Parental Leave (Amendment) Bill 2017: Second Stage [Private Members]

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

With the Acting Chairman, Deputy Lahart's, permission, I will share time with Deputy Catherine Murphy.

I am delighted to have the opportunity to bring the Parental Leave (Amendment) Bill 2017 to the House.

The Bill seeks to provide better job protection and work-life balance for parents by extending the entitlement to parental leave. Enactment of it would mean that parents with qualifying children would have an entitlement to 26 weeks of unpaid leave instead of the current 18 weeks. It would be available to either or both parents. The Bill also allows parents who have already taken their leave and still have a qualifying child to enjoy an extra eight weeks of that leave.

Why do we need this? Working parents lead incredibly busy lives, constantly striving to balance the needs of their children with making ends meet and planning for the future. The pressure can be enormous. Many struggle, especially during school holidays or with child appointments or periods of illness. As families grow, it gets even harder. For many, it is an impossible task and causes huge family pressures and stress for working parents.

In addition, the high cost of child care in this country means that for some parents there is little financial gain from returning to work after the birth of a child. Some decide not to return at all for this reason. Others return, not because it is their first choice or to make money, but simply because they want to protect their employment and extending the period of leave on offer to parents allows them extra time out with their children at a time when it often makes no financial sense to return to work.

The current regime for parental leave in Ireland is very weak. It offers 18 weeks of parental leave, the minimum required under EU law. In fact, virtually all of our parental leave law is derived from the European Union. It gets so little attention that the Government does not even bother to ascertain how many people take it up or in which ways it is taken, or how many people get income support. Indeed, in bringing forward this Bill, it was surprising how many people were not even aware of the existence of parental leave.

Ireland compares very poorly to other European countries in terms of child-related leave. Across Europe, there are four main types of leave: maternity leave, paternity leave, parental leave and what is variously described as family leave, home-care leave or child-care leave. Many countries offer a mix of leave, often extending beyond the child's third birthday.

The countries with the best systems incorporate lengthy and generous paid leave and extensive periods of unpaid or low-paid leave. In Ireland, we have neither. We are an outlier on many levels. First, unlike the vast majority of other developed countries, we have no system of paid parental leave. In terms of the overall length of parental leave, Ireland is counted among the list of short-leave countries. The average length of the combined maternity and parental leave among EU member states is 97.8 weeks. In Ireland, the maximum amount is just 60 weeks. For a man, and even after the recent introduction of paternity benefit, it is still only 20 weeks.

Only in terms of the length of maternity leave do we compare well internationally. However, even then, when the value of the maternity benefit payment is factored in, we have one of the weakest support payments for mothers in the EU. There is no provision for child-related leave beyond parental leave, as exists in countries such as Belgium, Croatia, Finland, Hungary, Iceland, New Zealand, Norway, Poland and Portugal. We are one of the worst countries in terms of parental leave payments and one of the worst countries in terms of the length of parental leave. Everyone loses from such a poor regime and the lack of commitment to work-life balance. It strains relationships. It undermines parent-child attachment. It can act against good diet and participation in sports or other activities. It adds to mental health pressures. It exacerbates work absenteeism and undermines productivity. Providing job protection for working parents and allowing them the choice of taking extra time out, if that is their wish, is a win-win for parents, children and employers. It is also a win society.

This Bill seeks to address one aspect of these shortcomings in Ireland — the length of unpaid parental leave. Under Dáil rules, we are prevented from passing an Opposition Bill proposing a new payment for parental leave, although we would dearly love to do so. In our alternative budget proposals for each of the past three budgets, the Social Democrats showed how a parental payment could be afforded if it was truly a political priority for the Government. The commitment in the programme for Government of extra parental payments is welcome but has not yet materialised. There is no provision for it in this year's budget and there is still no sign of the much promised family leave Bill.

We note and welcome comments made at the weekend by the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Deputy Regina Doherty, that the Government plans the introduction of parental leave payments. However, this merely restates what is in the programme for Government. There is still no budget for it, no legislation for it and no definite timeline. Indeed, no Minister has been talking about it until the Government knew this Bill was coming before the Dáil.

Since the publication of the Bill, the EU Commission has made extensive proposals on flexible working arrangements for parents.

It has proposed a series of work-life balance measures for parents and carers. These include paid parental leave of four months, provision for a qualifying age of 12 years, and a right to request flexible working arrangements. We believe this Bill presents an opportunity to bring forward some of these proposals. The current regime in Ireland rightly tries to balance employer and employee needs but is too far skewed, in our view, towards protecting employers. Parents should be offered more flexibility on matters such as term time and when they can take their parental leave, and these should be put on a statutory footing. We recognise that many employers do facilitate this flexibility but, unfortunately, many do not, and it is important we move towards a statute-based system. In particular, we see no reason the child qualifying age for parental leave cannot be raised to 12 years if and when this Bill is taken on Committee Stage. We will certainly bring forward proposals in this regard.

I will now outline the sections of the Bill. Section 1 deals with interpretation. Sections 2 and 3 provide for a change of entitlement to parental leave. They amend sections 6 and 7 of the Parental Leave Act 1998 by extending the current entitlement of 18 weeks to 26 weeks. Section 4 sets out the Short Title and collective citation.

