I remind Senators that they may speak only once on Report Stage, except the proposer of an amendment, who may reply to discussion on the amendment. Furthermore, each non-Government amendment must be seconded.
Parental Leave (Amendment) Bill 2017: Report and Final Stages
When we were last here I gave an undertaking to progress the Bill in Government time, reflecting the Government's support for the aims of the Bill. Increasing choices for working parents and helping to provide them with the opportunity to spend more time with their children is a worthwhile aim, and we all share it. However, Senators will appreciate that the development of policy in this area is not straightforward and that the legislation is more complex than people realise. On Committee Stage I outlined a number of amendments the Government would be bringing forward on Report Stage. While those amendments initially appeared to be straightforward, the Senators will accept that in reality this is seldom the case, indeed, those amendments proved to be a lot more complex than anticipated.
The amendments are intended to balance the respective needs of parents and employers. As the House is aware, the Bill seeks to expand the current parental leave allocation from 18 weeks to 26 weeks. Doing so would place a financial and administrative burden on employers. On Committee Stage I outlined that if only 10% of eligible parents in the public sector were to take the leave in the health and education sectors it would amount to a cost of approximately €1.2 million. A 100% take-up would cost the Exchequer in excess of €12.4 million. Senators will recall that these figures do not include costs arising from An Garda Síochána, the Irish Prison Service, the Defence Forces, customer facing units or the public service, including the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection and the Revenue Commissioners. Neither do these figures take into account the loss of productivity or the loss of trained and experienced staff members from back offices. When the extra eight weeks are added to existing provisions, namely, maternity leave, paternity leave and carer's leave, and existing parental leave entitlements, the impact becomes greater on employers. The Office of the Attorney General has highlighted the issue of the cumulative burden on employers and the risk of unconstitutionality. We therefore have to ensure that the burden on employers is not disproportionate.
To address these concerns, the Government is proposing that the additional entitlements arising under this Bill will be phased in over two years. This is intended to give private and public sector employers time to adjust to the new leave regime. At the same time it will ensure that it will come on stream for parents from 1 December 2019. I will discuss this phased approach in more detail shortly when we come to the relevant amendment.
I must also mention that the work that my Department is undertaking in respect of other strands of family leave policy recognises that helping working parents to have more flexibility and greater choice in how they balance their professional and family lives has positive benefits for families and societies as a whole. In this context, A Programme for a Partnership Government includes a commitment to increase paid parental leave during the first year of a child's life as the research shows that children benefit most from parental care at this stage of development. Senators will recall that I recently joined with the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan, and the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Deputy Regina Doherty, to secure Government approval to draft legislation to implement that commitment and to introduce a new paid parental leave scheme later this year. This scheme will provide a paid parental leave entitlement for each parent of a child under one, whether employed or self-employed. Leave will initially be set at two weeks, and it is the Government's intention to increase the period of leave on a phased basis up to seven weeks over the next three years. This leave is in addition to the existing maternity, paternity and adoptive leave entitlements and will provide working parents with further opportunities to spend more time with their baby in its first crucial year of development.
I propose to take amendment No. 1 on its own as it involves an amendment of section 2 of the 1998 Act. The first amendment is straightforward; it updates the Bill to update the 1998 Act to insert the definition of a "specified day" and a "specified Act". The term "specified day" is required throughout the Act to ensure that when the Act commences on the specified day parents will be able to apply to take their entitlement to additional parental leave from the date the Act is commenced. The term "specified Act" is required to ensure that parents who did not use their full entitlement to leave under the 1998 Act, as amendment in 2013, will be able to claim any unused leave if that child is still under the new qualifying age of 12 years.
This is a very important Bill, and I very much hope it will be brought into law very swiftly. I acknowledge the fact that this Bill is an initiative of Deputies Shortall and Catherine Murphy.
