I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I am pleased to be in a position to bring forward the Family Leave and Miscellaneous Provisions Bill 2021. As Deputies know, the Bill passed all Stages in the Seanad and has been renamed the Family Leave and Miscellaneous Provisions Bill 2021. The Short Title has been changed to accommodate the Government amendments to the Bill that are for the purpose of amending the Judicial Council Act 2019 and the Personal Injuries Assessment Board Act 2003 in respect of personal injuries guidelines adopted by the Judicial Council. The Bill will help fulfil several commitments in the programme for Government, including extending paid parent's leave and providing adoptive leave for male same-sex adoptive couples.
The Family Leave and Miscellaneous Provisions Bill 2021 has several elements. The first is to amend the Parent's Leave and Benefit Act 2019 to extend the entitlements to parent's leave for each parent of a qualifying child from two to five weeks and to provide for this leave to be taken within two years of the child's birth or adoptive placement. Covid-19 has had a serious impact across society and working parents, especially those who have had children during the pandemic and who have borne a heavy burden, often without the support of family and friends. The extension to parent's leave and benefit is intended to provide them with an additional period of leave to spend with their children. An important facet of parent's leave is to encourage the sharing of the childcare role. I hope that this additional period of leave will support and encourage fathers in taking a more prominent role in the care of their young children. I am aware that many parents have been awaiting the provision of this additional leave since it was announced as part of the budgetary process and I am happy that I am now in a position to take this legislation forward and make the necessary legislative changes.
The Bill also amends the Adoptive Leave Act 1995 to enable adoptive couples to choose which parent may avail of adoptive leave. In doing so, this will rectify an anomaly in the current legislation which left married male same-sex couples unable to avail of adoptive leave. The proposals will also remove the presumption that the adoptive mother be the primary caregiver and permit families to choose the best option for their family. Currently the Adoptive Leave Act 1995 provides for an entitlement to 24 weeks of leave for an employed adoptive mother or single adoptive father. The 24 weeks start from the date the child is placed in the adopting parent's care. An adoptive benefit is available to qualified parents. An additional 16 weeks may also be taken but the adoptive benefit is not available for that period.
This Bill provides for all adopting couples, same-sex and opposite-sex, to be able to choose which of the couple should be able to take the adoptive leave. The new provisions would enable either the adopting mother or the adopting father to be eligible to take adoptive leave once the choice has been made by the couple. The parent who does not avail of adoptive leave is entitled to paternity leave. This is a significant amendment for married male same-sex adoptive couples who were excluded from availing of this leave due to a legislative anomaly. I am happy that we can now rectify this situation.
A further amendment made by this Bill is to the Child and Family Agency Act 2013 to provide for an increase in the number of ordinary members of the board of the Child and Family Agency from seven to nine and for a number of consequential amendments. The board of Tusla is tasked with overseeing the appropriate, efficient and effective use of resources with the aim of ensuring that the State meets its obligations to the safety, protection, well-being and resilience of children, families and communities in Ireland. The members of the board are collectively responsible for leading and directing Tusla's activities within a framework of prudent and effective control as set out in the Child and Family Agency Act 2013 and the code of practice for the governance of State bodies 2016. The work of the Tusla board places an extraordinary demand on the personal time of board members, who have to exercise a degree of flexibility to carry out board functions. The committees of the board have substantial workloads and can be rendered inquorate in the absence of a member. An increase in the ordinary members of the board will facilitate the work of the board.
