I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
Maternity Protection (Members of the Houses of the Oireachtas) Bill 2018: Second Stage [Private Members]
This Bill seeks to provide maternity leave for female members of the Houses of the Oireachtas. In doing so, the Bill seeks to address a serious flaw in how the Oireachtas operates, by providing practical measures to ensure female participation in the political process. Bunreacht na hÉireann declares that "every citizen without distinction of sex" will be eligible for election to Dáil Éireann. The reality is that there are barriers to this, identified as far back as 2009 by the Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women’s Rights, as to the five "Cs" that were and continue to be barriers: cash, childcare, confidence, candidate selection and culture. A system that inhibits full participation by over half of the population cannot be said in any meaningful way to be a democratic State. We have taken small but important steps to confront some of these problems, not least by the introduction of gender quotas. However, quotas are not the panacea to the problem of women's under-representation in politics. We hope that this Bill goes some way as part of the necessary response to some of the other challenges identified.
The case for greater female representation is clear. It would improve the quality of political decision making and would deliver more effective representation for female voters. This Bill seeks to provide a practical measure which will assist in ensuring that women can participate in shaping the collective decisions that bind us all. Countess Markievicz was the first female MP to be elected, in December 1918 while carrying out a prison sentence. Countess Markievicz was elected to the House of Commons as a representative for Dublin's St. Patrick's division. As an Irish republican, she chose not to take up her seat. She later served as the Minister for Labour in the First Dáil and was a founding member of Fianna Fáil in 1926. There was not another female Cabinet Minister until 1979, when former Fianna Fáil Deputy Máire Geoghegan-Quinn was appointed Minister for the Gaeltacht. Only 19 women have ever been appointed to Cabinet. Disappointingly, the number of women in the Cabinet was diluted by the current Taoiseach upon his appointment. The continued political gap also exists in boardrooms. Ireland's female boardroom rate currently stands at approximately 16% and the National Women's Council of Ireland has called for quotas in the country to ensure a fairer female representation in business.
Fianna Fáil is proud of its efforts to expand female participation in politics. We have conducted systematic reviews and actions to boost numbers going for office and internal party positions. We are committed to addressing issues such as the gender pay gap, the five "C" barriers to female political participation in politics, and expanding boardroom membership for women. We need reforms and measures that nurture the role and contribution of women in politics and we believe that this Bill is another small step towards making that a reality.
I thank the Business Committee for affording time for the introduction of this crucial legislation, which is long overdue. I thank my party colleague, Deputy Niamh Smyth, and my parliamentary colleagues for supporting the changes that we have suggested for a long time. There is no doubt that Fianna Fáil takes pride in its effort to expand female participation in politics. As Deputy Smyth said, we are committed to addressing issues such as the gender pay gap and the five "C" barriers, but also female participation in boardrooms. I thank Kevin Dillon, Charlotte Simpson and the Bills Office for helping to produce this Bill. This Bill is not perfect but what I, my colleague, Deputy Smyth, and my party are saying is that we would like to see it come to committee. I am sure there are areas of it which need to be addressed. Since this Bill was first compiled, I see a gaping issue that needs to be addressed with regard to adoption. It says maternity but I think it also needs to be addressed with regard to adoption.
The Maternity Protection (Members of the Houses of the Oireachtas) Bill 2018 is essential to address many of the barriers preventing women from coming in through the front gate of Leinster House. Only 23% of our Deputies are women. The Fianna Fáil Bill takes clear action to get rid of one of the barriers to female participation. The Maternity Protection (Members of the Houses of the Oireachtas) Bill 2018 will help to ensure that female Deputies and Senators can take maternity leave in line with employees in companies and organisations across the country, and it removes the limbo which exists. We currently have a sick certificate if one needs to go out on maternity leave from the Oireachtas: one has to produce a sick certificate. This Bill is a democratic measure to make sure that both voices are heard in national decision-making. Last year, I brought forward the Maternity Protection (Local Government Members) Bill 2017. That was to amend the Local Government Act 2001 for all local government members to take full maternity leave. I thank the Houses of the Oireachtas and colleagues here for supporting it because the Bill has now moved to Committee Stage. I saw that the only way to eat this elephant is to take it one bite at a time. That is what we are doing. We are ensuring that there are no barriers to prevent women from participating in local and national government. It is 100 years since Countess Markievicz was first elected and we also think of Vótáil 100.
I will address some of the provisions in the Bill. It provides for maternity leave in respect of any female person:
(a) elected to and currently a member of Dáil Éireann, and shall include the Cathaoirleach of Dáil Éireann, or
(b) elected or appointed to and currently a member of Seanad Éireann.
