Parental Leave Bill, 1998: Second Stage.

Question proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

This Bill implements the EU Directive on Parental Leave. It will give parents an entitlement to leave from work to take care of their young children. It will also give employees a limited right to time off from work for family crises.

The Parental Leave Directive, adopted in June 1996, incorporates a framework agreement which was negotiated between the social partners at EU level. This framework agreement set the broad parameters for parental leave but left much to the discretion and interpretation of member states. The directive stipulates a minimum of three months leave for each parent to be taken in the initial years of the child's life up the age of eight. This leave is distinct from maternity leave. The directive provides that the leave should, in principle, be non-transferable between parents. Employees must be guaranteed a right to return to work and must be protected against dismissal. So long as the minimum requirements of the directive are met, it is left to member states to determine issues such as whether the leave is paid or unpaid, what pattern of leave is to be allowed, the maximum age of the child and matters relating to social security.

In addition to providing for parental leave, the directive provides that workers must be given the right toforce majeure leave, that is, time off for family crises resulting from illness or accident. Again, the directive gives member states discretion in developing the details of force majeure leave.

The key objectives of the Parental Leave Directive are the reconciliation of work and family life and the promotion of equal opportunities and treatment between men and women. These aims are highly relevant to Irish society today. Over the past 25 years there has been a massive growth in the numbers of women in the workforce here. Between 1976 and 1996 the numbers of women in the workplace grew by 212,000, reaching 488,000 in 1996. The growth in the number of women at work has accelerated in recent years. Indeed, the growth in women in the workplace in the five years between 1991 and 1996 — just over 100,000 - almost equalled the growth of women's employment in the previous 20 years. The most recent Labour Force survey published by the Central Statistics Office last year estimates that the number of women at work was over 512,000 - or four in every ten people at work. In the case of women aged 25 to 44, nearly two thirds now work outside the home. There has been a huge increase in the number of married women at work. In 1971 only 14 per cent of the women in the workforce were married, but by 1996 married women accounted for 47 per cent of women workers.

These changes in the structure of the workforce have led to a growing awareness of the need to reconcile work and family life. The traditional family in which the father is the breadwinner and the mother is the stay-at-home carer of the children is still strong but is no longer dominant in our society. There has been a rapid increase in the numbers of other types of families including families of dual earners, single parent families and families where the mother is the sole earner. A study carried out for the Commission on the Family showed that, among families with a child aged under 15, only 49 per cent had one earner, 36 per cent had two earners and the remaining 15 per cent had no earner. These developments are helping to break the mould in which labour is divided between fathers as providers and mothers as carers.

In this changing society there is increasing recognition of the need for measures which will help parents to reconcile the competing demands of work and family. The introduction of parental leave will not only facilitate the increasing numbers of mothers in the workforce but, equally importantly, will provide working fathers with practical means of involvement in the care and upbringing of their young children. Theforce majeure leave, which is also being introduced under the Bill, recognises the reality that family responsibilities are not confined to those with young children. It reflects the fact that all workers, men and women, may find themselves faced with an emergency caused by the accident or illness of a family member.

The EU Directive on Parental Leave sets broad parameters but gives considerable latitude to member states in drawing up their national schemes of parental leave. I will now outline some of the considerations which shaped the Bill.

At the time the EU directive was adopted, Ireland, Luxembourg and the UK were the only member states which did not already have some form of statutory parental leave. We therefore had to start from scratch in developing our parental leave scheme, while most other member states had only to make any modifications to existing schemes which were necessary to comply with the directive. In view of the social protocol, the directive did not originally apply to the UK but was extended to include the UK in December 1997. The UK, therefore, has two years from that date in which to introduce parental leave.

In developing the Bill, my Department examined the existing schemes in other countries, including the EU member states. I should caution, however, that because of the nature of the information available, the differing social security systems in the various member states and the diversity of parental leave schemes in operation, it was difficult to draw firm conclusions from this material. Indeed, from our examination of the position in other member states, it is difficult to speak of any kind of norm. In almost every dimension, be it the upper age limit of the child, the pattern of leave available or the issue of payment, there is much variation between member states. Existing domestic legislation dealing with maternity protection and adoptive leave also provided useful models, but as maternity and adoptive leave are both based on particular events, the Bill necessarily differs from the earlier legislation in many respects.

Consultations with the social partners were another key factor in the development of the Bill. The requirement for such consultations derives from the terms of the directive and is also written into Partnership 2000. My Department has had intensive consultations with IBEC and ICTU about the contents of the Bill. I and my of officials have met these organisations on several occasions, both within the framework of Partnership 2000 and elsewhere, and have given full and detailed consideration to the oral and written submissions which they made. Obviously, as ICTU and IBEC had opposing views on many issues relating to parental leave, it was not possible to draw up a scheme of parental leave which would entirely satisfy both organisations.

In drawing up this measure my Department had to balance a diverse range of factors. We took into account existing parental schemes in other countries and the divergent views of the social partners. We sought, subject to meeting the requirements of the directive, to develop a scheme which would suit Irish needs and conditions. We wanted a scheme which would be workable; would not be unduly difficult to administer; and which would give clear entitlements to workers but leave flexibility for local agreement. We also wanted to strike an appropriate balance between the rights and expectations of workers and the needs of business and the economy as a whole.

I do not claim to have achieved perfection. I am also conscious that parental leave andforce majeure leave represent a new departure in Irish working life and that these new rights will apply to employees in employments of all sizes and types. For this reason, as I will outline later, I have made statutory provision for the scheme to be reviewed within three years.

A key issue which we had to consider in drawing up the Bill was whether it should be paid, either by the employer or by the Exchequer, in the form of a social welfare benefit. The Government has decided not to provide paid leave. To require employers to provide pay for the person who is absent on parental leave for 14 weeks, in addition to the cost of a replacement for that person, would not only be costly for individual employers but would be fundamentally damaging to Ireland's competitive position. I do not think this can be regarded as a serious proposition.

Were the Exchequer, on the other hand, to provide a benefit similar to maternity leave to all persons who took parental leave, the estimated cost would be £40 million a year in social welfare benefits alone and there would be substantial additional Exchequer costs arising in relation to the many public servants who do not pay full PRSI. I do not regard expenditure on this scale as being warranted.

The picture in other member states is hugely variable and it cannot be said that paid parental leave is the standard. While seven member states — Sweden, Finland, Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Austria and Italy - provide some form of payment, the others provide no payment or do so only in restricted circumstances. It has also been asserted that only if leave is paid will men avail of it. However, with the exception of Sweden, the take-up rate by men is extremely low, even where the leave is paid. In Germany, for example, only 1 per cent of all eligible men take parental leave. The existence of a link between payment and male take up cannot be demonstrated in countries where paid parental leave operates.

I emphasise that there is no requirement under the directive that parental leave be provided on a paid basis. The social partners who negotiated the framework agreement left this issue for decision by member states. In view of the significant potential cost to the Exchequer of providing a social welfare benefit for such leave the Government does not propose to provide for parental leave on a paid basis.

The Bill provides, however, that employees on parental leave will be treated for the purposes of all employment rights, other then remuneration and pensions, as if they remained at work. This means that time spent on parental leave will be counted as service for the purposes of promotions, increments, annual leave, etc. This was left open in the directive but it was decided that, in order to enhance the attractiveness of the scheme, the time involved should be reckonable as time at work.

I am also arranging, in consultation with my colleague, the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs, Deputy Dermot Ahern, that time spent on parental leave will be credited for social welfare purposes where necessary. This means that no worker will lose out on his or her long-term or short-term social welfare benefits because of time spent on parental leave. The necessary arrangements do not form part of the current measure but will be put in place by the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs once the Bill is enacted.

In the case offorce majeure leave, however, different considerations apply to payment. As Senators will note, the Bill sets tight limits to the amount of force majeure leave which an employee can take in a three year period. Given these limits and the requirement for validation by way of medical certificate, it was decided that the most administratively practical arrangement was to provide force majeure leave on a paid basis.

I reject most emphatically any notion that this is a "minimalist" Bill. It is a balanced measure which more than meets the bare requirements of the directive. I have already mentioned some of the features, such as the reckonability of parental leave for service purposes, the payment forforce majeure leave and the protection of social welfare rights which were not absolute requirements under the directive. I draw attention to the fact that the Bill allows parental leave, by agreement between employer and employee, to be taken as a number of “broken” periods or by working reduced hours.

Many existing parental leave schemes in other countries do not afford such flexibility. Furthermore, although the directive does not specify any form of retrospection, the Bill provides that parental leave will apply to parents of children born on or after 3 June 1996. Parents of a child now aged up to two will, therefore, qualify for parental leave. As regards the maximum age of the child concerned, it was possible to set this somewhere between two and eight within the terms of the directive. Only Sweden and Denmark have an upper age limit of eight, with most member states setting it at about three. We decided to set the limit at five by which age almost all children have started school.

