Dáil debates

Thursday, 26 January 2023

Parental Bereavement Leave (Amendment) Bill 2021: Second Stage [Private Members]


7:54 pm

Photo of Réada CroninRéada Cronin (Kildare North, Sinn Fein)
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I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I was delighted when I saw that our Bill had been chosen in the Bills lottery before Christmas and to get the opportunity to bring this Bill to the House on Second Stage. As I discussed at some of the committees, this Bill is designed to give parents who are employees the legal right to parental bereavement leave when their child has died. Every person here and every parent listening I am sure hopes that this devastation will never visit them. However, for a few, it does, including indeed some people in this House. For that reason I imagined that this would be a gentle Bill, that it would go through the House without resistance. It is also a strong Bill. The Bill would have real power to protect employee parents when they have lost their child.

Deputy O’Reilly and I made the Bill as clear, as distinct and as workable as possible in theory and in practice. Under the Bill in regard to a child, son or daughter under 18 years of age, or a stillborn baby after the 24th week of pregnancy, the term of the parental bereavement leave is to be no less than ten days. It would be applied for and notified within 42 days of the date of the death. That death date would be considered day 1.

Our Bill establishes parental bereavement leave separate from all other leave and ensures that it qualifies as continuing employment in terms of length of service or benefits accruing later on. No working parent should be penalised later for leave needed and taken on the death of his or her child. The Bill also lays out clearly the rights and responsibilities of both the employer and the employee. Critically it establishes parental bereavement leave as a legal right for a worker. In this way it establishes it as an employment right to be vindicated, as opposed to a personal favour or kindness to be requested and conferred at one of the most difficult times that any parent could face in his or her life. I believe it is critical in a time of such loss and heartbreak that a worker should be able to rely on the simplicity and order of such leave being in legislation. Since death does not delay there is a real urgency to this Bill. For employers and employees alike there is a real need that the effect of this Bill be in statute as soon as possible.

I was upset and taken aback to see that the Government has proposed an amendment to delay the Bill for 12 months and for reasons that can wait and therefore I believe do not hold. The examination of these issues does not and should not preclude the Minister from withdrawing his amendment. There is no reason this Bill should not proceed without the 12-month delay and the examination of the issues the Minister raises continue in tandem. By contrast death does not delay. Death does not wait and will not wait. If the Minister persists with this amendment and the 12-month delay, bereaved parents will be left waiting even longer for something that should already be in place as their right as valued citizens of this State.

We talk a great deal here about compassion. The Government is great with its “be kind” hashtags. With this Bill the Government would have the chance to show real kindness and compassion to bereaved parents in our actions as legislators, not merely in words. It is actually hard to believe that this leave is not already established as a right for a bereaved parent. I suspect many people think it already is and probably imagine they could rely on it if an appalling event occurred, but it is not and it is badly needed. To delay it further would be both unnecessary and inexplicable. I implore the Minister to reconsider his amendment and withdraw it and give parents the dignity they deserve.

Photo of Louise O'ReillyLouise O'Reilly (Dublin Fingal, Sinn Fein)
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I am glad the Minister is here to take this legislation. I understand he has had a busy week so it is very welcome that he found the time to come in. This Bill is very simple. I thank my comrade, Deputy Cronin, for the work she has put in on this Bill, not just here but also, as she has alluded to, at the committee. This issue is important. We are lucky and thankful, and I am as a parent, that this is not something that will be used by a huge number of people.

For those who will use it, it is essential. This will put onto a statutory footing what already happens in most workplaces. Most employers will grant without hesitation time off work for a parent who is bereaved but they do not have any guidance. The worker does not know he or she can ask and the employer does not know what it can give. Essentially, what we are talking about is codifying what most decent employers do anyway and then, obviously, the legislation deals with those employers who perhaps do not do the right thing when the opportunity presents itself.

This should not be left as a grace-and-favour arrangement. It should not be something that a worker has to ask for or try to arrange when he or she has lost a child and is in the midst of that grief and of the turmoil and turbulence that will come after that. This brings a degree of certainty and it codifies the position. I genuinely believe that most employers will try to do the right thing but many workers will not ask. If they do not know they have a legal entitlement to it, they will not necessarily ask for that leave because there is that uncertainty, coupled with the fact their whole life has just turned upside down.

