Dáil debates

Tuesday, 14 July 2020

Maternity Leave Benefit Extension: Motion [Private Members]


8:35 pm

Photo of Claire KerraneClaire Kerrane (Roscommon-Galway, Sinn Fein)
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I move:

“That Dáil Éireann: notes that due to the public health emergency, parents of young babies find themselves facing particular challenges, and that there is an added difficulty in securing childcare for new children;


—the #ExtendMaternityLeave2020 campaign established by mothers currently on maternity leave;

—the National Women’s Council of Ireland’s support of the campaign; and

—the 28,000 people who signed a petition in support of the campaign;

and calls on the Government to:

—address this matter urgently by introducing a temporary extension of maternity benefit from six to nine months for mothers whose maternity benefit claim expires between the start of March and end of November, if they wish to avail of it; and

—ensure this extension is reviewed at the end of November and continued for further mothers, if necessary.”

I am very proud to bring this motion forward as my very first motion in this House. Having a baby is one of the most exciting times in a person's life. I know this because just a few months ago I became an auntie for the first time. The joy my little nephew Tadhg has brought to all of our lives is something that is shared with every mother and parent behind this campaign.

I know what family support means to a mother, especially a new mother, when she has just had a baby. I also know that in the past few months many mothers have been robbed of that support. Nothing about maternity leave has been normal since Covid-19 hit in March. In the past few weeks and months, many of us in the Chamber have been contacted by numerous mothers who have asked us for help. They have reached out to us as public representatives. It is important that their stories are heard.

A woman who contacted me yesterday told me her husband is a doctor and not one crèche will take children aged under one year. Therefore, her husband will take all of his leave and they have no idea what will happen after that. Another mother told me that she had her fourth child the night all of the schools were closed. She said that, hand on heart, she has not had a chance to bond sufficiently with her newborn baby or to give the time that was needed to home schooling her other three children. She said she feels enormous guilt around this. She told me that her husband returned to work after two and a half weeks, leaving her with four children, sleep deprived and with absolutely no help.

Another mother told me her baby was born in mid-March and since then she has received just one check-up. Every developmental check has been cancelled due to Covid-9. She said she has never been checked following major surgery. This alone is extremely dangerous, but she said she is more worried about her baby and whether she is reaching milestones and doing well. She went on to say that she has no childcare in place and that nowhere she has contacted is taking new babies. She said that come September she does not know how she will be able to return to work. She has the option of taking additional leave, but it is unpaid and her mortgage and other bills will keep coming.

We know that many women have been forced to take unpaid leave and are struggling financially. Women have been forced to use their annual leave to give them a bit more time. Women have given up their jobs and are worried sick as their maternity leave end dates approach and they have no one to mind their babies. Crèches have closed their baby rooms and some are no longer taking babies aged under one year.

I telephoned four crèches in my constituency, Roscommon-Galway, yesterday. None of them is taking babies under the age of one. This is replicated across the State. Grandparents are no longer an option. Many of us, or our children, have been looked after by grandmothers. Going on yesterday's press conference following the Cabinet meeting, it appears that the Government's response to all of these mothers is to bring forward something that is totally irrelevant to the issue before us.

The Government's response to the mothers who have asked for its help is to re-announce a commitment around parental leave and dress it up as a solution. This is an insult to these mothers and their families. I am genuinely baffled at the response from the Government that was announced yesterday. I ask sincerely how announcing the possibility, as part of budget 2021, of bringing forward three weeks of additional parental leave has any impact or helps in any way any mother whose maternity leave ends next week and who has nowhere to look after their six-month old children.

I do not see how there has been any recognition of what these mothers are facing in what was announced yesterday. As the Minister with responsibility for children, disability, equality and integration, Deputy Roderic O'Gorman, said yesterday this is the Government's response to this Sinn Féin motion. It is also its response to every single mother who has had a baby over the past few months and has taken maternity leave in the midst of a global pandemic.

I commend the #ExtendMaternityLeave2020 campaign group which, despite having newborn babies at home, somehow managed to create, build and drive a national campaign on such an important issue. Those involved deserve huge credit. This day last week the Taoiseach told the Dáil that he would do right on this issue. What the Government is proposing in its amendment to the motion is not the right thing and I ask it to reconsider its position.

Photo of Mary Lou McDonaldMary Lou McDonald (Dublin Central, Sinn Fein)
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I commend Deputy Kerrane for bringing forward this important motion at this time. On 11 June, the National Women's Council of Ireland, NWCI, submitted a petition signed by more than 28,000 people to the then Taoiseach, Deputy Leo Varadkar, calling for an extension of 12 weeks to maternity leave and pay. He said he would give full and meaningful consideration to this request. However, after a month of inaction and pleas falling on deaf ears, last Tuesday I joined the NWCI and a group of exasperated mothers and fathers who demonstrated outside the Dáil in support of this call. I and other Deputies have consistently raised this issue on the floor of the House.

Last week, the Taoiseach, Deputy Micheál Martin, said the Government's intention was to do the right thing. New mothers, women and families need and deserve much more than empty rhetoric and words. They need urgent action now to extend maternity leave and benefits by 12 weeks. There must be no ifs or buts, just action.

Like Deputy Kerrane, I want to give a voice to the best advocates for this necessary support and change, that is, mothers themselves. Victoria told me that her little girl was born four weeks premature and spent two weeks in intensive care. She said she was scared and felt she did not have the time she needed. She has no childcare available and does not know what to do. She has suffered from post-natal depression, hospital appointments have been cancelled, her injections were put back by a month and neonatal appointments, along with a hip X-ray and ultrasound, have been cancelled. Even though the lockdown has now been lifted, she is still suffering from anxiety and postnatal depression. She told me that her child has not left the house except for doctor's appointments and small walks on a country lane. She said she is at a loss, has no childcare and would have no choice but to return to work prematurely.

Rebecca said she had her first baby during the pandemic and found it extremely stressful. She said her daughter missed out on medical appointments and visits from the public health nurse.

She says she will have to take unpaid leave if this motion is not passed and if the Government does not act. She says extending maternity leave provides people with more time with their babies and gives them the chance to get back into the workforce later in the year.

Jenny, and this case is particularly sad, said at the moment these truly feel like the darkest days she has personally had to face and it should be the most joyous and happy time in her life. Victoria, Rebecca and Jenny articulate perfectly and directly why this extension to maternity leave and benefit is both essential and urgent.

We have and will out of necessity make all manner of interventions to support workers, the economy and businesses, sector by sector. That is absolutely necessary and essential but we must intervene to support families too. This, to my mind, is a very simple, straightforward, necessary and fair ask by new mothers that they be given the additional 12 months with their young children at a time, bear in mind, where childcare provision is under immense pressure and at a time when no-one can be sure the sufficient capacity will be available.

The announcement yesterday by the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs in respect of parents leave is welcome, in as much as it has been made. However, it is not the solution and nobody should pretend it is a solution for mothers and families who need relief now. They cannot wait until next year, they need a solution now. This is a matter of fairness and it is also a matter of common sense. I ask that the Government stop hiding behind a veil of complexity and act immediately to extend paid maternity leave for these mothers by an additional 12 weeks.

8:45 pm

Photo of David CullinaneDavid Cullinane (Waterford, Sinn Fein)
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This has not been a good week or a good day for this chaotic Government and the Minister can add to her list the refusal of Government to support this motion. There are times when I wonder why we must be on opposite sides of issues and if the Minister was true to herself she would accept this motion should be passed. If she met the mothers, as we did, outside the gates of Leinster House holding their babies and talking about the challenges they have and the reasons these measures need to be put in place, she would support it. I am at a loss as to why the Government will not support mothers and will not support these parents.

We can throw any amount of money at banks. We will invest, and rightly so, billions of euro of taxpayers' money into the July stimulus supporting business and enterprise which in turn supports jobs, but when it comes to supporting mothers who have had difficulties and challenges with their babies being born during this emergency period we cannot put in place an emergency measure to support them. Maternity benefit and maternity leave is necessary. I find the situation appalling. What is more appalling is the Minister's amendment to the Sinn Féin motion. As an Teachta McDonald said, I welcome the fact that the Government has at least reacted to some degree to our motion by extending parental leave, but that was promised anyway. That was committed to last year.

The response from the Government in its own amendment stated that it proposes to examine in early course, as part of the budgetary process, the possible extension of paid parent's leave and parents benefit from two to five weeks and the possible extension of the period in which parents leave can be taken by the cohort of people eligible. It is more spin and more nonsense, talking about the possibility and kicking the can down the road again. I am sure many of the mothers are listening in here because they know this Private Members' business is being tabled. The Minister should explain, and it is her job to explain, to those mothers and parents why this Government cannot support what is a simple motion that does what is right for those mothers and parents. That is on the Minister.

Photo of Patricia RyanPatricia Ryan (Kildare South, Sinn Fein)
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Some 30,000 people have signed the Uplift petition calling on the Government to extend maternity leave by three months. Like many, Government Deputies here tonight have signed it too. The Fine Gael leader in the Seanad, Senator Regina Doherty, has in the last week confirmed to the Taoiseach that the Seanad stands ready and waiting to implement this extension. It is now time to do the right thing and extend maternity leave by three months with the possibility of an extension in November if the pandemic is ongoing.

