Tuesday, 14 May 2019
Parental Leave (Amendment) Bill 2017: From the Seanad
We now come to the Parental Leave (Amendment) Bill 2017 - Amendments from the Seanad. This is important legislation that has been outstanding for some time and we are anxious to see progressed.
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.
I welcome the passing of this important Bill and I commend the Social Democrats on bringing it forward two years ago. I acknowledge, as Deputy Shortall has fairly done, the role played by Senator Ardagh of Fianna Fáíl, along with other Senators, in pushing it through the Seanad. I also commend the Government, and the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, on the work that has been done. The Minister of State has facilitated the Bill's smooth passage through this House and the Seanad. Much is said about new politics and how it has its limitations, which are unquestionable - I will not go into that now - but it also has its advantages and strengths. For example, in a situation where the Government does not have a majority, Members from different political parties, Government and Opposition, are obliged to engage with each other in order to try to ensure that legislation of public benefit can be enacted. That is what has happened in this instance. There was no desire on the part of the Government to block legislation coming from a source other than itself. There was no desire on the part of Fianna Fáil to be proprietorial or to claim that it should not be supported because it was a Social Democrats policy. The same applies to all other parties in this House. It was recognised that this was a very important piece of legislation which would have significant consequences for parents in Ireland. When it is enacted and its effects are felt, parents will certainly feel the benefit.
The Minister of State and the Government, and indeed all parties in the House, were concerned about the impact it may have had upon employers if there was to be an immediate significant alternation of the provisions. It is important that employers are brought along with this legislation. We do not want to be in a situation where employers do not recognise that this can be of benefit to them as well. As Deputy Shortall stated, work is an essential part of people's lives. However, there comes a time when it may become too dominant. There is no more precious or privileged opportunity a person can have than to bring a child into the world. It is important that we avail of that time, that we enjoy it, and that parents are given the chance to spend time with their children in their early years. Anyone with a child will know that the childhood years pass very quickly. They are precious times, and we should ensure that both parents can spend time with the child in what is an incredibly important formative time.
I commend everyone in the House on the work done in respect of this Bill. That work illustrates the fact that we can work on new politics and that it has its benefits when we work together on issues. I hope there is a recognition in years to come that work is not everything, that there are more precious things in life. Spending time with one's children is one of the more precious and privileged things we can all do. Deputy Michael McGrath, who has more children than many of us, will be able to speak in full detail about how he will be able to enjoy his time.
I warmly congratulate Deputy Shortall and her colleagues in the Social Democrats for bringing forward this legislation, and indeed for persevering with it. Even though we have a minority Government, for an opposition Member to get a Bill through is incredibly difficult, and it requires some buy-in from the relevant line Minister and the support of the Civil Service, as well as some technical advice from the Office of the Parliamentary Legal Counsel. I congratulate the Deputy for sticking with it and getting this through.
Deputy Shortall said that it will make a modest difference. As she knows from the correspondence she receives, it will make a significant difference for many parents and families. The reality is that, at a very simple level, school holidays can be a nightmare for parents who are working full time. They end up paying out a great deal of money to put children into summer camps, which have a lot of value in their own right, in order to get through that period.
For those parents and co-operative employers, and many of them are, this is of real value. There will be challenges for some employers. I know issues were raised within the public sector. Those challenges can be worked out, however, as enacting this legislation will be for the greater good of society.
On the back of this, I hope a comprehensive information guide will be given out. From the interaction I have had with parents about this Bill and parental leave generally, I know many of them are not aware of how the system operates. For example, it is not widely known by parents who might be affected that the qualifying age for children with certain disabilities or long-term illnesses is already 16. I have seen questions asked online as to whether parental leave applies to both parents or if there is a separate individual entitlement for both parents to the full amount of leave. Again, we should not assume that everybody knows all these facts. Similarly, it is not widely known that one’s PRSI record will not be impacted adversely because PRSI credits are accrued when one is on parental leave. I hope that, through the Workplace Relations Commission, the Department and the Citizens Information website, proper information is provided regarding these changes, along with the overall operation of the parental leave regime. People who have not used their full entitlement for a child who is currently aged nine have inquired if they have to wait until September for the phasing in of the extra leave to claim the already unused period of leave. These are simple and straightforward questions which could make a real difference to the lives of many parents.
I again congratulate Deputy Shortall, her colleagues and all those who have played a role in ensuring this Bill will become law. It will make an important difference in the day-to-day lives of many families across the country. It is a sign that when politicians work together that we can achieve for the betterment of the people we serve.
I commend Deputy Shortall and her party, as well as the Minister of State and other Oireachtas Members who supported this legislation.
