It is shameful that in 2004, despite proposals for a crèche in Leinster House circulating for many years, there is still no sign of one. Women representatives with children need the full support of a partner who is willing to spend more time at home with the children.

This is made even more difficult for those who live outside Dublin, as I know. While I do not have a family, if I did, I would probably not be a Deputy. I left home last Tuesday morning at 5.30 a.m. and I will get home tonight at about 11 o'clock. The health board would probably take my children into care if I had any, as I would hardly get to see them. If we had a crèche here, such a facility would be used not only by the women Members but the fathers, including the Minister of State who also lives far away. I was reared in politics at home. We never saw our father and our mother did all the work. We were lucky our mother was able to stay at home and look after us. We were effectively a one-parent family as our father was out and about. That was back in the 1950s and 1960s. However, it is much the same in 2004.

If our predecessors in this House had been able to bear children, we would have state-of-the-art facilities. However, unfortunately the majority of those in the House were male. If we want to encourage more women into politics, these issues will need to be addressed. Otherwise, we are only paying lip service to women. Many women are involved in politics at local and branch level. However, those women are discouraged from national politics due to the lack of child care facilities and by being away from home for so long. Even local authorities should hold their meetings at night to facilitate women representatives to attend when the fathers return home.

If we are serious about Dáil reform, which is topical and on all our minds, we must be serious about families and we must address these issues. We should not be afraid of the media and what it might say about us. It will be talking about us anyway so we might as well go ahead and do what is best to encourage the best people to stand for election. Most of the benefits gained for women in recent years came, not from Government initiatives, but from the demands of European directives.

The Maternity Protection Bill 2003 will provide more protection against discrimination for pregnant employees, which is to be welcomed. There is still a cloud of fear hanging over many women when it comes to telling their employers they are pregnant. It is horrifying that this fear is not without grounding. I know of women who are afraid to tell their employers they are pregnant. It is criminal that in this day and age, some women are still being discriminated against by their employers because they are pregnant, despite legislation being in place to protect them. Implementation of this legislation needs to be addressed. There are still employers who believe they can ignore the law and I hope this Bill will send a clear message to them that they flout the law at their peril.

Laura Fearn was awarded €15,000 by the Equality Tribunal in 2003 after she was found to have been demoted and sidelined for no other reason than she was pregnant. During 2002, the Labour Court reached a decision on 13 dismissal cases. Five of these involved complainants who alleged they were dismissed because they were pregnant. All five cases were upheld with awards of between €6,000 and €15,000, and these are only the cases which were brought forward. There are many women who, out of fear, will not take their case to the Labour Court and this is totally unacceptable.

I hope that these types of high-profile cases will act as a deterrent to this type of discrimination but unfortunately it continues. The Irish Congress of Trade Unions has recommended a fast-track procedure to deal with complaints relating to maternity issues. As we know, such complaints need to be addressed urgently. We also need to extend this anti-discrimination cover to those women who are not represented by a union and who have been employed in an environment where they have felt unable to take action against their dismissal. Unfortunately such cases still occur. While those in a union have that backing, unfortunately there is no union in many workplaces and those women feel very isolated and need our support.

Women need to be informed of their rights in these cases. Employers have attempted to dismiss a woman who is pregnant under the guise of poor work and this Bill should protect against this practice. However, if women do not know about this protection, it is redundant. We need a broad information campaign informing women of their rights. The Minister of State should have leaflets printed and placed in health centres, maternity hospitals, doctors' surgeries and other such places. Many women, particularly those who are not union members, are not aware of their rights. The Minister should consider a public information campaign.

Section 4 of the Bill acknowledges that many women wish to work as close to their due date as possible in order to have as much of their maternity leave spent at home after the child is born. This will allow new mothers to take 16 weeks of their paid maternity leave after the birth of their child, if they so wish. This is very welcome. I could never understand why the legislation insisted that women take a specific leave before the baby was born. A mother or her doctor would never jeopardise her baby. I am glad it is now up to the woman to make her own intelligent choice and I commend the Minister for implementing this change. Pregnant women are not ill and are able to work up until the day their babies are born.

For many mothers who work outside the home, they need this time after the birth because many crèches will not take children below a certain age. This should address the problem of women having to take annual leave after their maternity leave.

During 2002, almost 30,000 women made applications for maternity leave, the vast majority of whom wanted to take their leave after their babies were born.

