Family Leave and Miscellaneous Provisions Bill 2021 [Seanad]: Second Stage

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.

I welcome this legislation and, in particular, the long-awaited increase of three weeks per parent of parent's leave and benefit. I will take this opportunity to acknowledge and commend the work of the Extend Maternity Leave 2020 campaign group, which has fought hard for additional supports for parents, in particular new ones, since Covid hit this time last year. When debating this legislation, it is important to acknowledge all of the parents who had a baby before or during Covid and who have been left in a difficult situation. They have not had the level of support from family and friends that would normally have been available to them. Parents, and mothers particularly, have faced significant difficulties at the end of their maternity leave. They have been put in the position of having to choose between taking unpaid parental leave, which was the only option in many cases, or returning to work and leaving their babies, who were just six or seven months old in some cases, with a minder. On top of all of that, many crèches do not accept children under one year of age.

I wish to make a number of points about this legislation. They have already been raised with the Minister, including during the pre-legislative scrutiny phase. It is unfortunate that he has not tabled amendments to the Bill. The points have not been heard or taken on board.

My first point relates to parents who have a baby through surrogacy. I was not aware that they were excluded entirely from all paid parental supports until it was brought to my attention by a number of parents in recent weeks. Having a baby is difficult enough for parents who cannot conceive and go on to choose surrogacy. Whatever way someone brings a new baby into the world, not to have that entitlement or paid support to spend time with the baby is shameful. The Minister needs to consider this matter because these parents are being excluded. That is wrong.

My next point has been raised by lone-parent organisations, including One Family and Single Parents Acting for the Rights of Kids, SPARK. There is an assumption in this legislation that a family has two parents, but that is not always the case. Like the lone-parent organisations, I ask that the lone parent get the entire ten weeks of paid parent's leave. Whether a baby is born into a family with two parents or one, that baby should not lose out on the additional support from a parent in his or her first year of life. Will the Minister consider this proposal?

I wish to raise an issue that has been brought to my attention by a mother who had her baby prematurely in October 2019 just before the leave was introduced that November. Is there any flexibility for parents who should have had their babies from November 2019 onwards but whose babies were born prematurely? In this case, it was a high-risk pregnancy and birth. The additional leave would be welcome to parents who had a baby prematurely. I would like to hear the Minister's views on this matter.

Will the Minister encourage employers to allow for flexibility around the minimum of six weeks notice that parents have to give in order to take parent's leave and to top up this leave where possible? People have experienced difficulties in taking up the scheme. I assume that is because it provides just €245 per week, which is a large drop in income for some workers.

I wish to reference the EU work-life balance directive, which must be transposed by Ireland by June 2022. It will allow for nine weeks of parent's leave and benefit. The budget in October will be the last possible opportunity for the Government to ensure that we meet the directive's obligations. It will be embarrassing if we do not. When an additional four weeks of parent's leave is announced in the next budget, we must not have the same delays that we have seen with the scheme so far. This parent's leave scheme was announced a long time ago and was spoken about last summer, but parents had to wait almost a year for it to be introduced. There were issues. For example, systems had to be set up in the Department of Social Protection. When this badly needed benefit is being introduced, it should be implemented as quickly as possible and the systems should be ready to go.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Family Leave and Miscellaneous Provisions Bill 2021. I will be focusing on sections 30 and 31, which pertain to the new personal injuries guidelines.

Lé ró-fhada, tá na comhlachtaí aráchais ag glacadh lámh ar chustaiméirí maidir le costais aráchais. Tá a fhios againn uilig sin. Tá seo ag tarlú in ainneoin go bhfuil costais éilimh ag titim. Tá costais éilimh ag titim anois mar gheall ar an reachtaíocht seo agus mar gheall ar na treorlínte úra seo. Beidh na comhlachtaí aráchais ag sábháil airgead ar chostais. Beidh Sinn Féin ag moladh go ndéanfaimid cinnte sa reachtaíocht seo go mbeidh laghdú ar chostais aráchais do na custaiméirí ar fud an Stáit de bharr an laghdú costais do chomhlachtaí aráchais.

The personal injuries guidelines were adopted by the Judicial Council on 6 March. They will replace the book of quantum that has, until now, been used by the courts and the PIAB to determine the level of awards for personal injuries. They are a function of the Judicial Council Act 2019, whose passage through the Houses Sinn Féin supported and facilitated. We did so for a clear reason, that being, to provide regularity in the level of personal injury awards and, in so doing, reduce the cost of insurance for motorists, homeowners and businesses.

Sections 30 and 31 of the Bill provide for the early coming into operation of these guidelines. Under the sections, the courts will use the new guidelines for all proceedings coming before them from the commencement of section 99 of the Judicial Council Act except in cases where an assessment has already been made by the PIAB and then rejected. They also provide that the PIAB will use the new guidelines when assessing claims. That is fair and equitable.

Since these guidelines were adopted and published, the insurance industry has already begun to backtrack on its commitments to reduce prices for consumers. That is not acceptable. The industry cannot be allowed to move the goalposts. It has tried to do so on spurious grounds using bogus arguments, such as the claim that it will take time for the new guidelines to work through the system. That is nonsense. At the finance committee in July 2019, the CEO of Allianz Insurance was crystal clear. He stated: "when we price insurance, and we are pricing insurance for the next 12 months, we have to set out our premium on the basis of what we expect to happen in terms of the number of claims over that 12-month period." There we have it. The basis is not claims in the previous 12 months, but what will happen in the next 12 months. At the finance committee three months later, the CEO of Zurich Insurance told us that we should expect prices to fall as a result of new guidelines on personal injury awards. He stated that, if there was a 50% drop in awards for soft tissue personal injuries, "It would be quite reasonable that if that were to happen and insurers had reduced their prices, with all things being equal and somewhere in the region of 10% to 15%, the committee should ask us a lot of questions." He told us that we should expect prices to fall by at least 20% in respect of public liability. That was straight from the horse's mouth.

These guidelines provide for reductions beyond that. They go much further than just soft tissue injuries. We cannot let the insurance industry off the hook. The new guidelines will significantly reduce the cost of claims for insurance companies. These savings must be passed on to their customers in the form of lower prices - no ifs, buts or excuses. The Dáil must hold them to account. That is why I have tabled an amendment to the Bill for Committee Stage. It will require the insurance industry to provide information to the Central Bank for each of the next four years detailing how the new guidelines have reduced the cost of claims, what the cost of claims would have been had the new guidelines not come into effect, and how the insurers have passed these savings on to their consumers, with an annual report laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas. Only then would we be able to see not only how these guidelines have reduced the cost of claims, but how and if the insurance industry has passed the savings on to its customers.

Sinn Féin will continue to hold the insurance industry to account and will be asking the Dáil to support our amendment on Committee Stage.

On behalf of the Labour Party, and as a parent, I am very supportive and welcoming of the Bill. The Labour Party is delighted the Bill has cross-party support. It has been eagerly anticipated and it is a good thing that it is finally here. I can state without qualification that it is a good step to where we need to go in terms of how we approach parental leave and, as a State, respect the need newborn children have for the care of their parents. It will enable the State to allow parents, as much as it can and in as supportive a way as it can, to dedicate that precious time to their children. The provisions of the Bill which resolve the anomaly in respect of same-sex male parents are also most welcome. It is a wonderfully progressive step. I commend the Minister on bringing that forward.

However, a matter that needs to be examined is that one-parent families continue to remain outside the discussion in terms of how we deal with parental leave, maternity leave, paternity leave and the whole debate in that regard. They are still not brought into the tent as much as they ought to be or given the respect that is needed. My wife and I have one child and I know the challenges involved in being a parent and how difficult it is. I cannot even comprehend having to do it on my own or my wife having to do it on her own. The State still needs to play catch-up on that issue. It is to be hoped that in the not-too-distant future there will be more opportunities for Bills to address it.

