Adoptive Leave Bill 2004: Second Stage (Resumed).

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

I thank Senators for their contributions to the debate on the Adoptive Leave Bill 2004.

The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform provides supports to working parents through the equal opportunities child care programme. There have been significant developments in the provision of child care in recent years. Child care was identified as a priority area for investment in the national development plan.

The equal opportunities child care programme, which will run between 2000 and 2006, was launched by the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform in April 2000. The programme aims to increase the number of child care facilities and places, to enhance the quality of child care services and to introduce a co-ordinated approach to the delivery of these services. The funding allocated to my Department for these purposes during the programme's seven-year period is €437 million. Following the mid-term evaluation of the national development plan, I understand that details for additional funding, which will increase the funding available to approximately €449 million, are being finalised with the two regional assemblies.

The programme seeks to address the child care needs of parents who are working or engaged in training and education activities. It provides capital grant assistance to community and not-for-profit organisations and private child care providers to increase the supply of child care places or enhance the quality of existing places. I do not propose to detain Senators by giving further details of the money that has been spent under the programme. I gathered from Senator White's contribution that it is proposed to have a specific debate on this matter in the Seanad.

It is important to note that while a great deal of money has been invested, a substantial requirement remains. The Government's policy approach to meet this requirement has been to adopt supply side measures. In other words, the Government is trying to tackle this problem by increasing the quantity and quality of the supply of child care places. The State will face a major decision in 2006 when it will have to decide how to move forward. The present allocation of funding is co-funded by the European Union, but it is clear that the question of the sustainability of such funding will arise in 2006. It may not be sustainable for us to make a case for it at that time. Ireland's national contribution will also be an issue at then. The equal opportunities child care programme will run until 2006, but it is clear that we have to plan for what we will do after that date. A substantial amount of money has been allocated.

The Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform staff who operate in this area have done outstanding work. They work with the 33 city and county child care committees, which are not established on a statutory basis. The committees bring together the relevant stakeholders in the city or county to work with the Department to improve the quality and quantity of child care provision in each area.

The Bill represents a further advance in employment rights for working parents, particularly for women. It has come before the house at an important time for social affairs, during Ireland's Presidency of the EU. The Bill highlights Ireland's commitment to achieving greater protection for employees, particularly female employees, and an improved work-life balance for all. We owe our economic success in no small part to our highly trained and educated workforce, in which women play a significant role. The Bill's improvements to adoptive leave legislation are part of the Government's efforts to help employees to achieve a better work-life balance. Greater retention of women in the workplace is being encouraged by helping to reconcile the often competing demands of work and family commitments.

Ireland has some work to do if it is to achieve the best practice and high standards set in some Scandinavian countries in respect of maternity and child care provisions. We are setting an example to the ten new member states, however. We can showcase, by means of our Presidency of the EU, our social developments and achievements. The Government will strive to push further its legislative agenda. It will continue to work with the social partners and the EU to bring about further improvements to enhance the working lives of our citizens.

Senator Terry argued that evidence of attendance at preparatory classes should not be required of employees. There is a similar requirement in the maternity legislation for expectant women who attend antenatal care appointments. The Maternity Bill has a similar requirement concerning antenatal classes so there is no differentiation between the adoption and maternity legislation in this respect. It is normal practice for an employer to seek evidence of appointments for medical or dental purposes, for example, when employees take time off for these reasons. It is not accepted that it is in any way wrong to acquire evidence of these preparatory classes.

I thank Senators very much for their contributions to the debate.

I asked a number of other questions and, while I welcome the Minister of State who has provided us with additional information, perhaps I could remind him of my questions. I have a particular concern about the fact——

The Senator should be brief.

Yes, but I just want to get my questions answered.

We are on Second Stage.

The first question is about the 16 weeks' adoptive leave compared to the 18 weeks for maternity leave. Adoptive parents should be entitled to preparation time prior to receiving the child.

Does the Senator mean that they should have the extra two weeks, too?

Yes, because they are not getting those two weeks currently.

For familiarisation, yes.

My other question was about parents who have to go abroad to adopt their child and are obliged to spend a number of weeks in that country. There is no recognition of that time. As the Minister of State has given us further information today, I would like to bring to his attention the fact that a number of child care providers have expressed concern to me about the increase in the rates for their business. This is imposing an enormous cost on them, which they will pass on.

Does the Senator mean the business rates they have to pay?

Yes, the rates imposed by the local authority. This cost will, of course, be added on to the cost of child care for parents. The Minister of State should examine that to see if there is any way we can address the rates problem, in conjunction with the local authorities.

I am labouring under the difficulty that I did not hear the Senator's original contribution. I have taken such advice as I can concerning her initial contribution but I am afraid that some of the matters may have to be revisited on Committee Stage. As regards paid leave pre-placement, however, the 1995 Act, as amended, currently provides for 14 weeks' adoptive leave, attracting a payment from the Department of Social and Family Affairs, and an optional unpaid eight weeks' additional adoptive leave.

In the context of consultations with former members of the maternity working group on the amendment of the 1995 Act, consideration was given to a proposal to provide for paid adoptive leave prior to the date of placement. However, the proposal was rejected, as providing paid leave prior to the day of placement, even if it were confined to adopting mothers or sole male adopters, could weaken the legal basis of the adoptive leave legislation. A European Court of Justice decision in 1983 on proceedings between the European Commission and Italy, determined that confining adoptive leave to women and not to men, in the period following placement of the child, did not contravene the equal treatment directive. The view of the court was that confining adoptive leave to women in the period following the day of placement was justified by the legitimate concern to assimilate as far as possible the conditions of entry of the child into the adopting family to those of the arrival of a new-born child in the family.

In order to ensure that the maternity and adoptive leave provisions treat natural and adopting fathers and mothers equitably, there are therefore no plans to provide for that paid leave pre-placement of adoption.

I will have to revisit the issue of the detailed periods on Committee Stage.

That is fine.

Question put and agreed to.
Committee Stage ordered for Wednesday, 26 May 2004.

When is it proposed to sit again?

At 10.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 26 May 2004.

The Seanad adjourned at 12.15 p.m. until10.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 26 May 2004.