Section 9 deals with the so-called provision for breastfeeding mothers, allowing them to take breaks for breastfeeding for up to six months after the birth, without defining how long these breastfeeding breaks will last. These provisions were originally intended to last for four months but the Government has since realised this would be redundant as many women are on maternity leave in the four months after their child's birth. This also raises the question of mothers who bottle-feed their babies. Are they not entitled to the same benefits of as those who breastfeed? Some mothers may not be in a position to breastfeed and they should not be discriminated against.

If the measure is to encourage women to breastfeed that is fine, but now that we are debating the long-awaited Bill, can we not deal properly with this matter? The Bill merely pays lip service to breastfeeding. The World Health Organisation recommends breastfeeding until a child is at least two years old. The six-month timeframe set out in this section falls far short of this recommendation. Who is benefiting? Is it new mothers, or is it the Government, patting itself on the back for coming up with an innovative proposal?

The health and safety provisions contained in the Bill must also be welcomed. This should go some way towards affording pregnant workers the safety in work they deserve. Workplaces can be dangerous for pregnant and breastfeeding women. Employers are obliged by law to carry out a risk assessment of hazards in the workplace. Who supervises this? Is it enforced? Perhaps the Minister of State could look into this. Have any employers been taken to task for allowing pregnant and breastfeeding mothers to work in unsafe conditions? What proposals has the Department made for ensuring there are personnel to investigate these very important health and safety issues?

The Bill allows for paid maternity leave to be extended from 14 weeks to 18 weeks, which is one of the minimum amounts of time given to mothers within the EU. Paid maternity leave should be seen by employers as a way of increasing the number of valued employees who return to work after having their babies. It also reduces a company's training and recruitment costs and improves morale within a company. Ireland is still lagging behind its European partners on this issue. Women in Sweden are afforded 96 weeks of maternity leave with one year of maternity leave on 80 per cent pay. The Labour Party believes that maternity and parental leave should be supplemented by a further 20 weeks of paid leave, to be taken by either the father or the mother.

A survey was recently carried out of 400 parents in France, Italy, Denmark and Ireland. Of the Irish parents surveyed, 90% of men and 86% of women had never taken parental leave. For many, the fact that it is unpaid is the biggest disadvantage. The study, which was co-ordinated by Trinity College, also found that 12% of women always use their annual leave when their childminding arrangements fall through, a further 12% often use this option and an additional 30% sometimes use their annual leave. This represents 54% of parents in our workplaces. The State needs to get its act together in the area of child care provision because there is a crisis. I was pleased to hear that the Minister intended to increase the time allowed for adoptive leave from two to 16 weeks in the adoptive leave (amendment) Bill. Many people are now adopting children from abroad and it is wonderful for parents and children to have this time together.

If we are being serious about families we need a whole package of reforms across different Departments. There are important issues facing families and parents, new and old. It was different in my day. Now, listening to the news and reading the newspapers every day one frequently hears about children being attacked and raped. Society has broken down for children. We need a wide range of measures within every Department to cope with this. I hope other Departments will follow the Minister's lead in addressing this issue.

Section 8, which deals with ante-natal classes, is to be welcomed, but it does not go far enough. Both parents should be able to attend, particularly for the last three classes. I appeal to the Minister of State to consider this. Fathers are now very involved in the births of their children and it is important that both parents attend these classes. I welcome the Bill, although it needs to go further in some sections. I will be tabling amendments on Committee Stage to this effect.

I wish to share my time with Deputy Gormley.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I welcome the Bill, as I would welcome any Bill which seeks to improve the rights and employment conditions of workers. However, it is disappointing that the Bill delivers very little for women seeking to combine motherhood with work. All its provisions are minimal and do not seek to make any real difference to the lives of working women. Once again we have a Bill which is being sold as an achievement of social partnership, although in reality we are simply belatedly giving working women basic rights.

Maternity protection is at the forefront of the battle to bring about a better work-life balance for workers. In the words of the International Labour Organisation, "Maternity protection contributes to the fundamental principle of elimination of discrimination in respect of employment and occupation." It is also vital in the battle to combat social exclusion and poverty. The necessity for maternity protection legislation is a recognition that in the workplace pregnant women and new mothers face many barriers. The number of pregnancy discrimination cases that have come before the Equality Authority and the courts in recent years is evidence that many employers have yet to accept the basic principles of maternity protection.

