Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Seanad Éireann díospóireacht -
Wednesday, 7 Nov 2018

Vol. 261 No. 2

Parental Leave (Amendment) Bill 2017: Second Stage

I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

This Bill was introduced as a Private Members' Bill by the Social Democrats in April 2017 and has passed all Stages in the Dáil. We are taking the opportunity to bring this Bill to the Seanad in our Private Members' time with cross-party and Independent support and hope it will continue through this House in the Private Members' time of others or that of our own, if there is a chance to do that before Christmas.

This Bill seeks to extend parental leave in two ways by increasing the length of leave from 18 weeks to 26 weeks and by allowing parents take the leave until the child is 12 years old rather than eight years old as is the current state of play. The idea of parental leave was first introduced by Fianna Fáil in 1998. Much of the legislation in this area is governed by European directive. The Government has indicated its support for the Bill, predictably because this Bill will not cost anything. The leave is unpaid and consequently can be taken only by those who can afford to live on one salary. Parental leave has been in Ireland since 1998 yet the uptake amongst men remains as low as 5%. This statistic has to change. There is a predictable pattern of parental leave being taken overwhelmingly by women as men traditionally are the bigger wage earners. This is due in part to the Government's continuing failure to address the 14% gender pay gap. Many of my colleagues have spoken on this issue and legislation has been brought to the House on it. Many families simply cannot afford to forgo the man's salary. The introduction of paternity leave, which allows two weeks' benefit at €235 per week for fathers, was a welcome recognition that many men want to spend time with their newborn children. However, it does not go far enough.

The cost of childcare is rising and puts new families under a lot of financial pressure. Whereas the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, OECD, average for childcare represents about 12.6% of net family income, in Ireland the figure stands at about 27.4%. The issue of childcare costs is another example of the squeeze on middle-income families. On top of this there is a chronic shortage of places on the early childhood care and education programme, ECCE, particularly in parts of Dublin, Cork, Galway, Kildare and Meath. Fianna Fáil welcomes this Bill but the Government must be willing to put its money where its mouth is, if it is truly committed to supporting women, in the home and at work, fathers who want to stay at home and a greater work-life balance for families.

There are five small technical changes we would like to make on Committee Stage. They will not change the substantive matter of the Bill. I thank Deputy Shortall and the Social Democrats for introducing this Bill. It has received a lot of support in our party and others. I have received many queries from people wanting to know when they can take this parental leave, when it will start and will it come in before the Christmas recess. There should be some urgency about getting it enacted because its sentiment is fantastic and many people are relying on the fact that it will be enacted. The Bill applies to those who have already exhausted their existing leave. Someone who has already taken 18 weeks will be allowed to take the extra eight weeks.

Parental leave can be taken by either parent until the child's eighth birthday, or until the age of 16 in the case of a child with a disability or long-term illness. Both parents have an equal and separate entitlement to parental leave. An applicant must be working for an employer for at least one year before he or she can apply for parental leave. An employer cannot refuse an application for parental leave and can postpone it for only a six-month period and only twice. Currently, a parent can take up to 18 working weeks per child. Where an employee has more than one child, parental leave is limited to 18 weeks in a 12-month period. The employee is not paid nor is he or she entitled to any social welfare payment. Pay related social insurance, PRSI, records are preserved for employees who take parental leave. The employee loses pension contributions for the period he or she is on leave. Time spent on parental leave can be used to accumulate annual leave entitlement.

On Report Stage in the Dáil ,the Government sought to extend the number of parental leave weeks incrementally, rather than increase it from 18 weeks to 26 weeks. It proposed to increase it to 20 weeks in 2019; 22 weeks in 2020; 24 weeks in 2021 and 26 weeks in 2022. Also on Report Stage in the Dáil the Government sought to delete the sections that provide for an extra eight weeks' parental leave to be taken by parents who have a qualifying child but who have already taken the maximum 18 weeks' leave as currently applies. Both of these amendments were unsuccessful.

Most OECD countries provide payments that replace over 50% of earnings, with 12 countries offering a mother on average earnings full compensation throughout the leave. These include Spain, Portugal, Norway, Netherlands, Luxembourg, Germany, Belgium, Poland and Lithuania. According to a 2017 OECD report "payment rates are lowest in Ireland and the United Kingdom, where only one third of gross average earnings are replaced by the maternity benefit".

