Paternity Leave and Benefit Bill 2016: Second Stage

I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I am delighted to present this Bill to the House today, the purpose of which is to give effect to the decision in budget 2016 to provide for two weeks' paternity leave and an associated social welfare benefit, known as paternity benefit, from 30 September this year. I, like many others, have been a strong advocate for the necessity of paid paternity leave for many years, and accordingly this legislation has been a priority for me since the new partnership Government was established in May.

As a parent, a former Minister for Children and a mother, I know how important it is for fathers to have the opportunity to be involved at the earliest stages of a child's development. It is in a child's best interest to benefit from the care and attention of both parents, where possible, in his or her early years. We have a huge amount of research now about the importance of early intervention and we know that early intervention, investing in a child's early years, leads to better outcomes for both the child and for wider society. When enacted, this legislation will allow new fathers, including fathers of adopted children, to start the combined package of paternity leave and paternity benefit at any time within the first six months following birth. The Bill also provides for same-sex couples on an equal basis with other couples. Regarding the operation of the scheme, the Department of Social Protection will provide a minimum of paid paternity benefit of €230 per week for the two weeks of paternity leave. I believe that the State can and should support families as they deal with all the different pressures they face. This legislation introducing two weeks of paid paternity leave in addition to the existing payment of maternity benefit means that the State now offers a total of 28 weeks of paid support to parents upon the birth of their child. By providing this investment in the child's early years, we are seeking to improve outcomes for children and families. I hope the Government will be in a position to extend this provision further in the years ahead, subject to resources being available.

The genesis of the Bill is a decision by the previous Government to introduce two weeks' paternity leave and the associated social insurance-based benefit payment in budget 2016. In January 2016, the Government approved the general scheme of the paternity leave Bill, priority drafting of the Bill and the insertion of the final text of the Bill as a new part of the proposed family leave Bill, in the event that the family leave Bill was sufficiently progressed as to allow its enactment before the end of the current legislative session in July 2016. On 22 March, however, on foot of a memorandum brought by the then Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Joan Burton, to whom I want to pay tribute for the work that she did on this in the Department of Social Protection, the Government agreed that the matter should be progressed as a stand-alone Bill. During the recent programme for Government negotiations, I was keen to ensure the new Government would reaffirm the commitment to introduce paternity leave and I am glad that the new programme for a partnership Government includes a commitment to introduce two weeks' paternity leave and to significantly increase parental leave. Since the Government was formed in May, it has been a key priority for me to progress the Bill through the House so that the new regime can be in place for September. It has also been a priority for my colleague, the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Leo Varadkar.

Careful attention has been devoted to the drafting of this Bill. At one level, the Bill deals with a simple issue, namely, the creation of two weeks' paternity leave and a paternity benefit. However, there were also quite complex issues regarding the interplay with maternity and adoptive leave that had to be resolved. These relate to rare and tragic situations that we must cater for, including stillbirth, death of a newborn baby or death of one of the parents. Essentially, we take a most humane approach. If the baby is stillborn or dies, of course the entitlement to paternity leave still continues, and if one parent dies, the other parent inherits whatever leave has not been taken. Amendments also had to be made to the Workplace Relations Act 2015 and the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005. The drafting of the Bill, therefore, was painstaking, challenging and required in an extremely short space of time in order for the scheme to be operational by September. I want to thank the drafters of the Attorney General's Office who have been so careful, conscientious and assiduous in their approach, even when working under severe pressure. I also want to thank the Department of Social Protection, which worked so effectively with my Department to bring this work to fruition, and of course the officials in my Department. We had a very small window of opportunity to enact the Bill, and I very much appreciate the support of the Opposition and I hope that we can get this Bill through the House so that the payment can be made in September. The assistance of everybody involved is very much appreciated.

Regarding the main provisions of the Bill, section 1 contains the Short Title while section 2 defines the various terms, including, for example, "relevant parent". Obviously, that means the father in most family circumstances. The Bill has also been drafted to provide for same-sex couples. Paternity leave can be taken by one person only, save in the case of adoption, where the Bill allows for circumstances where the father will have taken paternity leave, by ensuring that the adoptive father can subsequently also take paternity leave. Section 3 clarifies that the Minister has a power to make regulations regarding anything said to be prescribed in the Bill. There are some other standard provisions in Part 1.

Part 2 contains the outline of the entitlement of two weeks' paternity leave and what governs the operation of paternity leave. Section 6 is one of the most important provisions in the Bill as it creates the entitlement to two weeks' paternity leave. In section 7, we lay out how the parent must inform the employer of the intention to take paternity leave and the documentation required. It must usually be applied for four weeks in advance. Section 8 provides the detail of how it can be taken in one continuous period of two weeks at any time commencing on the date of the birth, or placement in the case of an adoption, and ending not later than 26 weeks thereafter. This means that a couple can chose to avail of the leave at the time of the birth or at the end of the period of paid maternity leave. Thus, if they chose, they can have 28 weeks' continual paid maternity-paternity leave or any time in between. Section 9 provides for relaxation of the normal notification period in cases where there is an early birth. Section 10 provides for postponement of paternity leave that has been applied for but not taken, in the event of postponement of the day of placement or the date of confinement. The rest of this Part goes into various details regarding postponement, for example, in the event of sickness or hospitalisation. We then had to make the changes to the Maternity Protection Act regarding the definition of "relevant parent" and the Adoptive Leave Acts. Section 15 provides for that transfer of paternity leave to the surviving parent where a father or other relevant parent dies while having an entitlement to paternity leave that has not been used, so obviously we had to deal for these sad and exceptional circumstances.

Section 16 contains a number of provisions that deal with the abuse of paternity leave. A key requirement is that paternity leave must be used for the care of the child to which the leave relates.

Part 3 relates to the protection of the employment of employees who avail of paternity leave.

There are some technical provisions also. Section 17 refers to where paternity leave is legitimately postponed and the issues around that. The preservation and suspension of certain employment rights while on paternity leave is dealt with in section 18 and is in line with the existing legislation in this regard as it relates to maternity and adoptive leave. Section 19 is also an employment rights protection provision which voids purported termination of employment if the employee is absent from work on paternity leave at the time. That follows the maternity leave regime we have in place.

Section 20 provides that certain notices of termination or suspension of employment must be extended if notice is given before the employee begins a period of paternity leave or before the receipt by the employee's employer of a notification of intention to take paternity leave. Again, this follows the arrangements we already have in place for family leave. Section 21 prohibits penalisation of the employee for proposing to exercise or for having exercised his or her entitlement to paternity leave, and is a standard provision in our equality legislation. The other sections outlined in my script set out the various arrangements the employee must make to the employer. Section 24 provides for delayed return to work in case of an interruption or cessation of work at an employee's place of employment. Section 25 sets out the provisions that apply where an employee is not permitted to return to work.

Part 4 deals with the resolution of disputes. These provisions dovetail with the reformed and streamlined redress mechanisms provided for in the Workplace Relations Act 2015.

Section 26 is a technical provision, which excludes the Defence Forces from the application of this Part and also excludes disputes involving dismissals, which are dealt with under unfair dismissals legislation. Deputies can see the interaction with the various other items of legislation we have, all of which needed to be worked out in regard to this legislation. Section 28 is a required feature of gender equality legislation. In essence, it provides that in any proceedings where the established facts carry a presumption of discrimination, it is for the respondent to prove the contrary.

Part 5, a very important Part of the Bill, provides for the amendments to the Social Welfare Acts to provide a new social welfare payment to be known as paternity benefit.

Section 29 includes paternity benefit in the description of benefits in section 39 of the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005 while section 30 defines a number of terms used in regard to paternity benefit, provides entitlement to and duration of paternity benefit, outlines the social insurance contributions that will be required, details the rate of paternity benefit that will be paid and allows regulations to be made to outline the circumstances where a person may be disqualified from receiving paternity benefit.

Part 6, which is the miscellaneous section, mainly focuses on consequential and technical amendments to other primary legislation.

Section 31 amends Schedule 3 to the Redundancy Payments Act 1967 to take account of paternity leave. Section 32 amends section 6 of the Unfair Dismissals Act 1977 to include dismissal arising from the exercise or proposed exercise of the right to avail of paternity leave. Section 33 amends the Maternity Protection Act 1994 to ensure that a mother to whom paternity leave is transferred on the death of her partner can take that transferred leave at the end of any remaining period of paid maternity leave to which she is entitled.

Section 34 amends the Adoptive Leave Act 1995 to ensure that an adopting parent to whom paternity leave is transferred on the death of the other parent can take the transferred leave at the end of any remaining period of paid adoptive leave to which she is entitled. We then have section 35 which amends section 126 of the Taxes Consolidation Act 1997 to provide for the taxation of paternity benefit. Section 36 amends the Workplace Relations Act 2015 to ensure that disputes in regard to paternity leave are covered by the adjudication and redress procedures set out in that Act. Section 37 provides for the maintenance of paternity leave records by an employer.

Ireland's introduction of paternity leave at this juncture is particularly timely given that the European Commission is reviewing its policy options for better addressing the challenges of work-life balance faced by working families, which we know remain considerable. I hope that the Government will be in a position to extend this provision further in the years ahead and I strongly support the commitment in a programme for a partnership Government to significantly increase parental leave in the first year of a child’s life over the next five years. In this regard, the process of examining the case for an increase in the level of parental leave should be taken forward under the aegis of the Cabinet Committee on Social Policy. I have no doubt that the relevant committees in the Dáil will also examine that. That committee might also take forward the implementation of the recommendations of the inter departmental group on future investment regarding additional paid parental leave, which could be taken by either parent immediately after the paid maternity leave and paid paternity leave and, as resources allow, resulting in one full year of paid parental care for children under one. There are so many families who would welcome that and feel hugely supported when we arrive at that position.