Section 3 provides that a pregnant Member of the Houses of the Oireachtas will be entitled to maternity leave for a period not less than 18 weeks, with an additional six weeks provided, which still brings us up to the current standard for anybody who wishes to go on maternity leave from employment here, which is 26 weeks. While I use the words "A pregnant member of the Houses of the Oireachtas", when we get this to Committee Stage, I would like to see provision for any Members who wish to take adoption leave. The Bill also provides that one would have to give four weeks' notice when acquiring maternity leave. That would be given to the cathaoirleach of either of the Houses of the Oireachtas. An additional eight consecutive weeks commencing immediately after maternity leave is under "Additional maternity leave" in section 5.
I am sure people are wondering about the expenses claimed for the work of a Member of the Oireachtas. It shall not be paid unless lawfully accrued during maternity leave. That is also a crucial part. It is trying to give equality to female participants. We want to give everybody the opportunity to be a Member of either House of the Oireachtas. One should not have to wait until one's childbearing years are over until one enters Leinster House. That is a reason why I introduced the Maternity Protection (Local Government Members) Bill 2017.
The difference between the Maternity Protection (Local Government Members) Bill and this Bill is that there was legislation covering the local government area which we could amend, namely, the Local Government Act 2001. In this case we are trying to create legislation to copper-fasten the opportunities for women and remove this limbo, because there is no such provision at present and we need to ensure we have it.
When my colleague, Deputy Niamh Smyth, was pregnant last year with her beautiful baby, the only way she could get time off was by producing a certificate to say she was sick. I could not believe it because that is unbelievable in this day and age.
It is important also to put on the record that while I thank the Business Committee for giving us the opportunity to discuss the Bill tonight, it is unfortunate that we get the graveyard shift.
If we were serious about wanting to improve female participation and recognising our voices, in particular in the week that is in it when we hear of all the women on both sides of the referendum campaign who fought the good fight, yet at the end of the day here we are trying to bring women to the highest office and showing them all of the opportunities but we do it at 7.40 p.m. on a Thursday evening. We are lucky that is only 7.40 p.m., given that the Bill was not due to begin until 8.50 p.m. I am working on another item of legislation currently on sitting hours within the Houses of the Oireachtas. We must think about how we organise our working day. However, first, it is most important to address the barrier presented by the lack of maternity leave. It is hard to believe that county councillors cannot miss a meeting under the relevant statutory instrument. If they miss two meetings they could be struck off. That is the reason we introduced the Maternity Protection (Local Government Members) Bill 2017.
I do not say the Bill before us is perfect. It is open to much improvement and we would welcome improvement. I would like the Bill to go through to Committee Stage. That would be a step in the right direction. If nothing else it would be setting down a marker in order that female colleagues working here can be supported to go on maternity leave if they choose to do so. I would welcome the support of the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, for the Bill.
I compliment my colleagues, Deputies Rabbitte and Smyth, on introducing this extremely important legislation. It is difficult to comprehend that in 2018, any female Deputy or Senator who has a baby while she is a Member of the Oireachtas has no maternity leave options whatsoever.
The Maternity Protection (Members of the Houses of the Oireachtas) Bill 2018 seeks to address this serious anomaly that obviously applies to a different era in terms of how the Oireachtas operates by providing a practical measure to ensure female participation in the political process. This Bill provides for maternity leave in respect of any female person who is elected to and currently a member of Dáil Éireann and shall include the Cathaoirleach of Dáil Éireann or elected Members of Seanad Éireann.
The importance of maternity leave cannot be underestimated. I stand here today as a mother of three who when my first two children were born was self-employed and, as a result, my maternity leave was extremely short. My third baby was born 12 years ago when I was a PAYE worker. I was entitled to maternity leave and I found the difference unbelievable. There was no sense of guilt, only a feeling that I had 18 weeks to recover, bond and get the baby into a routine. The emotional bond mothers and fathers create during those first weeks after birth is indescribable. One's child is completely dependent on one.
Bunreacht na hÉireann declares that "every citizen without distinction of sex" will be eligible for election to Dáil Éireann. The reality is that there are barriers to that. They were identified as far back as 2009 as the five "Cs", to which my colleagues have just alluded, namely, cash, childcare, confidence, candidate selection and culture. A system that inhibits full participation by more than half of the population cannot be said to be a democratic state in any meaningful way. We have taken small but important steps to confront some of the problems, not least by the introduction of gender quotas. However quotas are not the panacea to the problem of women's under-representation in politics. We hope this Bill goes some way to contribute to the necessary response to some of the other challenges identified.
The case for greater female representation is clear: Greater female representation would improve the quality of political decision-making and would deliver more effective representation for women voters. This Bill seeks to provide a practical measure that will assist in ensuring that women can participate in shaping the collective decisions which bind us all. Politics is far from family-friendly and for anyone with a very young baby it can be extremely difficult. We need reforms that create an Oireachtas where the role and contribution of women is valued, one which will help women see politics as a viable career option. We must move towards discontinuing the practice of all-night debates, which in fairness are rare, and place the focus on more business-like hours. For Deputies who live two to three hours from Leinster House, as Deputies Smyth, Rabbitte and I do - concluding business at 11.15 p.m. does not include the option to return home. For example, on Tuesday of this week we commenced at 2 p.m. and concluded at 11.15 p.m. That is neither family-friendly nor child-friendly. There was no way any of us would then sit in a car and drive two and a half hours home. I know the rationale for the late sitting on Tuesday is to facilitate rural Deputies who must travel but I would much prefer to start at 10 a.m. on Tuesday and finish at 7 p.m. in the evening, which would give the opportunity to return home if one so wished.