There have been some comments and questions in recent weeks about a so-called "derogation" which my Department obtained from the terms of the directive. I wish to emphasise that no derogation has been sought from the EU Commission and that it is intended to comply fully with the terms of the directive. It sets a deadline of 3 June 1998 for its transposition into national law, but provides that member states can have a maximum additional year in case of special difficulties. In February last, my Department contacted the EU Commission seeking to delay transposition of the directive here by six months, that is, to 3 December 1998. This approach was made because of an assessment at that time of the timeframe for enactment of the legislation and our knowledge of the potential difficulties for employers of having to implement the legislation immediately after the enactment of the Bill. The Commission acceded to this request, confirming that this would be fully in compliance with the directive.

I intend to bring the scheme into operation on 3 December 1998 in line with the approach to the Commission. This interval will enable employer and worker organisations to inform their members about the implications of this measure. It will allow employers to put systems in place and allow for any necessary modification to existing non-statutory leave schemes which operate in some employments. It will also allow the secondary legislation to be put in place, facilitate Departments in making consequential changes and generally permit the smooth introduction of the scheme.

The Bill is divided into five Parts as follows: Part I contains preliminary and general provisions; Part II sets out the basic entitlements and conditions for parental leave andforce majeure leave; Part III deals with the employment rights of workers who take parental leave or force majeure leave; Part IV sets out the mechanisms for resolving disputes about parental leave or force majeure leave, and Part V contains miscellaneous provisions.

Part I has general and mainly standard provisions. Senators will note the operative date of 3 December 1998 which is in section 1. I also draw attention to section 4 which ensures that the provisions of the Bill cannot be nullified or limited by any other agreement but which allows for arrangements which are more favourable to employees than those provided in the Bill.

Part II sets out the basic entitlements and conditions of parental leave andforce majeure leave. The salient features of the parental leave entitlement, as set out in section 6, are that the natural or adoptive parent of a child is entitled to 14 weeks parental leave for each child born, or adopted, after 3 June 1996, which is the date the Parental Leave Directive was adopted. Parental leave must, in general, be taken before the child is five, but this limit may be extended for an adopted child. The employee must have had one year's continuous service in the employment before taking parental leave, but provision is made for an employee who has not had such service when the child is approaching the upper age limit. The leave is not transferable between parents, that is, the mother may not take the father's share and vice versa.

Under section 7, parental leave may be taken as a continuous block of 14 weeks or, by agreement between employer and employee, the leave may be spread over a number of periods by part-time working, etc. A parent with more than one child under five may not take more than 14 weeks in a year unless the employer agrees to this.

Section 8 deals with the notice requirements for parental leave. It provides that an employee must inform the employer at least six weeks in advance when he or she intends to start the leave, how long it is for and when it is to be taken. The employer may require supporting evidence of the child's date of birth, parentage, etc.

Under sections 9 and 10, the employee and employer must confirm the leave four weeks before it is taken and once it has been confirmed, both employer and employee are committed to this leave. This confirmation is necessary to enable both employer and employee to plan with certainty but they can, by mutual agreement, vary or curtail the leave after it has been confirmed.

Section 11 allows an employer to postpone parental leave for six months if the leave would have a substantial adverse effect on the business because of seasonal factors, the size of the business, other employees on parental leave, difficulty in getting a replacement, etc. The employer cannot, however, postpone leave that has been confirmed. This facility for postponement provides a necessary safeguard for employers and is in keeping with the terms of the directive.

Section 12 deals with abuse of parental leave. It enables an employer to terminate the parental leave of an employee if he or she has reasonable grounds for believing that the leave is being abused. The employer may also refuse to grant leave to an employee if he or she thinks that the employee is not entitled to it and he or she must set down in writing the reason for such refusal.

Section 13 sets out the basic entitlement toforce majeure leave. An employee may take paid leave from work if he or she is urgently needed because of injury or illness of a family member. This leave is limited to three days per year or five days in three years.

Part III deals with employment rights of an employee who takes parental leave orforce majeure leave. Under section 14, an employee who is on parental leave will retain all employment rights, other than the right to remuneration or pension rights, while on such leave. This means that although the leave is unpaid, the employee will continue to accrue service for the purposes of increments, annual leave, etc. As I mentioned, existing social welfare rights will be protected by the award of credited contributions during the period of leave where necessary. Such arrangements do not come within the scope of the Bill but will be put in place by the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs. In the case of force majeure leave, however, the employee is treated in all respects, including pay, as if he or she remained at work. As I mentioned, it was considered administratively impractical to do otherwise for such a limited amount of leave.

In the remaining sections of Part III, provision is made for the employee's return after parental leave to the same job or, where that is impractical, to suitable alternative employment. These provisions are similar to those already in existence for maternity leave and adoptive leave.

Part IV provides for the resolution of disputes about parental leave orforce majeure leave. The redress mechanisms are modelled on those in place for disputes about maternity leave and adoptive leave. With the exception of disputes about dismissals, which are covered by other legislation, disputes can be referred by an employee or employer to a rights commissioner. A decision of a rights commissioner may be appealed to the Employment Appeals Tribunal: there is an appeal from the tribunal to the High Court on a point of law and decisions of a rights commissioner to the tribunal may be enforced by order of the Circuit Court.

Senators may wish to note the various forms of redress which a rights commissioner on the tribunal may order under section 21. These include compensating the employee with an award of up to 20 weeks' pay, granting parental leave at a particular time, extending the upper age limit of the child, postponing the leave because of its adverse effects on the employment and, where there has been a serious change in the circumstances of the employer or employee, curtailing, postponing or varying parental leave.

Part V contains miscellaneous provisions, including the manner in which notices are to be given in proceedings under the Act, how compensation payable under the Act is to be treated in the event of winding up or bankruptcy and a series of consequential amendments to other enactments. These are essentially technical provisions and are covered in the explanatory memorandum circulated with the Bill. Senators may wish to note, however, the requirement of section 27 that employers keep records of parental leave andforce majeure leave and that such records be open to inspection by inspectors under the Organisation of Working Time Act, 1997. Such records can be used in the event of a dispute or if there is uncertainty about the entitlements of an employee who changes jobs. Section 28 requires the Minister to review and report on the operation of the Act within three years of its commencement, in consultation with representatives of employees and employers. I am conscious of the novelty of parental leave to Irish working life and the fact that it will apply to employees in a variety of employments. This review will provide an opportunity to assess provisions of the Act in the light of experience of its operation.

I regard the Parental Leave Bill as a significant element of the equality agenda for which my Department is responsible and to which I am fully committed. The Bill will give new rights to employees, both men and women. It provides an opportunity to reconcile work and family life and to share child care responsibilities between men and women. Employers should view it not as a burden to be endured but as something which reflects the realities of modern life and which can benefit them in terms of retention of skilled employees, employee goodwill and reduced absenteeism. Today's measure is in keeping with the terms of an EU directive to which both employer and employee organisations subscribed.

In accordance with Standing Order 103 I am obliged to request the Cathaoirleach to instruct the Clerk of the Seanad to make the following versional corrections which arose as a result of a printing error in the Bill as initiated:

In page 7, section 7(2)(a)(ii), line 29, to delete "the week" and substitute "each week".

and

In page 7, section 7(2)(b), lines 31 and 32, to delete "the period of 14 weeks or the period of one year" and to substitute "a period of 14 weeks".

An Leas-Chathaoirleach

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I commend the Bill to the House.

I thank the Minister for his comprehensive contribution on this important legislation. As he said, social change, work practices and the involvement of women in employment outside the home make it necessary to assess and make changes in providing for the welfare of the family. The old community and family supports have disappeared in urban and rural Ireland. Change is part of life but it is regrettable that in providing better housing we have lost the community structures which helped families. When a child was born in Dublin it was the practice that neighbours helped in the weeks following the birth because fathers were the only breadwinners.

I regret that we are so far behind that there is still no creche facility in Leinster House. I have a particular interest in children's welfare and family supports because I am a former chairperson of the Irish Pre-school Playgroups' Association and have seen a slow evolution in the provision of child care facilities. At least we are moving in the right direction and child care provision, maternity leave and now parental leave should all contribute positively to support for the family, which is acknowledged as the cornerstone of our Constitution.

I broadly welcome the thrust of the Bill but not all its provisions. I am mindful that we are all late converts to this cause, perhaps because of our previous work practices. The Minister mentioned that over the last 20 years, married women have come to represent 47 per cent of all women in the workforce. That is a phenomenal social change which has happened at unprecedented speed since the 1970s and we must deal with it. The European Commission has long believed that the establishment of a legal right to parental leave is an important contribution to the promotion of equality between men and women in the labour market. As the Minister noted, it will also encourage better harmony between family life and work. An obvious outcome would be the development of more flexible work patterns, on which all future working practice will be based. These patterns should assist in the creation of different life styles, new kinds of work and more work.

