Adoptive Leave Bill 2004 [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 103, 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 purpose of the amendments made by the Dáil. This is looked upon as the report of the Dáil amendments to the Seanad. The only matters, therefore, which may be discussed are the amendments made by the Dáil. For Senators' convenience, I have arranged for the printing and circulation of the amendments. Senators may speak only once on Report Stage.

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

Group one is the subject matter of amendments Nos. 1, 2, 3 and 12.

The Adoptive Leave Bill 2004 was introduced in the Seanad over 12 months ago. A number of amendments were made during its passage through this House and I welcome the opportunity to return to the House to report on further amendments made to the Bill in Dáil Éireann. A total of 11 Government amendments and one Opposition amendment were accepted on Committee Stage in the Dáil.

Amendments Nos. 1, 2, 3 and 12 were required to update the text of the Bill to take account of the Adoptive Leave Act 1995 (Extension of Periods of Leave) Order 2004 (SI 667/2004) made on 22 October 2004. This order implemented the two week increase in adoptive leave to 16 weeks as provided for in section 3 of the Bill. Effectively it implemented the increase almost 12 months earlier than would have been the case had we awaited enactment of the Bill. The increase in adoptive leave was consequent on the reduction in the compulsory period of pre-confinement maternity leave introduced by section 3 of the Maternity Protection (Amendment) Act 2004 and maintains consistency between the leave provisions for natural and adopting mothers from the time the child is born or placed in their care. The increase in adoptive leave and the reduction of the compulsory pre-confinement period of maternity leave mean that both natural and adopting mothers can now avail of up to 16 weeks leave with payment of a social welfare benefit from the time the child is born or placed in their care.

Amendment No. 12 revokes the 2001 and 2004 orders as the provision of both orders is incorporated into the Bill, making the legislation more transparent.

I welcome the Bill and the changes that are afforded to adoptive parents. There does not appear to be an option for a father to avail of this leave rather than a mother. Not to allow this option is a shortcoming and an opportunity missed by the Government. In the case of a natural birth it is right for a mother, having been through the pregnancy and given birth, to take the maternity leave. In the case of adoptive parents there is no reason a father, where there is one, should not be equally placed to avail of this leave. If a mother was self employed or was in receipt of a larger wage than the father it may be more convenient or suitable that the father avail of it. Has the Minister had time to reflect on the discussion in the Dáil on this issue and will he address it now?

The point is not relevant to the amendments in group one so is not up for discussion at this stage.

Group two relates to attendance at pre-adoption classes and meetings and are the subject of amendments Nos. 4, 5 and 6.

Section 7, subsection 11A(1) of the Bill as passed by the Seanad entitles employees time off to attend obligatory pre-adoption classes and meetings in accordance with regulations made by the Minister under subsection 11A (3). During the Bill's passage through the Dáil it became apparent that subsection 11A(3)(a) could be open to an interpretation contradictory to subsection 11A (1) to the effect of giving the Minister the power in regulations to reduce the entitlement by limiting the number of classes or meetings which the employee can attend. Consequently, amendment No. 5 removes subsection 11A(3)(a) for the avoidance of any doubt on the matter so that the Minister no longer has the power to limit this entitlement by regulation.

Amendment No. 6 also amends 11A(3) so that matters intended to be dealt with under regulations are brought into the Bill. This simplifies the legislation and has the further advantage of avoiding a delay of a number of months which would be required to draft and make separate regulations under section 7.

Amendment No. 4 is a technical amendment introduced as a consequence of amendments Nos. 5 and 6.

Group three covers postponement of leave, the subject matter of amendment No. 7.

Amendment No. 7 amends subsection 9(2)(d) of the Bill on the date of commencement of proposed leave. This amendment was initially proposed by Senator Tuffy but was not accepted. However, an identical amendment was proposed by Deputy Moynihan-Cronin and, on reflection, I was happy to accept it at that point. The Bill as passed by the Seanad provides that postponed leave must be taken as one continuous period beginning not later than seven days after the child is discharged from hospital. The amendment allows the employee and employer the scope to agree on another date for the commencement of the postponed leave if they wish. The amended provision produces a greater degree of flexibility for the employee while allowing the employer some discretion in the matter.

I welcome this change. I remember the discussion we had in the Seanad and although the Minister did not accept the amendment then I am obliged that it was accepted in the Dáil. It would have been better to accept it in this House. The fact that we had such a long discussion about it probably influenced the Minister in his final decision. I welcome the amendment.