This Bill seeks to provide a practical measure that would assist in ensuring that women can participate in shaping the collective decisions which bind us all. I welcome the Bill. I am a mother of three children and my youngest is 12 so, if enacted, the legislation would not affect me but I would like other female Members of the Dáil and Seanad to be able to avail of maternity leave in the event of becoming pregnant. They should not feel any sense of guilt for not being present and fulfilling their duties.
I am very happy to join in the debate on the Maternity Protection (Members of the Houses of the Oireachtas) Bill 2018. I commend Deputy Rabbitte and Deputy Smyth on bringing it before the House. I also commend Deputy Butler on her contribution to the Bill.
As presented by the Deputies, the Bill provides for female Members of the Oireachtas to have an entitlement of 18 weeks of maternity leave and up to eight weeks of what is termed additional maternity leave. As a matter of interest, I note that the Maternity Protection Acts 1994 and 2004 provide for 26 weeks of maternity leave with an additional 16 weeks unpaid maternity leave.
In principle, I and my Government colleagues completely support the introduction of supports for Oireachtas Members who become parents, including adoptive parents. However, there are a number of fundamental issues that we need to tease out. I will set these out in synopsis, then I will elaborate on the wider context of Government policy to promote gender equality, after which I will return to the Bill.
In short, there are legal questions to be answered and the Government will seek guidance in that regard and there are also questions which I want to put to the Bill's sponsors and to the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission, which I understand is also doing some work in this area.
First, I invite the Bill's sponsors to clarify the core aims of the Bill, having regard to the fact that Oireachtas Members, as office holders, are automatically entitled to a salary as a matter of law, with limited exceptions, from the period they sign the roll until they are no longer a Member of either House of the Oireachtas, regardless of attendance. That is a given. Having regard to the constitutional concerns and the powers of the Oireachtas itself, I am also asking the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission and the associated reform committees to advise on possible provisions that could be made under existing Standing Orders to provide for maternity leave with particular reference to pairing arrangements and to identify the scope for amending these orders and the work, if any, under way to ensure a family-friendly work environment, as has been mentioned.
I know the Ceann Comhairle has a particular interest in this area as he was the original sponsor of a similar Bill in 2013. The Government will seek advice as to whether it is constitutional to legislate for Members of the Oireachtas to be absent from duty and how they might be remunerated during any such absence. We also need to define what absent from duty or leave means in the context of a Member of the Oireachtas. Can a Member on leave, for example, table parliamentary questions? How are constituents to be represented by a Member who is on leave?
Should we be advised that there is no constitutional impediment, the question could then arise as to whether the appropriate statutory framework lies in the Maternity Protection Acts 1994 to 2004 or the Oireachtas (Allowances to Members) Acts pursuant to the provisions of Article 15 of the Constitution or elsewhere. Article 15 states that the Oireachtas may make provision by law for the payment of allowances to the Members of each House thereof in respect of their duties as public representatives and for the grant to them of free travelling and any such facilities, if any, in connection with those duties as the Oireachtas may determine.
I do agree that we should discuss this matter and indeed the related matter of paternity leave, which the Government introduced recently. I am pleased to report there has been a good uptake of that.
When we were introducing that measure, some male Members of these Houses who were about to become fathers wanted to know if they could avail of paternity leave but that was not possible at the time.
All Members of the House will agree that we must do our utmost to support working mothers in the workplace in general. Last May the then Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald and I launched the National Strategy for Women and Girls 2017-2020. The strategy agreed by government has as its overall goal to change attitudes and practices in order to encourage and support the full participation of women and girls in education, employment and public life at all levels and to improve services for women and girls, with priority given to those experiencing, or at risk of experiencing, the poorest outcomes. I am also wholeheartedly supportive of the intention underpinning this Bill which is to encourage women into public life and to promote work-life balance in the workplace. I am sure this view is shared by all Members of the House.
The aforementioned national strategy includes a set of actions specifically aimed at supporting parents. The Government has also undertaken to publish proposals to expand paid leave in the first year of a child's life and to legislate for those proposals as soon as possible, as set out in the programme for Government. I also remind the House that over the past three budgets the Department of Children and Youth Affairs has secured an increase in the childcare budget by an unprecedented 80%, reflecting the Government's commitment to parents and children. The development of the affordable childcare scheme, which was announced in budget 2017, will also improve matters. This scheme will radically redesign how support is delivered to make high quality childcare more accessible and affordable for families in Ireland.
