I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Justice and Equality, Deputy Stanton.
Parental Leave (Amendment) Bill 2017: Committee Stage
Amendments Nos. 1 to 3, inclusive, are related and may be discussed together by agreement.
I move amendment No. 1:
In page 3, line 24, to delete "subsection (3)" and substitute "subsection (2) or (3)".
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, who is here to deal with Committee Stage of the Parental Leave (Amendment) Bill 2017 in Private Members' time. Labour Party Senators and the Technical Group are delighted to be putting forward this Bill for Committee Stage debate. It passed Second Stage in the Seanad on 7 November and has already passed all Stages in the Dáil. I commend the proposers of the Bill in the Dáil, Deputies Shortall and Catherine Murphy of the Social Democrats, who ensured that it passed all Stages there.
As colleagues will be aware, this Bill enjoys massive support. We have all been sent emails and messages from people we know and parents who are concerned to see it enacted and say it will make an enormous difference to their quality of life and to their work-life balance and to that of their children. It is an important Bill. We need to debate amendments Nos. 1 to 3, inclusive, in that context. In general terms, these amendments seek to do what the Bill seeks to do, namely: extend the duration of unpaid parental leave, which is currently already provided for up to 18 weeks, by two months, eight weeks, to 26 weeks in total; extend the child qualifying age from eight to 12 years, which would match EU proposals; and ensure that both of these greatly improved reforms will be made available to all parents with a qualifying child. In other words, not just new parents but those parents who have already taken some or all of their leave.
Members will be aware that EU directives originally provided for parental leave legislation to be passed in Ireland. The Parental Leave Act 1998 provided for 14 weeks of leave for parents of children up to the age of five. In 2006, that was extended such that parents of children up to the age of eight could qualify, while 2013 regulations extended the number of weeks for which parents could take unpaid leave from 14 to 18. It is worth noting that when originally published the Parental Leave (Amendment) Act 2006, which provided for several changes such as raising the maximum age of the eligible child from five to eight and giving parents the statutory entitlement to take the 14 weeks parental leave in specific means, included an explanatory memorandum noting that no significant costs were anticipated in connection with the legislation and that there would be benefits for employers and industry as the legislation would facilitate the increased participation and retention of women in the labour force. That is an overarching policy objective which we need to bear in mind when we are debating these amendments and the Bill in general. It has a very significant purpose in terms of facilitating the increased participation of parents, particularly women, in the workforce as well as ensuring a greater work-life balance for parents and their children.
I again commend the original proposers of the Bill and all colleagues who supported its passage in the Dáil and on Second Stage in the Seanad. I also commend Fianna Fáil which brought the Bill to the Seanad in its Private Members' time in November.
The amendments which we are urging colleagues to support are largely technical amendments suggested to us by the original proposers of the Bill which aim to ensure that the Bill is fully workable and that its three overarching purposes, namely, the extension of the duration of leave, the extension of the age eligibility limit and ensuring that parents in several categories can take up the leave, will be effective. Those are the priorities behind the amendments. The first three amendments are grouped together.
Amendment No. 1 is a technical amendment to section 6(8) of the Act to clarify that working parents who may have been precluded from taking all of their existing leave before the passage of the Bill because their child was aged over eight years may now take the remainder of the leave up to the new maximum of 26 weeks, subject to their child being under the new maximum age of 12 years. For example, in circumstances where a parent had taken 12 of the existing 18 weeks' entitlement before the child reached the age of eight and the child is now aged between eight and 11, the parent would be entitled to 26 weeks leave less that already taken. It aims to expand the ambit of the legislation to cover parents who have already used some or all of the existing leave entitlement. It is in keeping with the process followed when the 2013 regulations extended the number of weeks entitlement for parents from 14 to 18. It is a technical amendment to give effect to the stated purpose of the Bill. I ask all colleagues to support it and I particularly ask the Minister to consider supporting it to avoid us having to divide the House on this Bill on which so many of us have received many representations. It is very much in keeping with the stated Government objective of ensuring a greater work-life balance and provision for parents in the workforce. We are all of one mind on the overall purpose of the Bill.
Like amendment No. 1, amendment No. 2 seeks to amend section 2 of the Bill. It proposes a change to section 2(d) of the Bill and would involve a technical amendment of section 6 of the principal Act of 1998. It is based on legal advice to ensure that the age limit of 12 years is properly set down in order to avoid any possible confusion. It provides legal clarity that 12 years is the cut-off point. It further guarantees that working parents who have taken all of their current entitlement will be able to take the further eight weeks of leave as long as the child remains under 12 years, again subject to the new statutory maximum. In circumstances where there is no agreement between employer and employee as to how the leave should be taken, the default position would be for the further leave to be taken in a continuous eight-week continuous period. Obviously, that is subject to negotiation.
Amendment No. 3 is a technical amendment to section 6 of the 1998 Act to ensure that the age limit of 12 years is properly set down and to provide legal clarity that 12 years is the cut-off point. These amendments are drafted in keeping with the mechanism for drafting the earlier extensions to the provisions of the original 1998 Act. We know how important these amendments and the Bill are to parents. The amendments seek to ensure that the stated purpose of the Bill will be made effective such that parents can avail of it.
Today, my Labour Party colleagues in the Dáil will move a motion on children's rights. We very much see this Bill as in keeping with that motion. The Social Democrats, the original proposers of the Bill, also consider it as very much in keeping with greater provision for children in our laws and statutory framework. The Bill should be viewed in that spirit. I urge Senators to support the three amendments and the Bill.
I also urge all Members to support these very sensible amendments. Senator Bacik clearly outlined why they are required. It makes sense for parents who have already used their current entitlement to be permitted to avail of the extra entitlement which would allow them to juggle their work and home lives. The early years of a child's life are very difficult. Rather than people dropping out of the workforce and the workforce losing vital skills and experience, the Bill will allow parents and their employers to plan a period of absence from the workforce to allow parents to juggle their responsibilities.
It is very important legislation with significant public support and I am very glad that it is before the Seanad. Fianna Fáil was happy to facilitate Second Stage of the Bill before Christmas. I look forward to it progressing quickly because parents cannot wait any longer. They are hanging on what we say and do here today and are waiting to see how quickly the Government will progress the Bill. I am glad the Government has lifted its opposition to the Bill and I look forward to seeing it enacted in its entirety. I would not like any of its proposals to be watered down. It is very important in terms of families' certainty and planning for the future, women's participation in the workforce and allowing working parents to have the maximum involvement in their children's lives. I thank the Minister of State for his attendance. We look forward to the Bill being quickly progressed through the Seanad and Dáil and enacted as soon as possible because the families of Ireland need that to be done.
The Bill is a response to an incremental situation that has been developing for several years. Provision in this area was not a spontaneous decision of the Irish Legislature but, rather, was instigated by the European Union. The first legislation to address it was enacted in 1998 and provided 14 weeks' leave for parents of children up to the age of five. The next relevant Act, enacted in 2006, increased the relevant age to eight years, while in 2013 the number of weeks of leave was increased from 14 to 18. It is worth noting that Ireland is very much in the lower half of European countries in terms of the amount of parental leave allowed. A very significant number of countries in Europe provide more than twice the number of weeks leave provided for in Ireland. That is worth bearing in mind.
I read all the submissions, including those from IBEC. The Government suggestion that the entitlement be phased in over a number of years originates in an IBEC proposal which was taken on by the Government. In circumstances where we are lagging behind most European countries in this area, we should not accept that proposal.