On 1 September 2016, Ireland introduced two weeks of paid paternity leave which I have already mentioned. The uptake has been slow. On average, OECD countries offer eight weeks of paid father-specific leave. Certain companies, such as Facebook, offer three months' paid paternal leave to their employees. The attitudes towards parental leave and maternity leave are changing in the Western world and we need to start catching up with them. This Bill is a small step. It is not perfect because the leave is unpaid but I think it is a good first step. I urge the Government to support the Bill.

I echo Senator Ardagh's comments. I thank the Social Democrats for bringing this Bill to the Dáil. It is a very simple Bill. It will not cost the State anything but it will mean much to hundreds of thousands of families around the country. It is imperative that the Government runs with this and enacts the legislation as soon as possible because so many people depend on it. Like Senator Ardagh, I have been contacted by numerous people who are begging for this lifeline. It will mean that childcare costs will be reduced for families. Ireland has the highest childcare costs in the OECD. They are scandalous. They are forcing women out of the workforce.

As a result, Irish companies and the State are poorer because we are not retaining talent and encouraging it to stay within the workforce and we do not have blended work teams. This is having a negative impact on the gender pay gap and it is becoming a vicious circle. This is one step towards correcting that but, of course, it does not correct the gender pay gap. I would like the Minister of State to give a commitment to this House that he will run with Senator Bacik's Bill on the gender pay gap and wage reporting in the Dáil. The Bill received cross-party support here. Rather than introduce its own Bill, I would like the Government to run with and amend the Senator's Bill in order that it can be introduced as soon as possible because the women of Ireland are waiting for this and are not willing to sit back any longer and allow this unfair gender pay gap to continue.

I refer back to this Bill and the work-life balance it will allow many people to achieve. Only 5% have taken up parental leave. We need a cultural shift. There is an enthusiastic response to this. If we extend it the way this Bill suggests, more people will think about how they can work around it and perhaps forgo a salary for a period to look after and bond with their families and cut down on childcare costs while continuing with their careers instead of being cut out of the workforce in its entirety. I look forward to the Minister of State's support for this Bill.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate and welcome the Minister of State to the House. I am also interested in hearing his reply to the debate. The legislation been debated in the Lower House and passed all Stages earlier this year. I acknowledge the Bill was sponsored by the Social Democrats and the work that has gone into it. I may have some qualifications. I am the father of three children born between 2003 and 2009. There was no paternity leave during those years. I welcome the fact that we have progressed in this country to a point where the Government introduced two weeks paid paternity leave to give fathers that extra opportunity to bond along with the mother during those vital two weeks when a baby is born. That is important.

Almost 500 fathers in Waterford participated in the paternity leave scheme this year, which shows it is needed, there is a demand for it and young fathers are taking it up. This, along with additional childcare supports, shows that things are far better nowadays than they were ten or 15 years ago. I encourage the Government to continue to increase supports to allow parents to spend more time with their families, particularly in the early years. The Minister of State can correct me if I am wrong but I note that the Government is not opposing this Bill because we support the principle that families with young children need additional support. That is reflected in the budget and various policies that are being brought forward regarding childcare and paternity leave.

However, there are some concerns about the Bill and the Government is reserving the right to propose amendments on the next Stage. The Government's preference is for paid paternity leave as it is seen as a better mechanism to support families. If we look at affordability, while the intention in this Bill might be very good in terms of equality and allowing people to spend time with their families, we could create an inequality in the workplace where families that can afford it take longer parental leave while other families that might wish to take the same parental leave may not be in a position to take unpaid leave. This can bring its own pressures and stresses and create an inequality that might not have been intended.

Employers are generally supportive of their employees. They must be supportive because their employees are their best asset. We must take into account the fact that SMEs are the backbone of the country in terms of employment. If we introduce legislation without consulting them - and consultation with employers regarding this Bill might not have been as wide and extensive as it should have been - that would be a mistake. We need to engage with employers. We will find that they are generally supportive of parental leave but we need to hear their voice on the matter and we have not had an understanding of that to date with this Bill. I would caution that we need to bring forward legislation that is sustainable for families first and foremost but also for employers that give those families employment. By working together on a partnership basis, we will bring about better legislation and a better understanding of the needs of our society.