I cannot imagine it. When I think about my daughter and my grandson, I just put it out of my head. I cannot think about how awful that would be, but to then have to do something practical like trying to supplement their income would be very difficult. As the Minister will know, many people are living from week to week and from pay cheque to pay cheque. They simply cannot afford unpaid time off work. They need to know that when they need this leave, the leave will be available to them, and putting it onto a statutory footing is an important part of that.

Many parents may never feel ready to return to work but return to work they must because, as with everybody else, they have to eat, pay their bills and pay their rent. The landlord does not know the parent or the worker is bereaved, the person at the tills in Tesco does not know the parent is bereaved and the ESB does not know the parent is bereaved and so the bills keep arriving in the middle of all of this. All that this legislation does is to give that little bit of certainty.

The Minister's amendment is shameful. I do not think it is necessary. The Minister knows the legislative process. I heard his party leader say the other week that it takes two and a half years to learn the job. Here we are. The Minister knows the legislative process and he knows it is not fast. He knows we could be doing in parallel the work of consultation and anything else that is required. I think it would send a positive message from this House that we would start that work now instead of kicking it to touch.

Another reason I am concerned about the Minister's amendment, which is a tried and tested Government tactic, is that I was at committee yesterday discussing legislation on retired workers. The Minister's colleague, the former Minister of State, Deputy English, had kicked to touch for 12 months the legislation they wanted implemented to allow for a period of consultation, and nothing happened. When I asked people were they consulted, they said they sent in a submission but nothing happened. That time was not used. Past performance is an indication of future performance, in my opinion, and there is no point kicking things to touch and kicking them down the road. This is something that could be done now. We could actually start that work now instead of delaying it for 12 months.

It is not lost on me or anyone else that bereaved parents who are working in the Civil Service are already entitled to this leave. That argument has been won with the Government as employers. The Government is a large employer. That argument has already been won and that concession has already been given to those workers. They already have that right. We do not need to debate the merits and whether or not we need it. I think we can all agree that it is a worthwhile thing to do and, indeed, that argument has already been won on the Government side of the House.

This will not impact many people, thankfully, but for those who need it, it will mean the absolute world to them. It will be a godsend to them, a small bit of certainty in the middle of having their whole life turned upside down and ripped to shreds. If we are all agreed on this, as I think we are, I genuinely do not understand why we have to wait.

8:04 pm

Photo of Roderic O'GormanRoderic O'Gorman (Dublin West, Green Party)
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I move amendment No. 1:

To delete all words after "That" and substitute the following: "Dáil Éireann resolves that the Parental Bereavement Leave (Amendment) Bill 2021 be deemed to be read a second time this day 12 months, to allow for time to further examine the issues raised in the Bill alongside existing work to examine the workplace impact of pregnancy loss and miscarriage leave.".

I thank Deputies Cronin and O'Reilly for bringing forward this Private Member's Bill which the Government will not be opposing, although we will be seeking a 12-month timed amendment. I am not a dad myself but I know that the grief of a parent on losing a child is unimaginable. I have no doubt there may be parents watching this discussion today and I want to offer my condolences to anyone who has been bereaved in this way.

The proposals in this Private Member's Bill bring an important focus to bereaved parents and the ways in which a workplace can support them. As Deputies have outlined, the Bill would amend the Parental Leave Act 1998 to introduce a statutory minimum of ten days' bereavement leave for parents of a child, with a child defined as being under the age of 18. The leave is to be taken within 42 days of the death of the child. The Bill also includes amendments to provide for the protection of employment rights while a parent is availing of the leave.

There is currently no form of statutory bereavement leave of any kind in Ireland. This type of leave is normally dealt with through employment contracts and, as the Deputy said, many employers will do the right thing in these situations. The broader policy on workplace leave is under the remit of my colleague, the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, but, as this particular leave would apply to parents only, it is for consideration by my Department, which holds the policy on family leave.