I also wish to draw the attention of the Minister to the Organisation of Working Time (Reproductive Health Related Leave) Bill 2021 introduced by the Labour Party in the Seanad last week. It addresses the issue of reproductive leave for people who have had early-term miscarriages or are in need of IVF treatment. This is an area that has not been spoken about. One could even say it has been taboo. However, it is an area and an issue that impacts many parents and prospective parents. In the case of miscarriages, early or otherwise, there are emotional and physical tolls that are unquantifiable and that needs to be reflected in leave and legislation. I ask the Minister to look at that Bill. It is to be hoped that the Bill will be up for debate in the Seanad in the next couple of weeks and that we can see progress in that area.

As a result of the way in which society is structured at the moment and the culture that exists, many people have to delay starting a family in order to dedicate time to their careers. This particularly affects women. In order to further their career, they delay starting a family until they reach their mid-30s and that is leading to more people having to go down the IVF route. However, there is nothing in legislation to reflect that reality. I have difficulty even finding the right language to speak about this, so I hope I am capturing the issue correctly and striking the right tone because it is something on which we really need to focus. I refer to the work of Labour Party Dublin city Councillor Alison Gilliland and the Irish National Teachers Organisation on this issue. The Government really needs to look at that work and build on it because it is another area in which there is a gaping hole.

Overall, the family leave element of the Bill is positive and a good step forward. The Labour Party is very happy to support it. I am sure that when the Minister is looking across the House for Bills and amendments in the next couple of weeks, he will look at Senator Bacik's Organisation of Working Time (Reproductive Health Related Leave) Bill 2021 which deals with this area.

I refer to the unrelated amendments that were made to the Bill. I must put on record that it is bad legislative practice for this to have been done. I know the amendments came from the Minister for Justice, but there have been several justice Bills on the clár of the Dáil in recent weeks. There has been ample opportunity to add the provisions contained in the amendments to a justice Bill rather than tacking them onto a family leave Bill such as this one. It raises questions and suspicions in respect of why this has happened. Everyone living in this country knows that we are being fleeced in terms of insurance. I know the amendments in question are technical but, ultimately, when we go downstream from them we are in the space of the insurance industry, the cost of insurance and how regular people are being fleeced week in, week out, year in, year out by the insurance industry.

In recent years, the insurance industry has called for many things, including the removal of the requirement for two senior counsel, the abolition of juries, the establishment of the PIAB, the Judicial Council Act and the change to the book of quantum. It has always said that if the next measure is brought in, premiums will go down. When that happens, it states that if the next measure is brought in, premiums will go down. Then the next measure is brought in and, again, there is another ask. What will the next ask be? Premiums are not going down. It is not just about motor insurance, house insurance and the very visible insurance premiums. People may not link the issue of insurance with the hidden costs they are paying. Why do we have the highest prices in Europe for concert tickets? It is because of insurance costs. It feeds into absolutely everything, including the cost of doing business, hiring people, work, building a home and everything else. It is an absolute cartel, and a cosy one at that.

Prior to this debate, we had statements on the EU and rights within the EU in advance of the European Council meeting. We have the Common Market and all the rest. We have benefited from it. If I wish to buy a Hoover, a fridge or another household appliance, I benefit from the Common Market. However, we do not have a common market when it comes to insurance. Why is that the case? It is because we have a cosy cartel that is running insurance and keeping costs high. Like many other Deputies, I have no faith that premiums will go down as a result of the change to the book of quantum and the Judicial Council Act because the insurance industry will find another ask of this Government or the next one. It must end. Pressure has been building. I commend Deputy Doherty on his work on this issue in recent years. I refer too to the work of the Labour Party and our finance spokesperson, Deputy Nash, on the issue.

The Central Bank has a role to play here. It is lauding itself or being lauded for standing up to stockbrokers. What about standing up to the insurance industry? Week in, week out and year in, year out insurance companies are getting away with fleecing the Irish people. It is an absolute scandal. I do not wish to have to speak on this issue in the context of the Bill. Insurance is not the responsibility of the Minister, who has brought forward great legislation that will help many people.

I will finish on that point because that is what the Minister deserves. I commend him on the Bill. I hope that we can build on it. It is very welcome and a big step. The Opposition always asks for more, but this is good legislation. I say "Well done" to the Minister. The Labour Party is happy to support the Bill.

Fianna Fáil fully supports the Bill. It is very progressive legislation. It will ensure that every child gets the best possible start in life. It supports parents to spend more time with their children. As the dad of three children aged five and under, I really cherished the early days when our children came home from the maternity hospital. There were added benefits in that regard because, like most women shortly after giving birth, my wife was absolutely exhausted in those early days and needed a significant amount of help. It is great to have dads available to provide such help.

The legislation provides for a lot more beyond that. It amends the Parent's Leave and Benefit Act 2019 to increase the duration of paid parental leave from two weeks to five weeks. That too is very progressive. Each parent will be given an additional three weeks of paid leave and that period can be taken within the first two years after birth or adoptive placement as the case may be. Another very progressive feature of the legislation is that it will amend the Adoptive Leave Act 1995 in order that married same-sex couples can avail of adoptive leave.

This was an unfair anomaly that will now be addressed. I was able to take time out of work, albeit a very short period of a couple of days, to spend time with my kids after they were born. That opportunity was denied to many and I am glad this anomaly will now be cleared up and addressed.

On a slightly related topic, I will address the issue of a lack of social workers to deal with adoption applications. My understanding is there is a significant backlog at the moment, with many children who have been in long-term foster care awaiting adoption to a loving home. Many of those people are now nearing the age of 18 when they will become adults and will, thereby, potentially fall outside the net of adoption. The acute shortage of social workers has been brought to my attention by several families in Clare who have taken up the call and the cudgels for children in need. Such foster families got calls from the HSE and Tusla late at night and over weekends asking them to take in vulnerable children. They have done that and shown those children love, affection and care in abundance. Everyone wants to formalise that arrangement and adopt those children but the lack of social workers makes that impossible. Cases that one would hope would take a few months to conclude are dragging on for years to the point where the child concerned is becoming an adult and falling outside the net of adoption.

The Adoption (Amendment) Act of 2017 was great legislation and there are many progressive elements within it but it will not have real and meaningful effect unless we have enough social workers to enable all of the elements of that legislation to be fully fired up and working. At the heart of this are families who love and care for children they have fostered. We had multiple debates in this Chamber about the mother and baby home saga and heard time and again that people yearn for a sense of belonging and a feeling of being a part of a family unit. We need to look at this issue. Perhaps the officials from the Minister's Department can make a note of this issue, look at where the shortfall is and seek to address it.

I am delighted to say that Sinn Féin welcomes this legislation on parental leave. Paid parental leave is absolutely key and vital. People often talk about the element of existing parental leave that is unpaid and it is unrealistic for many people to avail of it because it is unpaid. It is important that any leave given is paid leave. We welcome that.

I will echo some of the points made by previous speakers, in particular my colleague, Deputy Kerrane, relating to surrogacy. That is a vital and important piece to add. It is becoming much more common and more people are availing of it, which is fantastic, but parental leave also needs to be there for those people. We also need to think about lone parents. I welcome the fact this leave is being put in place but we should see it as a first step. We must do a huge amount more around the extension of maternity, paternity and parental leave. In all of this debate, we must focus on and remember how difficult it is to parent alone. That is a key element to this issue. I support the calls for leave to be doubled for anybody who is parenting alone. That is one way to recognise the difficulty of the role of a lone parent. We cannot ever forget that in this debate because it is important.

The Social Democrats also welcome this Bill. It is an important step towards facilitating work-life balance and giving the supports families need to take care of their children. Many parents will breathe a sigh of relief when they see this Bill is before the Dáil and it is hoped they will soon see the effects of the legislation on the ground. Parents have been waiting for this for a long time and particularly in light of what has happened over the past year. There has been a lot of anxiety about when this leave was going to become available. I, too, commend the work of the Extend Maternity Leave 2020 group which has done enormous work in keeping this issue at the forefront of all of our minds.