The Bill was passed by the Dáil nearly a year ago, on 13 June 2018, and came to the Seanad in November but Second Stage was only taken in the Seanad when Fianna Fáil gave its Private Members' time and, indeed, it only moved on to Committee Stage on 6 February this year when we, the Labour Party Senators, gave over our Private Members' time for Committee Stage. I am glad we are taking it now in Government time.
The Minister promised us amendments which are now before us. We all want this Bill come into effect because of the great improvements for parents that it will represent. I acknowledge the Government has worked with Deputy Shortall in bringing the amendments forward. I spoke to Deputy Shortall today. I will not be opposing the amendments, nor will any of my colleagues, because we want to see this Bill come through because we know how important it is to families. From Deputy Shortall's point of view, it was somewhat disappointing that the amendments appeared so late. It would have been preferable to have had more consultation more recently. There was consultation, and I acknowledge that, between the Department and Deputy Shortall, but more extensive and recent consultation might have been preferable.
Colleagues of mine share concerns about amendment No. 10 which refers to the commencement of the legislation and that the Act shall come into operation on a day or days appointed by the Minister. We are concerned about the start date. I anticipate the Minister will say 1 September 2019 will be the date on which the provisions will come into effect as that date is specified in amendment No. 2. However, many parents are running out of parental leave provision and were hoping the Bill might come into effect in time for the summer holiday period, perhaps by July or 1 August. That may be something of a disappointment.
Having said all that, I do not wish to sound begrudging or negative because this is a positive Bill and development. It is a positive day for the Seanad and I commend the Government on working with Deputies Shortall and Catherine Murphy to ensure the Bill comes through. I simply make those points about the amendments but, as I say, do not oppose the Bill or any individual amendment. We all know and understand the great benefit that enhanced parental leave provision will represent to many families, parents and children.
This piece of business must finish before 6 p.m. because we will be dealing with Private Members' business.
I do not intend to speak again.
We are only dealing with amendment No. 1 at the moment. I will give Senators an opportunity to make a contribution towards the end if they want but, unless somebody has a specific contribution on amendment No. 1, I will move on.
The purpose of this amendment is to amend the Parental Leave Act 1998 to increase the current 18-week unpaid parental leave entitlement to 26 weeks. The Government now proposes that this increase in parental leave should be phased in in two blocks of four additional weeks from 1 September of this year and a further four weeks from 1 September 2020. As I have already mentioned, while all of us are in favour of supporting working parents we must remain cognisant of the potential effect on employers, especially very small employers. In the absence of pre-legislative scrutiny, I invited the views of all affected stakeholders, including employers. IBEC subsequently made a submission to the Department in which it outlined its key concerns regarding the legislation. It cited the consequence for employers and particularly, as I said, SMEs with small numbers of employees in terms of administrative and cost burdens, the challenge involved in replacing key skills and ensuring that the alternative arrangement did not result in loss of productivity or output. Employers have indicated that it is vital that any increase is on a phased basis to lessen the impact on employers, especially SMEs. I know Senators are very concerned about SMEs because the larger companies will probably be able to handle it okay.
Senators will also appreciate that extending parental leave on a phased basis is not only about supporting the interests of business. As I previously mentioned, the Office of the Attorney General has raised the issue of the cumulative burden on employers and the risk of constitutionality if the impact on employers is deemed to be disproportionate. A phased basis, as proposed by Government, would enhance the Bill's presumption of constitutionality as it is contended that phasing in the leave over the next 17 months will give employers time to adjust, thus helping to avoid the risk that the new leave might be considered to impose a disproportionate burden on employers. This approach stems from previous case law, which Senators will recall, in which the Supreme Court found it unconstitutional to place a disproportionate burden on employers which would cause undue hardship.
In selecting the phasing-in dates of 1 September 2019 and 2020 respectively, my officials engaged with Government Departments and the public sector. These dates were selected on the basis that they give public sector organisations, including large organisations such as the HSE, adequate time to put measures in place to facilitate the additional leave being provided for in the Bill and also to budget for the cost of providing the leave. It also reduces potential costs arising for the Exchequer in this year.