Evidence does shows that fathers want to spend time caring for and bonding with their children. As I stated, it is clear that children benefit so much from parental care in the first year of their lives and onwards but that first year is a very important period. However, as things stand, in order to take time off around the birth of their child, or later on in the first year, fathers must use other existing leave arrangements. Parents want choice and flexibility. This Bill gives parents the flexibility to choose when they take the time off to care for their young child. A father can commence paternity leave right up to the end of the 26th week after the child’s birth. In the case of adoption, the father can take leave within 26 weeks of the day of placement.

I believe that the provision of family related leave is one of the important areas to create a balance between family and working life. I am pleased that this legislation is another important step in supporting families in the workplace. Evidence from other countries, particularly the Nordic countries, shows that paternity leave promotes broader social benefits and a fairer sharing of family responsibilities. It has had a positive impact on fatherhood. Research also indicates strongly that mothers who are supported at home in the weeks following that important time after a child's birth tend to be healthier and to have lower incidences of post-natal depression. Co-parenting habits that are established in the first few months of a child’s life continue to benefit the home for years to come. Simply put, the more time that fathers can spend with their babies, the better. This paternity leave and the kind of provisions I have outlined in general that we may be able to enact in the future are good for fathers, families and society.

I want to refer to the impact on employers. It is important to note that this proposed legislation ensures there will be no statutory obligation on an employer to continue to pay the normal salary during paternity leave. Employers will have the option of providing a further top-up to the father’s regular salary if they so choose, and we know that many do. Further, there will be no change to employers PRSI to fund this proposal. We are conscious, in this regard, of limiting the potential additional costs for business. We have also included provision in this legislation that employees will be expected to give their employers at least four weeks' notice, which will allow employers to plan accordingly.

I refer now to the benefits for the self-employed. The introduction of paternity benefit will extend the range of benefits available to people paying social insurance contributions. I am very happy that the 256,000 self-employed men in Ireland will able to avail of paternity benefit.

As they are self-employed, they can already take leave, of course, but most do not do so due to the total loss of income or business. Becoming a new parent is a huge undertaking, and for parents who are forced to take unpaid family leave, the situation becomes infinitely more challenging. This measure of two weeks of paid paternity leave will give them a guaranteed income, which will make it a little bit easier for them to combine parenting with the responsibility of running a business.

The legislation we are asking the House to support is worthwhile, progressive and, in the Irish context, ground-breaking. Unlike many EU member states, we have no provision for paternity leave, a situation that sets us out of step with the changed and more active role that fathers play in raising their children in most comparable societies. This combined package of paternity leave and paternity benefit will help to ensure that fathers in Ireland have entitlements that are similar to those of dads in other EU countries. It is very difficult to estimate accurately what the actual take-up will be. The Department of Social Protection estimates that 30,000 to 40,000 fathers might choose to apply for paternity benefit in a full year, at a cost of €20 million. There has being varying take-up in other countries, as Members will be aware. In the UK, for example, there was a 50% take-up, so it will be very interesting to see what the actual take-up of this new benefit will be in Ireland. This year, 2016, if we manage to enact this legislation, the payment is expected to cost the Exchequer €5 million. Fathers will normally have to give four weeks' notice before taking the leave, but there is provision in this Bill for the paid paternity leave to be taken at short notice should a baby be born early. Deputies can see that in respect of this legislation, there have been many amendments to the other relevant pieces of legislation and we have tried as much as possible to take account in the legislation of unexpected situations that can arise for a couple around this time.

Parenting is changing and fathers are more and more involved in raising their children. International studies have shown that fathers who take paternity leave are more likely to take an active role in child care tasks. There is also plenty of evidence showing the vital role that fathers as well as mothers play in the life of newborn babies and young children. The introduction of paternity leave and a paternity benefit scheme is an important milestone in providing support to fathers who wish to care for their children shortly after their birth. It will enable a father to spend time with his partner, new child and older children. This legislation is good news for parents and good news for children, and I look forward to engaging further with Deputies from all sides of the House and ensuring that an effective Bill is passed and enacted as quickly as possible so that we can begin the introduction of paid paternity leave in September of this year. I hope the House will be in a position to support this legislation and ensure that we conclude the discussions in the Dáil and go to the Seanad before the end of this Dáil term. Then we will be able to pay this benefit in September.

Who is Deputy Fiona O'Loughlin sharing time with?

I will be sharing time with Deputy Anne Rabbitte.

Yes, 15 minutes each.

Last Sunday was Fathers' Day and, sadly, I did not get to spend it with my own father, but I did get to spend it with my four brothers, who have, respectively, three children, three children, two children and two and another on the way. It is very heart warming to see the younger men in this generation as fathers who are so engaged with their children. They are certainly engaging far more than the generation that went before. It is incumbent on us to help to support this in many ways.

Fianna Fáil supports this Bill, which provides fathers with two weeks of paternity leave and two weeks of paternity benefit, which is extremely important. We all acknowledge that the first year of a child's life is a vital time for engendering strong attachment relationships between children and both mothers and fathers. Expanding parental leave and introducing paternity leave will boost this process. This is a step forward in recognising the needs of modern families in Ireland. Until now, there is no doubt that Ireland has been behind the majority of European countries in its exclusion of paternity leave from employment law. New fathers typically used days from their annual leave, but this could be granted or denied at the employer's discretion. It is important to note, as the Minister has outlined, that the leave will be paid at a rate of €230 per week, the same as maternity benefit, and is based on the same PRSI contribution requirements. I will make a few general points and then I would like to address the whole area of maternity leave, shared parental leave and the impact of this on men and their children and on grandparents.

We acknowledge the purpose of this Bill and that, when enacted, it will allow new fathers to start the combined package of maternity leave and paternity benefit at any time within the first six months following birth. It is very welcome that this also applies to fathers of newly adopted children. The Bill also deals with complex issues in respect of the interplay with maternity and adoptive leave that had to be resolved in the preparation of the Bill. These relate to the rare and tragic situations for which the leave and benefit regimes must cater, including stillbirth, the death of a newborn baby or the death of one of the parents. The Bill provides that if a baby is stillborn or dies the entitlement to paternity leave remains, and if one parent dies the other parent inherits whatever paternity leave has not been taken. This is a very compassionate approach. It is also very important that the Bill provides for same-sex couples on an equal basis with other couples. As we face into Pride weekend and have just celebrated the first anniversary of the Yes Equality vote, that is particularly important.

In terms of the stance of my own party, Fianna Fáil did propose the extension of paid maternity leave, renamed paid parental leave, from 26 to 30 weeks, so that parents, if they so choose, can spend more time with their newborn without worrying about its effect on their career prospects or their ability to earn a living. In Ireland, there is a significant gap between the cessation of paid maternity leave at 26 weeks and the commencement of the free preschool year, when a child is, at the earliest, three years and two months. The progression of this policy would have a complementary effect on areas such as parental choice, work-life balance and child well-being. The extension of paid maternity leave would minimise the need for and cost of child care in the child's first year and would allow young children to spend the crucial first year of life in parental care.

While many parents like the idea of their child being cared for by its parents for the first year, some mothers are apprehensive about taking their full leave for career or other reasons. Evidence from the most recent Growing Up in Ireland report, carried out in 2013, which focused on mothers' return to work and child care choices for infants in Ireland, suggests that paid maternity leave is an effective instrument influencing the duration of sole parental care. The report also suggests that the extension of paid maternity leave would be a successful policy strategy in promoting and extending parental care in the first year of a child's life.

Ireland is one of the few countries that does not currently offer fathers some form of paternity leave on the birth or adoption of a child. That is why this is particularly welcome. Again, the report I referred to, which focused on mothers returning to work and child care choices for infants in Ireland, revealed that the take-up of unpaid parental leave by fathers was extremely low. This is very understandable when couples are under huge financial pressure in terms of paying mortgages, paying rent and the day-to-day costs of everyday life. Fianna Fáil did propose a joint transferable paid parental leave plan, based on existing maternity leave, without compromising any of its benefits.

In opposition, we brought legislation forward in this regard through the Parental Leave Bill 2013, which has passed through Second Stage in the Seanad. We also sought to amend Part II of the Maternity Protection Act 1994 to provide an entitlement to maternity or paternity leave after the birth of an employee's child. This practice is currently in effect in many other EU countries and was highlighted by Ireland's Equality Authority, an independent body set up under the Employment Equality Act 1998, believing that a mother should have the right to assign a portion of her maternity leave to her spouse or partner, thereby providing greater flexibility for the family in making child care arrangements.

Maternity leave has been extended considerably in Ireland over the past 20 years. Currently, women are entitled to 26 paid weeks and an optional 16 weeks unpaid maternity leave. The current State system does not allow women to transfer part of their paid maternity leave to the father so that he could share in caring for the baby. If such a partial transfer was possible, it could allow women greater options, control and flexibility over the time they decide to take off after the birth of their baby.

Up to now, paternity leave has not been recognised in employment law in this country. There is no obligation on employers to grant male employees special paternity leave, whether paid or unpaid, following the birth of their child. Since 18 May 2006, parental leave can be taken in respect of a child up to eight years of age. Parental leave is available for each child and amounts to a total of 14 working weeks per child. Both parents have an equal, separate entitlement to parental leave. No regular statistics on its uptake are reported, but uptake is thought to be low by both mothers and fathers, primarily due to financial reasons.