I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I know it is about quality of life. Every report shows that the early weeks and years are the most important in the development and growth of a baby. Many people have contacted my office to ask about when this Bill will come into force or how far off it is. I welcome its sentiments and the fact that in principle, the Government will support this Bill.

However, I would also like to put on record one or two precautionary issues that have been brought to my attention. A number of employers have contacted me to ask about who will pay the bill for the people they must bring in to replace the employees on leave. This issue needs to be looked at. It is wonderful that parents are being given the opportunity to spend the earlier weeks with their baby. It is a precious time for the child and the mother. Most people here are anxious for it to happen as soon as possible but we must look at all aspects of it. The two weeks paid leave for fathers that is currently available is important. An additional eight weeks unpaid leave have been proposed, which is fine for a family that can afford to take it but there is a cost to the employer and some families may not be in a position to take that unpaid leave. All aspects must be examined as it is important that we make sure proper legislation goes through. It is all about supporting quality of life, including family life.

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit agus gabhaim buíochas leis as a bheith linn don phlé. Mar atá ráite ag mo chomhghleacaithe cheana, is plé thar a bheith tábhachtach é a téann go mór i bhfeidhm ar shaol tuismitheoirí fud fad na Sé Contae is Fiche. The Minister of State is welcome to the Seanad to deal with the important first step, certainly in the Seanad, with regard to the Parental Leave (Amendment) Bill. As indicated in the other House, Sinn Féin will support the Bill's passage through the Seanad for many positive reasons, none of which I need to rehearse, and the tangible benefits for child development, social sustainability and educational development and attainment. What the Bill seeks to do seems very simple but, nevertheless, its broader repercussions will be positive and long lasting in terms of their beneficial impact on our economy, society, communities and families.

The provisions in the Bill extend parental leave from 18 weeks of unpaid leave per child up to the age of eight to 26 weeks, or six months. A period of 18 weeks is required by EU legislation. As has been said previously, it is time that the provision here was revisited and expanded.

The actual weeks of leave proposed in the Bill would be of enormous benefit to parents. It would be particularly helpful for many parents on occasions such as changed school holidays, or parents wishing to spend more time with their children or their child in his or her formative years. Certainly my party has stated for some time that we must go much further on this issue and we have proposed that and included additional measures in our alternative budgets in the past. In this State the combined maternal and paternal leave is 60 weeks. In the European Union, the average is 97.8 weeks. It is clear that there is a substantial disparity that needs to be bridged and certainly this proposed legislation goes some way to doing that.

I have more to say but to be fair it has been covered already by previous speakers. There is a general sense of unanimity and support for the Bill because we all acknowledge and know the benefits. I ask my colleague, Senator Coffey, for the figure in Waterford.

That figure is telling, if one takes that figure as one example. In the immediacy of the benefits in terms of children's development in their formative years, the case makes itself, but I think there is a strong case that if we invest in freeing up parents and giving parents the ability to invest in their children at this early stage, come the future, come the development and the contribution of these children in later life, we will start to see real societal and economic benefits.

Senator Black has eight minutes.

May I share my time with my colleague, as I wish to give Senator Ruane two minutes?

I welcome the Minister of State and I am really delighted to speak in support of the Bill. I commend Deputies Shortall and Catherine Murphy on their great work in bringing the Bill to this point. We all know that getting Private Members' legislation passed into law is not easy but it is an excellent example of how Opposition Members can push through real meaningful changes when we work on a cross-party basis. There was significant support for this Bill in the Dáil and I hope it receives the same level of support in the Seanad. The Seanad Civil Engagement group strongly supports the Bill being afforded time for debate and I am so glad to see that it is being facilitated today. I commend Senator Ardagh and the Fianna Fáil group on their work on this.

The change proposed in the Bill is relatively modest. We are talking about extending the amount of unpaid leave available to parents from 18 weeks to 26 weeks. This extra eight weeks can be taken up until the child is 12 years old, which means there is a good deal of flexibility too. This is really positive. It is not just about the initial weeks after a child is born but also giving parents the option of taking leave during a period in the child's life when it might be badly needed.