As I mentioned earlier and on Committee Stage, even if 10% of eligible parents in the public sector will take their leave, this will amount to approximately €1.2 million in costs in the health and education sectors. A take-up of 100% would increase the costs in these sectors to €12.4 million. Again I must stress that these figures do not include the costs that would arise in An Garda Síochána, the Irish Prison Service, the Defence Forces, other rostered public services or in customer-facing units of the public service, including the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection and the Revenue Commissioners. I commend the amendment to the House.
I welcome the amendment. We all welcome this Bill, and the following is all I will say about it.
I will bring everybody in at the end to discuss the Bill. Is the Senator speaking only to amendment No. 2?
I will not come in at the end. I will just make a point now.
If I bring in Senator Conway now, I will have to bring everybody in now and we will not get through the legislation before 6 o'clock.
It was Committee Stage-----
This is Report Stage. It is fine if the Senator is making a point about amendment No. 2.
It is fine. The Acting Chairman can go ahead.
Amendments Nos. 3 and 4 are related and may be discussed together, by agreement. Is that agreed? Agreed.
The purpose of amendment No. 3 is to modify the Bill's approach towards parents who were unable to use their full entitlement to parental leave previously. Section 6 of the Parental Leave Act 1998 provides for parents' entitlements to parental leave. At present, if a child reaches the age of eight years, then his or her parents will no longer have an entitlement to parental leave, even if he or she has not used the full 18-week entitlement. As Senators will recall, one of the key principles of the Bill is to increase the qualifying age of a child from eight to 12.
In parallel to that measure, amendment No. 4 inserts new subsection (8A) into section 6 of the 1998 Act to provide that, where a parent was unable to take his or her full entitlement to parental leave under the 1998 Act due to his or her child reaching the age of eight years, that parent will now be able to take any unclaimed leave as long as the child is under the newly-increased qualifying age of 12 years. This amendment reflects the Government's desire to support parents wishing to take their existing and new leave entitlements by increasing the upper age limit for the child, thereby increasing the period of time in which the parents can take the leave. It is a key part of the Government's efforts to support working families.
Amendments Nos. 5 and 6 are related and may be discussed together, by agreement. Is that agreed? Agreed.
Government amendment No. 5 is procedural in nature and deletes existing text in the Bill which was inserted on Committee Stage. These provisions will be replaced by the text which will be moved in amendment No. 6.
Government amendment No. 6 provides for the amendment of section 7 of the principal Act which is the section which governs the manner in which leave is taken by parents. At present under the Parental Leave Act 1998, parents may take leave either in two blocks of leave in excess of six weeks each or in a single block of 18 weeks. A parent may also elect to take the parental leave in a single, large block of 18 weeks. Given the Government's proposal to increase the entitlement to parental leave on a phased basis paragraphs (a), (b) and (c) of amendment No. 6 provide that the single maximum of parental leave that a parent may take will increase from 22 weeks from 1 September 2019 to 26 weeks from 2020.
Moving on from the first three parts of amendment 6, on Committee Stage I informed the House that my officials identified a technical issue caused by the extension of the period of parental leave and its interaction with section 7(1)(aa) of the Parental Leave Act 1998. As I outlined, section 7(1)(aa) of the Act currently 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 it is, a problem arises for a parent who has taken his or her original entitlement in two separate periods as per section 7(1)(aa). In that circumstance, she or she 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 provided for in the Bill if the Bill remains unchanged.
Similarly, this provision, if not amended, may also prevent a parent from taking the remainder of the 18 weeks that he or she may not have been able to take before his or her child reached the age of eight. The Bill, as currently drafted, makes no provision to allow a parent who has already take his or her leave in two separate periods to avail of the additional eight weeks being provided for in the Bill. The Bill creates an entitlement to an additional eight weeks of 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, and Senators will agree that this is a serious flaw in the Bill that cannot go unchecked. This is why I am pressing amendment 6, paragraph (d).
