Adjournment Debate. - Parental Leave.

I thank the Minister for coming into the House to respond on this issue. The EU Commission, in a reasoned opinion issued to the Government on 3 April, confirmed that the Irish Parental Leave Act of 1998 is in breach of the EU parental leave directive. The Act allows mothers and fathers to take up to 14 weeks unpaid leave from their work to take care of children up to the age of five.

We speak a lot in this country about helping parents to combine work and family but the reality is that we do very little to help parents achieve that objective. We have the lowest provision of publicly provided child care in the EU – what I would call primitive maternity leave – with provisions which badly need to be updated and extended, no paternity leave and unpaid parental leave. The Government went further when bringing in this parental leave legislation and set a cut-off date which excluded many children and parents from benefiting from what the EU directive had in mind. Under the directive, leave could have been given to parents of children up to the age of eight. The Government chose the age of five and also contravened the directive by setting a date by which children must be born in order to be eligible.

The formal notice first issued on 11 March 1999 to the Government states that the directive does not contain provision permitting member states to set a date by which children must be born and that by requiring children to have been born after the date of the directive's adoption, that is, 3 June 1996, the Government has added a condition which is not permitted by the directive. After the formal notice was issued in March, the Government did not accept what the Commission said but argued against it, and thus we have arrived at a situation where the Commission rejected the observations made by the Government and has issued a formal legal opinion, known as a reasoned opinion, confirming that the directive does not contain provision permitting member states to set a date by which children, in respect of whom the right to parental leave is exercised, must be born.

A number of questions now arise. Does the Minister intend to take any action to cover those parents and children who have been unjustly excluded and are now over-age? Will the Minister clarify what he intends to do now about changing the parental leave legislation? Does he intend to appeal the opinion or do the honourable thing and bring in the necessary changes?

I ask the Minister to increase the parental leave available to parents of disabled children and extend the age of children whose parents can claim this leave up to eight years of age. The reality in Ireland is that we only have unpaid parental leave which in effect means that most parents will be unable to avail of it, unlike the position in a number of other EU member states. The complete resistance to any form of paid parental leave in this country is unacceptable and must be changed.

Will the Minister provide information – if not tonight then perhaps at a later stage – on the number of parents, male and female, who have been able to avail of the legislation to date. I would like to pay tribute to the work the Irish Congress of Trade Unions has consistently done in trying to ensure that Ireland's provisions in this area are of the highest quality.

I thank Deputy Fitzgerald for raising this matter. As the Deputy is aware, the European Commission has issued a reasoned opinion to the effect that Ireland, by restricting the right to parental leave to employees with children born or adopted on or after 3 June 1996, has not fully complied with its obligations under clause 2(1) of the framework agreement on parental leave annexed to Directive 96/34/EC, parental leave directive.

Ireland welcomes the clarification provided in the reasoned opinion by the Commission and we intend to respond quickly on this issue. My Department is currently examining the reasoned opinion with a view to identifying the measures to be put in place to give effect to it. We are in consultation with the Attorney General's office in this regard. I assure Deputy Fitzgerald that every effort is being made to respond to the reasoned opinion as expeditiously as possible.

It might be useful at this point to refresh our memories on the rationale for the original approach taken in the legislation. I impress on Deputy Fitzgerald that the 3 June 1996 date was incorporated in our legislation in good faith. The parental leave directive puts into effect a framework agreement which was negotiated at European level by representatives of employers and employees. Member states were not actually involved in the negotiations on the requirements for parental leave. At the time of the preparation of the legislation it was considered, in view of the wording of the framework agreement, that the State's obligations under the directive applied only from the date our Parental Leave Act came into effect on 3 December 1998.

It is also important to note that the decision to set the date of 3 June 1996 was rooted in the partnership process between the Government and the social partners in decision making. The parental leave legislation was drawn up in full consultation with the social partners. We considered that we were making a concession by providing for parental leave in respect of children born or adopted between 3 June 1996 and 2 December 1998. IBEC was opposed to any such concession, whereas ICTU wanted parental leave applied to all children under five, irrespective of their date of birth or adoption. The date of 3 June 1996 was a compromise between these two positions.

The reasoned opinion which we have received now indicates that we have not fully complied with our obligations under the parental leave directive. This, however, does not take from the fact that our original legislation was enacted in good faith. The challenge which faces us now is to accept the reasoned opinion and take all reasonable steps to implement it. Deputy Fitzgerald has flagged an urgent need to review Irish parental leave legislation following the reasoned opinion. I stress again that Ireland welcomes the Commission's clarification and that action is being taken towards speedy compliance with its findings.

My Department is in consultation with the Attorney General's office on the form which our response to the reasoned opinion will take and its advice is awaited. Initial indications are that it may be possible to amend the Parental Leave Act, 1998, by way of statutory instrument rather than by primary legislation.

The Programme for Prosperity and Fairness provides that my Department will conduct a review of the operation of the Parental Leave Act in 2001. I do not envisage that amendments to the Parental Leave Act which may take place as a result of the reasoned opinion will affect this timescale. In view of the timescale for compliance with the reasoned opinion, any amendments on foot of the reasoned opinion must take place independently of the review.

Ireland welcomes the clarification provided in the reasoned opinion by the Commission and intends to respond quickly on this issue. I and my Department, in consultation with the Attorney General's office, are examining all options for compliance. In view of our timescale for compliance, the action must take place independently of the review of the Parental Leave Act, on which there is a commitment in the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness. I am confident this matter can be resolved expeditiously and satisfactorily for all concerned. The answer to Deputy Fitzgerald's question as to whether we will behave honourably in relation to the reasoned opinion is that we will be consistent and behave honourably.

Zero tolerance.