Family Leave Bill 2021: Committee and Remaining Stages

I formally welcome the two Ministers to the Seanad which is meeting in the Dáil Chamber.

SECTION 1

Amendments Nos. 1 to 3, inclusive, 5 and 6 are related. Amendment No. 6 is consequential on amendment No. 5. Amendments Nos. 1 to 3, inclusive, 5 and 6 are related and may be discussed together by agreement. I call on the Minister for Justice to speak to the group of amendments please.

Government amendment No. 1:
In page 5, line 18, to delete “Family Leave Act 2021” and substitute “Family Leave and Miscellaneous Provisions Act 2021”.

I thank the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy Roderic O'Gorman, and the team in his Department for facilitating the introduction of these amendments. I also thank Senators and, of course, colleagues in the Dáil.

There are five Government amendments from the Department of Justice to the Bill. They have, essentially, the overall purpose of making suitable legislative provision in relation to the operation by the courts and by the Personal Injuries Assessment Board, PIAB, of the personal injuries guidelines, which, as Senators will know, were adopted recently by the Judicial Council under the Judicial Council Act 2019.

The key Government amendment is No. 5. It provides for the newest insertion into the Bill of Part 9 that deals with the amendment of the Judicial Council Act 2019 and the Personal Injuries Assessment Board Act 2003. Essentially, this amendment sets out that any case that is currently before the courts would be assessed under the old guidelines.

Any case that has already been heard or assessed by the Personal Injuries Assessment Board and potentially is going to the court would also be heard under the old guidelines. Any new case that is currently with PIAB but that has not been heard would be assessed under the new personal injuries guidelines. About 19,000 cases will be assessed under the new personal injuries guidelines. This amendment is to ensure fairness so that cases which are already going through the court system or have been assessed can continue under the figures that have been set out prior to the introduction of the new personal injuries guidelines.

Government amendments Nos. 2 and 3 deal with the bringing into operation of Part 9 of the Bill. The amendments include a standard commencement provision conferring the function of bringing Part 9 into operation by order on the Minister for Justice instead of the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth. Government amendments Nos. 1 to 6, inclusive, provide for amendment of the Short Title and the Long Title of the Bill arising from the proposed inclusion in the Bill of the matters relating to the operation of personal injuries guidelines adopted by the Judicial Council.

I thank the House for its agreement to take these Government amendments and I also thank the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, for facilitating them.

I welcome both Ministers to the House. I reiterate some of the points I made on the first occasion we had Committee Stage, which is to express my regret at seeing unrelated amendments being shoehorned into a Bill. I know that the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, agreed that it was not ideal. We are all agreed that it is not an ideal situation. This is a Bill that is coming from a different Department. Department of Justice amendments are being inserted into a Bill introduced by the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth. The original purpose of the Family Leave Bill was very much welcomed by all of us, but it is utterly unrelated to the provisions we are now dealing with through these Government amendments.

Having said that we are not opposing the amendments. We accept the need for them. The Judicial Council decision to adopt the personal injuries guidelines was made very recently, on 6 March. The Minister, Deputy McEntee, indicated that this appeared to be the next suitable Bill in which to place the amendments. We certainly accept that. However, we believe the amendments deal with transitional matters that could have been put into the original Act had greater thought gone into it. None of the amendments really deals with the guidelines themselves which are not before the Houses. The Oireachtas has in effect already legislated to give effect to the guidelines in section 99 of the Judicial Council Act. In a sense we are not making any substantive changes through these amendments which are purely technical and addressing omissions.

I again put on the record my concern that we are seeing unrelated amendments inserted into a Bill which was self-contained and for a specific purpose. To that extent amendment No. 1, which changes is the Title to the Family Leave and Miscellaneous Provisions Act, would generally be acknowledged as being poor legislative practice.

I make one other point in respect of the changes in the guidelines which are now to be brought into effect. While all of us are very much in favour of seeing premiums reduced and very conscious of the enormous difficulties the high cost of insurance has created for many people, which is the rationale put forward for introducing this legislation, clearly the personal injuries guidelines are very much in the interests of the insurance industry which wants to see the cost of awards coming down. We need to ensure that there is a quid pro quo and that the insurance companies pony up, meaning that we see premiums reduced as a result of this so that the effect is positive for clients of insurance companies. If awards are to be reduced, individuals paying for insurance must feel a benefit. It cannot be one-way traffic on this issue.