There have been significant developments in the forms of leave available to working parents in recent years. This includes introduction in 2019 of paid parents' leave and the expansion of that leave last year and this year so that it now provides seven weeks paid leave to each parent of a child under the age of two. In 2019, unpaid parental leave underwent a significant extension, with the entitlement now standing at 26 weeks for a child under 12. These developments have taken place alongside a broader expansion of entitlements for all workers, like statutory sick leave and the embrace of the more flexible working patterns which have emerged from the Covid-19 pandemic. As we have discussed previously, new measures are being brought forward as part of the Work Life Balance and Miscellaneous Provisions Bill 2022, which will include the introduction of five days' leave for medical care purposes, five days' paid domestic, sexual and gender-based violence leave, the right to request flexible working for parents and carers, the right to request remote working for all employees and, of course, the extension of breastfeeding breaks. I recognise that none of these types of leave, none of these positive advancements, would address bereaved parents specifically but I highlight them as a context in which change in leave has taken place in recent years.

In consultation with employers and social partners around the development of new or extended entitlements, issues come up such as the impact it has on employers and the ability of employees to avail of their statutory entitlements. Both employers and employees need to be comfortable and confident that they can and do ensure that all leaves are taken appropriately and fully availed of. The Government recognises that these developments, which are of huge benefit to parents, must also be practical and fully meet the needs of both parents and carers.

The Government fully appreciates that parents who have experienced a bereavement need support, need understanding and need time and space to process their grief. Providing leave from working obligations is one way to address this but there can be broader concerns around how a workplace can meet the needs of a parent in that situation. Providing leave on its own without other supports may not always be the answer in a particular parent’s situation.

As Deputies will be aware, my Department has commissioned a research project on the workplace impact of pregnancy loss in response to the issue of miscarriage leave, which has been raised previously in this House.

This is being undertaken through the PLACES study, which is the Pregnancy Loss in Workplaces: Informing policymakers on support mechanisms, and is being led by the pregnancy loss research group in University College Cork. This brings together expertise from the medical and business schools in UCC and NUIG.

This particular study will examine whether policy interventions are required in the workplace to better support people following pregnancy loss. Informed by international best practice, the study will put forward recommendations for formal and-or informal support mechanisms that could be introduced in the workplace to better support working people experiencing pregnancy loss. Support mechanisms may include the provision of compassionate or bereavement leave, flexible working arrangements, or other workplace policies.

This study will focus on people who experience pregnancy loss prior to 24 weeks' gestation, as people who have a pregnancy loss after 24 weeks' gestation can avail of full maternity leave and paternity leave entitlements. That study has three phases and the final report is expected in August 2023. The recommendations in the final report will help to inform Government policy, including the development of legislation to address the issue of miscarriage leave.

I fully recognise that the issues around pregnancy loss and the loss of a child after birth are not identical, but in both cases we are talking about a bereaved family who may need time away from their work, or may need to be supported in other ways.

We believe it is important that there is some coherence in how these issues are considered and addressed, and this is the reason the Government is bringing forward a proposal for a timed amendment today. We want the opportunity to allow the PLACES research to take place, to avail of the expertise which we have brought forward, and to recognise another distinct key issue in supporting parents and workers in a very difficult period of their lives. Once we have the opportunity to examine and understand that research, when this Bill comes to Committee Stage, we will be able to look at its provisions, informed by the research which has been undertaken.

We may, indeed, be able to bring forward, potentially, legislation that will address both of the issues Deputies have raised today and issues that I am sure, Deputies will agree, are also important, which have been brought forward in the past in this House, and on which the Government has responded through the commission of dedicated and targeted research. There is a process going forward and this legislation will be held and will go forward on Committee Stage in 12 months' time. I am very happy to continue to engage with Deputies to ensure we can make provision for parents who are bereaved and for parents who have suffered a miscarriage. I thank the Cathaoirleach Gníomhach.

8:14 pm

Photo of Chris AndrewsChris Andrews (Dublin Bay South, Sinn Fein)
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I want to thank Deputies O'Reilly and Cronin for bringing the Parental Bereavement Leave (Amendment) Bill 2021 forward. It could equally be called the compassion Bill because that is really what it is about. It is about showing compassion to people who find themselves in horrific circumstances, something that none of us would ever like to imagine facing.

This will impact a very small number of people and, as the Minister said and everyone would agree, the vast majority of employers will accept that and be understanding but that is not always the case and we must ensure that people have that right.