However, while the central intention of the legislation before us is sound, the Bill does not consider some important legal and procedural issues. One element of the Bill that we will need to consider is whether there are provisions possible under Standing Orders to provide for maternity leave with particular reference to pairing arrangements and to identify the scope for amending any such orders and the work, if any, under way to ensure a family friendly work environment. The Bill makes no provision for pairing arrangements during the Member's absence. Such pairing arrangements can be complex, particularly where the Member is not a member of a political party. However, the absence of a Member for up to 26 weeks could require some form of arrangement by the Oireachtas. As such, the Bill could potentially impact on the Standing Orders of the Oireachtas in respect of Members' attendance or absence. There are issues here that we must tease out. It is also important to note that the Bill potentially affords Members of the Oireachtas an entitlement to maternity leave that is normally reserved for employees. Members do not otherwise qualify for the various social welfare schemes in place to support workers when they are sick or on adoptive leave. Equally, Members are not covered by other workplace related legislation such as unfair dismissal legislation or legislation concerning the organisation of working time. The Deputies' Bill, while laudable, potentially categorises Members as employees rather than as officeholders but there is an important distinction to be made between the two.
The Bill does not propose any arrangements to address the parliamentary or constituency business that would arise during the Member's absence. It does not consider how constituency representations or concerns would be handled during that period. Does leave of absence mean complete leave from the job rather than just from Leinster House? Does it include leave from the constituency office and all that entails? Deputies know that constituency work constitutes a second job for many Members. Some people even say that we come to Leinster House for a rest, such are the demands on us at constituency level due, in part, to our multi-seat constituency parliamentary system. In this context, it would be important for the Bill to undergo a consultation process on Committee Stage to consider how business would be addressed and to consider the arrangements in place in other parliaments. The possibility of putting in place a system whereby a Member could choose a substitute during the period of absence might be one means of addressing this issue. To allow for substitution or an alternate might have constitutional implications, however. If an alternate system was put in place it might be possible to allow the alternate to replace a Member when vacancies arise through resignation or death. This could mean an end to by-elections, which would be a radical step. A list system could be devised similar to the system employed in the European Parliament. That could work here. Of course, the alternates would have to have the best interests of the Members at heart and be operating on their behalf. Perhaps, given the implications for electoral law, this is an issue that could be considered by the Citizens' Assembly. In the event of a Member taking maternity or paternity leave it would be reasonable to expect that extra support would be put in place during the absence of the Member. This could have cost implications for the Exchequer. If a Member is absent and there is no substitute, there is an increased workload in the constituency office. In those circumstances, someone may have to step in to take up that workload in the absence of the Member which would have cost implications.
In view of the concerns with the Bill and the issues which still need to be addressed, the Government is reserving the right to bring forward amendments, as appropriate. The issues arising will be conveyed to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice and Equality in advance of Committee Stage and to the Bill's sponsors. The Government is not opposing the Bill. As I said, I welcome the debate which is both interesting and topical. Members of the Oireachtas are one of the few groups in the country that cannot avail of maternity or paternity leave. Some colleagues here have had babies recently and I congratulate them on what is a fantastic event. One particular colleague told me that she was in hospital, having just delivered her baby, when a constituent phoned her to raise an issue. She spoke of not being able to take any time off. These are issues that we must discuss and together we might come up with solutions. We must find out what happens in other parliaments too.
I thank the Deputies for bringing forward this Bill this evening and for facilitating a debate. Let us work together to see if there are ways that we can encourage more women to come into the Oireachtas. I have been in this House for 21 years at this stage, for my sins. Since the gender quotas were introduced in the area of candidate selection - one of the five "Cs" - there are more women in the Oireachtas and it is far better as a result. I would love to see the Members here reflecting the population at large, with a 50-50 split between men and women. That is what we should be aiming for and we have made some progress, which I hope will continue.
The national strategy for women and girls refers to advancing socioeconomic equality for women and girls, which is very important. It also refers to advancing the physical and mental health and well-being of women and girls and ensuring their visibility in society and their equal and active citizenship, as well as to advancing women in leadership at all levels. The Deputies mentioned corporate boards and we are actively working to increase the numbers of women on such boards. I hope to announce an initiative in that regard soon. The strategy also aims to combat violence against women and the Government has done a lot of work on that with domestic violence legislation but there is more to be done in that regard. The strategy also refers to embedding gender equality in all decision making which is important too. I commend the strategy, urge Members to read it and if they have any suggestions to improve or add to it, I ask them to bring them to our attention. I try to tell people about the strategy whenever I get a chance because many are unaware of its existence. There are lots of good ideas in it. I chair a task force with representatives of various non-governmental organisations, NGOs, Departments and other agencies which is actively working on the objectives of the strategy.
I thank Deputies Niamh Smyth and Anne Rabbitte once again for bringing this important Bill before the House this evening. We need to progress these issues as best we can. I am not sure what is the answer with respect to the long hours. If a Member lives in south Kerry or north Donegal and the Dáil finishes at 6 p.m., he or she has a long night ahead with nothing to do. That is the other side of that issue. Members like myself, who have to travel long distances to get here prefer to work until 8 p.m or 9 p.m rather than having very little to do all evening. Dublin is a lovely city but I am from Cork.