Extending parental leave has many benefits for families, employers and society. It allows parents not only to hold on to their jobs and protect the security of their income, but also to spend more time with their children. It serves the interests of children that they have more engagement with parents from an early age and can make strong bonds and enjoy sustained attachment to their parents. Various studies have shown that strong parental supports, including parental leave, improve female participation in the workforce. Parental leave provides flexibility to parents. With no statutory entitlement to term-time leave in Ireland, it can be used to cover some 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 there is very little net additional cost to employers. From an employer's point of view, parental leave can be critical in retaining key staff and can help succession planning, reduce absenteeism and improve productivity. Extending parental leave also opens up opportunities in the workforce for people who are unemployed. We believe everyone wins from the extension of parental leave. We should not have to wait yet again for the EU to tell us what to do when we should already be doing it ourselves. We very much look forward to the debate and we hope our proposal will meet support from all sides of the House.

The issue of child care in its overall sense was very much pushed to the centre in 2005, when two by-elections were held in which child care became an issue because the by-elections happened to be in commuter belt areas. People were commuting and trying to have their children cared for, and I was one of the people who was successful in those by-elections, as was the late Shane McEntee. It was a very important issue and it really came to the fore at that point, yet 13 years later we are still grappling with it and we have not managed to deal with it in any kind of comprehensive way. Those who do manage to go back to work after having their children either pay what people describe as second mortgages or rely on family or friends to mind their children, particularly in the first year. That is the year in which people will most likely opt for flexible time that is available to them. Neither situation is ideal or desirable but for many families, there is simply no other option but to have family or friends mind their children or to pay astronomical amounts in child care costs.

The Bill we propose is just one step in what we see as a suite of measures to help parents manage the competing demands of a work-life balance. As Deputy Shortall outlined, we are an Opposition party and, as such, are precluded from introducing a Bill that would place a cost on the State. For this reason we have had to focus specifically on the issue of unpaid parental leave, but this merits legislating in its own right. The measures in the Bill are to be seen as an additional opportunity for parental leave, which would be available to parents in addition to our manifesto call, which is for 12 months' paid parental leave. We very much welcome the Minister, Deputy Regina Doherty's comments that she intends to pursue the programme for Government commitment on paid parental leave. We acknowledge and accept that it will be introduced on an incremental basis but we need very firm timelines because promising this when it is in the public spotlight or when it is being highlighted is not enough. We need a strategy and a timeline for implementation.

Our proposal to extend parental leave for those with qualifying children is based on a number of factors, but first and foremost among them is the undeniable link between early-years parenting and the future success and health of the child and the family and the associated benefits to the wider society. Many other countries have recognised the enormous payback that is reaped from a societal point of view when parents are supported to spend time with their children during these formative years. Let me be very clear that when we speak about parents, we are speaking about many different types of family formations, including single parents, same-sex parents, adoptive parents or any of the other most wonderful family formations that exist in our society. The benefits to society are tenfold when parents are supported in this way - not just for society, but also for the child, the parent or parents and, in many cases, the employer too. It is far easier for parents to make the choice to continue in employment if they know they have the option to spend time with their child when it is most needed, that is, when their children are young and growing. One can see the options that very many parents are taking - for example, in work-share arrangements - in order that they can have that flexibility, even beyond the time envisaged in this Bill. Equally, the effect of parental leave on wider issues of gender equality cannot be overestimated. There are probably many dads who do not realise they have entitlements. While we would encourage the take-up of the entitlements that are already there, they need to be extended. We believe a firm and tangible timeline for the introduction of paid parental leave in conjunction with the proposals in this Bill for the extension of additional unpaid parental leave will provide a culture whereby parents of young children are free to make the arrangements that work best for their lives.

I am very happy to have the opportunity to join the debate on the Parental Leave (Amendment) Bill 2017. This is a significant Bill, and it is regrettable that we do not have pre-legislative scrutiny of Private Members' Bills. I have said this here previously and I will say it again. When I was Chairman of the Oireachtas Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality, we dealt with many topics and Bills over five years and the value of pre-legislative scrutiny cannot be overestimated. I have to hand the submissions received on the sexual and domestic violence Bill. Private Members' Bills do not have that added value at all.

I believe this Bill could be greatly enhanced by the benefit of a consultative process that would engage key stakeholders such as the National Women's Council of Ireland, the trade union movement and the business sector. They have considerable expertise in this area. It would be very beneficial if the justice committee could undertake legislative scrutiny of the Bill, hold a consultative process with key stakeholders and receive detailed briefing on the work under way domestically and at EU level, including on gender equality. It is important that our policies in these areas are coherent in both a domestic whole-of-government and EU context.

However, tonight is an opportunity for Members to put their views on the record and I have been pleased to have had the opportunity for this engagement. In particular, I am pleased to have the opportunity to update the House on the work undertaken in government on this important policy area.

I commend the aim of the Bill. It seeks to support parents and give families more options when it comes to meeting their child care needs. I am sure that all of us in the House are supportive of the tenets underpinning the Bill. As presented by the Deputies, the Bill provides for the extension of the existing entitlement to parental leave from 18 weeks to 26 weeks, and creates a further entitlement to an additional eight weeks parental leave for those parents who have already used their 18 weeks.

I am sure the majority of the Members of the House will agree with me when I say that we must do our utmost to help and support parents. I remind the House that over the past three budgets the Department of Children and Youth Affairs has secured an increase in the child care budget of an unprecedented 80%, reflecting the Government's commitment to parents and children. In 2018 alone, investment in child care will be €487 million. This investment is being used to improve access to high quality, affordable child care for approximately 170,000 children and their families.

As the House is aware, free pre-school provided under the early childhood care and education, ECCE, programme has been extended. From September 2018, all children will be eligible for two full years of free pre-school education before transitioning to primary school. This delivers on a commitment in the programme for Government. In addition, a range of new and improved measures to reduce the cost of child care was recently introduced. These include a non-means tested universal subsidy of up to €1,040 per year for children under three years of age and significantly increased targeted supports of up to €145 per week through existing child care subvention schemes. These too deliver on commitments in the programme for Government.