In summary, amendment 6, paragraph (d) inserts a new section 7(1)(ba) into the 1998 Act to allow any parents to take their unclaimed leave and their new entitlement to eight weeks, irrespective of the form in which they previously took parental leave under section 7(1)(aa). Under this new provision, parental leave may be taken in blocks of one or more weeks at a time. Through this amendment, the Government is rectifying the error in the Bill and is providing parents with greater flexibility as to how they can take their leave. It is a significant step forward from the current situation in which parents may be forced to take their leave in blocks of six weeks if their employer does not agree to shorter periods of leave.
Under the Government’s amendment, all eligible parents will be able to take leave in blocks of one week or more.
Obviously, many employers permit their employees to take leave in periods of a single day or parts of a day. However, that is a voluntary agreement between employer and employee. Such arrangements will be unchanged as a result of the proposed amendment. The amendment will provide much-needed flexibility for employees whose employers currently require them to take leave in blocks of six weeks or more.
Amendment No. 6 at paragraph (e) is an amendment to section 7(2)(a) of the 1998 Act, which is necessary to provide for how parental leave is to be calculated where an employee works on a pro rata basis.
Section 7(2)(a)(i) of the Act provides that the period of parental leave, in hours, to which employee shall be entitled, shall be 18 times the number of hours per week worked by that employee. Similarly, where an employee’s hours are not recorded, section 7(2)(a)(ii) of the Act provides that the period of parental leave, in hours, to which the employee shall be entitled, shall be 18 multiplied by the average number of hours per week worked by that employee.
In line with the Government’s proposal to phase in parental leave, amendment No. 6 at paragraph (e) provides that the current multiplier of 18 will increase to a multiplier of 22 from 1 September 2019 and to a multiplier of 26 from 1 September 2020 onwards.
Section 7(2)(b) of the 1998 Act provides that where a parent is on parental leave and that leave falls on a day that is a public holiday or another form of statutory leave or sick leave, then those days shall be added to their entitlement to parental leave.
Amendment No. 6 at paragraph (f) provides that if a parent is taking parental leave in the manner set out in the newly introduced section 7(1)(ba), the same entitlements to allow them to recoup authorised absences from work, as I have just outlined, will extend to those parents.
I will now discuss paragraphs (g) and (h) of amendment No. 6. As Senators will recall, in 2006 the 1998 Act was amended for the purpose of extending the upper age limit of a qualifying child to eight years of age and 16 years in the case of a child with a serious illness or disability. The Act was also amended to extend parental leave to parents of adopted children and to implement the various recommendations of a working group set up to review the Act. When the qualifying age of the child was increased in 2006, an exception to this limit was inserted via section 7(3A) of the Act to ensure that parents could take their entitlement to parental leave in the last qualifying year. These sorts of arrangements are commonly inserted into legislation to ensure that people receive their full statutory entitlements.
In the Bill before us today, we have also increased the qualifying age of the child to 12 years of age, and the Bill’s sponsors have sought to modify the transitional provision in section 7(3A) to ensure that parents will have no difficulty in taking their leave in the last year of entitlement. However, while well intentioned, the amendments in the Bill need to be replaced, as the manner in which they do so is problematic.
As I have outlined, section 7(3A) is a transitional provision and must remain unaltered, as that section is specific to the other amendments made under the 2006 Act. It is necessary to ensure that the protections that were put in place when the Act was amended in 2006 remain in place on a transitional basis for parents. We must ensure that parents do not inadvertently lose entitlements as a result of modifying existing transitional arrangements in section 7(3A).
In general, it is the drafting and legislative policy of the Office of the Attorney General not to amend a transitional provision such as the one in section 7(3A) and in this context, the Office of the Attorney General has advised against modifying these transitional arrangements in the existing Act.