I have a question on the wording of the amendments. I know this relates to the later amendments Nos. 5 and 6.

If I may just ask-----

They are being discussed together.

Yes. Nos. 1 and 3 anyway. I think they are just technical amendments but Nos. 5 and 6 are more substantive, albeit that most of the changes are relatively technical. It is very welcome that provision will be made for those claims currently in being. On amendment No. 5, I have a question as to the wording of the new section 99(a), which substitutes a new subsection in the Civil Liability and Courts Act. It refers to a personal injuries action commenced on or after the date on which section 99 comes into operation. Of course, the whole of the new Part 9 will not come into effect until the Minister for Justice appoints that day. I am wondering about two issues. First, when is the date of commencement likely to be and, second, what is meant by commencement of a personal injuries action? What specifically is the trigger for a personal injuries action to be commenced? The Minister might address that. I presume there will be more detail on those issues, perhaps in regulations, but it will be a crucial issue for those people who have live claims as to whether this Act will apply to them. What is the nature of that prospective effect?

I thank the Senator While she legitimately makes the point that she is not totally comfortable with the arrangement, she will appreciate it was agreed on the Order of Business to do this-----

Yes, absolutely. I will not oppose-----

-----and she is not opposing it. I appreciate that very much.

I welcome both Ministers to the House. Both of them have had very constructive engagement with the House. I realise it is probably in the spirit of constructive engagement that they are accommodating the joining together of two issues in this Bill but I echo what Senator Bacik said. It is a concern and something we want to guard against in legislation. We have a strong tradition of having direct purpose, focused legislation where the policy goal and intent is very clear. We do not go the route we have seen, for example, in the US where gun laws are tied up with food stamps and educational provision or create a dynamic where we almost have hostages to fortune in that something one loves and something one does not like are tied in together. That might not be the case in this instance but it is important that we try to avoid that practice as much as possible.

That said, I recognise that the amendments are looking to address an issue. I will not oppose these amendments but I have some concerns. I believe there may be an opportunity in the Dáil to tease these out in further detail but I have concerns in respect of injuries. Wearing the hat of my membership of the Joint Committee on Disability Matters, for example, I am very aware that while there have been cases of the abuse of injuries actions and inappropriate awards, there have also been cases where people received very low injuries awards and felt the cost of an injury or a disability they have acquired for decades of their lives. I always express a note of caution in terms of some of the narrative we see in respect of personal injuries. It is very important that care is taken to make sure that is addressed properly.

The amendment I welcome most is No. 3, which gives the Minister for Justice discretion in terms of the commencement date. I urge her to ensure Part 9 is not commenced until we have had a clear signal and message from the insurance industry that it also intends to adjust its costs. We have heard worrying messages to the effect that it is glad we are looking at personal injuries but that it will take a long time for that to filter through. What Senator Bacik described as a quid pro quo is very important. We must see clear signals of intent, particularly when we look to injuries associated with car accidents, for example. We know that there is less car usage. This year, due to Covid-19, that has reduced the number of claims that may have been made in a typical year for, say, workplace or road traffic accident injuries. There are always variables at play but it is important that the industry shows it is willing to make changes and shift the practice in this area.

I urge the Minister to make the best possible use of amendment No. 3 by making it clear that the Minister will not be commencing Part 9 until we see something more in the response from the relevant companies.

I am sure that others will also get a chance to tease these out and perhaps deal with amendments Nos. 5 and 6 in somewhat more detail in the Dáil debate.

I apologise for the confusion. I was confused about which amendments we were taking in the group.

The new personal injuries guidelines that will come into effect under section 99 of the Judicial Council Act, which amendment No. 5 would, were adopted by the Judicial Council on Saturday, 6 March. These guidelines will set the level of damages to be awarded for different types of personal injuries. The new guidelines will replace the Book of Quantum, which has been used by the courts and the Personal Injuries Assessment Board to determine the level of awards. The Judicial Council and the personal injuries guidelines are both a function of the Judicial Council Act 2019, legislation which Sinn Féin facilitated. We did so, particularly in relation to the personal injury guidelines that were formulated and adopted under section 7 solely on the grounds that it would provide regularity in the level of personal injury awards and in doing so would reduce the cost of insurance for motorists, home owners and small businesses.

The insurance industry has lobbied hard for a reduction in personal injury awards for some time. Indeed, insurers have formulated and disseminated a narrative around the cost of claims and insurance fraud to justify the high cost of insurance. Sinn Féin has been instrumental in holding the insurance industry to account and exposing the inaccuracies of that narrative.