The directive states that a key element of equal opportunities policy is reconciling working and family life. It would be useful to review the history of parental leave and to acknowledge that it was first mooted by the Commission in 1983. It was not until February 1995 that the first consultative stage for this measure was launched, which is a long time to wait for something which would support families as parental leave will. The replies came from management and labour organisations at EU level across member states and all were supportive of the right to parental leave.

The second consultative stage resulted in the following principles which should be remembered when discussing the Bill. First, parental leave is an employment right; second, the leave period, subject to consideration, should be a minimum of three months; third - and this is the key issue — flexibility should be allowed in taking such leave; and fourth, social security for workers should be continued during the leave. This is mentioned in the Bill and in the Minister's speech. Council Directive 96/34 EEC of June 1996 is the force behind the Parental Leave Bill.

The provision in the Bill for 14 weeks seems arbitrary. The Minister referred to the fact that there was widespread consultation with other countries which already have parental leave schemes and that no average figure could be found. At a cursory glance, however, this figure is low and I wonder how it was arrived at if we are taking on board the provisions in other countries. Austria allows 24 months per family, Finland allows 158 working days with a further period of childcare leave until the child is three years old. In Portugal there is between six and 24 months leave allowed and workers with a child under 12 or a handicapped child are allowed to work half time. Sweden grants 18 months leave per parent at 90 per cent of earnings and leave can be taken until the child is eight years old. Not for the first time in matters of social reform the Swedish model could be examined.

Until now Ireland has had no provision for leave or payment. I consulted the report of the Commission on the Status of Women and Ireland has always been at the lower end of the scale regarding maternity benefit and parental leave. I do not blame anyone for this, social change has been so rapid that we are trying to catch up, but this Bill should propose a more realistic and generous approach. Why is the age limit five years? The child is deemed by law not to be responsible until seven years of age so we could acknowledge that and extend the limit to eight years, bearing in mind that this legislation is to be reviewed. Minister O'Donoghue said that the scheme was to be reviewed after three years but on reading the memorandum I thought that it was to be reviewed after two years. Is that an error on mine or the Minister's part?

We will never achieve an ideal world but I am uncertain about the ability of people to avail of parental leave. An increase in child benefit during the period of parental leave would be of assistance. The Bill has little to offer families on low wages. Its provisions will probably be availed of only by wealthier families.

Three days leave are allowed every 12 months for family emergencies. That is welcome. There is not a parent of young children who has not been faced with the dilemma of going to work or looking after the child. I was fortunate that I was a teacher and if one of my children was ill I was able to arrange substitute cover. My three children contracted measles one after the other. No one can appreciate the feelings of panic as a parent or a worker which accompany such emergencies. I am glad there is provision for this three day allowance which will enable parents to assess what to do.

There is a need for discretionary parental leave and it is essential that this leave is available to both men and women. If not, it implies that only the mother has responsibility and that will be reflected in the status of women at work - it would mean that women's work could be considered to be of lesser importance than men's.

I note the provisions of this Bill require a new commitment from employers. This will have an impact on small businesses. If a company has five employees and two seek parental leave, what does the company do? How much flexibility can there be in these matters? This matter would be of small consequence to a company of 5,000 employees but each employee, including those in small firms, is entitled to parental leave.

I recognise the approach in the Bill is designed for maximum flexibility. Disputes can be referred to a rights commissioner and there can be further appeals to the Employment Appeals Tribunal and to the courts if necessary. It would take a long time, however, to go through the courts system and it is essential that the Bill be reviewed.

I give this Bill a guarded welcome. No legislation is perfect. I regret that there is no provision for financial security, but I acknowledge that this is a step in the right direction.

I welcome the Minister of State to the House and compliment Senator Ridge on a very informed contribution. I listened to what she had to say with great interest.

I welcome this legislation. It is a major step in the right direction for this State. We are falling into line with the EU Directive on Parental Leave. There was criticism in the press that we are among the last countries to adopt this directive. The fact that it is to be adopted this term is positive.

There has been criticism of this legislation from the unions. As an employer I welcome the thrust of the Bill, but one must have some sympathy for the employer. In my office one of my staff has just given birth to a baby boy and in two months time another worker is due to give birth.

They are very fertile in Cork.

They are entitled to their maternity leave but usually take an extra month once it has been agreed in the office. If they apply for a further three months' parental leave, it could create difficulties for someone like me. I am not being derogatory. I know people are entitled to it.

I have an excellent relationship with my staff, who are mostly women. I have been 17 or 18 years in business and if any of my staff suffer a bereavement or a child becomes sick, they are able to take a day or two off work. If I need someone to do typing or printing, they will come in at night. There is a great deal of goodwill in the office. I understand the unions' position but many small business people, whether shopkeepers or solicitors, have good arrangements in place so there is no conflict in the office.

I agree with Senator Ridge that this Bill is a big leap forward and I welcome this positive development. Major changes have been made since the 1960s or 1970s when a woman had to go into a snug because it was improper for her to go into the main part of a public house. I remember as a child accompanying my mother to a fair in Bantry. My father went into the main part of the public house but my mother and I went into the snug at the side of it.

The Minister outlined the number of people, particularly women, in the workforce. In excess of half a million women are in the workforce. It is also important to note that two thirds of women in the 25 to 44 year age group work outside the home. This is a significant evolution of social concepts in Ireland because that figure would have been much smaller 20 years ago. The Minister said it was only 14 per cent in 1971. Between 1976 and 1996 the number of women in the workplace grew from 212,000 to 488,000, which is more than 100 per cent increase. I welcome that trend. The Constitution provides that every person has the right to work.

This Bill is an extra bonus for parents. Perhaps Senator Ridge is correct that it may not be enough in certain circumstances, particularly if a parent wants to look after a child during the tender years from one to five. Psychologists believe the most precious time for bonding between a child and a parent is from the age of one to three or four because that is a crucial part of his or her life. It is important that, in addition to existing benefits, parents will be able to take a further three months unpaid leave without losing their rights. This also applies to people on social welfare who will be able to continue to get their credits. That is an important provision.

The Government has taken the right decision not to pay people who avail of this leave because it would create major problems for the economy. It would also cause practical difficulties for small employers. Perhaps it could be reviewed in three years' time.

Although we have been criticised for introducing the Bill later than most other European countries, it is interesting to note that it includes a provision to allow both parents to avail of the parental leave for children born after 3 June 1996. I was surprised by the Minister's announcement that only 1 per cent of men in Germany availed of this leave. All my children are aged between eight and 17, so I will not be able to take it. However, I am not sure I would have taken it when they were smaller as I had set up a business and was an aspiring politician. In hindsight, that would have been a mistake. If I had the opportunity again, I would probably avail of the leave for one or two of my children, although nowadays it may not be possible with the pressures of business and public life. Although the German figure may be an extreme example, I presume the number of men in other European countries who avail of unpaid leave is also low. If fathers here were allowed paid parental leave, I am sure there would be a huge take-up probably for the wrong reasons.

This Bill strikes a fair balance between the rights and expectations of workers and the needs of business and the economy. It sets an upper age limit of five. When the EU directive was introduced, the social partners were consulted and a great degree of flexibility was given to the member states. While some countries chose a lower age limit and Sweden and Denmark chose an upper age limit of eight, we decided to set it at five. Eight is probably high, whereas five seems reasonable.

This Bill is flexible in that it allows parental leave to be taken in stages or on a part-time basis once it is agreed between employer and employee. Many existing parental schemes in other member states do not have such flexibility. If parents want parental leave, they must give their employer four weeks notice in writing. Once it is confirmed, the employer cannot renege on his responsibilities. A parent can also apply for parental leave in stages, that is, he or she can take a month now and, in two months' time, take a second month. That provision is not included in legislation in other member states. I welcome the fact that the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs will introduce legislation for people on social welfare so that they will not lose their entitlements to short-term or long-term social welfare benefits if they take parental leave.

This Bill is a significant and important development for the workforce. Some will argue it does not go far enough but it is balanced. If we adopt the legislation we will be able to learn from the review in three years' time. We are not imposing strict arrangements which will only be subject to change with new legislation. There will be a review in three years and if it is felt that elements have not worked as desired we can re-examine them. This is balanced and fair legislation.

I commend the Leader and the Government for having initiated so much legislation in the Seanad. The Bills scheduled to be dealt with in the Dáil next week were all initiated in the Seanad and this is great recognition for the Seanad. In my previous term as a Senator it was the exception for a Bill to be initiated here. That this is no longer the case is significant recognition of the House.