It is the advice of Parliamentary Counsel that substituting the provisions of a section in legislation which contains a transitional arrangement is equivalent to repealing that section and it is not advised to pursue such a course of action because, as I have outlined to the House, it can have unintended consequences for the parents we are trying to assist. Instead, Government amendment No. 6 at paragraphs (g) and (h), mirrors what the Bill is seeking to do, but does so by inserting a new subsection (3B) into section 7 of the Act. This means that the same aim is achieved but without interfering with the previous transitional arrangements.
Amendment No. 7 is a consequential amendment that is required due to the insertion of section 7(1)(ba). Senators will recall that amendment is required to address an error in the Bill and will provide families with greater flexibility in how they take their leave.
When the primary Act was enacted in 1998, parents could take a single period of 14 weeks leave or smaller periods as agreed with their employer. Parents were required to give one single notification up to six weeks in advance of taking leave in compliance with section 8(1).
In 2013, the Act was amended to increase parental leave to 18 weeks. It was then provided for in a new section 7(1)(aa) that leave could be taken in an 18-week block, in two separate blocks of six or more weeks or in smaller periods, days, half days, etc., as agreed with their employer. A new section 8(7) was also inserted into the Act to provide that where a person provided a notification for all their parental leave or provided two individual notifications in line with section 7(1)(aa), one for each of the two periods they were entitled to or intended to take, they were deemed to have complied with the requirements under section 8(1).
A similar amendment is now required with regard to the notice that parents are required to give as section 7(1)(ba) allows parents to take leave in individual blocks of a week or more. A new section 8(8), similar in purpose to section 8(7) is now required to enable parents taking leave under section 7(1)(ba) to comply with the notification requirements of section 8(1).
In brief, if a parent wishes to take their leave in patterns of a week or more, for example, to facilitate mid-term breaks and shorter holidays such as Easter, etc., parents can provide either a single notification specifying each period of leave that they wish to take or else submit notifications for each period of leave to be taken and having done so, they shall be deemed compliant with the notification requirements under section 8(1) of the Act.
This amendment replicates and updates an existing transitional provision in section 11 of the Act. At present, under section 11(6A) where a parent takes two periods of parental leave in excess of six weeks in duration and has given proper notice to their employer but then wishes to postpone the leave, that postponement shall apply to both periods of leave unless an alternative arrangement is agreed with the employer. This provision was introduced as part of the Parental Leave (Amendment) Act 2006.
As the Government wishes to ensure that parents can take their leave in a flexible manner that suits families, Senators will recall that earlier I moved the amendment to insert section 7(1)(ba) to the 1998 Act. That amendment will allow parents to take their leave in multiple blocks of a week or more. However, as discussed, notification will still be required to take this leave. Due to the insertion of section 7(1)(ba), the Government has to introduce a similar arrangement in respect of postponement of leave taken under section 7(1)(ba).
Amendment No. 8 provides for the insertion of a new section 11(6B) in the Act to provide that where a parent has given the employer notification to take multiple periods of parental leave, in blocks of a week or more, under section 7(1)(ba) and where the parent then wishes to postpone that leave, the notification of postponement will be considered to apply to all periods of leave specified under that notice unless she or he agrees an alternative arrangement with the employer.
On Committee Stage, Senators will recall that I accepted an amendment concerning the employer’s obligation to retain records of their employees’ applications to take parental leave. Section 27 of the Act requires employers to retain records on parental leave taken by their employees for a period of eight years. This retention period parallels the qualifying age of a child under the Act. The amendment proposed by Senators on Committee Stage requires employers to retain parental leave records for a period of 12 years or until the child in question reaches the age of 12, whichever comes sooner.
Following consultation with advisory counsel, an issue has been identified with this amendment. If left unaltered, the amendment would oblige employers to keep checking the ages of their employees’ children to see if they had reached the age of 12. If an employer made a mistake or an oversight in this regard, this obligation would leave him or her open to prosecution and subject to fines under section 27(4) of the Act. I am sure Senators will agree that this is a very serious and onerous burden to place on employers, particularly at the risk of criminal prosecution.