Speaking on Second Stage of the Bill in the Seanad, the Minister of State at the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy O'Dea, stated: "It is a widely held view, supported by leave arrangements in several countries, that the best interests of infants under 12 months old are served where they remain in the direct care of their parents." It is disappointing that this principal did not guide the Government in the drafting of the Bill. This should have been used as an opportunity to facilitate mothers and fathers in caring for their children in the first years of their lives.

Maternity policy needs to be centred on the needs of parents and children first and then the employer. Employers' organisations seek to dehumanise much employment policy in a way that does not take cognisance of needs and lives of workers. Many employers are hanging on to outdated 19th-century industrialist attitudes, viewing the worker as merely another cog in the machinery of their factories. The responsibility of employers in this regard is well captured in the ILO statement: "Reproduction is a function of society [and] women workers should not bear the burden alone." Sinn Féin does not believe that the maternity leave provided for in this legislation is adequate. We are calling for the pre-confinement period to be left at four weeks and for the total period of leave to be increased to 26 weeks to allow a greater period of leave after childbirth. This is necessary given the difficulties faced by working mothers today in the area of childminding. If we do not facilitate such an increase in maternity leave we will end up forcing working mothers to leave their employment.

Breastfeeding is the right of every female worker and this must be facilitated at no loss to the worker concerned. Breastfeeding levels in this State are amongst the lowest in Europe despite the clear guidelines from the Department of Health and Children about its benefits for mother and child. The difficulties faced by workers who wish to breastfeed their babies undoubtedly plays a role in the continuation of these low levels. Other countries have achieved much higher rates through family-friendly initiatives, provision of paid breastfeeding breaks and so on.

As legislators, we must facilitate the realisation of the right of working mothers to breastfeed. In that regard, I welcome the amendment to the section dealing with breastfeeding provisions. The original provisions in the Bill were widely criticised, including by the national breastfeeding co-ordinator in the Department of Health and Children. The removal of the restrictions on the position of women whose infants are under four months old is welcome. However, many of the provisions on breastfeeding are vague and we will have to wait for the regulations from the Minister to see the detail of what is being proposed.

The qualification that the requirement on the employer to provide facilities for breastfeeding in the workplace does not hold if there are more than nominal costs involved undermines the apparent intention of the Bill, which is to facilitate working mothers who wish to breastfeed. The Bill is flawed in that there is a lack of obligation on employers to provide facilities for mothers and their babies. With regard to the provision of facilities, it is not clear what, if anything, the Bill will achieve. It is also flawed in that the reduction of working hours has not yet been set out or defined. The Bill should contain a simple entitlement to interruption of work for nursing without loss of pay. Any attempt to facilitate breastfeeding mothers in a limited and structured way will inevitably lead to difficulties for the women concerned.

There has been much talk that this Bill is a step to enable the greater participation of women in the workplace. The reality is that the Bill offers little and, without significant advances in the provision of affordable child care, more women will leave the workforce because there are either no child care places available or what is available is too expensive. Good quality child care must be made available to all, especially to those on low incomes. A universal entitlement to free pre-school must be introduced. The progress on child care to date by the Government has been miserable.

I wish to make a number of brief points about the provisions on ante-natal classes. The Bill provides that the pregnant worker will not get paid time off to attend the last three classes, on the assumption that the woman is on maternity leave. This is made increasingly unlikely by the fact that the Bill proposes to reduce the pre-confinement period of leave to a minimum of two weeks in theory. Clearly this is a case of the cost for employers being put before the health and safety of the employee. Sinn Féin will seek to amend this provision on later Stages. In addition, fathers should have the right to attend a full set of ante-natal classes since many fathers want to accompany their partners to such classes. This must be facilitated.

Ireland has undergone fundamental cultural change in recent years and especially in the years of the Celtic tiger. Members, perhaps with the exception of Deputy English, will remember a time when mothers stayed at home and fathers came home at midday for their dinner. I use the word "dinner" because that is what the meal was called; it was not called "lunch". I am always corrected by my children when I refer to that meal as "dinner".

That society was probably the leftovers from de Valera's vision of Ireland, in which the right of the mother to stay at home was enshrined in the Constitution. However, the other side of that was discrimination against the mother who wished to remain in work. We have heard many tales of women in the Civil Service and in the teaching profession who, on getting married, were told that their careers were over.