The development of the affordable child care scheme, which was announced in budget 2017, will add to these measures. The affordable child care scheme will radically redesign how support is delivered to make high quality child care more accessible and affordable for families in Ireland. This scheme will replace all existing targeted child care subvention schemes with a single streamlined scheme that will provide the framework for increasing public investment in child care over the years ahead. Work on developing the affordable child care scheme is well under way. The Childcare Support Bill, which will provide the critical legislative underpinning for this scheme, will be considered on Committee Stage in Dáil Éireann shortly and the development of a new IT system is also being advanced.

The Government agrees with the Deputies as to the need to support families. It agrees with the Deputies on the principle of improving family leave available to parents. It is for these reasons the Government will not oppose the Deputies' Bill this evening. However, the Government believes the focus should now be on introducing parental leave on a paid basis. The provision of paid leave would bring much greater benefits to parents and children at this stage than the further extension of unpaid leave. The House will already be aware that A Programme for a Partnership Government includes a commitment to increase paid parental leave during the first year of a child's life, as research shows children benefit most from parental care in the first year of life. To further this commitment, the Government has established an interdepartmental working group to develop proposals to give effect to the programme commitments. The key objectives of this group are to develop options as to the duration of the leave, the age of the eligible child and the level of payment to be offered; determine the usefulness of adopting a phased approach; estimate the likely costs arising; and align any proposals as much as possible with a European Commission proposal for a directive on work-life balance for parents and carers, which I will address now. The group is also working on a policy approach and I expect it to report with its proposals at the end of April.

The move to introduce a paid parental leave entitlement is aligned to the policy approach put forward by the European Commission in its proposal for a new work-life balance directive. That directive is under discussion at working group level under the Bulgarian Presidency of the EU. The directive's key proposal is that parental leave should be made available to parents on a paid basis. The directive recognises that the provision of paid parental leave will be more effective and more appropriate in terms of encouraging fathers to share the role of caring for their children, thus contributing to the promotion of gender equality. The directive is part of a package of EU measures aimed at addressing the under-representation of women in employment and supporting women's career progression by creating improved conditions whereby they can reconcile their working responsibilities and family commitments.

We have to support families. However, we also have to promote the objective of gender equality. For too long, the majority of caring responsibilities has been shouldered by women. We now have to put in place policies that encourage fathers to share that caring role. Children do best when both parents are facilitated to take an active role in parenting them. It makes sense in terms of child welfare. Equally, it makes sense in gender equality terms. Women's equality has been constrained within the workplace because of their caring roles. Often, they have not had the same opportunities or pay as men as a result. Women's empowerment is a key theme running through A Programme for a Partnership Government.

Last May, the then Tánaiste, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, and I launched the National Strategy for Women and Girls 2017-2020. I am sure Deputies are well aware of the strategy, have studied it from front to back and have it close by for reference. The strategy agreed by Government has as its overall goal over its four year timeframe changing attitudes and practices preventing the full participation of women and girls in education, employment and public life at all levels and improving services for women and girls, with priority given to those experiencing or at risk of experiencing the poorest outcomes. The strategy includes a set of actions specifically aimed at supporting parents.

The Government has committed to providing a platform of parenting supports for families and working parents. It has undertaken to publish proposals to expand paid leave in the first year of a child's life and to legislate for these proposals as soon as possible, as set out in A Programme for a Partnership Government. I invite all Deputies to read the strategy. It is a living document and we welcome the input of anybody and everybody into the strategy. We have other strategies we are working towards but this is the one most pertinent to this debate.

When it comes to improving and expanding our current family leave system, there are wider and more complex factors, which I have set out, that the Deputies' Bill does not consider. Because of this, it would be remiss of me not to say that the Government has concerns with the approach proposed in the Bill. Extending an unpaid family leave requirement would make it more likely that the lower paid of the two parents, often the mother, would take the unpaid leave, with consequent impacts for these mothers in terms of pay and pension entitlements. It potentially perpetuates the tendency whereby caring responsibilities are seen by employers as the responsibility of mothers rather than of fathers. This has negative implications in terms of gender equality and in terms of the opportunities potentially available to women within the workforce. Equally, only parents on higher incomes may have the resources needed to avail of the leave. I feel very strongly that fathers should be facilitated to undertake a caring role for their children. I was proud to bring the paternity leave legislation through the House in September 2016, which provides two weeks' paid paternity leave for fathers on the birth of their children.

The Deputies' Bill, while laudable, does not take account of the moves domestically and at EU level to introduce parental leave on a paid basis or of the need to promote gender equality for fathers and mothers in terms of caring responsibilities. As I mentioned earlier, this is why I believe it is important that the Oireachtas committee, which I chaired in the past and I know what valuable work it can carry out, has the opportunity to scrutinise the proposals and their implications, intended and unintended. It would give stakeholders outside the House an opportunity to feed into the process. This is the value of pre-legislative scrutiny and it is a shame Private Members' Bills do not have this facility. They could be hugely enhanced and helped. All Government Bills have to go through it. They are enhanced and improved and flaws are discovered at an early stage before they are published. I encourage all of us to discuss whether we can do this with some fantastic legislation emanating from the Opposition benches.

