I welcome the opportunity to be able to make the Government's contribution on the Second Stage of Fianna Fáil's Shared Maternity Leave and Benefit Bill 2018. There is a keen interest from all sides of the House to improve the child minding options open to parents and of young children, in particular. I am glad of the opportunity to update this House on the work that is under way in the Government to support families and children, something we all agree is a real priority. There is much work going on in this area and tonight is a good opportunity to update the House and reflect on it.
I will first turn to the provisions of this Bill. The Bill as published provides for the amendment of both the Maternity Protection Act 1994 and the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005, as amended, with a view to allowing parents to share the minimum period of maternity leave, amounting to 26 weeks of paid leave, which is provided for under section 8(1) of the 1994 Act; provides for notification requirements where a pregnant employee wishes to transfer part of the entitlement to maternity leave to another relevant parent; and makes corresponding amendments to the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005, as amended, to provide that the entitlement under maternity benefit can be transferred to the relevant parent under a new scheme known as "shared leave benefit", with whom the maternity leave is to be shared. Some people have expressed surprise that the Government might seek to oppose this measure. Unfortunately, the Bill as constructed leaves us with no choice. It is regressive and I genuinely hope that is unintentional. It is legally flawed, with a number of negative consequences for mothers and the relevant parents. It is contrary to best practice and current EU directives.
In the first instance, this Bill is fundamentally regressive. It effectively dilutes the security that mothers and their babies have enjoyed up to now in terms of maternity leave, as maternity leave will become a commodity that is subject to negotiation within couples and between a woman and her employer. Inevitably, this will lead to a position for some women that their employers will put pressure on them to cut short their maternity leave and to return to work. I do not imagine this was intended - I hope not - and I ask Members of the House see that although there will be other discussions around how employers deal with particular employees in certain circumstances, this is certainly open to abuse. We could not endorse or encourage a culture that places pressure or expectation on a woman to forgo or cut short that precious time with her baby after birth. It is a bonding period and we know that 12 months is a crucial period of the baby's development.
The Bill is also contrary to the objectives of this and previous Governments' early years strategies, which seek to promote breastfeeding for longer periods of up to six months, as recommended by international bodies such as the World Health Organization. This objective is best achieved by retaining maternity leave as a right that is taken by a mother for a set period, currently 26 weeks as provided for under the 1994 Act. In essence, the Bill could, depending on the circumstances, be considered contrary to the needs of breastfeeding mothers.
What surprises me most is how poorly thought through this Bill is. By maintaining a narrow focus on one objective and seeking to change one part of existing legislation, it will undermine many entitlements currently available in a raft of other legislation. The fact that the Bill has not been subject to a consultation process is problematic, as it has significant implications for businesses and families. For example, if the Bill is passed, employers would have to rethink the current system and arrangements for organising maternity leave cover. It might well be more problematic for employers to have more workers absent on maternity leave for shorter periods than for an employer to manage the absence of a female employee for 26 weeks. It may well be easier to get substitute staff for 26 weeks than for 13 weeks.
There are a number of technical flaws in the Bill, which fails to carry over the provisions protecting pregnant workers. It would have to be substantially amended to ensure that the current protections would be retained for women and men availing of the leave. The Bill's approach reduces the protections currently in place concerning maternity leave and would create a position where spending time with children would become an issue of maternal choice rather than a right on which the mother can rely, even in a hostile work situation. For many, it will be seen as diluting a right women have fought hard to get and which they currently enjoy.
If the House will bear with me, I will provide some examples of protections and rights afforded to parents who have recently given birth. Section 14B of the Maternity Protection Act 1994 provides for the postponement of maternity leave in the event the child is hospitalised. As per the provisions of this Bill, should a pregnant employee transfer maternity leave to another person, this leave becomes "shared leave". However, as this is now "shared leave” and not maternity leave, the "relevant parent" in receipt of "shared leave" would not be entitled to postpone the leave if the child is hospitalised, as the Bill does not include any provision to allow for "shared leave” to be postponed and the 1994 Act does not recognise "shared leave". No changes have been suggested to facilitate this.
Also, as a brief overview, Part IV of the 1994 Act provides specific employment protections to mothers on maternity leave.
For example, some of these protections prohibit being terminated or suspended from employment, being unfairly treated if maternity leave is taken during probation, during an apprenticeship or while on training and includes the right to return to employment and to suitable similar work on the expiry of maternity leave. Under the Bill, maternity leave that is transferred to the relevant parent becomes shared leave for the purpose of the Act, and, as such, all of the protections provided for under Part IV of the 1994 Act would not apply to that relevant parent as the Bill makes no provision for the employment rights and protections of those absent from work on shared leave.