That happened to my mother.

Many women experienced this. It was clearly discriminatory.

It is interesting that, when the labour market requires women, the laws can be changed rapidly. During the Second World War, manpower was limited because the men were on the front and women were encouraged back into the labour market. Similarly, in the Celtic tiger era, this country required more women at work so the Government introduced individualisation. That, however, discriminated against women who wished to remain at home. They believed they had not only a right but a duty to do so and that it was best for their children.

In the Celtic tiger era there are many pressures, primarily economic, on the family unit. The mortgage is one such pressure. At a residents' association meeting I attended, one of the people told me: "I live in the third mortgage on the right". That is how he sees his life. It is dominated by the mortgage. Two people are required to pay the mortgage. Often, therefore, both parents have to commute long distances and endure long hours at work. They rarely get to see their children and have to pay inordinately high child care costs. This is the reality for many parents at present. Recently, I had the opportunity of visiting a crèche in the Minister of State's constituency. I was brought there by one of the Green Party's candidates, Patricia Forde Brennan, who is doing good work in Limerick. I listened to the parents. It was a fantastic facility but the parents' lives were ruled by the marketplace.

This legislation has not been drafted with parents in mind. The employers have dictated it, which is unacceptable to the Green Party. Compare our legislation with legislation in Scandinavian countries where there is an entirely different approach. It is child and parent focused. This legislation, however, is primarily about the marketplace. This is reflected in the process of childbirth. Our maternity hospitals are becoming increasingly centralised. In 1970, there were more than 100 maternity units. That is now down to 22 and it is proposed to reduce the number to 12. There is a trend towards further centralisation.

In the past, many women gave birth at home. I believe there is a strong move against home births, which was recently reflected in the Supreme Court decision. I have always been a proponent of home birth. I believe breastfeeding is encouraged by home birth and by the one-to-one care that the midwife offers. Much good work has been done in this area by Marie O'Connor who has shown that there is scaremongering about home births through misleading information. Home births are safe. There should be a change in the 1970 Act to facilitate mothers who wish to give birth at home. They should be given the money to do so. That is real maternity protection. We need to find out what mothers want.

Deputy Gay Mitchell quoted Deputy John Bruton, whose comments reflect core Green Party philosophy. This is that the contribution made by carers and mothers is never factored into the economic statistics. Somebody who produces nerve gas in a factory is a productive member of society but somebody who looks after children does not receive payment and is not seen as productive. The Green Party views that as false accounting.

We should listen to what women are saying. If one compares what is offered in this Bill with what is available in other countries, one can see it is inadequate. Even the UK permits 24 weeks' maternity leave. Fertility rates are plummeting because working mothers believe that giving birth is no longer an option. This is increasingly the case in Ireland. More than 15% of Equality Authority work relates to maternity leave issues. There are particular problems in small to medium sized enterprises where the constraints on women pursuing their maternity rights are acute. This especially applies to the hotel and catering industries.

I wish to refer to breastfeeding. The four month limit is inadequate. The Minister appeared to be nodding in agreement when the previous speaker mentioned this. There appears to be a lack of joined up thinking in Government on this issue. The Department of Health and Children recommends breast-feeding up to six months. We need to sort out the inherent contradictions on this issue. The La Leche League's recommendation for a longer period for breast-feeding has not been taken into account.

It is too loose an arrangement to give employers discretion on breast-feeding breaks given the record of small and medium-sized enterprises in accommodating expectant mothers. There is no guideline on a qualifying time for mothers to take breaks at work. In Sweden, for example, mothers get a 20-minute lactation break every two hours and they are allowed to accumulate time. We have a long way to go.

The Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health and Children invited the La Leche League to address it. It pointed out the problems that occur in regard to breast-feeding on which we have a very poor record. This is possibly the best start one can give a child in terms of building up his or her immune system. We need to encourage breast-feeding through legislation, but, unfortunately, the Bill falls short of what is required.

Women have referred to the concept of a mother tax; this is a tax on lifestyle, career and income. One in three women in their 20s fear the impact on their career of having a child, while 42% worry about the effect on their finances if they become mothers before they are 30. Almost one in four people in their late 30s do not have children. One in five people in their 30s without children who want them in future are unsure as to when they will have them. These are the realities of living in modern Ireland.

