Tuesday, 14 May 2019
Parental Leave (Amendment) Bill 2017: From the Seanad
Róisín Shortall (Dublin North West, Social Democrats)
The main proposals of the Bill are to extend the entitlement to unpaid parental leave from eight to 12 years and the number of weeks from 18 to 26 weeks. It also extends an entitlement to the full 26 weeks to those people who have not availed of the leave to date for whatever reason.
It is almost three years since myself and my colleagues in the Social Democrats commenced work on this Bill. It is a great relief to see it come through tonight. As a small, new party we are very proud to have made this modest difference to the lives of working mothers and fathers and their children.
If it is in order, I would like to thank a number of people. I thank Paul Cassidy, policy director of the Social Democrats, who has been centrally involved in drafting this Bill and dealing expertly with the many technical issues that arose during the passage of the Bill through the Oireachtas. I also thank the Office of the Parliamentary Legal Advisers, OPLA. There is much discussion about new politics and the importance of the Opposition parties being able to table and progress Private Members' Bills. That can only happen if we have the support of the resources within the Houses of the Oireachtas. It is particularly the case in regard to smaller parties that may not have an array of legal advisers, unlike some of the bigger parties. We were very grateful for the support we got from OPLA. There is an issue around resources. If we are genuinely to engage in new politics it is really important that that office, which is a key office, is adequately resourced and in a position to provide the kind of support throughout the drafting and redrafting periods and the passage of Bills.
This Bill went through very smoothly in terms of its passage through the Dáil. Unfortunately, Government time was not allowed for it and so the Social Democrats had to use its limited Private Members' time over an extended period. The Bill then went to the Seanad where, because we do not yet have Members, we were very much dependent on other parties allowing time for the taking of it. Again, it was unfortunate that Government did not allow that time. I pay special thanks to the Fianna Fáil group in the Seanad, in particular to Senator Catherine Ardagh, who was very active in facilitating and promoting the taking of this legislation in the first instance. I acknowledge the support of the Labour Party, in particular Senator Bacik, in facilitating the taking of Report Stage in its Private Members' time. When it came to the later Stage, the Minister and the Government came on board. I very much appreciate the taking of the Final Stage in Government time in the Seanad and again in this House today.
I acknowledge the support of the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, and the officials in the Department of Justice and Equality for this legislation and for working in a collaborative way to bring it to its final conclusion tonight. There was important, positive and progressive engagement between the Department, the Minister of State and my own party in this regard. I very much appreciate that engagement and support.
It is important to also acknowledge the key role that parents played in regard to the successful passage of this legislation. It was clear from a very early stage that there was a huge need to provide this kind of flexibility to parents who are trying desperately to strike a balance between their work and family lives. Throughout the process, I got a real insight into where so many parents are at this point. They are struggling to pay mortgages and rent and to keep their heads above water. Parents of young children are put to the pin of their collar to get by and keep the show on the road.
Many people find the pressures excessive and that is why there was such a level of interest in this legislation. It provides the extra flexibility that parents so desperately need. Parents have told stories of having to get up at 4 a.m. and the unsustainability of doing that. Parents are coping with children with special needs. Others, because they are working long hours, rarely get to spend quality time or quantities of time with their children. They want that little bit of breathing space to allow them to collect their kids from school or to do different activities at different times. Those things are so important because the early years go so quickly. It is really important that we have agreed this legislation. It will make a major difference to the lives of so many families and children.
I thank everyone involved in bringing this legislation to a conclusion. It is very important that, while we have agreed on the extension of unpaid parental leave, we continue with the expansion of paid parental leave, particularly in fulfilling the commitment contained in the programme for Government to ensure that parents are in a position to provide care for their children in their own homes for the first critical 12 months. Slow progress has been made on that. I acknowledge the two weeks of additional paid leave provided for in this years budget, which will come into effect in November. It is really important, but we really have to progress that and ramp up the progress of that commitment. It is really important.
This should be seen as the start of a new approach to enabling parents to strike that balance between family life and work life. Ireland is very much at the lower end of the league in European and, indeed, international terms when it comes to providing supports for parents in rearing their children. These should really be seen as parents' rights and children's rights. We have a lot more to do in terms of providing paid leave and unpaid leave. In the context of paid leave, we must get to the point where the replacement rate for parents taking that leave gets closer to the actual costs of foregoing pay on a weekly basis. Nordic countries in particular, and many other European countries, provide payments that equal 80% or even 100% of pay when parents take paid parental leave. We have a long way to go.
I hope that, through considering and passing this legislation, we might now start a serious public debate on how to ensure that work does not dominate people's lives to the extent it does now. It results in major stress and pressure for people. Many other countries, and indeed individual companies, are looking at the idea of a four day week and a three day weekend. It brings huge benefits to individuals in terms of relieving stress and mental health difficulties and reduces sick pay and sick leave. It also provides time for people to do those other things that allow them to live a full and balanced life. We are a bit behind the curve in this country,. I would like to see us move to a point where we have a much greater appreciation of the need to strike a balance in our lives. The State has a particular role to play in taking the initiative in this regard. We should also encourage private companies, especially bigger companies, and also the State and semi-State sector, to begin to trial some of these initiatives. They have proven very successful in other places. It has not been completely plain sailing, but the measures have mainly proven successful in other countries. We should start that debate.
This is a very important night for parents and children. I hope that it is the start of an even better, more compassionate and more balanced approach to the world of work, particularly as it concerns the parents of young children.