In its most recent report, the Central Bank has found that despite the cost of claims in motor insurance having fallen by 9% in the past decade, the average motor insurance premium has risen by 35%. The practice has been exposed of dual pricing whereby insurers target loyal customers and charge them artificially high premiums where the price does not reflect the likely cost of claims but the likelihood of customers to renew.

Nonetheless, any measure that can contribute towards a reduction in insurance prices is in the interests of consumers and for that reason we supported the Judicial Council Act and we support the adoption also of the personal injuries guidelines and amendments Nos. 5 and 6, which provide for the early coming into operation of these guidelines.

Under the amendments the courts will use the guidelines for personal injury proceedings coming before the courts from the commencement of section 99, except proceedings arising from an assessment made by the Personal Injuries Assessment Board and rejected before section 99 comes into operation.

The amendments will also provide that the Personal Injuries Assessment Board, on the commencement of section 99, will stop using the Book of Quantum and instead will use the new guidelines when assessing claims. Any claims before the board that have not been assessed will be assessed having regard to the guidelines and the Book of Quantum will no longer apply. That is fair and equitable. Sinn Féin will support these amendments so that newly adopted personal injuries guidelines deliver reduced costs for consumers. It is therefore disappointing that the insurance industry is already trying to row back from commitments to reduce prices in light of these new guidelines.

We will support amendments Nos. 5 and 6.

I welcome these amendments. I appreciate that while it is not ideal there has been an urgency and a speed to ensure this is on a proper statutory footing as quickly as possible.

I echo the sentiments of all the other speakers that there needs to be a quid pro quo, which was very eloquently put by Senator Bacik. We need that. I had my own experience last week in getting a quote for car insurance from a broker that I have used for the past three years. I decided I would shop around and do the novel thing. The Seanad was not sitting last week so I had a little bit of time. My first quote was for just over €600. The lowest quote I got was for just over €300, which is nearly half. When I went behind the second broker it was exactly the same insurance company that was quoting on both occasions.

Something is going on that is not based on personal injuries alone, it is also based on the transparency of insurance companies in quoting for insurance because that is scandalous. I have printed out both and sent them off to the insurance company in question because it is scandalous that it could quote me exactly the same insurance in two different guises, one half the price of the other. That is not down to personal injuries. It is down to profiteering on the basis that people do not have that momentum to move or to shop around, and they tend to just renew what they have. In that regard, we need to hold out and we need to keep the pressure on.

It is good that we have both Ministers here, the Minister with responsibility for implementing this personal injuries aspect, with insurance in the background behind that, and also the Minister with responsibility for children. At the moment, we have a crisis in childcare insurance and the childcare companies are being hit with massive increases in their bills this year. I know that is nothing new and has been going on for the last 18 months, but it is something we need to address. There are no better people than the two Ministers to address it.

I reiterate my thanks for the facilitation of these amendments. I appreciate it is not the ideal way to introduce amendments. As Senator Bacik outlined, this is the quickest way to make sure the new personal injuries guidelines could be applied as soon as possible and, most importantly, that people would start to see the benefits of these reductions. Of course, where people have genuine cases and where they have been wronged, they are entitled to damages and they will still get those.

Although it is outside my scope, the guidelines that have been set out by the Judicial Council deal with many of the soft tissue injuries and other injuries that have been causing a lot of concern, whether for play groups or the types of businesses that are suffering, and payouts have gone from averaging up to €25,000 to between €500 and €3,000. We have seen quite a significant reduction and, obviously, what we want now is to make sure that is passed on to businesses, individuals, community groups and everybody else.

This is not just myself but also the Minister of State, Deputy Fleming, the Minister, Deputy Michael McGrath, the Tánaiste, Deputy Varadkar, and the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe. All of us are working in our respective Departments but engaging with the sectors to make sure that in everything we do, the benefit is felt first and foremost by citizens, community groups and businesses. There is a Cabinet sub-committee on insurance meeting this week where we will be discussing these guidelines further, as well as the engagement the Minister of State, Deputy Fleming, has had with the insurance groups. We expect this will be reflected in their own quotes as well.