According to the National Family and Parenting Institute, 57% of mothers with children under the age of five now work, compared with 43% in 1991. More mothers complain of being pushed towards work. Only 1% of women want to work full time when their children are very small. What are we doing about the other 99%? Are we really encouraging them into motherhood or are we encouraging them into the workplace? The answer to that is quite clear. It is regrettable that we are not accommodating those women; that we have moved so far in the ideological direction of the Government. Two thirds of women would prefer to work part time or not at all at this stage of their children's lives. We are falling short in our response to the scale of the problem.

Deputy Moynihan-Cronin referred to some of the issues arising from the Bill. I am interested to hear how the Minister of State will respond to the issues that have been raised by previous speakers. We are all agreed that to avoid potentially significant health and safety risks, the pre-confinement period of maternity leave should remain at four weeks and the total period of leave should increase to 20 weeks to allow a greater period of leave after the birth to compensate. This is dealt with in section 3 of the Bill.

Section 6 deals with the termination of additional unpaid leave. Again, an employee must have the employer's consent to exercise this right. This could lead to an employee who does not have a contractual right to sick pay in the event of certified medical illness, being prevented by an employer from claiming that entitlement simply by the employer refusing termination of the leave. This area needs to be examined and I hope this will happen on Committee Stage.

An employee should be allowed to challenge before a rights commissioner an employer's decision to refuse to allow the termination of additional maternity leave. The employer concerned should be obliged to show that there is an operational justification for such a refusal.

Section 7 deals with postponement of leave where a baby is hospitalised. The Minister of State dealt with some of these issues in the Seanad. I suggest that the potential right to postpone maternity leave should apply at any point during maternity leave. In addition, a refusal to allow the postponement of such leave by an employer should be open to challenge before a rights commissioner. The employer concerned should be obliged to show that there is a justifiable cause for such a refusal.

Deputy Moynihan-Cronin referred to ante-natal classes. This is very important and again, we contrast badly in this regard, particularly with Sweden. These classes should be available to pregnant employees without any loss of pay and we must make sure this is the case.

The legislation needs to go much further. I received many submissions in recent days and while I will not go into them in detail, there is a great deal of disappointment among women that the Bill has not addressed some of the more fundamental questions. It is an improvement but we are only doing so in baby steps, if the Minister will pardon the pun. We are not making the advances which are required to make Ireland a truly equal society and to give women the opportunity, if they wish, to stay at home for longer periods of time to look after their children.

I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak on this important legislation. It has taken some time to come before the House due to pressure of business.

Balancing work and life commitments is important, not only in the context of assisting employees in combining employment and personal responsibilities, but also in underpinning social and equality objectives. It is imperative, therefore, that we meet the challenge of developing innovative measures which reflect the reality of today's workplace and the personal and social responsibilities which employees encounter.

The increased number of women in the labour force has been one of the main contributory factors in our economic growth which has allowed the economy to expand without being stifled by major skills shortages. In 1994, the female labour force participation rate was only 39%. According to the latest CSO figures, it is now almost 49%.

The EU Presidency conclusions on equal opportunities and social inclusion as outlined in Lisbon and Nice in 2000 set a target of 60% employment for women by 2010 with an interim target of 57% by 2005. We still have some way to go to meet those figures. It is unlikely that we will reach 57% by 2005, but I hope we will reach the 60% target by 2010. Complying with these targets will mean a further increase in the number of women of child-bearing age in the labour force.

Our economic climate is, in itself, a driving force in addressing obstacles to women's participation in the labour force, particularly in skilled employment. Employers do not want to lose trained and skilled women and are looking at ways of retaining them in employment. The need to ensure continued economic growth is putting the employment and retention of women in the workforce at centre stage. This is not only an equality issue but also an economic one. Recent statistics show that, of the number of women in employment in Ireland, more than 62% are aged between 15 and 45. These ages approximately correspond to childbearing age. Almost 30,000 maternity benefit payments were awarded to employed or self-employed women in 2002. In all, 60,000 children were born in the same year.

It is imperative that our legislation recognises the valuable contribution made by working mothers and provides support for them in the workplace. I am delighted to see the regulations whereby women are entitled to 14 weeks' maternity leave but must take four weeks of this before having the baby will be changed under this Bill. Many babies do not arrive on time and can be born up to two weeks' late. This can mean that women find themselves going back to work much sooner than intended. The majority of women applying for maternity benefit put false dates on their application forms so that they may spend more time with the baby after it has been born. Everyone that has worked in this area recognises this has been a major problem.

