Wednesday, 6 February 2019
Parental Leave (Amendment) Bill 2017: Committee Stage
I move amendment No. 1:
In page 3, line 24, to delete "subsection (3)" and substitute "subsection (2) or (3)".
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, who is here to deal with Committee Stage of the Parental Leave (Amendment) Bill 2017 in Private Members' time. Labour Party Senators and the Technical Group are delighted to be putting forward this Bill for Committee Stage debate. It passed Second Stage in the Seanad on 7 November and has already passed all Stages in the Dáil. I commend the proposers of the Bill in the Dáil, Deputies Shortall and Catherine Murphy of the Social Democrats, who ensured that it passed all Stages there.
As colleagues will be aware, this Bill enjoys massive support. We have all been sent emails and messages from people we know and parents who are concerned to see it enacted and say it will make an enormous difference to their quality of life and to their work-life balance and to that of their children. It is an important Bill. We need to debate amendments Nos. 1 to 3, inclusive, in that context. In general terms, these amendments seek to do what the Bill seeks to do, namely: extend the duration of unpaid parental leave, which is currently already provided for up to 18 weeks, by two months, eight weeks, to 26 weeks in total; extend the child qualifying age from eight to 12 years, which would match EU proposals; and ensure that both of these greatly improved reforms will be made available to all parents with a qualifying child. In other words, not just new parents but those parents who have already taken some or all of their leave.Members will be aware that EU directives originally provided for parental leave legislation to be passed in Ireland. The Parental Leave Act 1998 provided for 14 weeks of leave for parents of children up to the age of five. In 2006, that was extended such that parents of children up to the age of eight could qualify, while 2013 regulations extended the number of weeks for which parents could take unpaid leave from 14 to 18. It is worth noting that when originally published the Parental Leave (Amendment) Act 2006, which provided for several changes such as raising the maximum age of the eligible child from five to eight and giving parents the statutory entitlement to take the 14 weeks parental leave in specific means, included an explanatory memorandum noting that no significant costs were anticipated in connection with the legislation and that there would be benefits for employers and industry as the legislation would facilitate the increased participation and retention of women in the labour force. That is an overarching policy objective which we need to bear in mind when we are debating these amendments and the Bill in general. It has a very significant purpose in terms of facilitating the increased participation of parents, particularly women, in the workforce as well as ensuring a greater work-life balance for parents and their children.
I again commend the original proposers of the Bill and all colleagues who supported its passage in the Dáil and on Second Stage in the Seanad. I also commend Fianna Fáil which brought the Bill to the Seanad in its Private Members' time in November.
The amendments which we are urging colleagues to support are largely technical amendments suggested to us by the original proposers of the Bill which aim to ensure that the Bill is fully workable and that its three overarching purposes, namely, the extension of the duration of leave, the extension of the age eligibility limit and ensuring that parents in several categories can take up the leave, will be effective. Those are the priorities behind the amendments. The first three amendments are grouped together.
Amendment No. 1 is a technical amendment to section 6(8) of the Act to clarify that working parents who may have been precluded from taking all of their existing leave before the passage of the Bill because their child was aged over eight years may now take the remainder of the leave up to the new maximum of 26 weeks, subject to their child being under the new maximum age of 12 years. For example, in circumstances where a parent had taken 12 of the existing 18 weeks' entitlement before the child reached the age of eight and the child is now aged between eight and 11, the parent would be entitled to 26 weeks leave less that already taken. It aims to expand the ambit of the legislation to cover parents who have already used some or all of the existing leave entitlement. It is in keeping with the process followed when the 2013 regulations extended the number of weeks entitlement for parents from 14 to 18. It is a technical amendment to give effect to the stated purpose of the Bill. I ask all colleagues to support it and I particularly ask the Minister to consider supporting it to avoid us having to divide the House on this Bill on which so many of us have received many representations. It is very much in keeping with the stated Government objective of ensuring a greater work-life balance and provision for parents in the workforce. We are all of one mind on the overall purpose of the Bill.
Like amendment No. 1, amendment No. 2 seeks to amend section 2 of the Bill. It proposes a change to section 2(d) of the Bill and would involve a technical amendment of section 6 of the principal Act of 1998. It is based on legal advice to ensure that the age limit of 12 years is properly set down in order to avoid any possible confusion. It provides legal clarity that 12 years is the cut-off point. It further guarantees that working parents who have taken all of their current entitlement will be able to take the further eight weeks of leave as long as the child remains under 12 years, again subject to the new statutory maximum. In circumstances where there is no agreement between employer and employee as to how the leave should be taken, the default position would be for the further leave to be taken in a continuous eight-week continuous period. Obviously, that is subject to negotiation.
Amendment No. 3 is a technical amendment to section 6 of the 1998 Act to ensure that the age limit of 12 years is properly set down and provide legal clarity that 12 years is the cut-off point. These amendments are drafted in keeping with the mechanism for drafting the earlier extensions to the provisions of the original 1998 Act. We know how important these amendments and the Bill are to parents. The amendments seek to ensure that the stated purpose of the Bill will be made effective such that parents can avail of it.
Today, my Labour Party colleagues in the Dáil will move a motion on children's rights. We very much see this Bill as in keeping with that motion. The Social Democrats, the original proposers of the Bill, also consider it as very much in keeping with greater provision for children in our laws and statutory framework. The Bill should be viewed in that spirit. I urge Senators to support the three amendments and the Bill.