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.
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 pretty 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
That is genuinely why I am raising it.
Last year we introduced two weeks of paid paternity leave. There has been a very good take-up. We must ensure we are in a position to extend it. I take the point made by Deputies that we have a long way to go in providing for childcare and parental leave. Several years ago I visited Scandinavia where I studied this issue. I met people and saw what they did. Even then they were quite advanced in their thinking. Teachers in childcare services had master's level qualifications in early childcare education and provision. Children learn so much at that age. We, on this side of the House, and I am sure others will agree that in their first year of life children are best placed with their parents. That is where we want to get to and we want to support families and parents in doing so, but we have a long way to go. We propose that we do so incrementally, not in one fell swoop. The unpaid leave is welcome. Some families will not be able to afford to take it, but some will. However, I do not want to move our aim away from the ultimate goal which is paid parental leave in order that people will be able to take time off and have the guarantee that rest assured they will be paid.
There are other issues related to gender equality. Often mothers take time out to mind the children and their careers slide because they, rather than the father, take so much time off work. That is an issue and we want to balance it. There are interesting issues when one begins delving into and discussing the matter. The gender pay gap also comes into play, as well as the need to ensure there is a balance and that fathers have the opportunity to bond with children.
Last week the House discussed the issue of maternity leave for politicians. We are one of the few groups without a right to paternity or maternity leave and it is something we need to address. We had a very interesting debate on it in Private Members' time a number of weeks ago.
I apologise for going over time.
I move amendment No. 3:
In page 3, to delete line 12 and substitute the following:“(a) by inserting the following subsection after subsection (1):“(1A) The reference in subsection (1) to a period of 18 working weeks shall be construed—(a) in the year 2019, as a reference to a period of 20 working weeks,
(b) in the year 2020, as a reference to a period of 22 working weeks,
(c) in the year 2021, as a reference to a period of 24 working weeks, and
(d) on and from 1 January 2022, as a reference to a period of 26 working weeks.”,”.
I propose to discuss amendment No. 3 in isolation. As colleagues said, it is a subject of some debate. The purpose of the amendment is to amend the Parental Leave Act 1998 to increase the current 18 week unpaid parental leave entitlement to 26. The Government proposes that the increase in parental leave be phased in at a rate of two additional weeks per year between 2019 and 2022. As I have mentioned, while we are all in favour of providing the upmost support for working parents, we must remain cognisant of the potential impact on employers. As Members will recall, on Committee Stage I invited the views of all stakeholders affected, including employers. IBEC subsequently made a submission to the Department in which it underlined its key concerns, chief among which are the consequences for employers, particularly small and medium employers. The big companies will manage, but they were worried about the administrative and cost burdens for small companies. In the light of the challenges involved in replacing key skills and ensuring alternative arrangements will not result in a loss of productivity or output, IBEC submits that it is vital that any increase be on a phased basis to lessen the impact on employers, especially SMEs.
Deputies will also appreciate that extending parental leave on a phased basis is not only about supporting the interests of business. As I mentioned in my opening remarks, the Office of the Attorney General has raised the issue of the cumulative burden on employers and the risk of constitutionality.
The Bill has moved quite quickly. In my time in the House I have rarely seen a Bill move as fast, with the exception of emergency legislation. Unfortunately, there was no consultation or pre-legislative scrutiny, although on Second Stage I suggested strongly that the committee do so. A phasing-in approach, as proposed by the Government, would enhance the Bill's presumption of constitutionality, as it is contended that phasing in the leave over a four year period, starting on 1 January 2019, would be a proportionate approach and not put a disproportionate burden on employers. This approach stems from previous case law where, as Deputies will recall, the Supreme Court found it to be unconstitutional to place a disproportionate burden on employers which would cause "undue hardship". There is, therefore, a precedent.
As alluded to previously, negotiations on a draft work-life balance directive are still under way at EU level and the Government wishes to highlight the need to ensure that whatever changes are made to domestic legislation will dovetail with the provisions and timeframe for transposing the directive as far as is practicable. Negotiations are ongoing on the directive and we are not yet sure what will emerge. Member states will have three years in which to transpose it into national law; therefore, we are also working at that level on the issue of a work-life balance. Some member states are concerned about the cost; there are, therefore, considerable negotiations taking place on the issue.
In some ways, the amendment is quite complex and a lot of work went into making it happen. I am curious to hear what colleagues have to say about it.