Like most Members present, I received a very large number of submissions on this issue from people telling their personal stories. All of the submissions I received were from women. One states: "I have two children, aged just 2 and just 4, and have reached a stage where working full time and wanting to be the best mammy I can has me at a breaking point emotionally." That is an example of the strain that people are under.
Another one states:
My child is vulnerable and requires additional supports which require on going appointments. As a recently separated single parent, the extension in age from 8 to 12 and in weeks from 18 to 26 being proposed by this particular bill is a vital lifeline for me and many struggling parents in employment ....
That is how significant it is in the lived experience of the people who have been contacting me.
Another letter states: "My parental leave which I have taken for the past 2 years as a 4 day work week ....". That is an interesting and imaginative use of the time. Instead of taking it in a lump, this person has spread it out and it has worked a four-day week for the past two years. It goes on:
... & has allowed me to stay in this role that I love & am successful in, has just run out. I am facing the prospect of having to resign from my current role & seek a role on a part time basis if this bill is not passed.
That is an indication of the urgency of the Bill. The Minister of State is a decent and humane man. I see him nodding so presumably he is in agreement and understands the human dimension of these things. It further states: "This will be at least a 50% pay cut for my family and I will likely never again reach the same level in an organisation if I have to restart in a few years time."
I received a final one in which the woman uses a significant phrase. She states:
Any working parent will tell you of the sense of being emotionally torn between the need to work to provide financially for their child and wanting to spend more time with their child. Parental leave - although unpaid ...
That is a significant point that not everyone in the debate realises. Some people assume that when one gets this parental leave one continues to be paid by the firm but that is not the case. One does not get paid, so there is a cost to the parent taking that leave. She states: "Parental leave - although unpaid - allows the parent that space to spend time with their child when they need it most - in the formative years."
These are the arguments that myself and my colleagues are making and there is a strong feeling throughout the House that this Bill should be passed today.
Senator Norris spoke extremely well about how this issue affects people on the ground. It has been my experience that people have used parental leave in day slots when it was badly needed such as when a child was sick, for a hospital appointment or whatever.
The purpose of the three amendments before the House is to ensure that where the child has passed the age of eight the parent would still qualify up the time the child reaches the age of 12. That is very important. The majority of emails I have received from people on this matter are to the effect that their child is just turning eight and that this Bill will allow them to stay in the workforce. To quote from one email, "This will allow the experience I had gained over a number of years to still be able apply in the workforce".
We have had many debates on the gender pay gap and women believing they had to drop out of the workforce and then find they had to restart their careers later in life. This Bill allows women especially to stay in the workforce for a longer period in a planned manner.
I compliment Deputies Catherine Murphy and Róisín Shortall on introducing the Bill in the Lower House. Until now, there has been all-party buy-in. The point Senator Norris made is important. We are not going to the far end of the spectrum in this regard. Moving from eight to 12 years of age is very much the middle of the spectrum in terms of what other European countries are providing in respect of parental support. I hope this is part of an incremental step to seeing a better entitlement to parental leave.
I second formally the three amendments. I urge the Minister of State to take them on board but also to deal speedily with the other amendments and, when they are reviewed, to provide Government time to take Report Stage in the Seanad. It is important we give a clear guideline to parents watching these proceedings who are hoping to see the legislation passed quickly and that we receive a commitment from the Minister of State today that he will ask the Leader of the House to provide Government time to make sure that Report Stage is taken.
There is no need for the Senator to second amendments on Committee Stage. It is only on Report Stage, but his support-----
I am sorry. I am asking the Minister of State to facilitate Government time for Report Stage.
Yes, but there is no need to second Senator Bacik's amendment. It is only done on Report Stage. I call Senator Murnane O'Connor.
I, too, support the amendments and particularly the Bill. Increasing the unpaid leave available to parents by an additional eight weeks from 18 to 26, which can be taken up until the child is 12 years old, offers a great deal of flexibility. This week, 5,000 people signed a petition calling on the Government to support this crucial Bill to extend parental leave. I was heartened to hear last night that the Government intends to support the Bill. However, I would like it not to be left for another two years for it to be implemented. These parents need certainty. Never mind getting up early in the morning. These are working people who happen to be parents who not only get up early but often have been working through the night caring for a child with a high temperature or sitting in an accident and emergency department in a hospital following which they must then do a full day's work, and they never complain.
This is a very positive measure for working parents across the country. It is not just about support, which is very important, but also family time. It is about parents working so hard but being afraid they will not have the option to afford the option of childcare. It is about the need to make sure that in a job one loves one wants the best of both worlds. Parents want to be able to work but also to be able to spend time with their children. That is what this is all about; it is about choice. Parental leave will be beneficial for parents and their children but also for the economy and society in general by improving the framework conditions for the large percentage of women who want to work and stay home with their children.
I support this Bill 100%. That 5,000 people signed a petition this week calling on the Government to support this Bill is an indication to the Minister of State of the strength of feeling about this issue. Every Member here has heard in our clinics and in our own areas how crucial this measure will be for both men and women. I want to give my full support for the Bill.
I join others in saying I am very happy to see Committee Stage of this Bill being taken. I hope we will see Report Stage being taken very soon. This is an issue that has been pressed for a long time and I commend all of those in civil society who pushed for it. I recall it being one of the issues we fought for when I was on the National Women's Council.
I thank Deputies Shortall and Catherine Murphy for bringing the Bill to the Dáil. I thank the Labour Party and the Technical Group for providing time for this debate here today and indeed Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin and others who support. Everybody who knows the decisions and choices families have to make and how important it is for them to be able to plan their lives has come to a point of support for this Bill. I hope the Government will join with us in recognising the importance of it.
Ireland has one of the higher figures in terms of women dropping out of the workforce at a certain point. It has been an outlier. It is an issue that was raised in the country-specific recommendations Ireland got from Europe because it is one of the problems. The decision to drop out of the workforce is often made under pressure. Somebody may have studied and worked for what they are passionate about but the decision to leave is made under pressure because key crunch times come along in families' lives when they cannot achieve the balance.
I was very disappointed to see some business lobbyists coming in with concerns around this Bill and talking about the loss of skills at short notice. I refer to the loss of skills to us as a society when we have women predominantly dropping out of the workforce after years of training and acquiring a level of knowledge knowing, as described in letters similar to those outlined by Senator Norris, that it will be very difficult for them to get back on the ladder and come back in at that senior level. That is a fundamental problem and it is one we can cut off at the roots.
This Bill is long overdue and very necessary. I support the amendments. I would note two areas where we will need to strengthen the Bill.
The Bill is modest as it deals with unpaid leave but we will have to look at paid leave because people have lives. We need to plan for integrated lives, and rather than the quarterly return of any one company, we need to look at the big picture of a sustainable economy and society. Employers need to plan for parts of their workforce, be they men or women, taking leave at different times for different reasons and this leave will need to be paid.
It is important that this goes to age 12 because, like Senator Humphreys said, children have transition points in their lives and parents want to be able to support them. In the longer term, we need to look at 18 as the age. We have a blind spot and research of the Vincentian Partnership shows the difficulties people have, particularly those who are parenting alone. I have raised the issue of supports for those parenting alone with the Minister of State's colleague, the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Deputy Regina Doherty. Once a child hits 14 the balancing job which a parent is doing disappears. I have called for jobseeker transitional payments until a child is aged 18, rather than having a parent go onto jobseeker's allowance, in order to recognise the balance of work and care which parents are trying to achieve. There will be key points at 15, 14 and 16 when two or three extra days for a parent can make a crucial difference. That is where we are going, down the line, but this is a huge and positive step forward for now. I am glad we are all supporting it.
