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.