We have had emails from parents telling us of the challenges they have faced in giving birth in the middle of a global pandemic. Mothers have faced unique challenges during their maternity leave. They struggle without the usual supports including family support, cancelled prenatal appointments and reduced visits from the public health nurse all because of Covid-19. Babies were born without fathers present and in some cases fathers held their baby for the first time when they were being brought home. Many mothers are now approaching the end date of their maternity leave and have no-one to mind their baby. Grandparents are cocooning. Some crèches have not reopened. Some have opened with reduced capacity while others are no longer taking new clients.

Many mothers have described the stress they have been under during their maternity leave. Some have been on their own at home while their partners go to work and this has been particularly challenging for new mothers. Recent studies have shown that post-natal depression has tripled since the beginning of the pandemic. The stress of dealing with a new baby, coupled with the stress of a strain on family finance and the worry about the health of a loved one, is already a lot to deal with. On top of this, they have the worry of returning to work and putting their family at risk. Mothers with other children of school-going age have had to juggle a newborn while home-schooling.

Yesterday evening at a press conference following the Cabinet meeting, the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, announced that as part of budget 2021 an additional three weeks for parents leave would be examined. The Minister referred to this as the Government's response to the Sinn Féin motion despite the fact it will do nothing to actually address the issue. It is a slap in the face to tens of thousands of mothers who have fought over the last number of months to provide a semblance of normality to their newborns. This move was already promised in the programme for Government and does nothing to address the present challenges. It does not go far enough and families deserve better. I ask that all Government Deputies, in particular, listen to their constituents and do the right thing in supporting this motion.

Photo of Violet-Anne WynneViolet-Anne Wynne (Clare, Sinn Fein)
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I commend my colleague, Deputy Kerrane, for tabling this important motion and urge all Members of the House to support it.

These are worrying and peculiar times for all citizens but none more so than the mothers and fathers of newborn children. The restrictions we have lived through and precautions we have had to take have had an impact on the parents of newborn children. As a mother of five I can say that a new addition to a family is a joy, and a joy that we once could share immediately with family members and friends. Covid-19 has put a stop to this. The safety of our health workers, newborns and their mothers is paramount and, as such, the current restrictions were necessary. However, it must be recognised that these current circumstances are stressful for both mother and child. The old certainties and reassurance of family support and public health nurse visits have been suspended. For many, the end of the six-month maternity period is fast approaching. Some childcare facilities remain closed and this has created uncertainty as to where new parents are to leave their child during working hours. Maternity leave should be a time where necessary check-ups and medical appointments can be attended. For many, these vital services were paused during the height of the lockdown. It is vital that maternity leave and pay is extended for these families so they can follow up on missed developmental checks and hospital appointments.

In my constituency of Clare I have received many calls and emails from the general public and, in particular, the #ExtendMaternityLeave2020 campaign group, calling for support on this motion. I am sure I am not alone in this. It is pleasing that over the last number of weeks so many Members of the Houses have indicated they will support this motion, and I sincerely hope this previous support is followed up by their actions. The announcement by the Minister last night may seem like a step in the right direction but it does not go far enough. That is why I encourage the Government parties to get behind this motion. This is a sensible and fair motion. It is a motion that is good for the State and good for our citizens. Supporting this motion will go a long way towards reassuring the parents of newborn children that they will not be left behind as we look to recover from the economic impact of Covid-19. Many countries across the world already allow for maternity leave for up to 12 months from the birth of a child. These early months are crucial in the development of a child and we need to ensure the supports parents require are around them. This motion allows for the most basic of these supports, that is, the love and attention of a parent.

Photo of Imelda MunsterImelda Munster (Louth, Sinn Fein)
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I want to start by commending the #ExtendMaternityLeave2020 campaign group for all its hard work in what has been a difficult time for new parents.

Mothers who have had their babies in recent months have had a particularly strange and difficult experience of maternity leave. After the birth of their children, many could not enjoy support from extended family members or from public health nurses and others who are so important for new parents, especially first-time mothers. They could not enjoy these important first few months with their babies in view of the restrictions of lockdown.

This has been such a stressful time for so many mothers and the very least they deserve is an extension of three months in their maternity leave to give them the space to catch up on experiences and medical appointments, check-ups and all the other activities they have missed out on. These parents are now facing going back to work in a completely changed environment and many are unable to secure childcare places for their children. Many crèches are simply not accepting newborns and this is leaving parents in the lurch. In my constituency, a mother has been advised by her employer that she must hand in her notice if she is not ready to come back to work. She is parenting alone and cannot secure childcare. Her employer has now given her the option of looking after her children or losing her job.

This Covid crisis has laid bare the absolute shambles that is childcare provision in this State. The fees are absolutely outrageous and the waiting lists are lengthy. This has left the parents of small children struggling with a enormous financial burden. At the weekend, Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy O'Gorman, stated that he hoped that crèche fees will be capped in order to ensure that parents will not have to pay more than their monthly mortgage payment for childcare fees. Is that the extent of the ambition of this new Government? Is this the radical change that people voted for in February? Those comments were disgraceful and they show a total lack of understanding of the childcare issues that parents face.

Mothers who have given birth during the Covid crisis are not trying to pull a fast one. They have gone through an awfully bloody time and all they are asking for is an extension of three months to their maternity leave. Given the difficult circumstances that they have had to endure, surely this is not too much to ask of the new Government.

8:55 pm

Photo of Helen McEnteeHelen McEntee (Meath East, Fine Gael)
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I move:

To delete all words after "Dáil Éireann" and substitute the following: "notes that the public health emergency has caused significant hardship and stress across our population, not least for parents and children, and acknowledges the issues raised by the #ExtendMaternityLeave2020 campaign established by mothers currently on maternity leave and by the National Women's Council of Ireland's support of the campaign;

recognises that support for families, as we begin to reopen, is of paramount importance and welcomes the:

— financial supports for those experiencing job insecurity in the form of the Pandemic Unemployment Payment;

— support for employers in maintaining their staffing through the Temporary Wage Subsistence Scheme; and

— reopening of childcare which has relieved many parents of the burden of childcare while trying to work;

acknowledges the many advances made in enabling work-life balance for parents in recent years, including the:

— introduction of two weeks' paid parent's leave for each parent;

— extension of unpaid parental leave from 18 to 22 working weeks in September 2019 and extending to 26 working weeks from September 2020; and

— introduction of two weeks' Paternity Benefit in 2016; and

welcomes the fact that the Government proposes to examine in early course, as part of the budgetary process:

— the possible extension of paid parent’s leave and Parent’s Benefit from two to five weeks (constituting an additional three weeks per parent); and

— the possible extension of the period in which parent’s leave can be taken by the cohort eligible until November 2021.

It is entirely understandable that new mothers are seeking an extension of maternity leave and benefit due to the Covid-19 pandemic. These have been an extremely strange and stressful few months for all of us and I have no doubt that being at home with a new baby without the usual support systems must have been and continues to be extremely challenging for people. Not having grandparents, siblings and friends around to share the joy and the work of minding a newborn is difficult and I think everyone in the House will recognise this.

The Government is acutely aware that many families have suffered during the pandemic, and that social distancing is particularly hard when one is caring for a young child or children and one has to be cautious about every social interaction. Having said that, the Government is of the view that a temporary enhanced entitlement to maternity benefit is not the appropriate course of action. This is not about money. The change being sought is complex from a legal perspective. It is not as simple as is being suggested. Adopting the proposed measure would require me, as Minister for Justice and Equality, to bring forward primary legislation to amend the Maternity Protection Acts 1994 to 2004, in order to provide that women who had already started or completed their maternity period would be entitled to take a further 13 weeks' leave. The Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection would also be required to amend the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005, as amended, to provide for the associated payment of maternity benefit at €245 per week for the period of any extension.

The amendment would require legislation to have a retrospective effect. Retrospective legislation, as the House will be aware, is extremely rare and can raise constitutional issues. In addition, there may be legal difficulties in identifying the relevant cohort to which the amendment would apply. There are also practical considerations for how such an extension would be implemented in circumstances where some mothers may have already returned to the workplace or who are intending to return in the very near future.

An extension to maternity leave, while benefiting a small number of people, would also impact on others, most obviously employers who are already struggling with the impact of Covid-19 on their workplaces and other employees who may have had to manage complex childcare arrangements during the past three months, as many in this House will have done. Any time we introduce a change in the mandatory leave arrangements for employees, we have to consider these impacts and we have to try and achieve the right balance between home life and work life. That is all the more important now given the extraordinary changes to working arrangements that the whole country has undergone. It would not be a responsible act for me, as Minister, to add a significant additional element to the challenges that business managers and, in particular, employees of SMEs are facing to resume their work during the COVID-19 pandemic. These are businesses struggling to stay open and keep their employees healthy and working. These issues that they are likely to face have been raised with me, as have the concerns by many mothers. They are concerned about the additional burden this proposal would place on the businesses and on their employees and we must look at both.

