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Parental Leave (Amendment) Bill 2017: Report and Final Stages [Private Members] (Continued)

Wednesday, 13 June 2018

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 970 No. 2

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy David Stanton: Information on David Stanton Zoom on David Stanton]  It is important to note that discussions are ongoing at working group level on the EU proposal for a work-life balance directive. The most recent draft requires member states to provide for up to 18 weeks of parental leave, two months of which are to be non-transferable between parents, with the two months to be paid at a rate to be determined by member states. There are still a large number of member states concerned with the significant financial implications of the directive and its impact on existing parental leave systems. The directive was discussed at the Permanent Representatives Committee yesterday and it will be discussed at the Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs Council on 21 June. It is an important piece of work in progress.

I propose to speak to amendments Nos. 1 and 2 together. These are relatively straightforward and with them I propose a slightly cleaner approach to the Long Title of the Bill. The Title will still reflect that the Bill amends and extends the provisions of the Parental Leave Act 1998 but it will do so in a marginally neater fashion. Simply put, amendments Nos. 1 and 2 amend the Long Title of the Bill to read "An Act to amend and extend the Parental Leave Act 1998". This is something we all want to do and the Government is interested in doing this with respect to paid parental leave as against unpaid leave. I have met both employers and employees and they tell me low-paid employees will find it difficult to avail of unpaid leave but they would certainly be interested in paid leave. It is a Government policy we want to introduce.

On Second and Committee Stages I said we were concerned about this cutting across the European Union proposal and what we propose ourselves. As I said at the start, this is complex and we must be careful that we do not cause more damage. That is why I am talking about phasing it in gradually. We do not want a constitutional challenge to the legislation later with the risk of it all being thrown out. According to the Attorney General, there is a risk that this could happen because of the burden it could put on small and other businesses if they had to implement the provisions in one go. We are making these small changes to the Bill to tidy up the Title of the Bill and make it cleaner but without making a major change.

Deputy Róisín Shortall: Information on Róisín Shortall Zoom on Róisín Shortall I thank the Minister of State for speaking to amendments Nos. 1 and 2, which have been grouped. I am happy to support them to ensure the name and Title of the Bill better reflect what is being provided for. What is being provided for is pretty modest in European terms. The Minister of State spoke of the importance of paid parental leave and there is no doubt that is true. All of us would like to see the Government introducing paid parental leave for the first year of a child's life as soon as possible. It was a commitment in the programme for Government but progress has been slow. What is being proposed is an extension to the entitlement to unpaid parental leave, which is not an alternative but rather an addition to paid parental leave. It is a different type of provision entirely, and its purpose is to provide flexibility to parents during a child's life up to the age of 12. This means that at particular times, perhaps during school holidays or when a child is going through a period or illness, when many different issues arise for parents, there can be flexibility for them so they can balance family responsibilities with work life. We must bear in mind that we are very much down the table in providing parental leave generally within Europe and there is much catching up to do.

I was surprised by some of the points raised by the Minister of State. It is a positive aspect of this initiative that it has received cross-party support. It certainly has much support outside this House among parents who are crying out for this flexibility. There has been no mention of any kind of constitutional issue up to now and I do not see that there could be any constitutional issue. The Minister of State also hinted at potential costs, but this was checked beforehand and there is no question of a money Bill. That advice came from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and it has been cleared from that perspective. Any potential cost on employers would be minimal. It will not happen that next week all parents will start claiming additional leave, but instead it would happen over a long period of a childhood. It is a very modest proposal that is about helping parents, many of whom are struggling to juggle different responsibilities.

The Minister of State mentioned that many low-paid parents might not be able to afford to take unpaid leave, but I repeat that this is not a substitute for paid parental leave. It will be in addition to that leave so it is different. It is about providing a level of flexibility so that parents have the option of taking time off at different stages. We can consider the very high cost of child care and sometimes there is very little in the difference if a parent takes a month of the school summer holidays off work to look after children at home. Taking into consideration tax and the cost of travelling to and participating in work, there may sometimes be very little in the difference. It is an option open to everybody. It is a sensible and modest enough move. I very much welcome the cross-party support we have achieved through Second and Committee Stages and I hope it will continue so we can see the Bill passing Report and Final Stages tonight.

I acknowledge the very strong support that Senator Buttimer has given the Bill. He has committed to facilitating its early passage through the Seanad before the recess, which would be a very positive development. There are certainly many parents watching what is happening tonight who will very much welcome these improvements if we can continue to take an all-party approach.

Deputy Jan O'Sullivan: Information on Jan O'Sullivan Zoom on Jan O'Sullivan I express our support for the Bill. I know amendments Nos. 1 and 2 are not contentious but we will come to such amendments later. I reiterate the point just made by Deputy Shortall, which is that this is not either-or. This is about extending unpaid parental leave. I know from speaking to parents that this level of flexibility would be very helpful in their juggling of work and home life. I will not take up too much time on the first two amendments as they are not the substantial element. I express our general support for what is intended and we also clearly support the extension of paid parental leave, in accordance with the Minister of State's indications.

Deputy Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire: Information on Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire Zoom on Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire If the sponsors of the Bill are satisfied with these amendments, I am also satisfied as they seem largely to be a tidying-up exercise. This is a vital matter and I have received much lobbying on it. Both parental leave and parental benefit are important and they must be dealt with equally. It is clearly more difficult for an Opposition party to bring forward proposals on parental benefit, and that is why this is focused on parental leave. It is important as well.

There is much that must be done and I welcome the Minister of State's comments on recent meetings. Ireland ranked 32nd out of 34 OECD states at the end of 2016 with respect to maternity leave. This may have changed somewhat but we are still at that end of the table. If a family cannot afford not to work - a reality for many under pressure to pay the mortgage or rent - it can be a difficulty. The rate is too low and the period for which it is applicable is too short.

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