Last year, almost 30,000 women made applications for maternity leave. The majority of these women wanted to have the maximum time available to them after the birth and want the right to decide when they will take their leave. The four weeks' provision was a frustrating regulation and not a defined right. The amending of this will allow new mothers to take up to 16 weeks' paid maternity leave after the birth of their child. It offers greater flexibility in managing leave entitlements in the way that best suits their personal circumstances.

The Bill also strengthens maternity protection rights for breastfeeding employees. Now, mothers will be allowed breastfeeding breaks, or adjusted working hours, for up to six months after the birth of their baby. This puts the welfare of the family ahead of the employer. Breastfeeding provides the best opportunity for a healthy start in life for infants and young children. The incidence of breastfeeding in Ireland continues to be lower than that of our European counterparts. In 1994, only 36% of mothers breastfed their children, although this figure has increased since then. The majority of infants are not breastfed and are therefore deprived on the major nutritional, immunological and psychological benefits breastfeeding confers.

The evidence for the superiority of breastfeeding for mothers and children is compelling and continues to grow. Research indicates that many of the health enhancing and disease preventative benefits of breastfeeding in infancy are sustained throughout childhood and into adulthood. A baby's first year of life is a time of unprecedented growth and development. Breast milk is specifically designed to optimise the baby's potential during this time and for years after the breastfeeding has ceased. There are health benefits for breastfeeding mothers too, as they have some protection against pre-menopausal breast cancer, ovarian cancer and osteoporosis in later life. Just as importantly, breastfeeding provides unique and precious early bonding experiences for infants and their mothers. This contributes greatly to the baby's psychological, emotional and social development.

We must offer all women and their families the opportunity to make informed choices about breastfeeding. We must provide support and develop greater awareness of these benefits. We must also look at how barriers to breastfeeding may be overcome. It is essential that the Government does everything to influence and change society's attitude towards breastfeeding. We should aim for a society that offers support and recognises the enormous benefits of breastfeeding. In creating better awareness and support for breastfeeding, the establishment of a national committee on breastfeeding and the appointment of a national breastfeeding co-ordinator were of great importance.

This Bill increases the support. Many working mothers who would like to breastfeed their children for four months or more have not had the opportunity to do so in the past as they have had to return to work when the baby is around three months old. As a result of this, many mothers give up breastfeeding after the first three months and in some cases decide not to breastfeed at all. According to a recent study, babies who are breastfed develop higher IQs than those who are not and, the longer they are breastfed, the more intelligent they are likely to be. Researchers analysed data from more than 9,000 babies born between 1959 and 1961. The researchers looked at how they were fed as children and recorded their adult IQ. The study found that babies breastfed for two months or longer had a slightly higher IQ than the general population — the average is approximately 100. Babies breastfed for seven to nine months scored the highest IQs with an average of 106. The American and Danish researchers involved in the study believe the link may be due to the nutrients found in breast milk.

It is important that we do not make women who decide not to breastfeed feel inferior. While it is a personal decision, we should do everything possible to encourage them to breastfeed. This Bill will assist every mother in doing this if she so chooses.

The institute of obstetrics believes pregnant women need to attend at least one complete set of ante-natal classes in the interests of her health and safety during pregnancy. Ante-natal classes form an intrinsic part of the ante-natal care package, especially in the woman's first pregnancy. These classes are essential to provide information on all aspects of giving birth so that they can assist each expectant mother on how to make informed choices. Through a wide variety of skills and knowledge, the classes aim to educate the expectant mother and her partner and promote confidence in her ability to give birth. Ante-natal classes provide the expectant mother with information about pregnancy, labour, delivery and baby care. They allow both the mother and her partner to discuss any concerns they might have with other expectant mothers. Many women and their partners find this to be of great benefit.

While many ante-natal classes focus on labour and delivery alone, more are beginning to include practical advice on how to care for the baby and adjust to parenthood. Childbirth and parenting, especially for first-time parents, can be a daunting and scary time. Ante-natal classes can be exceptionally helpful in preparing future parents for what is ahead of them. This Bill ensures that every expectant mother will be legally entitled to attend those essential classes without loss of payment. It also ensures every father will be able to attend two classes prior to the birth. This will be of assistance to both mother and father during the delivery.