I wish to share my time with Senator Quinn.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I congratulate the Minister of State and the Department on the work they have done on what is a tricky item of legislation. The subject matter of the Bill is EU policy, an element of Partnership 2000 and, therefore, its introduction has been required of us. This is a pro natal and pro family policy and, as such, it is welcome from a European perspective.

I am taken by the Minister's point that this is an attempt to find a balance and reconciliation between employment related functions and duties and domestic, family related functions and duties. It is an important issue in society and one on which politicians must give a lead. The operational arrangements of the Houses of the Oireachtas are not family friendly for those who live outside Dublin. I know Members of the Houses who have had to return to work shortly after having children. This is not like other employments and there are few supports available for Members.

I approve of the allowance Ministers get for living in Dublin; mothers of young children who are Members of the Houses should also get an allowance so that they may have their young children with them for the working week. At present allowances do not cover such an arrangement. It is a practical matter which is not recognised for Oireachtas Members. Another practical matter isforce majeure leave, which applies to Members of the Houses. However, it should be recognised by the Whips. These are serious and important issues on which we should put our house in order, so to speak.

I agree with Senator O'Donovan that in a good employment it would not be necessary to have the provision onforce majeure. One of my first jobs as a union representative was to fight for leave for a Dublin-based teacher whose mother was terminally ill at her home in Ballyshannon. The teacher would have been entitled to leave on the death of her mother but not when she was terminally ill. I appreciate the importance of the provision in this regard.

I have mixed feelings about the content of the Bill, given my roles as a member of the ICTU executive council, a member of the negotiating team for Partnership 2000, a trade union general secretary and the chief executive of about 40 people. There are issues in the Bill which bother me but there is a good failsafe mechanism in the review of the legislation. Such a review should take place after a three year period because it will take that length of time to gauge the functioning of the Bill.

I do not agree with some issues. For example, I think the age limit of five years is too high. The Bill fails to strike a balance in this regard between focusing on the needs of the child and the parents. It needs to take both into account but must favour the child. As a teacher I consider consistency to be all important. A three year age limit would have been better. I do not intend to be picky on this point and the Minister argued the case cogently. He pointed out that the age provision is eight years in Sweden and Denmark while in some other countries it is three years. There are strong reasons, including climatic reasons, for the eight year age limit in the Scandinavian countries. It is better for children to get a sense of consistency in who they are dealing with and who is around them and I would prefer a three year rather than a five year age limit for that reason.

I am also concerned about the flexibility provisions of the leave period, although I usually favour flexibility. The Bill may allow a person to work a short week for an extended period. I would prefer if the leave were in a single period. We negotiated a similar arrangement for teachers many years ago so that mothers would be entitled to take four weeks unpaid leave after their maternity leave. We found that it was only those who could afford to take the extra leave who did so. That raises the issue of payment. I agree that it would be impossible to put such a charge on employers.

The cost to the Government of £40 million which was quoted is calculated on the basis that men would take the 14 weeks also and that requires correction. However, it should be recognised that even with unpaid leave there will be a significant additional cost to employers - the replacement cost. I am more attracted to the idea of parental leave which continues after maternity leave in that it would reduce administrative and management problems for employers. It can be difficult for an employer to secure skilled replacement employees for irregular short periods. I do not want to be seen to be arguing against trade union policy because I am in favour of parental leave. We need to strike a balance to make the measures work so that the three year review will allow us to continue with them. However, further consideration should be given to those two issues — the age limit and the facility to break up the leave.

The experience in other countries of the low percentage of men who take parental leave - 1 per cent in Germany, for example - could be addressed otherwise. Parental leave for fathers could be reduced and replaced with paternity leave at the time of the birth. This would be a more helpful arrangement and would be in line with Senator O'Donovan's points. If a week's paternity leave was available it might be of more value than a long period of parental leave. There is a case for reducing the level of parental leave and having a paid period of extended maternity leave and paternity leave in its place. The balance between those types of leave should be reconsidered. The protection of employment is a welcome part of the Bill. Only superannuation is not protected and nobody could argue with that.

It could be difficult for somebody in a service industry to ensure consistency of service if the period of parental leave is too broken up. A management problem of impossible proportions could be created in small employments if a large number of people were entitled to parental leave. I do not want Members on the other side of the House to jump on this argument. I am trying to strike a balance. Maternity leave, paternity leave, which is not available, and parental leave are all important and we need to strike a balance between all three for good social and family reasons, which we all support.

The commitment to reassess parental leave after a number of years cannot be understated as there will be huge difficulties. I am old enough to remember the introduction of the Employment Equality Bill, 1997 and, unfortunately, I will be here when the new one is implemented as well. When the Employment Equality Bill, 1977, came into operation difficulties arose in coming to terms with it.

I support this Bill. My reservations are not objections and I would like them taken on board. Perhaps the Minister will look to see if we need to amend the legislation in any way.

I thank Senator O'Toole for sharing his time. I welcome the Bill which I will address on two levels - the general principle underlining it and a concern I have about it which, if substantiated, would be disastrous. The principle is based on the fact the United States has been able to create more jobs than Europe and we must ask why. I am not talking about Ireland only because our success has been quite recent but about Europe where we have had less success in creating jobs. It is believed this is due to our rigidity with regard to the opportunity to create jobs.

This Bill is the latest in a raft of social legislation which has been part of the European agenda for the past ten years or more. Bit by bit, we have implemented a large range of legislation affecting employment. Each Bill is worthy of consideration on its own merits, but the cumulative effect of the package must be considered. Taken as a whole, this raft of legislation has greatly increased the cost of employing people in Europe and is largely responsible for creating and perpetuating the inflexibility and the rigidity of the European labour market which is now widely recognised as the major structural problem which Europe faces when competing on the global market. We are competing with the United States and others for jobs and each time we pass legislation, we make Europe less attractive for the creation of new jobs.

This rigidity is widely acknowledged, not only in Ireland but in Europe, by employers and everyone on the European scene who has looked objectively at the situation as a major problem we must address. It is now widely accepted that the main cause of this rigidity is the social legislation we have passed over the past generation, particularly the past ten years.

The crux is that despite the fact Europe officially recognises labour market rigidity as a serious problem and acknowledges that social legislation is its primary cause, we continue to pass more legislation. At a time when we should consider how to roll back some of what we have done in the past, we are adding to it. Logically, it is absurd, economically, it is madness and, socially, it is suicidal. In the long term and perhaps in the short term as well, this package of legislation is a major threat to our ability to sustain jobs in Europe.

Against this background, I congratulate the Government on at least not framing the legislation in the most extreme terms permitted by the European directive, which the Minister explained very well. I suppose we should be thankful for that. I welcome that restraint as an acknowledgement of the problem to which I refer. It was interesting to hear Senator O'Toole, a trade Unionist, speak moderately in this regard.

I was shocked and appalled to hear the barrage of criticism this Bill received from some quarters since it was published earlier this week. The criticism was not about the introduction of the Bill but that it did not go far enough. The principal criticism I heard was that parental leave referred to in the Bill is unpaid. Some people said it should be fully paid. This criticism reflects an approach which is totally out of touch with the world in which Irish and European businesses operate. Most of that criticism came from people who have not created a job.

We are not talking about paternity leave but about something quite different. The notion that parental leave should be paid shows an ignorance of the enormous and unsustainable burden that approach would place on employers, especially those with smaller businesses. As Senator O'Toole said, even unpaid leave puts a burden on employers. There is an assumption that it is all the same to a business if people are not there provided they are not being paid. Their absence causes a disruption which must be dealt with and there is always a cost involved. In the case of the smaller business where every person is key to the success and maintenance of the business, it may be a considerable burden. Even unpaid parental leave is a burden on employers, a significant one when added to the burdens which other social legislation have imposed. One law may be worthy in itself and not unduly burdensome, but it is the cumulative effect of all the legislation which we ignore at our peril if we are to maintain jobs.

Part of the attitude behind the call for paid parental leave is the same attitude that believes everything in the Irish garden is rosy, that it will continue to be so and that nothing will go wrong. That is a foolish and short-sighted view to take. A country can easily tip over the edge from being competitive in the world arena to being uncompetitive. Last week I had the opportunity to visit south east Asia and meet people from countries which one year ago were highly competitive and successful only to discover their economies had collapsed because they took their eyes off the ball. Once that happens, the effect is sudden and calamitous. An economy which becomes uncompetitive does not slide down a slippery slope, it goes over the cliff immediately.

When will we address the serious problem this raft of social legislation which we continue to pass has created for us as we face the challenge of creating and sustaining jobs into the future? When will we stop digging this hole deeper and do something about filling it in?