We all share the objective of wanting to support families. As I mentioned in my opening remarks, the Government and all Members of the Oireachtas are committed to providing the utmost support to parents and families in the State. I remind the House it was the then Minister for Justice and Equality, Alan Shatter, who extended parental leave from 14 to 18 weeks, demonstrating the commitment of successive Fine Gael Governments to improving the entitlements offered to parents. Members of the House will also recall that only recently we introduced and passed legislation that provided additional leave and financial support to parents of children born prematurely. Our focus now is on introducing parental leave on a paid basis. The benefits of such an approach for families and for children are obvious. I urge the Deputies to work with the Government to see how we can develop legislation that builds on what is already in train in the EU and domestically. By collaborating on an agreed approach we can develop legislation that responds more effectively to the needs of women, men, parents and children alike. With this in mind, I propose that if Deputies Shortall and Catherine Murphy are willing, I will meet them in the coming weeks to discuss their proposals and to examine how their approach, that of the Government and the European Commission's proposal for a work life balance directive, once finalised, can be aligned for the benefit of all families.

I thank the Deputies for bringing forward the Bill and for giving us an opportunity to discuss this very important policy matter.

I commend Deputies Shortall and Catherine Murphy for introducing this important legislation. It will not come as a surprise to many people to hear that Fianna Fáil will support the legislation. The reason it will not come as a surprise is that when Fianna Fáil was in government back in 1998 it introduced the Parental Leave Act. It was also Fianna Fáil, when in government in 2006, that introduced the Parental Leave (Amendment) Act. They had the effect of providing parental leave up to a period of 14 weeks. As the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, said, it was the former Minister, Alan Shatter, who increased it from 14 weeks to 18 weeks.

The legislation was introduced in 1998 partly due to the fact there was a European directive that had to be transposed into Irish law. However, the legislation was also introduced because there was a recognition of the extraordinary burdens being placed on working parents at that time, at the end of the last century. If anything, those pressures have increased on parents today who find themselves in difficult situations where they have to devote huge amounts of time to their work lives. Only limited amounts of time are being devoted to looking after their children and indeed to watching their children growing up. Most people will agree having a child is one of the most fulfilling things a person can do.

We sometimes talk about the rights of the child. Children, of course, have many rights. We should not ignore the fact that parents have a right as well to enjoy the upbringing of their children. Childhood passes quickly. It probably does not pass that quickly for children but it passes very quickly for parents. The heart of the proposed legislation recognises that parents want to be as much a part of their children's growing up as possible.

One of the advantages of being self-employed is being able to devote as much or as little time to one's work as possible. There are many disadvantages to being self-employed in that if one does not work, one does not get paid. However, there are advantages in self-employment over those employed in contractual relationships. This legislation deals with the latter. It deals with circumstances where parents are in employment and feel they want to devote more time to enjoying their children's childhood and to take time off in order to participate in that. Like many people in this House, I would like to see a situation where we have paid parental leave. The Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, spoke about that and he is correct.

I know the proposers of the Bill, and probably every other Deputy who will speak on it, are in favour of that. One of the downsides of having unpaid parental leave is that to a large extent, and I do not have the statistics but I suspect this is the case, it is the mother who engages in the parental leave and who takes the time off. It must also be recognised that parental leave can only be taken, when two parents are bringing up a child, if those parents and that family can survive on one income. I know there is nothing discriminatory about parental leave but that point must encourage the Government to do as much as possible to expedite the introduction of paid parental leave.

I was pleased to hear the Minister of State say the Government has set up an interdepartmental working group to develop proposals to give effect to A Programme for a Partnership Government. Deputy Shortall said that the first time she heard the Government making any points in respect of this was after the introduction of this legislation. I welcome the fact it is in A Programme for a Partnership Government. However, I would also be interested to know when the interdepartmental working group was established. I do that not for the purpose of trying to have a political row. It will be important for the determination of what is the level of commitment within Government to introducing paid parental leave. The Minister of State can go back to his Government colleagues and say there will be significant if not universal support for the proposal if that legislation can be brought forward.

The Minister of State also mentioned how he would favour pre-legislative scrutiny for Opposition Bills. In fairness, he said this to me before. It is important to make the point, however, that it is not the case that Opposition Bills are not subjected to pre-legislative scrutiny. They are. The only difference is that scrutiny takes place on Committee Stage. The Minister of State may be correct in stating that it would be preferable if legislative scrutiny took place in advance of publication of the Bill. That, however, may ignore the political realities of life on the Opposition benches. Opposition parties do not have the same ability to ask departmental groups or civic groups in society to produce working papers, to come back with those and reconsider legislation from them. There is a certain immediacy to life in Opposition.

The proposal at the heart of the legislation is to introduce parental leave from 18 weeks up to 26 weeks. There needs to be some recognition that this is available. I am concerned that at present there is not much awareness that parents can take leave in respect of their children up to their eighth birthday. Alternatively, they can take parental leave in respect of a child who has a disability or a long-term illness up to the age of 16. I do not know if there is the same level of awareness about those rights that individuals have in the same way as there is awareness about the rights of mothers in particular to maternity leave. Recently, a proposal in respect of fathers paternity leave was enacted.

However, at the heart of this debate is the fact that we have to recognise as a society that there is more to life than work. Many working parents are stretched to the limit by having to get up at inordinately early hours. They have to bring their children to a crèche. It is usually a lengthy drive in order to be near a place where they work. They then have to drive home in the evening, on many occasions having collected their child late from work. In many instances, people are leaving the house at 7 a.m. in the morning and only getting back at 7 p.m. in the evening. They only get a couple of weeks holiday a year. There is a time when people have to recognise there is more to life than work. We cannot just have a situation where parents devote themselves to working for some big employment group, which is simply generating profits for the owners of that company, while at the same time, they do not get the enjoyment from the great experience of their children growing up.

I welcome the legislation and Fianna Fáil supports it. It will come to the Joint Committee on Justice and Equality at which legislative scrutiny will take place. I suspect the proposers of the Bill will have no objection to that as it is a worthwhile process to go through. If the Government wants to bring forward its own proposals on paid parental leave, it will meet with a very favourable response not just from Fianna Fáil but I suspect from every Member of this House. Once again I commend the Deputies on introducing the legislation which will get Fianna Fáil's support on Second Stage.