Group four relates to the simplification of section 11, the subject matter of amendment No. 8.

Amendment No. 8 simplifies the text of section 11 of the Bill. The wording of the Bill passed by the Seanad, which was modelled on the 2001 order, could have given rise to confusion about employees' entitlements in the exceptional circumstance where the placement of a child terminates earlier than 16 weeks. This amendment replaces the text with a more simple and straightforward construction without altering in any way the purpose of the section.

Group five is a group of technical amendments, the subject matter of amendments Nos. 9, 10 and 11.

Amendments Nos. 9, 10 and 11 are technical amendments required to correct a cross-referencing error in the text of section 12 of the Bill.

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

I made points earlier on making the leave which is the subject matter of the Bill optional, although I understand that they will not be accepted at this stage. Nevertheless, I welcome the Bill as it will bring some equality to parents adopting a child. The legislation probably should have been enacted long ago. To repeat my previous statement, it is a missed opportunity in that this leave is not optional for either the mother or father to avail of. This is taking into account that adoptive parents are in different circumstances than natural parents, particularly the natural mother, in terms of having to take maternity leave for health reasons. This is not the case with adoptive parents, and amending the legislation to allow a father to take the leave if necessary could be a matter for future consideration.

I am disappointed that the legislation does not allow adoptive parents time off prior to the placement of a child, to enable them to travel overseas, for instance, as we know many children come from foreign countries to Irish adoptive parents. This time that must be spent abroad should be recognised. Although the amendment was not accepted, I welcome the legislation and thank the officials who put much time and effort into it. I thank the Minister of State for bringing it forward and hope that it will be signed into law as quickly as possible.

I thank the Minister of State for his contribution today in finalising the legislation. It is indicative of the caring nature of all strands of Government, in which I include the Opposition, in seeking to provide everybody with an equal playing field on the issue of adoption. Adoptive parents can now achieve the same entitlements as parents of naturally born children. This reflects the caring nature of Irish society, and Irish people have been very Christian through the years in adopting children.

We know of many families who have had their own children and adopted children also. The trend is now to go abroad, and many children have come to this country and are in warm and loving family homes as a consequence. My own brother adopted two children and I had the pleasure a month ago of watching one of them walk down the aisle in a Galway church to get married. I reflected on how she had turned out and the wonderful life she has. Families involved in the adoption process from now on will have an easier passage in many ways.

We are also fulfilling promises in the Sustaining Progress programme, which is one of many promises that we have brought to fruition. We are also demonstrating that the Government is serious about the equality agenda.

I welcome this Bill and support the comments made by the other Senators, as well as the aims of the legislation. The Minister of State, in accepting one of the amendments, moved in the direction of flexibility. There must be more options for parents, be they adoptive parents or otherwise. This would be good for both family life and employers, as employees with flexibility in their work would be happier in their family life and job.

I support Senator Terry's view that the legislation could go further. I hope it will go in such a direction at a future stage. This Bill is just a step, and much more must be done in order to improve working life for people with children and families in general.

I thank the Senators for the contributions they have made to the Bill and the constructive approach that was taken. It was not possible to accept a number of amendments that were proposed.

With regard to Senator Terry's proposal today, the Bill does not allow for paid time off for overseas meetings in the case of foreign adoptions. This was strongly rejected by employers because of cost, and it should be remembered that there are costs to employers already contained in the Bill. These allow parents paid time off for meetings in Ireland with social workers and to attend preparation classes, etc. It was therefore not possible to allow those amendments based on today's contribution.

The Adoptive Leave Bill 2004 is the second of three key pieces of legislation in the area of balancing life and work. The Government committed to these under the Sustaining Progress partnership agreement. Significant improvements have come about in maternity leave provisions, which have already been implemented by the Maternity Protection (Amendment) Act 2004. Work is well advanced on the Government commitment to implement a number of improvements to the parental leave scheme. The Parental Leave (Amendment) Bill 2004, published last December, has been passed in the Seanad and is currently on Second Stage in the Dáil.

Senators may be interested to know that the majority of the Bill's provisions will commence within weeks of enactment. Section 9, providing for the postponement of adoptive leave in the event of the hospitalisation of the child, and associated sections, will commence at a later date as amendments to social welfare legislation are required to permit splitting of the payment of adoptive leave benefit.

I thank the Members of the House, the staff of the House, the Cathaoirleach and the Leas-Chathaoirleach. I thank the staff in my own Department for their supportive role in the amendments and improvements to the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

When is it proposed to sit again?

At 10.30 a.m. tomorrow.