That said, this Government is firmly committed to enhancing the time that parents can spend with their new children but we want to do so in a way that the benefits, and any resulting burdens, are spread widely and equitably between mothers and fathers and do not come as an unexpected additional burden to our key SME sector. The Government is proposing to advance the extension of parent's leave and benefit to five weeks for all parents of children born on after 1 November 2019 as an alternative to the temporary targeted extension of maternity leave and benefit. The proposal will enable all eligible parents to spend additional time with their young children in the future. I am sure Deputies will agree that this is a more desirable outcome than a reform limited to a specific group and a specific time.

Parent's leave and benefit were introduced on 1 November 2019 with the commencement of the Parent's Leave and Benefit Act 2019. This Act allows for a possible extension of the period of parent's leave and benefit. An order can be made by the Minister for Justice and Equality to provide for an extension of parent's leave. This can be done with the consent of the Ministers for Employment Affairs and Social Protection and Public Expenditure and Reform. The making of such an order requires prior approval of both Houses of the Oireachtas. In addition to leave for parents that is already in place - such as maternity and paternity leave - the Act provides an individual entitlement for each parent for a child born or adopted on or after 1 November 2019.

The parent's leave entitlement is currently two weeks' leave for each parent to be taken within 52 weeks of the birth or placement of the child. Parents may also be entitled to parent's benefit which is paid at €245 per week for two weeks. This is the same rate as maternity benefit. An extension of parent's leave and benefit will have a positive impact on family life. Evidence shows that children benefit from being cared for and spending time with both parents, particularly when they are young. Parent's leave provides fathers as well as mothers with an opportunity to participate in the care of their child at this young age.

Given that paid parent's leave cannot be shared between parents, an increase from two weeks to five weeks provides, in effect, an additional six weeks per family.

We also intend to extend the period in which the leave can be taken. This will allow the leave to be taken in the first two years of a child's life rather than the first 52 weeks, as is the case at present. These changes will apply to all new parents once the reforms are approved and the parents of children born during the pandemic will be eligible to take the leave at the same time as all other parents once the 2021 budget process is completed in November. This would not have happened without the changes we are proposing. The proposals contained in the amendment will be considered as part of the 2021 budget process and will come into force thereafter.

I understand the difficulties and I have spoken to many parents. While the measures we intend to introduce in the budget will not fully deliver what has been asked for, they will go some way towards helping not only a specific set of parents, but all parents in the coming weeks, months and years. I commend the amendment to the House.

9:05 pm

Photo of Matt CarthyMatt Carthy (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
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I am sharing time with a number of my colleagues. I commend Deputy Kerrane on putting this motion before the House. I support it entirely. I also commend all of the new mothers who led the campaign to extend maternity leave and those who supported them in their work, including the National Women's Council of Ireland and Members of this House, including Deputies McDonald, O'Reilly, Bríd Smith and others from across the political divide who stood outside the gates of this complex and assured those women that everything that could possibly be done on their behalf would be done.

This evening we have seen that the chaos for which Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael Governments have been renowned is very much evident once again. The actions of the Government in bringing forward its amendment and rejecting the motion as put forward by Deputy Kerrane also show that the uncaring and out-of-touch nature of Administrations comprising those parties is also still evident. The amendment to the motion and the Minister's remarks go to great lengths to assure people that the Government understands the issues pertaining to women who have had children during the pandemic period. They go to great lengths to say that the Government understands the difficulties facing their families before going on to offer those people precisely sweet damn all in return. That is really disappointing. In fact, it is inexcusable. I have no doubt that, if the Minister were on this side of the House and facing such an amendment to the motion, she would treat it with the disdain it warrants.

I ask the Government to withdraw its amendment between now and Thursday, when we will vote on the motion, to stand with those women, not only in words but in actions, who have just had new babies and their families, and to show them that the State is caring and supports them in the position they are in. I commend the motion to the House.

Photo of Rose Conway-WalshRose Conway-Walsh (Mayo, Sinn Fein)
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This motion is enormously important to thousands of mothers and families throughout the State, as the Minister acknowledged. I also acknowledge the work done by the National Women's Council of Ireland and the group campaigning to extend maternity leave in 2020. I further acknowledge Deputy Kerrane for bringing the motion before the House.

We are only talking about 12 weeks, or 60 working days. This would help the likes of Lauren, who finished her maternity leave on 31 May. She has 16 weeks of extended leave. She has zero income and is building a house. She has no crèche facility. That is the type of predicament these mothers are in. I have spoken with dozens of mothers who are distressed and under financial pressure because of the situations in which they find themselves. The Minister stated that retrospective legislation is extremely rare but so are pandemics. During what should be the happiest time of their lives and when they should be enjoying their new babies, these mothers are left feeling isolated and uncared for. Mothers have described to me how they could not go for walks with their babies and how they have been up all night caring for their babies before trying to home-school their other children. They have told me how they have no childcare for their other children and face uncertainty as regards crèches. They have told me how they could not even accept the help of their own mothers or siblings due to the lockdown and how they worried because they could not get their children to the baby clinic for injections.

The Sinn Féin motion allows us to make good this situation. It just gives these mothers an extra 60 days to spend quality time with their babies. It would mean that mothers would not be forced to give up their jobs or to take unpaid annual leave which would compound the financial stress many families are experiencing. It is time to give these mothers and families the break they need. We should do so now, not after the budget.

Photo of Kathleen FunchionKathleen Funchion (Carlow-Kilkenny, Sinn Fein)
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Like my colleagues, I commend Deputy Kerrane, the National Women's Council of Ireland and all of the mothers who campaigned. It shows what a group of strong women can do when they get together. It is just common sense to extend maternity leave by 12 weeks. The programme for Government talks about extending maternity leave, parental leave and paternity leave. This is the perfect opportunity for the Government to show that it is serious about that and to actually do something about it by taking real action and extending maternity leave by 12 weeks.

It is obviously a very exciting time for people when a new baby comes into the house but those of us who have gone through it - I have taken maternity leave twice myself - will know that it can be a very difficult and stressful time. One can be very anxious. One of the truest saying in this regard is that one has absolutely no idea until one has gone through it and seen how difficult it can be at times. What new mothers have gone through in recent months has been unbelievable. There is the lack of family support and the very practical things we have heard about including public health visits, vaccinations and so on. It makes sense to give mothers a bit of extra time with their babies and time with other children because everything just stopped all of a sudden. Schools and crèches were closed. These mothers had new babies on their hands and potentially other children as well. The reality is that it was very difficult. This is an excellent opportunity for the Government to start on the right note, particularly with the women of this country. It is in the programme for Government so why not make a start now with this motion?

In general, we all want to see maternity leave, parental leave and paternity leave to be extended. This is a good way to start that. The Minister said that this is a very technical and complex matter and that there is no way it could be done but the reality is that anything is possible if there is political will. That is what is lacking. The political will to do this is not there.

The announcement of the three extra weeks of parental leave was a bit disingenuous. People were contacting me today who thought that they would at least have an extra three weeks at the end of their maternity leave, which might be due to end in the next couple of weeks. They actually will not have it until after November at the earliest. It makes no sense to ask people to send their new babies, who have not been exposed to anything and who have only been at home, to crèche facilities, if they can get one, when we are all wearing masks and sanitising our hands. If the Government is serious about addressing these issues, this would be a good start and a good way to show it is taking the issue seriously.

Photo of Darren O'RourkeDarren O'Rourke (Meath East, Sinn Fein)
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It takes a village to raise a child. Covid-19 and the restrictions that came with it put that fact up in lights. In the very short time I have, I will focus on first-time parents. I am familiar with the experience myself. People leave the hospital full of enthusiasm and love and bursting with pride but, in truth, they do not know what they are at and are half petrified. To overcome this, they lean on their family, friends, neighbours and anyone else who is willing to help. In normal times, there are many such people.

My good friends, whom the Minister knows, Micheál Óg Ó Gallachóir and Emma Dillon Gallagher, became parents for the first time on 14 March when Emma gave birth to beautiful baby Faolán. The picture of the first time baby Faolán met his grandad, seven days later, was posted on Twitter. It was retweeted 106,000 times and received 714,000 likes. It was seen all over the world.

10 o’clock

The new parents were asked to do media interviews in Britain, the United States and elsewhere. We could ask why that was the case. Many people will have seen it in the media. It is because in the photo Faolán is not in his grandad's arms - he cannot be - and his granddad is outside the house, peering in through the kitchen window at his grandson in his son's arms. Three generations are separated by a window due to Covid-19 restrictions. There was novelty in the story of the photo, but actually it was very sad. New mums and babies such as Emma and Faolán have been denied some of the very basic and essential supports that would otherwise be available. Routine check-ups, visits from the public health nurse, vaccinations, therapies, mother and baby groups, and breastfeeding circles have similarly been cancelled or postponed.