Similarly from my reading of the legislation and following on from the Dáil debates, parents will also have flexibility in how these days are taken. For example, it could suit someone to take Fridays off to be with his or her child and that the extra time available could be spread out on a one day a week basis or something similar.

When this Bill is passed, and I truly hope it will be passed quickly, it will be important for the Department to clarify to parents exactly how their entitlements work as there is already a lack of knowledge on this point. Since the Bill was first tabled in the Dáil many people have called my office to ask about it, which is a testament to the level of interest. Many of them are parents of young children and one can hear the excitement and what it will mean to them to have the extra time with their children. Those early years in particular are so precious and are so important in a child's development. Parents want to be there as much as possible when their children are growing up and as a Parliament we should be ensuring that the State helps to facilitate that.

In general this is also about the broader social change and what we want our society to look like. As productivity increases, we need to make sure that this means people have the chance to work less and spend more time with their families and on the things that they love. It is a broader point but a crucial one, that gains in productivity can mean greater profits but they can also mean a better work-life balance and a fairer society. Things such as a shorter working week and better parental leave are central to that. The State has a key role to play. The role of the State cannot be forgotten.

The issue of real paid parental leave was raised many times in the Dáil and it is still vitally important. Obviously Opposition Members are limited in terms of the changes they can propose in Private Members' Bills because of the cost to the Exchequer, so it means that this Bill can only go so far. It is a very positive step but still a limited one. We must be clear that unpaid leave is not a substitute for paid parental leave. The Deputies sponsoring the Bill have been very clear on this point. They are right. Ultimately many people simply cannot afford to take unpaid leave as much as they would love to spend more time with their children. It is so difficult for people to get by on two incomes, let alone one and people are under so much pressure to meet rising costs. Childcare is still incredibly expensive and it often means that people are better off not returning to work as it is simply not affordable if one does not have family members to help out. There is a socio-economic element to this that cannot be forgotten. I know the Government is committed to working on the issue and I remind it of that commitment and ask it to progress it as a matter of urgency.

I commend the Bill to the House. I am delighted to give it my full support.

I welcome the Bill. I thank the Social Democrats for bringing it forward. I thank the Fianna Fáil Party and Senator Ardagh for taking on a Private Members' Bill from the Dáil that has had wide support. I hope the Government will consider giving some time to it so that we can progress it.

Let us note that the only reason that the proposal is for unpaid leave is due to the Standing Orders of the Dáil in terms of cost to the Exchequer. I do not see any objection in this House to the Fine Gael Party bringing forward an amendment that would change the provision for unpaid leave to paid leave, which can be done in this House. I think that would be welcomed.

This is not only an important Bill in terms of the make-up of families and families being able to spend time with their children when they need them most. It will also help to shift some of the culture within business and employment sectors. Right now no matter how much we talk about equality among parents and the role of fathers, not only in terms of a woman's career and a woman being able to get back to work, the father having equal access to leave and being supported by the employer to do that, it does not really exist. I have found that whether a child is sick or has had a small operation where a parent needs some days at home, employers are less likely to allow a father that time off than a mother. A mother is automatically expected to leave her workplace if a child has to be taken out of school or has to stay at home. That culture does not exist for men and men are told they cannot go home from work. The more legislation we introduce that will force employers to give equal standing to men and women in the workplace in terms of their responsibilities within the home the better.

I support this Bill. Senator Higgins who had hoped to be here today has worked on this issue for a number of years in the National Women's Council and I know she wants to lend her support to the legislation and she hopes to be able to contribute on the next Stage.

Senator Ó Ríordáin has eight minutes.

I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I join with others in congratulating the Social Democrats on bringing forward this Bill. As Senator Ruane has said, the provision in the Bill is for unpaid leave because introducing paid parental leave would create a cost on the Exchequer. I also congratulate the Fianna Fáil group on taking on the mantle and bringing it to the House during its Private Members' time.

It is a little disquieting that some of the Government representatives in this House speak to the concerns of the employers first and foremost

That is the reality.

The reality from my perspective if I am to get a grip is that the balance of conversation in this House never seems to go to the worker. It is the stress and strain on workers and the young parent who is at work which is the motivation behind this Bill. I understand that the employer has to make money but a worker is trying to raise a family.

Acting Chairman, there is a conversation happening to my left.

Colleagues, I ask Members to please pay attention to the speaker.

