I am delighted to be here to take Second Stage of the Paternity Leave and Benefit Bill 2016. I know that I can expect valuable and incisive contributions from Senators to the debate and I am looking forward to their support during our discussions on what we are trying to achieve with the Bill.
The purpose of the Bill is to give effect to the decision in budget 2016 to provide for two weeks' paternity leave and an associated social welfare benefit, known as paternity benefit. While the idea behind the introduction of two weeks paternity leave is simple, the legislation required to execute the proposal has been complex and intricate. For instance, there were complicated issues regarding the interplay with maternity and adoptive leave that had to be resolved. In addition, other legislation had to be updated through this Bill, including the Workplace Relations Act 2015 and the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005.
We made a large number of amendments in the Lower House. The high number of amendments on Committee and Report Stages reflects the complexity of the Bill and its interaction with the other legislation I mentioned. On Committee Stage, there were 22 individual amendments, mainly technical. The most significant group of amendments made related to the broadening of the definition of sole male adopter to ensure that self-employed fathers are covered in the Bill. This was the intention from the outset, but we needed to make adjustments to the Bill as published to make sure we achieved this objective.
On Report Stage, there were 28 individual amendments. Here we made three key changes. First, we carved out a right to paternity leave for male same-sex couples who adopt. The intention was always to provide for such couples on the same basis as other couples, but the execution of that idea required quite a few amendments to resolve consequential and cross-referencing issues that the core amendments give rise to in the Bill. It also threw up a more substantive anomaly in that adoptive leave is not yet available to same-sex male couples who will adopt in the future. This is because leave is available to "an adopting mother" only under the Adoptive Leave Act 1995. Unfortunately, it is not possible to resolve the larger anomaly in the time available to us for this Bill.
My Department has consulted the Department of Children and Youth Affairs and the Adoption Authority of Ireland which have informed us that there have been no sole male domestic adopters in the past three years and that there are currently no domestic adoptions by a same-sex male couple in the assessment process and that it is unlikely, therefore, that there will be any in the next 12 to 18 months.
There is a possibility of same-sex couples registering a foreign adoption here and subsequently moving to Ireland, but it seems clear the number of male same-sex couples who will adopt in the coming years is, at most, very small. Nevertheless, the anomaly needs to be fixed. In the circumstances and as it is essential to have the Bill enacted very soon to allow paternity leave and benefit to come into being in September, we will bring forward amendments to the Adoptive Leave Acts when we have finished the examination of the adoptive leave and social welfare legislation provisions that will need to be amended. We will do so in other legislation as soon as possible and not later than the end of the year, possibly in the Bill that will be published in the next session to allow ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
We brought forward the commencement date from 30 September to 1 September. The reason we could not commit to a start date of 1 September before publication of the Bill was that there had been a significant question mark over whether the complex operational arrangements required in the Department of Social Protection could be completed in time for the earlier September go live date. Following a review, we decided that the earlier date would be achievable. This change will enable approximately 6,000 more fathers to be able to access paternity benefit and the cost is already covered in the Department of Social Protection Vote.
We strengthened the provisions that protect employees from penalisation and-or dismissal as a consequence of exercising their right to paternity leave. These amendments brought the Bill into line with other employment protection legislation enacted recently.
There were also a number of technical amendments that dealt with stylistic and linguistic issues, or ensured consistency in the language used in the Bill. These amendments were introduced on the advice of the Office of Parliamentary Counsel. Also, many of the technical amendments were consequential on the substantive amendments. This explains why we made a total of 50 amendments to achieve, as I set out, four main changes.
Instinctively, I have long been an advocate of a fairer sharing of family responsibilities, but even viewed purely objectively, the increased participation of men in child-rearing responsibilities is unequivocally positive. Evidence from countries such as Norway shows that when fathers take a more significant and meaningful share in the parenting of their children, the individual family benefits, as does wider society. It is in a child’s best interests to benefit from the care and attention of both parents in his or her early years. As we all know, investing in a child’s early years leads to better outcomes for both the child and wider society. Furthermore, evidence shows that fathers want to spend time caring for and bonding with their children. Research confirms that children benefit most from parental care in the first year, but, as things stand, in order to take time off around the birth of their child, or later on in the first year, fathers have to use other existing leave arrangements.
Parents want choice and flexibility. The Bill gives parents the flexibility to choose when they take the time off to care for their young child. When enacted, the legislation will allow new fathers, including fathers of adopted children, to start the combined package of paternity leave and paternity benefit at any time within the first six months following birth. In the case of adoption, the father can take leave within 26 weeks of the day of placement. The State can and should support families as they deal with all the different pressures they face. For this scheme, the Department of Social Protection will provide a minimum of paid paternity benefit of €230 per week for the two weeks' paternity leave. This means the State now offers a total of 28 weeks of paid support to parents upon the birth of their child.
The provision of family-related leave is one of the important areas to create a balance between family and working life. I am pleased this legislation is another important step in supporting families in the workplace. Research indicates that mothers who are supported at home in the weeks following their child's birth tend to be healthier and to have lower incidences of post-natal depression. Co-parenting habits that are established in the first few months of a child's life continue to benefit the home for years to come. Simply put, the more time that fathers can spend with their babies, the better. It is good for fathers, families and society.
I am also very happy that the 256,000 self-employed men in Ireland will be able to avail of paternity benefit. Given that they are self-employed, they can already take leave, but most do not do so owing to loss of income or business. Becoming a new parent is a huge undertaking and for parents who are forced to take unpaid family leave, the situation becomes infinitely more challenging. This measure of two weeks' paid paternity leave will give them a guaranteed income, which will make it a little easier for them to combine parenting with the responsibility of running a business.
The legislation we are asking the Seanad to approve is worthwhile, progressive and, in the Irish context, groundbreaking. Unlike many EU member states, we have no provision for paternity leave, a situation that sets us out of step with the changed and more active role that fathers play in raising their children in most comparable societies. This combined package of paternity leave and paternity benefit will help to ensure fathers in Ireland have entitlements that are similar to those of fathers in other EU countries.
It is very difficult to estimate accurately what the actual take up will be. The Department of Social Protection estimates that 30,000 to 40,000 fathers might choose to apply for paternity benefit in a full year, at a cost of €20 million. This year, 2016, the payment is expected to cost the Exchequer €5 million. Fathers will normally have to give four weeks' notice before taking the leave, but there is provision in the Bill for the paid paternity leave to be taken at short notice, should a baby be born early.
We all know that a child’s early years are crucial. So often they define the child’s prospects as an adult. We owe it to our children to give them the best start in life. Enabling them to be cherished and nurtured by both parents in their first months will provide a vital foundation for their future lives. It will support the child. It will support fathers by giving them the chance to bond with their children at a key stage of development. It will support mothers and promote gender equality by enabling that essential caring role to be shared. It will support families at a time when the pressures of nurturing a new life can be daunting and stressful. This legislation is good news for parents and children and I hope the Bill will be enacted with the support of the House as quickly as possible.