Furthermore, the provisions of the Bill would result in the State being entirely non-compliant with long-standing EU legislation concerning the protection of workers who recently gave birth or who are breastfeeding. The Bill breaches EU Directive 92/85/EEC, which introduced measures to encourage improvements in the safety and health at work of pregnant workers and workers who have recently given birth or are breastfeeding. The directive requires that member states provide for a continuous period of maternity leave of at least 14 weeks to be allocated to a pregnant employee before and-or after the date of birth. Ireland has long been compliant with this requirement, as we provide 26 weeks of maternity leave, and would not envisage breaching or breaking this directive. However, under the Bill, if it were passed, the State would be non-compliant with the requirements of the directive because it requires that member states provide a continuous period of 14 weeks leave to the pregnant employee and not to anybody else. If it is not bad enough that it could disadvantage breastfeeding mothers, the Bill would result in infringement proceedings being taken by the European Commission through the European Court of Justice. As it would be a clear-cut breach of the directive, the infringement proceedings would result in significant financial penalties being levelled against the State.
There would be implications for the Exchequer as the Bill would require that my Department develop essentially a brand new system and scheme to enable claimants to share a social insurance payment. This would incur IT and administrative costs in developing the new system and its operation. It would take significant time to implement and it would need to go behind a long list of progressive measures already in the queue. Suffice it to say, in seeking to provide one reform, the Bill undermines many existing benefits that families, and particularly mothers, enjoy.
The Government supports the fact that parents want choice, flexibility and the opportunity to spend more time with their children, and we believe the provision of family-related leave is one of the most important areas needed to create a balance between family and working life. However, supporting parents and families is not just about providing additional leave in isolation but rather it is ensuring a range of supports are in place. Deputies will recall, for instance, that as part of the budget my colleague, the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Zappone, announced an €89 million increase for childcare from 2019. Next year, the State will investment €576 million of taxpayers' money to support childcare.
I am also pleased that we have delivered on another commitment under the programme for Government for families. The Deputies will be aware that free pre-schooling provided under the early childhood care and education, ECCE, programme has been extended since this autumn, and all children will be eligible for two full years of free pre-school education before transitioning to primary school. These are impressive achievements and the Government is rightly proud of them and committed to helping the families of children with disabilities. In this regard, the Government has committed an additional €10 million through the access and inclusion model to ensure that children with disabilities can fully participate in the programme.
In recent years, the Department of Justice and Equality has also been instrumental in improving available supports to parents. The House will recall the former Minister for Justice and Equality, Alan Shatter, extended parental leave from 14 to 18 weeks, demonstrating the commitment of successive Fine Gael Governments to improving the supports available to parents.
The Government introduced the Paternity Leave and Benefit Act, which provides two weeks' paid paternity leave for fathers on the birth of their baby. In 2017, which was the first full year of the programme, almost 27,000 new daddies availed of the leave and benefit afforded under the Act, and the figures I released last week show that 51,400 daddies have availed of the scheme since its inception. This level of take-up of paternity leave is an positive development and represents a culture change. This is something we need to build on and grow. We do not need to do this at the expense of taking from mammies who are at home bonding with their babies.
The House will also recall that around this time last year, one of my first acts as Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection was to introduce legislation to extend maternity leave and maternity benefit in the case of premature birth. More recently, as part of this year's budget, the Government announced the introduction of a new paid parental leave and benefit scheme, which will be administered by the Department and will commence in 2019. The scheme will initially provide for two weeks of paid, non-transferable leave per parent, with a view to expanding it up to seven weeks in the coming years. Deputies will appreciate this new paid parental leave fulfils the commitment in the programme for partnership Government to increase paid parental leave during the first year of a child's life.
The Government and the Deputies share the common goal that greater support and flexibility must be provided to families and it is Government policy to support fathers to assume a greater share of caring responsibilities for their children through the introduction of paid parental leave. The establishment of paid parental leave will enable fathers to become more involved in the care of their young babies without compromising any existing right and entitlement that a woman has.
The Government recognises that some women, particularly those who are self-employed, as has been mentioned, might gain from the proposal to share some element of their maternity leave. However, I would not be in favour of rushing into legislation that could have serious detrimental impacts on mammies. Furthermore, I am unsure as to the level of demand these proposed changes have sprung from. The officials can recall only one representation being made to the Department in the past two years.
Rather than proceed with the Bill, the Government feels that a proper consultation should take place to unpick and revisit the provisions of the 1994 Act. It would be prudent to establish in the first instance whether there is a problem and, if so, what exactly it is and what we need to do to address it without taking away the hard fought entitlements of mammies in this country.
Everybody in the House, whether male or female, or Government or Opposition, shares the objective of wanting to support families. The Government and all Members are committed to providing every support we can for parents and families. The Government's key initiative in this policy area is the introduction and extension of paid parental leave for both parents. Our aim is to give more leave and not take away a mammy's special time with her baby.
The Government will oppose this Bill, not least because of the ideas I have laid out and because there are fundamental technical and legal issues that makes the Bill's provisions unworkable. It does not take cognisance of existing provisions in the 1994 Act, it breaches long-standing EU directives and it removes employment protections afforded to parents who take leave following the birth of their baby. In view of the fundamental flaws in the principle of the Bill, I do not consider that it can be rectified by reasoned amendments. It is the Government's position that we would convey completely the wrong signal if we allowed it to proceed.
I am sure that none of us wants to introduce measures that would negatively impact on families. The Government believes that the best way to proceed would be to have a consultation process, perhaps through the committee, to find out the prevalence of the issue the Deputies are trying to resolve, and I accept their bona fides, and come up with a more practical, less regressive and more progressive response to it.