Are we disturbing the Senator?

All Senators are entitled to be heard and I ask Members to show them the courtesy of listening to what they have to say.

Senator McDowell is very interesting, as Members will be aware.

Senator Ó Ríordáin, without interruption. Sidebar conversations can take place in the ante-room.

The point I am trying to make is that the balance of conversation on this issue is always lopsided in favour of the employer. Scandinavian democracies such as Sweden, Iceland and Finland place a great emphasis on gender equality. I believe Iceland makes an entire year of parental leave available to parents. The aim of this is to ensure becoming a parent does not automatically lead to many stressful conversations among couples about who will take time off, or whether they can afford to have the child. If we fully believe that bringing a child into the world is one of the most wonderful experiences a family can have, such conversations would not happen.

This type of legislation should be welcomed by employers on the basis that an employee who is happy at home and feels that he or she is making a contribution to family life will be happy in the workplace as well. This approach works. Many employers' organisations have finally embraced the idea of gender equality in workplaces. Workers work best in that environment. Employers are ensuring they have LGBT-friendly workplaces because they know LGBT workers work better in that kind of environment. It is clear to those with a cold and calculated capitalist mindset that workers are more productive if they are happier.

Employers should embrace the idea that when their younger employees become parents, the worry and stress associated with trying to balance work and life will probably make them less productive in the workplace. When one becomes a parent, it should not be a time of stress about money or one's work-life balance. One should be supported by the State in any way it can. In Iceland, paid parental leave can be shared between both parents, both partners or whoever is at home over the course of a year. We should have this type of vision for the first year of a child's life. Both parents - or whichever one of them is in a position to raise the child - should not be burdened by this kind of worry or stress. It is inevitable that the mentality of the child is affected by what is going on. All the research that has been conducted around the world proves that being in a stressed environment affects a child's mindset from a young age. We should be mindful of the ability of children to feel the anxiety of others.

I welcome this legislation. It is great to have this conversation. It is to be welcomed that the debate in this House has been facilitated by the Social Democrats and Fianna Fáil. When I held the position currently held by the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, I worked hard to secure two weeks of paid paternity leave. It was a good move. A wider vision is needed. I reiterate that there needs to be a focus on what is good for workers and families. Employers should embrace that conversation and be part of it. They need to realise that happy people are happier and more productive workers.

I apologise to my colleague, Senator Ó Ríordáin, for distracting him while he was speaking. He will understand that Senator McDowell is always stimulating. I would never like to prevent Senator Ó Ríordáin from hearing himself think. I have often felt that if he could hear himself think more often, he might not say some of the things he says. Having said that, I like much of what he has just said on this issue.

I remind Senator Mullen that every bold child blames somebody else.

Indeed. I have apologised.

I ask the Senator to leave Senator McDowell out of this.

I have to take my share of the blame.

I am glad to have an opportunity to contribute to the debate and to address the important issue of parental leave. This Bill proposes to expand the parental leave entitlement from 18 to 26 weeks, which is welcome. I am broadly supportive of the Bill. The Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection recently announced that she plans to provide in the 2019 budget for an additional two weeks of paid leave for each parent of a newborn child in that child's first year of life. We should support any legislative measure that allows parents to spend more time with their children without causing them financial disadvantage or having a negative impact on their careers outside the home. We have to acknowledge the importance of parental contact in a child's life, particularly in the early stages. It is a clear social good. The State should always work to put the best framework in place to allow families to have the space to make these kinds of decisions for themselves. Proposals involving childcare and related issues are too often treated as matters for social engineering. Several proposals we have heard from the Minister, Deputy Zappone, in recent years are examples of this. I will not deviate into that now. I note that Government and Opposition parties are fond of saying that families come in many shapes and sizes. They do this to the exclusion of a proper consideration of what is in the best interests of children. We all need to recognise that it is up to families, particularly parents, to regulate how best to structure childcare arrangements.

