Maternity Protection (Amendment) Bill 2003 [Seanad Bill amended by the Dáil]: Report and Final Stages.

This is a Seanad Bill which has been amended by the Dáil. In accordance with Standing Order 103, it 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 purpose of the amendments made by the Dáil. This is looked upon as the report of the Dáil amendments to the Seanad. For Senators' convenience, I have arranged for the printing and circulation of the amendments.

I propose to group the amendments made by the Dáil as follows for the purposes of debate: group 1, subject matter of amendments Nos. 1 to 13, inclusive, and group 2, subject matter of amendment No. 14. I remind Senators the only matter they may discuss is the subject matter of the amendments made by the Dáil and they may contribute only once on each group of amendments.

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

Over 12 months ago I introduced the Maternity Protection (Amendment) Bill 2003 in the Seanad. The Bill has been substantively amended and I am glad to report to the Seanad on the amendments made to the Bill in the Dáil. Fourteen Government amendments were tabled and accepted on Committee Stage in the Dáil and I propose to outline their effect.

Amendments Nos. 1 to 13, inclusive, correct a difficulty with the prior notification an employee wishing to take resumed leave must give to an employer. This became apparent when similar provisions in the Adoptive Leave Bill were being drafted. The text of the Bill as passed by the Seanad, in so far as it relates to the postponement of maternity leave or additional maternity leave, was likely to present a difficulty for employees in the practical application of certain notification provisions. Section 7(4)(c), as passed by the Seanad, compelled the employee to give seven days’ prior notice of her intention to resume leave which had been postponed earlier on the hospitalisation of the child. Section 7(9) provided that such resumed leave must commence within seven days of the discharge of the child from hospital. In practice this would have proved impossible for many employees to comply with, as it is usually the case that the discharge of a child from hospital would only become known to the parents on the preceding day or even on the day of discharge, requiring the immediate presence of the mother or father to care for the child at home.

I felt the notification procedures in sections 7(9) and 12(8) required amendment in order to provide more flexibility to employees in this situation. Consequently, amendments Nos. 3 and 9 remove the notification requirements in sections 7(9) and 12 (8) by the deletion of those subsections and the incorporation of a more flexible notification requirement in sections 7(8) and 12(7) respectively.

As a result, employees will be required to notify their employer of their intention to resume the untaken portion of their leave as soon as it is reasonably practicable, but not later than the day on which the leave begins. This gave rise to a number of consequential amendments, mainly to amend existing cross-references which are the subject of amendments Nos. 1, 2, 4 to 8, inclusive, and Nos. 10 to 13, inclusive.

I raise a Dáil amendment which has not come back here and which relates to the leave provisions for bereaved fathers in the event of the death of the mother during a post-confinement period of maternity leave or the additional maternity leave period. This was brought to my attention by Deputy Moynihan-Cronin, who asked me to raise it today. She raised it——

Is it the subject of an amendment within the grouping?

That is what I am trying to establish.

If an amendment in that regard was not made in the Dáil, it is not the subject of debate here.

The Minister of State can perhaps clarify the position.

This arose in the Dáil and I wrote to Deputy Moynihan-Cronin as a result, giving her my interpretation of the relevant section, section 10. It states that if a woman dies after the birth of a child then the father is entitled to a certain amount of time off. The Bill goes on to state that if the mother dies before the expiry of the 16th week following the week of her confinement, the period ends at the end of the 16th week. In other words, if she dies in the 15th week then the maternity leave ends at the end of the 16th week, one week later.

It goes on to state that if the mother dies at any time after the expiry of the 16th week, when one is into additional maternity leave, the period ends at the end of the 24th week. Deputy Moynihan-Cronin was rightly concerned that one could have a situation where, if the mother dies in week 15, the father would have only one week's paid leave; if she dies in week 17, he has seven weeks' unpaid leave. In the first case he will have one week paid leave plus the other eight weeks. Section 4 states that if a father takes subsection (1)(a) leave — 16 weeks minus whatever he decides — he shall, if he so wishes, be entitled to further leave from his employment for a maximum period of eight consecutive weeks commencing immediately after the end of his subsection (1)(a) leave or eight weeks, all or part of which is postponed if he wants to postpone it because of illness or whatever.