A new EU work-life balance communiqué has come out and a new position has been agreed by the European Parliament, the Council and the Commission which is driving us to look at work-life balance. This will probably become a directive in the near future so it is important that Ireland gets ahead and can be one of its champions within Europe. It is important that flexible working arrangements and rights to carer's leave are carried forward. I commend both amendments, which I believe strengthen the Bill, and I commend Senator Bacik and others on giving their time to bring the Bill forward.
I welcome the Minister and I welcome this Bill. An awful lot of people deserve credit for the Bill. First and foremost are the Social Democrats who took the initiative in the Dáil. I give credit to Fianna Fáil and my colleagues in the Labour Party for their support for the Bill.
I speak from personal experience as I took parental leave after our first child was born. I was managing a large recruitment company at the time. My employer was very progressive and I was able to take the leave in chunks, giving me effectively a three-day week. There was no problem and it made a huge difference to me. One goes on a steep learning curve when one becomes a father. Unfortunately, I ran out of leave and that is why this leave is so important. Like others, I have been contacted by a large number of parents - largely women, which is interesting in itself. The burden should be equally shared but this shows that it still falls largely on women.
We know that the most important thing we do in life, if we have children, is to bring them up. Work-life balance is key but the balance is not right at the moment. There are far too many families who are hard pressed. This is a great opportunity to take a significant step in the right direction. I completely agree with Senator Higgins that we should be looking at paid leave but I will happily accept this as a step forward on which we can all agree.
I fully support all amendments on behalf of our party. I do not know if Fine Gael will support the Bill but I hope its members will as they and the Minister know it is the right thing to do. We have to do more to help working families and this is one significant way to do it. I have great respect for my colleagues in IBEC, though we do not necessarily agree on all issues. I am slightly disappointed in the letter it sent in on this matter. It reminded me of Hard Times by Charles Dickens and could have been written by Mr. Gradgrind. One of the lines stated that a fair balance must be met between the importance of achieving a reconciliation of professional and private life and the need to manage a workplace and enhance economic competitiveness. There are some things which are more important than economic competitiveness and I suggest our families and our children are such a thing. Let us all get behind this Bill.
I also support the Bill and the amendments. Like Senator Norris, I received many emails on this Bill. I have two daughters who are young women with two children each and they have a daily struggle to juggle their work with their children. They get up at 6 a.m. and get home at 6 p.m. or 7 p.m. They are exhausted and try to spend weekends recuperating and catching up on all the things on which they missed out during the week. One daughter has taken up the current version of unpaid parental leave. She juggles everything so that she can have one day off work during the week to lessen the burden.
The people affected by this are willing to accept a reduction in their salary just to have a proper life balance and to remove some of the stress. We also need to remember that 33% of people who are off sick are off because of stress. This is one way of relieving the stress in our society. I agree with Senator Higgins on paid leave and I know several companies who give paid leave not only to mothers but to fathers as well. That is extraordinary and we should commend it. I am pleased that the Bill caters for existing parents as well as new parents and I am delighted that parents who have used up their weeks will be allowed the additional weeks.
I commend the Social Democrats on initiating this Bill and I commend my colleagues in Fianna Fáil and the Labour Party as this is a wonderful Bill. I look forward to it being implemented.
I agree with all Members of the House on this Bill. It is the one time we have had cross-party support and I am glad the Minister will support it. I welcome the fact that he will not oppose today's amendments.
We have been inundated with emails and phone calls from members of the public on the Bill - predominantly women, as Senator Gavan said. He has been a primary care giver but the burden ultimately lies with women. As Senator Higgins pointed out, we have many amazing women who are trained in various skills but who leave the workforce to the detriment of the economy so I cannot agree with the suggestion that this Bill will impede the development of the economy. The Bill will bring us to the next stage of some type of work-life balance and will give parents flexibility and choice.
We are not talking about paid leave but unpaid leave so it is a very modest Bill. It cannot but be commended to this House and I am delighted to have initiated it here. I thank Deputy Róisín Shortall and the Social Democrats, the Labour Party, Sinn Féin and Fine Gael for coming together and accepting it.
I agree with all of what Senators have said but it is important to acknowledge Deputies Róisín Shortall and Catherine Murphy, who got the ball rolling. Some of the other groups who are claiming credit for this Bill were quite slow to pick up the ball in response to some of the many emails that were sent some months ago.
We had a difficulty in getting time and it came back to other groups to see could it be facilitated. I acknowledge what the Labour Party has done. Senator Bacik has prepared some helpful documents.
I fully support the Bill. It is great that there is a consensus but it took a long time to gain traction and we need to acknowledge that. I never suggested that the Government was totally against it. I have had a look at some of the documentation put out in relation to the Government's commitments in this area. There was some excuse, or suggestion, that it was not analysed enough under pre-legislative scrutiny. The committee took a decision and that is its call, of course, if it decides not to proceed with pre-legislative scrutiny. It cannot be used as an excuse.
It is ironic that this matters falls under the responsibility of the Department of Justice and Equality rather than the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. What does that tell us? It could be argued that the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection has a role to play. There has been confusion as to whom parliamentary questions should be addressed. When the matter came before committee, the Minister for Justice and Equality stated that it was not something he wished to discuss at that time and left it to the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection to answer the questions of the committee in January of last year.
I fully support the Bill. I have read the letter from the IBEC and I do not agree with it. We should say that clearly and not be quiet in saying it. IBEC has a view on most things that go on in Parliament, and I have no difficulty with that, but I categorically do not agree with what it suggests about this Bill.
I support everything that has been said here. This will be a good day's work. I take on-board Senator Ó Ríordáin's point that it is important that we have Government co-operation in time. Let us face the fact that the Government would not previously devote time to this issue. I accept, however, that things may have changed in the meantime. I wish everyone well. I particularly acknowledge the cross-party support for this legislation.
I thank colleagues. I have listened carefully to the debate and, as usual in this House, it has been constructive, reflective and positive. I am happy to be here to discuss the Parental Leave (Amendment) Bill 2017. I will be speaking to amendments Nos. 1, 2 and 3, which propose to amend section 6 of the Parental Leave Act 1998.
If I brought a Bill before the House, my colleagues would analyse, parse and try to amend it if they thought there were problems with it. I do not apologise at all if the Government takes on board a Private Members' Bill and analyses, parses and raises concerns about it. We would be derelict in our duty if we did not do that. It is important we have a debate and that it does not become personalised. If any colleague here has a concern about any legislation, he or she has a responsibility, as does the Government, to raise, highlight and debate that concern in a positive way. I am sure colleagues will bear with me when I outline some of the concerns we had with the legislation. I am not stating that the Government is right or wrong but it is important we debate these issues. That is why I was somewhat disappointed that there was no pre-legislative scrutiny on the Bill. Every time we bring forward primary legislation of any sort, there are implications and what we call unknown unknowns. Senator Bacik and I served together on the justice committee for quite a number of years and I am sure she will agree with me about the value and importance of pre-legislative scrutiny. The latter gives stakeholders an opportunity to have a say. It is quite important that stakeholders, no matter who they are, have a say in a democracy.