As I cannot agree with the points made by the Minister of State on the amendment, I cannot support it for several reasons. The Minister of State cited the possibility of constitutional difficulties. This is the first time that he has raised that issue. We have been through Second and Committee Stages and it never arose. I am not sure what he is talking about when he refers to a cumulative burden on employers. People will not rush out and take all of next week off or whenever the legislation becomes law. In all likelihood, it is something that will be spread over several years. We are talking about an extension of eight weeks during a child's life, potentially a 12 year period, and about a parent having an additional entitlement to eight weeks leave. I do not think that is particularly onerous on anybody. It can be a win-win for employers because very often parents, especially women, find juggling children and work too much. Because of the lack of flexibility in they system, women often step out of the workforce, might resign from their job and stay out of the workforce for some time. Employers often invest considerable money in training their staff. They have loyal and responsible staff who do a good job whom they do not want to lose. That is why there are benefits for employers if they are in a position to show that flexibility to workers, recognise the realities of life where their staff are parents and that in the real world parents have children who need care and attention and time. There is no reason it cannot be combined with an active work life. As I said, it happens across Europe where there are far more generous entitlements to leave which mostly is paid.
I just do not buy the argument about undue hardship. I cannot imagine employers heading off to the High Court because a staff member wants to take an occasional few weeks off when their children are on school holidays or when there are other reasons a parent wants a little flexibility. I wonder from where these arguments are coming. The Minister of State is making this overly complex and I think he is bending over backwards to facilitate employers at the expense of employees. He says the ultimate goal is to provide for paid parental leave. Nobody disagrees with that goal and the sooner the Government legislates in that area the better. We will very much welcome it and the Minister of State will receive the full support of the rest of the House.
However, as I pointed out earlier, this is something different. It is about that flexibility during a child's first 12 years. The other point I would make is that what the Minister of State is proposing in the amendment is entirely unreasonable. This Bill is proposing an additional eight weeks that can be spread over a 12-year period. As I have said earlier, and as others have said, this is a very modest proposal. It is not a new proposal. We did not have questions being raised about constitutional issues, employers taking us to court or whatever when the original 14 weeks entitlement was introduced nor when that entitlement to 14 weeks was increased to 18 weeks. None of these questions was raised at the time. It is accepted practice that when a new entitlement is introduced it will incrementally improve and increase over the years as we become, as a society, more progressive and, it is to be hoped, more family-friendly.
As I have said, this is not new. I cannot see a difficulty with it. We are talking about a substantial period over which the leave can be taken. What the Minister of State is proposing is that we move in baby steps in extending this entitlement. He is talking about phasing that modest eight weeks over the next four and a half years. For goodness sake, let us be reasonable about this. Let us recognise the difficulties and the important role parents have in looking after their children. Let us be fair and balanced about it. What the Minister of State is proposing is not acceptable by any standards. Certainly when it has been mooted in recent weeks the reaction to it from parents has been very negative. There has been a lot of activity on social media and I think we have all received representations from parents. It is just not on to talk about this modest development being stretched out over such a long period of time.
I hope that in the spirit of new politics and co-operation within the House, the Minister of State will recognise the strong views expressed by all other parties here. We want to facilitate parents and to do it in a reasonable and responsible way. That is what is being proposed. I cannot see there being too much support for what the Minister of State is proposing to do here because it is unreasonable.
I was very interested to listen to the Minister of State's comment that his preference is for - if I am quoting him right - one parent or both to be at home with all babies in the first year. I personally can see the attractiveness of that because I believe that children benefit tremendously from parents being at home. However, I have to be honest and say that we need to leave real choice. Every family is different and in some instances it may actually be better, because of a whole range of circumstances, for both parents to be working, even within the first year.
I was surprised at the Minister of State's comment in a sense because, from my perspective, the Government is all about labour activation. It is all about getting everyone to work. The Government is backed up in that by the European Union, the OECD, IBEC and ICTU. We saw the Minister, Deputy Regina Doherty, last week suggest that child benefit be taken off some groups of parents and the money put into childcare. I thought that would just accentuate the ongoing discrimination against parents in the home that I see in the system. It caught me in a sense when I heard that. We should not have any discrimination. We should leave as free a choice as possible to parents.