I wish to compliment and commend Deputy Róisín Shortall and Deputy Catherine Murphy on introducing this Bill. It will be no surprise that the Labour Party will wholeheartedly support it and the principles set out in it. While we welcome it, we see it only as a first step or a start. I am sure the proponents of the Bill will agree with this sentiment. It is a strong overview to having gender-equal paid parental leave being introduced over a period of time.

The Bill is laudable and we are very supportive of it. However, I have a small concern. The Bill could have a unforeseen and unanticipated consequence. Parents in the higher income groups and with adequate resources could be in a position to avail of this unpaid leave. It would be people who would be better off, notwithstanding the laudable objective. I am sure that can be circumscribed in the scrutiny the Bill will undergo at Joint Committee on Justice and Equality.

A growing body of research outlines the benefits of paid parental leave to the health and well-being of a child. It also facilitates greater involvement of the father in the long-term care of the child. It would also facilitate and acknowledge the father's rights to parenthood as well as its benefits. Indeed, it was the Labour Party that pioneered and successfully introduced in the budget of 2015 two weeks paid paternity leave which came into effect in September 2016. It was the former Minister for Social Protection, and then leader of the Labour Party, Deputy Joan Burton, who was the driving force behind that significant change.

It was a clear recognition that fathers should have the opportunity to bond with their new born children and a further acknowledgment of the clear evidence that children perform best when they remain within the home of their parents for the first 12 months or so of their life. I recall the Labour Party election manifesto which was launched in February 2016 for the 2016 general election. We committed to protect firmly the six months paid maternity leave which had been in existence and the two weeks paternity leave which had been introduced in the 2015 budget.

In addition, there was a commitment to provide a further two weeks paid paternity leave and three months paid parental leave, with at least one month reserved for each parent, ensuring that every child could be cared for by their parents for the first nine months of life. That is essential and we must move towards it. We further committed to increasing this to 12 months over a five-year period. That commitment recognised the prevailing resources situation, which was meagre and challenging. Clearly, it could be accelerated in the current resource context and accommodated in an incremental way. It is probably not feasible to get all of this paid parental leave in one fell swoop, notwithstanding it would be desirable given the huge pressure parents are under and the wider pressures. However, it is important to get the acorn planted and the first seeds going with regard to paid parental leave. I have no doubt that is what the authors of the Bill are seeking and they see the Bill as the first step on the ladder, which is also laudable.

The Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Deputy Regina Doherty, indicated in November that she wished to see shared parental leave introduced during the lifetime of this Government. The Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, referred to it as part of the programme for Government and I spoke about achieving this in a debate in the House three or four months ago, with combined leave of 52 weeks being divided between parents. This is in line with the European pillar objectives and the EU Commission proposals on extending parental leave, which would be shared leave between the parents. That would bring us into line with European norms, although it will take some time to achieve because we are somewhat slower than others.

As Deputy Shortall mentioned, the take-up of paternity leave is hovering at approximately 55%. It reminds me of the family income supplement, because many people are often not aware of the existence of schemes. I do not condemn the Department as it is good at advertising schemes, but sometimes things do not get across. Sometimes when people call to our clinics we are shocked that they do not know about some schemes. That is where the interface with the politician can be helpful, notwithstanding the abuse that can be hurled at us at times about clientelism and building up clients. The take-up of the paternity leave scheme is disappointing, but understandable. In many cases men are the principal earners and they often earn more than the mother of the child. The paternity leave payment is clearly not as attractive or adequate to enable them to take the leave. That might be a reason too. New fathers tend to take the two weeks in a continuous block but it can be taken anytime in the 26 weeks following the baby's birth or adoption. I recall explaining that to a father when he asked how one should take it. I told him he could even take it a day at a time if that suited him. The payment is approximately €235 per week. Employers need to top it up to make it more attractive.

I support the Minister's ambition to have one year's paid parental and maternity leave. It would be a significant game changer and move us in line with the system that prevails in the Nordic countries. I read with interest an article in The Times newspaper last December by Charles Bremner. He focused on the cultural phenomenon in Finland where the level of paid leave offered to parents has enabled that country to become the first in the developed world where fathers do most of the child care. Apparently, fathers spend more time with school age children than mothers do. There are 5.5 million people in Finland so it is not dissimilar to Ireland in terms of population. Mr. Bremner pointed out that an OECD study had concluded that Finnish fathers spend an average of eight minutes more a day with their school age children than mothers do. Fathers in Finland can avail of nine weeks paid leave after a child's birth. That probably accounts for it. Mothers only get four months, which is not as attractive as our system when one considers it overall. After that period, however, one parent can receive €450 per month and stay at home with the child. That provides the choice. Perhaps in Finland some of the mothers are higher earners so the fathers mind the baby. It is all about household income. That informs the choice. The advertisement promoting parental leave in Finland states:

This time creates the foundation for a lifelong bond. Working careers are long [one could say in excess of 40 years] ... Family leaves are quite short. Being a parent is your most important job.