As the amendments are being introduced, Senator Bacik asked where this applies. There are two parts to this in that everybody will initially go through the PIAB and only about 2% will end up in court. Anybody who is already at the court stage will be assessed under the old guidelines and the book of quantum. For anybody who has been assessed and is in the PIAB but has rejected that assessment and wants to go to court, he or she will also be assessed under the old guidelines. This applies to anybody who is currently with the PIAB but who has not reached that assessment. Looking at the figures, there are about 19,000 who are currently in the PIAB but have not been assessed, so they will benefit from the new personal injuries guidelines that have been set out. Obviously, we want to introduce them as soon as possible so they will see the benefit and we will start to see that change. It is important to have these guidelines so there is fairness and, where somebody has gone through an old system and is working on that basis, it does not suddenly change halfway through.

I forgot to mention there is a second amendment as part of Part 9. It essentially states that there will be a Judicial Council review of these guidelines in three years time. The question was asked how that would apply if there was a change. What we are simply saying is that the same approach would be taken. If somebody was in court or if somebody already had an assessment, the new guidelines we are now introducing would remain and, if there is a change in three years time under the review, the same approach would be taken. It is simply to outline that.

In terms of the timeframe, there are two commencements I will have to make. The first is the change to the Judicial Council Act and the second is based on this new part. It can only be done once this Bill is approved by both Houses and signed, so I imagine that will be in a matter of weeks. As I said, I will be meeting with colleagues from the Cabinet sub-committee on insurance and will obviously be receiving an update from the Minister of State, Deputy Fleming, and others in terms of their engagement with the insurance companies.

It is important that we introduce these changes, see their knock-on impact and, most importantly, that individuals, businesses, community groups and everybody negatively impacted by the high cost of insurance see a reduction in that cost. If we do not see that a reduction, I will review changes by the end of this year. If there are no changes by that stage, we will have to look at other options. I assure Senators of that.

I thank the Minister for her response, particularly the final point she made. Sinn Féin will submit amendments in the Dáil on Committee Stage to allow the Central Bank to draw up regulations to require insurance companies to demonstrate how those reductions have been passed on to individuals, consumers, businesses and community groups.

As this is a Government amendment, naturally I will support it. An important point was made by Senators Bacik, Warfield, Seery Kearney and Higgins on the price of insurance. I think somebody mentioned that the childcare sector has a massive challenge with insurance at the moment. I hope the message will go out loud and clear this evening that we want to see insurance companies respond in a positive way to the childcare sector by giving it the assistance it needs. This is important legislation and these are important amendments. In the times we are in, we would like to see every sector of society co-operating and assisting other sectors.

I thank the Minister for her full response. It is helpful to hear the commencement date of the legislation is likely to be soon. I think the Minister said it will be a matter of weeks. It is also helpful to have the Minister's clarification as to who is covered and what is meant by the phrase, "a personal injuries action commenced on or after the date". In respect of the 19,000 claims currently before PIAB which have not yet reached assessment stage, there needs to be utter clarity as to what is the cut-off point. Is there any danger of dragging until this is all brought into effect, to the detriment of individuals before PIAB? I wonder about that. I know it has been flagged for a long time that this will come in.

Like Senator Warfield, I welcome the Minister's point about needing to look at other options if premiums are not reduced as a result of the changes and the introduction of personal injuries guidelines. It is important, as Senator Murphy said, that a message goes out to insurance companies that, as legislators, we agree to these amendments and this new regime in the expectation that insurance companies will do their bit and bring down premiums rapidly as a result.

Senator Murphy mentioned the childcare sector. That sector has been so affected by this, as the Senator said, and we all hear about that. There are many other small businesses and individuals who face hefty premiums and have seen no reduction despite previous changes that have been made. That is an important message we should send out today.

Amendment agreed to.
Government amendment No. 2:
In page 5, line 19, to delete “other than Part 4” and substitute “other than Parts 4 and 9”.
Amendment agreed to.
Government amendment No. 3:
In page 5, between lines 26 and 27, to insert the following:
“(4) Part 9 shall come into operation on such day or days as the Minister for Justice may by order or orders appoint either generally or with reference to any particular purpose or provision and different days may be so appointed for different purposes or provisions.”.
Amendment agreed to.
Section 1, as amended, agreed to.
Sections 2 and 3 agreed to.
NEW SECTION

I move amendment No. 4:

In page 6, between lines 2 and 3, to insert the following:

“Reporting

4. (1) The Minister shall, not later than 12 months after the passing of this Act, carry out a review of the operation of this Act.