While I support this Bill, we need to take it a step further. I would like to propose a small but valuable amendment to this proposal to that end. The key thread that needs to run through all legislation and policy in areas such as parental leave and childcare is that it should be up to parents and families to decide how best to arrange family life. For that reason, we need to consider amending the Parental Leave Act 1998 to give parents the option of dividing and assigning their paid and unpaid parental leave weeks between them as they see fit. At present, parents are entitled to separate untransferable leave only. It is interesting - I do not know whether it can be attributed to gender theory or to the wilder reaches of feminism - that there is a belief these days that there is no difference between men and women, or that the differences between men and women are socially constructed. It seems contradictory that there is an insistence that men and women must take parental leave. Rather than relying on some of the meanderings of gender theory or the wilder reaches of feminism, I prefer to rely on what I consider to be a common sense approach. It is a matter for families, having regard to their particular circumstances, to make informed decisions on what works for them, depending on their aptitudes, their relative income power or whatever the issue is.

It is interesting that if both the mother and father of a child work for the same employer, with the consent of that employer, one of them may transfer up to 14 of the 18 weeks of parental leave to the other. Is this about facilitating the needs of employers? I wonder whether it emerged when these issues were examined through the lens of what the employer wants, as opposed to what the family needs. We need to extend the limited transferability provision to make the transfer of leave entitlements more widely available. By providing for a system of transferable leave for all parents, we would give parents the flexibility to structure their parenting schedules in a way that is most convenient to them. As I have said, decisions on the division of parental leave should be made by families because they are best placed to make such decisions. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. Parents know what is best for their personal circumstances. I ask the sponsors of the Bill, or the Government, to consider proposing an amendment to it that would amend the Parental Leave Act 1998 to allow parents to have the choice I have outlined.

Mar fhocal scoir, we spoke some months ago about the proposal to remove the constitutional provision relating to women's place in the home. That proposal has been shunted off to the sidelines. It was interesting to hear rhetoric from the Government that sought to denigrate those who framed our Constitution on the basis of some kind of misogynistic intent. That is a really ahistorical view. A more historical understanding of the times which led to that provision would appreciate that families were under significant economic pressure at the time and that this would have been a positive provision if it had been properly fleshed out in social measures. Rather than taking the easy luxury of engaging in virtue signalling by referring to such provisions as misogynistic, it is harder to work to change that amendment to recognise that men and women, through their lives within the home, including the upbringing of children, do the State an important service.

That former view has gained some traction and it has led to the initial simplistic rhetoric from the Government about this being a misogynistic provision. At least we have had some pause by virtue of some people saying that this might not be so straightforward. It also leads into the other issues around caring in the home, of which we are all aware. It is not just parenting and the role of parents within the home which we need to value, but also the roles of people who provide unpaid care in the home. I speak with some knowledge of this myself. Those people provide a huge service to the State, and indeed to our common humanity.

I hope that we can move towards a more fleshed out, nuanced debate about the common good in that area, and I would be grateful if people would take on board the suggestions made today around allowing parents and families more flexibility to determine what is in their own best interests.

It is great to have the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, with us this evening. I welcome the introduction of this Bill into the Upper House. The Bill is focused on supporting families and allowing parents to spend more time with their children. It is very positive. It is important that we ensure that there are a number of options available to families in terms of spending time with their children and easing the burden of the cost of childcare. This Bill seeks to extend the entitlement to unpaid leave from 18 to 26 weeks. During the course of my involvement in politics I have spoken to many parents who have thought about or who have given up their jobs entirely to care for their children. This is an option for some people, but is not an option for everybody. An array of options to support families is important, because every family situation will be different.

The Government's primary focus is on the extension of paid parental leave, and I know the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Deputy Regina Doherty, has made initial steps towards achieving this goal with the introduction of a further two weeks of paid parental leave for each parent in budget 2019 which will come into effect in November next year. Senator Coffey has mentioned paid paternity benefit, which has proven effective and seeks to support fathers. In Roscommon, my own region, 213 fathers benefited from paternity benefit this year, along with 1,133 fathers in Galway. Those measures are important. Furthermore, Ireland is a member of the Council of Europe and I am aware that work is being undertaken at the moment on the work-life balance directive. Those discussions are ongoing. Reference has been made to other countries and how they conduct their business in terms of supporting families. A large amount of work is being done. The core aim of this is to ensure that we have a suite of options to support families. I am pleased that this Bill will proceed to Committee Stage. We have to ensure that we can provide appropriate measures to allow parents to spend as much time as possible with their children, especially during those important early years. We know how vital those early years are in terms of the development of the child, so it is important that parents are allowed to spend that time with their children in a financially viable way.