I will focus on the entire system. There was a missed opportunity when implementing or bringing this Bill to the Dáil because reform of the parental leave system was not examined. It is a confusing system and there are many different provisions and elements to it. Parents have for years had to navigate a confusing and convoluted system of parental leave entitlements in this country. Year on year, the Government might drip-feed an extra week here or an extra two weeks there, adding to an ever-burgeoning legislative framework. New parents today need to analyse what is available to them. The provisions come under maternity benefit, maternity leave, paternity leave, parent’s benefit, unpaid parental leave and various other supports. It is quite a complex system to get one's head around. There was an opportunity to streamline that system and invest in it properly. The drip-feeding and baby steps we are taking on the issue are not giving the needed certainty and security to families.

We are seeing more and more additions to this long list of leave. When they are combined, these supports are still far behind our European counterparts in both paid and unpaid leave for parents. Although it affects both men and women, the consequences apply disproportionately to women. That has contributed to a low uptake in these supports by both parents, under-representation of women in the labour market, the gender pay gap and the burden of care falling mainly on women.

Furthermore, there is a large gap between the end of paid leave and the beginning of subsidised preschool in Ireland, which currently stands at 138 weeks. The Social Democrats brought through legislation to increase unpaid parental leave which has closed that gap somewhat, but when it is compared with the 86 weeks in France and 115 weeks in the UK, there is still quite a substantial difference. Closing the gap is crucial because families are forced to pay exorbitant childcare fees to cover the time between the end of parental leave supports and early years education. Some women end up having to reduce their hours or leave the workforce entirely as a result of not being able to afford childcare fees while others remain in their jobs in the hope that their incomes will surpass childcare fees at some point and it will be worth their while staying and working.

The confusing parental leave system, lack of paid parental leave and the gap between parental leave and the start of early years education present huge barriers to parents. It has also contributed to the overall lack of certainty facing families in this country. Each year, parents are drip-fed parental entitlements depending on the Government that is in place. To be cynical, how much leave is given sometimes depends on where we are in the electoral cycle. I acknowledge the Minister inherited this system and it is good to see he is aiming to improve it, but a week's leave here and two weeks' leave there is not what families need. Parents and families need much more certainty and investment in this area.

Covid-19 has magnified this level of uncertainty. Parents have become childminders, teachers and parents while working on top of all these incredibly stressful demands. Women, in particular, have found juggling these aspects of the pandemic all too much. Many have used up parental leave when they never intended to use it just so they could manage childcare while schools were closed or focus on their family’s needs during lockdown.

I welcome the additional three weeks as a result of budget 2021 but there was a lack of clarity as to when parents could claim this, the time limit for claiming the payment and whether the payment would be backdated. There had been an expectation the payment could be claimed from January or early in the year onwards, but it now seems it will be April before it is available. The added confusion at a time when parents are dealing with huge levels of uncertainty is not helpful.

What families need most at this difficult time during the global pandemic is certainty. Furthermore, the myriad legislation covering this area makes it unclear what people are entitled to as it keeps changing year-on-year. Families find it difficult to plan around childcare, schools and for other children in the family. This is not what paid parental leave legislation should be about. It should be about clarity, certainty and creating a supportive environment to help families manage their already stressful work-life balance.

The Government had an opportunity to streamline this process and I have put forward an amendment for Committee Stage which encourages the Minister to conduct a policy and budgetary analysis on a potential further extension of leave under this Act from five weeks to nine weeks, as is required under the EU directive, and establish a timeline for that provision. The reporting mechanism will also ask the Minister to consider the degree to which the directive requires further transposition into Irish law and to present a timeline for its full implementation.

That is the certainty families need. When people sit down to work out their annual budget, they need to know whether they can afford to have children, how that would be facilitated and if it would be feasible for them. Having that clarity would certainly help.

To address the disruptions caused to family life during the pandemic, I have also proposed within the amendments that the time limit of parental leave would be increased from the proposed two years to three. This would go a long way to bridging the gap between parental leave and the start of early education. In France, for example, claim periods often end when universal primary school starts. As the gap between the end of all parental leave and the start of primary school is still quite wide in Ireland and presents a barrier to women returning to work, three years is the perfect number as the early childhood care and education, ECCE, scheme begins for most children when they reach the age of three. In my amendment I propose that we give an extra year to parents to seek that leave.

I also wish to briefly address the issue of parents parenting alone. That is a big gap area that I have mentioned to the Minister previously. When developing the Bill and policy in this area it is too often forgotten that families come in all different shapes and sizes and that our policies need to reflect that. I proposed these recommendations in the Joint Committee on Children, Disability, Equality, Integration and Youth on the basis of consultation with various groups. It was a missed opportunity to not recognise that the policy must be child-centred. Children will benefit from having their parents involved, whether that is one parent or two parents.

We must also address the gender imbalance, but in the case of people parenting alone, the provisions should apply to them. I welcome the Bill. I hope the Minister will consider my amendments and support parents as they navigate the global pandemic. I also hope that he will support women and gender balance, support children in their development and provide a work-life balance for families. I will hand over to my colleague, Deputy Gannon.

My contribution will be brief and focus on the final point raised by Deputy Whitmore, which is seeking parity for the children of one-parent families. They are entitled to the exact same time at home as those in any other family dynamic. Consistently in society, one-parent families are the most vulnerable at-risk group. They are at risk of economic disadvantage and all of the crushing human aspects that go with poverty. There is much of merit in the Bill but the most disappointing aspect of it is that it will not impact fairly on all children. If we were taking a child-centred approach to the Bill, which we should do, the children of one-parent families would be treated in the exact same manner as other children. By that I mean they should have the exact same entitlement to time at home with a parent. The fact that is not being provided is beyond lamentable. That is the case for a number of reasons as it punishes children in a family situation that are already at greatest risk. I understand it is a difficult issue and there are complications in this regard, but if we are taking a child-centred approach to the Bill then the children of one-parent families need to have the exact same time at home with a parent as any other children.

We also introduced an amendment to make provision for a parent to apply for a maximum of ten weeks parental leave in the case where one parent is unable to care for a child due to severe illness, hospitalisation or incarceration for at least 104 weeks. That would be a massive bonus to one-parent families who are already living with great economic difficulties.

I am delighted that we are continuing to extend and expand the entitlements that are available to parents in this country. This Bill will entitle parents to an extra three weeks of paid parental leave and create more time for adjusting to the challenges that a new addition to the family brings. It will mean five weeks leave paid by the State for every parent to be taken before a child turns two. All children deserve the best start in life and this Bill will support 30,000 parents to spend more quality time with their young children, something all parents will appreciate.

However, the research shows that when it comes to taking time away from work to care for children, it is still mostly left to mothers. Despite the fact that benefits and leave have increased for fathers in recent years, uptake remains low. Figures published by the CSO last year found that almost half of fathers entitled to paternity leave did not avail of it. Many fathers fear the effects that taking this leave may have on their career, especially those working in small companies. Parental leave must not fall victim to this same pattern. Starting a family and spending quality time with one's children is a right which should never be looked on as a barrier to progressing one's career or profession. I call on all employers to support parents within their organisations and to encourage them to avail of the full parental supports available to them. Both mothers and fathers need to be assured that they will not be at a disadvantage for taking the time out that they rightfully deserve. Being a parent is never easy, but the last year has been especially challenging. I welcome this family leave Bill and the support it will give to parents across Ireland.

I am delighted to be present for the debate. While not directly naming the group, the Bill gives leave to parents whose child is born through a surrogate in Ireland. That is a big step in the right direction for the many families that have children born through surrogacy as an alternative to adoption or perhaps due to health issues where they are unable to physically have their own children. It is also relevant for same-sex families who may choose to have children through surrogates. Surrogacy is expensive and complex, but the outcome hopefully is the same as for any other parent, that is, a baby born into a loving family. All parents should have the right to leave to care for a baby. I congratulate my colleague, Senator Seery Kearney, for the work she has done in this regard.