Deputy Shortall has described this Bill as making a modest difference. However, it will make a real and significant difference for many parents and families. Raising a child is one of the most important things anyone will ever do. It is an ambition for many and a treasured part of people’s lives. However, it is challenging in the context of a society increasingly focused on work. It is hard to raise a child when one is in full-time work or trying to get back into work. Schemes such as this are vitally important to support parents in raising a child. There is a need for much more, however. This legislation gives much increased flexibility which is required. We need to do more, however.
Deputy Michael McGrath alluded to summer camps. On Sunday in Cork there was a summer camps expo. While I am sure summer camps are valuable, it is an insight into people’s anxiousness and the difficulties of balancing and minding children during the summer holidays while working.
There are also many other challenges compared to other European jurisdictions. We have much more to do, not just with early years education but also wraparound childcare to facilitate people. It is a challenge for people when school finishes at 2.30 p.m. and there is no afterschool provision. That needs to be addressed. Valuable as this legislation is, many will not be able to avail of its provisions because they cannot afford to do so. That is not a criticism of Deputy Shortall’s Bill. Obviously, she could not bring forward legislation to increase parental benefit because it would be a charge on the Exchequer. However, it urgently needs to be addressed. Many who can afford to take parental leave will do so. However, many other parents will not be in a position to do so.
I agree there needs to be greater information. Many parents are not aware of the full benefits which exist. When mothers are returning to work after pregnancy, are we confident that every employer is treating them fairly? That is an issue which needs to be tackled, along with the need for wraparound childcare and increased investment in parental benefit.
As has been acknowledged, it is difficult to bring Private Members’ legislation through all Stages in the Dáil and Seanad. This is a significant achievement. Déanaim chomhghairdeas leis na Teachtaí i dtaobh an mhéid sin. Déanaim chomhghairdeas freisin leo siúd go léir a thacaigh leis an reachtaíocht seo, ina measc an tAire agus na hoifigigh sa Roinn.
In 1984, one of the Ceann Comhairle’s county men, Charles Handy, wrote The Future of Work, a book with which I am sure he is familiar. He envisaged that, as technology advanced, all of us would have an easier and better time and would not work as hard. Unfortunately, we are all taking work home in our pockets, namely, with our smartphones. We have all heard stories about people answering emails at 2 o'clock in the morning. Work never stops. Politicians may do that a lot. I know I do a fair bit of it.
Deputy Shortall spoke about work-life balance, which is important, and there is an EU directive on this. This Bill is an example of new politics working. Any legislation which comes before the House needs to be analysed and improved where possible. We did this with this legislation. I congratulate Deputy Shortall for her work on and tenacity with this Bill, as well as making the case for it strongly, respectfully and conscientiously.
The Government has always been anxious to support families, parents and children. Members referred to paid parental leave. That is currently with the committee and we are waiting for the pre-legislative scrutiny to be completed. When that is finished, we will publish the legislation. I would like to get at it before the summer recess to ensure parents can get paid to take parental leave for two weeks from November.
The Government also has a responsibility to ensure legislation is constitutional and must take advice from the Attorney General's office on that. I am happy we improved the Bill as it went through. There were several technical issues which we spotted and which we worked out with the co-operation of Deputy Shortall and her colleagues.
This has been one of the fastest Bills through this Stage, with no debate on any of the amendments. That in itself shows how much work has been done in this House and in the Seanad. I commend all Senators and Deputies involved.
We have to be cognisant of the impact of this legislation on business, particularly small businesses with three or four employees, to ensure they can carry on. If employees are happy and can take a day off a week, it cuts down on childcare costs and ensures they will stay in their jobs rather than giving them up. I am anxious to encourage women to stay in work. The Gender Pay Gap Information Bill will be dealt with later and we have the better balance initiative to ensure more women are on State and company boards. It is important we have women involved in decision-making at the highest level and that we tackle the gender pay gap.
We will not delay the Bill’s commencement. My officials and the Office of the Attorney General are preparing a commencement order for signature after enactment. The Minister for Justice and Equality will sign the order on 19 July to allow the legislation to come into effect six weeks before the date which the entitlement to leave comes into force. It is intended that the commencement order will enable the entitlement to additional leave to come into effect from 1 September 2019. Otherwise, there is a risk that it could be three months after that. That is why we amended this.
I thank all Members for their co-operation and their work on this legislation. I look forward to seeing it in action.
I thank the Minister of State. This initiative reflects very well on Members on all sides of the 32nd Dáil. I acknowledge Deputy Shortall's considerable tenacity who, through the Business Committee, has pursued this matter for some time. As Chairman of the Oireachtas Commission, I thank Deputy Shortall for acknowledging the role of the Office of the Parliamentary Legal Advisor. We are well served by superb people in that office and we are absolutely committed to ensuring it continues to have the resources to enable it to service people on all sides of this House into the future.