(2) Without prejudice to the generality of the foregoing, the Minister, as part of the review, shall:

(a) conduct policy and budgetary analysis on a potential further extension of leave under this Act, from five weeks to nine weeks;

(b) consider the degree to which EU Directive 2019/1158 requires further transposition into Irish law; and

(c) consider the need to increase the rate of payment for leave under this Act.

(3) The Minister shall, not later than three months after the commencement of the review under subsection (1), make a report to each House of the Oireachtas on the findings of that review, including proposals for policy and legislative reform.”

I thank the Minister for being in the Seanad today and I welcome the Bill to the House. It proposes to increase paid parent's leave from two weeks to five weeks, which is a significant increase that should be applauded. It reflects growing social understanding of the importance of parents being supported by the State and our social and employment policies to spend more time with their newborn children in those critical weeks, months and years. This time is crucial for a child’s future development and well-being. I also welcome the decision to include an expansion of the adoptive leave benefit to include same-sex couples. This is an important and welcome change.

However, I am tabling amendment No. 4 today which references some of the unfinished business in our broader parent's leave policies and systems that have been left untouched in this legislation. They were the subject of specific recommendations in the pre-legislative scrutiny report published last month by the Joint Committee on Children, Disability, Equality and Integration, of which I am a member. It is rare that primary legislation moves through the Houses in this area, making this a rare opportunity to go further in supporting new parents in their caring roles, with all of the positive impacts this has on gender equality, female participation in the workforce and allowing the State to play a leading role in challenging outdated gender stereotypes on parental care responsibilities. This issue has come into even greater focus with the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic and the interruptions its effects have had on in-person formal education and associated child caring.

It is, therefore, unfortunate that some of these opportunities have not been grasped. It is through amendment No. 4 that I hope to ensure that work can continue on the outstanding issues identified by the joint committee even after the Bill is enacted. The amendment would make it a statutory requirement to review the operation of the legislation within a year of its passing and, within three months of the review, to deliver a report to the Oireachtas on recommendations for policy and legislative change arising from the review. In subsection (2), I have set out certain specific matters that the Minister would be required to consider. These largely reflect some of the recommendations of the joint committee’s pre-legislative scrutiny report that need further consideration and commitment from the Government on implementation.

I thank the Oireachtas Library and Research Service for its excellent work in preparing a full Bills digest on the legislation. The service has done considerable analysis on our pre-legislative scrutiny report and its impact on any changes made to the legislation between the heads of Bill and the versions introduced to the Oireachtas. On the seven recommendations that our committee made, the library has assessed that five of them have not been reflected in the legislation the Minister has brought forward, which is a shame. Our recommendations reflect the views of the stakeholders in this area and elected public representatives. While I welcome that two important recommendations on retrospective payments and eligibility have been implemented, it is from a desire to see action on the remaining recommendations that I have tabled this amendment.

In the amendment, I have asked the Minister to consider a further extension of leave under the Act from the proposed five weeks to a further nine weeks. This reflects recommendation 1 of the joint committee’s report. The Minister stated in his reply to the analysis produced by the Library and Research Service that further consultation would be needed with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform to increase the financial allocation from budget 2021. Can the Minister confirm that this consultation will be undertaken and that he intends to seek such an increase for budget 2022?

Subsection (2)(b) would require the Minister to consider the further transposition into Irish law of EU Directive 2019/1158 on work-life balance. The directive requires that member states introduce two months of paid paternal leave by August 2022. It is, therefore, clear that even with changes to this legislation, we will fall short of meeting that commitment. I have, therefore, included this provision to ensure that work will continue on a statutory basis to ensure we are endeavouring to meet this commitment in a timely fashion. While I recognise that an extension has been granted to meet this requirement by August 2024, I would much rather see Ireland taking a lead role and meeting the deadline on time rather than needing an extra two years to do so. This provision is included as an empowering one to assist the Minister in taking on this leadership role on a Europe-wide basis.

The final part of the amendment would require the Minister to consider increasing the rate of payment under this Act, which is currently set at €245 a week for maternity, paternity, adoptive and parent's leave. As the Minister will be aware, uptake of the various forms of parental leave has been low in Ireland. This has been attributed to a number of factors, including a lack of flexibility, which we are beginning to tackle, cultural norms and perceptions around gender roles in child-rearing and, crucially, the low compensation levels which are a strong disincentive to take leave.

Furthermore, as an entitlement is tied to PRSI contributions and is not a stand-alone statutory entitlement, Ireland remains one of only seven EU member states with a statutory right to paid parental leave.