Postnatal depression has apparently increased threefold during the Covid period and I have no doubt the same applies to anxiety. Childcare is a significant issue and it needs to be addressed. It takes a village to raise a child. Covid-19 has denied mothers and babies that benefit. It has been said to me that we were forced to close the doors and lock ourselves away for three months. The only compassionate and decent thing to do for new mothers and babies is to support the Sinn Féin motion. I support Deputy Carthy's proposal that the Government withdraw its amendment as it does not go anywhere near far enough. I commend the Sinn Féin motion to the House.

9:15 pm

Photo of Seán SherlockSeán Sherlock (Cork East, Labour)
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I rise on behalf of the Labour Party to support the Sinn Féin motion. We welcome this unambiguous motion that should warrant the support of the majority of the Members of this House.

I reread the Minister's speech as I found part of it quite difficult to understand. She stated:

The change being sought is complex from a legal perspective. It is not as simple as is being suggested. Adopting the proposed measure would require me, as Minister for Justice and Equality, to bring forward primary legislation to amend the Maternity Protection Acts 1994 to 2004, in order to provide that women who had already started or completed their maternity period would be entitled to take a further 13 weeks' leave. The Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection would also be required to amend the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005, as amended, to provide for the associated payment of maternity benefit at €245 per week for the period of any extension.

The Minister continued:

What is proposed in the motion would require legislation to have a retrospective effect. Retrospective legislation, as the House will be aware, is extremely rare and can raise constitutional issues. In addition, there may be legal difficulties in identifying the relevant cohort to which the amendment would apply.

With all due respect to the Minister, whom I wish well in her role, for a Minister to come into the Houses of the Oireachtas and give as an excuse for not dealing with this issue the line that it would be too complex from a legal perspective is condescending and patronising to those of us who represent the very women who have given us the testimonials of just how much this crisis has affected them. If we had as a bar or standard that all legislation would have to be simple and clear before we could proceed, we would never get anything done in this House. In fact, we would never have introduced the extensive legislation in respect of the Covid pandemic, which gave rise to many Government initiatives and which was extremely complex. The Minister and the Government should rethink their approach to this issue. Using the excuse that the matter is complex is not good enough for the women who have sought changes to the legislation and who voiced the concerns we have heard tonight.

Childcare is an issue we have been raising for months in this House. This is the fourth time I have pointed out that we have yet to come up with a solution in respect of childcare in this country. To be frank about it, the Government has been found wanting. We now have testimony from so many providers and parents in respect of their inability to provide childcare facilities for babies under the age of one year. We are now seeing the evidence of a regressivity having crept in as a result of Covid-19 in respect of women's rights in this country. I ask the Government to please revisit this issue from a policy point of view because this pandemic has had a massive effect on women and their ability to progress in their careers and in society as a whole. That effect has not been fully measured. No quantum or metrics have been fully put behind it. There is some nascent research from the Central Statistics Office. I ask the Government to please revisit this issue on behalf of those women in order that we can bring forward progressive ideas on how women can progress in their jobs and in society.

There is no Green Party Minister in the Chamber, although there may be one here later on in the evening. I do not wish to attack anybody, but we have before us testimony from Deputy O'Gorman, who is now a Minister. I wish him well in his Ministry. He raised this issue in the Dáil on 20 May when he asked whether the then Minister had considered how groups such as women returning from maternity leave and employees returning from sick leave had been impacted by the current definition of specified employee under the temporary wage subsidy scheme. He asked if the Minister had considered extending the statutory period of maternity leave, and the period of payment of maternity benefit, to provide protection for women who would otherwise be returning to work during the Covid-19 crisis. The current Minister asked in a parliamentary question on 3 June, just last month, if the Minister for Justice and Equality - at the time it was Deputy Flanagan - would consider extending maternity leave and benefit for those women moving into the unpaid entitlement phase of their maternity leave during the Covid-19 crisis, and if he would make a statement on the matter. There was a very clear, unambiguous position by one of the constituent parties of the Government in respect of dealing in an honest and forthright way with this issue on behalf of the thousands of women affected.

The Government's response tonight has fallen a little short of expectations. The Minister cannot come to the House and speak about the "unexpected additional burden to our key SME sector", having presumably heard the concerns of the SME sector in respect of this issue. The SME sector is only one sector in society. I know the Minister has to represent every swathe of society in this argument but there seems to be too much of what the SME sector has said in her response to this motion and not enough of what an august body, the National Women's Council of Ireland, has said. That it supported this campaign on behalf of the women of Ireland should be enough for any progressive Government to stand up and take stock, listen and respond accordingly.

It is not long since Members of this House, now Ministers of the Government, stood up in this House and, to coin a phrase, spoke on the side of the angels on this issue. It is deeply disappointing that they have gone to the other side in a heartbeat. The testimonials are real. These are emails from real people that we are all receiving. A baby girl was screened due to reflux and no hands-on help was available or recommended from GPs, lactation consultants and osteopaths. It was said that phone consultations are not the same. The baby suffered unnecessarily for weeks until things settled down for her. Her parents suffered. Another mother said this was not the happy maternity leave she was looking forward to when having her baby. She is due back to work in September but she cannot get childcare sorted due to restrictions. This means she will need to take unpaid leave, which will create its own financial stresses and burdens.

Many of us will have gone through this process. As a father of two small children, I can relate to this. However, because we were not then in a Covid-type situation, my family had access to all of the services that new parents can expect to avail of. These were not available for many of these women. As a society, we can do a lot more. Senator Marie Sherlock, who, in case anyone is wondering, is a first cousin of mine, got the wording right on this issue, when she said the following:

The extension in parental leave will not become available until November 2020. This means that the crisis facing a number of parents who have exhausted all their maternity, paternity and parental leave and who cannot secure childcare for their young baby is not resolved. These parents are still facing stark choices.

Will the Minister revisit this issue? I know she is a progressive Minister and if she were to revisit this, she would do a great service to many women and families throughout this country.

9:25 pm

Photo of Jennifer WhitmoreJennifer Whitmore (Wicklow, Social Democrats)
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This afternoon, I took a phone call from a woman in my constituency. She rang to tell me her story and the reason an extension to maternity leave was so important to her. She was carrying twins. Tragically, she lost one of the babies. She continued with her pregnancy but it was a very difficult pregnancy. She was grieving for her baby and the birth was very traumatic. This woman has not had access to any counselling or physiotherapy and she is both physically and emotionally scarred following that experience. Childbirth and having a baby should be something that a woman treasures. However, this woman is in a very difficult position at the moment. She told me she needs extra time for her body and mind to heal. She needs time to get the supports that were denied to her due to Covid. She is due to return to work in September and she does not think she will be in a position to do so. She is going to be faced with the choice of looking after herself, her baby and her own health or going back to work. That is a very difficult choice for any mother to have to make.

I learned all about this woman because I picked up the phone and listened to her story. I really wish the Government had listened to all those women who have been telling their stories over the past few weeks and months. Listening to her story, it became blatantly obvious that this call for an extension to maternity leave is not a luxury or something nice to have but an absolute necessity to support mothers for whom motherhood in this period has been very traumatic, scary, lonely and stressful. There are many women who have this story to tell.

Not only did mothers find themselves in challenging situations during maternity leave but they are now facing various barriers to returning to work. The roadmap to economic recovery has largely ignored two very important sectors that support women and families in the workforce, namely, childcare and education. Parents, particularly women, have been dealing with these until now in the absence of any cohesive policy and strategy aligning the reopening of crèches and schools with the reopening of the economy. With approximately 60% of childcare facilities taking up Government supports, there is a question mark over the other 40%. We are finding that childcare has yet to return to normal capacity as the sector reopens. It is particularly difficult to find care for children under one year of age. Without adequate childcare, mothers have had to face some very hard decisions. Some have returned to work part time, while others have had to quit work altogether. Many are working from home while minding the baby and others are taking annual leave and parental leave to try to carry them through until childcare is available again. This leads to fears of a two-tier workforce emerging as women are forced to choose between the domestic and professional demands in their lives.

What new mothers need now is time. They need time to catch up on some of the important health checks for themselves and their babies and to source childcare. Extending maternity leave would buy them crucial time to manage their transition back into the workforce. This time has been taken away from them as a result of the pandemic. If the Government had taken time to listen to all of those mothers and the stories they told outside the gates of Leinster House, they would have realised very early on that the proposed parental leave extension, which the Government mooted as an alternative to the extension of maternity leave, will not meet the needs of these women and families. It is not a simple issue of providing leave for parents. The issue is one of providing the correct leave at the correct time. Women on maternity leave need an extension to be implemented urgently. They do not have the luxury of waiting until budget 2021 for the Government to potentially sort this out or for the promise of additional paid parental leave to materialise because if or when that happens it will be too late for many of these mothers.