IBEC is sometimes equated with big, evil corporations and companies. There is a feeling that business is bad or evil but it is not. Business employs many people and not all businesses are big. There are very small businesses in the SME sector. Big companies can do, take and absorb stuff but small companies that are three, four and five-person operations can sometimes be under substantial pressure. There are a lot of those companies and we also have to listen to what they have to say. It is incumbent on all of us to listen and reflect in a positive way and not to be too negative.
I also want to say that the Government has always been, and continues to be, supportive of the principles of parental leave and supports for working parents and families. We all share the goal of supporting parents to reconcile precious family life and work. Senator Gavan has given his personal experience on that and I can share that. I know what he is talking about. We also share the goal of increasing flexibility and choices for working parents. That is crucially important. The Government announced, as part of the 2019 budget, the introduction of a new paid parental leave scheme which will commence later this year. We are doing it. It will be for two weeks this year and will increase in the following years.
Senator Higgins mentioned the work-life balance directive. Earlier this morning, the EU Committee of Permanent Representatives approved, by a qualified majority vote, the text of the informally agreed work-life balance directive and a letter was sent to the European Parliament Committee on Employment and Social Affairs to say that agreement on first reading can be reached, subject to the Parliament agreeing to adopt the identical text at the plenary session. Ireland supported the text. Let us not talk about the big, bad Government all the time.
No one did.
We are ahead of the game here. One of the key points of the proposed directive calls on member states to provide ten days' paternity leave to be paid at a rate determined by member states. We are doing it, we brought it in. Some 55,000 dads have already taken that up. I did not hear anybody talk about that this morning. It is done, we did it.
The proposed directive also indicates that member states shall provide for an individual, non-transferable right of nine weeks of paid parental leave per parent before the respective child reaches an age to be determined by member states. We are starting paid parental leave this year.
I listened to Senator Norris who, as always, was extraordinarily astute in his comments. He emphasised that he received a lot of communications, all from women.
Other Senators said the same thing. I chair the committee responsible for the national strategy for women and girls. We had a meeting yesterday. Senator Higgins referred to the number of women who fall out of the labour force, a matter that was highlighted at the committee's meeting. The need to encourage more men to, like Senator Gavan, take on the caring and childcare role was highlighted. One concern I have is that we need to focus on balancing and sharing the caring at home so that women and men share it equally. If an employer is interviewing two people for a job, the interviewer must not have an unconscious bias against the female applicant because the chances are that the female applicant might get pregnant and take a lot of leave, whereas the male applicant will not. People cannot say that out loud but we all know about unconscious bias. We must also start thinking about this at a higher policy level. What can we do to encourage more men to take on the sharing, caring, child-rearing role and, at the same time, be careful not to support, encourage and nudge women to take on more than they are doing already and not being involved in the workplace? The statistics are frightening when one looks at the graphs.
I invite all the Senators to read the national strategy for women and girls. In it, we stress the need to do a lot more than what is being done.
We have introduced a new paid parental leave scheme which will commence later this year for both parents. We have also brought in paternity leave. The new scheme will initially provide for two weeks of leave and benefits per parent. It is planned to expand the scheme in future years. This support is in addition to the maternity and paternity leave. I am happy to have brought legislation through the Houses in 2016 which provided, as I said, for two weeks' paid paternity leave for dads on the birth of their child. I firmly believe that both parents should be supported to have time with their children. It is crucially important, especially in the first year, but also further on and I heard what Senator Gavan and others had to say about this. In order to further support parents, the Government is increasing investment of childcare, another big aspect of this, to €576 million under budget 2019. This increased investment will provide access to high quality, affordable childcare for more than 175,000 children and improve subsidies to 40,000 others. This is linked to what colleagues have said here about the amendments and taking time off.
We have also introduced a range of new and improved measures to reduce the cost of childcare. These include a non-means tested universal subsidy in excess of €1,000 per year for children under three and significantly increased targeted supports of up to €145 per week through existing childcare subvention schemes.
Free GP care for under-sixes also takes financial pressure off parents when they are worried about the health of their child. Senators spoke about being in accident and emergency services and bringing children to doctors. Now people do not have to pay for the under-sixes.
The Government is working hard to make life easier for families. That is why time is being taken to put forward a considered approach that meets the objectives of the legislation, meets the needs of parents and mitigates the costs. We have to support families but we must be realistic.
I am very supportive of increasing the flexibility and choices for working parents and giving them the opportunity to spend more time with their children. That is a worthwhile aim that we all share.
For the record, the Government never voted against this legislation anywhere. We have been supportive of it. I have tried to engage in a positive way throughout the process. We have been introducing other measures as well such as paid leave and paternity leave, so we are ahead of the game in this regard in many areas. We have put our money where out mouth is, or rather the taxpayers' money. At all stages we have sought a compromise that is fair and equitable to families, parents and employers. "Employers" seems to be a negative word. We are talking about a small operation with three or four people – SMEs. I am sure Senator Gavan knows many such people. We must be careful that we do not put too much of a burden on them too quickly because it might put them out of business. They might not be able to continue. We must be cognisant of that. That is the reason it was a shame they did not have an opportunity to put their case before the committee, because they could have been heard by everybody. However, that is history. Balancing the needs of all stakeholders has been the Government's driving principle throughout the development of the Bill.
There are costs and operational concerns associated with the implementation of the Bill. There is a disagreement in that regard. In my view there is a mistaken perception that there are no cost implications. However, the Bill, if enacted, will impact on the operation of essential public services. We are all aware of the shortage of staff in many services and if people take time off we must consider whether it will have an impact on families and people with children who need supports such as speech therapy, occupational therapy, physiotherapy and other such services.
On the cost issue, if all eligible parents employed in the health and education sectors alone were to take the additional eight weeks allocation being provided for in the Bill, it would, at a minimum, cost the Exchequer almost €12.4 million per annum based on figures from 2015. The figures were provided by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. It is difficult to get information because unpaid leave up to now has not been recorded. However, we were taken aback at the cost when the results of the analysis we sought were provided. Initially, we were all under the impression that there was no cost involved.
What are the costs made up of?
I understand there are premiums in some of the areas. For example, if a nurse is to be replaced we get an agency nurse in, which is more expensive, and then there are administrative costs, among others. When the costs were added up that is the figure we got. I accept that not everybody is going to take the leave but if the take-up is 10% then the cost is approximately €1.2 million, which is still a significant amount that has to be budgeted for. That is just the public sector in the health and education areas.
I ask Senators to note that these estimates do not include costs arising in An Garda Síochána, the Irish Prison Service, the Defence Forces, in any other rostered public service or in customer-facing units of the public service, including in the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection and the Revenue Commissioners. Members can imagine how this figure would rise when all those services are factored in. Nurses, teachers, gardaí, special needs assistants will all have to be replaced for the weeks during which they are on parental leave. That is a fact. It is an issue. Staff will have to be replaced when they are out. It is important to debate these issues, tease them out and be objective about it. Just because it is a Private Members' Bill does not mean we should all accept it and say it is great. We should be objective, tease it out, go through it and then agree or disagree as to its merits. However, that has not happened to the extent I would have liked.
The Senators' amendments do not take into account the impact on the public and private sectors of the rapid introduction of this entitlement. We do not wish to deny any parent the leave being proposed. Rather, we wish to nuance how it can be taken. That is what I will propose. In that regard, I wish to inform the House that the Government will be bringing forward amendments on Report Stage to sections 6 and 7. The Government amendments will continue to provide for parents to have an additional eight weeks of parental leave, as already provided for in the Bill. However, to be clear to the House, the Government will seek to distinguish those eight weeks of leave from the 18 weeks already available to parents. In this context, the Government wishes to mitigate the impact on the operation of our health, education and other front-line sectors. I wish to hear the views of colleagues on what I have outlined. They should not just knock it because I say it, they should think about it, talk to SMEs, see what they have to say and then come back and let me know what they think.