US multinationals are in the news for many reasons but Google and Facebook offer fathers up to four months paid paternity leave. Obviously, they are very rich companies. This is clearly dependent on the private sector and it can be hit and miss depending on the size and the wealth of the company. The best solution is state-sponsored supports and regulation. Most countries with paid parental leave draw on public funds to support the policy. I support that, but it means we will have to pay more in taxation. I cannot speak about the Nordic services without pointing out that those countries have a higher level of taxation for them. We cannot speak with forked tongues. Most Nordic countries offer gender equal parental leave. They reserve a quota of non-transferable leave for the fathers. Professor Ingólfur Gíslason of the University of Iceland recently noted that a crucial element of increasing fathers' take-up of leave is economic compensation, which should not fall below 75% to 80% of their regular salary. He said, "Most young couples walk an economic tightrope and cannot really afford a major reduction in family income". As already stated, on average, men earn more than women so the family is very much dependent on the father's share of the family income.

All of that must be taken into the equation. The Minister of State is advising that we examine this in the overall context of how it would work in practice. This turns us to the argument now taking place across the globe, including in this country, on the necessity of closing the gender pay gap with regard to some of the major corporations and bodies, some of them in the public service. That would make it economically viable for men who are usually the higher earners, although clearly not in every case, to take time off to look after children. This dialogue has been focused on and advanced significantly in the Nordic countries, and it underlies their success in this area.

I support Deputies Shortall and Catherine Murphy on this Bill. Last November, the Government was a little slow in response to the EU directive. The Minister of State spoke about implementing it on a phased basis and the cost implications. Parents did not get much in the budget. The Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, economic analysis showed they got very little, despite the cost of child care and everything else weighing down on them. There are only six countries where workers are not entitled to paid parental leave and this is one of them. There has been much talk about it and it is time we set about delivering it. It might well be on a phased basis but if we get on the first rung of the ladder we can achieve a great deal. This is an important debate and I again compliment Deputies Shortall and Catherine Murphy for bringing the Bill forward. It is an important contribution on this important issue.

I support the Bill and I commend Deputies Shortall and Catherine Murphy and the Social Democrats on bringing it forward.

Ba mhaith liom cuidiú leis an reachtaíocht luachmhar seo, a thabharfadh cuid mhaith solúbthacht do theaghlaigh agus a chuirfeadh níos mó roghanna ar fáil dóibh. Ba chóir go dtiocfadh sé chun cinn in éineacht le tuilleadh íocaíochtaí leasa shóisialaigh chun cúnamh a thabhairt do theaghlaigh agus do thuismitheoirí. Fiú gan na híocaíochtaí breise sin - ní féidir le lucht an Fhreasúra an méid sin a dhéanamh - tá luach sa Bhille seo.

Sinn Féin has long advocated extending parental leave and parental benefit and has included that in its alternative budgets. There are a number of elements in the proposal before us. The Government says it will not oppose the legislation, which is welcome, but its commentary has been to the effect that the priority is to increase paid parental leave. I welcome that. Clearly, it is not in the gift of the Social Democrats Deputies or any Opposition Deputies to introduce a Bill in respect of that matter, particularly as it would give rise to a charge on the Exchequer. I have always believed that rule does not make sense. It should at least be an option for Deputies to bring such a Bill to Second Stage and perhaps at later Stages there would be some logic to the Government. However, it causes restrictions in terms of both legislation and amendments and blocks Bills of that nature from the Opposition.

The provisions in the Bill extend parental leave from 18 weeks of unpaid leave per child up to the age of eight to 26 weeks or six months. The State is already doing the bare minimum in this regard.

A period of 18 weeks is required by EU legislation and it is high time the provision in Ireland was revisited and expanded. There is flexibility within that arrangement and the leave can be taken all at once or in blocks of a minimum of six weeks. There is further flexibility where there is agreement with an employer, which is of benefit. However, there is no doubt that the extra weeks of leave proposed in the Bill would be of enormous benefit to parents. The proposal will not suit everyone and many parents may not make use of it. However, it would make an enormous difference for many parents on occasions such as a child's school holidays or if a parent wished to spend more time with his or her children in their formative years and might be of benefit in cases where parents had a child with a lengthy illness and compassionate leave did not apply or had been exhausted, as well as many other sets of circumstances. In that regard, this legislation is very valuable.

Sinn Féin has stated for some time that we must go much much further on this issue. In Ireland one is entitled to 60 weeks of maternity and parental leave combined, whereas the EU average is 97.8 weeks, according to a journal article written by a representative of the Social Democrats. There is a clear and substantial disparity in that regard. We need to move towards it being possible to share parental leave and parental benefit and their being more substantial. As a first step, the alternative budgets brought forward by Sinn Féin in recent years proposed extending the period of maternity benefit by two weeks and increasing the rate by approximately €40. Studies show that the presence of parents during the first year of their children’s lives is vital to their development.

Although they are entitled to parental leave, many mothers still believe they have no option but to return to work early. Ireland ranks poorly on the issue of maternity pay, being 32nd out of 34 OECD states in that regard as of the end of 2016. Unpaid leave for mothers or fathers is welcome, but if one cannot afford not to work which is the reality for many families who may be under pressure to pay a mortgage or rent and so on, that is a difficulty. The rate of maternity benefit in the period in question is too low for many. Caithfimid déileáil freisin leis na rátaí agus an leis an mhéid airgid a fhaigheann daoine. Tá sé an-dheacair do chuid mhaith teaghlaigh, fiú leis an mbriseadh ón obair, a gcuid billí, morgáistí, cíosanna agus gach rud eile a íoc.

Although it is important to address the issue of parental leave, there is also a need for the period during which parental benefit is payable to be extended and the rate increased. The period of unpaid leave should be lengthened to match European norms in that regard. Ultimately, there is a need to develop a block of paid parental leave and parental benefit which could be divided between parents as they choose. The division of the leave and benefit would be entirely the decision of parents. That model would suit families and be appropriate for the world in which we live. Parents need choice, flexibility and a lengthier period of paid leave at a better rate and which could be supplemented by further unpaid leave, as required. That is the model recommended by Sinn Féin.