The position is clear. I wrote to Deputy Moynihan-Cronin who should have received my correspondence yesterday evening.

Group 2 relates to the subject matter of amendment No. 14 only.

Amendment No. 14 to section 20 corrects an omission relating to the notification of intention to return to work from a period of resumed leave in a case where the employer had waived the right to receive notification from the employee of the intention to take resumed leave. I am satisfied these amendments have improved the provisions of the Bill by offering more flexibility to employees in circumstances where they wish to resume their postponed leave on the discharge of their baby from hospital.

I commend the Bill to the House.

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

I commend the Minister of State on a job well done. I recognise that he listened carefully to all the arguments that were made on Second, Committee and Report Stages. The Minister of State has been diligent in tabling amendments which have only served to strengthen the Bill. However, there is one glaring omission from the Bill, which I raised on Second and Committee Stages. Women involved in political life, be it at local or national level, have no automatic right to maternity leave and, while such women can take time off, their political party or group does not have a right to record their votes. The difficulty arises in votes on no confidence motions or votes for the appointment of Taoiseach where one's vote is required to be cast. If, however, by virtue of one's absence due to confinement there is no leeway, pairing system or automatic entitlement to have a vote recorded until the Legislature and the Government addresses this matter, we will be discriminating against women Members of the Oireachtas and women members of local authorities, who may be absent for a vote by virtue of the need to be with their families. Whether the matter relates to this Bill or to other legislation, we are missing an opportunity to deal with it.

One Member of the House is, happily, expecting a baby in the summer. Come September, however, if there was a close voting scenario, I have no doubt that, no matter what sympathy might be evident on both sides of the House, that Member would be expected to be here to do her job. That attitude is unfair, discriminatory and shows a lack of commitment to the involvement of women in our political system.

The Minister of State listened sympathetically to demands for the removal of the ridiculous time limits on applying for maternity leave, so I will lay this additional burden at his feet now. I realise that he may not be able to deal with the matter today but it is my job to make representations on behalf of women involved in politics. The Minister of State should raise the issue in whatever fora are available to him, to see what can be done during this Government's period of office.

On behalf of the Labour Party, I commend the Minister of State and his officials for their work on this legislation. I have not been present for all debates on the Bill as it went through the House. My colleague Senator Tuffy was dealing with the matter but I have been urging her to rest because she is expecting a baby in August. The point that Senator Cox has raised is extremely interesting because it relates only to female political representatives. Pregnancy is not an illness, however. It is not like being in hospital for months on end with a broken leg or other ailments. Senator Cox's point should be explored further and we should examine what we can do about it. It is an important matter for democracy generally and, in particular, for the participation of women in our democracy as public representatives.

I also wish to compliment the Minister of State and his officials on my own behalf and on behalf of my colleague, Senator Terry, who is unavoidably absent. The Bill will certainly provide increased protection in this area. Senator Cox has raised a good point. We continuously lament the fact that younger women, in particular, are not involved in politics, yet this is an obvious stumbling block to their participation in political life. I must confess to my own lack of knowledge in maternity matters, but Senator Cox's point is both fair and appropriate. Some sort of mechanism, whereby votes can be cast on behalf of an Oireachtas Member who is absent on maternity leave, should be considered for the future. Such a system could also be considered at local authority level. As Senator Cox said, it is a glaring omission from the Bill as currently drafted. The Bill's provisions will, however, make for an improved situation. The Minister of State and his Government colleagues should consider Senator Cox's proposal for the future.

I thank the Minister of State for bringing the Bill before the House. On many occasions, officials from the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform have attended the House with the relevant Minister or Minister of State, to furnish us with a great deal of information. They have assisted us in shaping various Bills. The Bill before us will provide added protection for women who wish to re-enter the workforce. As we have been seeking to do, it will bring women back into the workplace, whose experience and qualifications have been lost to us due to the absence of such legislation. The Bill will also mean less hardship for families where mothers wish to work. Women of my generation, who remained at home to rear their children without the benefit of such legislative protection, will consider this Bill with great envy.

Apart from anything else, the economy will ultimately be the main beneficiary. The Minister of State has done well.

Question put and agreed to.
Sitting suspended at 1.20 p.m. and resumed at 1.30 p.m.