Dáil Éireann - Volume 530 - 20 February, 2001

Written Answers. - Maternity Leave.

346. Mr. G. Mitchell asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform if he will make a statement on the concerns of a person (details supplied) in relation to maternity leave. [4741/01]

Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Mr. O'Donoghue): The Maternity Protection Act, 1994, has been amended by means of an order which was made on 8 February 2001. This amendment entitles a pregnant employee who commences maternity leave at any time on or after 8 March 2001 to maternity leave consisting of 18 consecutive weeks paid leave and eight consecutive weeks unpaid leave. A woman who would be due to commence additional unpaid maternity leave on or after 8 March 2001 will be entitled to avail of eight weeks unpaid leave.

In the case the Deputy refers to, as the woman finishes her maternity leave on 10 April, she will not be entitled to the increased entitlement of paid leave. However, if she does not commence unpaid maternity leave until on or after 8 March, she will be entitled to apply for eight weeks unpaid leave, instead of four weeks, if she so wishes.

I would like to clarify the position regarding the commencement date for the increased entitlements. The Minister for Finance announced on 6 December 2000 that the increased entitlements would apply from early April 2001. Most increases provided by the annual Social Welfare Bill apply from April or somewhat later.

After the budget announcement, officials in my Department looked into the possibility of applying the maternity leave increases not only to women who commence maternity leave from early April but also to women who go on leave prior to that date. This issue was examined in conjunction with officials from the Departments of Finance and Social, Community and Family Affairs and the Attorney General's office.

It is essential that an order made under the Maternity Protection Act, 1994, would comply with that Act. The Attorney General advised me that it would not be possible to have the order extend the increased period of maternity leave to those persons who could not comply with the notice requirements, that is, to employer by employee, of the parent Act and that any attempt to make the order retrospective could be deemed to adversely affect the rights of employers and would be open to challenge. The increases in maternity leave are not merely a matter of the State paying out extra weeks of maternity benefit. They have major impact on employers in many ways, for example, the need to replace employees for a longer period than expected and, in some cases, contractual obligations in respect of pay[1432] ment. The effective dates of the increases, as set out in the order, take account of the notice requirements under the Act. The position, therefore, is that the need to comply with the Maternity Protection Act, 1994, limited the extent to which the increases could be applied to persons already on maternity leave.