There is an aspect of the Bill on which I will comment. Obviously, this legislation will be introduced regardless of what I, or anyone else, says and I congratulate the Minister on the manner in which it was presented. My concern, therefore, is to reduce to a minimum the damage the Bill may do to our ability to sustain jobs. In this respect, I draw attention to section 13 which deals with what is known asforce majeure leave. This is intended to deal with family crises and, in this case, leave will be paid. An employee will be entitled to a maximum of three days force majeure leave in any one year or a maximum of five days in any three years. This is a disastrous proposal.

Let me explain why I use such strong words. It is not because of any objection to people getting time off work to cope with family crises nor is it because such time off would be paid. It is disastrous because, by creating this legal entitlement, we will give people additional paid holidays with all the implied costs. Experience in Ireland has clearly shown in the case of sick leave that, where there is a legal entitlement to a certain number of days, they are inevitably taken, regardless of whether there is just cause. We have all heard someone say they would not be at work for the next week because they had sick leave coming to them. It has become almost endemic in our society. It becomes regarded as an entitlement in all circumstances and not as a safety net to be used in special circumstances.

The section is fatally flawed because it is open to flagrant abuse and there is no way of preventing that. Section 13(6) requires the production of a medical certificate but no one believes they are worth the paper they are written on. I say that in the knowledge that a medical person sits within a few feet of me. The reality of the workload faced by general practitioners makes it almost inevitable. Furthermore, the general moral climate is such that people would not feel bad about turning this safety net into an entitlement. The blatant way in which some members of the Garda Síochána abused their sick leave provisions to take industrial relations action should alert us to the fact that the general level of what people consider acceptable behaviour has changed recently. I urge the Minister of State to reconsider section 13 before we reach Committee Stage. I welcome the fact that we are not rushing into Committee Stage today because it will give the Minister of State time to reflect on the implications of the section. I hope she seriously considers the words I use.

My attitude to the Bill and to this section is not based on a lack of compassion or a failure to recognise the need to enshrine employees' rights in effective legislation. It springs from a concern that there should not be a continuing building up of an edifice of legislation which inhibits and undermines employment rather than nurturing, sustaining and encouraging it. There is a need for balance and we have lost it. It is vital for this country and for Europe that we urgently seek to restore that balance. If we do not, the cost will be immense and it will bear hardest on those who have to carry it.

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. Is iomaí uair a thagann sí chuig an Teach chun Billí a thionscnamh agus molaim sin. Molaim chomh maith an chaoi a bhfuil an Bille tábhachtach seo á thionscnamh sa Teach.

I wish to state how privileged I am to have the opportunity to speak after the contributions of a leading national trade unionist and, I have learned, of a leading and prominent international retailer. I congratulate Senator Quinn on what is a most signal honour in being recognised worldwide as a prominent and effective voice for international retailing. The contributions of both mark a refreshing maturity in the relationship between trade unionism and employers. I have the utmost respect for Senator O'Toole's professionalism and listen carefully at all times to his pronouncements, not just from a selfish point of view, to which I readily confess, but also from a national point of view. I was delighted that the contributions of both Senators were not mutually exclusive in this instance. That speaks volumes for how far we have come in recognising that we ought not to allow ourselves be bogged down by doctrinaire ideologies. We have moved on and it appears that both sides in Irish commercial and business life see an objective, which is, as Senator Quinn articulately and cogently stated, the long-term interests of the workforce. It is as important that that came from Senator O'Toole as it is that it came from Senator Quinn.

I welcome the Minister of State to the House and commend her and the Minister for initiating legislation which is important in terms of social, employment and family implications. The Bill has been criticised, as referred to by previous speakers. Despite that, I am convinced it introduces an important new social policy measure in terms of the fundamental social rights of workers and of providing for the equal treatment of men and women in the workplace. The Bill provides for a new entitlement for men and women to avail of unpaid parental leave to enable them take care of their young children and this is, at a minimum, family friendly and child centred in its approach.

Those who decry it as useless because it is unpaid should bear in mind a number of things. The Bill's provisions represent significant improvement and progress on existing conditions by seeking to reconcile occupational and familial obligations of workers. To suggest, as some do, that unpaid leave in such circumstances will never be availed of alleges that all parents, or at least the overwhelming majority, give priority to mercenary considerations over parenting and family obligations and commitments. Such an assertion is unfair and unjustified and is an unwarranted indictment of Irish parents. The overwhelming majority of parents are prepared and willing to make sacrifices and to demonstrate that commitment to the interests of their children by their determination to provide care, concern and support for their welfare. The additional measure providing for limited leave for family crises —force majeure - will be paid for by employers.

The two measures taken together represent an important step forward in tackling discrimination in the workplace. The measures also recognise the huge pressures on family life and on children where, in many instances, both parents must go to work. Irish society has changed radically in recent years and the changes in the profile of families, such as the increase in one parent families with that parent often having to go to work, and the increase in the number of mothers who have to go to work, all bring with them new pressures and demands. To shore up support for the family unit, key reforms such as those contained in the Bill are urgently needed to facilitate employees to combine work and family life in a manner which provides for responsible parenting and care for children.

The legislation is an imperative because of an EU Council directive on the framework agreement on parental leave of 3 June 1996. A commitment was given in the Government's Partnership 2000 agreement to bring forward legislation by June 1998 to give effect to the terms of this EU directive. The Minister must be commended for fulfilling that commitment on target.

Some people have criticised the Minister for leaving things to the last minute. I reject, out of hand, any allegation or accusation of tardiness on the part of the Minister or the Minister of State. The opposite is the case. They have been effective and expeditious in bringing the Bill before us on time. A raft of legislation is coming forward in this area to deal with a multiplicity of very serious issues such as the drug problem and issues related to it. We have been fortunate that the Minister and Minister of State have shown the commitment and determination necessary to meet their targets. I say "well done".

The Parental Leave Directive, 1996, which follows the course mapped out by the Charter on Social Policy, 1989, sets down minimum requirements for member states. However, great flexibility is given to each member state to decide on issues such as the maximum age of the child, whether the leave is to be paid and matters relating to social security. These are among the matters left to the discretion of each state. Therefore, the Bill is in full compliance with the terms of the directive. While the directive leaves the question of paid or unpaid leave to the discretion of each state, it is important to emphasise that the social partners themselves decided on the terms of the framework agreement which imposes no obligation to provide paid leave. In an ideal world we would all like to see paid leave for parents but those who are most loudly demanding it must say if they think the taxpayer should foot this bill, if other areas of public funding should suffer or if the employer should pay. Such an imposition, even in times of economic boom, would be resisted by employers, or worse, would cause loss of jobs. Senator Quinn is convinced that the cumulative effect of social policies currently being brought forward will have an impact on employment in the short to medium term. I do not agree with him. Measures such as this are necessary to get the social balance right. The fact that Britain opted out of the Social Chapter is irrelevant.

The core objective of the Bill, the speedy implementation of this new entitlement, would be severely frustrated if not delayed indefinitely if paid leave were introduced by way of an imposition on the employer. I am convinced that the Minister and the Minister of State, having set out to strike a balance between competing objectives, have chosen a sensible and pragmatic course. The directive does not require emergency leave for an illness or emergency involving children to be paid. The Bill, however, does require suchforce majeur leave to be provided on a paid basis by the employer. There is an in-built safeguard that an application for such leave must be supported by a medical certificate confirming, on medical grounds, justification for such leave. Senator Quinn expressed serious concerns about the validity of medical certificates. We have all had experience of medical certificates being used as a convenient device. A safety device such as this is, nonetheless, necessary and I am glad it is part of the Bill. Leave for family emergencies is separate from parental leave.

The Bill heralds a major change in Irish working life. It makes it mandatory for employers, henceforth, to take account of the parental and family duties of their employees. In employment situations where this has not already happened on a voluntary basis, the implementation of this legislation will herald a significant culture change for those working parents who will benefit from it. When the legislation is revised, as it is required to be, the Bill will be referred to as a significant milestone on the road to equality and support for the family. I compliment the Minister and Minister of State.

I too welcome the Minister to the House and I welcome the Bill. It is representative of the manner in which our membership of the European Union has advanced social issues and the position of women. Considering the minimalist approach the Government has taken to the directive, I wonder how long it would have taken to Government to initiate such legislation without the spur of a European directive.

I welcome the Bill but I am disappointed with it. The Government has taken a minimalist approach to the directive. The implementation date is next December, the leave is unpaid and only applies to children under the age of five, not eight. The Government has missed an opportunity to recognise the extent of change in our workplaces and the need for more family friendly work practices. The Bill could have marked the start of a recognition of the need for more flexible work practices such as job-sharing, morning only working, nine months of the year working and so on and could have provided a legislative framework for such practices. While I welcome the Bill in its principle, the introduction of parental leave, I am disappointed by the mean-minded manner in which it is being introduced. An opportunity has been missed.

