Wednesday, 26 February 2014
Parental Leave Bill 2013: Committee Stage
Today, all I can do is again point to specific issues of concern. The Government will come back on Report Stage to present amendments to each section and provision of the Bill, including the Long Title. It would have been a much better approach if Committee Stage could have been delayed until the Government was in a position to present its amendments. The timing of Committee Stage was not at the request of the Senator. I respect the decision of the House to take the debate today but I remind the House that the only way we can achieve change in this area is by working together across the whole of Government and with the social partners. In the current economic climate, pressing ahead with a Bill on which there are real concerns as to the cost and affordability will not work.
I wish to refer to the work that has been undertaken by the Department and the issues raised by the consultation we have undertaken. We have received many conflicting views. There are many interested parties. One of the strongest concerns – Senator White will be as surprised by this as I was – on the proposals in the Bill have come from the women’s movement. Women are concerned about losing some gains that have been hard fought. We can assure women that recognising the role of fathers in the leave system is good for women but not on the basis of the set of specific proposals we have before us today. There are also concerns on the potential impact on the social insurance system. The proposals also have an impact on employers. We need to tease out the implications and ensure we are completely satisfied that our proposals strike the right balance between supporting the role of fathers and protecting and encouraging small and medium sized businesses at a time when the Government is trying to support such businesses create much needed jobs. When I was last in the House to speak on the Bill I suggested that we needed to think about an approach in which maternity leave would remain vested in the mother. I still consider that essential. I cannot support the removal of an existing right for which women have fought long and hard to achieve. I know Senator White shares that view as well.
It is unclear from the Bill what is the intended timeframe of maternity or paternity leave. In some places there are references to 14 weeks and other parts refer to 18 weeks. Are there 14 weeks for both parents or 14 weeks to be shared? We must provide certainty to both parents and employers. I am open to the possibility of the mother being able to share a part of her leave with the father. This period of leave that would be shared must be defined, excluding the minimum period which must be taken by the mother for reasons of health and safety and under EU law, which must be safeguarded. In such a scenario the father would have to meet the necessary social protection requirements in his own right regarding social insurance contributions to receive payment. The Bill requires more work to deal with the interaction between granting leave on the one hand and eligibility for social welfare benefits on the other. Issues around the notice period for employers will have to be addressed and employment protection rights similar to those mothers already enjoy would have to be extended to fathers also. Whatever approach is finally agreed we must ensure similar provisions also apply to adoptive fathers and mothers. The issue of same-sex couples must also be examined.
In section 2 it is possible that a new definition will be required to define paternity leave as no definition exists in national legislation to address the issue. Will I stop on section 2 or continue to section 3?