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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 Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire: Information on Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire Zoom on Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire] It is important to address the issue of parental leave as well as parental benefit. The flexibility that Deputies O'Sullivan and Shortall have outlined is vitally important in giving people options and flexibility. Ultimately, between both leave and benefit, we need to work towards a situation whereby there is a single block that can be divided between the parents at their own discretion. This is something we have asked for. It is the best model and one that exists in other states. As I said, it creates choice and flexibility. A lengthier period of paid leave, as well as, I hope, the Government addressing benefit, will assist families. In an increasingly stressful world, there needs to be more flexibility for parents to live lives and raise families.

Deputy Catherine Murphy: Information on Catherine Murphy Zoom on Catherine Murphy I wish to make a number of points about this. Deputy Shortall has made the point that this is and should be in addition to paid leave. There is a marked difference in how we approach children and childcare compared with many of our European counterparts, which see people having children as a good thing that needs to be supported in order that society can replenish itself and have people grow up into solid human beings. These countries take a very good approach to the amount of leave provided in the first few years, particularly in the first year. I ask the Minister to consider the example of someone who has had a baby and got her maternity leave. If she has family to mind the baby in order that she can go back to work, that is fine, but for the first year it is in many cases nearly impossible to get a crèche place, for example. Many crèches simply will not take a baby under the age of one. Furthermore, while very often we try to encourage very practical and positive things for a baby such as breastfeeding, the baby may not be weaned. This approach allows for what should be very much a child-centred approach. It seems to me that when it comes to the balance of rights and the balance of how society looks at this, it tends to look at it from an employer's perspective rather than from a child's perspective. Whereas this is a modest proposal, it is an important one because it may well be that a small number of extra weeks give that flexibility that has been talked about.

There are, therefore, very practical reasons this initiative could be of assistance not to everyone, but certainly to those who can take it up. A point has been made about the cost of childcare. Childcare is very expensive anyway, but childcare in year one is particularly expensive, and that is if one can get it. This is why this flexibility is something that employers should actually welcome, and I am surprised there is any question at all of there being a constitutional issue about this.

Deputy Anne Rabbitte: Information on Anne Rabbitte Zoom on Anne Rabbitte I thank the sponsors of the Bill for affording me the opportunity to speak. I did not speak on any of the previous Stages of the Bill. My two colleagues, Deputies Jim O'Callaghan and Lisa Chambers, represented us on the committee.

I completely concur with everything Deputy Murphy is after saying. As spokesperson for children, one thing I do know about crèches is that they normally do not take babies of less than nine months of age. That is part of the rules in most crèches. In the case of children under the age of one, the adult-to-child ratio must be 1:3, which is most expensive for a crèche to operate. This is what crèches are getting out of the business of doing. By increasing the entitlement from 18 weeks to 26 weeks, we would basically be affording a family the opportunity to choose to spend the first year of their baby's life with their baby if they want to do so. I also agree that not every family has that family support in the very beginning whereby they can return to work with the support of either the mother, the father or extended family. The parents themselves would like to care for their own. It is also proven statistically that early intervention and minding one's own in the very beginning aids development at key milestones, so the Bill is a very positive step. It also allows parents flexibility and is about helping them.

I absolutely welcome the Minister of State's comments on the programme for Government and paid leave, but tonight's conversation is about the unpaid aspect of it. As a mother of three children, I looked forward to the opportunity to take my unpaid leave after my paid leave. I think parents like that opportunity. It is a choice; it is not forced on them.

As for employers, it is not a cost to them to give parents unpaid leave. It is all about how one engages and communicates with one's employer in order that the employer has adequate notice to put provisions in place if it knows the employee is taking that extended time. In my previous work, we had to give a month's notice before we took the additional unpaid leave. However, once we did so, the employer was able to make provisions for it.

As Deputy O'Sullivan said, this is not the contentious part of the Bill. I think that will come later. I will support the Bill.

Deputy Mattie McGrath: Information on Mattie McGrath Zoom on Mattie McGrath I too am thankful to the Minister of State for his comments. We must be mindful that EU directives do not crisscross, as he said. We will talk about that later.

Regarding unpaid leave, I have a staff member who is after having her baby - successfully, thankfully - and who has now gone on to unpaid leave. There is no issue once there is a genuine understanding and a genuinely good relationship between employer and employee, which we would hope would be the case for the vast majority, and once notice is given in order that replacements can be found or contingency plans made. Those very early months and weeks of a newborn baby's life are so important, especially for a first-time parent, or even the second time one. Childcare is so expensive, and many childcare centres will not take small babies. The conditions and guidelines in this regard are very harsh. I happen to be chairperson of a community crèche - a naíonra, in fact - and we must have the checks and balances in place in respect of the 1:3 ratio, which is very high and is onerous on the crèche. There is limited space, limited staff and limited funding, and many crèches have been shortchanged in funding in this recent round, including our one. I have not got the funding that the naíonra expected or was hoping for, so it is very important that there be unpaid leave and that we deal with the matter here.

Regarding the issue of paid leave, which I know we will deal with later, I must declare that I am an employer, a self-employed person, and that there are difficulties in this regard. While I am not against the concept proposed in the Bill, I am saying it will be onerous on many employers. While we think we are back in a boom, we are not. Perhaps we are in this city, but we are certainly not in the parts of Ireland I represent. It is important we do not overburden small employers in rural areas as well as urban areas. They are the backbone of our community and our development. I spoke about them earlier today in the context of the Construction Contracts Act and subcontractors not getting paid when big companies go bust, which is a knock-on effect. This is a continuum, and a whole aggregation of these issues forces self-employed people and small businesses out of business. A closed business is no good to the employees, the employer, the taxpayer, the county council or anyone else, so it is very important we make hay slowly. While we might rank well behind in Europe, we cannot just catch up overnight. We must have balance. We need a work-life balance - that is certainly very important - but we also need a balance in respect of the ability or inability of small firms especially to be able to pay the paid leave. However, I support unpaid leave wholeheartedly and I welcome the debate on it.

Deputy David Stanton: Information on David Stanton Zoom on David Stanton I have not much more to say at this point. I was just introducing my initial thoughts on the Bill. It is true that it has had a fairly quick turnaround. There was no consultation or pre-legislative scrutiny on it. I said previously at the committee and here that Bills benefit from giving the stakeholders an opportunity to have input into them but that did not happen in this case, unfortunately. I wanted to flag the issue the Attorney General raised that there may be constitutional issues, and to which I will come back later. He does not say that lightly. I do not want to see the Bill ending up in trouble because of those issues.

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