The attractiveness of this provision to extend parental leave is that it is not mandatory. Not everyone will take it. There may be people who choose not to take it for work reasons. Employees will have to decide and they may decide, for a whole variety of different reasons, that it is better for them to go back to work or that it is better for them not to. We need to give freedom of choice to parents. We should do that straight away. I do not think it will cripple the Irish economy. If anything it might help it in the long run. Giving choice and the freedom of choice is important. In respect of those who want to avail of the additional parental leave, I do not see why we should give some people the choice in four years' time but not next year. We should do it straight away. It is about flexibility and providing parents with the ability to choose what is best for them, and they invariably know what that is. In some instances that will be going back to work and in other instances it will be availing of this leave. The provision does not provide any particular financial benefits. We should give them that choice. I do not agree with any delay.
We are discussing and debating an amendment from the Minister of State which would phase in the increase in unpaid parental leave over the period from 2019 to 2022. We are opposed to the proposed phasing-in. We will vote against it when the vote is called. To briefly state why, the proposal for the increase in unpaid parental leave is a very modest proposal. The idea that it has to be phased in not over one or two years, but over several years is not acceptable to us and is not acceptable to parents. Anyone who has sounded out parents on this issue will know that reasonable people feel that this is an unreasonable proposal. The argument seems to be very much influenced by the views of some employers and some employer organisations. There are few, if any, employers in the country who would not be in a position to afford what is in reality a very modest proposal. If the Minister of State was concerned about the ability of some small businesses to afford this in the immediate short term he might bring a proposal before the House for some kind of short-term temporary subsidy. We would look at that on its merits. I personally do not think it would be necessary given the modest arrangements being put forward here. The idea of parents having to wait for their full entitlements for four years is not acceptable and we will be voting against it.
I will be brief. I will be opposing the Government's amendment and the related amendments. I do not see the logic behind it. Even if there was an argument for phasing in the extension, the period we are talking about - four years - is scarcely logical considering that we are only talking about a matter of weeks over the course of 12 years. Businesses would be in a position to facilitate that. It would not cause them any undue difficulty and I therefore will not be supporting the Government's amendment. I will be opposing it.
I agree with what has been said already. I just want to stress again that parents have been welcoming things like flexitime and job sharing because so much juggling has to take place when one has children and two jobs in a family, or even one job as the case may be. This would facilitate parents. In terms of the problems for small and medium enterprises, SMEs, there is generally a fairly good personal relationship between the employer and the employees in small businesses. I do not see difficulties arising with this. I think both would be flexible. I think employees would be willing to be flexible but would like the opportunity to take this kind of unpaid time.
I have listened carefully to what colleagues have said and, as I said at the very start of Second Stage, Government is in favour of extending this unpaid leave. It took a while to get advice and views because this moved so quickly. It was not until now that we got the view of the Attorney General and we have genuinely been told that there is a risk.
I have listened to what colleagues have had to say. We will definitely not be pressing the amendment based on what they said. It is a modest proposal in its own right. I have reservations and may come back to the Seanad with further information when we have a bit more time to consider this. I do not want this to fall on a constitutional matter. We have to bear in mind that already we have 26 weeks' paid maternity leave, a possibility of 16 weeks of unpaid maternity leave, 18 weeks of paternity leave, and two weeks of paid paternity leave. This amounts to 62 weeks already. This provision adds another eight weeks, or two months, of unpaid leave.
The Government was bringing forward its own proposals for paid leave on an incremental basis. Obviously, we have to be cognisant of the cost of this over time and of the EU directive. I have listened to what colleagues have said here tonight and on Committee Stage. My view is that the majority of colleagues want this to go ahead as proposed. I will not be standing in its way at this stage. We will have to re-examine this matter, perhaps when we get to the Seanad, and discuss it further. Reducing the period from four years to two might be a way out.
On the issue of the previous increase in 2013, from 14 to 18 weeks, that was a requirement of the EU parental leave directive of 2010. There was a presumption of constitutionality in that regard at the time.
I will not be pressing this amendment at this time. I have listened to what colleagues have said. We all want to support families and parents. I am still a parent but having been a parent of small children quite a while ago, I understand the pressures, strains, tensions and costs associated with parenting and how they have increased over the years. The first year a child's life is so important. It is important that the child be with his or her parents.
Deputy Shortall or Deputy Catherine Murphy said earlier that we must examine issues such as breast-feeding in the workplace and so forth. These are all important issues that we have to discuss if we are to achieve equality, including gender equality. That is my position. I listen quite a lot to colleagues both in the Seanad and here and I believe we have to have a debate on these issues. It is important to debate this issue.