I have discussed this matter with the Bill’s sponsors and we both agree that the provisions of the Act would be cleaner to operate and less onerous on employers if the section were instead amended to require employers to retain the data for a period of 12 years in respect of parental leave. This approach reflects what is currently in section 27 of the Act. This amendment achieves the objective of the Bill which is that the employer should retain the relevant records but makes the period of time for which the records need to be retained much clearer for the employer. The employer does not need to keep checking back with the employee with regard to the child’s age.
For information, section 27 of the Act also requires employers to maintain records in respect force majeure leave taken by their employees for a period of eight years and this will requirement will remain unchanged.
This is a standard commencement provision which I have been advised by senior officials in my Department and the Office of the Attorney General is required as a matter of good legislative and drafting practice. I assure Senators that the Minister and I will not delay in commencing the Bill once enacted and to this effect, my officials and the Office of the Attorney General are preparing a commencement order to be signed by the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, after the Bill is enacted.
A draft of the order has been prepared alongside the Government amendments. As I mentioned earlier, the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, will sign the order as soon as is possible following enactment. We plan that the order will be signed in mid-July, probably on 19 July, to allow the Bill to come into effect six weeks before the date on which the entitlement to leave comes into force. It is intended that the commencement order will enable the entitlement to additional leave to come into effect on 1 September 2019. Otherwise, there is a risk with the current provision, which provides that the Bill would come into effect three months after enactment. It is possible with that provision that the Bill might not come into force on 1 September if there were a delay in the Bill passing both Houses and subsequently being signed into law by the President. The proposed commencement provision allows for the Bill to come into force on a specified date. I will undertake to ensure that the commencement order is signed in good time to enable the Bill to come into effect on 1 September.
I invite Senators to make their final comments in the following order, Senators Ardagh, Clifford-Lee, Conway, Ó Donnghaile, Mullen and Higgins.
I thank the Government for taking this Bill in Government time. It is very much appreciated. Fianna Fáil first introduced parental leave legislation in 1998. It is an initiative to which we are very much committed. The Bill extends the period of parental leave from 18 weeks to 26 and the timeframe within which parents may take that leave from eight years of age to 12. I thank the Social Democrats for initiating the Bill in the Dáil. Fianna Fáil and the Labour Party used their Private Members' time in the Seanad to bring forth this Bill and I thank colleagues across the House for facilitating its passage. I hope it will pass speedily through the Dáil in order that the many people waiting patiently for it to be enacted can benefit from it. They will be delighted with the progress made today.
This is a good day for this House in terms of the cross-party effort to have the Bill passed. It was originally a Social Democrats Bill. As outlined by Senator Ardagh, Fianna Fáil took it in its Private Members' time, as did the Labour Party and the Government. It is a good example of a cross-party effort. There is a little disappointment at the commencement date being September because, as other colleagues outlined, people urgently need this provision to be commenced. I receive correspondence every day calling for it to be brought forward urgently. However, it is better late than never. The provision is a welcome relief to working families who find it difficult to juggle child care responsibilities and their working lives. It is one of a number of measures needed in this area. I hope we can work in a similar fashion to introduce other measures.
My colleagues in the Dáil Deputies Lisa Chambers and O'Loughlin introduced the Shared Maternity Leave and Benefit Bill, which needs to be progressed. What is proposed therein will not suit everybody, but it will make a dramatic difference to some people. We need to keep the focus on families who are at a difficult time in their lives in child rearing. As I know that the Minister is committed to helping them, I hope we can work together to move on the Shared Maternity Leave and Benefit Bill. Families need a break.
As stated, this is a good day. Will the Minister indicate when the Bill will be taken in the Dáil? I would like to see it taken, passed and sent to the President for signature next week. The mothers and fathers of Ireland will then be able to breathe a sigh of relief.