Annual leave taken following the birth of a child is treated in employment law in the same way as leave taken at any other time of the year. It is at the discretion of the employer to decide who can and cannot take annual leave at a given time. Some employers, for example, the Civil Service, provide a period of paid leave from work for male employees following the birth or adoption of their child. Fathers employed in the Civil Service are entitled to a period of special paternal leave of three days with pay in respect of children born on or after 1 January 2000 or adopted after 1 January 2000. Fathers are entitled to maternity leave if the mother dies within 40 weeks of the birth. In these circumstances the father is entitled to a period of leave, the extent of which depends on the actual date of the mother's death.

We have a long way to go when we look at international comparisons and it is particularly interesting to look at Norway. The paternal quota there was introduced in 1993 to encourage more fathers to participate in caring for their child during its first year of life. Today, ten weeks of the parental leave period are reserved for fathers. If a father does not use his quota, these weeks will be forfeited. The results have been striking. In 2008, some 90% of fathers used their paternal quota. Moreover, a growing number of men are choosing to take more leave than their quota. In 2008, some 16.5% of fathers extended their leave beyond the reserved ten weeks, compared to 11% in 2000. The French Government is giving men financial incentives, or bonuses, by increasing their parental allowance during the six months when they are on leave.

A report published in March this year on men and child care found that just 7% of unpaid child care in Ireland is done by men. In a report entitled Women's Work: Mothers, Children and the Global Childcare Crisis, researchers from the British-based think tank, the Overseas Development Institute, found that 93% of child care in Ireland is done by women, compared to a 63:37 female-male split in Sweden, which was regarded as the most equal country. It describes this country as having the most unequal gender responsibility for looking after children. Men in countries such as Iraq, Algeria and the United States contributed more of their time to child care than Irish men, who finished bottom of the pile out of 37 nationalities surveyed. Ireland also compared unfavourably to our nearest neighbours the UK, where men take on 32% of the responsibility when it comes to looking after children. The results were collated from a series of 2015 surveys carried out on behalf of the United Nations development programme, which were circulated to a representative sample of over 1,000 Irish men and women who were asked to specify how they spent their free time.

I come from Kildare where 53% of people work outside the county. We are in the commuter belt so a lot of couples and single parents rely on their own parents to help, support and rear their children. Last year, the British Government announced plans to let working grandparents share parental leave in future. The planned changes aim to increase flexibility and choice in parental leave arrangements and to support working parents with the costs of child care during the first year of a child's life. I understand that legislation will come forward soon with the aim of implementing this policy by 2018. We have to recognise the crucial role working grandparents play in providing child care and supporting working families. Evidence suggests that nearly 2 million grandparents have given up work, reduced their hours or taken time off work to help families who cannot afford child care costs. In fact, grandparents may be contributing as much as €8 billion each year to bridge the gap as work pressures increase. Evidence shows more than half of mothers rely on grandparents for child care when they first go back to work after maternity leave, and over 60% of working grandparents with grandchildren aged under 16 provide some child care. It is also seen as helping lone parents who, for obvious reasons, would be unable to share parental leave.

The Minister rightly referred to how businesses and the self-employed would be impacted by this. Employers will soon get used to more men taking time off work after their children are born, as well as mothers working earlier. In the UK, the former business Minister, Jo Swinson, made the point that it does not take long to shatter the perception that it is mainly a woman's role to stay at work and look after the child. Measures that are put in place will help ensure businesses make best use of women's talents throughout the organisation, from the boardroom to the shop floor, and even here on the floor of the Dáil. She also said the system was good for business as it would create a more motivated, flexible and talented workforce. The same would be true for us. Employers will be able to attract and retain women and prevent them from dropping out of the world of work once they start a family. It is very important to have flexible working to help widen the pool of talent in the labour market, helping to drive growth.

It is important that we challenge the stereotypes of the past. Traditional views and rules around maternity leave had, in part, contributed to women not pursuing their careers after having children, and had led to a shortage of female representation in sectors such as engineering. In these economic times, we need to be using the talents of the whole workforce. Industry, the economy and politics are missing out on the talents of women.

Section 16, dealing with the possible abuse of paternity leave, seems to be overly complex. It is only for two weeks and, while we need to make sure legislation is implemented in the correct way, this section is unnecessarily complex.

The International Labour Organization, a United Nations agency, has praised the benefits of paternity leave, including the positive effect of fathers' involvement on child development, helping employees to achieve a healthy work-life balance, the breakdown of prevailing stereotypes and traditional attitudes in society and improved gender equality. The introduction of paid paternity leave is something we should have moved towards a long time ago.

The Minister is a woman true to her word. In 2013, she advocated a further year's parental leave but we were in a time of cuts. It is now 2016, however, and I welcome this Bill, as do my party colleagues.

Without doubt, it is a step in the right direction and one which encompasses all, whether the employed or the self-employed. I was hoping the Minister, Deputy Varadkar, would have been here so that I could say it to him but we are encompassing the other 250,000 self-employed here. Perhaps his Department could also take this step and look at the other benefits that could be extended to the self-employed, who we should be looking after. However, it is fantastic to see that they are being acknowledged here today.

As the spokesperson for children and youth affairs, I am approaching this from the perspective of its benefit to the child. It is a huge benefit that both the mother and father start out in the first days of the child's life with a role to play. If not in the first days, when the baby comes home, there are up to 26 weeks to embrace it. If it is the first baby, parents are adjusting to it and all the grandparents want to help out and everything else. However, three or four months on, when the initial period of joy is over and the grandparents have gotten used to the little bundle of joy who has arrived, it is fantastic that dad can avail of the two weeks to be able to help out, support and share in the role.

This applies, in particular, to mums who want to breast-feed. We have low rates of breast-feeding in this country despite its health benefits during the first number of weeks and months. It can have a positive effect later on in the child's life in terms of obesity, intelligence and everything else. If dad is there to support mum in that role, by putting on the dinner, doing a little bit of washing, helping out and understanding what mum has signed up to for the next 26 or 28 weeks while she is at home, and then the further 14 weeks, the approach is more unified and it is the child who wins in the end. This is what it should always be about when introducing legislation such as this, in particular, when the aim is to support the family unit. It is the baby that benefits in the short term as well as the long term.

I like that the Minister stated: "I hope this Government will be in a position to extend this provision further in the years ahead and I strongly support ... the programme for ... Government". It was part of the Fianna Fáil policy and we would have looked forward to seeing the full year of parental leave taken into account. It is 26 or 28 weeks at the moment but we would like to see it further extended. Our vision for the programme for Government over the next five years would be to see how that can be moved forward. Little steps make a big difference and this is one of those little steps, achieved here today with the support of everyone in the House. It is a step in the right direction but we need to see how we will go forward with this in supporting mums, including possibly extending it further than 28 weeks.

Believe it or not, when I had my first child I was able to avail of 28 weeks leave but that was brought back to 26 weeks by the time I had my third baby. It makes a difference and every week counts. Even if it is only one week in one year of the programme for Government and another in another year of the programme for Government, step by step we are going in the right direction-----

-----and supporting the family. We understand what we are saying to those having families and that is so important.

The early days and weeks count the most. The Minister spoke about it herself when she spoke about post-natal depression. Mum is at home on her own and left with the daunting task of coping. It is not a daunting task if there is a little bit of support. This is what it is all about. It is the little bits that make the difference. With the first baby, having walked the floor all day and all night, when days turn into nights, it makes an awful difference if there is someone there to share the load.

In 2012, the then Minister for Justice and Equality, Mr. Alan Shatter, announced Government approval of the drafting of a family leave Bill, which was to transpose the EU Paternal Leave Directive. The then Minister stated that the opportunity would be taken to consolidate all family leave legislation, whether maternity, parental, adoptive and carer's leave, into one accessible Bill and that responsibility for carer's leave would be transferred from the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation to the Department of Justice and Equality. I would love to see the Department of Children and Youth Affairs play a huge role as well in this matter. The Department of Children and Youth Affairs has a lot to say because we are advocating for the child. When advocating for the child, one considers the whole family circle as well. The Department of Children and Youth Affairs has a huge role to play. The Department of Justice and Equality and the Department of Social Protection have all the money but we would like to be part of that voice as well, if at all possible.

There is little more I can say about the Bill except to say it is very welcome. It is welcome for the self-employed, full-time workers and grandparents. It shows that the Government is listening to what parents and families are saying. This is a small thing that makes a huge difference. Dads now do not have to take unpaid leave or eat into their annual leave. This is a recognition of the family unit in the workplace, and this goes back to work-life balance. That is what it all has to be about: the work-life balance. Today more than ever, life is so stressful. People are working so hard and probably feel little value for their money. When one has young children, by the time the mortgage, child care costs and other bills are paid, it is nice that for those two weeks, the most precious two weeks, at the beginning of the child's life a parent can say he or she spent quality time with the child - quality time that was recognised as valuable input into the establishment of the family.

I have no more to say other than that I welcome and support the Bill.

Sinn Féin Deputies John Brady, Denise Mitchell and Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire are sharing time. Are they sharing it equally?

We are sharing it equally.

While I welcome the Paternity Leave and Benefit Bill, it also has to be said that it has been a very long time coming. However, Sinn Féin genuinely welcomes it. Paternity leave is something that Sinn Féin has consistently called for, year on year. Indeed, I recall my colleague, Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin, standing up in this Chamber back in 2005 and calling on the Government of the day to address the imbalance in family life and to introduce paternity leave. Here we are, 11 years later, finally making moves towards it.

It is simply not good enough for the Government to introduce paternity leave, pat itself on the back and leave it at that. There is a crisis in child care that goes much further than this Bill and it needs to be tackled. This Bill can only be a starting point in the development of better child care with better maternity leave, paternity leave and parental leave. Ultimately, caring leave entitlements and child care policies must be driven by a vision of the kind of society we want to create.