The Bill is an extremely important measure for the health of the mother and child. It is an important move for many mothers and gives them the entitlements they need and deserve at one of the most important times of their lives. I congratulate the Minister on introducing this Bill and I commend it to the House.

I thank everyone who contributed to this debate. I thank them for their generally positive remarks and support for the Bill. In the course of the debate, people lost sight of the fact that this legislation is the product of social partnership. It represents a deal worked out between employers, who are naturally concerned to protect their interests and minimise their costs, and the representatives of working mothers, namely the trade unions. While the Government was a party to the agreement, the legislation is the product to the agreement between the employers and the trade unions. When two sides sit down to hammer out a deal, each will try to get as much as they can and minimise their obligations to the greatest extent possible.

I appreciate the many constructive proposals I have heard. I have received representations from all sorts of people suggesting that the period should be increased or not taken en bloc and that we should have more benefits. While I take on board and appreciate the many constructive proposals I have heard, I am frankly not able unilaterally to unravel that package to give a better degree of accommodation to one party and less to another. I am not entitled to do so. Deputy Gormley brought up the old chestnut of the Scandinavian countries. Whenever there is a debate on such social issues, we are bound to be beaten over the head at some stage by someone talking about Scandinavian countries. I know of no one in this country who would not like to have the social benefits and system enjoyed by people in the Scandinavian countries. However, having said that, I know very few who would want the rates of tax that people must pay in Scandinavia either. At the present time in our economic development, successful though we may have been in recent years, one cannot have both.

Deputy English raised the question of retrospection. I would like to clarify something that I indicated to him. The increased periods of leave — the 14 to 18 and the four to eight — were brought into effect in 2001. That was done by way of secondary legislation. This Bill brings the statutory instrument into the form of primary legislation. The other provisions will not have retrospective effect. Retrospection is not an issue in that regard. The other regulations will kick into effect only when the Bill commences.

Deputy English also raised section 5 and whether additional maternity leave should be extended. I remind the House that we also have parental leave. Someone who takes paid maternity leave and additional maternity leave is also immediately entitled, additionally, if she so wishes, to take an additional 14 weeks' parental leave, albeit unpaid, as Deputy Moynihan-Cronin has said. However, in this case we are talking about extending the additional maternity leave, which is in any case unpaid.

Deputy English also raised the question of whether leave might be postponed to be taken in the event of the illness of a child. He is unhappy about the fact that it must be taken in one block. I can look at that, but, as I said, I must be very careful to stay within the terms of the agreement on which this legislation is based. I can answer some of his other points in the same way. He asked about the number of antenatal classes and why fathers could not have extra classes. He also made an interesting observation regarding breast-feeding. If someone is entitled to take a breast-feeding break where no breast-feeding facilities are provided on the job and agrees to go at night to facilitate her employer, she can look for compensation. There is total flexibility, and the employer and employee can work out any deal that they wish. Deputy English also asked where the six-month period was in the Bill. Essentially, a breast-feeding employee is defined in the 1994 Act as an employee up to 26 weeks after her confinement. The 1994 Act and this Bill must be read together. The definition is clear in their conjunction.

It was clearer in the one before. Perhaps I am wrong.

This amends the earlier Act, and anything that is not amended still stands. A breast-feeding employee is defined as an employee up to 26 weeks after her confinement. However, we will re-examine that to ensure it is absolutely clear.

Deputy Gay Mitchell raised a query about what safeguards will be in place to prevent people from skiving off work on the pretext that they are breast-feeding. This law will be covered by regulations. The sort of evidence that one must produce, which will in any case be fairly clear, will be incorporated into those regulations which are now being prepared. Generally speaking, one currently needs at least a medical certificate. Deputy Mitchell also raised a point about measures to force men to face up to their responsibilities if they leave the family and their wives and kids to fend for themselves, believing that they have no contribution to make. If someone in that situation is working, of course his deserted wife can seek maintenance from him. However, that is not always very effective. Some Deputies, to my surprise, do not seem to realise that, if someone gets a lone parent's allowance — it is one of the options, and the social welfare authorities may say that he or she is entitled in such cases — the Department of Social and Family Affairs pursues the other partner — the father in that case — to make what it would regard as a reasonable contribution judged on his circumstances. I know from the personal experience of constituents coming to me more frequently with this problem that it seems to be stepping up its campaign, and I welcome that.

