Wednesday, 6 February 2019
Parental Leave (Amendment) Bill 2017: Committee Stage
I thank colleagues for their discussion on the three amendments. Senator Bacik is adamant that there is no significant cost to the State. Senator Noone mentioned maternity leave for Oireachtas Members. They are among the few groups who do not have an entitlement to maternity or paternity leave. When we were introducing the paid paternity leave legislation a little while go, a colleague and his wife were due to have a child and he asked whether he could avail of paternity leave. Unfortunately, he could not. We should pay attention to this. If we are to encourage younger people into the Houses of the Oireachtas, they should be treated in the same way as everyone else in the State and be entitled to take time out.
I have had discussions with colleagues from some of the Nordic countries, including Sweden and Norway. They always do things better than anybody else - fair play to them. They have a system of alternates so that when an individual is being elected, the name of an alternate is also on the ballot paper. The latter can step in if a member has to step aside and take maternity or paternity leave. The alternate takes over and does the work. One would have to be careful about who one gets to step in, in case they have other notions. Ultimately, the system works in the Nordic countries and in others. It means the people do not lose representation. The group, party or otherwise has a voice in the Parliament and, crucially, the member – mum or dad - can take time out to be with his or her child, as everyone else can. The Seanad might debate and investigate this at some stage. A by-product would be that if somebody resigned or passed away, as happens from time to time, the alternate could take over, obviating the need for by-elections, which cost a lot. This is worth debating. Perhaps it would require a constitutional referendum. I do not know. We need to do what we can, however, to encourage more younger people to enter the Houses. Having a child should in no way preclude or put terrible pressure on Members. In the past, some colleagues in this House have said they were under a lot of pressure when a child came along, and they got no time off at all. That is not right.
On this issue, there is not much between us at all; we are very close. If we believe there are issues that should be raised during a debate, we have a responsibility to raise them. I am not trying to be popular. Sometimes if I say something, it will not be popular but I have a responsibility to raise it for debate. I might get hammered over it from time to time but the responsibility still exists. None of us should be in here to be popular. We should be here to do what is right. If there are issues and concerns, we have a responsibility to put them on the record, bring them to the attention of colleagues and debate them. Ultimately, we might not agree and might divide on matters. So be it; that is democracy. We should at least air the issues.
Cost is an issue. I have outlined how this came about. It is not trivial. As Senator Buttimer said, we do not want this to fall at the last fence. I am concerned about the impact on small businesses. Big businesses can manage. We have virtually full employment, thanks to Government policies up to now. I will play that trumpet. We have virtually full employment, heading to an unemployment rate of less than 5%. Employers are calling to my office saying they cannot get workers. They say they are looking for workers here, there and everywhere and cannot get them. This is fantastic in the sense that I did not believe six or seven years ago that we would be able to say that. It has a knock-on effect for legislation such as this, however. If people take time off, it is harder to replace them because of full employment. We have to bear that in mind, especially in the provision of essential State services. If staff are not available to provide any of the State services I mentioned, because of increased leave, it could have an impact on those services. We physically could not obtain staff. That is not to say we are not supportive of the legislation but we need to give both small businesses and the front-line State services a chance to gear up for this and get ready for it. That is why we should phase in the legislation and bring in the measures next September and the following September. We should give those concerned an opportunity to do this properly and not put them under terrible pressure. That is all I propose.