I will read from two documents, the first of which is the First 5 strategy, the ten-year plan to improve the lives of babies, young children and their families. The strategy states that, under a new paid parental leave scheme established in 2019, by 2021 "parents will each have an individual entitlement to seven weeks of paid parental leave". The second document is the programme for Government which clearly states the Government will extend "paid parental leave for parents to allow them spend more time with their baby in their first year". It also states the Government will implement "the First 5 Strategyfor babies, young children and their families". Despite the promises made in these documents, the Government announced an extension of paid parental live by three weeks, not the five weeks announced in this document. The First 5 strategy clearly states that by 2021-----

Photo of Helen McEnteeHelen McEntee (Meath East, Fine Gael)
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The five-week extension will be introduced over two budgets.

Photo of Jennifer WhitmoreJennifer Whitmore (Wicklow, Social Democrats)
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In that case, the Government is planning to squeeze this in to the last few weeks of 2021. It is really disappointing that one of the first initiatives announced by this Government potentially undercuts parents. The Government, in its amendment, states it will examine the matter, that it is a proposal at this stage and that there are no guarantees with regard to the amount of paid leave promised to struggling parents. It is also unfortunate and disappointing that the Government has done this in a way that has completely undermined a campaign led by women who have far more pressing issues on their minds and much greater demands on their time than campaigning for supports that should provided for them. We should be supporting women and their families in the same way we supported the SME sector. This has been a cynical move by the Government given the indications given in recent weeks by both the current and previous Taoisigh that they would listen and take into consideration what these women were asking for.

We should not be playing political games with this important issue. We should want better for women, mothers and families in this country. We should recognise the integral role that women and mothers play in society, not only in the economy but also in providing quality of life for children, young people and those who need care. Women continue to be undervalued, underpaid and under-represented. This has to change. It is time we saw Covid as an opportunity to rectify the entrenched inequalities that exist in society and begin reforming how the economy works for mothers, parents and families. I noted the Minister stated there would be three weeks' parental leave per parent, meaning each family would have six weeks. In many families, there is only one parent and that must also be considered.

Extending maternity leave and pay is an opportunity for the Government to show it is serious about addressing the barriers facing women. The way in which a Government addresses a crisis shows its priorities for the foreseeable future. Parents, mothers in particular, have been at the crossroads of the numerous State responses to this crisis. The response has failed to address the reality for mothers and women during this pandemic where childcare, education and health are concerned. I urge the Government to acknowledge this first and foremost by extending the maternity leave and pay until November, as provided for in the motion. It is time for us all to come together and help mothers hold their babies.

9:35 pm

Photo of Bríd SmithBríd Smith (Dublin South Central, People Before Profit Alliance)
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I thank the women who launched this campaign and who have worked tirelessly to bring it to this point. I thank the National Women's Council for their support and I thank Sinn Féin for tabling the motion. I tabled a motion under the previous regime, which was circulated and signed by more than 77 Deputies. I will return to this at the end of my contribution. It was kicked around the House between the Ministers with responsibility for justice, social protection and finance and it eventually ended up in limbo. We had the formation of the Government last week, and it was being kicked around until a statement was made last night that parents' leave would be extended by a number of weeks. To their great disappointment and shock, the women out there find themselves back at square one.

Having listened to the Minister's speech and having read through it carefully I want to pick up on a number of issues. She stated it is too complex to change the legislation. Although the Minister is not here - perhaps she will look back on this afterwards - I want to ask her whether she has looked at the Financial Provisions (Covid-19) Bill, which is 142 pages of extremely complex and technical legislation to ensure we have business as usual. We passed legislation during the emergency that covers evictions, redundancies, mortgages and all sorts of complex areas of society, but this is about women and babies.

I remember acutely how we sat in the Chamber discussing the repeal the eighth campaign and trying to reach a position of consensus with the Citizens' Assembly and then having long arduous hours of arguments about women's right to choose. That choice is about being able to have a child as much as choosing not to have a child. Here are women who have had children and their choices are being utterly minimised by the countermotion presented to us tonight.

I will not go through the sad cases of the individuals who have written to me and the many tortuous issues women with small babies have had to face during Covid. The Minister said it is not about money. I got a figure from the former Minister, Senator Regina Doherty, of more than €130 million to cover all of the women who would be entitled to an extension of three months of maternity leave if the motion was passed. We then had a figure from the Taoiseach of €75 million. If it is not about money then what is it about? It is about women and babies.

Tomorrow we will further discuss financial legislation to commit ourselves to more than €600 million of European Union funds for which we have no accountability. We do not know what the funds will do or where they will go. We know exactly what the millions that would be spent on extending maternity leave would do. They would improve the quality of life of thousands of women and babies and, therefore, improve society as a whole.

As are other Deputies, I am extremely worried that this is a real setback for women's rights in this country. These are rights we fought very long and hard to win. Women are losing their jobs and failing to get promotion. Women will be set back in their careers because they cannot find anybody to mind their children. Crèche places are just not available and grandparents, who usually act as a substitute, cannot do the job. The fact that women are having to resign from jobs and forgo promotion is a kick in the face for women's rights and it is utterly shameful that the new Government would do something like this.

I want to go through today's Covid figures because it is significant that we have had the largest number of new cases in a month. Today there have been 32 new cases, with ten people in intensive care. We have no certainty that the pandemic has gone away. In fact, we are probably looking at a spike. What do we then say to women who are being forced back to work with small babies at home? The Government has to do the right thing and grant this extension to maternity leave.

My last words are to the Green Party because eight of them signed the previous motion that we had hoped to present to the House. Eight of them made statements to women, such as that it is of utmost importance that mothers of new babies have adequate childcare options available to them. Deputy Neasa Hourigan said that extending maternity leave is Green Party policy and that she really wanted to support it fully. What are those Deputies going to do on Thursday when it comes to a vote? Will they vote against the Sinn Féin motion and support the terrible countermotion tabled by the Minister? What about all of the Deputies in Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael who enthusiastically signed the petition? They will have to answer to their constituents if they vote against the motion on Thursday.

Photo of Paul MurphyPaul Murphy (Dublin South West, RISE)
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One woman, Emma, wrote that they brought their baby home on 27 March where their adoring family looked at her through a window and that their hearts were broken not being able to share their miracle baby with their family. She says she was so upset and so sad she could not even hold her mother, that she was on her own for all of the labour except for ten minutes and that her husband barely made the birth. She says they have had a hard start and continues to detail that hard start. Emma says this is what her maternity leave has been. The response of the Government to Emma and the 30,000 people who signed the petition is incredibly stingy. The Government is starting as it means to continue and its proposal is nowhere near what is necessary. The Sinn Féin motion is a bare minimum that anyone who fights for the rights of women should be voting for.

Even if the motion were implemented, it would not change the fact that the country's parental and maternity leave schemes are in need of change. The pandemic has exposed even more sharply the clear problems with the system, but the problems predated Covid-19. The State's attitude towards working-class families has always been one of contempt. Nothing has made that clearer than the fact that 62% of INMO members have had to use annual leave for childcare purposes during the crisis. So much for applause for our front-line workers. The low level of paid maternity leave and parental leave, which are among the lowest in Europe, is part of an entire system of a neoliberal capitalist race to the bottom. At the very least, employers should be forced to top up welfare benefits to full pay.

Two measures that would transform the experience of parents, and mothers in particular, are a 30-hour week without loss of pay and two years of fully paid leave for parents. This would create conditions to fight against the gendered expectation that childcare is primarily a woman's job. It would significantly improve the health and well-being of parents and children. The Government's offer is completely inadequate.

Photo of Mick BarryMick Barry (Cork North Central, Solidarity)
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Having a baby during the Covid period has been a very difficult and challenging experience for many women and a difficult challenge for many families. Families have been unable to extend the normal support because of the Covid situation. The support of professionals has been very difficult to tap into because of Covid. Many examples have been given in the debate so far, particularly as it relates to childcare. Babies have missed vaccinations, the scans they would normally have and developmental checks.

Demand has risen not from the Chamber but from women themselves and society that changes be made to support women and families in this situation and that maternity leave be extended by three months, from six months to nine months. It is shameful that the Government is coming forward with a proposal for an extra three weeks' parental leave, which is rehashing an old promise. The Green Party in particular has to answer the question whether it will stand over this on Thursday or whether it will support the position it previously backed.

By the way, this is a very modest demand. A total of €245 per week is 26.7% of the average income of mothers who give birth in this country. In Lithuania people get 100%, in Slovenia they get 92.7% and in the Czech Republic they get 74.1%. Ireland is not the worst but it is far from the best in this regard. The same applies with regard to the amount of time. We are calling for nine months but in Estonia it is 166 weeks and not 39 weeks, in Finland it is 161 weeks and in Bulgaria it is 110 weeks. The proposal that has been put forward in the Sinn Féin motion is very modest.

At a bare minimum it must be supported as an alternative to the shameful position of the Government on this issue.

9:45 pm

Photo of Denis NaughtenDenis Naughten (Roscommon-Galway, Independent)
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I welcome the opportunity to speak on this motion and thank my colleague, Deputy Kerrane, for bringing it forward. One thing we all must accept is that Covid-19 has changed things utterly and we simply cannot dismiss matters that would have been rejected out of hand by Governments in the past. Who would have thought that a Government would introduce a one-tier health system overnight or ban rent increases, a policy that had been opposed so hard previously? The same approach is now needed with regard to childcare and maternity leave. Both are inextricably linked.