Our amendments will propose that the additional eight weeks will be introduced in two tranches beginning in September of this year. We want to give a little bit of time. Under the Government proposals, from 1 September, parents will be entitled to an additional four weeks of parental leave and from 1 September 2020, parents will be entitled to a further four weeks. We want to give the public sector bodies I have mentioned and SMEs a chance to prepare for the change. We are still bringing in the change but we are phasing it in. That is reasonable.
I have mentioned that our aim is to maintain the level of services in our health and education sectors. Therefore, we will propose that this leave will be subject to the same criteria as is currently applied in the health and education sectors, namely, that the leave may be taken in a single block of four weeks, rising to eight weeks as the leave is increased over time, in blocks of one week at a time to facilitate shorter holidays such as mid-term breaks and Easter, or in a manner compatible with the operation of these services. Again, I think that is reasonable. We want this to work.
To give a practical example, Senators will agree that our primary education system cannot function where employees seek to take parental leave in a format of a few hours here and there. It would be very difficult to manage that. A shorter working day such as that may be feasible in a back office, but not when it comes to classrooms. To ensure its operation, it is better that parental leave in the primary education sector be taken in half days, full days or multiples thereof. So, in respect of the eight weeks additional leave, we will seek to formalise the existing arrangements already in place in the health and education sectors on Report Stage. That is already happening anyway. There are agreements and memoranda of understanding in place but we want to formalise the situation.
Given the matters I have set out before the House, I ask Senators not to press their amendments and to give the Government the opportunity to present amendments to sections 6 and 7, which are aimed at reconciling the interests of parents with the equal need to maintain essential front-line services. I will give an undertaking that the amendments will respect the spirit of the Bill, which is to give parents an additional eight weeks of parental leave for children up to the age of 12. That will give us time to enable public and private sector employers to adjust to the challenges of introducing an additional leave entitlement. We have listened carefully to all the concerns. We got the emails as well. There were many of them. We agree with what is being said, and the spirit of it. There is no difficulty there, but we are just a little bit concerned about some of the very small companies in particular that might be under a lot of pressure if they had to do this in one go. Perhaps I am wrong. I will listen to what colleagues have to say. I suggest there would be a light phasing-in period to enable a new entitlement to be introduced in an orderly manner in the public and private sectors.
If the Bill is enacted by March it would allow only three months for it to come into effect in June, which is a very short timescale. We are just asking that it should be put off until September to give people an opportunity.
An issue arises about the cost of the Bill and money messages. We have an obligation to let the Houses know the view of Departments that there would be a cost to the State. I was surprised about the level of costs, as I am sure Senators were also. A money message was not sought at an earlier stage but since we got the information back about costs, the situation is the Bill could be unconstitutional if it was passed without a money message. That is something that can possibly happen in the Dáil when the Bill goes there. We do not want to take the chance that the Bill could be unconstitutional. It would be a disaster if the Bill were to fall at that fence if we had all agreed on a formula and passed it. I am keen to highlight the concern at this point about the costs to the State and Members know the implications from a constitutional point of view.
That more or less concludes what I have to say. We all want to support parents.
We do not want a problem to arise. We want to benefit families. I ask Senators to consider the compromise I am putting forward. Parents will benefit from the additional leave entitlement. Parents of children up to 12 years will be able to enjoy the entitlement and use any part of their existing entitlement that they may have lost when the upper age was eight years.
By working together on a phased approach, we will achieve a solution to benefit children and families. I will listen very carefully to the responses of Senators to my proposal, which is reasonable. Having reflected on the Bill, there is nothing between us in terms of what we want to do. We should also bear in mind the work-life balance directive which provides that member states shall provide an additional non-transferable right to nine weeks of paid parental leave. The Government wants to move towards paid parental leave for both parents. We will make a start on this in 2019 and follow up in each of the next two years.
Will that be left to employers or will the Government make a contribution to the payment?
The work-life balance directive refers to a non-transferable right to nine weeks of paid parental leave per parent. What will happen at the end of this year is that parental leave will be treated in the same way as paid paternity leave the Government introduced. I believe the State pays €240 per week to the 55,000 fathers who have availed of it. The same is planned for paid parental leave for each parent at the end of this year.
If the employers had to pay for the parental leave entitlement, it would threaten small and medium firms.
Employers could top up the payment if they so wished. The State is paying the benefit for fathers and will do so for both parents at the end of this year. Paid parental leave encourages both parents to take parental leave. As I said earlier, we need to encourage fathers to take more of a sharing role in caring for children. We have to be careful that we do not do anything to push the balance the other way. It has gone too far in one direction. I thank Senators for listening to what I have had to say on the Bill and I look forward to their response.
I thank the Minister of State for his constructive approach and full response on the amendments and the broader question. I acknowledge that he has worked constructively with Senators. There have been some mixed messages from the Government on the Bill, but I acknowledge that we are all on the same page in terms of the spirit of the legislation. I am very glad to hear the Minister of State's very constructive comments and I welcome them. We should all very much welcome the Government's proposals on paid parental leave. That goes without saying, but I should have said that earlier.
Parental leave and paid paternity and maternity leave are not either-or matters. As Senator Norris indicated, Ireland ranks quite low in the European Union in terms of general parental leave provision. This Bill together with the Government's proposals on paid parental leave will clearly elevate us in the EU ranking, which is very welcome. We are in 19th place out of 28 member states. It is very important, therefore, that we make better provision. However, I acknowledge the work the Government is doing separately on that.
The Bill is a modest proposal, as others have said. It is incremental, building on existing entitlements and referring only to unpaid leave. Like Senator Norris and many other Senators, we have all received very moving personal accounts from many parents who rely on existing provision but are running out of leave. They have made arrangements for child care and are very anxious and concerned to ensure they will not have to leave the workforce because they can no longer take time off in unpaid parental leave. They are really struggling as they juggle work and family responsibilities. As a mother of two girls, I know exactly the difficulties many of us have in trying to juggle work and family responsibilities.
I acknowledge the point made by Senator Humphreys that most people do not take parental leave in a block but use it to work a more flexible week. In that way, it provides a very welcome way of ensuring that the precarious balance is maintained. We have been receiving emails in the main from women but like Senator Gavan, I have male relatives and friends who have taken parental leave also.
The culture is changing in the workplace. It is a good point that we need to change the culture so fathers take parental leave. Paid paternity leave has been of major importance because it was the first time that we acknowledged fathers specifically in the workplace. It was the Labour Party and Fine Gael that originally proposed the introduction of paid paternity leave. Acknowledging the role of fathers in the workplace is hugely important, including for gender equality and women's rights. I know from younger male relatives that it is increasingly the case that it is quite acceptable and expected in the private sector, specifically in information technology firms, that young men take periods of parental leave. That is very welcome.