In the case of parent's leave, the rate and duration of payment compares quite unfavourably to other EU countries. Furthermore, in an analysis by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, it has been found that because the rate is so much lower than average weekly earnings, parents are often at the mercy of their employer’s decision to top up their wages, placing them in a more vulnerable position where they may choose not to access leave at all.

Another concern is the gaping distance between the end of access to paid leave and the beginning of access to statutory childcare support, which our committee found to be in the region of 17 months, where many countries have no gap at all. It is clear that radical action is needed to reform the system of parental leave supports, including the gradual replacement of unpaid parental leave of 26 weeks with a paid entitlement. It is in pursuit of this goal that I have included subsection (3).

I welcome this Bill overall but the extension proposed does not go far enough and the Minister will have to return to the Oireachtas to make further legislative amendment in order to meet the bare minimum of two months of paid leave set out in the relevant EU directive anyway. Many of the stakeholders who gave evidence to the children’s committee were disappointed by this piecemeal approach when it was open to the Minister to tackle this matter more comprehensively and in line with our committee’s recommendations.

I would have liked to have addressed more issues in my amendment but the considerable speed at which this Bill has come through the Oireachtas after the publication of our pre-legislative scrutiny report meant that was, unfortunately, not possible, particularly with respect to our important recommendations on lone parents. I ask that this amendment be accepted as a gesture of goodwill and as an indication that just because a commitment in the programme for Government has technically now been implemented, that work will not end here and there is an ambition to go above and beyond just the baseline of our national and European commitments.

I wholeheartedly support Senator Ruane and commend her on bringing forward this amendment. We agree with the proposed review of this section after 12 months as this will provide scope for the potential increasing of parental leave. This would mean both parents would be able to avail of any extension to leave in future.

I am very happy to support the amendment from Senator Ruane. I support the Bill in its spirit. We highlighted very much last summer the fact that many families had used maternity and paternity leave in a very short period because of Covid-19 and responsibilities arising from its effect. The same occurred with many who might have previously spread parental leave over five or ten years, using it when a child most needed that parental support.

It is really positive that we have family leave and the measures are also positive. I also welcome the measures relating to adoptive leave for same-sex couples, which are important. I echo Senator Ruane's comments, however. I realise, given the speed at which this Bill is moving, that the amendment might not be accepted today. Although I hope it is, I hope the Government will commit to working with us and bringing through this report if the amendment is not accepted. We must address the other aspects of the EU directive and there are concerns. The gap to the beginning of the early childhood care and education scheme is one of points where we know, for example, women fall out of the workplace. It is a danger point and there are major consequences when people leave the workplace this way.

It is really important for us to address this question and really examine how the Bill works for those who are parenting alone. It is important we remember the rights of the child, which are fundamental to this Department and in the Constitution. It should not be the case that the child of somebody parenting alone is in any way potentially disadvantaged by provisions in this legislation. Such children should get the same amount of care, and it should be central in our thinking. I hope the Minister will indicate that he will engage on these matters and other recommendations from the committee that are not addressed in the Bill before us today.

I support the amendment put forward by Senator Ruane and ask the Minister, as Senator Higgins has done, for positive engagement on these important issues. We have all been supportive of the Bill on the expansion of family leave provisions generally but the purpose of the amendment, as so eloquently expressed by Senator Ruane, really does deserve positive engagement from the Minister and his Department.

I echo the sentiments of the amendment while also appreciating that the Minister, at the previous Stage of debate, gave a commitment to review when it comes to people who are parenting alone and experience particular hardship. That was one of the disappointments that came out of the pre-legislative scrutiny. Certainly, there is disappointment in the provision for lone parents. However, I do hear the Minister and I am holding him to it. The Minister has given a commitment to look at lone parents later in the year in a comprehensive way, and perhaps it goes against the spirit of, or would complicate, what is being legislated for here.

I acknowledge that we have until 2024. In light of all that is going on at present, it seems feasible and correct that we would review and, if we can, increase the financial provisions and support the Minister in any way to make those arguments when it comes to arguing over the budget at the pre-budget submission stages because the level of payment certainly is prohibitive in some instances for people availing of the statutory entitlement to leave. At the end of the day, this is about spending time with our children. This is about having that opportunity.

I welcome that, by default, this is the first time that parents in a surrogate-born situation will be able to avail of a statutory benefit as part of this measure.