I believe we can do more with the Bill. I support what Deputy Gannon said about it not doing enough for lone parents. Overwhelmingly, as we know, the burden on lone parents falls to women. As my colleague, Deputy Higgins, stated, the bigger issue in the long term is to provide equality between parents in taking leave. Parents should be able to avail of a four-day or three-day week. I look forward to the day when a man who has just had a second baby, where both children are under three, looks for a four-day week from a commercial organisation, just as many women have been doing for years. There has been an impact on their pensions, promotional opportunities and their ability to participate fully and to use their skills and experience in the labour market. Society is the poorer for losing all of those women who have been so well trained and who are so professional and experienced. That is the only way to address inequality in the commercial and professional sectors.

I support the Bill. It is a very important Bill for parents of young children to allow them time to bond with their child, regardless of whether they are the birth parent or adoptive parent. This past year has been incredibly difficult for new parents. They have had to do without the support of family and friends on whom they could normally rely for assistance when welcoming a new member to the family home. Parent and toddler groups were not able to meet. New parents could not rely on their own parents, siblings, neighbours or friends to help out or give them some respite, which would be the case in normal times.

One criticism I could make of the Bill is the time it has taken to bring it to this Stage. I am aware of numerous mothers who were scheduled to return to work after their maternity leave was finished, but due to the restrictions in operation they could not find childcare. In addition, the restrictions led to smaller quantities of children being catered for in childcare facilities and family members were not available to provide childcare. There was an existing issue pre-Covid regarding childcare for children under the age of one that needed to be addressed. Many mothers are being forced to take additional unpaid maternity leave even though they are not in a position to do so financially but they have no choice because they cannot return to work.

I welcome the removal of the anomaly surrounding the gender of adoptive parents. Parental leave is now open to adoptive parents regardless of gender. What is being proposed today is welcome but a lot more work needs to be done regarding the early childcare sector to make childcare more available and more affordable to parents and to improve the pay and conditions of those providing childcare, many of whom are highly qualified, with degree-level qualifications, yet are expected to work for not much more than the minimum wage.

I pay tribute to the Extend Maternity Leave 2020 campaign, which drove a grassroots campaign last year to extend paid maternity leave during the pandemic. More than 30,000 people signed a petition in support of that and the issue was debated in the Dáil.

Unfortunately, because of the long and many delays before this comes into effect, the majority of those people who were campaigning then will not be able to benefit from it. They also correctly view this as the Government saying it is doing this in response to their campaign when in reality it was part of the programme for Government and was planned in advance.

Obviously, I welcome the extension of paid parental leave from two to five weeks. I also welcomed the provisions extending adoptive leave to male same-sex couples. That is a long overdue correction of discrimination against gay men in this area.

I want to raise three problems with the Bill. The first is the rate of parent's benefit, which is too low at only €245 per week. The second is the fact that the various forms of paid parental leave should be extended to at least a year. The third is a point which has been referred to, namely, the discrimination against the children of lone parents. Both parents should be entitled to take this up as a basic equality measure for a group that has been discriminated against.

In regard to the first issue, the Government's estimates give the game away. It estimates that the Bill will result in a cost of €22 million in a full year and will support up to 39,000 parents. There were just under 60,000 births in 2019, which means, therefore, that the Government is banking on over 60% of parents not taking up parent's leave. The main reason why they will not take it up is because the rate of pay is so low, at €245 a week. That is €105 a week less than the standard rate of the pandemic unemployment payment which provides a basic, but by no means comfortable, replacement income level. It is a mere €42 a week more than the poverty level jobseeker's benefit. For a family with two children where both parents are on maternity benefit or parent's leave, they fall well below the poverty line of €525 per week as calculated by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul.

The €245 rate is the same rate as paternity and maternity benefit. The higher rate of maternity benefit of €262, which was the rate applicable to 90% of women prior to January 2014 when it was cut as part of the bank bailout and austerity measures, has still not been restored eight years later. That is how much Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, the Labour Party and the Green Party value women and families.

A survey by the Trades Union Congress in Britain in 2017 found that Ireland was the worst country in the EU for decently-paid maternity leave, which it defined using the EU definition of at least two thirds of normal wages. By contrast, a payment of €245 equates to only around a quarter of average wages. The only other EU countries not to offer decently paid paternity leave were Britain and Slovakia.

As a result of the rate being so low, wealthier parents can afford to take parent's leave but many working-class parents who still have to pay rent or a mortgage, as well as all of their other living costs, cannot afford to take time off to be with their babies. This reinforces sexist gender norms. If only one parent takes the leave, it is overwhelmingly likely to be the mother because women still earn much less than men, on average, and because mothers are entitled to 26 weeks of maternity leave compared to a paltry two weeks paternity leave, and so almost always end up being the primary carer from the very beginning.

Leave on full pay should be available for all forms of parental leave, including maternity, paternity, parent's leave and parental leave, which is currently completely unpaid. Parents and working class people generally want properly paid parental leave. A January 2019 RED C opinion poll carried out for Early Childhood Ireland found that 59% agreed that parental leave benefit should be 66% of pay, with support for this being higher among women than men presumably because men assume women will take it.

The opposition to this is coming from right wing governments and employers. According to the Central Statistics Office, CSO, 46% of women on maternity leave in 2019 did not get any top-up from their employer and therefore only received €245 per week. The levels vary dramatically based on sector. For example, almost all of those working in public administration and defence received a top-up, whereas 61% of women working in accommodation and food services did not get any top-up.

The second point is the period of paid parent's leave. The total period of paid leave per parent per child should be extended to at least the first full year of each child's life. Ideally, it should be the first two years. This is already available in Sweden, Norway, Japan, Austria and Germany, among other countries. Even after the additional three weeks parent's leave provided for in the Bill, a mother will only be entitled to 31 weeks paid leave per child and a father to seven weeks. This is nowhere near enough, especially considering the fact that many crèches no longer take babies aged under one year.

Again, parents and working-class people generally want this. Another RED C survey found that 70% of people agreed that all parents should be financially supported to stay at home with their child for the first 12 months of the child's life, that is, paid maternity and parental leave should be extended from six to 12 months.

Finally, the Bill discriminates against lone parents and their children by not allowing them to take both parent's entitlements. This is a group that has long been discriminated against in this country. The Parent's Leave and Benefit Act 2019, which this Bill seeks to amend, specifically states that the leave is per parent and cannot be transferred between parents. We would generally support the leave not being transferable in order to encourage more equal parenting between the genders. However, in a situation where one parent is parenting alone and there is no prospect of the other parent taking the leave the lone parent should be entitled to both parent's leave, i.e. to ten weeks' leave rather than five or should alternatively be able to nominate a second recipient other than a spouse.

This is how the situation is handled in more progressive European countries such as Sweden. In light of the latest round of shocking revelations about the mother and baby homes and forced and illegal adoptions in this country, it would be a fitting response to begin to treat lone parents and their children equally to other families in this respect.

The Bill as drafted means that a lone-parent family is only entitled to five weeks parent's leave, or €1,225, whereas all other families are entitled to ten weeks or €2,450. How is that fair or equitable? How does that cherish all of the children equally, in particular in a situation where lone parents already suffer the highest levels of poverty and deprivation in this country? I hope the Government will be open to accepting amendments on those points to remove the discrimination which currently exists.

I want to support the Bill. It is important.

Just this week, Chambers Ireland and UNICEF Ireland issued a call to action for more family-friendly workplaces. They launched a guide adapted from a document released by the International Chamber of Commerce and UNICEF which includes measures that business leaders can take to achieve short and long-term positive impacts in the workplace. In the guide they state that by giving working parents the time, information, services and resources that they need to cope with crisis, family-friendly policies and practices can make a critical difference and also make an important contribution to wider social protection.