I thank the Deputies for bringing forward this Bill for the provision of 18 weeks' maternity leave for Members of the Houses of the Oireachtas, with an additional eight weeks' leave, if required. As Deputy Rabbitte pointed out, the Bill is not perfect but it will benefit from the discussion that we will have on it. I also echo the sentiment expressed earlier. This is a women's issue and here we are having this debate late at night, which is regrettable. Maybe that was unavoidable. We will have to give the Government the benefit of the doubt for the moment and see how we get on with the passage of this legislation.
When I had my daughter 23 years ago, maternity leave was only ten weeks. Very shortly after my daughter was born, when she was only three weeks old, I went back to college. That was tough but it was not impossible. I benefitted from additional supports for my family because my husband worked full-time but cut back to part-time work to facilitate my return to college. It is tricky and anyone who has had a child knows that every pregnancy is different and every child is different. Some children sleep a lot while others hardly sleep at all. Therefore, the needs and the demands are specific.
The job we have does not lend itself very well to family-friendly working hours, unfortunately. I think we should focus on the supports that are available for Members and everybody who works in the Oireachtas complex. I am conscious that when we sit late or run over time as we frequently do, it has a massive effect on everyone who works here, including the people who work in the canteen, the ushers and our own staff who are busy working in our offices. We need to be cognisant of that when we are discussing this issue. We should always strive to be aware that our actions in this House have knock-on consequences for the people who work all around us. This place is well staffed. Members are extremely well served by the staff here. We should appreciate that every late sitting causes a dozen family crises for the people who provide services for us here.
Politics is an arduous and hectic business. We need to show more understanding to families in here. I think this Bill is a good place for us to start the conversation. I would like to draw attention to the problems with childcare in the Oireachtas. The people who provide the childcare do an absolutely fantastic job, but there is a waiting list because of a lack of facilities. As we all know, pregnancy and childbirth are very time-sensitive. When pregnancy or childbirth starts, it cannot be put off until there is a place available. It happens when it happens. We need to look at this issue in the round. I welcome this opportunity to start to have the conversation that we need to have as parliamentarians. We need to draw in all the people who work in the Oireachtas complex because these matters have knock-on effects on them. I commend the Deputies who have introduced this legislation. I look forward to the debate that I hope it sparks.
I support the Minister of State's remarks regarding Cork. If he intends to make the Dáil more family-friendly for Cork Deputies by moving the premises to Cork, I will be happy to support any such initiative to that effect. I thank Deputies Rabbitte and Smyth for giving us an opportunity to speak on this Bill and on this topic. We will be happy to support the passage of this Bill. We can discuss it further on Committee Stage when we are teasing out some of the detail.
We often hear the criticism that the Dáil is an old boys' club that does not properly reflect the realities of Irish society. While that has improved, there is still a great distance to travel. Politics, and consequently the Oireachtas, is at its best when it is representative of society as a whole. It should be representative of men and women of various classes and backgrounds. The representation of new Irish communities is an issue that certainly needs to be addressed in this institution. Despite the advances that have been made, significant disparities remain in the representation of men and women in this institution. Progress has been made in recent years on foot of the introduction of gender quotas. We are realising some of the benefits of this positive step. I think some of the changes to procedure in recent years have improved things as well. Other obstacles continue to exist. As Deputy O'Reilly has said, one of the simplest things that could be done in this institution would be to ensure proper childcare provision is made. I suppose that applies to all Deputies who have families. It would certainly remove an obstacle for many female Deputies.
It is important for us to send a message that we are serious about trying to change the workings of the Dáil. We need to ensure that in the future, there are no obstacles to greater female participation in the Dáil, especially among younger women. Our ultimate goal must be to seek to achieve a ratio of 50:50 or so, if that is what the electorate decides in future elections. There are difficulties and details that need to be ironed out. For example, an arrangement that is family-friendly for a Dublin Deputy might cause difficulties for a Deputy from west Mayo, west Donegal or west Cork. It is worth considering the question of leave in this context. It would also be worthwhile to explore the whole area of paternity leave. It should be considered as well, perhaps in a different way. Although issues with pairings could potentially arise, I do not think they are insurmountable. If the Oireachtas were to provide for this, it would send a very strong signal.
I acknowledge the leadership being shown by Deputies Rabbitte and Smyth, who have introduced legislation in this area previously. As I mentioned during that debate, my colleague, Councillor Danielle Twomey, who is from the Minister of State's parish, has raised this issue at Cork County Council level. When she was about to have a child as a sitting councillor, no provision was made for her to take maternity leave. I believe the council did its best to try to work with her. I know that is the case in many local authorities. I would like to acknowledge the initiative shown by Councillor Twomey and by the Deputies who have introduced this Bill, which sends an important message and would have important practical benefits. There are issues and details to be teased out, but they are surmountable and agreement can be reached on them.