A related issue which has arisen recently is that of maternity leave and benefit for elected representatives. The Minister of State is familiar with Councillor Danielle Twomey, a Sinn Féin representative for an area close to his constituency, who has drawn attention to the issue, for which I commend her. The matter needs to be addressed. Progress has been made on the representation of women in the Seanad and the Dáil, in particular, on the basis of the gender quota legislation which I commend. We must now consider how we can further increase female participation in national politics and local government. Gender quotas should be considered in respect of local government elections. However, as well as getting women onto the ballot paper, we must tackle the cultural issues that prevent them from taking on positions in local authorities and the Oireachtas. One such issue is that it is not currently possible to avail of maternity leave or maternity benefit if one is a Deputy, a Senator or a councillor. That issue should be addressed by the Government and I hope it will consider doing so.

I support the Bill which is very progressive legislation. I hope the Government will fully engage on it as it progresses through the pre-legislative scrutiny stage and on Committee Stage. I am sure the Minister of State will ensure the required money message will be forthcoming to ensure the Bill can be enacted.

This has been a very interesting debate. Deputy Róisín Shortall commenced by stating the Government paid scant attention to the issue of family leave. However, that claim does not stand up because the Government brought forward the Paternity Leave and Benefit Act 2016 which provided for extra leave from 1 October 2017 in respect of premature babies, the programme for Government contains a commitment to expanding paid leave in the first year and Ireland is taking part in negotiations at working group level on the EU proposal for a work-life balance directive which proposes the introduction of 18 weeks of paid paternal leave. That is all ongoing and much work is being done in that regard.

I agree with Deputy Catherine Murphy that there is a payback when parents are supported to spend time with their children, in particular during the first crucial and formative years. That is important, which is why the Government is committed to expanding paid leave in the first year.

As I stated in my earlier contribution, the Bill could be enhanced through a consultative process with the main stakeholders. That is very important and it would give people an opportunity to have an input into the legislation.

Deputy Jim O'Callaghan spoke about the immediacy of life in opposition and Bills having to be produced straightaway and brought forward. I do not agree with him fully in that regard. If heads of Bills are produced and sent to committees which then have an opportunity to invite stakeholders to make submissions and come and engage with Senators and Deputies, the debate improves enormously. When a Bill is finally published and brought before the House, far more will have been learned and there will have been much input by citizens and stakeholders which can only improve it.

Deputy Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire addressed the issue of maternity leave for politicians. I raised that issue at the most recent meeting of the working group on the national strategy for women and girls 2017 to 2020 and it was debated and discussed. Other groups are also looking at the issue and I agree that it should be considered. We should try to make progress in that regard.

On the issue of money Bills and the Opposition not being able to bring Bills forward, I was on the other side of the House for 14 years and appreciate how frustrating that issue can be. However, it is a constitutional issue, by which we are all bound. The Oireachtas cannot change that rule; rather, a referendum would be required to so do because taxation can only be raised by the Government, which is the reason for the rule.

As I said in my earlier contribution, this is important and significant legislation and this is a very important debate. It is welcome that Deputies Catherine Murphy and Róisín Shortall brought the Bill forward. I again point to the significant increase in the child care budget, as referenced by Deputy Willie Penrose and others. It has gone up by an unprecedented 80%. From September 2018, all children will be eligible for two years of free preschool education, which is important. There is a non-means-tested universal subsidy of up to €1,040 per year for children under the age of three years. The affordable child care scheme is to be radically redesigned. Members are aware that A Programme for a Partnership Government includes a commitment to increase paid parental leave during the first year of a child's life. To answer Deputy Jim O'Callaghan's question, the working group was established in January and asked to report by April. There will be no delay in that regard.

The European Commission is working on a proposal for a new work-life balance directive, of which we must be cognisant. The directive will recognise that the provision of paid parental leave will be more effective and appropriate in encouraging fathers to share the caring role for their children and thus contribute to the promotion of gender equality. It is part of a package of measures at EU level. I agree that we must support families and promote the objective of gender equality. The empowerment of women is a key theme running through A Programme for a Partnership Government. In that regard, I again draw attention to the national strategy for women and girls 2017 to 2020 and invite Members to study its contents.

It sets out actions specifically aimed at supporting parents.

We have some concerns about this Bill. As Deputy Penrose agreed, extending unpaid family leave would make it more likely that the lower paid of the two parents, often the mother, would end up taking the unpaid leave and this would actually exacerbate the potential for caring responsibilities to be seen by employers as the responsibility of mothers rather than fathers. This is something we want to get over, right across the way, if we can. If two people, a young man and a young woman, go for a job interview we want to be in the situation where the employer, all things being equal, would not be thinking of the woman as the one who would need to take a long maternity leave and therefore pick the man over the woman. We want to change that. We also want to have more women on corporate boards at decision making level. This is all part of the thinking here.

I look forward to the committee discussing this issue, debating it, looking for submissions from stakeholders, weighing those submissions and maybe then inviting people in to discuss and debate the whole area at the committee. It would be a very useful exercise. As I said earlier, I did this on many occasions when I was the Chairman of the last committee. It is extremely worthwhile. Our focus is now on introducing parental leave on a paid basis. I agree with Deputy Shortall that we need more data.

I thank the Deputies for bringing this Bill forward and for the opportunity to discuss it and debate it. We will not oppose the legislation. I look forward to the whole area being debated and discussed, developed and fleshed out, as we move forward.

I thank the Minister of State for his contribution and those Members who attended the House this evening, who contributed to the debate and pledged their support for the legislation.

