Parental Leave Bill, 1998 [ Seanad Bill amended by Dáil ] : Report and Final Stages.

This is a Seanad Bill which has been amended by the Dáil. In accordance with Standing Order 85, it is deemed to have passed its First, Second and Third Stages in the Seanad and is placed on the Order Paper for Report Stage. On the question "That the Bill be received for final consideration", the Minister may explain the meaning of the amendments made by the Dáil and this is looked upon as the report of the Dáil amendments to the Seanad. The only matter, therefore, that may be discussed is the amendments made by the Dáil. For the convenience of Senators, I have arranged for the printing and circulation to them of these amendments.

Question proposed: "That the Bill be received for final consideration."

As Members are aware, they may speak only once on this question.

As the Cathaoirleach mentioned, I intend to outline the purpose of the various amendments made in the other House since 16 June 1998 when the Seanad took Committee Stage of the Bill. While some of the amendments are of a technical nature, others involve alterations to the operation of the scheme in response to comments made in the Oireachtas and other fora.

Amendment No. 1, although judged by the parliamentary draftsman not to be strictly necessary, was an Opposition amendment which I accepted. While this type of provision is more usually found where an EU directive is transposed under the European Communities Act, 1972, I consider its inclusion in the Bill would not cause a difficulty.

Regarding amendment No. 2, Senators will note that I have amended section 6 to delete the phrase "without pay". In making this amendment, I emphatically state that I am not imposing any obligation on employers to provide paid parental leave. I draw attention to section 14(1) which provides that an employee's employment rights, other than his or her right to remuneration or superannuation benefits or any obligation to pay contributions in or in respect of the employment, are protected during parental leave. Lest there be any doubt, I am not making any commitment to or signalling any form of State benefit for persons on parental leave.

The reason I made this change is that some concerns were voiced about whether the Bill might prevent an employer from paying for parental leave if he or she wished. I do not wish to preclude this possibility or to pre-empt any negotiations on this issue in the future. I am also conscious of the need to avoid compromising any future negotiations under Partnership 2000 and of the concerns which ICTU voiced in this regard. I would not wish the outcome of such negotiations to be frustrated by any provision of the Bill.

Amendment No. 3 clarifies the position about information to be furnished to the employer by the employee when an application for parental leave is submitted. The previous text gave rise to privacy concerns.

Amendments Nos. 4, to 7, inclusive, to section 11 were introduced to define the scope of an employer's power to postpone parental leave. Where parental leave is postponed, the employer and employee must agree on a new start date for the leave. The amendments also ensure that an employer cannot repeatedly avail of the postponement clause. A period of parental leave can only be postponed once or twice where the postponement is because of seasonal variations in volume of work. Technical amendments were also made to section 11 in relation to postponed parental leave.

Amendments Nos. 8 to 10, inclusive, relate to section 12. These amendments ensure that where parental leave is being terminated owing to its abuse, the procedures to be followed by the employer are consistent with the requirements of natural justice and fair procedures. The amendments also address concerns about the status of an employee whose parental leave is terminated. Under the section as amended, the termination of the leave will not take effect until the date on which the employee is required to return to work. The employee will be either on parental leave or back at work, but not in any intermediate situation. The employee must be afforded one week in which to make representations about the termination of the leave and a further week's notice before he or she is required to return to work.

Amendments Nos. 11 to 13, inclusive, revise the procedures to be followed when an employee has taken force majeure leave. The changes follow from further discussions I had with ICTU and IBEC. Senator Henry may wish to note that the deletion of section 13(6) in amendment No. 13 means that the procedures do not now embody a need to obtain a medical certificate in respect of the family member who was ill or injured when force majeure leave was availed of by the employee. Instead there will be a prescribed form on which the employee must make a statement of facts entitling him or her to force majeure leave.

Amendment No. 14 ensures that the Parental Leave Bill is consistent with other employment and equality legislation as regards the timescale for referral of a dispute to a rights commissioner.