Many of us have spent sleepless nights taking care of a sick child, naturally hoping that the child would improve but also panicking about how we would mind the sick child in the morning when we clearly could not access childcare and the child was too sick to go to school. How many of us have encouraged one of our children out the door to school when, privately and honestly, we thought the child should be at home? As we had no childcare backup, we did not have any choice because we had to be in work that day. Yes, Zoom and Teams will be a godsend for many families, but what if a person has no childcare at all?

I have been receiving messages from parents, not just first-time parents but also parents of siblings in childcare. One is that there is no crèche in the area that will accept a child under the age of two years due to the coronavirus, not to mind a six month old. Another is that the parents have been informed that the crèche where their baby was due to start has decided to stop taking children under one year old due to the restrictions being placed on it as a result of Covid-19. This places the parents in the impossible position of having no childcare for the baby. That is the practical problem women are now facing. There is no childcare alternative available for them such as would have been available before Covid-19.

There is a further aspect to this that we cannot ignore, the mental health of mothers. All of us accept that Covid-19 has had a detrimental impact on the mental health of many people in society, and it has compounded an already stressful time for new mothers. From the conversations I have had with mothers and the messages my office has received, it is clear that some mothers are suffering as a direct result of Covid-19, the lockdown, the lack of contact with family, the stress of childcare provision as well as concerns that we all share about a second wave of infection. A three-month extension to maternity leave for this cohort of mothers would help to alleviate some of the stress and anxiety and ultimately help to reduce the pressure on mental health services. A Vision for Change, the World Health Organization and even the United Nations have clearly identified maternal mental health as a priority for society. Some 13% of women experience postnatal depression during the first year after birth, and in some instances this can persist for long periods of time. It can have an adverse effect on the entire family, including on partners and on the emotional and cognitive development of infants and their siblings.

I listened intently to the Minister's response earlier. She highlighted the additional impact this would have in terms of cost on employers. It is a fact that employers are currently legally obliged, if requested, to provide an additional 16 weeks' maternity leave. It is also the case that employers are not legally obliged to top up the salary with respect to maternity benefit. I can fully understand and empathise with many employers who are not in the financial position to top up that payment. However, the State has been intervening in terms of people who were working part time for four hours per week and was prepared to pay them €350 per week, against the advice I gave the then Taoiseach and the party leaders at that time. That decision was taken, yet it is not prepared to pay this small cohort of women €245 per week for three months.

The issue regarding maternity leave masks a far greater problem with regard to childcare capacity, which is the return to schools and the impact this will have on women, in particular. We must do everything possible to ensure the schools can fully reopen in September. My concern is that any reduction in the number of hours or days that children attend school, particularly primary school, will impact disproportionately on thousands of women throughout the country. We have already seen the impact of the lack of childcare on our front-line staff. We are seeing it again now as parents are struggling to find childcare for young children where they cannot work from home and where grandparents are unable to help as they traditionally would have. If schools do not fully reopen in September, there will be a far wider impact on the current crisis.

If we are facing a situation where childcare facilities are not going to open or will only take reduced numbers or not cater for children under the age of two years, leaving parents without childcare options, especially where they need to return to employment and where the work cannot be done from home, we must examine solutions that would not have been contemplated prior to Covid-19. The provision put forward by Deputy Kerrane is one. Her proposal of a three-month extension for maternity leave is sensible. I ask the Government to reconsider the amendment it has tabled and to support this proposal, not reject it out of hand.

Photo of Michael CollinsMichael Collins (Cork South West, Independent)
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I support the motion to extend maternity leave and benefit temporarily due to the Covid-19 emergency. The announcement yesterday regarding parents' leave is a step in the right direction, but it is not a solution. It does not solve the crisis that parents face now. It also excludes anybody whose baby was born earlier than last November. These babies still need to be cared for. It is imperative to support this motion.

Childcare is difficult to find at the best of times, but the situation has been made worse by the closure of childcare facilities due to Covid-19. Many families have been left without childcare, particularly those with babies younger than one year. Some mothers do not have any childcare for their new babies. The babies are afraid of other people because, as a result of the country's shutdown, they have not spent time with anybody other than their mothers and fathers. Additionally, parents are worried about the safety of returning to work and leaving their babies with strangers when the world is in the midst of a pandemic.

New mothers have spent the past four months isolated at home with a small baby and it has been desperately hard for them. For many mothers with small babies, Covid-19 has made maternity leave extremely challenging. Now these mothers are expected to return to work even though childcare for children under a year old is simply not available. If they decide not to return to workforce, many will go into mortgage arrears, so they have no choice. I support the motion.

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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I too am supporting the motion. I compliment the Deputy and Sinn Féin on putting it forward. I hope this new and what is meant to be all-embracing Government will understand it and try to support it.

Covid-19 has resulted in a very difficult time for many families but especially mothers who have experienced the pleasure, beauty and joy of giving birth to a baby. Many such mothers were unable to have the support of their partners or husbands because of the lockdown and the situation regarding entry to hospitals. The daddies and fathers had to wait until such time as mother and baby were being discharged even to see their babies. As a proud grandparent of eight wonderful grandchildren, I know what it is like for grandparents to have to wait to get to see and hold and embrace their grandchildren. It is a very joyous and spontaneous event for them to meet their grandchild in the first days. It is normally in the hospital that this happens.

Mothers have been denied so much and need now to be supported, dealt with sensitively and engaged with. Many of them have not had even the pleasure - the necessity, really - of having the community nurse visit them to do the checkup on the child and to discuss his or her weight and feeding. Such visits are very important to both mother and baby and indeed the father and all the siblings. I receive emails from many grandparents and many mothers in this position and it is heart-rending to see them not being supported. A paltry amount was offered yesterday, and the three weeks' extra leave announced is just not enough. We have found money for everything in the Covid pandemic. I know there will be a payback day. I spoke in strong terms to the Minister for Finance about the €350 payment for everybody, no matter if they were working two hours or ten hours per week. It was ridiculous and gave people a sense of that money. People will miss it terribly when it is cut off from them. It will affect their applications for their SUSI grants and everything else. It was a rushed decision. We had no problem with the money. Now it is proposed to pay mothers €245 for 12 weeks. Our children are our very future. A nation is not a nation without its children. They are the most important people to be nourished.

In 2017 we introduced extended maternity leave for parents of premature children. At the time I very much welcomed this extension. My first grandchild, Amy-Berry, was born at just 30 weeks and spent over three months in hospital, so I understand the difficulties, stress and worries such situations bring. Back then there was no extension to maternity benefit. Thankfully, this was rectified, but I said at the time that what we were introducing had a lot of glaring anomalies in it, and it did, as much legislation does. I am sure the motion we are debating has many anomalies as well. Parents of premature children get an extra week's maternity benefit, depending on how prematurely the baby was born, to help them cope with extra hospital stays in neonatal units. However, parents of children with life-limiting conditions born at full term and facing the same long stays in neonatal units receive nothing extra. That is an awful statement. Is it any wonder the thinking was along those lines when we see the savage abortion regime introduced in 2018?

We have to think seriously about supporting the mothers and the babies. I will probably be attacked for saying this, but the mothers are normally the homemakers. They do a wonderful job and must be supported. I salute the mothers, grandmothers, grandfathers and siblings for the support they give families. There is a saying in Africa, I think, that it takes a village to rear a child. It takes a whole family. It is a very lonely place for a single mother. a mother who is away or, in this case, a mother in hospital on her own. If there are any issues or delayed discharge after the birth, it is very harrowing and very tiring on them. There is also the huge fear of being in hospital and perhaps coming into contact with Covid patients and becoming infected.

As I said, both parents need to be supported. We now have paternity leave as well. Deputy Naughten mentioned employers, especially small ones in the current situation, who will find it hard to pay the extra leave. Nonetheless, and I keep saying this, small employers especially value their staff. It is a two-way street. The staff value, appreciate and respect their employers and many amicable agreements are worked out.

As I said, the parents of premature babies face a lifetime of hospital appointments, long hospital stays and many life challenges but they get no such support. Therefore, while I support the motion, I ask that this group of parents are given support outside of the Covid-19 temporary extension because they need it. It is not because Covid is here that they need it. They need it all the more now that Covid is here but they need it in any case. We have to nurture our youngest and our babies. They are the adults of the future and the people who will fill up our schools and go on to third level education and indeed run our country and fill all the roles.

One of my other concerns is that over-66s have been left with nothing. Many of them are grandparents. This is heartless. These grandparents want to help rear their grandchildren, collect them from the crèches, bring them home, collect them from school, bring them to sports - whatever - to support the working families and the two parents who work because they have to work. That is a very sad outcome. It should be remembered that many of those grandparents will be called on again when their great-grandchildren are born. It is a wonderful thing to be able to help in such cases.