I thank the Deputies for introducing this important Bill, which sends a powerful message to women across the State, including the female Members of this House, and shows an intention to try to establish some level of equality in politics. The bubble in which we operate in this House, like politics in general at national and local levels, is a cold House for women. Unfortunately, many artificial man-made barriers are put in the way of women who want to get involved in politics. It is not enough to be seen to try to remove some of those barriers - we need to actively move to remove them. This Bill is important for that reason. In this place, we often hear the mantra that we want women to get involved in politics, to run for office and to be elected, but we do not want them to get pregnant. We need to remove all of that.
I have a young family. I am blessed to live in Bray, County Wicklow, because it means that when I leave here, I can jump in a car or on the DART and be home within 30 minutes. Even though I am blessed to live so close to this place, I find it difficult to see how my wife would be able to do the job I do. I do not know how women with young families who live outside the Dublin and Wicklow areas are able to do the job they are elected to do. That is why this legislation is so important. It is a step in the right direction. Many other barriers need to be removed. Although initiatives like gender quotas are welcome, some political parties are still putting forward tokenistic candidates to meet those quotas, unfortunately. Certain political parties need to face up to this serious problem if they are sincere about creating equal opportunities for female participation in politics.
Unfortunately, the absence of maternity leave means we are presiding over discrimination. If we were to end that discrimination, which needs to end, it would send a powerful message to all the young women who want to get involved in politics. If we are sincere and genuine in the mantra coming out of here about wanting women to get involved in politics, we need to lead by example. That is why this legislation is so important. Sinn Féin will be supporting it and allowing it to move to Committee Stage. If it needs to be strengthened or amended at that point, we are willing to have that conversation. We are ready to discuss how to make this Bill as strong and powerful as it can be.
I commend my colleagues, Deputies Rabbitte and Niamh Smyth, on putting this legislation forward. Deputy Butler and the Sinn Féin Deputies have also contributed to a very interesting debate. As a parent, I am aware of the challenges this occupation, vocation or moment of madness places on us. It can be difficult to separate the formal responsibilities from the informal ones. We can talk about the operation of the House and the roles we have in the Chamber, legislation and so on. We all know, however, that it never really stops. One of the speakers talked about somebody coming out of the maternity ward with the phone ringing. That goes on as well.
When I first got into politics, in the 2009 local elections, I proudly attended the selection convention having been ratified. My wife and two small children were present. I heard an outgoing councillor who had served a number of years giving a speech reflecting back on his career. He was almost apologising to his family for what had gone on for the previous 20 or 30 years. He had missed occasions and various special events in the family's life. It was sobering for me to hear that as a person entering politics. My wife asked me afterwards if I was really sure I wanted to go down this road, but it is too late now.
There are challenges to us as parents but particularly to women. The indomitable Mary O'Rourke, another former Fianna Fáil female Minister, following on from the tradition of Countess Markievicz, told a story about how she had been in a Cabinet meeting when Charles J. Haughey was Taoiseach. The meeting had been convened on a Sunday. Every Member of the Cabinet wanted to get the meeting finished by lunchtime because they had better get home for the Sunday roast. Mary was saying she was the only one in the Cabinet who was going home to shop for and cook the roast as well. We hope that times have changed and that there is a bit more gender equality in the kitchen as well as in the Dáil. There are huge responsibilities and they very often do fall on the mother in those sorts of roles.
The quota system seems to be working in some regards. It is a leg up in any case to help people get started. We would like to see more female Deputies participating and being elected through that system. It seems to be off to a good start and to be making progress. Speaking in a gender neutral way, I mentioned privacy. We do not often get to talk about these issues. In terms of the privacy and the demands, even on mental health, it is a very onerous position that we hold in this House and in terms of the wider responsibilities that flow from it. It can be difficult to keep the whole show on the road so it is important that Members get space and time. Certainly at maternity time it is very important that they would be allowed that space.
It is a very positive, progressive step to allow the Member to step back and concentrate on their very important maternal duties during that time. In order for the House to go on and for their duties to be fulfilled, however, I suggest that we examine a substitute system. The Minister of State has spoken about it. There are good arguments for having parliamentary substitutes. There are obviously constituency commitments as well. It may be worth examining a parliamentary substitute system in respect of votes, legislation, amendments and committee participation. Across Europe and the world there are different models. Some European parliaments allow a temporary substitute to be appointed. It is a member state competency to determine electoral laws in this regard. That might make sense. The Member could also rest easy and would be a little more comfortable taking time out in the knowledge that somebody else was performing his or her role. Even in a situation of a tight vote being lost, as nearly happened an hour ago on a different Bill, it would seem very unfair if someone was taking rightful time off and that this would weigh heavily on him or her.