Amendments Nos. 15 to 17, inclusive, are largely technical amendments to section 19. Amendment No. 15, made on the advice of the parliamentary draftsman, was necessary because £150 is the existing amount of fine which this Bill proposes to increase to £1,500. An earlier change from £20 to £150 took place in 1979. Amendment No. 16 makes clear that the provision of this subsection deals with the situation of a person giving false evidence before the Employment Appeals Tribunal or in respect of any such proceedings before the tribunal relating to this section of the Parental Leave Bill. Amendment No. 17, which was accepted on the advice of the parliamentary draftsman, makes clear that the penalty for giving false evidence before the Employment Appeals Tribunal shall, on conviction, be the penalty applicable to perjury.

Amendments Nos. 18 to 21, inclusive, are also technical amendments. Their purpose is to confer on the Employment Appeals Tribunal the same options that are available to a rights commissioner. Thus, when either the rights commissioner or the tribunal adjudicate on a dispute, each may direct the postponement, curtailment or variation of the parental leave under the terms of section 21(6) and (7).

Amendment No. 22 enables the Employment Equality Agency to exercise the function of publicising parental leave by means of information leaflets, publicity campaigns, having information on the agency's Internet web site, etc. Pending formal commencement of the Employment Equality Act, 1998, which became law on 18 June last, the agency will exercise this function in relation to parental leave on a non-statutory basis.

Regarding amendment No. 2, which deletes the phrase "without pay", I regret the suggestion by the Fine Gael Party of a doubling of child benefit was not included. While the Bill is welcome, it will benefit the wealthy rather than the deserving. Most of the amendments are sensible and welcome, but I regret that the Government could not find some way of including parents and families who do not have high incomes. The purpose of the Bill is to allow parents spend time with their children at the most crucial period of their lives. The doubling of child benefit was a very good suggestion and I regret the Minister did not take it up.

I thank the Minister for introducing amendment No. 13, which makes it unnecessary for those who take force majeure leave to get a doctor's certificate. The medical profession is not enthusiastic about policing the social welfare system. It might also have led to difficulties with confidentiality because one would have had to get a certificate for a person other than the person taking the leave.

I am not sure if Senator Ridge meant doubling child benefit for parents or for children whose parents take parental leave. It would be discriminatory to use child benefit in that manner. Child benefit is provided for every child in the State whether the parent works or not and I would not be happy if it were doubled for children whose parents happen to work and have taken parental leave. I am surprised Fine Gael is proposing we go in that direction.

I have discussed unpaid parental leave in great detail with a number of people over the past number of weeks. Parents will be very happy to be in a position to take parental leave without pay, particularly given the flexibility we have included in the Bill where parents can take this leave one day at a time, one day a week, two days a month and so on. It is very easy to say such leave should be paid when one is in Opposition but it is not possible in the real world for the State or employers to finance such leave.

I welcome some of the amendments. I am disappointed the Minister has not seen fit to delete section 1, which states "This Act shall come into operation on the 3rd day of December, 1998". It should come into operation immediately so that people can be provided with the entitlements for which they have been waiting. The directive was introduced two years ago and we are one of the last member states to implement it.

I was also disappointed he did not see fit to extend the period of time from 14 weeks——

We can only discuss the amendments which were made by the Dáil; we cannot discuss amendments which were not accepted.

Everybody seemed to be making a slightly general statement before discussing the amendments.

I am happy enough with the amendment which was made to section 8(6)(b). However, the Bill is the second piece of legislation which places a statutory obligation on adoptive parents to disclose to a third party that their child is adopted, as required under section 8(6)(a). There is no such statutory obligation on any person or body to inform the child that he or she is adopted. Why is it necessary to draw attention to it and state in the Bill that the date of birth of the child and the date of the making of the adoption order must be disclosed? Such situations can lead to a great deal of trouble and hardship. It is unnecessary because it refers specifically to the adopted child. Numerous people find out late in life that they were adopted and this could cause further embarrassment to such people. I ask the Minister to refer to that in his remarks.

