I thank the Chairman and members for the opportunity to address the committee. The Chairman has already introduced my colleague, Ms Jennifer O'Farrell, and we are both in the equality division of the Department of Justice and Equality, with responsibility for various equality issues, including family leave legislation. The Commission's proposals are directed at the area of family leave. We will endeavour to answer any questions the committee may have but our capacity to do so is limited on the basis that we are still at a very preliminary stage of examining this proposal and we do not have a Government position. Some considerable policy issues must be addressed before we arrive at a Government position. We do not yet have firm information on costs and other impacts and that is work in progress. We do not have Government guidance on the various policy issues but we will seek that Government guidance and a negotiating mandate once we finish our preliminary analysis in conjunction with colleagues in all other relevant Departments.
We have supplied two scrutiny notes that we prepared for the committee on the related initiatives. One is a package of non-legislative and legislative measures to promote gender equality in the workplace and work-life balance. The second, within that, is the legislative proposal itself. The Commission's communication sets out details of an initiative that is being developed by the Commission to address the following challenges. These are the under-representation of women in the labour market across the European Union due to family responsibilities, such as responsibilities as a parent or carer of family members; the persisting pay gap between men and women, as well as an increasing pension gap that often leads to social exclusion and increased risk of poverty for women; and the failure of existing policies to bring equal opportunities for fathers and mothers with regard to labour market opportunities and treatment at work. That is the rationale expressed by the Commission for this package of measures.
Specifically, the Commission's objectives are to increase female participation in the labour market and reduce the gender pay gap, including elements of pay and pensions.
It also intends to give workers more opportunity and choice in balancing their professional and care responsibilities by updating and modernising the current legal and policy framework, with particular attention to the role of men. The proposal is to support member states' modern family policies, including by addressing demographic and societal challenges and shortcomings in care service facilities and to eliminate economic disincentives to work for second earners who have family care responsibilities. The non-legislative actions proposed by the Commission are summarised in the scrutiny note and I do not propose to set them out. They pose no difficulties for us and we can, in fact, welcome and support this package of non-legislative actions.
As indicated in the scrutiny note, the legislative measures proposed follow on from the former maternity leave directive which was published by the Commission in 2008. The Commission withdrew the proposal as it had become clear that an impasse had been reached between the Council and the Parliament which could not be broken. There was also a case for a broader approach which was not focused solely on maternity leave to address work-life balance issues. During the Irish Presidency the then Minister of State, former Deputy Kathleen Lynch, tried to negotiate an end to the impasse but the distance between the parties was too wide and we were unable to broker a way forward in the time available to us.
The specific objectives of the directive now proposed are to improve access to work-life balance arrangements and increase the take-up of family-related leave and flexible working arrangements by men so as to promote greater gender equality in the labour market, including in relation to the gender pay gap and lifetime pension entitlement accruals. The following new elements are proposed. First is the possibility of flexible uptake, piecemeal and part-time, of the four-month entitlement to parental leave which would be paid at sick pay level. The four-month entitlement can be taken up until the child reaches the age of 12 years and cannot or would not be in the context of the Commission's proposals transferred between parents. Currently, we have a provision which is rooted in an EU directive for unpaid parental leave. The substantial change is that the leave would be paid. The proposal includes an entitlement to ten working days of paternity leave when a child is born, paid at sick pay level. As the directive sets out minimum standards, it is always possible for member states to go beyond them. The proposal also includes an entitlement to five days of carer's leave, paid at sick pay level, per year per worker to take care of seriously ill or dependent relatives and a right to request flexible working arrangements to take care of children up to 12 years old and for workers with caring responsibilities.
The Commission's proposals are being examined in detail. Some elements of the proposed directive pose very little difficulty for Ireland. We introduced two weeks' paternity leave last year; that is something we have and to which the Commission's proposal would make no difference. Our own policy direction domestically of moving to significantly expand paid leave to parents to cover the first year - a programme for Government commitment - is a very important context for us in addressing or examining the Commission's proposals. The scrutiny note we have provided comments on each of the elements. For now, rather than to repeat all of it, I draw attention to the proposal to change the current unpaid leave to paid leave. This would be the major new element for Ireland and needs very careful consideration from cost and impact on employment perspectives.
In coming to our assessment of the implications of the proposed directive, the first point to make is that we are conscious that previous EU gender equality initiatives have had a transformative impact on the position of women in Irish society. On that basis, we welcome in principle the Commission's initiative in presenting this package of proposals. This is subject to the normal detailed scrutiny, especially of those elements that are different from our current family leave regime and that could have significant cost implications. From an Exchequer perspective - this is a point that will, no doubt, be emphasised by our colleagues in the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and other Departments - any additional cost would need to be met from a strictly limited fund available for each annual budget, the so-called "fiscal space". We also need to consult and negotiate on the detail with our European partners in due course, as well as with domestic stakeholders, including employer and employee representatives, in order that we fully understand the cost and other implications, particularly in the employment sphere.
What will happen next? We have an ad hoc interdepartmental advisory committee which has been set up to help us to analyse and cost the Commission's proposals. As it happens, the committee is due to meet tomorrow afternoon for the first time. We expect that its work will be completed quickly and that we will be able to seek a Government decision on our negotiating mandate before the summer break. We understand the Estonian Presidency is planning to organise a preliminary discussion on the file at ministerial level in July and that negotiations will commence in earnest in September. To reiterate, we are still at a very preliminary stage of our analysis and none of the key policy decisions on our negotiating position have yet been taken. There is a bit of work to be done before we make a submission to the Government. It will include consultation with employer and employee representatives which the committee may also be contemplating. Clearly, we will also reflect on the feedback from the committee. We will also consult colleagues in other Departments who have operational responsibilities in the social welfare system or as major employers within the public sector. Notwithstanding that rather serious limitation on what I can offer the committee by way of evidence, we will endeavour to address questions members have.