Current leave entitlements in both the Six Counties and the Twenty-six Counties are considerably less than what is available to workers elsewhere in Europe. Ireland has been identified as an example of worst practice in the EU when it comes to parental leave rights. It lags far behind other member states in the EU when it comes to maternity leave, paternity leave and parental leave. The 26 weeks of paid maternity leave that new mothers in this State are entitled to is paid at a low, flat rate and it is one of the lowest levels of payment in the EU. The sum of €230 per week for mothers to remain at home from work is simply not enough and it is leading to hardship for parents.

Any entitlement to full paid maternity leave is subject to contract. There is no obligation on employers to pay above the standard rate, leaving many women in the private sector facing a sheer drop in income during their leave. This has to change. The Government needs to examine increasing the rate of maternity benefit to allow mothers to avail of their leave without financial strain. The Government should work to extend maternity benefit by six weeks and allow that portion to be taken by either parent at the end of the current 26 weeks maternity leave as well as introducing 52 weeks of paid maternity or parental leave.

Other Members have used Norway as an example of how new fathers are entitled to up to ten weeks leave and Deputies have cited the many other jurisdictions with generous leave entitlements for fathers so that women are not the only parents responsible for child care. Under Ireland's current law, if a man wants to take time following the birth of his child, he must do so out of current annual leave entitlements or take leave without pay. This is unfair as it favours high-income workers. It is of no value to low-income families for whom it would be impossible to forego income for the duration of the leave, especially when they have had a baby and they must meet the extra costs involved. According to the OECD, Ireland has the highest child care costs in the EU. Nothing is being done to tackle this and introducing paternity leave will not address the issue, which has been ignored by successive Governments for many years. Leave entitlement for parents and carers must be designed to enable workers to take time off work when they need to carry out caring duties without forcing them out of the workforce. Across the European Union, child care costs approximately 12% of a family’s income but in Ireland it accounts for some 35%. Added to this, the Government has taken away the lone-parent allowance and expects lone parents to find employment while paying massive costs for child care on a reduced income. It really makes no sense whatsoever. The reality is that while child care costs are so high, many women are forced into precarious, low-paid jobs or are unable to work at all.

Sinn Féin strongly supports the introduction of statutory rights to flexible work arrangements which can play a key role in enabling workers to balance work with family and other responsibilities thereby significantly enhancing workers’ quality of life. Flexible work entitlements should further enable parents of children under the age of 12 to find care for those children in after-school or preschool hours if they wish to do so. Sinn Féin has long campaigned for at least two weeks' paid paternity leave for fathers when their children are born. The absence of paid paternity leave to date has been a stain on successive Governments' policies on parental leave. This Bill should be implemented immediately, as proposed in Sinn Féin’s submission, A Fair Recovery is Possible, in respect of budget 2016. The Bill and the introduction of two weeks' paid paternity leave are crucial in developing parental leave practices. We note that the National Women's Council of Ireland, Start Strong and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions have called for paid paternity leave for years. However, it must not be taken that the job is done once the Bill is passed. There must be a wider approach to organising leave and to tackle the child care crisis in Ireland.

This Bill is welcomed as an attempt at aligning the State with the vast majority of other European countries and in rectifying the imbalance in respect of child care, welfare and parental responsibility. This imbalance, unfortunately, has been present for a long time. The majority of EU states allow for parental leave to be assessed by either the mother or the father, with a certain amount of time given for fathers only. As far back as 1989, the EU's Community Charter of the Fundamental Social Rights of Workers stated, "measures should [also] be developed to enable men and women to reconcile their occupational and family obligations". This emphasises the shared roles in the balance of parenting and work. Some 27 years later the Bill acknowledges this end. The State played a limited role when it came to paternity recognition and the position of fathers, and this Bill helps relieve, to some degree, the burden placed solely on mothers.

The Bill is a positive step to providing paid leave to fathers. The previous regime of unpaid leave at the discretion of the employer gave a limited role to the father. It is important to recognise the role of the father. On a practical level it will help relieve some of the pressures placed totally on mothers with regard to work and child care. Parental leave is needed by both parents to spend time and to bond with a newborn, and to help the new mother to recover and rest after childbirth. The intent behind the Bill is to help create a better work-life balance between work and parenting. This is especially the case where there is a newborn baby which can be an especially stressful time, particularly for first-time parents. The balance of parenting and work should always be enhanced, where possible, by legal supports and not seen purely in economic or business terms.

The Bill while welcome has been a long time coming. Organisations such as the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and the National Women's Council have been campaigning for this entitlement for many years. Sinn Féin proposed amendments to legislation some ten years ago in an attempt to introduce an entitlement to paternity leave. With the level of entitlement which is proposed in the Bill, we are finally reaching the point where the majority of EU states have been for some time. Now that legislation is being put in place we must hope that there is an uptake of the leave entitlement. There is now an obligation on employers to encourage employees to take this entitlement and to recognise its benefit. We hope this starts greater changes on the part of the Government in helping parents. Consider the current length of maternity leave, the current rate of maternity benefit and the issue of child care costs in the State. The Bill is a step on the road to improving the circumstances of parents but there is some way to go yet.

Cuirim fáilte roimh An Bille um Shaoire agus Sochar Atharthachta. Is Bille fiúntach agus forásach atá ann agus beimis ag siúl go bhféadfaí a thuilleadh dul chun cinn a dhéanamh sna blianta le teacht.

I welcome the Bill. It is long overdue and, as my colleagues said, it is something for which Sinn Féin has been advocating for some time, with my colleague Deputy Ó Caoláin first bringing forward this proposal 2005. It was a significant and progressive proposal then and is certainly a proposal of common sense now, and not before its time.

As the Minister said, Ireland is an outlier in not having any paternity leave. It is good and proper that this issue is dealt with. Tá an reachtaíocht atá againn sa tslí seo agus i gcúpla slí eile ó thaobh theaghlaigh ábhairín easnamhach. Maternity leave is of massive benefit to the mother in bonding with her child in the first few weeks of its life. That bond is invaluable and is of course one of the tightest that anyone will ever experience. From a very conventional point of view, it is felt that fathers have not been afforded this opportunity to bond with their children in the same way mothers can do so. This, unfortunately, has been the case for too long and Ireland lags well behind many of our European counterparts in how they treat the father in the weeks after the birth of their child.

While the Bill is welcome, it could have gone further in acknowledging that the two weeks being proposed is fairly minimal. Although it is a step in the right direction, it is a small one. Any policy that directly affects children should be progressive and this certainly meets those criteria. Tacaím leis an méid atá ráite ag an Teachta Rabbitte agus í ag rá gur chóir go mbeadh baint éigin ag an Roinn Leanaí agus Gnóthaí Óige le cur i bhfeidhm an pholasaí seo.

I support what Deputy Rabbitte said about the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. It should be involved in dealing with this policy. Parents of any child should be able to avail of any opportunity they wish to bond with their child in an adequate way in the child’s first few months. This should be afforded to them by leave entitlements that are not perceived as a barrier to their taking days off work. This should be incentivised to allow parents time to adapt to this new period of their lives.

I also welcome this Bill as it puts the welfare of the parents on a statutory footing rather than asking them to take time off work with no pay. Before this, only those who were at the higher end of the pay scale were able to take all this time off, and, even at that, I can imagine there were only a few days they would have been able to take. Ní chóir go mbeadh aon tionchar ag ioncam ar chumas thuismitheoirí a bheith in ann páirt a ghlacadh agus iad ag tógáil a leanaí. Income should never be allowed to impinge on the ability of parents to participate in the raising of their children in those important first years.

There is plenty of evidence available to suggest that children tend to do much better in general when they have had a close bond with both parents in the first year of life. This evidence should certainly be listened to and, as a result, efforts should always be made to facilitate this in so far as possible. Tá go leor leanaí á dtógáil i dteaghlaigh ina bhfuil an mháthair ag obair. Is dócha sa mhéad sin, tá níos mó solúbthachta ag teastáil. Increasingly, young children are raised in families where mothers work and, as a result, many parents may have less time and energy to invest in their children. Parental presence during the early years constitutes a significant investment in child development, socially, cognitively and emotionally. Attachment theory is one of the most popular and empirically grounded theories relating to parenting. Attachment behaviour in adults towards the child includes responding sensitively and appropriately to the child’s needs. Such behaviour appears universal across cultures and explains how the parent-child relationship emerges and influences subsequent development.

Tá Sinn Féin ag iarraidh feabhas a chur ar shaoire agus ar shochair atharthachta, ar an reachtaíocht seo agus ar an reachtaíocht atá le teacht amach anseo i dtaobh an ghné seo de chúram leanaí. We in Sinn Féin called for paternity leave to be extended by six weeks, with either parent having the option of taking it, in our manifesto before the last election as well as in our alternative budget last October. The current levels of paternity benefit might also be increased above €230, which is quite a small amount when we consider that many countries across Europe pay almost 90% of parents’ wages, an incentive that does not put pressure on the parent to return to work due to significant loss of earnings.