I may need your guidance, Sir, despite my experience in these Houses. Are we now making a general statement on all the amendments?

All the amendments which were made by the Dáil.

Will they then be put separately?

No. We will deal with all the amendments before us and when all Senators have made their contributions the Minister will respond.

Are they then deemed to have passed? Is there is no individual putting of each amendment?

No, the only question is that the Bill be received for final consideration.

Thank you for your direction; it is something I ought to have known and I thank you for instructing me.

The Senator is very welcome.

I am delighted with amendment No. 2 to section 6, where the Minister has decided to delete the words "without pay". Many speakers in this and the other House, including the Government spokesperson, Senator Cox, made the criticism that there is no incentive for low income families, which might have the greatest need for parental leave, to avail of such leave. There was a clear tone and implication in the responses of the Minister and the Minister of State that they were lining up with that sector which would only agree to this Bill if no pay requirement was placed on employers.

I appreciate there is no pay requirement in relation to the State, which is why my party proposed an amendment whereby the Government might introduce an incentive by doubling child benefit during the period of parental leave. It would be a very small incentive because the present rates of child benefit would not make anyone rich, even if they were doubled.

It would not break the State to double child benefit for the period of parental leave. There is great boasting nowadays about how much we will overshoot our revenue targets in the current year's budget. We all believe in rectitude and so on, but spending all that surplus on wiping out the national debt is not good enough. There are many social areas which need attention. I know, Sir, you are having some difficulty with——

I remind the Senator that we are not discussing amendments which were not made by the Dáil; we are discussing the amendments which were made.

I beg your latitude in this regard. I am referring to the broader issues thrown up by the deletion of the words "without pay". I repeat the plea made by my colleague, Senator Ridge, for the Minister to reconsider some State incentive to parents at this late stage as the House is about to go into recess.

The incentive is the ability to stay at home. A good mother or father would not need an incentive.

Senator Connor, without interruption.

Senator Cox makes some of the most extraordinary statements in this House. She appears to be to the right of Genghis Khan and is certainly very far to the right of Margaret Thatcher in her statements on economic matters.

We are not discussing Senator Cox's political philosophy; we are discussing amendments made by the Dáil.

I was sorely tempted by her extraordinary statements, not just today but on other occasions. However, of course, we are not here to discuss Senator Cox.

She has the practical experience.

When this Bill in enacted studies will show in two or three years time that there is a very low level of participation in unpaid parental leave because parents cannot afford to avail of it.

I am glad you kept a tight rein on proceedings, a Chathaoirligh, because we were drifting from the national debt, to Genghis Khan, to what Senator Cox said last week. If we had progressed along that line——

I know the Minister is very sensitive to criticism.

It was a little end of term frivolity.

——we would have ended up discussing the Cork and Kerry game in Killarney next Sunday, which would undoubtedly have been a productive exercise but has nothing to do with the legislation.

I thank Senators for their co-operation in processing this legislation. I was happy to accept some amendments proposed by Senators when the Bill was initiated in this House, as well as taking on board suggestions from several Senators for other amendments. When the Bill was considered by the other House last week some further refinements were teased out. The final result is the Bill before us today.

The viewpoints put forward by Senators during debates on the passage of the Bill did not focus on its bare contents. Instead, it ranged widely over the challenges and problems faced by Irish parents today in seeking to reconcile their home and work responsibilities. I found Senators' contributions interesting and informative.

This is pioneering legislation and represents a significant evolution in Irish working conditions; to that extent it is a historic Bill in that it recognises the changes that have taken place in the Irish workforce and that nothing will be the same again. It also reflects the Government's policy of providing equal opportunities for men and women. Accordingly, this is an equal opportunities Bill.

