Wednesday, 6 February 2019
Parental Leave (Amendment) Bill 2017: Committee Stage
I thank the Minister of State for his constructive approach and full response on the amendments and the broader question. I acknowledge that he has worked constructively with Senators. There have been some mixed messages from Government on the Bill, but I acknowledge that we are all on the same page in terms of the spirit of the legislation. I am very glad to hear the Minister of State's very constructive comments and I welcome them. We should all very much welcome the Government's proposals on paid parental leave. That goes without saying, but I should have said that earlier.
Parental leave and paid paternity and maternity leave are not either-or matters. As Senator Norris indicated, Ireland ranks quite low in the European Union in terms of general parental leave provision. This Bill together with the Government's proposals on paid parental leave will clearly elevate us in the EU ranking, which is very welcome. We are in 19th place out of 28 member states. It is very important, therefore, that we make better provision. However, I acknowledge the work the Government is doing separately on that.
The Bill is a modest proposal, as others have said. It is incremental, building on existing entitlements and referring only to unpaid leave. Like Senator Norris and many other Senators, we have all received very moving personal accounts from many parents who rely on existing provision but are running out of leave. They have made arrangements for child care and are very anxious and concerned to ensure they will not have to leave the workforce because they can no longer take time off in unpaid parental leave. They are really struggling as they juggle work and family responsibilities. As a mother of two girls, I know exactly the difficulties many of us have in trying to juggle work and family responsibilities.
I acknowledge the point made by Senator Humphreys that most people do not take parental leave in a block but use it to work a more flexible week. In that way, it provides a very welcome way of ensuring that the precarious balance is maintained. We have been receiving emails in the main from women but like Senator Gavan, I have male relatives and friends who have taken parental leave also.
The culture is changing in the workplace. It is a good point that we need to change the culture so fathers take parental leave. Paid paternity leave has been of major importance because it was the first time that we acknowledged fathers specifically in the workplace. It was the Labour Party and Fine Gael which originally proposed the introduction of paid paternity leave. Acknowledging the role of fathers in the workplace is hugely important, including for gender equality and women's rights. I know from younger male relatives that it is increasingly the case that it is quite acceptable and expected in the private sector, specifically in information technology firms, that young men take periods of parental leave. That is very welcome.
I will now address some of the points raised by colleagues and the Minister of State. I received a letter from IBEC last night. Of course, IBEC is entitled to comment and it is important that we take into account the impact of any changes in workplace entitlements for employers and so on. However, the language used in the letter was unfortunate and grudging. There was no acknowledgement of the positive impact of this type of parental leave legislation, particularly in terms of retention of skilled employees in the workforce. Taking a cold look at this, not from the point of view of children and families but from the point of view of employers and enterprise, it is important that we ensure that mothers and parents of young children generally are facilitated in increasing their participation and retention in the labour force. I refer again to the great explanatory memorandum published by the Government with the Parental Leave (Amendment) Act 2006, which extended the age of the child from five years to eight years. It states:
There will be benefits for employers and industry to the extent that the legislation will facilitate the increased participation and retention of women in the labour force.
The foregoing factors apply equally to the Exchequer in its position as employer to the public service.
In addition, the explanatory memorandum stated clearly:
No significant costs are anticipated in connection with this legislation either in relation to its administration or in relation to compliance with its terms by individual employers and employees. There will be some cost implications for employers arising from the broadening of the parental leave entitlement to employees in loco parentis .... However, as parental leave is unpaid this cost will not be significant.
The language used is worth citing because it emphasises the positive benefit to all of us in society of expanding parental leave entitlements and the lack of significance to any costs likely to be incurred as a result of that expansion. I will come back to that point in a moment, but it is useful to quote that document and contrast it with the rather grudging opposition expressed by IBEC to this legislation.
It is important to address the points raised by the Minister of State on the financial implications and the dreaded term money message that he raised in this context. I listened to the arguments the Minister of State made and I am grateful to Senator Frances Black, with whom I have spoken about this. It is of concern to all of us to hear the phrase "money message" or constitutional implications - the Minister of State referred to Article 17.2 of the Constitution - being raised effectively as impediments to the passage of Private Members' legislation. Article 17.2 refers to the Dáil and is not directly a matter for the Seanad to the same extent. The language used in Article 17.2 is very different from the language used in Dáil Standing Order 179, which is often cited in this context. The Dáil provision has been described by Kieran Coughlan, former Secretary General of the Oireachtas Service and Clerk of the Dáil, in the following terms. In 2017, he wrote that the decision as to whether a Bill requires a money message normally rests on whether the expenditure is merely an extension or variation of an existing activity of the Government or publicly funded body, which does not require a money message, or the imposition of a new legal and definable responsibility, which does require one. If one looks at this Bill, it is patently an incremental improvement on an existing legal entitlement and statutory framework.