In an answer to a parliamentary question, the Department of Social Protection stated that the estimated annual cost of maternity leave was circa €266 million. An €80 million increase in this budget would allow for a €70 increase per week for every recipient of maternity benefit, up to 50% of the national average wage - not nearly close enough, but a significant increase. That should be considered. This legislation is important but, most of all, it is simply a first step. There is a need for greater flexibility. Cé go bhfuil solúbthacht ann sa reachtaíocht seo, tá gá le níos mó solúbthachta amach anseo. There is some welcome flexibility here, such as the ability to take leave at short notice, which is crucial. It is also welcome that the two weeks can be taken at any point within the six months. It is vitally important that this also apply in the case of adoptions. However, it is our belief that we need to work towards a position in which there is parental leave that can be divided between both parents as they see fit. This is important because, under the current situation, one parent - the mother in a heterosexual couple, or the relevant parent otherwise - will get the lion's share of the leave, regardless of her or his situation. Every couple will be different, and there are families where it might suit both mother and father for one parent to take more leave than the other and to use it flexibly, or to split it close to evenly. We cannot expect that will always be the mother and, although if often may be, it is an unfair expectation on any couple. There are, doubtless, families in which it would suit the mother to return to work as soon as she considers possible, and the father to take a longer period - significantly longer than two weeks, and perhaps longer than the mother might. Likewise, in the case of same-sex couples, it may not suit the relevant parent to take less than the full amount, and the other parent to take much more than the two weeks. We also need to ensure that the legislation, and indeed the language we use in it, is non-discriminatory and that the provisions of this Bill are written in such a way that same-sex couples have the same rights to leave as heterosexual couples.

On the issues of flexibility and non-discrimination, we will be considering amendments to this Bill. The legislation is a welcome step forward, but it is only one step. Níl ann ach céim amháin agus táimid ag súil go ndéanfaidh an Rialtas a thuilleadh sna blianta le teacht. At one level, therefore, this is simply a step towards enhanced parental equality. I hope that in future we will be able to move much further, to a system that reflects properly the needs of Irish families today.

Today is a momentous day in the history of the European movement. The decision of the British people to leave the European Union will have far-reaching but as yet unknown consequences for the European community and for all of us in Ireland.

This is not a debate about the European Union or Brexit but, given the day that is in it, it is worth acknowledging the role the European Union has had in influencing our own society in a positive way. Europe has always led Ireland in the area of parental rights and paternity leave. We have always lagged behind our European neighbours on this, and I am very proud of the Labour Party’s role in the last Government in getting this matter on the agenda and ultimately before us this afternoon. The previous Government approved the drafting of this Bill and indeed we in the Labour Party provided funding for it to start this year. My colleague Deputy Joan Burton, at the Labour Party conference in February 2015, committed to introducing this measure in budget 2016. I therefore fully support and welcome it.

Up to now, and unlike most EU member states, we have had no provision for paternity leave at all. It is long past the time to endorse and give practical effect to the principle of parental equality by providing for paternity leave and paternity benefit. In this area, society is changing for the better, and we have been slow in this country to catch up. In my adult life, I have seen a massive change in the role that fathers take in the very early lives of their children. Not too long ago, a father’s role was in work or at home when a mother was in hospital giving birth. Those days are over, thankfully. After the birth of a child and all the joy and change that brings, a working father is required to return to work unless an individual arrangement or annual leave days are taken. Most fathers want to spend time caring for, and bonding with, their children. It is quite unfair that current statutory leave arrangements do not facilitate this.

At one level, therefore, this is simply a step towards enhanced parental equality. At another level, these policies also support increased labour market participation, particularly among women. This measure, however, cannot be seen in isolation but must instead be viewed as part of an overall approach and package. We can take it that this Bill will pass into law unopposed and will be in effect this autumn. The question for us now is how much more we should aspire to on behalf of our children.

Although there are equality aspects and labour participation aspects, this is a child-centred measure and not a parent-centred one. This involves investing public money in the earliest years of our children’s lives, in the interests of the child and society. It is one of my regrets from the last Government that we were not able to invest more in early childhood education. Preschool education is vital and has been proved to benefit children’s long-term development and education. We need to support both parents to enable them to perform their parenting role. Paternity leave promotes a range of social benefits as well as a fairer sharing of family responsibilities. Deputy Burton fully supports this and has long been advocating for fathers to have the opportunity to be involved from the earliest stages of a child’s life and development. I think we are all agreed that the two weeks' leave we are introducing today is welcome, but it is not enough. We will still remain below par by comparison with our European neighbours. It would be striking if a Bill of such relative complexity were passed simply to deal with the creation of two weeks’ paternity leave and benefit. Legislating for the interplay between maternity and adoptive leave, for situations of stillbirth and death, for same-sex couples and for all of the necessary amendments to family leave legislation and, indeed, social welfare legislation will be better justified when the scope of the leave being provided is extended to a more meaningful level over the coming years.

The programme for Government states that paid parental leave in the first year of birth will be increased, and the Tánaiste told Deputy Howlin on Wednesday that the increase will be significant, but gave no further detail.

It is interesting that the Fine Gael manifesto was far more specific in stating:

Fine Gael is committed to an additional 8 weeks’ paid leave entitlement to be availed of by either parent within the first year of a child’s birth. Starting in 2018, this will be implemented on a phased basis of 2 additional weeks per year. When fully implemented, paid leave entitlements will be up to 34 weeks after a baby is born, with additional unpaid maternity leave if a family choose to avail of it.

I presume it was not the Independents in Government who watered down Fine Gael’s detailed commitments in this area. I hope the absence of detail in the programme for Government and in the Tánaiste’s reply earlier this week does not indicate some rowing back from the clear commitment timetable.

We are all agreed the evidence shows that children perform best when they remain within the home with their parents for the first 12 months of life. That is why, in addition to dedicated periods of maternity and paternity leave, we need to move to establishing a bank of additional parental leave, with at least a portion reserved for each parent. This would ensure that all children can be cared for by their parents for at least the first nine months and ultimately the first 12 months of life.

We need to review the level of payment for maternity, paternity and parental leave. We need to view maternity and paternity payment as an investment rather than a cost because that is exactly what it is. We need to explore whether we should legislate for negotiated flexible working time arrangements for workers with young families.

A debate on parental leave feeds into the other policies we must adopt to support families with young children. We have never invested enough in supporting families with young children. As the recovering economy pays dividends, we must prioritise. For our part, the Labour Party would make low-cost, high-quality child care for all children under 12 a priority. That means dramatically increasing our level of spending on early years education and child care.

A high quality child care sector needs a skilled child care workforce, with decent pay and fair conditions. It needs meaningful State assistance in meeting child care costs. This means reducing the financial burden on parents of young children and giving all children the high quality care and support they deserve. This is not done by tax credits and is only achievable through direct investment in the early child care sector. It is critical to set standards for care and for staff, and to reward early child care staff adequately for the important job they do.

Today’s Bill is just a step, but a very welcome one, in the right direction. The Labour Party supports it and looks forward to working with other groups in the House towards the further strengthening of legislation in this area.

I welcome the legislation, which is a step in the right direction. As previous speakers have outlined, things have changed considerably in Ireland over recent years. Fathers now help out much more than they might have in the past and some people have to take time off work. This is a step in the right direction. While it will not make them wealthy, at least it is a way of recognising at a time when a new child is born in the house that both people are involved and both may have to take time off work. There are financial implications as everyone knows.

The Bill also makes provision for self-employed people who generally get the narrow end of the whip in being left out of legislation. Down through the years they rarely had rights in social welfare payments. As we saw when the recession hit the country, many people who had been employing people all their lives ended up not getting anything for their own families. The Bill provides that self-employed people will be given the same treatment as PAYE workers.

It is in the programme for Government and is a step in the right direction. Ideally people would like more time, but I recognise that it is estimated it will cost €20 million. As the country moves to better spaces in coming years, I hope that more money can be allocated to this in order to give extra time for families to gel without facing a financial burden if they take time off work.

I welcome the Bill, which is a step in the right direction and hopefully down the road it will be extended to a longer period of time.

I support the Bill, which provides fathers with two weeks of paternity leave and benefit. The first year in a child's life is a vital time for engineering strong attachment relationships between children and both mothers and fathers. Extending parental leave by introducing paternity leave will boost this aspect.

The purpose of the Bill is to provide fathers with two weeks' paternity leave and two weeks' paternity benefit. When enacted, the legislation will allow new fathers to start a combined package of paternity leave and paternity benefit at any time within the first six months following birth. It will also apply to the fathers of newly adopted children.

The Bill deals with complex issues regarding the interplay with maternity and adoptive leave that had to be resolved in the preparation of the Bill. These relate to rare and tragic situations. The Bill also provides for same-sex couples on an equal basis with other couples.

The Department of Social Protection will provide paid paternity benefit of €230 per week for the two weeks of paternity leave and employers will have the option to provide a top-up to the father's regular salary if they so wish.

This country has been behind the curve on the important issue of extending this type of benefit to fathers. It is a welcome first step and addresses an important issue. We know that in the first year it is crucial for a child's development to have the support of a mother, father, grandparent or other member of the extended family. Research has shown that having support in early life from close family engenders good habits among them for future years.

We hope this is only a first step towards the ultimate goal of non-discriminatory and shared parental leave that will allow for the flexibility required by today's families. I welcome and support the Bill.

Like my colleagues, I welcome the provision and the introduction of the Bill today by the Minister. It is very much welcomed both inside and outside this House and it raises a number of topics and themes we sometimes take for granted. One issue is how we have treated fathers and how we have assumed, through legislation, how they wanted to be treated. There is a considerable change in that regard.

Some of my colleagues have made broad, overarching comments on the Bill and I do not wish to repeat them but I wish to welcome in particular the provision of the flexibility in the Bill in terms of paternity leave being available in sensitive situations such as in cases where the pregnancy happens sooner than expected, as happened with a constituent of mine whom I dealt with today. In this case, he will not be able to avail of paternity leave but it is important that paternity leave is not fixed.