Great interest has been expressed in the Bill throughout the country, not just in the Oireachtas. I know that its commencement on 3 December is being looked forward to eagerly by men and women in the workforce, and employers and employees have several months to prepare themselves for the Act to come into operation. Parts of the Bill necessitate the making of Ministerial regulations in relation to several procedural aspects of the legislation. The Bill contains provisions for employer and employee interests to be consulted on the preparation of statutory instruments. I am confident that there will be a continuation of the helpful discussions that have taken place between my Department and the representatives of IBEC and ICTU in developing the provisions of the Bill.

It is difficult to say now where this legislation will lead us to, but we can be absolutely sure that there will be further progression in Irish labour law following the introduction of this measure. Few people could have envisaged this Bill even ten years ago, therefore it would be a foolish man or woman who would predict how this legislation will evolve over the next decade. As society evolves, so will legislation such as this.

I am pleased to have had the opportunity of putting this significant legislation in place. I thank Senators for their valuable contributions and I thank my officials, who worked so hard on this legislation.

Question put and agreed to.
Question proposed: "That the Bill do now pass."

Even though there was an EU directive on this matter, I congratulate the Minister on bringing in this Bill. At times during the debate I began to think that children were the greatest social problem and economic threat to the country; it is nice to see parenthood being stressed in this Bill and being given the importance it deserves.

I welcome the Bill and I thank the Minister for the amendments he accepted. However, section 8 is still grievously flawed in that it makes a distinction regarding the adoptive child and the information to be revealed without confidentiality being assured. The same is not required of a birth parent, and this is a serious matter. It further compounds attitudes towards adoptive children. I am glad the Minister has taken the final section of the Employment Equality Act on board, but he has changed the intention of our original amendment. We wanted to provide the public with knowledge and awareness of their entitlements under the Act; there is now a provision to give information on the workings of the Act, which is not the same thing. However, I am happy to see this Bill enacted and hope it is taken up so that we do not have a situation whereby parents cannot avail of it through lack of funding. I hope this will be a boon to Irish parents everywhere.

Despite my reputation, I welcome this Bill. I agree that it has been introduced because of an EU directive, but the Government has addressed the issue and brought in a Bill that is fair and equitable to employers, employees and children. I agree with the Minister that this is one of the most significant steps taken since the removal of the barrier to women's equal access to working life. It also promotes the equality agenda for men, and the recognition that men have as much of a role as women in bringing up children which is vitally important. I commend the Minister and his officials. Being involved with this legislation is one of my proudest moments since becoming a Senator. I look forward to reviewing this Bill in the future and I also look forward to more legislation that recognises children as our most vital asset. Maintaining a balance between work and children is vital to the continued success of the Celtic tiger. I am delighted to have participated in this debate and I compliment the staff of both Houses for their handling of the issues.

Despite what he may think, I compliment the Minister and his staff. I also compliment my fellow Senators. This is my first session in the Seanad and it has been a rewarding experience. I am learning to be as cute as I can be in getting through the defences put up against my amendments, though I accept that I am still a novice. It is enriching to hear such diverse opinions; while one is convinced one is always right, one must dilute one's aspirations on occasion. This Bill is a great step forward, but it has a long way to go. I accept we live in an imperfect world, but it is a step in the right direction. I look forward to its being further amended as attitudes to family and parenthood progress. I compliment the Minister on his work in this matter.

I compliment the Minister on this innovative legislation. It is a major leap forward and will be especially welcome to ordinary working class people. The Bill can be reviewed in three years, so those with reservations can be heard then.

I thank colleagues for their contributions. However, regarding Senator Costello's point, I have experience of the adoption situation, and currently attitudes appear to be very open. Adopted children are informed at the earliest possible age in order to prevent people being shocked at 19 or 20 to find out that they are adopted. That is very important. I had the experience of going to Romania where one of my sisters adopted children. Parents are open about adoption and children are aware of being adopted from a very early age. This is the proper approach.

Question put and agreed to.