I support the spirit of the amendment but ask the Minister to guarantee that he will review it on an ongoing basis.

I thank Senator Ruane for her amendment and all the Senators for speaking on it. I understand the spirit in which this amendment is put forward and I am committed to working with Senators, and indeed Deputies, on the issues that are raised here. A legislative requirement to bring forward a review of the nature described by Senator Ruane's amendment is not necessary at this time because the work that the Senator describes is work that is being carried out on an ongoing basis.

We are reviewing the provisions we make for family leave on an ongoing basis. Indeed, that is amply demonstrated by this legislation, where we have increased the provision from two weeks to five weeks per parent but, more importantly, we have also looked at not only doing it in the first year but spreading it out over the first two years. That is a significant change from legislation that was introduced only in 2019. That is evidence of the fact that my Department and our new colleagues who joined from the Department of Justice in recent months are keeping an eye on this.

It is not the only piece, as the Senator will be aware. We have spoken on many occasions on the issue of domestic violence leave as a specific area of leave that we are looking at. I am hoping to concrete legislative proposals by the end of this year. There are other elements, particular around the area of flexible working, that we wish to continue to advance.

On the general scope, we are not leaving this issue when this legislation is passed. This is an issue we will continue to revisit.

Particularly on the issue of the budgetary impact which Senator Ruane specifically referred to and the requirement to increase the number of weeks available for parent's leave - we are talking about paid leave that is available to both parents and that cannot be transferred - we have a commitment in terms of the directive to reach a target there, originally by August 2022 but now August 2024.

We can increase the number of weeks in the future through statutory instrument rather than opting for legislation again. The main reason we are taking the legislative route on this occasion is the move from one year to two years. That is the part that required the statutory intervention. I am on record as saying I want to increase the number of weeks of parent's leave per year. I said that on a number of occasions even before this legislation was introduced. I believe that is where our focus must be, because the concept of shared responsibility and support for shared parenting during those early years is crucial. That is why I want a focus on that.

I cannot make absolute commitments today because I have to engage with colleagues. The Minister for Social Protection is responsible for the payment of the benefit and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform has ultimate responsibility for the budgetary allocation. The cost of the measures we will pass in the next number of weeks is not insignificant at €28.9 million in a year. That is approximately €9.5 million per week. That cost is value for money, but it is significant so I cannot make an absolute commitment to the sequencing of how we will achieve that. However, I will be working in each budget to seek to address and increase it.

There are other elements of the work-life balance directive on which we must continue to work. Addressing parent's leave is an important part of it, but there are other elements, particularly in terms of flexible working. That is being examined in conjunction with the wider remote working strategy. While they are linked, they are also separate. Flexible working should not be merged with the concept of remote working as flexible working is specifically to support parents in their caring role.

A number of Senators raised the value of the benefit at €245 per week. Obviously, it is directly linked to the value of the maternity leave, paternity leave and adoptive leave benefit. We would be wrong just to look at the weekly amount of the benefit for parent's leave, as the review proposed by Senator Ruane suggests. I am certainly open to examining the value of the wider family benefits that are paid, but they have to be examined in conjunction with each other. We cannot just take one and separate it from the others. Again, that is a matter not just for me but also for the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Humphreys, and ultimately it requires the support of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath.

There is increased take-up of parent's leave. In the first 12 months, some 13,000 individuals took it up, which is just over 1,000 per month. In January this year, slightly fewer than 2,500 people took it up, so the uptake is increasing. However, it is something we will continue to examine.

I will work with Senators both in the context of speaking to these issues in Commencement matters in the House and, in particular, through the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Children, Disability, Equality and Integration. I am happy to engage on these issues. I want to work on broadening and strengthening the elements of support the State provides to families.