The Minister indicated that much international research and information substantiates the fact that fathers who take paternity leave are more likely to be more involved in their children’s lives subsequently. If and when the Bill is enacted, as I am sure it will be, it appears that the payments would begin to be paid in September of this year.

I note the reference of the Minister and some previous speakers to the role of grandparents and I will return to the point. Many fathers from a different generation probably always wanted to be involved in the very early days following the birth of their son or daughter but it was not always such an easy thing due to the stereotypical role of the father being the breadwinner. However, it was also the case that it was not expected or even understood that a father might have a desire to be present in the first few weeks following a child’s birth. One sees many grandfathers pushing their grandchildren’s pram around as they avail of the opportunity to get a second chance at child rearing. They absolutely adore the time they get to spend with their grandchildren. It is also an indication of the opportunity they missed when their children were born, at a time when society did not allow them to do it, let alone legislate for it. Society did not think the father had a role in those first few weeks after the birth of a child.

We should not take for granted that up until now fathers did not want to spend time with their children. In time to come, we will wonder why it took us so long to get to this point and to recognise in law – society probably recognised it 20 years ago – that a father might want to spend time with his newly born son or daughter.

I acknowledge the provision in the Bill that provides for equal leave for adoptive parents. The Minister referred to the fact that there are a couple of aspects of the Bill which required to be dealt with sensitively, for example, the entitlement to paternity leave for a father in the event of the stillbirth of a child. That is an appropriate measure and I welcome it.

I note the contributions of some previous speakers from other opposition parties that it is a small step - only two weeks - and that in Scandinavia up to ten weeks is provided. However, it is an important first step. Deputy Anne Rabbitte suggested that if in every programme for Government, we aim to increase paternity leave by a week, then it would reach the level of best practice very soon. As Deputy O’Loughlin outlined, we are very far down a lot of league tables for paternity leave and parental leave.

Grandparents have an increasingly time-consuming role in caring for their grandchildren. The majority of them enter into such arrangements wholeheartedly but it can become burdensome. The Bill is a recognition of the fact that notwithstanding how much support is available to mothers of newborn children, the State can intervene in a positive way that assists everybody.

I welcome the symbolism of the Bill’s introduction. It is one of the first Bills the Government has introduced. Symbolically, that is an indication of the priority the Government gives to the issue. I would like to see the situation fleshed out a bit more in terms of the self-employed. For economic reasons, some self-employed people might be forced to choose not to avail of paternity leave because they cannot afford to either take the resulting reduction in pay that might entail or to take the time off work. The latter could be the case because of the kind of work they do or the fact that their work might be seasonal and a new child might come along at the height of the season and someone who is self-employed would simply not be able to take time off. The 28-week period provides for some degree of flexibility in that a father could take two weeks off up to 26 weeks after the birth of the child.

The Bill also recognises the family unit. I do not mean that in any prescriptive way but in the sense that men do not have to eat into their normal annual leave but will have dedicated time to devote to paternity leave. I also welcome the fact that the Bill covers fathers of adoptive children.

Following the birth of a child, it is not just about the care of the child, although that is the priority, because from my professional experience, I have seen many new mothers in the immediate aftermath of giving birth and it can be a very lonely period for them when they return from hospital. In particular, I have come across mothers who live in the city but whose family support structure is not in the city and who find it difficult when they go home after carrying the child for nine months, the excitement of the pre-birth stage, the birth and then the dawning of the responsibility of motherhood. That is especially the case for first-time mothers. The experience can be very isolating and lonely and the opportunity for a father to be present is a huge support for the mother. Equally, for a mother who has huge familial support around her at the time of the birth, I welcome the option and flexibility in the Bill that allows the father choose, if the couple so wish, not to take the paternity leave in the immediate aftermath of the birth but at some later stage when his support is more useful.

I welcome the Bill. As previous speakers said, it is both liberal and proper. I hope that at some stage, when we come back here after a number of Government terms, as many speakers have suggested, that we will aspire to a much more generous, flexible paternity leave. One thing the Minister could do relates to self-employed people, of whom there are 300,000, who may not be able to avail of the measure as it is currently framed. It might suit some people to take a Friday and Monday and to multiply that over a period rather than to take two weeks together but that would create challenges for the social protection side of things. The Bill is a very positive first step. If I were to recommend the Minister to do anything, it would be to engage a little further with the likes of IBEC, the Small Firms Association and self-employed groups to see what challenges their members who are parents, especially fathers, face.

I intend to be fairly brief on this issue. The Anti-Austerity Alliance-People Before Profit, AAA-PBP, considers this to be important legislation and it is welcome that it is coming before the House. While I believe it is overdue, today I will put the emphasis on the welcome for it. I understand the average period of paternity leave in the European Union is approximately 12.5 days, which would mean Ireland is coming in a little short in this regard. However, the point already has been registered in the debate that Members perceive this to be a first step and it should be so perceived. While I do not wish to overstate the point, a certain amount of grousing on the part of employers has been detected on this issue. I welcome that the legislation allows for cases to be taken to the Workplace Relations Commission in the event of non-co-operation by employers. It would be a positive step for the trade union movement to consider this measure in an active way and there is a certain onus on it to do so, by which I mean actively promoting the new entitlement and doing all within its power to ensure the leave is taken up and that workers get the benefit from it.

This legislation must feed into a wider debate about gender roles within society. Irish society has changed a great deal within a relatively short time and attitudes have changed on what was accepted by a majority at one point. In the context of such a wider debate I note, for example, that Article 41.2.1° of the Constitution states: "the State recognises that by her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved" while Article 41.2.2° states: "The State shall, therefore, endeavour to ensure that mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home." I presume those articles were contained in the Constitution in 1937. Ireland has come a long way since and in the context of gender roles within Irish society these clauses are rather outdated to say the least and should be scrapped but there must be a wider debate on these issues. Nevertheless, the legislation before the House is a positive step in that debate.

With the agreement of the House, I wish to share time with Deputy Catherine Martin.

That is agreed.

I join with other Members in welcoming this legislation, which by Irish standards is landmark legislation in many ways. It is important legislation for families in general and for the individual members of families, that is, for mothers, fathers and children. As a society, we increasingly are becoming aware of the importance of the early days, weeks and months in a child's life and, while it always has been recognised or known that the first five years are the most important, I often think it is extraordinary how those first five years are the time in a person's life that receives least political attention and, therefore, the least funding. It really only has been in the recent past that a Department of Children and Youth Affairs has been established and there still is a long way to go for that Department to be resourced properly to provide the kind of support children and families need. There is no doubt that for every euro spent in those early weeks and months, society reaps the benefits of it sevenfold in later life and when problems arise in the early years, it is hard to compensate for them in later life. Time lost in the early years of a child's life generally cannot be recovered. Ireland is at an early stage in recognising this and in putting its money where its mouth is through the provision of the kind of services that are necessary for children and families in those early years.

Increasingly, people are becoming aware of the importance of attachment and bonding for children with both their parents and this must happen in the early days and weeks of a child's life. Obviously, if a father is not available and must go back to work very quickly, this will have all kinds of implications for the bonding between the father and the child. From this point of view, making arrangements for paternity leave is an important step. It is known that problems with bonding or attachment in those early days have all kinds of implications for the child's development, including his or her mental health development. Increasingly, the importance of infant mental health is being recognised and again we must move towards the provision of resources at that level in those early years from the point of view of the mental health of both the child and the parents. That certainly is preventative medicine or early intervention in practice but we have a long way to go in that regard, apart from a few highly progressive projects such as the youngballymun project and others like it which are in operation on a pilot basis around the country. Ireland still lacks a mainstream service that is available to support parents and babies in those early years and consequently has a long way to go.

Another obviously important function from the point of view of allowing fathers to have the opportunity to take leave is to provide support to the mother. As other speakers have noted, having a first child is a frightening experience in many ways. While it is a great and terrific experience, it also is frightening and daunting for a lot of new mothers and it is important that the father is present as a support to the mother in those early days and weeks. It also obviously is very important when there are other children in the family and where the mother and baby need time to get used to each other or the mother needs time to get established with breastfeeding and all of that. It is difficult to do this when there are other children in the home and again it is important that the father would have the freedom to be involved at that stage.

The introduction of paid paternity leave also makes an important statement on the role of fathers. Too often the role of fathers in children's lives has been ignored or downplayed and consequently it is important that with this legislation a clear and strong statement is being made that fathers are absolutely critical to the welfare of their children, that they have a really important role to play and that this is being recognised by providing a facility for paid paternity leave. The other important statement this legislation makes is to recognise the importance of co-parenting and the sharing of responsibilities in childminding. This is especially the case with new babies where there are many demands involved for parents, but the legislation recognises the importance of co-parenting, sharing that role and sharing the homemaking role in general. I also welcome that this legislation is providing similar benefits to self-employed people, which is really important. The State has only begun to move in the direction of recognising the welfare needs of self-employed people and this is another step along the way and is a good element of the legislation. However, having stated this is welcome and an important development, it is important to recognise it merely as a first step, because that is all it is. When one counts all forms of postnatal leave, Ireland still lags far behind our European partners and it is important to keep that in mind.

This is a good development but it is only a first step.

Research produced last year by the Start Strong organisation, which has done a lot of very important work in this area and is unfortunately closing its doors shortly, indicated that of 26 European countries, Ireland had the fourth shortest period of paid leave that parents can take. We are way down at the bottom of the league in European terms and that is something we need to be very conscious of. We must be aware of the fact that we have much ground to make up in this area.