I will now address some of the points raised by colleagues and the Minister of State. I received a letter from IBEC last night. Of course, IBEC is entitled to comment and it is important that we take into account the impact of any changes in workplace entitlements for employers and so on. However, the language used in the letter was unfortunate and grudging. There was no acknowledgement of the positive impact of this type of parental leave legislation, particularly in terms of retention of skilled employees in the workforce. Taking a cold look at this, not from the point of view of children and families but from the point of view of employers and enterprise, it is important that we ensure that mothers and parents of young children generally are facilitated in increasing their participation and retention in the labour force. I refer again to the great explanatory memorandum published by the Government with the Parental Leave (Amendment) Act 2006, which extended the age of the child from five years to eight years. It states:
There will be benefits for employers and industry to the extent that the legislation will facilitate the increased participation and retention of women in the labour force.
The foregoing factors apply equally to the Exchequer in its position as employer to the public service.
In addition, the explanatory memorandum stated clearly:
No significant costs are anticipated in connection with this legislation either in relation to its administration or in relation to compliance with its terms by individual employers and employees. There will be some cost implications for employers arising from the broadening of the parental leave entitlement to employees in loco parentis .... However, as parental leave is unpaid this cost will not be significant.
The language used is worth citing because it emphasises the positive benefit to all of us in society of expanding parental leave entitlements and the lack of significance to any costs likely to be incurred as a result of that expansion. I will come back to that point in a moment, but it is useful to quote that document and contrast it with the rather grudging opposition expressed by IBEC to this legislation.
It is important to address the points raised by the Minister of State on the financial implications and the dreaded term money message that he raised in this context. I listened to the arguments the Minister of State made and I am grateful to Senator Frances Black, with whom I have spoken about this. It is of concern to all of us to hear the phrase "money message" or constitutional implications - the Minister of State referred to Article 17.2 of the Constitution - being raised effectively as impediments to the passage of Private Members' legislation. Article 17.2 refers to the Dáil and is not directly a matter for the Seanad to the same extent. The language used in Article 17.2 is very different from the language used in Dáil Standing Order 179, which is often cited in this context. The Dáil provision has been described by Kieran Coughlan, former Secretary General of the Oireachtas Service and Clerk of the Dáil, in the following terms. In 2017, he wrote that the decision as to whether a Bill requires a money message normally rests on whether the expenditure is merely an extension or variation of an existing activity of the Government or publicly funded body, which does not require a money message, or the imposition of a new legal and definable responsibility, which does require one. If one looks at this Bill, it is patently an incremental improvement on an existing legal entitlement and statutory framework.
It can absolutely be characterised as an extension or variation of an existing activity of the Government and, therefore should not, and in my view does not, require a money message under the Constitution. This is a point that clearly has broader significance beyond this Bill for all sorts of Private Members' Bills where the Government is increasingly raising concerns about costs, which are purely incidental, if they can even be characterised thus, and minimal.
Again, one looks back at the Government's language in 2006 concerning that explanatory memorandum - the costs would not be significant and, therefore, no money message was required. Nor does a money message appear to have been required with regard to the 2013 expansion, to which colleagues have referred, where the entitlement was raised to 18 weeks. It is very hard to see, therefore, how the money message cost argument can have any substance in this context.
I am grateful to Deputy Shortall with whom we have, again, corresponded on this issue. She points out that the Parental Leave (Amendment) Bill went through the independent assessment - the financial implications review by the Office of the Ceann Comhairle - in April 2018. If a significant cost was attached to the Bill directly, the Bill would not have been allowed to proceed beyond Second Stage in the Dáil but the Bills Office and the Ceann Comhairle determined that there was no significant cost arising from the Bill. I know the Minister of State has said that this became apparent later but procedurally, it is hugely important to point that out.
That determination is clearly in keeping with the precedents to which I referred, namely, the precedent from the 2013 extension and the precedent in 2006. Deputy Shortall has told me that a full review of parental leave carried out in the early noughties also did not identify any significant costs associated with such proposals. Patently, as other colleagues have pointed out strongly, the only significant cost that anyone incurs as a result of unpaid parental leave legislation is incurred by parents taking the unpaid leave, which is why so many parents take the leave in terms of a day off per week rather than in the full block because most people cannot afford to take a full block of a month or two, three or four months of unpaid leave. That is the significant cost to be incurred, which is why the argument about cost and a money message is not borne out, particularly when one looks at the language in Article 17.2 of the Constitution and the impact of that.
This is incremental. It simply represents a relatively modest extension of an existing entitlement and to that extent, we certainly do not agree that any money message is necessary and are concerned about the raising of this point, particularly at this time. In any case, that should not be in any way an impediment to the Bill passing swiftly through the Seanad. Clearly, if these amendments are passed here or if the Minister of State brings forward amendments on Report Stage here that are passed, it will have to go back to the Dáil in any event. That might be for another day.
Regarding the point about pre-legislative scrutiny, I was happy to serve on the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice and Equality when the Minister of State was an excellent Chairman. We carried out a significant amount of work on pre-legislative scrutiny that was very valuable but the committee decided that pre-legislative scrutiny of this Bill was not appropriate. Again, this is probably the correct assessment given how modest the Bill is and the fact that it builds on an existing statutory framework and that no new policy decision is made within the Bill. It simply expands on existing entitlements for parents.
I am sorry to have gone on somewhat but I did want to address some of the points raised by the Minister of State fairly. The Minister of State has asked us not to press these three amendments. We will press them. I hope the Minister of State will not oppose them strenuously because it would be a shame to divide the House on what are technical amendments at a point where we have all agreed, both Government and Opposition, that we are very much in support of the general principle of this Bill and want to see it passed as swiftly as possible, so it would be a shame to divide the House. We will press these amendments. Deputies Shortall and Catherine Murphy to whom I, again, pay tribute for their enormous work on this Bill, have asked us to put down these amendments. We need to do so to ensure the Bill will be effective.
I note the Minister of State's comments about the amendments he proposes to bring forward on Report Stage. We will all have a look at them when we see the text. We have not yet seen any text. We must see what they propose to do. We are all very concerned to ensure that there is no significant watering down of the principles of the Bill. Again, that is a matter of significant concern and urgency for the many parents who are hoping and waiting to see this Bill passed. As currently drafted, the Bill provides for a three-month phasing-in period so whenever it is passed, it will already be provided for that section 4 will not come into effect until three months after the passage of the Bill, which is very important. I note the phasing the Minister of State has just told us about. I think he said it would be phased in in two tranches, the first of which will commence on 1 September 2019 while the second will commence on 1 September 2020. I can see that this is a more generous phasing in than the phasing in proposed by IBEC in its letter last night so that is welcome but, again, we must all consult and along with my Labour Party colleagues, I would hope to speak to Deputies Shortall and Catherine Murphy to see whether it would be acceptable to compromise on this. In this regard, we will consult with others and other parents. We all want to work constructively to ensure the Bill passes swiftly. That would be my main aim but I do not want to see it watered down in any significant way. That is as much as I can say about the amendments the Minister of State proposes to bring forward. We will press these amendments and we ask all our colleagues in the Government and on the Opposition benches to support them.
I listened carefully to the debate, particularly the Minister of State's contribution. I agree with him. It was a pity that the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice and Equality did not carry out any pre-legislative scrutiny of this legislation. Pre-legislative scrutiny should be the default position on all legislation unless there is a very good reason it should not happen. That said, this is a very progressive Bill. The fact that the Government has engaged in an extremely meaningful way shows how committed it is to endorsing and embracing what the Bill is trying to achieve.
We have all received quite an amount of correspondence and communications on this legislation. It shows how much it affects families. I agree with Senator Norris that the submissions received have been entirely from women, which shows that were this legislation to pass, it would have a significant impact on the daily lives of families and people charged with the greatest responsibility one can be asked to take on in life, which is bringing up children.