I am pleased to be here again to participate in the debate on the Parental Leave (Amendment) Bill 2017. Today is an opportunity for Members of this House to put their views on the record and I am pleased to contribute to this discussion. I am also glad of the opportunity to update this House on the work that is under way in Government on supporting families and children, which is something we all agree is a priority.

As initially published and later amended by Dáil Éireann, the Parental Leave (Amendment) Bill provides for the extension of the existing entitlement to parental leave from 18 weeks to 26 weeks for both parents, and creates a further entitlement to an additional eight weeks parental leave for those parents who have already used their 18 weeks. There is also provision for increasing the age of the child for which parental leave is available from eight to 12 years. Although the Government has some reservations about the Bill, which I will outline shortly, the general principle is to be commended, and as we have previously stated in the Lower House, and now to reiterate here, the Government is generally in favour of it.

Parents want choice, flexibility and the opportunity to spend more time with their children, and the Bill will help to facilitate this. I believe that the provision of family-related leave is important in creating a balance between family and working life, and it is for this reason that I am supportive of the Bill. We have to help to support families, and the Government is committed to doing so. Under budget 2019, for instance, my colleague, the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Zappone, announced an €89 million increase in funding for childcare. This means that in 2019, Government investment in childcare will amount to €576 million. This increased investment will provide access to high-quality, affordable childcare for over 175,000 children and improved subsidies for 40,000 others. Furthermore, as the House will also be aware, free pre-school provided under the early childhood care and education, ECCE, programme has been extended and as of this autumn, all children will be eligible for two full years of free pre-school education before transitioning to primary school. This delivers on a commitment in the programme for Government.

In addition, the Government has committed an extra €10 million through our access and inclusion model, AIM, to ensure that children with disabilities can participate in and benefit from the ECCE programme. In total, in 2019 the Government will provide somewhere in the region of €127 million to help support parents and children in respect of childcare and education programmes through the work of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs alone. My Department has also been instrumental in recent years in improving available supports to parents. I would remind the House that it was the then Minister for Justice, Equality and Defence, Alan Shatter, who extended parental leave from 14 to 18 weeks, demonstrating the commitment of successive Fine Gael led Governments to improving the entitlements offered to parents.

In September 2016, I was happy to bring paternity leave legislation through the House which provides two weeks’ paid paternity leave for fathers on the birth of their baby. In the first full year of the programme, 2017, almost 27,000 new fathers availed of the leave and benefit, and figures released this week by the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection show that a total of 51,409 fathers have now applied to the scheme since its introduction. This increase in take-up of paternity leave is a very positive development for this country, as research shows that when fathers take a more significant and meaningful share in the parenting of their children, the family unit and wider society benefit.

In 2017, my Department introduced legislation that provided for the extension of maternity leave and maternity benefit in cases of premature births. Furthermore, as part of budget 2019, the Government announced the introduction of a new paid parental leave scheme which will commence in late 2019. I hope to be in a position to bring that legislation before the Houses at some point next year. This new scheme will initially provide for two weeks of paid, non-transferable leave per parent, with a view to expanding the scheme in future years. As Members of both Houses know, the background to the new paid parental leave scheme is the commitment in A Programme for a Partnership Government to increase paid parental leave during the first year of a child’s life, and I am happy to say that the new scheme delivers on this commitment.

I think it is important in the context of the debate here this evening to explain why the Government focus is on paid parental leave as opposed to unpaid parental leave. The introduction of paid parental leave supports the Government’s broader gender equality policy as it is expected that fathers, as well as mothers, will be encouraged to take time off work to care for their children if they are in receipt of benefits while doing so. For too long, the majority of caring responsibilities have been undertaken by women. It is time to put policies in place that encourage fathers to share more of that caring role. Children do best when both parents are facilitated to take an active role in their parenting so this approach makes sense in terms of child welfare. Equally, it makes sense in gender equality terms. Women have been held back in terms of career advancement because of their caring roles. As a result, they will not have the same opportunities, or pay, as men. Paid parental leave will help to offset the career and economic disadvantage experienced by women as a result of their default position as the parent who traditionally takes family leave.

