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.