Wednesday, 13 June 2018
Parental Leave (Amendment) Bill 2017: Report and Final Stages [Private Members]
I move amendment No. 1:
In page 3, line 5, after "amend" to insert "and extend".
Before commenting on the Government's amendments I want to say I am very happy to have the opportunity to discuss the Parental Leave (Amendment) Bill 2017. Increasing working parents' flexibility and choices, and helping to provide them with the opportunity to spend more time with their children, is a worthwhile aim that we all share. However, as Deputies will appreciate, the development of policy in this area is not straightforward and the legislation is more complex than people realise.
As the House is aware, the Bill seeks to expand the current parental leave allocation from 18 weeks to 26 weeks. Doing so will place a financial and administrative burden on employers in its own right, but add these eight weeks to the existing provisions for maternity, paternity and carer's leave and existing parental leave entitlements, and the burden becomes significantly bigger. As I will discuss later in further detail, the Office of the Attorney General has highlighted this issue of the cumulative burden on employers and the risk in terms of constitutionality. Therefore, we need to ensure the burden on employers is not disproportionate. To address the needs of businesses and ensure the proposals are proportionate, the Government proposes a phasing in of the expanded entitlements. I will discuss this staggered approach in more detail shortly when I come to the relevant amendment.
I might also mention the work the Department has engaged in in respect of two other strands of family leave policy. As the House is aware, the programme for partnership Government includes a commitment to increased paid parental leave during the first year of a child's life, as research shows that children benefit most from parental care at this stage of development. That is paid parental leave as distinct from this, which is unpaid parental leave. To further this commitment, the Government established an interdepartmental working group to develop proposals to give effect to the programme commitments. The group has almost completed its work and is in the process of putting the final touches to its report. I am sure colleagues will agree with me when I say that paid parental leave is much better for parents and families than unpaid leave.
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.