Most workers will probably get ten days but when we talk about this particular issue, we always say, and it is agreed right across the House, that politics is not family-friendly. We have to do everything to make it more family-friendly. The Minister listed off a number of measures which have been taken to make it more family-friendly, so I just cannot understand how the Government could delay this. Having listened to the Minister, and with no disrespect intended, I still do not understand why he could delay this Bill for 12 months. The process will take years. It is imperative that this compassion Bill which shows compassion is started now rather than waiting for 12 months to go to Committee Stage.

I still do not understand and perhaps the Minister will make a further contribution and outline clearly why the Bill would be delayed for 12 months because I do not think that most people would understand that. Ideally, the Minister would withdraw that amendment. It is unnecessary to delay the Bill and why would he do so? People are at a very vulnerable point when they lose a child. It is a devastating blow and we have to ensure that people are shown that compassion.

Perhaps the Minister will outline again why the Bill will be delayed because it makes no sense. I know that the Minister is a man with compassion which is clear in all of the work he does. I ask that he withdraw the amendment and move this Bill forward as a matter of urgency.

Photo of Roderic O'GormanRoderic O'Gorman (Dublin West, Green Party)
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I thank the Cathaoirleach Gníomhach. I do not believe anyone in this House claims, and I know I certainly do not, complete ownership of compassion. I completely recognise the issues as well as the need for those raised by the Deputies to be addressed. The Deputies have said that this issue is provided for by the vast majority of employers. However, their concern, which is a legitimate one, is to ensure this is not something that is offered, but is something that is there as a right. I fully understand the Deputies' desire to legislate in that way.

Previously, and it was in response to Opposition Private Members' legislation dealing with the issue of miscarriage leave, we, as a Government, brought forward the proposal to undertake research. I take the point made about other situations where timed amendments have been put in place and nothing has happened. I do not believe that criticism can be levied here because research is being undertaken at the moment which is looking at how we can support parents who have suffered a particular bereavement in the context of miscarriage leave.

I also believe that where we are dealing with issues of a similar and interlinked nature, we should try to address them in the same legislation. That is why in the context of the Work Life Balance and Miscellaneous Provisions Bill, I worked not only to implement the issues in the work-life balance directive, but I also introduced a number of key innovations in respect of extending breastfeeding breaks and, in particular, paid domestic violence leave. Bringing things together into a substantial piece of legislation ensures that legislation gets through. The weight of the various issues behind it gives it a prioritisation which, I fear, it would not have if there was just one issue being dealt with. That is why I brought in domestic violence leave into that legislation because I was worried that on its own, it might not get the necessary prioritisation. The issues the Deputies have brought forward today and the issues my Department is looking at are similar and could be brought together effectively in the combined legislation.

In 12 months' time, when the research that our Department has commissioned on the potential for miscarriage leave and other supports has been undertaken, we will have an opportunity on Committee Stage to look to see if there is a possibility of integrating the two issues. That would result in legislation being brought forward that would have a meaningful impact for many parents, both those who have suffered bereavement due to the loss of a child, in addition to the much greater number of parents who have suffered a miscarriage in the course of their relationship. That is my view on the best way to proceed. I recognise Deputies do not agree with me but that is the position of the Government and the position we will work from.

8:24 pm

Photo of Louise O'ReillyLouise O'Reilly (Dublin Fingal, Sinn Fein)
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I am sharing my time with Teachta Cronin. A little like my comrade, Teachta Andrews, I still do not understand. I will go through what the Minister said.

I am very glad he recognises that none of the types of leave that he spoke about, and read out from his script, will address the issue of bereaved parents. That is a very important clarification that I am glad he made because, to be fair, he spent a lot of time talking about leave that would not apply to this particular group. I understand that context is important in all things but much of the Minister's contribution referenced leave that might be under way or coming, which will not impact in any way on parents who are bereaved. He also said he was not opposing the legislation, but he is not supporting it either. He is just standing in the way of it or trying to delay it.