The Minister of State spoke quite a bit about a significant increase in the child care budget. While there has been a significant increase the point is that we started from an extremely low base. Ireland is an outlier in European terms in this area. Developments in recent years have been very welcome but we must bear in mind that they are only small steps in getting towards the EU average. We are currently a very long way from that.

It is important to note that when we talk about child care, parental leave is a significant and important part of the whole child care provision. We must also bear in mind that Ireland fares very badly compared to our European counterparts in this regard.

I welcome that the Government has recommitted to the principle of paid parental leave. It is a welcome development that the Government is talking about that again but where is it exactly? This Government is two years into perhaps a five-year lifespan and there has been no progress at all over those two years. We are now in a third year where there will not be any progress again because there is no budgetary provision for it. Three years down the line in the Government term we have not seen any progress whatsoever in delivering the programme for Government commitment on paid parental leave.

The Social Democrats totally supports the principle of paid parental leave. We have been looking for it for a long time. We want to see it happening as soon as possible. Paid parental leave is very important and I absolutely support the principle that parents should be facilitated and supported in being able to care for their child for the first 12 months in their own home. It is a really important thing that we can do, but where is the progress on this? The Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Deputy Regina Doherty, spoke about the matter on radio this morning and she referred to doing it in a phased and incremental way. This does not raise our confidence levels in the context of the Government being able to deliver, even if it does have a five-year term of Government. How serious is the Government about this commitment in the programme for Government? It is impossible to see the Government being in a position to deliver on that commitment before the next election.

Equally, the Minister of State has quoted a number of times the fact that there is an EU directive under discussion. Again, this is a welcome development but as the Minister of State knows with EU directives, it could take years. There may not be any practical implications from that directive for several years. Why do we have to wait for Europe to tell us what we should be doing? Other countries have not done this. They have realised it is very important to support parents and families and those countries have gone ahead with their own domestic legislation, which is what Ireland should be doing also.

The Minister of State and his colleagues have made much of the line that they are not really interested in unpaid parental leave as they want to introduce paid parental leave. Of course we all want to see paid parental leave and we want to see that happening as quickly as possible but nobody, and certainly not the Social Democrats, is suggesting that improving access to unpaid parental leave is in any way a substitute for paid parental leave. We fully support that aspiration and we want to see it being given practical effect as quickly as possible to allow parents to look after their children in the first 12 months and to have a regime that allows a payment during that period. Unpaid parental leave is a different thing entirely. We are calling for that in addition to paid parental leave. Unpaid leave is used in a very different way by parents. It is currently available to parents of children up to the ages of eight. We would like to see this continued and would be open to the idea of it going beyond that age. Unpaid leave is not about the first year in life, it is about those other issues that arise throughout a child's younger years where parents really struggle to get the balance between their parental and work responsibilities. That is very stressful for a lot of parents. It is very difficult to do it, especially at particular times such as the preschool years when there is a short day at preschool.

It would be very helpful for parents if they could get some relief or breathing space during this time to allow them to manage that situation better. It would also be important for unpaid parental leave to be used when children are in primary school, especially in light of the difficulties that the long summer holidays can pose for parents. If they were helped to juggle the responsibilities that arise at such times, they would be able to spend more time with their children during the summer or Easter holidays. Many parents like the idea of a four-day week. They should be facilitated in that regard.

From a productivity perspective, I do not think anyone would dispute that in the main, a parent doing a four-day week does the work of a five-day week during that period. This is about the welfare of parents and children. It is about making sure that employees who are parents feel generally valued in their dual roles. We know that employees who have a sense of being valued and have access to flexible work options tend to be much more productive. This deals with the challenge of retaining well-qualified and experienced staff, which is a problem that many employers are facing. To a large extent, public servants have access to these arrangements at the moment. Teachers, for example, can take the remainder of the year off at their own expense. There is a high take-up of this popular option.

It was extraordinary to hear various speakers from Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil claiming credit for the introduction of unpaid parental leave. On the one hand, the Minister of State said the legislation we are proposing does not represent the road we should go down, but, on the other, he was claiming credit for the fact that a previous colleague of his introduced unpaid parental leave. Such leave is a good thing and it makes a lot of sense. For that reason, we are saying it makes absolute sense to extend it further. It is very popular and it works well. Some Deputies suggested that, potentially, the only people who will be helped by this proposal will be the better-off. I do not accept that fully. It might look like that on the surface, but I suggest that the cost of paid formal child care is so high that it will benefit many families when they do the sums. Given that significant costs are associated with going out to work, including transport and lunch costs, there are significant savings to be made if one parent does not go out to work. It often makes financial sense for a family to decide that one parent will take the opportunity to avail of unpaid parental leave. This proposal is not geared solely at better-off families. In our view, it can bring benefits for all families and across all income levels.

I welcome the support this legislation has received in the House. We have received a very positive response to it since we launched it last April. Since it was highlighted in the news yesterday and earlier today, we have received several messages and queries from parents who have been welcoming it and asking when it will be implemented. The creation of access to flexible work options is invaluable for many parents and they would very much like to see it happening. The Government has said it does not oppose this Bill. That is different from saying it supports it. I suggest it would be much better if the Minister of State were enthusiastically supporting the Bill. I think there is support for it all around the House and it is achievable. There is a clear and strong demand for it, and it can be done at minimal cost. Everybody wins in such circumstances. The Social Democrats will be pursuing the Bill actively through the justice committee. I ask the Minister of State to stop disingenuously referring to the provision of paid parental leave. While I agree that it should be provided, the unpaid element must also be enhanced because it serves a different purpose. Maybe he will rethink his position in this regard. We would welcome his enthusiastic support for the Bill when we pursue it on Committee Stage.

Question put and agreed to.