Irish society is moving into a space where family and work-life balance do matter. I listened to Senator Gavan. Knowing him as I do - I consider him a good friend - I have no doubt that he did five days work in three days when he took his parental leave. I have no doubt that he compressed a full five days into three days. Many people do. A friend of mine works four days a week and I have no doubt she does a five-day week in those four days. One could call that business and employers partnering with their staff and creating an environment everyone buys in to. People will go the extra mile if they are facilitated. If a company can afford to pay for parental leave, it creates a good environment. I agree that we need to move towards paid parental leave. Why should a company that can afford it have an advantage over a company that is not in a position to pay for it? I believe a partnership between the Government and business needs to be looked at.
I do not believe that looking to introduce this next September is unreasonable. I do not think we should rush for the sake of rushing and not get it right. We are far better off spacing it out and having the proper engagement, consultation and discussions, particularly with SMEs, which make up the vast majority of businesses in this country. I welcome the Minister of State's response to this very important debate. I am very heartened by the fact that he wants to engage in a meaningful way to make this happen in a real way for families in this country.
I do not want to repeat the comments made by Senator Conway. I commend those who brought this Bill before the House. As Senator Conway said, it is a very progressive Bill. I also commend the Minister of State. From conversations with him over the past number of years, I know that he is extremely committed to anything that can help women in the workplace.
He has spoken to me about it many times and I know that his heart is completely in the right place with regard to this type of legislation. I have spoken to him on numerous occasions about maternity leave for Members of the Oireachtas. He has been putting a lot of thought into it. I commend him for that. Senators might say that I would say that since he is a Fine Gael Minister of State but that is genuine and I know that he is very impressive with regard to matters such as these.
At no stage did the Government oppose this Bill. I will briefly mention a few significant measures that have been brought into place, not just recently but also when we were in government with the Labour Party. In budget 2019, we announced an €89 million increase in funding for childcare and free preschool provided under the early child care and education, ECCE, programme has been extended as of this autumn. Fine Gael and the Labour Party, when in government, extended parental leave from 14 to 18 weeks. In September 2016, we brought paternity leave legislation through the House, which provides two weeks of paid paternity leave for fathers on the birth of their child. As part of budget 2019, the Government announced the introduction of a new paid parental leave scheme which will commence later this year. It is not by accident because many of us in the party have been at the forefront in trying to bring in measures that make the work environment more equal. I welcome the Minister of State's words and believe that he is genuine. I am not sure exactly what will happen with the amendments but I am generally supportive of the Bill.
Like other Senators, I have received much correspondence and calls from many concerned parents about this Bill. As my colleagues, Senators Noone and Conway, said, I appreciate that the Minister of State is working exceptionally hard to find consensus on this important Bill, to try to support working parents. The contribution, which I have carefully listened to, is working towards reaching that consensus. It has numerous benefits for parents who will be able to spend more time with their children, and for children when developing. The Minister of State has pointed out the challenges due to the cost implications in the analysis which has been done but it can have positive impacts for the employer too, in retention of staff, ensuring that skills are retained in the workforce, and supporting working parents by easing the horrendous cost of childcare. I would like to see this Bill progress to the next Stage.
I am supportive of parents in our region. We know that work has been done on paid paternity leave. In County Roscommon, over 200 fathers have benefited from that. We have seen the extension of ECCE. It is not that the Government is not working to support parents. In line with the directive from the EU on work-life balance, there is always more to do to support working parents and I think progression of this Bill would go some way to support parents in spending more time with their children, especially in early years where they benefit significantly from that time and support.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this important legislation. On this side of the House, despite some of the narrative, there has been extreme activity to try to progress the Bill, as Senator Bacik and other Members know. The Minister of State deserves credit for reaching out. All of us in government support working parents and recognise the motivation of this Bill. We need consensus to arrive at a positive outcome from this Bill. I welcome that the outline of what should be achieved is to give more time to working parents to be with their children. Those of us involved with children in education recognise that the critical time is in the early formative years, where parents have a role to play.
I have spoken to some who have taken the time to email and to others on the doorstep. It is a matter of getting the work-life balance right. For some, time is of the essence. I think that consensus, rather than division, achieves results. I deride those who create a different narrative. We all support the principle of the Bill. We all agree and think it is important to promote the benefits that can accrue from this. This is about quality of life. We all want to support parents. It is all about having a positive outcome. That work-life balance is about work, school, home, children and the benefit they can bring to society.
I do not want to sound a discordant note but I do not believe we can dismiss the IBEC email out of hand. I do not speak for IBEC, nor do I wish to speak for it but in any debate, it is important to reflect on what it puts forward, and dismissing its point of view is unfair. Notwithstanding that, I support the principle of the Bill. I believe, with respect to my good friend, Senator Bacik, that it was a gross mistake by the Joint Committee on Justice and Equality not to have pre-legislative scrutiny. I say that having been Chair of a committee for five years in the last Oireachtas, when the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, chaired the justice committee. It was a committee which conducted pre-legislative scrutiny of important legislation relating to both children and health. I believe as a consequence of the pre-legislative scrutiny that many potential difficulties were ironed out. We heard a number of points articulated which perhaps would not have been heard otherwise. I am a strong advocate of, and firm believer in, the need for pre-legislative scrutiny of legislation.
I have met with a number of people in my area in Cork about the Bill. They said that something has to give, that they had too much going on, and that they as the squeezed middle needed to get something. I believe that in politics and in life, the moderate, centre voice must be heard and listened to. We always have the fringe elements in politics and society. In this case, I have met with a number of very moderate people who want to see parental leave extended. I am glad that we are not opposing it at this Stage. I welcome the Minister of State's input and the way in which he is bringing amendments to this Bill.
The Government has not opposed this Bill. I want people to hear that the Government in this Oireachtas and the last Oireachtas made significant policy changes to support families and children.
Senators Noone and Hopkins referred to the budget and the allocation of €89 million for childcare, the free preschool year, the ECCE scheme, and the extension of parental leave. Reference was also made to the paternity leave legislation that was introduced, the restoration of child benefit, capitation in schools and the reduction in the pupil-teacher ratio. These are all significant points made by the Government. I thank the Minister of State and Senators Bacik and Ardagh for their co-operation on this. I hope there will not be an inordinate delay. It is important that we get this right. The last thing we want is to have this Bill declared unconstitutional. One might say this will not happen but there is potential. The Minister of State outlined the position and he has his advice. I thank him for his contribution.
I thank colleagues for their discussion on the three amendments. Senator Bacik is adamant that there is no significant cost to the State. Senator Noone mentioned maternity leave for Oireachtas Members. They are among the few groups who do not have an entitlement to maternity or paternity leave. When we were introducing the paid paternity leave legislation a little while go, a colleague and his wife were due to have a child and he asked whether he could avail of paternity leave. Unfortunately, he could not. We should pay attention to this. If we are to encourage younger people into the Houses of the Oireachtas, they should be treated in the same way as everyone else in the State and be entitled to take time out.