I do not understand why we cannot begin to progress this. The Minister said he is concerned about the impact on employers but he agreed with me that most employers are doing this anyway, which they are. What they need, however, is guidance because they do not know. It is a tough thing. A lucky employer might never encounter this issue. Other employers might find themselves in a situation where they do. It is very useful if there is a legislative framework, and leave on a statutory footing, because everybody would know where they stood. As I said, the ESB or Tesco do not know whether somebody is bereaved. Bills mount up and people need to safeguard their wages.

The Minister also spoke about the need to wait for the dedicated and targeted research, which is being done by PLACES. That research is very welcome and I am sure it will inform other legislation but it will not refer to parents who are bereaved in the way that has been described. That research is on early pregnancy loss, which is different. That will not be relevant research. Essentially, the Minister is saying that this legislation will be delayed for a minimum of 12 months while we are waiting for "dedicated and targeted research", which is not dedicated to this type of bereavement leave or targeted at those parents. It is for that reason that there is genuine confusion.

It is a Government tactic to delay things by 12 months and to kick things down the road. I can only speak about my experience of where this has been done. It was not a good experience. It most definitely was not a good experience for the workers who were sold a pup, effectively, and told that 12 months were needed for dedicated, targeted research, consultation or whatever it is. In truth, precious little was done and those workers are still back where they were. They are still at the starting point. That time was, in effect, lost.

I urge the Minister to withdraw this amendment. I do not see that it is necessary. With the greatest of respect, I do not believe that he has in any way, shape, make or form, offered us a cogent or coherent reason why this cannot be done. If we are all agreed, and we are, we should be able to move on this now and not waste any time.

Photo of Réada CroninRéada Cronin (Kildare North, Sinn Fein)
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I have also listened to the Minister's contribution. I have several questions because I am wondering what his amendment has to do with our Bill. Pregnancy loss and domestic violence leave are very important. I note the Minister said five days. I am sure he knows it was ten days in the report that our committee published, but none of that has anything to do with our Bill. I am afraid none of what he said really holds.

I cannot help but think that the Minister has again been sent out deliberately to delay legislation that is already long overdue. This is legislation that would bring compassion to our employment laws at a time of the most profound loss and bereavement following the death of a beloved son or daughter. Looking at this at its most basic level, bereaved parents need time to make practical arrangements, whether these involve the child who has died or wider family arrangements. Their whole family life has been turned upside down.

We all know what a bereavement is like but only a few of us understand what bereavement due to the loss of a child is. I am sure that is a challenge to somebody's ability to get on with every minute and every hour, never mind every day. There is a sheer mindlessness to tasks that eats into us when we are just shocked and lost but being bereaved due to the death of a child is of a completely different order. People should not have to rely on the kindness of their employers at that time. We should not preside over a situation whereby those working in the pubic sector and Civil Service can avail of this leave - it is not statutory bereavement leave but a contractual arrangement - but those working in the private sector are not entitled to it. It is unworthy of our workers and families and, frankly, it is beneath the Minister. No parent recovers from such a loss; they simply learn to accommodate it. As legislators, we should be able to accommodate them in their right to take leave from their jobs. With this amendment, the Minister is seeking to delay the matter even further by examining issues that could be examined in tandem with the legislation. It takes a long time for legislation to go through the Dáil. The Government is playing fast and loose with the needs and rights of employees in the private sector at a profoundly difficult time in their lives. I do not see that this delay is necessary at all.

A friend of mine lost her son last week. I heard about it when I was getting ready for work in the morning. I could not get even my make-up on because I was so upset and my eyes were filling up with tears - a minor thing - but it cuts into our hearts when we hear about a family we know losing a child. It is every parent's fear. It is the reason we check the cot to check in on our babies and listen at the door to make sure they are all breathing. It makes no sense because we will not catch them at the exact time something happens, but it is a guttural fear for every parent. It is why I ask the Minister to withdraw this unnecessary amendment.

I told the Minister that he got the short straw. I cannot believe he has been sent to the House yet again on this matter but it is entirely within his gift to withdraw this amendment. I ask and implore him to do so.

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 next weekly division time.

Cuireadh an Dáil ar athló ar 9.09 p.m. go dtí 2 p.m., Dé Máirt, an 31 Eanáir 2023.

The Dáil adjourned at at 9.09 p.m. until 2 p.m. on Tuesday, 31 January 2023.