Wednesday, 25 June 2008
Question 71: To ask the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the work that has been carried out by her Department in relation to the commitment in the programme for Government to examine the possibility of introducing paternity benefit. [24802/08]
The question of introducing a paternity benefit payment would depend on establishing an underlying entitlement to statutory paternity leave in the first instance. Responsibility for issues relating to paternity leave rests with the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform.
Following commitments made in the social partnership agreement Towards 2016, a working group led by the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform has been convened to review the level of provision of both maternity and paternity leave. The group is currently examining various options and is due to conclude its deliberations before the end of 2008. The work of the group will be informed by the commitment in An Agreed Programme for Government to increase, over the next five years, paid maternity leave by five weeks, to make all leave after the first 26 weeks available to either parent, and to examine the possibility of introducing a statutory entitlement to paternity leave and shared parental leave. The Department participates in this group.
While male employees are not entitled under Irish law to either paid or unpaid paternity leave, they may be entitled to parental leave. Parental leave entitles both parents who qualify to take a period of up to 14 weeks' unpaid leave from employment in respect of children aged up to eight years. There is no provision for a social insurance based payment for periods of parental leave, but employees may be entitled to credited contributions to maintain their social insurance record for the period.
The introduction of paid paternity leave would have significant cost implications. For example, the estimated full year cost of introducing a paternity benefit, on a similar basis to maternity benefit, would be €273 million. The question of how such a payment would be financed would have to be examined.
There is a recognition in the programme for Government of the need to support parents in spending more time with their children. The Government also made a commitment in it to examine the possibility of introducing paternity benefit. It seems little progress has been made on that. That area comes under the remit of the Minister's Department. I do not understand why consideration of such provision must be deferred until the working group in the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform has completed its business. Does the Minister believe it is right that the State should support fathers in spending time with their infants within the first few months of their lives? There are major pressures on a couple when a baby is born. There is a recognition of this in the provision of maternity leave and parental leave. The problem, however, is that parental leave is unpaid. Therefore, a father will suffer financially if he takes leave from work to spend time with his partner and new baby. This is a regressive situation. We should be facilitating parents in spending more time with their children. Is the Minister prepared to move ahead in this regard in respect of the responsibilities which fall within her Department?
It is not possible for the Department of Social and Family Affairs to move ahead without an entitlement being established. However, the establishment of an entitlement to statutory paternity leave comes under the remit of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. That is why we are working together in the working group. The Government has always shown itself to be committed to parents. The provision in the programme for Government for an additional five weeks paternal leave to be available to either parent after the first 26 weeks indicates the importance we place on facilitating both parents in being actively involved in the rearing of their children.
However, entitlement to statutory paternity leave would first have to be established, after which a scheme would have to be devised to facilitate it. After that, questions arise as to how much it might cost and where the money would come from. All these issues are being considered by the working group, which is due to report by the end of the year. This process is being led by the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform but my Department has a key role as the prospective administrator of any potential provision. I look forward to the working group's report.
We are talking about paternity benefit. Entitlement would be based on the person's insurance record, which comes within the remit of the Minister's Department. I do not see the difficulty in establishing that entitlement, just as entitlement may be established in respect of any other social welfare payment. That is what the commitment in the programme for Government is about. Parents are seeking a provision for paid parental leave, however small to begin with, which they can take within a few months of a baby being born. That is the time when couples experience most pressure. I see no difficulty in establishing that entitlement. Given the commitment in the programme for Government, the Minister should lead the way on this. It is not necessarily a question of providing the same type of entitlement as already exists in respect of maternity benefit but of at least providing a small amount of paternity benefit for those early weeks of a child's life.
It is my intention to await the report of the working group, which is due at the end of the year. The group will consider all the implications of the introduction of such a statutory entitlement, including cost and issues relating to competitiveness. These are significant implications which must be considered by each of the relevant Departments. The report is due at the end of the year, after which there will be three and a half years of the Government's term remaining to implement its recommendations.