Parental Leave (Amendment) Bill 2004 [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 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 of State 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. The Minister of State will deal separately with the subject matter of each related group of amendments. I have also circulated the proposed grouping in the House. Senators may speak once on each grouping. The only matters which may be discussed are the amendments made by the Dáil.

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

Group 1 concerns the transfer of parental leave between parents, which is the subject matter of amendment No. 1.

The Parental Leave (Amendment) Bill 2004 was introduced in this House over 12 months ago and a number of amendments were made during its passage through the House. I am glad to have the opportunity to return to the Seanad to report on further amendments made to the Bill in Dáil Éireann. One Government amendment and two Opposition amendments were accepted on Committee Stage, while two further Opposition amendments were accepted on Report Stage.

Amendment No. 1 allows for the transfer of parental leave between parents in situations where both parents are employed by the same employer. Such amendments were rejected during the passage of the Bill through the Seanad. However, on further reflection, I was able to accept them on Report Stage in the Dáil. The amendments offer parents some flexibility in how they care for their children by allowing couples employed by the same employer to share their parental leave entitlements in whatever manner they wish subject to the agreement of the employer.

Any provisions that allow for the transfer of parental leave between parents must take cognisance of the burden on the employer from an operational and administrative perspective. The amendment addresses this issue by confining the sharing of the leave entitlement to one employment and offering the option of working out an arrangement that will meet the needs of employers and employees. In situations where both parents work for the same company or employer, it might be suitable that one parent should be allowed to use the other's parental leave. I was happy to accept these amendments on the basis that they provide a balanced solution by offering enhanced flexibility to parents employed by the same company or employer while also recognising the operational requirements of the employer.

I welcome the Minister of State and the amendment. It will facilitate parents who work for a single employer. I recognise employers' difficulties in facilitating parental leave, but we want to encourage them to take it on board. They will now be obliged to provide it. We want to improve the situation, which will hopefully happen in coming years. It is a good amendment and I happily support it.

I also support the amendment. The provisions in the Bill are a step forward, as is this amendment, but there is more that we must do. Recently, I noticed that Germany is extending its leave for parents to 18 months. It is becoming the norm in EU countries to have longer parental leave than we do. We still have a long way to go in the area of flexibility. The amendment is a good one but more needs to be done. People have a right to flexibility, a matter the Labour Party raised during debates on this legislation.

Group 2 deals with the extension of force majeure, which is the subject matter of amendment No. 2.

Amendment No. 2 extends the existing force majeure leave entitlement in section 13 of the Parental Leave Act 1998 to employees in respect of persons with whom they have relationships of domestic dependency, including same sex partners. Many Senators will recall that the absence of a provision extending force majeure to same sex partners was criticised during the passage of the Bill through the Seanad. The Bill as initiated did not make provision for the extension of the force majeure provisions of the principal Act to same sex partners because when the Bill was being considered by the Government, the Law Reform Commission was conducting a consultation process and review of the rights and duties of co-habitees.

In light of this process, it was decided to await the completion of the Commission's review so that the Government would have an opportunity to consider the issue in a wider sense. Following robust debate in the House on this issue, I undertook to put the matter to Government again. Due to this commitment, the matter was reviewed and I am pleased to say the Government has agreed to the extension of force majeure leave provisions to employees in respect of persons with whom they have relationships of domestic dependency, including same sex couples.

The amendment reflects the reality of many domestic relationships not covered by the existing provisions where, in an emergency situation arising from an illness or injury of a person residing with the employee, one reasonably relies on the other to make arrangements for the provision of care. To avoid doubt in the interpretation of this new provision, the text expressly states that the sexual orientation of the person is immaterial.

I welcome the amendment, which is a significant step forward in providing equality for same sex couples. Is this a Government amendment or was it tabled by the Opposition?

The amendment was made by the Dáil.

Yes. The amendment resulted from the acceptance of the case made by Senators.

I acknowledge that the Government has recognised the difficulties of many same sex couples in their daily lives. I welcome the amendment and hope it is a signal from the Government that it will take on board the fuller aspects of Fine Gael's civil partnership proposals, which are widely accepted by the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network, GLEN, and other organisations. I also hope that the Government will continue to table proposals to extend equal rights to all citizens.

This provision would make life easier and give people comfort by letting them know that if an employee were to get sick or be injured, his or her partner would be able to avail of force majeure leave arrangements. I welcome that full equality for all citizens is being introduced to our legislation and I look forward to more of the same. I thank the Minister of State.

I also welcome the amendment and that the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform took on board the debate in the Seanad. Force majeure leave, people’s rights in this regard and the various allowable circumstances should be publicised more. Many people do not realise their entitlements and, when something happens, they take holiday leave instead.

My views differ significantly to those expressed. When we discuss civil partnerships, it is important that there is no dilution of the status of heterosexual marriages. Unfortunately, there are many pressures in that area, which have consequently given rise to many marital breakdowns. This is not in the interests of society or the State. Any movement in the civil partnership direction will take full cognisance of that issue. My views are reflected in a strong body of opinion. We do not want negative discrimination against anyone, but the literal interpretation of equality often does not reflect the reality. I would like to think that the status of marriage in particular rather than other forms of relationships will always be the subject of positive discrimination.

The Dáil amendment states: "a person who resides with an employee is taken to be in a relationship of domestic dependency with the employee if, in the event of injury or illness, one reasonably relies on the other to make arrangements for the provision of care". I assume that this does not just relate to sexual orientation but also refers to a daughter or son living with parents who may find herself or himself in need of care. Perhaps the Minister of State will clarify that point.

Equally, I wish to echo the point that social and family-centred legislation, which assists people with difficulties in society to strengthen their relationship with those who are near and dear to them, is important. However, as Senator Terry has also recognised, this must always be balanced with the difficulties faced by employers. Recently, I have noted that some employers, particularly small employers, have great difficulty when people take maternity or paternity leave or whatever, and find that the absence of key staff from the organisation has a major impact. This affects both the organisation and everyone working within it. Hence, as the Minister of State has correctly pointed out, much of this legislation is subject to the agreement of the employer. This is essential because it must be recognised that at times, not every organisation is sufficiently large or strong to withstand the absence of key people.

Sons and daughters are already covered by the legislation. The purpose of this amendment is simply to include same sex couples. It is intended to ensure equality between same sex couples and heterosexual couples. This worthwhile amendment is in the interests of equality and is supported by the Government.

Group 3 consists of technical drafting amendments, which is the subject matter for amendments Nos. 3 to 5, inclusive.

Amendment No. 3 is a textual amendment, which I accepted on Report Stage on the basis that it improves the text of the Bill by offering greater clarity in respect of the provision in question. Amendments Nos. 4 and 5 are textual amendments which I accepted on Committee Stage on the basis that they also improve the text of the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.
Question, "That the Bill do now pass", put and agreed to.
Sitting suspended at 12.35 p.m. and resumed at 2 p.m.