A political reform proposal for a delegate system was included in the Fianna Fáil manifesto of 2011 for when a Deputy becomes a Minister. Ministers take on additional responsibilities such as running a Department and engaging with civil society and multiple stakeholders at national and senior level in addition to their constituency responsibilities. We proposed that a Minister would cease being a Deputy for the duration of his or her office and that a substitute would come in instead. That proposal is in the same vein as the substitute proposed here. It could apply in other areas such as where somebody has a long-term illness or cannot attend for other reasons. It should be explored and I look forward to seeing where the debate goes.
My final point is not related to the provisions of the Bill. I have attended a few of these Thursday evening debates. They are a very good opportunity to air a particular issue. There tends to be a collaborative approach and tonight is no exception, perhaps because the official business is almost over. I propose that the Business Committee examines doubling up on these debates. Two hours are allocated but they often seem to finish within 40 or 50 minutes. There is a logjam of Private Members' Bills and motions that we are trying to get through. There is a lottery and I ring every week to see where my own Bills and motions are and if they have come out the far side. If we could double up on that, it would immediately double productivity, which would be a good result for the Oireachtas.
I thank the speakers who contributed to the discussion. We are all agreed that there is a palpable need to make our Parliament a more family-friendly working environment. There is an onus on us all as legislators and policymakers to put measures in place that will encourage more women into public life. I am here 21 years now. The previous election saw the highest number of women ever in the Dáil, as 35 women were elected to the Dáil in 2016. I can definitely say that the whole narrative here has improved dramatically since then. I have been saying that publicly and privately since the election. I have noticed it. I will not elaborate beyond that but it is much broader.
I heard recently about a senior businessman who was anxious to ensure that he had strong representation of women on his board because he really needed to know what half his customers were thinking. That was an economic argument. The perspective of half the population was quite important to him in his business. I am trying to encourage corporates to have more women at board, senior management and decision-making levels.
The sponsors of the Bill have carried out a very valuable service by placing this on our agenda in the Oireachtas. I note what has been said about the alternative or substitute. The proposal is radical and may need a referendum but it is something that could work. Of course, the substitute would want to be somebody the Deputy could trust completely to operate in her best interest, not somebody who would be interested in giving her the elbow and taking over. In European Parliament elections they have the candidate but also a list of three or four people who might take over in the event of the candidate having to step aside for some reason.
The issue of by-elections is tangential to this. A substitute arrangement would allow us to dispense with by-elections which, when they occur, convulse the nation and do not achieve an awful lot because they often do not make a big difference to the numbers in the House. They are costly, at about €400,000 for each by-election. I note what Deputy Lawless said about other jurisdictions, where Ministers step aside from the Parliament to concentrate more on the ministerial work. I am only a Minister of State.
I was supposed to be in different places this evening but I had to be here for votes. I had three important events to attend to represent the Parliament and the country but I could not. This happens quite a bit.
The Bill takes a certain approach and it starts the debate on this matter. However, I have several concerns about it which I have raised. I strongly support the principles underpinning the Bill, namely, encouraging more women to enter politics, making the Oireachtas more family friendly, as well as recognising the rights, entitlements and needs of women who are pregnant. The Government will not oppose the Bill but we need to widen the debate. We must not forget the other person in this, namely the child. The first year of a child's life is important. While my young lads are well reared and thinking of having families of their own, I remember when I was a young Deputy, being away from home three nights a week and missing all that. That is one of the regrets I have. One of my sons always refers to the lyrics, “And the cat's in the cradle and the silver spoon … But we'll get together then, dad”. Many Members miss out on that when they cannot get home.
The Bill uses employment legislation to regulate the rights of office holders. There is an urgent need for the Oireachtas to look at this issue and bring forward recommendations. It needs to examine how best to support women who are pregnant, including through setting out a framework preparing for Members on maternity leave and possibly looking at additional supports.
We must not forget paternity leave, which is also important. I will ask the Office of the Attorney General to advise on potential constitutional implications of intruding on the obligations of office holders.
We must not forget constituency work. Does leave mean complete leave? Leave should mean one is gone from a job completely for a period of time. One cannot be in the constituency office doing stuff and not here in the Oireachtas. Either one is gone or not.
While I will recommend the Government does not oppose the Bill, I expect to bring forward amendments to deal with the issues I have identified. It starts the debate but it is a far wider one. I look forward to continuing discussions on the Bill once it has completed a consultation process on Committee Stage. I hope the Oireachtas justice committee, along with others, will carry out a proper legislative scrutiny of it. We should discuss the issue itself in a broader context to see what both Houses can do to move the principle forward.
I thank the Minister of State. As he realised from the beginning, I admitted it was not a perfect Bill. The most important point was the conversation and to get that work going in itself. I find that everything is rigid in the Dáil and it is hard to get a space for a conversation about broader issues which impact on so many more. It is quite crude to introduce a Private Members’ Bill to have the conversation but I did not know how else to start it. The most encouraging point is that everybody, all parties and none, supports, welcomes and wants to work together on this proposal.