A number of speakers have referred to the negative effect legislation of this sort can have on a workforce. Have those speakers been reading the same newspaper reports as I have? Less than a week ago, Brendan Walsh, the economist, wrote about a potential labour shortage in our currently booming economy. We need to maintain our current workforce and the present level of entry into it. The workforce includes women, believe it or not. Almost 50 per cent of the female workforce are married. Women constitute a growing proportion of the existing workforce. Figures produced by FÁS, the ESRI, the labour force survey and so on, tell us that part-time work is one of the most rapidly increasing areas and that the vast majority of part-time workers are female. The reason for this is self-evident. The vast majority of women workers who are parents need flexible work patterns. If we are to feed the voracious appetite of the Celtic tiger we do not need to lose one of the most valuable assets in the workforce, skilled, experienced workers who are mostly mothers. Many women leave the workforce because they have to, not because they want to. They feel that their duty to their children comes first and that the amount of stress involved in being a working parent is unbearable in many cases. I, the Minister of State and other Members know that very well.

Women give up their jobs temporarily, they hope, to be full time parents because in many instances they cannot negotiate flexible job sharing arrangements with employers. I know women racked with indecision and stress about making decisions on their careers. They have been educated and have put much time and effort into their careers and they like their jobs. However, a full time job cannot be maintained in some instances, given tasks such as taking children to and from school as well as other parental duties. The solution lies in a much more creative approach to working time. We are barely starting that in this minimalist Bill, which suggests that there are no creative solutions coming forward to this issue.

When I raise this matter, women tell me that I am absolutely right. Women need flexibility when children are small, and there are sound economic reasons, particularly given our current economic boom, for women to stay in the workforce. We will not lose one of more most valuable assets, the experience and skill of women arising out of years of investment by the State, because we cannot invest in some creative family-friendly work practices. We could be leaders rather than followers if we did so.

Stress at work is an issue that the vast majority of women at work are afraid to raise because work is not a family friendly place to be. Senator Quinn referred to theforce majeure provision in the Bill regarding sick leave. He felt that people use the sick leave provision simply because it is there. I take exception to that. I have spent my entire working life in the workforce and I have no experience of that happening. This is anecdotal and is used as an argument about crisis leave: people will take it if they have it. That is an insult to those who get up early and work long hours, which is the downside of the Celtic tiger. Most people are very committed to their jobs and those in their thirties have less quality family time at an age when their children are young.

The Partnership 2000 equality provisions which were published in November 1997 refer to family friendly work practices and specifically to the development of equality provision. There is a strong link between child care development and developing greater equality in society. The report states that in addition to parental leave, a more family friendly society is necessary, i.e. job sharing and flexitime. The importance of rearing a family and the difficulties encountered by working parents must be recognised. Fathers play an integral role in parenting and employers should be further encouraged to adopt equal opportunity policies.

This beautifully published report is obviously meaningless. That leave is unpaid means only those who can afford it can take it. It is quite discriminatory against those who are low paid, especially women. Low pay has been referred to as a major issue for the female workforce in the House more than once and in that context the Bill is very disappointing.

We will seek to amend specific elements of the Bill on Committee Stage. The Government has taken advantage of the extension of the derogation to 3 December 1998, which is deplorable We will seek to change that. We will also seek to change the period of parental leave from the bare minimum of three months to four and a half months. We will also attempt to raise the age from five to eight.

The provision for multiple births states that children of multiple births shall be deemed for the purpose of the section to be one child. As a triplet I take exception to that. I am a complete being in my own right.

So are the other two, I am reliably informed.

I am not one third and my sisters would take considerable exception to being so described. That matter can be taken up with my mother, who was a full time mother.

The Senator did extremely well in the absence of parental leave for multiple births.

My mother was a victim of the idiotic rule by which a woman had to give up her job once she was married. Based on my experience I find this provision daft. We also have a number of technical amendments.

The principle of the Bill is welcome but its provisions are hugely disappointing and I hope the Minister shows some flexibility regarding our amendments. I have raised the effect on children of the changed circumstances of parenting in the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice, Equality and Women's Rights. This is the first generation of children not being cared for by their parents in their homes. They spend the majority of their early lives in cre ches, in other people's houses or being cared for by someone other than a parent in their own houses. As a parent with experience of raising two children, I hope it will not have a detrimental effect on their education.

Experts in early childhood education should be asked by the Departments of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Education and Science and Health and Children to conduct a study on the educational and social effects of raising this generation of children in an entirely new set of circumstances. We should examine whether we, as a society, should give more serious consideration to encouraging parents to stay at home and spend more time as the primary educators of their children.

I wish to share my time with Senator Leonard.

An Leas-Chathaoirleach

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I listened very carefully to Senator O'Meara. This directive was issued in 1996. The Labour Party was in Government until June 1997. Why did it not bring in the legislation the Senator talked about to provide for leave with full pay in respect of children up to the age of eight years?

Our legislation would have been very different.

Why did they not bring it in when they had the opportunity?

An Leas-Chathaoirleach

Senator Ormonde, without interruption and without inviting interruption.

I congratulate the Minister and Minister of State on introducing this pro family Bill which provides another opportunity to promote the equality agenda for men and women. We are again reflecting modern life and looking at the changing patterns of work and the accelerating percentage of women in the workforce. The Bill reflects the changes in family life and provides for single mothers. Work patterns are changing, with people working part-time or from home. The changes in our whole lifestyle have been reflected in the drafting of this Bill.

This is a timely Bill which complies with the EU directive on the matter. It is great that we have got this far and are moving in the right direction. We are giving everyone an opportunity to work together. For far too long people's family and working lives were separate. Forty years ago, people lived in villages and communities where employers knew workers' home circumstances and could facilitate family life. This Bill is reintroducing a concept which had gone from our lives because of the pace of life. It is time to slow down, look at ourselves as people and see how best we can work together to form a better society.

Criticisms have been made here about the age limit of five years. I come from a background of education and training in child rearing - not as a parent but in my work. According to the wide research on this issue, the ages of two to four years are the crucial years in terms of character formation and identifying with the parent. The Bill has set a good balance in that regard and I have no difficulty with it.

As the Minister said, this will be reviewed in three years' time. That is welcome because it will give us a chance to assess whether the provisions are working. This is not being laid down in stone. What I like about this Government is that it is not fixated on set provisions. It is prepared to try provisions out and to return to the table if there are problems with them.

We also have a rights commissioner who can consider disputes between employers and employees, which is a very important aspect of this. That allows for the frailty of human beings which may become evident when legislation is initially implemented. There is no doubt that much of the success of this legislation will depend on the trust and agreement between employers and employees.

The Bill provides there will not be a break in service. That is very important, particularly for teachers who are always afraid of losing continuity of service. Will the Minister clarify the position in regard to pension rights? I am concerned that workers availing of this provision may lose some pension rights.

I like the flexibility in this Bill in regard to agreements between employers and employees. Theforce majeure concept, whereby people can take paid leave for family crises, is a very good element. I was worried by what Senator Quinn said in that regard but I think it is a matter of trust in the workplace. I congratulate the Minister on this very balanced legislation. I have no doubt it will work with a little give and take on the ground.

As Senator Ormonde said, this is a very balanced and important Bill, given the changes in society and family life. The Bill emphasises the importance of family life in a very changing world. The role of women in the workplace is also changing. As the Minister said, in 1971 only 14 per cent of women in the workplace were married, which had increased by 1996 to 47 per cent. The Commission on the Family stated that both parents were working in 36 per cent of families.

I listened with interest to Senator O'Meara when she talked about the stress felt by working mothers, with which we cannot disagree. However, an important aspect of the Bill is that parental leave can be taken until the child is five years old. The personality of a child is developed between the ages of two and four years, in particular. Most children have started school by the time they are five years old. The most important time for parents to be with children is the years before they attend school. Any legislation which allows parents spend quality time with their children must be welcomed.

The main aspect of the legislation is the flexibility it allows. It requires co-operation between employers and employees. Workers have a responsibility to respect their place of employment. If, as Senator Ormonde stated, there is trust between workers and employers, the legislation will work well.

Given that we live in an age of social inclusion and partnership, this legislation is extremely important. The only provision about which I have reservations is that governingforce majeure leave. When a crisis occurs in a family it is important that parents are allowed to take leave if required. However, I worked in a supposedly caring profession and it was often difficult to take time off during family crises. I agree with Senator Quinn that a minority of employees look on sick leave or force majeure leave as extended leave. I am concerned because a number of people consider leave of this sort as additional holiday leave. However, if partnership and trust exist between employers and employees there should be no need to include force majeure leave in the legislation.