The Bill proposes, among other things, to increase the duration of parent's leave, as well as the associated entitlement to parental benefit, from two to five weeks to enable couples who have jointly adopted to choose which member of the couple avails of adoptive leave. These are very welcome measures. We all deserve to be able to care for ourselves or our loved ones at a time when they need us.

Across the House we all agree that we need to strive for a better work-life balance. The Government promised in the programme for Government that parent's leave would be increased from two to five weeks, to be taken in the first 24 months of a child's life, increasing from 12 months from the time of the child's birth or placement with parents in the case of adoption. This is the Government's commitment to delivery. I agree with the committee's recommendations on the Bill.

I have raised the importance of work-life balance. There is no doubt that Covid-19 has been a struggle. However, if we can take some positives from it, we have seen how much better working from home has been for so many families.

Home school has been a challenge but the bonds families have developed will last forever. There is no reason we cannot keep business going and provide employees who are parents with time to focus on health and family and there is no reason this attitude cannot apply beyond pandemic times. There should be work-life balance in all workplaces, not only where people work from home. Many retail, manufacturing, warehouse and delivery staff cannot work from home. Many in non-essential retail and hospitality have lost their jobs and incomes and their experience has not been positive.

In other countries such as Finland, Sweden, Norway, Iceland and Demark, where gender equality has been on the political agenda for many decades, there are father-friendly leave policies, the countries in question are father-care sensitive, and there are high levels of compensation for loss of earnings. These countries apply a leave quota on a use it or lose it principle, which is paternity leave of nine weeks until the child's second birthday. This comprises post-birth leave of three weeks, which runs simultaneously with the mother's leave, and paternity leave of six weeks, both of which have high compensation for loss of earnings. Swedish parents have a verb, to vabba, which describes being at home temporarily on 80% pay to look after sick children. This benefit is available until children reach 12 years. They are doing more and we need to do more.

We need a plan to make more father-friendly policies and increase incentives to encourage more fathers to take up parental leave. We also need to do more for one-parent families, and while the measures for adoptive families are welcome, we have to provide more supports for single parents. These are, in the main women, and they find it very difficult to maintain full-time jobs and arrange childcare.

I welcome the chance to speak on this Bill, which is long overdue. However, we should not forget the backdrop which led to the Government's U-turn. In the early days of the pandemic, mothers attended prenatal appointments alone. Many gave birth without the support of their partners. I commend the work of Agnes Graholska and the other parents in the Extend Maternity Leave 2020 campaign. They ran a petition which to date has in excess of 30,000 signatures. They did this despite having newborn babies at home, somehow managing to create, build and drive a national campaign on this important issue.

Last July, Sinn Féin brought forward proposals to extend maternity leave from six to nine months for mothers whose maternity leave claims expired from March to November, if they wished to avail of it. This took account of the public health emergency. Parents of young babies found themselves facing particular challenges and there was an added difficulty in securing childcare for new babies. The Government's response was to kick the can down the road. The pressure has been kept up and we are finally seeing action.

We need to go further. Ireland lags behind many European countries in maternity leave. It is vital we give babies and their parents the best possible start. I am sure we will revisit this topic as we strive to bring our maternity leave entitlement into the 21st century.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill and thank the Minister for being present. I welcome the legislation. It is a very positive development. It is a response from Government on foot of the campaign that was run last year for the extension of maternity leave for women who were on such leave when Covid-19 initially kicked in. They had been losing out on part of the maternity leave and this provision was introduced in response to the impact of Covid-19 on families. I welcome the provision as a result of that, it is a positive development. The extension of paternity leave up to five weeks for each parent will be of huge benefit to many parents. The longer term plan is to extend it to seven weeks in coming years. When he responds, I ask the Minister to elaborate on why provision has not been made in the legislation to extend it beyond the five weeks by statutory instrument if the Government intends to increase the leave further in the years ahead rather than having to come back and introduce new primary legislation. There will be support right across the House for that were it the Government's intention. Intention is one thing, legislation is something very different. We have the legislation before us. Surely now is the time to deal with that.

Covid-19 has highlighted many issues in the childcare sector. For front-line staff, whether in healthcare or those in shops, other public services or vital private services, childcare has been a vast problem over the past 12 months. While there has been some tinkering at the edges of this, there has effectively been a table tennis match between the Minister, the Minister for Education and the Minister for Health, with no one prepared to grapple with this issue for front-line staff who have been left in a very difficult situation of trying to juggle childcare while also delivering vital front-line services in our health sector and communities at the same time. It is to be hoped we are seeing light at the end of the tunnel on this particular variant of this virus but that should not be a reason to ignore the fundamental problem of the delivery of vital childcare services for front-line workers. We need to put a far more robust system in place.

That is one side of this issue. Many of us attended the protest in Dublin last year about the terms and conditions under which many childcare workers in Ireland work. I have spoken about this in the House before. Staff in shops who pack shelves with baby wipes are paid more than qualified childcare workers who use those very same baby wipes in crèches and childcare facilities. There is something fundamentally wrong if the people who we charge with and on whom we put a huge level of responsibility in minding and educating our children, who play such a vital role in their development at a very early stage in life, are paid less than someone stacking shelves in a supermarket. That needs to change. The Minister has spoken of a new funding model for the childcare sector and examining its workforce development, but we need to move from report after report into action.

If we want to use a pilot for the living wage, the childcare sector is an important place to start. It could be a very useful template.

We have all seen in the last 12 months how important the childcare sector is to a long-term sustainable economy. We are not going to have a sustainable sector in that area, however, unless we have proper pay and terms and conditions for the staff working in it. As staff gain experience and qualifications, we have seen that they move out of the sector and take their education and training with them. A great deal of investment has been put into that training and education by the people concerned, their employers and the State, and yet they move out of that sector and into probably a completely different area. The result is a loss of knowledge and that skill base and this is leading to many childcare facilities having ongoing struggles with proper staffing ratios. Prior to the onset of Covid-19, many such service providers told me about the difficulties they were experiencing with recruitment.

Before I finish, I come back to the fundamental basis of this legislation, which is to support young families and address our existing childcare challenges. We must look at this matter in far more comprehensive terms and not just at preschool services but also at the provision of after-school services for many parents. We must also look at this issue from an economic perspective and in the long-term sustainability of our economy. Female participation in the workforce must be increased and more women must be encouraged to move up the payscales and management structures in our businesses and organisations in the public and private sectors. They can only do that if they have access to reliable and cost-effective childcare, which does not exist now.

Turning to our older people at the other end of the spectrum, the Joint Committee on Social Protection provided a detailed submission to the Commission on Pensions. In that document, the committee made reference to the issue of the birth rate in Ireland. It is not as stark a problem here as it is in many other European countries. Many of those countries, however, have put in place extensive supports for young couples and families to help them rear their children from an early age. We can look at the best practices in some of those other European countries and learn from some of the mistakes they made. Rather than waiting for this issue to become a crisis for our economy in the longer term, let us support families today. Let us start putting targeted supports in place now and not start panicking in ten or 20 years about a situation which may by then have gone beyond the point of no return. Now is the time to learn from what is happening in other European countries.

When adopted, this Bill will extend the entitlements to parental leave to each parent of a qualifying child from two to five weeks, which would at least bring us up to the average European level. Like most Deputies, I wholeheartedly welcome this change as I have been contacted by many constituents regarding just how important this leave is for them. The campaign slogan, #EveryWeekCounts, really captures the importance of this change. Unfortunately, every week this change has been delayed has also delayed precious weeks for family bonding. It has taken far too long to debate this legislation, but I am glad finally to see it being progressed.

This 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 the oversight in the current legislation which left married male same-sex couples unable to avail of adoptive leave. This Bill goes a long way in rightfully taking steps to recognise that families come in many different forms and that the family is the fundamental unit of society and is inviolate. One such family unit needing protection is that of families with children who have been born through surrogacy. I understand that this Bill offers some limited protection to some families in this regard. I would appreciate if the Minister could seriously consider this aspect and if he could also clarify what other work is being done regarding parental and maternal leave for parents who have children through surrogacy. I commend the Minister on his Bill.