I hope the chairman of the Oireachtas justice committee - maybe Deputy Ó Laoghaire could have a word with him - would get it to scrutinise the Bill and make suggestions as to how we can progress it. Deputies Brady and O’Reilly made positive comments about the Bill which made sense. The Bill is about common sense. We set the law for everybody else but we discriminate against female Members. That does not wash with me. We need to start there and see how we can do it.
The Minister of State said there is a bigger conversation to be had regarding by-elections, how we do pairings and how to ensure that if one is out of the Chamber, one is not working in the constituency against one’s other colleagues working here. These have to be set out. We could look at remote voting through an app whereby one would have to sign through the ICT unit, although it is difficult to log on in the constituency office because of the firewall and so on. However, everybody might want to vote remotely then and not show up here.
While the conversation and the input were very good, it is a pity we did not have more participants in the debate. It is a conversation that needs to go in the right direction. However, we are talking out the two sides of our mouths. We want more women in politics but if one gets elected there is no way one can have a family progression. We have no mechanism for supporting female Members other than producing the sick certificate. While one produces the sick certificate, one has to run in here for votes on a Thursday and if numbers are tight, one has to show up. I do not know how the system would operate if one were an Independent Member. Parties might be able to do pairings and accommodate Members but I do not how it could work for Independent Members.
It is important to acknowledge, as Deputy O’Reilly said, the good work the staff do here, including staying with us late at night. I have heard the Oireachtas crèche is full and it is quite difficult to get a child into it. It also has a set closing time at 7 p.m. What should Members do with the kids after it closes? Do we hide them under the desks? We have to come up with solutions and provide support.
I thank the Minister of State for his positive comments on the Bill. I am not of a legal mind myself but I am well-intentioned. I would welcome any support the other side of the House can give us as to how best to underpin and bring on this legislation.
I thank the Minister of State for being positive and complimentary about the Bill and I am delighted the Government will not oppose it. As Deputy Rabbitte said, it is the start of the conversation. At least we are talking about it now. I am delighted the Minister of State feels female participation in the Dáil adds to the atmosphere of the place and the debates. Women make up more than 50% of the population. We have gender quotas for ETBs and various boards. It is only right and proper that quotas would make the difference in politics. It may be something we can look forward to in local elections. When I was on Cavan County Council, there was one female member per party. We all start out on local authorities and all politics is local. If we are serious about getting women involved at that level, we need to consider gender quotas.
These proposals are not about getting time off. I remember doing an interview on a radio station about these proposals. The journalist asked why would we elect women for them to go off on maternity leave and be off for months. It is not about that. It is about human resources, HR, asking for a sick certificate and not acknowledging that somebody has the basic human right to have a baby. It is a precious and momentous time for people. To be asked for a sick certificate is quite insulting. I know HR does not mean that but it is one of those factual points that we do not recognise. The Bill is about recognising women in politics and what it entails. The reality on the ground is that Members will be in their constituencies. We are talking about being able to be close to our families and close to the new baby.
Women in politics can still do a certain amount of work. In my case, I was off for two weeks and then I was back at work here and in my constituency. It applies to all of us. It is not beyond the realm of possibilities that a woman politician would be on maternity leave, but we all know she would still be doing the work and still picking up the telephone.
If we can recognise that as legislators, I do not believe the public would be in any way angry or annoyed about it, especially given that 51% of the population are women. It would represent encouragement. It would be a fantastic signal from the Parliament to acknowledge that women do not have to be in the autumn of their years to become politicians. They do not have to have done everything else or perhaps have tried politics in their spare time. They need not have their families reared and gone to college before doing this work. It is possible to juggle all of it together. That is the wonderful thing about men and women, especially in politics. On a positive note, we are jugglers. We are people who think outside the box. We are creative thinkers. We are well able to handle doing more than one thing at any one time. The Bill is about that and it is important to say that.
I am unsure what the answer to the question of the crèche is but we should bear in mind that the crèche does not really work for elected members. That is because of how we speak and debate late into the night. That is no bad thing either and I take the point of the Minister of State in that regard. I am from Cavan. It is doable for me to go home at night but it is not really practical and I can get far more work done here.
The point is that the Bill will start the conversation. We do not claim to have all the answers. It was good to see other politicians from other parties in the Chamber tonight. It is unfortunate that we did not have at least one representative from each political party or grouping, although some were represented. I am delighted that the Minister of State and Deputy Lawless as well as other male Deputies took part in the debate. I am glad that it has not been only a female discussion. That is important. One thing I have learned from my discussions is that we need the men to believe in this. It cannot simply be a question of women talking among themselves. We know this but we need the men to believe it and to buy into it. That is what will make it happen, whether it is gender quotas or increasing the number of female politicians. That is all important. If we can get the support of men for this, we can make a major difference and the next general election can illustrate the value in these measures from the Oireachtas. The Bill can make it possible and make it a reality, along with quotas and the introduction of a family-friendly environment. I thank Deputies for being here tonight.
Deputy Mary Butler's time has been eroded.
That is fine.