Amendments Nos. 4 to 7 arise out of committee proceedings. Amendments Nos. 4 to 7, inclusive, are related. Amendment No. 4 is consequential on amendment No. 5, and amendment No. 5 is consequential on amendment No. 6. Amendment No. 7 is a logical alternative to No. 6. Amendments Nos. 4 to 7, inclusive, will be discussed together.
I move amendment No. 4:
In page 3, line 16, to delete "8 years"," and substitute "8 years".".
The purpose of amendments Nos. 4 and 5 is to modify the Bill's approach to those parents who have already used their full entitlement to parental leave and those parents who were unable to use their full entitlement to parental leave previously. The Government policy is that both sets of parents should benefit from additional parental leave being introduced and, in addition, those parents with unused parental leave should also be able to use any portion of their unused leave. The substantive elements of the changes to the Bill are contained in amendment No. 6, which I will now outline to the House.
Currently, under the Parental Leave Act 1998, the single largest period of parental leave a parent may take is 18 weeks. We were going to increase the entitlement on a phased basis but obviously we have now changed that approach. These particular amendments are consequential on the ones that went before. We were going to propose blocks over the number of years. The amendments do not arise now so I do not believe we will be spending too much time on them. That is all I want to say on the amendments.
I would welcome some clarification on what the Minister of State intends doing with his amendments. He is talking about them being consequential on the proposed section 3. I wish to know how they stand before I contribute.
I move amendment No. 7:
In page 4, between lines 11 and 12, to insert the following:
"Amendment of section 7 of Principal Act
3. Section 7 of the Principal Act is amended—(a) in subsection (1) by substituting "26 weeks" for "18 weeks" in each place where it occurs, and
(b) in paragraph (a) of subsection (2)—(i) by substituting "26 weeks" for "18 weeks" in each place where it occurs, and
(ii) in subparagraph (ii) by substituting "26 times" for "18 times".".
This is just to bring things into line with the new arrangements for increasing the period from 18 to 26 weeks where there are other references.
Since we have made changes earlier, there has been a knock-on effect. I stated we were considering extending parental leave on a phased basis. I still have some concerns about constitutionality. I believe the Deputy's amendments are okay.
I thank the Minister of State. I appreciate the support. It is a technical amendment given that the Bill is about extending the entitlement from 18 weeks to 26 weeks. It is just to bring other sections in line with that.
I move amendment No. 8:
8. In page 4, to delete line 16 and substitute the following:
"(3) This Act shall come into operation on 1 January 2019.".
This is a straightforward amendment. We must bear in mind the changes proposed that would not be accepted here and that I did not press.
This is a straightforward amendment that seeks to delete section 3(3) of the Bill and replace it with the Government's text for subsection (3). It states the Act shall come into operation on 1 January 2019, for the following reasons. In the first instance, there is a serious technical issue with section 3 in that an Act cannot come into operation after its passing as proposed in the Bill as the Act needs to be signed by the President to be enacted and to have legal force. As Deputies will be aware, Article 13.3.1° of Bunreacht na hÉireann states every Bill passed or deemed to have been passed by both Houses of the Oireachtas shall require the signature of the President before its enactment into law. Section 3(3) of the Bill provides that the Act comes into operation three months after its passing, not after its enactment. In short, an Act can come into operation only after enactment, not after its passing by the Houses of the Oireachtas, as proposed in the Bill. To allow section 3(3) of the Bill to stand would essentially mean the Bill would bypass the President and his functions under the aforementioned article of the Constitution. I am moving the amendment as it is the Government's intention that the Act will commence on 1 January 2019. It is a technical issue, a constitutional issue, that we must be careful about.
I accept what the Minister of State is saying. It is a technical issue. Perhaps we could address that in the Seanad by changing the term "enactment" to "passing". I would be quite happy to do that in the Seanad if the Minister of State agrees to it. The Bill, as it stands, proposes that the Act will come into force within three months. That is a reasonable period for people to adjust. I repeat the point that it is not that people will suddenly start taking all this leave. It is just that it would start after three months, and then people would spread out that leave over a number of years. If the Minister of State agrees with me in principle, we could certainly change the reference in the Seanad.
The actual text is before us now. We should probably do it now rather than in the Seanad. I do not see why we need to wait. If the Deputy is proposing that we wait for the Seanad, we can do that.
I am not pushed one way or the other because we can do it in the Seanad, if the Deputy wishes. I am happy to withdraw the amendment at this stage.