It is important that this is the first step in extending general fathers' rights. For too long, fathers have been seen as second-class parents in certain sections of both our law and our benefits legislation. Separated parents were disgracefully treated in the budget in 2014 when changes to their tax treatment resulted in huge additional income taxes for this group. At the time, Fine Gael kept claiming that it was not putting up income taxes but it certainly was in respect of single fathers. The extra costs for this group are virtually unrecognised by the State. Whether it is in welfare payments, tax treatment or in some areas of housing policy, we do not recognise the important role of co-parenting and the separate responsibilities on a father in a situation in which he is not cohabiting with the mother of the child. The issue of fathers' names being on birth certificates is one that was ignored for many years. Some progress has been made in that regard in more recent times but we still have some way to go. Unfortunately, there seems to be an assumption in some agencies of the State that fathers should not be on the scene or that a family and a mother would be better if he was not on the scene or was not playing an active role. Our systems and the way they operate send out very negative messages to single fathers, in particular, and that needs to be addressed.

We in the Social Democrats want to see the support system for parents go much further than it goes at the moment. We believe that we should be working towards a situation in which the first year in a child's life can be spent at home, facilitating parents in sharing the responsibility for the care of that child and enabling that for the first year in the child's own home. Maternity benefit only extends to six months and, in general, no part of it can be swapped between partners. We know from research on child welfare that the best people to care for a child in that first year are its parents. If that is the case, the most basic kind of investment in children must be to enable them to spend that first year in the family home being cared for by one or other parent. Six months is at the very bottom of the European scale in terms of what is available to parents. I believe we should be aiming in the medium term to bring that up to 12 months.

We would also like to see paid parental leave extended in ways that it could be shared between the two parents. As well as that, there is huge potential for more flexible work options. In our view, it makes absolute sense to extend the right to term time working for parents when their children are particularly young and to improve statutory rights in terms of unpaid parental leave.

We would also like to see very significant investment in child care. Even after the introduction of the second early childhood care and education, ECCE, year, there is still quite a gap between the end of paid parental leave and the point at which the child goes into the first year of the early childhood care setting. There is a gap there that has to be made up. It is a short time in a child's life but it can be a very difficult time for parents. It is a critical time in a child's life. We should be providing supports right through until the child starts primary school. Ministers have made very little noise about this issue since the general election, despite the fact that there were a lot of promises made during the general election itself.

The issue of extending unpaid parental leave is one that I believe we need to give urgent attention to. While we recognise that some parents simply cannot afford to take unpaid parental leave, the current limits that are set do not make any sense at all in my view. They are minimalist and heavily based on the basic EU requirements. They put the interests of employers ahead of the interests of children and their parents. Currently, the most any one parent is allowed to take in unpaid parental leave is 18 weeks per child. Again, there are no swapping arrangements allowed between the two parents.

In my view, extending unpaid parental leave would lead to four key wins. Parents win because, at their own discretion, they can take time out to look after their children while still retaining job security and maintaining a link to the workforce. Jobseekers win because, in most cases, the post vacated by the parents creates an employment or promotion opportunity for someone else. It actually redistributes wealth across society and saves the State money. It is a no-brainer in many respects. Employers win because they reduce friction with their workforce and facilitate employees who would otherwise have a highly pressurised work and family balance. Wage costs also tend to be reduced when long-term staff are replaced for the period of parental leave. Society wins because it gives much better job security for women and helps to drive the retention of female employees in the workforce over the longer term. Everybody wins in that situation. I really cannot understand why we are not moving to vastly extend entitlements to unpaid parental leave.

The start date is an issue that has been raised with me and with other people. Fathers have highlighted a concern regarding the start date of this legislation, which is put as 30 September. This excludes anyone who has become a father in the past few weeks. The legislation was promised in the budget nine months ago. It is not the fault of those fathers that there was an election or that there was a long, drawn-out process to form a Government. Under the provisions of the Bill, paternity benefit and leave can be taken any time within 26 weeks of the birth of the child. In view of the fact that there has been a delay in bringing in this legislation, a number of people have been disappointed. I ask the Minister to apply this rule to anyone who has become a father over the past 26 weeks.

The other point I will briefly raise is an anomaly with regard to maternity benefit law that has been brought to my attention. A woman who genuinely gets sick early as a direct result of her pregnancy and fails to have her work contract renewed as a result cannot currently meet the qualifying criteria for maternity benefit as one has to be in insurable employment for a certain minimum period in advance of one's expected due date. In other words, pregnancy related illness has led to a woman being directly excluded from maternity benefit. I believe this anomaly needs to be addressed.

While I welcome this legislation, I ask where the family leave Bill is, which we were promised would consolidate all family leave arrangements. I believe it would be very worthwhile if it was available. We had been promised it by the then Minister for Justice and Equality, Alan Shatter, and it is now overdue, but I welcome this Bill. Let us see it as a first step.

I thank the Minister for bringing this Bill before the House and I welcome the introduction of a paternity leave entitlement. Some 40 years ago, Sweden became the first country in the world to introduce paid parental leave. However, it is only now in 2016 that fathers in Ireland will have access to any kind of paid paternity leave. The Nordic countries, when dealing with parental leave, operate under the assumption that children under the age of one are best cared for at home. How a child is cared for during the first year after birth is of utmost importance for his or her development. Studies have found that the placement of infants outside the home in the first year after birth can have negative developmental impacts.

We must ensure that every parent has the freedom and ability to do what is best for his or her child. For children to develop secure attachments to the main care givers, it is essential that parents have the ability to take time to care for their children during this crucial period without fear of financial burden. The fathers of this country are an integral part of that, and it is well past time that the House has sought to create security for them to be able to make that attachment with their children, which in turn gives greater security and care to infants.

I strongly welcome the introduction of a paternity leave entitlement. However, I also believe that to ensure the best interests of the newborn children and the parents of this country we must continue to expand statutory leave entitlements for both parents. We must also move towards an approach that is oriented towards parental leave encompassing both parents, rather than a system which makes a strong distinction between paid maternity leave of 26 weeks and paid paternity leave of only two weeks, with the only provision of parental leave being an unpaid one. Currently, while we have equality between both parents for access to unpaid parental leave, this entitlement has created its own inequalities in our society. In the words of my colleague, Deputy Eamon Ryan, in the House more than ten years ago: "if parents are poor and cannot afford to take parental leave because of a loss of salary, the Government is saying, 'Sorry, this is not for you'." While there is an entitlement to paid maternity leave, this does not fully recognise the partnership of both parents in families where this is applicable. We must create a system with a paid entitlement which everybody can avail of and which recognises that every parent has a unique role to play.

The paternity leave entitlement created in this Bill seeks to complement existing paid maternity leave benefits, and I welcome the provisions of the Bill that allow this provision to be passed to the other parent upon the tragic possibility of the death of one parent. However, while it is crucial that we do not reduce the important existing maternity leave benefits available to new mothers, comprehensive reform must be introduced which helps both parents to care for their child properly in the early, formative years of his or her life. Parenthood can be a partnership, and it is important that we allow families with two parents the flexibility to work as a partnership. The introduction of paid parental leave for the first six months after birth in addition to existing maternity leave would be a much more appropriate system for the 21st century.

With this legislation the House is getting the ball rolling on an issue that still requires comprehensive reform to fully realise how we view parenthood, and how we seek to act in the best interests of our children. It is still only papering over the holes in our parental leave system. I welcome the Bill, as two weeks is better than none, but I call on the Government to continue to phase in entitlements to which all parents will have access, be they rich or poor, mothers or fathers.

It is a pleasure to speak in support of the Paternity Leave and Benefit Bill. The Bill marks real progress in appreciating the importance of the role that fathers play in their children's lives. It is fantastic that this Government is promoting the rights of fathers and the balance between work and family that is necessary for a good quality of life for both parents and children. Furthermore, I am particularly happy to support the Bill because it promotes equality in many forms.

The positive impact fatherhood brings to a man's life is well known and this Bill is a step in the right direction in the promotion of sharing the responsibilities and benefits of parenting between mothers and fathers. Granting two weeks paternity leave to fathers is also a progressive step for gender equality, because it allows fathers to take up a caring role and bond with their child from the beginning of their child's life. Extensive research has shown that when fathers take advantage of paternity leave, they are more likely to continue to perform child care tasks as their children grow up. This in turn is beneficial for women's career prospects as they can focus more time on work, which may eventually help to reduce the gender pay gap. Mothers are also less likely to face the motherhood penalty in the workplace if both parents are able to take time off at the birth of a child.

If only mothers are granted maternity leave, women in general are more likely to be seen as a risky investment by employers. Consider the situation a young woman finds herself in when applying for a job, when she is equally, if not better, qualified than others to assume the role. Irrespective of what the law says, there remains a lingering fear in the prospective employer's mind that she will be a liability to employ given her entitlement and perceived likelihood to take maternity leave. As an employer myself, in a female dominated profession, I am ashamed to admit the thought has crossed my own mind at times.

I would love the maternity benefit entitlement in Ireland extended to bring it in line with that in the UK, where pay is provided at the statutory level for 39 of the 52 weeks, based on the salary of the parent who is on leave. By extending the opportunity to men to take leave as a new parent, the risk is spread across the genders and there is huge potential for increased female participation in the workforce. Many countries have found that granting leave to fathers has been associated with higher percentages of women in the workforce, especially in the Scandinavian countries where these protections are especially strong.

The Bill also provides for the right of LGBT and adoptive parents to be involved in the early stages of their children's lives. One year after the vote for marriage equality in Ireland, I am proud to see this Government acknowledge that families exist in many different forms by extending this right to paternity leave to same-sex couples as well. This change is in line with international best practice, which can already be seen in numerous countries in Europe. The EU has long promoted flexible working arrangements, and it is great that our Government is choosing to apply a similar positive outlook to parenting. It is time for Ireland to catch up, as 23 EU member states already offer some form of paid paternity leave. It has been shown repeatedly in academic research that this type of measure has a big impact on gender equality and both parents' ability to work and care for children.