I agree with the provision governing unpaid leave. Ireland is a small country which has a large number of small businesses. It would be totally impractical and unrealistic to expect employers to pay the salaries of people on parental leave, which would represent a potential crucifixion for the economy. As the Minister stated, in countries where employees are paid for such leave only 1 per cent of parents have taken it up. In Ireland, mothers on maternity leave often take up their entitlement to unpaid leave. Regardless of whether parental leave is paid or unpaid, people who wish to avail of it will do so in the interests of their children.

I welcome the fact that the legislation will be reviewed in a number of years. In view of our changing society, it is important that we continually review the legislation we have put in place.

Having listened to a number of earlier contributions, I wonder if the women of Ireland should bother to give birth. Are children being looked on as a major social problem and an impedance to the economic development of the country? Are those women with children who try to work outside the home considered to be impeding Ireland's economic progress? The same carry on occurred when maternity leave was introduced. What leapt from that cradle but the Celtic tiger.

When Senator Leonard points to the fact that the number of married women in the workforce has increased to 47 per cent it is important to remember that a large proportion of these people have children. Economists stated recently that a great deal of the country's economic progress is due to the increased involvement of women in the workforce. This involvement has only been possible as a result of improved work practices. That is why, with the exception of a number of criticisms, I welcome the Bill warmly. I agree it could have been introduced earlier but we must be thankful that it has finally come before us.

We are acting as if the country is being afflicted by a plague of children. Mercifully, I have in my possessionWomen and Crisis Pregnancy - a publication I always carry with me - which states that in 1971 there were 67,500 births in Ireland and the birth rate, which is calculated by taking the number of births over the number of women multiplied by 1,000, was 123.70. There are now more women of child bearing age than in 1971 but the birth rate is half that which obtained in the early 1970s. At present, only a small minority of Irish women give birth to more than three children and we have reached the European average of just under two children - this is only possible in terms of statistics - per couple. We must take account of the fact that parental leave will primarily be taken by women with two children.

It must be noted that the successful delivery of multiple births is increasing. Therefore, it is likely that we may become more productive because each multiple birth will be taken as one child. Rather than considering this in a gloomy way, we should try to assess the situation for what it is and realise that we are discussing parents with two children. With any luck, the numbers of multiple births will increase and these can be considered as one child. The Bill goes a long way towards trying to place some value on parenthood and I cannot understand how anyone can state that parental leave will lead to economic disaster.

I recently discussed with Senator Leonard the issue of nurses and physiotherapists involved in part-time work in hospitals. Members should realise that those involved in job-sharing do approximately three-quarters of the work they would do if they were employed on a full-time basis. I am sure the flexibility offered by the legislation in terms of 14 weeks parental leave in a 12 month period will lead to an improved workforce.

Having reared children when maternity leave or parental leave did not exist, I understand how valuable it will be to the parents of young children. I could offer expert advice to people on how best to use such leave. I do not believe Senator O'Toole was correct in stating that it should have been introduced in a single block. The real value of parental leave will be that parents may be in a position to take every second Friday off for a certain number of weeks, which would allow them to plan visits to dentists, doctors, grandparents, etc. I agree that people on low pay - many of whom are in part-time employment and work unsocial hours - will find it difficult to take this leave.

The European Union must be congratulated for encouraging the introduction of this legislation. The Second Commission on the Status of Women which reported in 1993 said, in recommendation 10, "Combining work and family responsibilities", that:

The Minister for Labour should amend the existing maternity legislation with a view to making combined maternity and parental leave entitlements closer to the EC mean with the terms and conditions of such entitlements to be subject to discussion with the social partners.

The commission also recommended that:

In the absence of parents from work due to maternity and parental leave, there should be provision through replacement or other arrangements to ensure extra duties do not fall on co-workers.

The introduction of the Bill represents a good day's work.

The Minister of State may not yet have had an opportunity to readWomen and Crisis Pregnancy. Statements are continually made with regard to what we are attempting to do to reduce abortion rates in this country. In my opinion the issue of crisis pregnancies should be properly addressed because those rates are too high. I was surprised to discover that over one-third of women surveyed about their reasons for having an abortion in Women and Crisis Pregnancy stated they could not fulfil children's requirements.

With improvements in the economy and the reduction in the size of families, enormous emphasis has been placed on fulfilling children's economic needs. Perhaps we have become excessive in our desire to fulfil those needs. One need only consider the queues in shops at Christmas to buy the latest toy - be it a Tellytubby or a Ninja Turtle - or sales of vast amounts of commodities related to the Spice Girls to realise that parents' impetus to make such purchases comes from their desire to please their children, not demands from children to have these products bought for them. Parents are also at the mercy of football teams such as Manchester United who regularly change team strips, thereby ensuring high sales of merchandise.

We put a dreadful emphasis - and it may sometimes be excessive - on the needs of children. People who opted for abortion to end a pregnancy stated:

Morally I thought it was wrong, I couldn't do it. It is not as if I am a 16 year-old who is going to get battered because I'm pregnant, you know. .I don't have the financial background to bring up a child, you know.

Another respondent stressed because she was not in a secure position she could not facilitate her child's personal development. It would be very useful to be able to tell people parenthood is valued in this country and if a woman is employed, the needs of a child will be taken seriously.

Single mothers have even more difficulties bringing up a child than a two parent family. I welcome the legislation and I understand the worry aboutforce majeure leave being misused. Like Senator Leonard I have seen this happen. Would it be wise to remove the necessity for medical certificates for such leave? That has been done satisfactorily with regard to the first few days of sick leave and we might be wiser to avoid dragging the medical profession into it because that gives greater substance to these claims. I know the medical profession will not be anxious to become involved. The Minister could look at that. I welcome the legislation. Family values will only be maintained if we put this type of legislation in place.

As a mother of three young children I welcome the Bill. However, as a manager of a small 25 employee company in Galway I recognise the difficulties it creates for small businesses in particular. I stated on many occasions that the balance between family and work life was changing. It is a change for the better, but it must be recognised that these changes create difficulties for employers.

The Bill sets the scene for the promotion of equal opportunities and treatment between men and women. The Minister outlined the massive growth in the numbers of women in the workforce; almost four out of every ten people at work are women. There is also a huge increase in the numbers of married women at work; almost 47 per cent of female workers are married. These changes in the make up of the workforce and the increasing skills shortages make the reconciliation of home and work life most important. Ireland has traditionally had a culture which loved, supported and cherished families and women with children very often had to make the choice to stay at home to look after their families. I commend the women who have done this for the success of their efforts and the time and love they gave in a generous and caring manner.

The Bill, by allowing fathers and mothers to avail of parental leave, will provide both parents with the opportunity to take an active part in the care and upbringing of their young children. It also introduces a newforce majeure leave. This new leave recognises emergencies occur which can require a parent's absence from work to tend to a sick child or other member of the family. However, I have a certain sympathy for Senator Quinn's comments. I do not want to see this leave abused and to be seen as an additional entitlement. It is not; it is a facility which is available when circumstances require it.

The Bill recognises the role of the father in rearing a family. It allows them for the first time to take time off to spend with their young children. This option will give many fathers a chance they did not have until now. This leave also gives more time to mothers. It is very difficult for parents, particularly mothers, to juggle all their responsibilities at once, such as housekeeping, shopping, helping with homework and fitting in time to have fun with their children. No matter what type of partner or husband one has or how good he is, the mother carries the greatest burden in terms of the homemaker in the majority of homes.

I wish to turn to the difficulties employers face. A woman is entitled to 14 weeks paid leave when she has a baby. She may also claim one month's unpaid leave if she so requires. That is an 18 week absence, almost five months. This creates grave difficulties for businesses, particularly small ones. Employers face an entitlement of 14 additional weeks leave in a five year period. When children are born closely together up to 14 weeks leave may be taken in a 12 month period. This legislation will have a significant impact on employers and businesses and it is important this is recognised. If a mother takes 18 weeks maternity leave, four weeks holidays and 14 weeks paternal leave in one year, employers are faced with the prospect of losing an employee, possibly a key and important one, for 36 weeks. This is a big problem for small businesses. The Government recognises this issue and the Minister has put a Bill before us which seeks to achieve a balance. I commend him and his Department for that.

The issue of paid leave has been bandied about during this debate - by the Labour Party in particular. Who does it think should pay - the employer or the Government? Employers cannot afford it and if the Labour Party is so committed to parental leave, why did it not do something about it when it was in Government? This directive issued on 3 June 1996 to the then Government of which the Labour Party was a member and it remained in power for a further year. The Labour Party suggests many people are in low paid employment and, therefore, would not be able to afford to take up these benefits. That assertion has not been proved by statistics and fact. Senator Leonard mentioned that many women take unpaid leave at the end of maternity leave. The issue of payment will not impede an individual's ability to take this opportunity. I disagree with her contention they will not be able to take up the benefit.

