That leave be granted to introduce a Bill entitled an Act to amend the Parental Leave Act 1998 to extend unpaid parental leave from 18 weeks to 26 weeks; and to provide for related matters.
I seek leave to introduce the Parental Leave (Amendment) Bill 2017. We in the Social Democrats are committed to significantly extending both paid and unpaid parental leave in Ireland. The Bill deals with the extension of unpaid parental leave. It seeks to extend the rights of parents to parental leave from the current 18 weeks to 26 weeks. The Bill would mean that all parents with qualifying children would have an entitlement to six months' parental leave. The six month entitlement would also apply to those parents who have already exhausted their existing leave entitlement once they have qualifying children. In effect, such parents would receive an additional eight weeks per child.
Parents in Ireland must rely on the European Union institutions rather than this country for parental leave rights because our current parental leave entitlements derive almost entirely from EU legislation. While member states are allowed to go further, Ireland has stuck to just above the bare minimum of leave set down by Directive 2010/18/EU. It is time we legislated for parental leave of our own volition, rather than being prompted to do so by the EU.
The Bill is primarily about work-life balance. Working parents lead very busy lives. For many, there is a constant struggle to do the best they can for their children while trying to hold down a job. For others, the cost of child care is so prohibitive that they forgo their employment because the cost of going to work outweighs their salary. While reducing child care costs is important in itself, another help to parents is extending parental leave. We must, therefore, go much further than the current provision.
Extending parental leave has many benefits for families, employers and society as a whole. It allows parents to hold on to their job while spending more time with their children. It is very much in the interests of young children that they have engagement with their parents from an early age and can make strong bonds with and enjoy sustained attachment to their parents. Various studies have shown that strong parental supports, including parental leave, improve female participation in the workforce. This leave also provides flexibility to parents. With no statutory entitlement to term time leave in Ireland, it can be used, with an employer's agreement, to cover term time.
By reducing demand for formal child care, extra parental leave can help reduce the cost pressures for everyone in this sector. There is no cost to the State and in most cases no net costs to employers. From an employer's point of view, parental leave can be critical in retaining key employees. It can help improve succession planning, reduce absenteeism and boost productivity. Parental leave also opens up opportunities in the workforce for people who are unemployed.
Ireland falls well behind other countries in terms of parental leave, both paid and unpaid. Parental leave is paid in a majority of other European Union countries and only six EU countries, apart from Ireland, do not allow for income replacement when taking parental leave. According to a recent European Commission staff working paper on this issue, the average duration of parental leave among member states is 86.9 weeks. The Bill would begin the process of bringing Ireland closer to European norms.
The Social Democrats are offering this Bill as a starting point. We are open to working with any Deputy who wants to contribute to the legislation and improve it in any way. We look forward to constructive engagement as the Bill progresses. While we would like to go much further in making provision for paid parental leave, Opposition parties are not in a position to do so under current rules. This is, however, an important starting point and we urge Deputies to support the Bill.