I am delighted to have some time to speak about this Bill. It is important that we have proper legislation in this area and it is too late for many people. The flexible working patterns which have existed are interesting. Cross-country comparative research on parental leave shows that in Ireland there remains a substantial gap between the end of leave, including the merging of paid and unpaid leave entitlements and early childhood education care entitlements as well.

We must have a broad suite of facilities that will suit shared parental leave for both parents. It is also important that we look at our European counterparts. A case has been made regarding the levels of attendance at formal services for children under the age of three and that being in line with the average situation throughout Europe. We know how important and how much of a huge step it is to bring a child into the world. Both parents are needed in a supportive role. In the olden days, what prevented that was that women got all the leave and the men got none. Now, however, both parents will have to get leave. For adoptive parents especially, it is vital that we have a situation where it is possible for them under this Bill to get their proper entitlements to leave.

The Bill sets out to amend the Adoptive Leave Act 1995 to enable couples, regardless of sex, who have jointly adopted to choose which member of the couple will avail of adoptive leave. It also amends the Parent's Leave and Benefit Act 2019 to increase the duration of parent's leave, as well as associated entitlements to parental benefits, from two to five weeks. That is very important, because goodness knows time flies so fast. It can be a tiring and difficult time and there can also be issues with births, so parents need that kind of time and space.

This legislation also amends the Child and Family Agency Act 2013 to increase the number of ordinary members of the board of Tusla from seven to nine. I have been very critical of Tusla in the past and I am still critical of that agency in many respects. I do not know if increasing the board membership by two will achieve the kinds of changes required. It is in the Bill, but to digress a small bit the whole conception and creation of this Tusla organisation was rushed. Certain sections of the HSE were just hived off to set up Tusla. The agency has much to learn and there are many shortcomings in the organisation. I have cases brought to me regularly concerning families who are very dissatisfied. I am also often contacted by members of An Garda Síochána who end up as a baby-sitting service on weekends when Tusla is not available. Cases reported at 3 p.m. or 3.30 p.m. on a Friday evening necessitate members of the Garda getting involved and that is rough justice. It is not proper. Therefore, there are areas in Tusla which need to be examined.

The Family Leave Miscellaneous Provisions Bill 2021 follows on from the general scheme of the proposed parent's leave and benefit (amendment) Bill 2020, which thankfully was subject to pre-legislative scrutiny in the Joint Committee on Children, Disability, Equality and Integration in February 2021.

The Business Committee is constantly asked to schedule Bills without pre-legislative scrutiny. Thankfully, this was not one of them because it is too serious and too important, and pre-legislative scrutiny was vital.

While the Bill will provide for changes to the Parent's Leave and Benefit Act 2019, the change of the Title from "Family Leave Bill" arises due to the inclusion of measures to amend the Adoptive Leave Act 1995. The Bill digest states:

By means of background, family leave policies are intended to bolster and support gender equality. They are also important policy instruments for supporting child, maternal and paternal health and well-being, birth rates and various labour-market outcomes, such as increased women’s participation in the labour market and reduced gender pay gaps.

That is very important because childcare is a very female-orientated profession. I was chairperson of a board that looks after childcare and was involved in its set-up. There are many issues. We must be ever cognisant, when we are passing legislation such as this that looks fine and dandy, of respecting the employer's perspective and look at it where they are coming from. I am an employer myself, although, because of the nature of the business, I employ mainly male workers. We must consider the impact that legislation such as this will have on the ability of employers to abide by it. It is better to use the carrot than the stick, with encouragement rather than regulation, to make them do what they should.

It is important, like with other Bills, that there is some assessment of how it beds in. While pre-legislative scrutiny looks at one end of the process, we must also have post-legislative scrutiny. Deputy Pringle tabled important amendments to another Bill, which came before the House two weeks ago, that would have provided for time-sensitive reviews of the impact of the legislation. For the Bill before us, too, that will be necessary because we need to see how it beds in and how employers can cope with it. It is one thing for the public service, given that the pay does not come from the employer's fund but rather from the public purse, but for small employers and small businesses this can have unintended consequences.

I am happy to speak to the Bill, which will give adoptive parents the same rights as every other couple who have a child, which I fully support. This is a move in the right direction at a time when so much negativity has been shown to mothers and babies in this country by the Government. Adoptive and single parents should get leave to experience the same joy of having a loving baby in their lives and the Bill will provide for this. While this country is slowly improving in respect of parents' rights, we are still laggards in comparison with other European countries and need urgently to look into how to make respectful changes.

The Bill digest states:

Ireland’s (family) parental leave policies, including Parent’s Leave, are influenced by the broader policy framework set out at EU level. Of particular importance here is European Council Directive 2019/1158 on work-life balance for parents and carers, adopted in April 2019. The Directive repeals Council Directive 2010/18/EU (discussed in the main body of the Digest) and provides, among other things, the following: ten working days of Paternity leave, paid at no less than the level of sick pay; two months of non-transferable (between parents), paid Parental leave; five days of annual carer’s leave; and, flexible working patterns.

A cross-country comparison of parental leave ... shows that in Ireland, there remains a substantial gap between the end of leave (including merging both paid and unpaid leave entitlements) and Early Childhood Education and Care entitlement. This is the case even given the levels of attendance at formal services for children under the age of three are in line with the average seen in EU Member States. To date in Ireland, research has shown that the uptake of all forms of parental leave, excepting Maternity Leave, has been mixed. From the research literature [assessed by the Oireachtas Library and Research Service], the challenges of taking parental leave (including paternity leave) relate in the main to the following: low compensation levels (difference between the rate paid for leave and an individual’s typical net income) act as a strong disincentive to taking leave; lack of flexibility in the timing of leave; ... and, eligibility criteria (e.g. employment length) ... Parental leave varies on four main dimensions in EU countries: length; whether it is an individual or family entitlement; payment; and flexibility ...

In Ireland, parental leave (unpaid) has a duration of 26 weeks, while Parent’s Leave has currently a duration of two weeks (paid), proposed to rise to five weeks under the provisions of the Bill. Leave is an individual entitlement that cannot be transferred. The one exception is when parents are employed by the same employer, in which case they can transfer a maximum of 14 weeks of their Parental leave entitlement to the other parent, subject to the employer’s agreement. Both parents can take this leave at the same time. It is not possible to transfer entitlement between parents currently under Parent’s Leave.

I agree with my colleague Deputy Mattie McGrath in respect of employers. Employers are suffering too and we have to take that into account. It is difficult for them to get the replacements for the periods people may be off work and there has to be a fair deal for them as well. It cannot just be one-way traffic all the time. Women in particular, as the ones who bear children, have suffered for a long time in this country. Stay-at-home mothers, under a Labour Party Bill a number of years ago, have suffered severely and this is an opportunity to put something right for these people. I will fully support the Bill.

I thank the Minister for his attendance to debate some significant issues relating to the Government's work on the Bill, which I greatly welcome. I do so bearing in mind that during the most recent general election campaign, one of the most prominent issues for many people in my constituency and nationally concerned the challenges facing young families who are starting out trying to secure childcare, with all that entails. When we move beyond the current climate of Covid-19, it will be very important for the Minister and all the members of the Cabinet to focus on identifying and addressing many of the specific challenges with childcare. That would be a very prudent step for the Government to take.

I say that because when one speaks to people who work in the sector or are affected by it, there is a general consensus regarding all aspects of childcare that people are deeply frustrated and unhappy with the current level of services provided. Ireland has a modern economy but we still face many challenges dealing with the gender pay gap, and it will take many years for that to be resolved. Nevertheless, this is one issue that will ensure there is not discrimination against women in order that they can secure childcare and that they will be enabled to return to work.