The Bill also includes amendments passed by the Seanad which amend the Judicial Council Act 2019 and the Personal Injuries Assessment Board Act 2003. Deputies will be aware that the Judicial Council adopted personal injuries guidelines earlier this month which catalogue the level of damages it considers might fairly and justly be awarded in respect of varying types of personal injury. I am pleased to note that these were introduced nearly five months ahead of the statutory deadline of 31 July this year. These amendments provide for the manner in which the transition is made in the courts and by the Personal Injuries Assessment Board from the use of the book of quantum to the new personal injury guidelines. Deputies will be aware that the guidelines reduce several personal injury awards and the guidelines are a cornerstone of the Government's plan to tackle high insurance costs. The Government wishes to bring these into effect at the earliest possible date but also in an equitable manner. The courts will use the guidelines for personal injury proceedings from the operative date of the measures except proceedings arising from an assessment already made by the board before the section comes into operation. The board, from the operative date, will stop using the book of quantum and instead will use the guidelines when assessing claims. It is fair to allow claims that have been assessed and those actions that have already been commenced before the courts to continue to be determined with reference to the book of quantum. Any claims before the board which have not yet been assessed will be assessed having regard to the guidelines. The book of quantum will no longer apply, ensuring an imminent impact.
Overall, the commencement arrangements have been considered from two viewpoints. These include the urgency of reform to tackle high insurance costs and fairness for those who have suffered injury as well as those who are required to defend a claim. I believe we have the correct balance. The Minister for Justice will make the necessary commencement orders, one of which arises under this Bill and one under the Judicial Council Act, as soon as practicable after the enactment of the Bill.
I will now outline the main provisions. Part 2 provides for the amendment of the Adoptive Leave Act 1995 with section 5 replacing references to "adoptive mother" and "single male adopter" with a new definition for "qualifying adopter", which is:
"(a) where a child is placed, or is to be placed, in the care of a couple (of whom neither is the mother or father of the child), with a view to the making of an adoption order, or to the effecting of a foreign adoption or following any such adoption, the member of the couple who is—
(i) an employee, and
(ii) chosen by the couple to be the qualifying adopter for the purposes of this Act,
(b)in any other case, an employee, who is not a surviving parent in relation to the child, in whose care a child has been placed or is to be placed with a view to the making of an adoption order, or to the effecting of a foreign adoption or following any such adoption".
In practice, this means that adoptive couples may choose which of the couple avail of adoptive leave, regardless of gender. This will remove any presumptions as regards the gender of the primary caregiver. Section 5 also provides for definitions of "qualifying adopter", "surviving parent" and "adopting parent", which give effect to the proposals as set out above. Section 6 provides for the adoptive parent to have an entitlement to paternity leave if not availing of adoptive leave, which is also set out in Part 7.
Part 3 inserts a definition of "adopting parent" into the Parental Leave Act 1998. Part 4 provides for the consequential amendments required to the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005 to provide for the payment of the relevant benefits as a result of the proposed changes in this Bill, including their extension to the self-employed.
Part 5 amends the Child and Family Agency Act to provide for an increase in the number of ordinary members of the Tusla board and for consequential amendments. The Tusla board currently comprises a chairperson, a deputy chairperson and seven ordinary members. Under the provisions of the Bill the number of ordinary members will increase to nine.
Part 6 provides for amendments to the Workplace Relations Act 2015 consequential to the provisions of Part 2 of the Bill. Part 7 amends the Paternity Leave and Benefit Act 2016 to provide for an entitlement to paternity leave for the parent not availing of adoptive leave and amends the definition of "relevant parent" to reflect the proposed amendments in Part 2.
Part 8 amends the Parent's Leave and Benefit Act 2019 to provide for an extension of the entitlement to parent's leave and benefit for each qualifying parent from two weeks to five weeks and to extend the period in which parent's leave can be taken to not later than two years after the birth or adoptive placement of the child. This Part also amends the definition of "relevant parent" to provide for entitlement to parent's leave and benefit to an adoptive parent or parents and the spouse, civil partner or cohabitant.
Part 9 amends the Judicial Council Act 2019 and the Personal Injuries Assessment Board Act 2003 to provide for the operation of personal injuries guidelines adopted by the Judicial Council and to provide for related matters. The Schedule sets out the consequential amendments to the Adoptive Leave Act 1995 which are a necessary consequence of the amendments in Part 2. I look forward to hearing the views of Deputies on the provisions of this Bill and I thank them for facilitating it being debated as a priority.