Paid paternal leave is also hugely beneficial to children's health and development. Research from the British Marmot Review in 2010 found that: "Paid parental leave is associated with better maternal and child health and is especially associated with lower rates of maternal depression, lower rates of infant mortality, fewer low birth-weight babies, more breast-feeding and more use of preventative health care." Closer to home, a 2013 Department of Children and Youth Affairs report stated that introducing two weeks paid paternity leave was necessary because of the central role of parenting to "children's cognitive, social and emotional development, as well as their behaviour, education and physical health".

I believe that this Bill strikes the correct balance between the interests of employers and the interests of children in having the support of both parents during a crucial life stage. The relaxation of notification requirements provided for in the Bill reflects the unpredictability of this important time for families. The fact that leave for fathers will be paid is to be welcomed because it greatly increases the number of parents and children who will benefit from this time together. International experience has shown that without sufficient financial support, parents are unlikely to take leave granted to them because of the barrier this creates.

I hope that alongside this Bill, we will see a great deal of promotion with employers and workers to ensure that no family misses out due to a lack of awareness.

There is a strong economic rationale for investing in young children and their families, especially during the early years of their development, because of the resulting benefits for society and a high rate of return. Every euro spent on supporting fathers in caring for their children has the potential to save costs in future years. Now that we are finally entering a period of relative economic stability and growth - I hope, after this morning - we will invest in families and children.

The Bill is undoubtedly a positive move. However, I hope it is just the first step towards creating a more flexible caring framework for Irish families. It is possible for the State to support more sharing of caring responsibilities between parents and more flexibility by giving each family the ability to decide what works best for them. I hope to see a more open dialogue with my colleagues across the House concerning the potential sharing of parental leave between parents and how we can empower individual families.

Every family is different, and the individual difficulties faced by families of multiple births, children born prematurely and children with disabilities should be taken into consideration as we develop statutory leave that is truly supportive. Unless one's family or friend group is faced with situations such as this, it is hard to understand how challenging a time it can be. Through my life I have witnessed extremely premature babies being born and surviving against the odds, some at just 24 weeks' gestation. It can take months for our skilled doctors to get these children to a stage of life at which they can be released to the care of their parents, only for the parents to find their statutory leave has been used up and there is no clear financial provision for the care of these delicate infants in the home. I am hopeful that, in time, we can take the necessary steps in the Chamber to address the needs of these parents and children and to recognise that while it may not be on our own doorstep today, it is arriving on that of someone else. I hope we can develop an even more progressive approach to child care in this country which would allow fathers to use the remaining months of maternity leave should the child's mother choose to return to work early. This type of system has already been applied to great success in other countries, including the UK.

Many employers now recognise the value of giving employees of both genders time off around the birth of their children. Companies such as Facebook and Google have already chosen to give multiple weeks' paid paternity leave because they recognise the value of these early weeks and are able to benefit from the happier workforce who are now capable of sharing their parental responsibilities. After all, a father's involvement does not end after two weeks, thankfully, and I support equal opportunities for both parents, irrespective of their gender, to spend time with their children during their early years.

I am proud to give my backing to the Bill and to stand up for parents, children and families and the value of their time together. Had this legislation been enacted 12 months ago, more than 1,200 families in my constituency of Dublin Bay South would be feeling the benefits today. I urge other Members of the House to hesitate no longer. Support equality for all, at home and in the workplace, and join me in voting in favour of the Bill.

I am delighted to welcome this new legislation. Although the Bill has quite modest aims, it is groundbreaking in concept. It recognises the contribution fathers make at a crucial time in the life of a family, particularly in the life of a child, and it puts on a statutory and monetary footing a recognition of the importance of the involvement of both parents in a child's life. The Bill is just a reflection of the main commitment in the programme for Government over the coming years to assist families, particularly working families, and to assist with child care, including through the second preschool year we have put in place.

The Bill is long overdue, but it is only now that we are in a position to cover it. As Deputy O'Connell said, it puts us in line with other EU member states that already have such a measure in place. We know from the research alluded to earlier that the early years are vital to children's well-being and, as legislators, we need to take an holistic approach to the family unit as a whole. We must do all we can to help both parents.

I am delighted to have been appointed to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Children and Youth Affairs and I hope to explore all of these areas regarding the care of children. From a policy perspective, I fully support the Bill. From a personal perspective, I have been self-employed for almost 20 years. When I had my two sons, now aged ten and 12, I went back to work after eight weeks. I probably would have gone back to work after six weeks had the Bill been in place at the time. My husband would have been able to take those two weeks for me, whereas he had to take a week of his holiday time as an employee. This was quite difficult. There was a lot of pressure on me as a self-employed person. If this legislation had been in place, it would have helped.

One aspect of the Bill which is particularly groundbreaking relates to self-employed men who, for once, are being looked after. According to the Minister, Deputy Varadkar, there are 256,000 self-employed men in Ireland. I am delighted they will be looked after. When self-employed people take any time off they lose business because most people want that person to run the business. Even though the €230 per week may be modest in the view of some people, it will make a difference. It can be taken up to 28 weeks after the child's birth at the parent's own discretion. It will help. I am also an employer, obviously. Employers will also, at their discretion, be entitled to top up this payment to the father. This may be difficult for a small business, and quite draconian, but I encourage employers to do so if at all possible. When we look at it in the context of the amount of time a woman can take, which, quite rightly, is 26 weeks of paid leave and another 16 weeks of unpaid leave, two weeks is quite minimal for fathers. If employers can top it up at all, I encourage them to do so.

This is a great step in the right direction and, at a cost of €20 million per year, it is not insignificant. I would like to see it rolled out further down the line, with more benefit and more extended paternity leave. I am sure Deputy O'Connell will agree that, as female Deputies, if our husbands did not play the role of father to the five children we have between us, we certainly would not be able to do this job. Fir na hÉireann need to be looked after also in legislation, and not just mná na hÉireann.

Traditional notions of stereotypical gender roles are changing. As a family lawyer I have seen this with regard to marital breakdown. We need to look after fathers. I am glad this is a step in the right direction. I welcome the Bill and I look forward to further developments.

I thank Deputies on all sides of the House for their very valuable and well researched Second Stage contributions and for the broad support that has been given to the Bill. Paternity leave is an issue that the Tánaiste has been promoting since before the 1990s. She is particularly pleased to have been the Tánaiste to introduce this measure. I have also long been an advocate of fairer sharing of family responsibilities.

This afternoon, many of my colleagues have outlined the benefits to the individual family and to wider society of fathers taking a more significant and meaningful share in the parenting of their children. I support and echo these comments. We want what is best for children. All the evidence shows that, in parenting, what is best for children is the involvement of their fathers in their practical care and day-to-day lives. Even a short amount of paternity leave can equip new fathers with the skills and confidence that are instrumental to providing this care. Physiological changes occur in fathers when new babies come on the scene. Hands-on fathers suffer from less stress. Where girls are concerned, a positive relationship between father and daughter can give confidence to girls. It benefits everybody. Some colleagues mentioned the importance of bonding between fathers and their children.

When one of my children was born, an older man told me I would not stop worrying about him until I was six feet under and he was right.

Fathers who take paternity leave are more likely to take an active role in child care as the child grows. Evidence also shows that paternity leave has longer term benefits for a child's development and learning abilities. The benefits paternity leave will deliver to the whole family extend well beyond the few weeks the father spends with his new baby. Paternity leave promotes equality for women, which has been mentioned by quite a number of colleagues. What is ostensibly a measure to support working fathers also promotes and supports higher levels of female participation in the workforce. I was particularly interested in some of the comments some colleagues made in that regard. When child care responsibilities fall mainly on mothers, the effect is to reduce women's salaries. Time away from work can deprive women of experience and promotions and when men share more of the child care, the effect is lessened. This Bill, through its introduction of a combined package of leave and paternity benefit, promotes increased involvement of fathers in a thoroughly practical way. The Department of Social Protection will provide a minimum paid paternity benefit of €230 per week for the two weeks of paternity leave. A father can commence his paternity leave right up to the end of the 26th week after the child's birth, which allows a significant amount of flexibility and recognises that families have different child care needs.

Reference was made to children born before 30 September next and we may look at that on Committee Stage. There has been no delay in bringing forward this legislation. Budget 2016 heralded the introduction of two weeks' paternity leave from September 2016 and that is what we are now working hard to try to achieve. There has been no major delay here.

The Government is acutely aware of the pressures on young families and wants to implement measures to support them. As the Tánaiste said, this legislation will bring the number of weeks of paid support to parents on the birth of their child to 28. We hope we will be in a position to extend this provision further in the years ahead. The programme for a partnership Government also contains a commitment to significantly increase paternity leave over the next five years. Many colleagues mentioned that and recognise that this is a start. There is a commitment to increase this over the next number of years.

An incremental approach is common when introducing paternity leave schemes. Sweden recently increased its provision from eight weeks to 12 weeks. The provision for two weeks is similar to that in the UK where fathers can take one or two weeks. Our six-month window for taking the leave compares favourably with the UK, where fathers must take the leave within eight weeks of the birth of the child. The Government is also cognisant of limiting potential costs of family leave to businesses. In this regard, the Bill ensures that there will be no statutory obligation on an employer to continue to pay the normal salary during paternity leave. There will also be no change to employer's PRSI to fund this proposal.

I look forward to engaging further with Deputies on the technical aspects of the Bill when we return to it on Committee Stage. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.