Deputy Moynihan-Cronin said that we were lagging behind the rest of Europe. I do not agree with that. Our legislation is already fully compliant with the EU pregnant workers' directive, and our statutory entitlements are more generous than those set down in it. For example, the directive provides for 14 weeks' paid maternity leave; we provide 18. We also provide an additional eight weeks of unpaid leave. This Bill further enhances the rights of working women who wish to bear children and remain in work.

Deputy Moynihan-Cronin also referred to the lack of crèche facilities in Leinster House, and I agree with her about that. However, the provision of such facilities is an administrative matter. I am told that it is now up to the newly created Houses of the Oireachtas Commission, which is tasked with providing for the running of the Houses of the Oireachtas. I believe that she mentioned something about which she is mistaken, though it may also have been another Deputy. Deputies are entitled to maternity benefits. We learn something new every day.

Several people mentioned child care, and of course this legislation does not deal with that; it has a specific mandate to deal with certain matters. There have been very significant developments regarding the provision of child care over the last few years. Child care was identified as a priority area for investment in the national development plan and the equal opportunities child care programme 2000 to 2006, which was launched by my Department in April 2000. The principle aims of the programme are increasing the number of child care facilities and places, enhancing the quality of child care services and introducing a co-ordinated approach to the delivery of such services. The total funding allocated to my Department for such purposes during the seven years of the programme is €437 million, a not inconsiderable sum.

The programme is working to address the child care needs of parents who are working or engaged in training and educational activities through the provision of capital grant assistance to community, not-for-profit organisations and private child care providers to increase the supply of child care places or enhance the quality of existing places. It also offers staffing grants to community-based, not-for-profit organisations which focus on meeting the child care needs of disadvantaged families. It also offers support to the national voluntary child care organisations and other groups working to improve the quality of child care in Ireland.

It is estimated that 1,952 grants to child care providers and community groups approved to date will create 27,955 new child care places and also support over 26,577 existing places on completion of the projects. In addition, another €42 million has been allocated to quality improvement measures, including support for the national voluntary child care organisations in the city and county child care committees. City and county child care committees have been established in 33 city and county areas. They have developed and are currently implementing co-ordinated strategic plans for child care provision in their local area over the period from 2000 to 2006.

Deputy Gormley asked me about the Health and Safety Authority and the provisions for pregnant workers. The Health and Safety Authority is responsible for health and safety issues surrounding pregnancy and breast-feeding. The Health and Safety Authority was represented on the review group which recommended the changes being introduced today. It did not draw attention to widespread abuse or non-compliance with the health and safety provisions of the Maternity Protection Act 1994. Deputy Moynihan-Cronin suggested a promotional leaflet campaign. I know that the Equality Authority will want to do something of that sort once this Bill becomes law, and I will certainly pass on her comments to it. I agree with her on the need to disseminate information. I am constantly amazed at the lack of information regarding these matters among those entitled to them.

Deputy Moynihan-Cronin also mentioned paid parental leave. The principle of paid parental leave was among issues discussed by the parental leave working group in the course of its deliberations. I understand that some members of the working group expressed concerns about the adoption of new measures which would result in increased costs for employers, especially small employers, given the uncertain economic climate at the time and the need to maintain international competitiveness. Consequently, no agreement was reached on the issue of paid parental leave and the Government has made no commitment in this regard.

The Department has worked out the potential cost per annum of such a measure. Social insurance payment in respect of parental leave, based on an earnings related maternity benefit rate and a 90% parental leave uptake by women and a 15% uptake by men, would cost nearly €79 million. Public sector employer costs, where the rate of payment for parental leave to public sector employees would in all likelihood be full pay, would be more than €50 million. The cost to the social insurance fund and the Exchequer if parental leave attracted a payment on the same basis as maternity leave is estimated to be in the region of €130 million.

As I stated, the measure could not be introduced without pain and no commitment has been made on the matter thus far. While I am not inimical to the idea of amending the Bill if it would improve it, I stress that any amendments I accept in the course of Committee and Report Stage debates will have to be within the parameters of the agreement which has been hammered out as I do not have any authority to change them unilaterally in favour of one side or the other. I thank Deputies for their constructive comments and commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.