I thank the Minister for his response and his engagement. I accept and trust what he says in terms of the continued engagement with the committee and individual Senators. I will not press the amendment. I look forward to working over the next year or so to complete everything that is mentioned in the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Sections 4 to 29, inclusive, agreed to.
NEW SECTION
Government amendment No. 5:
In page 16, after line 18, to insert the following:
“PART 9
AMENDMENT OF JUDICIAL COUNCIL ACT 2019 AND PERSONAL INJURIES ASSESSMENT BOARD ACT 2003
Amendment of Judicial Council Act 2019
30. The Judicial Council Act 2019 is amended by—
(a) the substitution of the following section for section 99:
“Amendment of section 22 of Civil Liability and Courts Act 2004
99. Section 22 of the Civil Liability and Courts Act 2004 is amended by—
(a) the substitution of the following subsection for subsection (1):
‘(1) Subject to section 100 of the Act of 2019 and subsection (1A) (b), the court shall, in assessing damages in a personal injuries action commenced on or after the date on which section 99 of that Act comes into operation—
(a) have regard to the personal injuries guidelines (within the meaning of that Act) in force, and
(b) where it departs from those guidelines, state the reasons for such departure in giving its decision.’,
(b) the insertion of the following subsection after subsection (1):
‘(1A) The court shall have regard to the Book of Quantum in assessing damages in a personal injuries action where the action is commenced—
(a) before the date on which section 99 of the Act of 2019 comes into operation, or
(b) on or after the date on which that section comes into operation in relation to a relevant claim where—
(i) an assessment was made under section 20 of the Act of 2003 in relation to that claim before the date of such coming into operation, and
(ii) that assessment was not, or was deemed not to have been, accepted in accordance with that Act.’,
(c) in subsection (2)—
(i) the substitution of ‘Subsection (1A)’ for ‘Subsection (1)’, and
(ii) the substitution of ‘in a personal injuries action to which that subsection applies’ for ‘in a personal injuries action’,
and
(d) the substitution of the following subsection for subsection (3):
‘(3) In this section—
‘Act of 2019’ means the Judicial Council Act 2019; ‘assessment’ has the same meaning as it has in section 20(1) of the Act of 2003;
‘Book of Quantum’ means the Book of Quantum that, immediately before the coming into operation of section 99 of the Act of 2019, stands published by the Personal Injuries Assessment Board under the Act of 2003;
‘relevant claim’ has the same meaning as it has in section 9 of the Act of 2003.”,
and
(b) the insertion of the following section after section 99:
“Consideration of personal injuries guidelines as amended in certain circumstances
100. (1) Where the Council adopts amendments under section 7(2)(g)(ii) to the personal injuries guidelines, for the purposes of section 22(1) of the Civil Liability and Courts Act 2004 the court shall continue to have regard to the personal injuries guidelines in force immediately prior to the adoption of the guidelines as amended in assessing damages in a personal injuries action where the action is commenced—
(a) before the date on which the guidelines as amended are adopted, or
(b) on or after the date on which the guidelines as amended are adopted in relation to a relevant claim where—
(i) an assessment was made under section 20 of the Act of 2003 in relation to that claim before the date of such adoption, and
(ii) that assessment was not, or was not deemed to have been, accepted in accordance with that Act.
(2) In this section—
‘Act of 2003’ means the Personal Injuries Assessment Board Act 2003;
‘assessment’ has the same meaning as it has in section 20(1) of the Act of 2003;
‘relevant claim’ has the same meaning as it has in section 9 of the Act
of 2003.”.
Amendment of section 20 of Personal Injuries Assessment Board Act 2003
31. Section 20 of the Personal Injuries Assessment Board Act 2003 is amended by—
(a) in subsection (4), the substitution of “Subject to subsection (5), an assessment shall be made” for “An assessment shall be made”, and
(b) the insertion of the following subsection after subsection (4):
“(5) In making, on or after the date of coming into operation of section 99 of the Judicial Council Act 2019, an assessment in relation to a relevant claim of the amount of damages for personal injuries the claimant is entitled to, assessors shall—
(a) have regard to the personal injuries guidelines (within the meaning of that Act) in force, and
(b) where they depart from those guidelines, state the reasons for such departure and include those reasons in the assessment in writing under section 30(1).”.”.
Amendment agreed to.
Schedule agreed to.
TITLE
Government amendment No. 6:
In page 5, line 12, after “nine;” to insert “to amend the Judicial Council Act 2019 and the Personal Injuries Assessment Board Act 2003 to make further provision in relation to the operation of personal injuries guidelines adopted by the Judicial Council;”.
Amendment agreed to.
Title, as amended, agreed to.
Bill reported with amendments.

When is it proposed to take Report Stage?

Is that agreed? Agreed.

Bill, as amended, received for final consideration.

When is it proposed to take Fifth Stage?

Is that agreed? Agreed.

Question, "That the Bill do now pass", put and agreed to.

When is it proposed to sit again?

Next Friday at 10.30 a.m.

The Seanad adjourned at 6.57 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Friday, 26 March 2021.