My mother worked throughout my childhood and I feel very proud of her for doing so. I hope that one day every person born in the State will have the same opportunity, whereby they will be able to enjoy a full career if they wish to do so. In addition, for those parents, whether male or female, who decide to remain in the home to provide support for their children, it is critical that we acknowledge the work they do and the importance of that from an economic standpoint. For parents who decide to remain at home, there is a stigma in many cases but they provide a specific service and that has to be recognised from an economic standpoint.

When I was going into politics, this was one of the issues I greatly underestimated, perhaps because of my age. Naturally, it is not an issue that people of my age group are immersed in, and perhaps I am guilty of that, but now, as many people who are a few years ahead of me are starting out in their family lives, I see that it is an issue of great concern. That is particularly the case now that many young people get an education, whether through doing an apprenticeship or going on to institutes of technology or universities or to undertake FETAC degrees, and unfortunately, they can be in a significant level of debt by the time they enter their late 20s or 30s and are starting a family. We have to do everything we can as a modern, dynamic economy to ensure we cover as many bases as possible, while also remembering that people working in childcare need the full support and attention of the Department and the Government.

I welcome the Bill, the proposed increase in parental leave from two weeks to five weeks and the inclusion of those in same-sex marriages. It shows we are moving forward and being positive, which I welcome.

I do, however, have a number of issues with the Bill, which I will outline. First, the rate is too low. A lot of families, if they decide to take parental leave and especially if they decide to take the full ten weeks, would be down a considerable amount of money during that time. This will be a barrier to some parents taking this leave. That is something we need to improve and work on.

A number of people have contacted me about this Bill. It was promised last summer and again in October. It is now the end of March and it will probably not be in until April. Families have missed out on this over the past year. Will it be backdated for those people?

Children of lone parents are discriminated against under this Bill because they will only be given five weeks with their parent while the children of families with two parents will have ten weeks with their parents. That discrimination against certain children needs to be addressed. The provisions should have been child-centred. This Bill discriminates against the children of lone parents.

I thank the Minister very much for being here to listen to the discussion on this very important Bill, the Family Leave and Miscellaneous Provisions Bill 2021. This legislation will help every child to get the best possible start in life, allowing parents to spend more time with their children during the first year of their life. This Bill seeks to amend the Parent’s Leave and Benefit Act 2019 to increase the duration of parent's leave during which benefit is paid from two to five weeks. Each parent will be given an additional three weeks of paid leave and the period in which this can be taken will be extended to the first two years following the child's birth or adoptive placement. This legislation will also apply in respect of children born since 1 November 2019.

Parent's leave benefit is paid at the rate of €245 per week. It is expected that this investment in parental support for children will cost €28.6 million this year and €22 million a year thereafter, supporting up to 39,000 parents. As the Minister will be well aware, the Covid-19 pandemic has proven particularly difficult for parents over the past 18 months. I encourage all Deputies in the House to support this Bill.

I support this Bill. I am delighted to see it on the agenda and I give full credit to the Minister for bringing it forward. It is an ambitious and modernising Bill which addresses many of our societal failings as a country. It is only right that Part 2 rights so many of the wrongs done to adoptive parents. I will, however, raise some concerns, but before I do so, I welcome the elements in Part 8, which extends parental leave. This is extremely welcome and will give many parents the opportunity to spend those formative months, that most important time, with their young children, but issues clearly remain. How many people are still taking that leave? How many young fathers are taking paternity leave? How many parents of either gender are taking parental leave to its full extent? This is a challenge to those of us in this House. How many new or young parents in this House will take the full amount of leave available to them? Is it conducive to a modern career in politics?

Even though this Bill is aspirational and provides for this leave, there are still practical obstacles. Deputy Gould referred to the rate at which the benefit is paid, which is understandable, but how many employers actively encourage employees to take the full amount of parental leave available? Employers who stand in the way of this or who simply do not encourage it are absolutely missing a trick. Parents of any gender or persuasion who are able to spend as much time as possible with their children in those vitally important early months will be a more productive asset in the workforce and in society. We need to see these very welcome moves and extensions coupled with a real and dynamic campaign from Government, working with employers, trade unions and representative bodies, to ensure the leave is actually taken.

I will go back to the challenge faced in this House. How many party leaders or party Whips are insisting that Deputies and Senators take leave, rather than simply pointing out it is available if Members want to take it? This is in their interests as well as in the interests of Members and of politics as a whole.

The final concern I will raise is that I believe the Bill could have been a bit more ambitious. Believe it or not, I am going to agree with Deputy Gould for the second time, this time with regard to the rates for lone parents. While it is great that this Bill modernises provision for adoptive parents, in a number of years' time we will be back here looking again at the provision for lone parents.

I believe we may have gone out of order a bit but we will get on with it. I thank the Ceann Comhairle for the opportunity to contribute briefly on the Family Leave and Miscellaneous Provisions Bill 2021, which is before us today. Sometimes, the Government brings forward Bills with which one cannot disagree. Often, they are very belated but welcome nonetheless. This is one of those Bills. A simple change of definition, from "adoptive mother" to "adoptive parent", is making a tremendous difference to many people's lives.

On 22 May 2015, 62% of us voted to say "Yes" to enabling same-sex couples to get married. The Yes Equality campaign and the LGBTQI+ people who shared their stories changed the country for the better and we made grá the law. After May 2015, many people thought everything had now improved for same-sex couples and families. Unfortunately, the reality was many same-sex families were left in limbo or left behind when it came to parental rights, recognition and legal standing. The wonderful families with same-sex parents were sidelined while the Government claimed the glory for how modern and inclusive Ireland now was.

During the campaign, the No side tried to make children and families an issue, whereas the reality was separate legislation was needed. The Children and Family Relationships Act 2015 was introduced to deal with many of the legalities around same-sex parenting and the various ways in which same-sex couples may become parents. This Bill, the Family Leave and Miscellaneous Provisions Bill 2021, will correct an anomaly in legislation to allow provision for male same-sex couples to avail of adoptive leave in the same way as everybody else.

It is quite a substantive and comprehensive Bill which proposes many amendments to a number of intertwined pieces of legislation. The Bill will make provision for male same-sex couples to take adoptive leave and adopting couples will be able to choose which parent avails of the leave. The Bill also increases the time allowed for parental leave from two weeks to five weeks and the qualifying period from one year to two years. These changes require amendments to the Adoptive Leave Act 1995 and the Parent’s Leave and Benefit Act 2019. The Parental Leave Act 1998, the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005 and the Workplace Relations Act 2015 are also amended. There is also a change to the Child and Family Agency Act 2013 to provide for an increase in the membership of the board of the Child and Family Agency, up to nine ordinary members from seven ordinary members.

Unfortunately, because of Covid, we will not have a census this year, so we do not have a current picture of family make-up around Ireland. In 2016, the census showed us there were 6,034 same-sex couples in the country. That was an increase of almost 50% since the previous census in 2011. Of the 6,034 same-sex couples counted in 2016, 43% were female and 57% were male. At that time, the vast majority, almost 80%, of same-sex couples were cohabiting without children. Some 10.9% were married without children while just 9.8%, or 591 same-sex couples, had children, 182 of those couples being married. At that time, that was probably more to do with the increase in the number of same-sex couples in the older age groups and the legalities of the time. By the time of the 2016 census, the number of same-sex couples aged 50 or over had more than doubled while the number of such couples in the 25 to 49-year-old age bracket had increased by 46%. The number of same-sex couples aged up to 24 years actually reduced in those five years. Does the Minister know how many families will benefit from this Bill when enacted?

As usual, the Oireachtas Library and Research Service has produced a very useful Bill digest. I note this Bill was committed to in the programme for Government and it underwent pre-legislative scrutiny in the relevant joint committee. The financial implications of the Bill are estimated to be around €28.6 million in 2021 and €22 million in 2022. These costs are described as not significant in the digest. It always amazes me how the significance of the cost implications of legislation depends on whether a Government Bill or an Opposition Bill is involved. I agree that the benefits far outweigh the costs here but the Minister's self-serving position on the cost implications of Bills on the Exchequer must be noted. Such a Bill, if put forward by the Opposition, would be considered too costly.