I call Senator Conway and apologise for cutting him off earlier.
It is fine. I am well used to it.
I thank the Minister for his co-operation on this Bill. I share the disappointment of families who are coming to the end of their parental leave entitlements that because this provision will not take effect until September they will not benefit. However, as was said, it is better late than never. It is a reflection of the Government's commitment to supporting families and hard working parents who are trying to juggle working and rearing a family and want to do it right. The provision is a good example of partnership between the Government and working families. It is also a good example of new politics is working well. New politics does and has worked well in some cases, but that is never covered by the national media. The narrative is always that the Parliament is broken. We do not help ourselves either in that regard. However, what is happening today is an example of us working well. This is a practical, common-sense Private Members' Bill that was introduced by our colleagues in the Social Democrats who are not represented in this House, but nevertheless Senators saw merit in what was proposed and took it under their wing. The concept behind the Bill received cross-party support in this House. In that regard, credit is due to the Labour Party and the Fianna Fáil Party. There is also credit due to the Government which often does not get the credit it deserves when new politics works for people. The provisions of the Bill will, when they percolate down, have a positive effect in families who are doing their best to rear children in this state in which child costs are punitive. The Bill is a small gesture to reflect that we respect the fact that parents want to spend time at home with their children. There are obvious benefits from that family participation that sometimes does not happen because of the cost of child care.
They have to spend time with their children because of the cost of child care.
Yes. Measures are being taken to deal with the issue as best we can. It is a challenge we all face. I look forward to positive proposals in that regard from across the political divide. We need to put proposals on the table in the same manner in which the Social Democrats, the Labour Party and others have done by way of positive politics which I hope some day will dawn in this country. Positive politics achieves so much more than the negative sniping that all too often takes place.
The Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, is always welcome in this House. When he is in it, the engagement is always positive, particularly when it is on behalf of the most vulnerable in our society. I hope that relationship and our engagement with him in this House will continue for whatever length of time is left in the term of this Seanad. I commend all parties which have played a positive role in getting this Bill over the line. I look forward to it having a meaningful effect in people's lives.
I, too, thank the Social Democrats for introducing the Bill. I commend those who have driven it through the Seanad, including the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, whose understanding of the issue is important. As stated, there are issues that are more important than economic competitiveness. This is one of them. Legislation such as this does not only provide for the practical benefits that we know come from parents, carers and guardians being able them to spend more time with their children at the crucial early developmental stages of their lives, it also benefits workers, parents and guardians. This makes for happier and more productive workers and a healthier and more cohesive society. The passage of this legislation is positive. I thank and commend all of those involved and wish the Bill every success.
I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, and everybody involved in the passage of this Bill through the Seanad. I wish the well-being of children was as central to other legislation going through the Houses as it is to this Bill. It is important that any initiative to facilitate the ability of parents to spend time with the children be encouraged. The important word is "facilitate". We are not seeking to compel, cajole or blackmail financially parents or guardians into spending time with their children. The overriding factor which needs to run through public policy is that the best people to decide how to raise their children are parents. To the greatest extent possible, the State should stay out of the issue of how parents choose to raise their children, while always providing the best possible legal framework for them to make good decisions. I say that because I worry that there is increasing nanny State rhetoric coming into policies at Government level when it comes to issues related to children and the family. I have in mind comments made by the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Deputy Regina Doherty, since the last we discussed this legislation in this House.
On that occasion she stated that the value of money associated with the scheme is not enough for men to take time off work. It does not seem to have stopped women from taking maternity leave since time immemorial. The Minister followed up stating that men seem to think that caring is a woman's thing and that taking time off real work is still a novelty for fathers. I do not like the kind of language that furthers a conflict between the genders. It has the effect of insulting parents and belittling decisions they make in respect of their families. Ironically, Fine Gael recently adopted a new party value at the Taoiseach's request which states, "Fine Gael believes that individuals and families know how best to organise their own lives and make decisions for themselves". Someone should have informed the Minister about that because the two comments are in conflict with each other.