Why are women in low paid employment? Why in the mother-father relationship do women tend to be the earners of the lower wage? This is one of the key issues which challenges us as a country as we face into the future. It is timely to recognise we must look at other issues facing us as employers and mothers, such as flexible working hours, more job sharing, tax allowances for child care payments and more provision of work based child care.

I welcome the Bill wholeheartedly and recognise it will be of major benefit to family life. It must also be recognised by those in favour of paid parental leave that it is a huge imposition on employers. The burden they must carry in terms of trying to cover the leave parents take is heavy, but they are committed to carry it given that they took part in the consultation process which led to this Bill. While it will be tremendously beneficial for parents and family life, a burden also falls on the employers. I thank the Minister for initiating the Bill in the Seanad.

It was interesting to observe the many strands of life represented in the House and the different viewpoints Senators brought to this debate. It reflected what occurred in my Department as we endeavoured to draft this Bill. We had to look at the rights and expectations of employees who wanted a workable scheme. We also had to consider the perspective of employers, both in the private and public sectors, and at the cost implications generally. The Bill is a product of careful consideration and analysis.

Despite the provision of unpaid leave, there will be a cost for the employer in terms of the effect on employment when an employee takes leave. This is especially the case with large companies, which will have a large number of records to maintain. We recognised that. We also recognised the importance of introducing a balanced Bill.

We were not required to provide paidforce majeure leave, to make service on parental leave reckonable, to provide credited contributions for social welfare purposes nor to permit flexible patterns of parental leave. Although we had leeway to set the maximum age of the child at anything between two and eight years we chose five years of age, which is the norm prevailing in other EU countries. It is, therefore, incorrect to take Deputy O'Meara's view that this is a minimalist approach.

We chose the age of five because children go to school at that age. Most Members recognised it was the correct age to choose. It is interesting that, on the one hand, we are criticised for being mean spirited and, on the other, for introducing measures which are too generous. As a mother of three children and running a business in Galway, Senator Cox stressed the balance involved in being a parent in the workplace and an employer of other parents. When compiling the legislation we had to steer a careful path between all the issues and interests concerned.

Senator Ridge referred to the review of the scheme. The Bill requires the review to be undertaken after two years but not later than three years after its enactment. She also referred to the position of small businesses. The Bill allows an employer to postpone leave for six months if it would cause the employer serious problems. The size of the firm may give rise to one of the reasons for postponement. Section 11 deals with this. The Senator referred to a situation where two out of five employees in the firm may apply for leave. The applications can be discussed with the employer and may be postponed for a period of six months. We specified six months to prevent employers from postponing leave indefinitely to the point where the child would be too old.

Senator Ridge also referred to setting the age limit at five years as opposed to the maximum of eight allowed for in the directive. In reviewing the position in other countries the Department found that many have set the limit at lower than eight years; the average appears to be three years. However, given most children in Ireland have commenced school at the age of five years and that this is the first time legislation on parental leave has been introduced, we determined this was the appropriate age. While Senator Ridge wondered why the age of eight years was not selected, Senator O'Toole considered the age limit of five to be too high. I hope we got the balance right.

Senator O'Toole also referred to the flexibility provision and suggested it was too generous and likely to be disruptive to employers. A positive feature of the debate was the way in which Senators took a partnership approach and considered the Bill from both the employer's and employee's viewpoint. There must be agreement between the employer and employee where the leave is being taken in broken periods or where the employee works reduced hours. Agreement can be reached at local level - we expect this to happen in most cases - or centrally between employers' interests and unions. Indeed, certain industries, such as those referred to by Senator O'Toole, may decide to take a national decision on this aspect.

Senator O'Toole and Senator Ormonde expressed concern about the protection of employee and superannuation rights. The Department of Finance has advised it is a standard principle that unpaid leave from work cannot be reckoned for the purposes of occupational pensions. However, credit will be given for social welfare purposes so that State old age pensions will not be affected by the period of parental leave.

Senator O'Toole raised the question of paternity leave. There is a distinction between maternity, parental and paternity leave. Under this legislation parental leave must be given on an equal basis to men and women. To do otherwise would be discriminatory and open to legal challenge. Paternity leave is, therefore, an issue for another day.

Senator O'Toole also suggested that the estimate of the cost to the State of £40 million if paid parental leave was to be provided might be exaggerated. The cost of £40 million relates to social welfare benefits, which the Senator suggested includes all eligible men and women. The figure assumes a 95 per cent take-up by women and a very low take-up by men. If all eligible men and women took the leave the figure could be as high as £100 million.

Senator Quinn made an interesting contribution. He referred to the USversus the European experience on job creation and the enormous range of legislation applicable in Europe which has resulted in increased employment costs. He suggested we should be rolling back rather than increasing provisions in this area. This legislation is required by the directive. It was negotiated between employer and employee representatives and is subscribed to by both. Employers must recognise the realities of today's workforce and the benefits of such measures in terms of goodwill, reduced absenteeism and retraining of skilled workers. All speakers recognised these factors.

The issue offorce majeure leave was of concern to a number of Senators. Senators Quinn and Cox were concerned about giving employees extra paid holidays. The directive requires that force majeure leave be included, but it is limited to five days in three years. People in the workplace suffer family crises. Senator Quinn was concerned about people's attitude to sick leave, but in some cases people take sick leave because of family crises. The introduction of force majeure leave, which recognises that people may experience such crises, may reduce absenteeism through sick leave for family emergencies.

Senator Ridge said children may contract measles while their parents are at work and people find themselves in difficult positions. Emergencies occur and in the past the only way people could take time to address them was to take sick leave, particularly if they had used all their annual leave. It was recognised in the formulation of the Bill that there was potential for the abuse offorce majeure leave. I hope Senator Quinn is satisfied that safeguards have been included in the Bill in that regard.

As I said in a radio debate earlier today, parental leave is for parental duties. It is not leave for people to go fishing.

Or play golf.

It is for parental duties. It should be noted that people do not have to take 14 weeks. If a person needs three weeks in the period from the time their child is born until the age of five, there is no obligation on him or her to take the other 11 weeks. It is a voluntary system.

Regarding pension rights, employees are not entitled to accrue occupational pension rights during parental leave. This is the norm during any form of unpaid leave. However, with reference to Senator Ormonde's point, employees will be given credited contributions for social welfare payments.

Senator Ridge and Senator O'Meara referred to the need for more family friendly policies, including in the area of child care. Everybody appreciates that there is a need to balance activities in the workplace and the home. As Senators said, these are no longer mutually exclusive and family friendly initiatives must be recognised. Many positive developments have taken place since I entered the workforce, including many of the initiatives mentioned by Senator Cox, such as flexible working arrangements and job sharing. Many changes have taken place since equality measures were introduced and the marriage bar was lifted in the 1970s which gave recognition to women in the workforce. I hope people will consider this Bill another positive step in this area.

Regarding the Department's approach to child care, last July it established an expert working group, chaired by the Department, which will examine the various issues surrounding child care. The expert group is due to report by the end of this year. The issue of child care is being addressed on a number of fronts.

A number of Senators mentioned payment for parental leave. I outlined the reasons the Government does not propose to introduce payment for this leave. It is important to recognise that the directive left open this issue. It recognised the differences across Europe. Senator Ridge mentioned Sweden and the advanced system there. However, Ireland is only starting to implement the equality agenda and the agreement between the European partners recognised the differences in Europe. I hope Members will accept this point.

Many existing parental leave schemes in EU member states are unpaid. Payment would be costly for individual employers and uncompetitive for the economy as a whole. Senator Quinn made a number of important points on behalf of employers. It must be recognised that employers have concerns. They must deal with the disruption involved in people taking any type of leave. In bigger organisations, this is difficult in terms of the records that must be kept. The cost to the Exchequer of paying for parental leave in a system similar to the maternity leave arrangements would be a minimum of £40 million a year. For all these reasons, it is not possible to pay for parental leave at this point.

This is a positive equality measure. I thank the Senators who welcomed the initiation of the Bill in the Seanad. It is another positive step on the equality road and many parents in the workplace warmly welcome this initiative. I hope all employees and employers will appreciate that the Government approached this matter from the point of view of achieving a balance between the need to introduce family friendly initiatives in the workplace and the many important issues raised by employers, some of which were mentioned by Senator Quinn. I hope Members will agree that this balance has been struck in the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

When is it proposed to take Committee Stage?

Next Tuesday, subject to the agreement of the Whips.

Committee Stage ordered for Tuesday, 16 June 1998.

Acting Chairman

When is it proposed to sit again?

Next Tuesday at 2.30 p.m.

The Seanad adjourned at 1.40 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 16 June 1998.