Local Government (Maternity and Family Leave for Elected Members) Bill 2021: First Stage

I move:

That leave be granted to introduce a Bill entitled an Act to amend the Local Government Act 2001 by making further and better provision in respect of certain absences by a member of a local authority from meetings of the authority and, for that purpose, to provide that such a member may apply for and be granted maternity leave,adoptive leave or parental leave or force majeure leave as is appropriate in respect of any such absences and an application for such leave shall, in so far as is practicable, be in a manner similar to an application by a member of the staff of that local authority for leave of absence under the relevant provisions of the Maternity Protection Acts 1994 and 2004, the Adoptive Leave Acts 1995 and 2005 or the Parental Leave Acts 1998 to 2019, as appropriate; to amend section 18 of the Local Government Act 2001 in so far as it relates to deemed resignation from a local authority by a member of such an authority for non-attendance; and to provide for connected matters.

This Bill seeks to provide the entitlement to councillors to take maternity, parental and adoptive leave. Currently under the 2001 Act, councillors are required to have a resolution passed permitting them to be absent for six months due to illness or a so-called good faith reason. Otherwise, they will be deemed to have resigned. We can all agree it is unacceptable that a councillor would have to seek formal permission to be permitted to take maternity or family leave, which is a basic worker's right in any other context. The Moorhead independent review of the role of councillors noted this deficit in the 2001 Act and I directly address this in this Bill. This Bill allows councillors to be treated the same as a member of staff in a local authority in taking maternity, parental or force majeure leave under the Parental Leave Acts 1998 to 2019.

While the Bill is technical in nature, I hope it will contribute to a cultural shift in local and national politics. We need to normalise politicians taking maternity or parental leave. On this matter, I commend the Minister for Justice, Deputy Helen McEntee, on the example she set in taking maternity leave, and Deputy Jennifer Carroll MacNeill on the work she is doing regarding provisions for Deputies and Senators. Women make up less than a quarter of Deputies in the Dáil and less than a quarter of the councillors on local authorities. If we want to increase the number of women in politics, we need to identify the barriers to female participation and work to remove them.

The lack of any maternity or paternity provisions for public representatives is one of the very obvious barriers. It denies any country of strong female representation. Many female candidates feel unable to progress a career in politics because of the structural barriers in place. It is important to note that this is a gender balance and equality issue, but it is also about good governance. I read one piece of research on financial institutions in the UK some time ago, which noted that having even one female member on a board made those institutions significantly less likely to go bankrupt. We would want that in any Government and it equates to good governance.

I was honoured to serve on the family-friendly and inclusive parliament committee which was instigated by the Ceann Comhairle. In our recently published report, we noted the importance of increasing female participation and providing for greater diversity. This Bill aligns with these recommendations by providing a more flexible and considerate environment for councillors, reflecting the realities of family life.

The majority of Members in the House will have started their political careers at local government level. Without a more family-friendly environment, we are excluding young people, especially young women, from becoming or succeeding as councillors. We must also recognise that an increasing number of councillors are resigning due to the workload, including very many on Cork County Council recently. It is a full-time job for part-time pay and this creates a situation that is hostile to family life.

I would like to clarify that the Bill relates to maternity and family leave and not maternity benefit. Councillors' pay was moved in 2017 from being subject to class K to class S PRSI, which applied to self-employed workers and confers a number of benefits, including adoptive and maternity benefit. In 2021, it is bizarre that a reformed system of maternity leave and other family leave is not yet available to county and city councillors. My Bill would ensure that leave is an entitlement which does not require a resolution to be passed. Every political party claims to want more women in public life, but no Government party has yet acted decisively to make maternity leave a reality. It is time to stop paying lip service to gender inequality and act. I hope the Government will support this Bill.

I thank the Office of Parliamentary Counsel and the Bills Office in the Oireachtas for the work they undertook on the Bill and my party colleagues for guiding me through the process.

Is the Bill being opposed?

Question put and agreed to.

Since this is a Private Members' Bill, Second Stage must, under Standing Orders, be taken in Private Members' time.

I move: "That Second Stage be taken in Private Members' time".

Question put and agreed to.