I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I am pleased to address the House on the Second Stage of this Bill. It has its origin in a commitment in A Programme for a Partnership Government to increase paid parental leave in the first year of a child's life. Leave for parents at this time has a significantly positive impact. It benefits children. It benefits parents and, in particular, it enables fathers to play a greater role in caring for their children. It promotes gender equality and supports higher levels of female participation in the labour force because it facilitates women in combining paid work with caring for their children.
The Government approved the general scheme of this Bill in April with the scheme being published on 23 April last. The Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice and Equality waived prelegislative scrutiny because of the urgency of the Bill in view of our commitment to introduce the leave and benefit with effect from 1 November 2019. I am very grateful to the committee for this and we, for our part, have endeavoured to present to the House what I believe is a well-considered proposal which expands significantly the family leave available to new parents. We have had regard also to the need to minimise the burden that this will bring for employers.
The Bill provides for parent's leave of two weeks' duration, which can be increased to a maximum of nine weeks by order of the Minister for Justice and Equality. It also provides for the payment of parent's benefit where the parent fulfils the relevant eligibility conditions. No sharing of leave is permitted, as we want fathers to avail of the leave to the greatest extent possible.
Section 2 defines "relevant parent", that is, the person who will be entitled to parent's leave. A relevant parent, in the case of an adopted child, is, one, the adopting mother or sole male adopter of the child; two, the spouse, civil partner or cohabitant of the adopting mother or sole male adopter; or, three, where the child is adopted jointly by a married couple of the same sex, a couple that are civil partners of each other, or a cohabiting couple of the same sex, each of the couple, and, in cases other than adoption, the term means, one, a parent of the child; two, the spouse, civil partner or cohabitant of a parent; or, three, a parent under section 5 of the Children and Family Relationships Act 2015 where the child is a donor-conceived child. In some situations, more than two people can be relevant parents, for example, where the parents are not married to each other and either or both parents are married to other people.
Section 5 creates the entitlement to paid leave for a relevant parent of a child who is adopted or born on or after 1 November 2019. The purpose of the leave is to enable the parent to provide, or assist in the provision of, care to the child. Therefore, a person may be a relevant parent but will not be entitled to the leave if he or she is not fulfilling this purpose. Leave can be taken as a continuous period or in minimum periods of one week.
Section 6 provides that the relevant parent shall give the employer six weeks' notice of the intention to take parent's leave. This is so that an employer can plan for the potential disruption that may arise when the employee takes the leave.
Section 7 provides that the leave shall be taken in the first year of the child's life or, in the case of adoption, in the year after placement. Notwithstanding this, the period is extended where the parent cannot take the leave where the leave is postponed for specified reasons such as where it is postponed by the employer.
Sections 8 to 10 provide for the sequencing of types of leave where a parent is entitled to more than one type of leave. The general approach is that maternity, adoptive and paternity leave are to be taken first as they are inherently related to the event of birth or adoption.
As parent's leave is for the care of the child over the first year of life, it should naturally follow the other forms of leave.
Section 13 provides for postponement of leave at the initiative of the employer where the taking of leave would have a substantial adverse effect on the business or organisation. An example of this would be where there are seasonal peaks. The postponement may last up to a maximum of 12 weeks. Postponement under this section can only take place once in respect of each period of leave.
Section 14 provides that the parent may request the employer to postpone leave if the child is hospitalised. This reflects similar provisions in the legislation on maternity, adoptive and paternity leave.
Section 15 provides for continuation of entitlement to leave where the child dies. Maternity, adoptive and paternity leave operate in this way too.
Section 16 provides for the entitlement of an employed surviving parent to the untaken leave if a parent dies. The transfer of leave on death is also a feature of maternity, adoptive and paternity leave.
Section 19 provides for the protection of employees from penalisation if they propose to exercise or have exercised their entitlement to parent's leave. This is a standard provision in family leave legislation.
Section 20 contains a general right to return to work on the same terms and conditions that applied prior to the parent taking leave.
Part 4 deals with resolution of disputes and these can be referred to the Workplace Relations Commission.
Part 5 provides for the introduction and payment of parent's benefit in the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005. Section 29 introduces a new Chapter 11B to the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005 which sets out the general qualifying conditions for receipt of parent's benefit payable for two weeks to employees and the self-employed, the required social insurance contributions, which are aligned with the requirement in place for maternity and paternity benefit, and the weekly rate of benefit payable, which is also in line with that for maternity and paternity leave, that is, €245 per week at present. The benefit will be payable in a continuous period or in individual blocks of one week.
Part 6 contains miscellaneous provisions, many of them technical, including consequential amendments of other Acts.
I have described the provisions in the Bill. I now want to mention two provisions that are not in the Bill because of the pressure of time in bringing it to enactment before 1 November. These provisions relate, first, to adoptive leave for male same-sex married couples and, second, to the extension of breastfeeding breaks.
We are all agreed on the principle of enabling same-sex couples who are adopting jointly to be able to take adoptive leave. The general scheme of this Bill, published in April, proposed to address the lacuna whereby a married male same-sex couple cannot avail of adoptive leave. As currently constituted, the Adoptive Leave Act 2005 essentially only allows an adopting mother to take adoptive leave. The adopting father, other than a sole male adopter, is entitled to adoptive leave only where the adopting mother dies. Over the course of drafting, it became apparent that, in seeking to address an inequality, another inequality could be created. It would be unfair not to reform the adoptive leave regime to allow opposite-sex couples the same choice as to which of them should take adoptive leave.
My Department is working on provisions which will give all adopting couples, whether same-sex or opposite-sex, the right to select which of them will be the qualified adopter, that is, which will get adoptive leave and benefit. In my view, giving the option to select the qualified adopter to same-sex couples only would be discriminatory as, unlike the situation with maternity, there is no biological reason it is always the adopting mother who gets adoptive leave.
Introducing this reform is complex. This is why it was decided to insert these provisions into a later Bill so as not to jeopardise the enactment of the Parent's Leave and Benefit Bill by 1 November. I am acutely conscious of the many parents waiting to take parent's leave. It is important that they should not have to wait longer for this important entitlement.
A number of amendments were tabled on this matter and have been ruled out of order. I would think that Deputies Martin Kenny, John Brady, Jim O'Callaghan and I are on the same page as far as eliminating the anomaly regarding, in particular, male same-sex married couples is concerned. However, I do not want to end one form of discrimination by creating another. Therefore, we are looking at more extensive amendments to the legislation than I think the Deputies envisaged.
As regards timescale, the Government has been informed of the aim to insert these provisions into a forthcoming Bill, ideally the Social Welfare (No. 2) Bill which will be before the House in November and the purpose of which is to give effect to measures in the budget. I plan to present legislative proposals in this regard to Government next week.
The other measure that has arisen is a provision to extend the period during which breastfeeding breaks can be taken from 26 weeks to two years. This is a commitment in First 5, the strategy for the first five years of a child's life. The extension of breastfeeding breaks is also an action in the national strategy for women and girls. Work is under way in my Department on legislative proposals in this regard.
I hope this information is of assistance to the House. In conclusion, I look forward to hearing the views of Deputies and I commend the Bill to the House.