Seanad debates

Wednesday, 6 February 2019

Parental Leave (Amendment) Bill 2017: Committee Stage


10:30 am

Photo of David StantonDavid Stanton (Cork East, Fine Gael) | Oireachtas source

I understand there are premiums in some of the areas. For example, if a nurse is to be replaced we get an agency nurse in, which is more expensive, and then there are administrative costs, among others. When the costs were added up that is the figure we got. I accept that not everybody is going to take the leave but if the take-up is 10% then the cost is approximately €1.2 million, which is still a significant amount that has to be budgeted for. That is just the public sector in the health and education areas.

I ask Senators to note that these estimates do not include costs arising in An Garda Síochána, the Irish Prison Service, the Defence Forces, in any other rostered public service or in customer-facing units of the public service, including in the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection and the Revenue Commissioners. Members can imagine how this figure would rise when all those services are factored in. Nurses, teachers, gardaí, special needs assistants will all have to be replaced for the weeks during which they are on parental leave. That is a fact. It is an issue. Staff will have to be replaced when they are out. It is important to debate these issues, tease them out and be objective about it. Just because it is a Private Members' Bill does not mean we should all accept it and say it is great. We should be objective, tease it out, go through it and then agree or disagree as to its merits. However, that has not happened to the extent I would have liked.

The Senators' amendments do not take into account the impact on the public and private sectors of the rapid introduction of this entitlement. We do not wish to deny any parent the leave being proposed. Rather, we wish to nuance how it can be taken. That is what I will propose. In that regard, I wish to inform the House that the Government will be bringing forward amendments on Report Stage to sections 6 and 7. The Government amendments will continue to provide for parents to have an additional eight weeks of parental leave, as already provided for in the Bill. However, to be clear to the House, the Government will seek to distinguish those eight weeks of leave from the 18 weeks already available to parents. In this context, the Government wishes to mitigate the impact on the operation of our health, education and other front-line sectors. I wish to hear the views of colleagues on what I have outlined. They should not just knock it because I say it, they should think about it, talk to SMEs, see what they have to say and then come back and let me know what they think.

Our amendments will propose that the additional eight weeks will be introduced in two tranches beginning in September of this year. We want to give a little bit of time. Under the Government proposals, from 1 September, parents will be entitled to an additional four weeks of parental leave and from 1 September 2020, parents will be entitled to a further four weeks. We want to give the public sector bodies I have mentioned and SMEs a chance to prepare for the change. We are still bringing in the change but we are phasing it in. That is reasonable.

I have mentioned that our aim is to maintain the level of services in our health and education sectors. Therefore, we will propose that this leave will be subject to the same criteria as is currently applied in the health and education sectors, namely, that the leave may be taken in a single block of four weeks, rising to eight weeks as the leave is increased over time, in blocks of one week at a time to facilitate shorter holidays such as mid-term breaks and Easter, or in a manner compatible with the operation of these services. Again, I think that is reasonable. We want this to work.

To give a practical example, Senators will agree that our primary education system cannot function where employees seek to take parental leave in a format of a few hours here and there. It would be very difficult to manage that. A shorter working day such as that may be feasible in a back office, but not when it comes to classrooms. To ensure its operation, it is better that parental leave in the primary education sector be taken in half days, full days or multiples thereof. So, in respect of the eight weeks additional leave, we will seek to formalise the existing arrangements already in place in the health and education sectors on Report Stage. That is already happening anyway. There are agreements and memoranda of understanding in place but we want to formalise the situation.

Given the matters I have set out before the House, I ask Senators not to press their amendments and to give the Government the opportunity to present amendments to sections 6 and 7, which are aimed at reconciling the interests of parents with the equal need to maintain essential front-line services. I will give an undertaking that the amendments will respect the spirit of the Bill, which is to give parents an additional eight weeks of parental leave for children up to the age of 12. That will give us time to enable public and private sector employers to adjust to the challenges of introducing an additional leave entitlement. We have listened carefully to all the concerns. We got the emails as well. There were many of them. We agree with what is being said, and the spirit of it. There is no difficulty there, but we are just a little bit concerned about some of the very small companies in particular that might be under a lot of pressure if they had to do this in one go. Perhaps I am wrong. I will listen to what colleagues have to say. I suggest there would be a light phasing-in period to enable a new entitlement to be introduced in an orderly manner in the public and private sectors.

If the Bill is enacted by March it would allow only three months for it to come into effect in June, which is a very short timescale. We are just asking that it should be put off until September to give people an opportunity.

An issue arises about the cost of the Bill and money messages. We have an obligation to let the Houses know the view of Departments that there would be a cost to the State. I was surprised about the level of costs, as I am sure Senators were also. A money message was not sought at an earlier stage but since we got the information back about costs, the situation is the Bill could be unconstitutional if it was passed without a money message. That is something that can possibly happen in the Dáil when the Bill goes there. We do not want to take the chance that the Bill could be unconstitutional. It would be a disaster if the Bill were to fall at that fence if we had all agreed on a formula and passed it. I am keen to highlight the concern at this point about the costs to the State and Members know the implications from a constitutional point of view.

That more or less concludes what I have to say. We all want to support parents.We do not want a problem to arise. We want to benefit families. I ask Senators to consider the compromise I am putting forward. Parents will benefit from the additional leave entitlement. Parents of children up to 12 years will be able to enjoy the entitlement and use any part of their existing entitlement that may have lost when the upper age was eight years.

By working together on a phased approach, we will achieve a solution to benefit children and families. I will listen very carefully to the responses of Senators to my proposal, which is reasonable. Having reflected on the Bill, there is nothing between us in terms of what we want to do. We should also bear in mind the work-life balance directive which provides that member states shall provide an additional non-transferable right to nine weeks of paid parental leave. The Government wants to move towards paid parental leave for both parents. We will make a start on this in 2019 and follow up in each of the next two years.


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