I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
This Bill was introduced as a Private Members' Bill by the Social Democrats in April 2017 and has passed all Stages in the Dáil. We are taking the opportunity to bring this Bill to the Seanad in our Private Members' time with cross-party and Independent support and hope it will continue through this House in the Private Members' time of others or that of our own, if there is a chance to do that before Christmas.
This Bill seeks to extend parental leave in two ways by increasing the length of leave from 18 weeks to 26 weeks and by allowing parents take the leave until the child is 12 years old rather than eight years old as is the current state of play. The idea of parental leave was first introduced by Fianna Fáil in 1998. Much of the legislation in this area is governed by European directive. The Government has indicated its support for the Bill, predictably because this Bill will not cost anything. The leave is unpaid and consequently can be taken only by those who can afford to live on one salary. Parental leave has been in Ireland since 1998 yet the uptake amongst men remains as low as 5%. This statistic has to change. There is a predictable pattern of parental leave being taken overwhelmingly by women as men traditionally are the bigger wage earners. This is due in part to the Government's continuing failure to address the 14% gender pay gap. Many of my colleagues have spoken on this issue and legislation has been brought to the House on it. Many families simply cannot afford to forgo the man's salary. The introduction of paternity leave, which allows two weeks' benefit at €235 per week for fathers, was a welcome recognition that many men want to spend time with their newborn children. However, it does not go far enough.
The cost of childcare is rising and puts new families under a lot of financial pressure. Whereas the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, OECD, average for childcare represents about 12.6% of net family income, in Ireland the figure stands at about 27.4%. The issue of childcare costs is another example of the squeeze on middle-income families. On top of this there is a chronic shortage of places on the early childhood care and education programme, ECCE, particularly in parts of Dublin, Cork, Galway, Kildare and Meath. Fianna Fáil welcomes this Bill but the Government must be willing to put its money where its mouth is, if it is truly committed to supporting women, in the home and at work, fathers who want to stay at home and a greater work-life balance for families.
There are five small technical changes we would like to make on Committee Stage. They will not change the substantive matter of the Bill. I thank Deputy Shortall and the Social Democrats for introducing this Bill. It has received a lot of support in our party and others. I have received many queries from people wanting to know when they can take this parental leave, when it will start and will it come in before the Christmas recess. There should be some urgency about getting it enacted because its sentiment is fantastic and many people are relying on the fact that it will be enacted. The Bill applies to those who have already exhausted their existing leave. Someone who has already taken 18 weeks will be allowed to take the extra eight weeks.
Parental leave can be taken by either parent until the child's eighth birthday, or until the age of 16 in the case of a child with a disability or long-term illness. Both parents have an equal and separate entitlement to parental leave. An applicant must be working for an employer for at least one year before he or she can apply for parental leave. An employer cannot refuse an application for parental leave and can postpone it for only a six-month period and only twice. Currently, a parent can take up to 18 working weeks per child. Where an employee has more than one child, parental leave is limited to 18 weeks in a 12-month period. The employee is not paid nor is he or she entitled to any social welfare payment. Pay related social insurance, PRSI, records are preserved for employees who take parental leave. The employee loses pension contributions for the period he or she is on leave. Time spent on parental leave can be used to accumulate annual leave entitlement.
On Report Stage in the Dáil ,the Government sought to extend the number of parental leave weeks incrementally, rather than increase it from 18 weeks to 26 weeks. It proposed to increase it to 20 weeks in 2019; 22 weeks in 2020; 24 weeks in 2021 and 26 weeks in 2022. Also on Report Stage in the Dáil the Government sought to delete the sections that provide for an extra eight weeks' parental leave to be taken by parents who have a qualifying child but who have already taken the maximum 18 weeks' leave as currently applies. Both of these amendments were unsuccessful.
Most OECD countries provide payments that replace over 50% of earnings, with 12 countries offering a mother on average earnings full compensation throughout the leave. These include Spain, Portugal, Norway, Netherlands, Luxembourg, Germany, Belgium, Poland and Lithuania. According to a 2017 OECD report "payment rates are lowest in Ireland and the United Kingdom, where only one third of gross average earnings are replaced by the maternity benefit".
On 1 September 2016, Ireland introduced two weeks of paid paternity leave which I have already mentioned. The uptake has been slow. On average, OECD countries offer eight weeks of paid father-specific leave. Certain companies, such as Facebook, offer three months' paid paternal leave to their employees. The attitudes towards parental leave and maternity leave are changing in the Western world and we need to start catching up with them. This Bill is a small step. It is not perfect because the leave is unpaid but I think it is a good first step. I urge the Government to support the Bill.