Lastly on this point, the Government is concentrating its efforts on the introduction of paid leave as it is expected that this will result in overall, lower childcare costs for parents of younger children, which as we are all aware are quite significant.

With its focus on the expansion of unpaid leave, the Bill fails to consider these wider and more complex factors. It is very likely that extending an unpaid family leave entitlement would mean that the lower paid of the two parents, which is very often the mother, would take the available leave with consequent impacts for these mothers in terms of pay and pension entitlements. This, in turn, will continue to perpetuate the tendency of employers to view caring roles as the responsibility of mothers rather than fathers, as highlighted by some Senators here. This aspect has negative implications in terms of gender equality and the opportunities potentially available to women within the workforce. I feel very strongly that fathers should be facilitated to undertake a caring role for their children and the Deputies' Bill does nothing to encourage men to participate more in parenting duties. Equally, only parents on higher incomes may have the resources needed to avail of the leave.

Furthermore, the Bill while laudable does not take into account the policy approach put forward by the European Commission in its proposal for a new work-life balance directive. That directive is currently under discussion in trilogues between the European Parliament, the European Commission and the Council Presidency. The directive's key proposal is that parental leave should be made available to parents on a paid basis. The directive is part of a package of EU measures aimed at addressing the under-representation of women in employment and supporting women's career progression by creating improved conditions whereby they can reconcile their working responsibilities and family commitments.

Senators will recall that on Second Stage in the Dáil, I indicated that pre-legislative scrutiny should take place on the Bill. Unfortunately, the Joint Committee on Justice and Equality decided against undertaking such scrutiny. As a result, the Bill's provisions have not been subject to a formal consultation process with employers or other stakeholders. There can be little doubt, however, that the proposed extension of parental leave has the potential to bring about significant costs on businesses relating to recruitment, replacement and training to fill temporary vacancies. Given this point, the Government may again seek to mitigate the impact of these provisions on public and private sector employers by proposing amendments aimed at phasing in the additional leave. I have listened to what Senators have said about this matter this evening and I am really interested in hearing comments from them on this particular point.

In conclusion, we all share the objective of wanting to support families. As I mentioned in my opening remarks, the Government and, from what I have heard, every Member of the Oireachtas are committed to providing the utmost support to parents and families in the State. For reasons I have already outlined, the Government's key initiative in this policy area is the introduction of paid parental leave. Nonetheless, it is generally supportive of the Bill and recognises that the Bill expands parents' choices and facilitates increased family time. Therefore, the Government will not oppose the progress of the Bill. We may seek to bring forward amendments at either Committee or Report Stage, not to hinder the Bill but complement its provisions and ensure that it can work in parallel with the Government's own intentions in relation to paid parental leave.

I thank the Minister of State for his contribution. I wish to note that the early childhood care and education, ECCE, scheme was introduced by Fianna Fáil and we welcome the extra funding. However, we have heard anecdotal stories about owners of crèches feeling that they are not being supported properly and find it difficult to retain and recruit staff, which has a knock-on effect for families trying to avail of the scheme. Also, the scheme lasts a few hours each day and many crèches require people to sign up for full-time hours before they will agree to take on children. We need to address the pitfalls in the scheme and give practical support to the owners of crèches in terms of rates and similar items thus supporting families.

As for the sentiments the Minister of State has expressed about this Bill, we are happy the Government will support it and allow it to progress to the next Stage. We hope the Government will support it on Committee and Remaining Stages. The Minister of State has stated that introducing paid parental leave is the ideal, with which we agree. We ask him to table an amendment on Committee Stage to amend this Bill in order that paid leave would be allowed at a rate akin to what is available for maternity leave at present.

As I stated at the outset, I thank Deputies Shortall and Catherine Murphy. Deputy Shortall has five technical amendments that she would like to be discussed and debated on Committee Stage. As her amendments are technical in nature they will not affect the substantive matter or ultimate objectives of the Bill. I look forward to debating this matter on Committee and Remaining Stages. I also look forward to getting the support of the rest of this House to ensure that my Bill passes expediently.

Question put and agreed to.

When is it proposed to take Committee Stage?

Committee Stage ordered for Tuesday, 13 November 2018.

When is it proposed to sit again?

Tomorrow at 10.30 a.m.

The Seanad adjourned at 5.55 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 8 November 2018.