Mention was made of mental health, which is very important and a huge issue, and the damaging effect the Covid lockdown has had on people's mental health. Some 13% of mothers suffer postnatal depression. They need extra support and help. The fact that they are being forced back to work now, just out of their maternity leave, can bring its own stresses and strains on mental health. Because of Covid they have had no time until recent weeks to go out for a meal or a walk with their husband or partner or whoever else and their baby. Those are the normal things they do. They are so proud. They have pride in their eyes and their faces when they present their babies to people. They look forward to the christening and their long life together. It is very important that this support be found. After all, we can find savage amounts of money to pay for an abortion industry in which 6,666 children were aborted last year. We have no bother paying the money for that or encouraging more of it. We should be able to find this support for the living babies. All the babies from the womb to the tomb should be spared. The legislation in this area is unequal. I appeal to the Minister of State's better judgment to support these mothers and families.

9:55 pm

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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I welcome the opportunity to take part in the debate and thank Deputy Kerrane for bringing the motion before the House. I also thank Deputy Bríd Smith, who has put great work into this area. Really, though, this came from the ground, and what Sinn Féin has rightly done, and it deserves praise for having done so, is to respond to the organic movement of women on the ground. We have almost 30,000 signatures asking us to do something. I am very disappointed that the senior Minister has left. I realise that Ministers are very busy, but this is a particularly important topic. The National Women's Council of Ireland is giving full support to the motion and there is no Minister who happens to be female in the Dáil, which is unfortunate. If there is a personal reason for her absence, I will certainly forgive her. It does not look well or augur well, however.

We have learned two messages from Covid - we simply cannot go back to where we were, and we are all in this together. I did not believe either message but I went with them for a while and tried to put aside my cynicism. Certainly, the people in residential homes, direct provision and meat factories were not treated like the rest of us. The message that we are all in it together is far from accurate. Certainly, we treated the people over 70 very differently and with no justification whatsoever.

That there is no going back has been laid bare tonight in the speech from the Minister. I listened to it in my office and now I have read it and I am horrified by its contents. I would like to know who wrote it because clearly we are going to treat women and mothers very differently. We have elevated the businesses, who I supported here for the last number of weeks. Indeed I spent a number of hours today going through 141 pages of very complicated legislation, most of it in schedules. We are going to guarantee that we will pay millions into a fund so we can take back billions with very little oversight from the Dáil and very little chance to put in amendments or to understand the legislation, other than it is good for us because we will get lots of millions that we can give out to big businesses - not microenterprises, not even small businesses, but big businesses with some small businesses. That is very complicated legislation and I have had great difficulty understanding it but the Minister has told us that simple legislation in relation to extending maternity leave is too complex and cannot be done. Deputy Sherlock has already referred to this and he is perfectly right. The speech is utterly contemptuous.

Further on in the speech, the Minister acknowledges that it applies to a small number of people and the consequence of that is a small amount of money but it "would also impact on others, most obviously on employers, who are already struggling with the impact of Covid-19 on their workplaces", and so on. This would add to their challenges. I do not know if the Minister of State can stand over that, but it is utterly contemptuous of mothers and women and places very little value on children.

The background to this motion is the debacle over childcare. No matter what we read - the Parliamentary Budget Office, OECD reports, documents from the European Commission - they have all highlighted our failure to provide affordable childcare. Like affordable houses, it will never happen unless the State makes a commitment to public childcare. The State must be i lár an aonaigh, right in the middle of providing services. This point was made earlier by Deputy Boyd Barrett on how the public service is coming into its own now in order to save the other side. It would be great if we looked at that in a positive way and provided public childcare, public health, public education and realised the value of it, rather than standing over a speech like this which is utterly contemptuous and utterly fails to deal with the problems the women have outlined, including the National Women's Council of Ireland, NWCI. There is a statement here to the effect that the reopening of childcare has relieved many parents of the burden of childcare. Childcare is not a burden. It is our duty and a labour of love and we should have a Government that facilitates that. Sometimes that care will be in crèches and childcare facilities and sometimes it will be at home. I have run out of time. I would like to go on but I will not, in deference to my colleague.

10:05 pm

Photo of Thomas PringleThomas Pringle (Donegal, Independent)
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We definitely could keep on going because it is right that we should keep talking about this. It has to be restated that the Minister's statement here today is shocking. I fully support the motion and it is right that it is brought forward in response to the NWCI and the very good campaign it has run. Like my colleague, I pay tribute to Deputy Bríd Smith and the work she did in highlighting this issue during the interim period when there was no Government. It is vitally important and is the least we could do. A way should be found to make it happen and there should not be a need for a motion to be brought into the House tonight to make it work.

I think the Minister's response to the motion is appalling. I am sorry the Minister is not here to hear this. The Minister of State, Deputy McConalogue, will probably sum up and I hope his contribution is better because this is appalling. It is an insult to women and all citizens in the State to say that it is too complicated and difficult to help young mothers in this situation and too complicated to draft legislation that will provide for this. We have sat through legislation here on every aspect of the Covid response that has been very complex and detailed, as has been mentioned by other speakers. It has involved finetuning and giving money to businesses to ensure they survive but we are told by the Minister that this is too complicated to deal with. It shows, unfortunately, an aspect this Government will have over the coming months and years, in that it will be looking after small business and the citizens can go to hell unless they work for or own a small business and then this Government will be happy to do whatever it can to make sure they will be okay.

This motion seeks an extension to maternity leave to acknowledge the difficulties that women are having and have had in dealing with childcare needs through this Covid-19 crisis. Covid-19 has shown that the State is very important. The very people we are bending over backwards and aiming to bankrupt ourselves for to make sure they survive are businesses, both large and small, across the State. These are the very same businesspeople who would be leading the charge and saying the State should opt out and not have any role in their business. Who do they look for to bail them out as soon as things get rough? They come back to the State and the State has to do it. It shows the State is vital and has a huge role to play.

That brings us back to the issue of childcare and the fact that childcare is not available for women that need it. That is because of the model of childcare we have in the State, fostered by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael and developed more than 20 years or so. It is basically a private model. We have many childcare workers with degrees working for minimum wage or less. It is a unique model across Europe as can be seen from the document here from the Library and Research Service. We need to move away from that model. It needs to be outlined over the next couple of years how that will happen. This Government is not going to do that. The least it could do is give women some modicum of support at this time but, unfortunately, it will not do that either.

Photo of Charlie McConalogueCharlie McConalogue (Donegal, Fianna Fail)
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I support the counter-motion being put forward this evening.

The Covid-19 pandemic has had a serious impact on children and parents, with many families experiencing significant stress due to the lack of supports and childcare over the last period of time. The restrictions imposed over recent months have had a particularly adverse effect on mothers and newborn babies. The Government is extremely sympathetic to families who have had their lives upended. We are committed to enabling parents to have extended time with their babies so they can access the supports they need and enjoy these precious early months as much as possible.

Supports for families have been introduced in recent years through a range of legislation that has facilitated greater work-life balance for parents. Most recently, a new parents leave and benefits scheme was introduced which provides two weeks of leave and benefit for each parent. Each new parent is entitled to two weeks of leave and benefit for a child born or adopted after 1 November 2019. Fortuitously, the legislation envisages an expansion of these entitlements. That is why we propose that we utilise this scheme rather than the Maternity Protection Acts 1994-2004, in order to provide extra supports to new parents during this time.

New ground was broken in the Irish context in 2016, when statutory paternity leave and benefit was introduced. Until that time, unlike most EU member states, we had no provision for paternity leave, which rendered us very much out of step with the changed and more active role that fathers in modern societies play in raising their children. The Paternity Leave and Benefit Act 2016 was an important piece of legislation. It recognises that paternity leave promotes social benefits and a fairer sharing of family responsibilities, and has a positive impact on fatherhood.

11 o’clock

A decision to extend maternity leave would reinforce the outdated message that caring for babies is the preserve of mothers. The Government's proposal to legislate for increased parents' leave will bring more benefits for babies and young children and promote a balance in parenting responsibilities. In September 2019, parental leave was increased from 18 to 22 weeks. This leave is important in accommodating parents who wish to spend more time with older children. The qualifying age of the child was recently extended to 12 years.

In regard to other supports for new mothers during the Covid-19 pandemic, the Government reacted swiftly to issues that emerged in connection with the temporary wage subsidy scheme for parents on maternity or adoptive leave. The scheme was introduced under the Emergency Measures in the Public Interest (Covid-19) Act 2020 to attempt to minimise the negative impact of the pandemic on the labour market through an exceptional period beginning on 26 March and scheduled to run for an initial period of 12 weeks. An issue was raised that the application of the qualifying criteria did not provide for persons returning from maternity or adoptive leave who consequentially were not on the payroll during the relevant period. On 3 June, the Government announced that the temporary wage subsidy scheme would accommodate the salaries of parents returning from maternity or adoptive leave. This includes individuals who may not have been on the payroll of their employer on 29 February or were not paid in either January or February 2020 and will allow for consistent treatment with other employees. This accommodation will be provided for by way of an amendment to the Finance Bill 2020. In the meantime, where applicable, Revenue will implement the provision from 26 March.