It is a fact of life that the majority of most two-parent families decide that the mother takes on most of the child-rearing duties. This will always be the case. We should absolutely give fathers every possible opportunity to take more of a role but in no way should we stigmatise families who choose the outcome they prefer, for whatever reason, to suit their family circumstances. For long enough we listened to the need to get the church out of bedrooms and out of family decision-making but I think we now need to be aware of the State getting too involved in the minutiae of people's lives. We need to guard against this. I see signs of it which trouble me. It does not take away from the support that this legislation richly deserves and the credit that all those involved with the Bill deserve.
I will call on the Leader to comment, briefly.
No, I wish to speak on the Bill.
Senator Alice-Mary Higgins is next.
That is fine.
I commend the Social Democrats on proposing this legislation. It is an example of constructive new politics in action. That so many groups, Labour, Fianna Fáil and now the Government have given their time in this House to bring it forward is important. It brings Ireland towards being in line with and ready for the European work-life balance directive. It would be great if Ireland became a champion of that directive because we have fulfilled a number of its conditions. This is a positive step.
It is important that the State recognises and supports care, including in terms of childcare and measures such as this Bill. It is appropriate, given the referendum which was held on children's rights, that the State looks to every way that it can support children and every member of every family to live a full life. I hope that the Minister might be able to sign the legislation by July so that it comes in and people can plan their autumns. I commend the Bill to the House.
I welcome the Minister of State and thank him for his engagement. Like Senator Higgins and others, I commend the Social Democrats. The Government never opposed the legislation. As Leader of the House, I am very happy that the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, on behalf of the Government, worked proactively to ensure we had this important outcome today.
Sometimes I wonder if it is Groundhog Day when I hear some of the contributions from the Senators on the benches opposite. This is about ensuring that we give parents choice and flexibility and that we put the child at the heart of what we do. Those of us who have been involved in education understand that a child's formative years are very important. That philosophy has a positive outcome for children. I remind Senator Mullen that three years ago he opposed the marriage equality referendum. The world has not ended and the sky did not fall in; society has been enriched and is better as a consequence of the vote of the people.
Children's rights were not necessarily vindicated.
What the Government is doing involves ensuring better outcomes for parents and for children. I commend the Minister of State on his involvement.
I also welcome our friend and former colleague iar Seanadóir John Gilroy. He is very welcome.
I thank the Senators for an engaging debate. I am delighted that we are able to move forward towards finalising the Bill. I hope and understand that it will complete its final passage through the Dáil next week. The main point to take away this evening is that we have introduced measures which are fair and, more importantly, which benefit parents and families. This Government and that which preceded it have consistently supported working parents and families, and we will continue to do so.
We recently announced the introduction of a new paid parental leave scheme, as I am sure Senator Higgins would acknowledge, which is expected to commence later this year. This new scheme will initially provide for two weeks of paid, non-transferable leave per parent to spend with their new babies during their first year, rising to seven weeks by 2021. I look forward to the implementing legislation being progressed through the Houses and to hearing the views of Seanad Éireann on the Government’s proposals.
Ten very detailed amendments were brought forward this evening to make the Bill before the House work. A great deal of effort was put into that by my officials in the Department of Justice and Equality and by the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel and the Office of the Attorney General. Senators will realise that every comma, dot and full stop must be watched in legislation in order to ensure that it works and that there are no unintended consequences that might leave people worse off. Every item of legislation must be scrutinised to the nth degree to ensure it is correct because we do not want to do something that might have the opposite effect of what we intended. People may be critical of delays and so on but sometimes delays are important to ensure things are got right. It is better to be a little late and correct. I am sure that the Bill is now right. We plan that parents will be in a position to take the leave from 1 September.
I thank Senators for their co-operation and for getting the Bill through on time.