I have had discussions with colleagues from some of the Nordic countries, including Sweden and Norway. They always do things better than anybody else - fair play to them. They have a system of alternates so that when an individual is being elected, the name of an alternate is also on the ballot paper. The latter can step in if a member has to step aside and take maternity or paternity leave. The alternate takes over and does the work. One would have to be careful about who one gets to step in, in case they have other notions. Ultimately, the system works in the Nordic countries and in others. It means the people do not lose representation. The group, party or otherwise has a voice in the Parliament and, crucially, the member – mum or dad - can take time out to be with his or her child, as everyone else can. The Seanad might debate and investigate this at some stage. A by-product would be that if somebody resigned or passed away, as happens from time to time, the alternate could take over, obviating the need for by-elections, which cost a lot. This is worth debating. Perhaps it would require a constitutional referendum. I do not know. We need to do what we can, however, to encourage more younger people to enter the Houses. Having a child should in no way preclude or put terrible pressure on Members. In the past, some colleagues in this House have said they were under a lot of pressure when a child came along, and they got no time off at all. That is not right.
On this issue, there is not much between us at all; we are very close. If we believe there are issues that should be raised during a debate, we have a responsibility to raise them. I am not trying to be popular. Sometimes if I say something, it will not be popular but I have a responsibility to raise it for debate. I might get hammered over it from time to time but the responsibility still exists. None of us should be in here to be popular. We should be here to do what is right. If there are issues and concerns, we have a responsibility to put them on the record, bring them to the attention of colleagues and debate them. Ultimately, we might not agree and might divide on matters. So be it; that is democracy. We should at least air the issues.
Cost is an issue. I have outlined how this came about. It is not trivial. As Senator Buttimer said, we do not want this to fall at the last fence. I am concerned about the impact on small businesses. Big businesses can manage. We have virtually full employment, thanks to Government policies up to now. I will play that trumpet. We have virtually full employment, heading to an unemployment rate of less than 5%. Employers are calling to my office saying they cannot get workers. They say they are looking for workers here, there and everywhere and cannot get them. This is fantastic in the sense that I did not believe six or seven years ago that we would be able to say that. It has a knock-on effect for legislation such as this, however. If people take time off, it is harder to replace them because of full employment. We have to bear that in mind, especially in the provision of essential State services. If staff are not available to provide any of the State services I mentioned, because of increased leave, it could have an impact on those services. We physically could not obtain staff. That is not to say we are not supportive of the legislation but we need to give both small businesses and the front-line State services a chance to gear up for this and get ready for it. That is why we should phase in the legislation and bring in the measures next September and the following September. We should give those concerned an opportunity to do this properly and not put them under terrible pressure. That is all I propose.
I move amendment No. 2:
In page 3, to delete from “a further period” in line 28 down to and including "that child, and" in line 29 and substitute the following:
"a further continuous period of 8 weeks of parental leave or such further period as agreed pursuant to section 7(1)(b) in respect of that child unless the operation of section 6(2) would prevent the employee from taking parental leave after that date, and".
I move amendment No. 3:
In page 4, line 4, after "child" to insert the following:
", unless the operation of section 6(2) would prevent the employee from taking parental leave after that date".
I move amendment No. 4:
In page 4, to delete lines 13 to 17, and substitute the following:
"(a) in subsection (1) by substituting "26 weeks" for "18 weeks" in both places where it occurs,
(b) in paragraph (a) of subsection (2)—
(i) by substituting “26 weeks” for “18 weeks” in both places where it occurs, and
(ii) in subparagraph (ii) by substituting “26 times” for “18 times”,
(c) in subsection (3A)(a)(i)—
(i) by substituting “11 years” for “7 years”, and
(ii) by substituting “the coming into operation of the Parental Leave (Amendment) Act 2019” for “commencement of this subsection".
This is a self-explanatory amendment. It is another technical one.
This amendment is a technical amendment to section 7 of the 1998 Act. It is necessitated by the original intent to increase the entitlement to parental leave from 18 weeks to 26 weeks by the Bill.
Paragraph (a) amends section 7 of the Parental Leave Act 1998 to reflect the increase from 18 to 26 weeks. Paragraph (b) replaces every reference to "18 weeks" or "18 times" to a reference to "26 weeks" or "26 times" for the purpose of calculating parental leave for those parents working on a pro rata basis or informal hours. The amendment in paragraph (c) is a necessary change to ensure that parents who adopt an older child can benefit from their full entitlement to adoptive and parental leave in circumstances that would otherwise prevent them from doing so.
I move amendment No. 5:
In page 4, between lines 17 and 18, to insert the following:
“Amendment of section 27 of Principal Act
4. Section 27 of the Principal Act is amended by inserting the following subsection after subsection (2):
"(2A) Notwithstanding subsection (2), a record made under this section in respect of parental leave taken after the relevant day as defined in section 6(9) shall be retained by the employer for a period of 12 years or until the child in respect of whom the leave has been taken attains the age of 12 years, whichever is earliest.".".
This is a technical amendment.
Section 27 of the Parental Leave Act 1998 includes provisions relating to an employer's obligations to keep records on the uptake of parental leave and the manner in which it is taken by employees in their organisation. The provisions of the section also apply to force majeure leave taken by their employees. The section currently provides that records must be maintained by the employers in a prescribed manner for a period of eight years, and also obliges employees to keep all relevant paperwork for a period of one year.
The failure of an employer to maintain records relating to parental leave or force majeure leave in accordance with the Act may be subject to criminal prosecution, and persons found guilty of an offence shall be liable to summary conviction or a fine not exceeding €2,500. In line with the Bill's aim to increase the upper age limit of a child for which parental leave is not possible from eight to 12 years, this amendment seeks to modify the reporting requirements in the Act to take account of this change. In essence, the amendment requires employers to retain a record of leave taken by their employees for period of 12 years or until the child for whom the leave is taken reaches the age of 12, whichever comes sooner.
There is, however, a more serious issue in section 7 that must be addressed. I propose to bring forward an amendment on Report Stage to rectify this anomaly. The Department of Justice and Equality has identified a technical issue caused by the Bill's proposed extension of parental leave from 18 weeks to 26 weeks and its interaction with section 7(1)(aa) of the Parental Leave Act 1998. At present, section 7(1)(aa) provides that leave may be taken in a single period of 18 weeks or in two separate periods of not less than six weeks in duration. However, as section 7(1)(aa) explicitly states that parental leave must be taken in two separate periods, should the Act remain as is, a situation arises where a parent who has taken his or her original entitlement in two separate periods, as per section 7(1)(aa), will not be able to take a third or subsequent period of leave to allow him or her to avail of the additional eight weeks' leave provided for in the Bill if the Bill remains unchanged. Similarly, this provision, if unamended, may also prevent a parent from taking the remainder of the 18 weeks' leave that he or she may not have been able to take before the child reached eight years of age. This is a technical problem with the Bill which would make it unworkable that the Government has identified and is correcting, so I ask Senators not to say we are opposing this. This is a serious flaw in the Bill that cannot go unchecked. In brief, the Bill makes no provision to allow a parent who has already taken his or her leave in two separate periods to avail of the additional eight weeks' leave being provided for in the Bill. The Bill creates an entitlement to an additional eight weeks' leave but, for a certain group of parents, provides them with no way of taking it.
As it stands, this issue renders the Bill unworkable. I, therefore, propose that the Government will introduce amendments on Report Stage to rectify this issue and to ensure that all qualifying parents receive their entitlement to leave. I believe that correcting this anomaly is in the spirit of the Bill, which seeks to make it easier for a greater number of parents to benefit from the leave. Here is an example of the Government being positive, proactive and supportive, so to people who said we are opposing this I say, "Go away."
I thank the Minister of State for his positive and constructive response.
When is it proposed to take Report Stage?
Is that agreed? Agreed.