Ireland’s parental leave policies are influenced by EU policies. The EU directive on work-life balance for parents and carers, European Council Directive 2019/1158, was to be transposed into domestic law by August 2022, but there has been an extension until August 2024 for some provisions of the directive to be implemented, which probably means it will be 2030 before our Government transposes it at all. One of the reasons for such policies is to address the gender gap in caring responsibilities.

While Ireland now has paid paternity leave, the take-up has been quite low. This is reportedly due to the difference between the payment and usual salaries, with many employers not providing the top-up. That is something we need to tackle as a society. I have heard other Members talk about the difficulties for employers in terms of parental leave and leave. Employers need to recognise that they also have a responsibility and that it should not only be the State that does this. We should provide for that in law.

In the Bill digest table on parental leave across EU states, under the section "Incentive for Father to take up", the majority of countries listed state "No", that there is no incentive for fathers to take up the leave. As has been stated, that is because fathers predominantly earn higher incomes and therefore they cannot afford to take the leave as well, which is an issue that will have to be addressed. If employers have to top up wages while that is happening, that would make a significant difference.

There are many other issues to be addressed if we are serious about supporting people to become parents. I want to mention lone parents as well. Mothers or fathers parenting alone are playing two hugely important roles in their children's lives with half the support, resources, time and energy. If we want to improve outcomes for children, then we must look at those who are more likely to live in poverty or deprivation. Unfortunately, single-parent families are the most deprived families in our society and we have to recognise that there are many families in that situation that should be supported with adoptive leave as well.

I thank Deputies across the House for their support for this legislation. It was noticeable from the contributions that we all recognise the challenges families have faced and face, particularly the challenges new families face. Those first months after the birth of a child are always a challenging time but Covid has magnified every single challenge in society. The measure we are taking today is a small recognition on behalf of the Government to all parents of children born from 1 November 2019. A number of Deputies spoke about parents missing out on this. Any and each parent of a child born since 1 November 2019 will benefit from those additional three weeks and any and each parent of a child born following the passage of this legislation and its signing by the President, hopefully some time next week, will benefit from five weeks of paid parent's leave going forward.

Aside from that recognition for parents who have had a child during the last year and parents going forward, it also addresses that discrimination against male same-sex married couples when they seek to adopt. It provides all future adoptive couples with the right to decide which member of the adoptive couple takes the adoptive leave. It removes the assumption that it would be a woman in a mixed gender couple taking up the leave, it provides for additional members for the Tusla board and it addresses the personal injuries guidelines.

I would like to take the chance to address some of the issues Deputies raised during the debate. First, I want to talk about surrogacy. Contrary to what some Deputies said, I confirm that commissioning surrogate parents can avail of parent's leave in situations where the father's name is on the birth certificate or is recognised as the father. In that case, both parents will qualify for this parent's leave. Most surrogate parents will qualify for the leave and benefit provided for under this legislation.

It has been noted in a number of the contributions that there is a significant gap in the law in this country when it comes to surrogacy. Yesterday, I brought to Cabinet a report done by the special rapporteur on child protection, Dr. Conor O'Mahony, on the issue of surrogacy, on the gaps in the law in Ireland and on proposals on how we could address those gaps. That has been laid before both Houses of the Oireachtas and I have no doubt many Deputies will seek to look at that report. It is a valuable contribution to this area. There is a Bill within the Department of Health addressing some of these issues but we all understand that there is a need for legislation to address issues around surrogacy and at all times to do so from a child-centred point of view.

Deputies spoke about the continued implementation of the work-life balance directive and Deputy Pringle spoke about some elements of that. There is an obligation on member states to transpose that directive by summer 2022. We have an extension for certain elements of it to summer 2024. Included in the areas we have an extension for is the obligation contained within the directive to provide for nine weeks of paid parent's leave. We are up to five weeks. It is my intention that we will achieve that nine weeks and that we will do so within the time period given to us. That is subject to engagement with the Department of Social Protection and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform at each budget.

The cost of this per year is a significant investment of €28.6 million and a valuable investment in supporting parents. I want to see that continue to be extended out in further budgets. That is my aim and I have said that publicly. It is subject to resources being available but I will be engaging in each budgetary process to increase the amount of paid parent's leave we provide for each parent. Future changes will be done by statutory instruments. Legislation will not be required so that will allow it to be done more quickly.

Many Deputies raised the important issue of lone parents and that has to be addressed. I have met the National One Parent Family Alliance and we discussed this legislation and other issues. Many Deputies rightly recognised that the risk of children living in poverty increases in the situation where it is a one-parent family. This directive is clear that paid parent's leave cannot be transferable. Those nine weeks we are seeking to achieve cannot be transferable between parents and we are seeking to implement and transpose this directive with this legislation. We are going to correctly transpose this directive and the directive is based on the concept that both parents should be taking a parenting role and should be supported by the State in doing so. Our hands are tied when it comes to not having the leave transferable between parents.

There is a real need for us to recognise the vulnerability of one-parent families and I discussed that with the National One Parent Family Alliance. There is a real need for Departments to be much more co-ordinated in their response to the needs of one-parent families. In my Department, I am looking at the impact of the national childcare scheme, NCS, and how certain elements of that are creating difficulties for one-parent families. Within the programme for Government, there is a clear recognition of the need to support one-parent families and in particular to look at the good work that was done in the last Oireachtas by the Joint Committee on Employment Affairs and Social Protection. Its report on the position of lone parents in Ireland was completed three or four years ago but it is still a good piece of work and that was recognised in the programme for Government. Some provision was made in the budget to remove the €425 weekly income limit on parents in receipt of the one-parent family payment, which was significant.

It is also important to recognise who can benefit from parent's leave in this Bill because it is not just the parent of the child. It is the parent of the child along with his or her spouse, civil partner or cohabitant. It is not just the biological parent who benefits from this legislation. That is an important flexibility that was written into the legislation in order to recognise the great diversity of family situations that exist in the country.

A number of Deputies spoke about wider issues of leave. I recognise that Deputy Duncan Smith spoke about a Bill on reproductive leave from Senator Bacik that is before the Seanad and I will examine that. We will continue to examine and look to expand the types of leave that we provide. I have indicated what I hope to do in the future expansion of parent's leave.

As Deputies will know, I am working on introducing a scheme of domestic violence leave, which will be important, particularly in the context where we know that poverty is often a constraint on individuals fleeing situations of domestic violence. If we can provide them with some paid leave, even in that initial time when they first leave the family home, it gives a small element of support and I am looking forward to bringing proposals on that to Cabinet later this year.

I have consulted social partners, trade unions and employers' groups in recent weeks and work on this area is ongoing.

Several Deputies spoke about the importance of what we are doing in removing the discrimination against same-sex male married couples who were not entitled to seek adoptive leave. Deputy Pringle spoke very eloquently about this very significant step. It was a lacuna and an anomaly. It was not deliberate, but it should not have been in our law and it is important that we are able to address that by what we are doing today.

I will deal with a number of smaller points. Some Deputies referred to Tusla not having enough social workers. Deputy Cathal Crowe spoke about it in the context of adoption. After a number of years where the number of social workers was falling, last year the agency had a net gain of 129 social workers. It is currently undergoing quite an innovative scheme whereby it is looking to take on newly graduated social workers directly into an employment scheme, which I welcome.

There was significant discussion of childcare. I assure Deputies that I am working very hard to reduce the cost of childcare, and improve the quality and availability of childcare. As part of that quality element we are ensuring that our childcare professionals are properly paid. As Deputies probably know, two weeks ago I wrote to the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment asking it to begin the process of creating a joint labour committee, JLC, between representatives of childcare providers and the trade unions representing childcare professionals and use that industrial relations mechanism to introduce a wage scheme in that sector to ensure childcare professionals are appropriately remunerated for the amazing work they do.

Question put and agreed to.