The Government has provided other financial supports to families during the Covid-19 crisis. The Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection has provided an income support in the form of the pandemic unemployment payment payable at €350 per week. If a parent has left work to care for a child because of school or childcare closures and the employer is no longer paying the person's wages, he or she may qualify for the pandemic unemployment payment. Women who were due to return to their employment after maternity leave have been eligible for this payment from the date they were due to return if that employment is no longer available and they are not receiving any payment from their employer. As of 8 June 2020, the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection had issued payments valued at €180 million to more than 500,000 people in respect of their application for the Covid-19 pandemic unemployment payment. Among the recipients were 22,000 people who have since informed the Department of their returning to work. Of these, 5,700 are female. As of 6 July, there were 893 people receiving a Covid-related illness benefit payment. Since the beginning of June, 104 people have been medically certified as having coronavirus and 946 have been medically certified because they are self-isolating for medical reasons.

Turning back to the motion and amendment before the House, we are all in agreement that new mothers need additional time with their newborn babies. I want to be unequivocal about the new Government's approach to resolving the issues we have been discussing. In opposing the Deputies' motion and putting forward an amendment, our objective is to achieve our goal in a speedier, more effective manner. An extension of parents' leave will be easier to achieve than an extension of maternity leave because the parental leave scheme already provides for an increase in entitlements. There will be greater benefits for children as they will enjoy additional time with their fathers as well as their mothers. Finally, this is an opportunity to promote gender balance in regard to family responsibilities. Pandemics make existing inequalities for women and girls worse across every sphere, from health to the economy, security and social protection. The impacts of Covid-19 are exacerbated for females and, as a result, the progress made on gender balance is at risk of being rowed back. We have an opportunity to continue to support gender equality even in the face of the current grave situation. I ask Deputies for their support in taking that opportunity. I join my colleague, the Minister, Deputy McEntee, in commending the Government amendment to the House.

10:15 pm

Photo of Donnchadh Ó LaoghaireDonnchadh Ó Laoghaire (Cork South Central, Sinn Fein)
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I propose to share time with Deputies Tully and Kerrane. Having become the father of a baby boy nine months ago, I have experience of what it was like to have a newborn during lockdown. Our baby got his four-months injections before lockdown and his six-months injections during it. I hope that by the time he gets his 12-months injections the world will be a different and better place, although it is hard not to feel that we will still be facing a challenging time.

There have been good and bad elements to having a newborn in the time of Covid. There were two of us working from home most of the time. Arranging meetings and trying to avoid a clash of Zoom schedules and things like that while also looking after a school-age child and a newborn was no joke. However, there is no doubt that there also were upsides. For example, I got to spend a lot more time with the baby than I would have in normal circumstances. I have had contact from many parents, particularly mothers, in regard to the issues raised in our motion. The challenges facing a lot of mothers in this time have been enormous. It is said that it takes a village to raise a child. For many mothers, they did not have access to that village during the pandemic. New mothers feel they did not truly have a maternity leave because there was no access to support. Many were cut off from their child's grandparents, who may have been many miles away. Our son did not see one set of grandparents for several weeks and the other set he did not see for several months. There was no access to breastfeeding groups and reduced access to public health nurses. If their partner was an essential worker, mothers may have felt nearly cut off from the world for a time. The stress of trying to figure out what comes next is something that came up in many of the conversations I had with parents. Childcare is so scarce that it may as well not exist.

I take this opportunity to highlight that parents whose maternity leave elapsed during this crisis have faced incredible challenges. For those who had to return to work, there was no childcare for older children as schools were closed and no access to wider support networks. Women who would otherwise have gone back to work could not do so. For mothers working from home there was the juggling involved in what was, in effect, the requirement to combine full-time parenting with a job and, in some cases, homeschooling. In many instances, parents were reliant on the goodwill of employers, some of whom showed compassion and understanding of how challenging the situation was for their employees. In many cases, however, there was not that understanding on the part of employers. We can multiply these difficulties across a large number of families.

I urge the Government to back this motion. It is absolutely necessary that we extend maternity leave for the cohort of women referred to in the motion. I ask the Government to go further than that and to ensure all women and families have access to childcare and other supports.

Photo of Pauline TullyPauline Tully (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
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I wish to speak in favour of this motion to extend maternity leave benefit and to represent the views of the many mothers throughout the country who have contacted me on this issue. The Covid restrictions were difficult on everyone but mothers who gave birth just before or during the pandemic were particularly badly affected. Gone were the normal support networks such as help from extended family, breastfeeding groups, baby massage groups and mother and toddler groups. All of those outlets were prohibited. Visits from the public health nurse were severely curtailed or reduced to telephone contact. Many children have not had their developmental milestones adequately monitored. Children with difficulties were not treated, as hospital appointments continued to be postponed. Mothers who gave birth by caesarean section have not had follow-up medical appointments. The number of new mothers reported to be suffering from postnatal depression has trebled and proper care is not being provided. Mothers who have underlying health issues susceptible to Covid are even more isolated. Children are not being socialised because, in many cases, they have been seeing only their parent or parents. I heard from one couple who went through rigorous IVF treatment and then were unable to share the joy of their little miracle, their precious newborn, with their family.

Many mothers who were due to return to work in the coming weeks are not in a position to do so as there is a serious lack of childcare places, especially for children under one year of age and, in some cases, children under two. Many mothers are not in a position to take the 16 weeks of additional unpaid maternity leave and others are faced with the prospect of resigning from their workplace due to the lack of childcare. A lot of work has gone into ensuring employment equality. What is happening now flies in the face of everything that was achieved and has the potential to undermine all of it. An extension to maternity leave will help to alleviate many of these issues but the childcare crisis must be addressed in tandem. That crisis existed before Covid and is exacerbated as a result of it. The State has a responsibility to provide adequate and affordable childcare. If we hope to get out of the economic crisis resulting from the virus, we need to get as many people as possible back to work as soon as we can.

This cannot happen without adequate childcare. I commend my colleague, Deputy Kerrane, on bringing forward this motion and encourage all Members to support it.

10:25 pm

Photo of Claire KerraneClaire Kerrane (Roscommon-Galway, Sinn Fein)
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I find the Government's amendment deeply insulting and I know I will not be the only one to find it so. I am glad the Minister read the entire amendment into the Dáil record because one would need to read it more than once to believe it. I will first comment on a number of statements made by the Minister in her speech. She initially acknowledged the "strange and stressful few months" for new mothers and went on to acknowledge that it has been extremely challenging. She said she thinks everyone in the House today can recognise this, but the Government clearly does not because it has proposed that three additional weeks of leave may be, possibly, brought in next year. That will do nothing for mothers today whose maternity leave is ending next week and who have nobody to look after their children. Where is such a mother supposed to put a six-month-old baby? Who is going to look after it? Grandparents cannot step in, while crèches are not taking babies under one year of age, and I have not heard anything from the Government on that matter.

The Minister went on to note the difficulties around the legislation, which were also mentioned by numerous other Deputies. That argument was also made when Sinn Féin repeatedly proposed a rent freeze, yet it could be brought in overnight through emergency legislation when Covid hit. Legislation is not an excuse. The Minister also mentioned the legal difficulties in identifying the relevant cohort to which the amendment would apply. We have done that for her. The cohort is in the motion. The Minister referred to difficulties in managing complex childcare. Again, the childcare is not there, though that is referenced in the amendment as well. Childcare is not available. That is the major problem, and again the Government's amendment does not address that or deal with it.

The Minister finished by saying she was sure Deputies would agree the Government's amendment was a more desirable outcome. Deputies do not think that, nor do I believe the National Women's Council of Ireland or the women who formed the #ExtendMaternityLeave2020 campaign group will either. Yesterday, it was widely reported that the proposed three weeks of additional leave would be included as part of the budget and would come in as part of that. It now turns out that it is not even committed to in the Government amendment. In fact, there is not a single commitment anywhere in the Government amendment. Three Ministers, three Departments and countless officials have been looking at this issue for a number of weeks now and this is all the Government has come up with. It says it will propose, examine and look at the budget, which is three months away, and even then there are no commitments for these mothers.

It has now been nearly five weeks since the petition of more than 25,000 signatures was presented to the then Taoiseach, Deputy Varadkar. That petition is now quickly approaching 30,000 signatures. A commitment was made there and then that the proposal would be given careful consideration. Many took that as good news and an indication that mothers would be heard. However, when one looks at what the Government has brought forward tonight, it is as if the Government was looking at something completely different during those five weeks. There will be huge disappointment and increased worry and anxiety for mothers watching this debate and listening to what the Government is suggesting. Women who were on maternity leave during Covid-19 and members of the campaign group repeatedly emailed every single Deputy in this Chamber. They shared their personal stories, opened up about the difficulties they faced, and after waiting for a decision from this Government, this pathetic excuse for an amendment is all it can offer. That is simply not good enough and I again ask the Government to look at the speech that was made here tonight, to look at the amendment that has been brought forward and to reconsider its position.

Amendment put.

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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In accordance with Standing Order 80(2), the division is postponed until the weekly division time on Thursday, 16 July 2020.