Wednesday, 26 February 2014
Parental Leave Bill 2013: Committee Stage
I know Senator White is interested in this area, as she knows I am. If I make an opening contribution, it may put us in the frame of mind we all want. I know the Senator was not pushing for Committee Stage at this time as we are working on the matter. I thank Senator White and her colleagues for the opportunity to speak today on this important Bill. As I mentioned when we last discussed it, the Bill and its intentions are laudable as they recognise the important role of both mothers and fathers in the care and nurturing of young children. For that reason the Government decided not to oppose the Bill on Second Stage in July last year.
Before turning to the matter before us, I will provide some background on the types of relief currently available which are relevant to the debate. There is maternity leave of 26 weeks which attracts social welfare benefit and is currently available to mothers. An unpaid period of 16 weeks is also available to mothers and this is known as additional maternity leave. There is adoptive leave of 24 weeks, which also attracts a social welfare benefit, currently available to mothers. An unpaid period of 16 weeks is also available to mothers. Parental leave of 18 weeks, which is unpaid, is available as an individual right for both mothers and fathers. This leave can be taken in respect of a child up to age eight or, in the case of a child with a disability or serious illness, to age 16.
We currently have no provision for paternity leave, which in a number of other countries is available to fathers. I agree completely with the spirit of the Bill and Senator White's view that it is important that fathers and their important role in nurturing children are acknowledged. This is an omission in the current system in terms of promoting greater equality in society by encouraging a fairer sharing of domestic responsibilities between men and women.
It is the Government's intention to table a number of amendments on Committee Stage as there are a number of substantial and technical difficulties with the Bill. We fully accept the spirit of the Bill. However, due to the complex nature of the amendments and the requirement to carry out consultation across a number of Departments and with employer organisations, trade unions and various NGOs, I am not in a position to present such amendments today. I had hoped to come back to the Seanad with the Government’s response in the first quarter of 2014 but the consultations are taking longer than we anticipated. From Senator White’s experience on the other side of the fence in the private sector, I know she understands the complexities involved.
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?
I am also of the view that in section 3 the current Short Title is misleading and incorrect. The Bill does not have any implications for paternal leave so I am unsure as to why it is in the Title. Any change to the Short Title might also have implications for the Long Title which only addresses current maternity leave legislation.
I note the proposed amendments which would include adoptive leave within the Bill. However, most of the provisions would apply to adoptive leave also as well as to same-sex couples. I cannot support the amendment because we have not had time to examine it in detail but neither do I wish to formally oppose it or vote it down. As with every other provision in the Bill we will need to review it and come back with substantial amendments on Report Stage. I suggest that the Senator might agree to hold the two amendments back until Report Stage so that we could have a full discussion in light of the overall approach of the Bill the Government will bring forward. We need to design an approach that will work and we need a full impact assessment on the amendment Bill.
The current Bill takes a very rigid approach to the sharing of maternity leave. The approach is that the leave would have to be shared without any consultation with the mother. I know that is not what is intended but Senator White knows what happens when the experts start to look at the details.
This new right is given to fathers without any qualification and regardless of whether there is a continuing relationship between the parents, the circumstances of the conception, whether the father is spending time of any nature with his child or making any contribution to the child’s support. We cannot agree to reduce a woman’s entitlement and transfer it to a man without regard to whether he has any involvement with the child. Much work with other relevant Departments remains to be done before the Government can come back with specific proposals.
My Department is currently preparing legislation to consolidate all the family leave legislation – maternity, paternal, adoptive and carer’s leave – into one Bill. Responsibility for carer’s leave has been transferred from the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation to the Department of Justice and Equality in the context of the statute law consolidation exercise. This consolidation will involve examination of possible discrepancies and anomalies between the various Acts with a view to making the code more accessible and streamlined. This is a significant statute law consolidation and revision project on which work is ongoing. The Bill also provides an opportunity to look again at the question of leave for new fathers. Work is ongoing and I hope the Bill will be published later this year.
Considerable work needs to be done before the Government can come back to the House with specific amendments to the Bill. Consultation with other relevant Departments is under way but more time is needed to formulate workable proposals. There are serious financial and administrative cost implications in the approach taken in the Bill which cannot be accepted on affordability grounds. The principle is not the issue, it is a question of affordability. However, I assure the House that the Government remains committed to addressing this important issue. We will return with substantial amendments to every provision of the Bill on Report Stage. We might ask at that Stage that the Bill would be recommitted to Committee Stage to ensure that the detail of what we propose can be fully discussed by Members of the House and to give the proposer of the Bill an opportunity to take a serious look at what we propose.
I agree completely with the spirit of the Bill and Senator White’s view that it is important that fathers and their important role in nurturing children is acknowledged. I consider that this is an omission in our current system but we must take account of the economic realities in which we find ourselves and craft something that is workable and acceptable – most of all to women. I am sorry that I am not in a position to give a definitive response today to Senator White but I assure her the Government will be back with such a response as soon as possible. However, there is no point in rushing the legislation. We have waited long enough. God knows women fought long and hard enough for what we have. We all want to get it right.
I feel a moral responsibility to put on record the Minister of State’s personal achievement in honouring her word that she would come back in early spring and discuss the Bill further.
I would also like to congratulate our Leader, Senator Cummins, who did not take the traditional aggressive or antagonistic approach to an Opposition Bill and who saw it as important that fathers would have a bigger share in maternity leave, although it would be the woman's choice to decide how it would be shared. I also thank Senator Wilson for seconding this Bill.
I came up with this proposal when I was preparing work on promoting women entrepreneurs in Ireland. Only half as many women as men start up businesses here, but Enterprise Ireland has progressively focused on encouraging more women into business and has proved that action taken to support women entrepreneurs brings a positive result. Therefore, we are focusing in this Bill on another approach that will offer support to women. As we all know, Irish women today are totally different from those of previous generations, thanks to their education. They are as ambitious as men and want to participate and have equal responsibility in society. It is only right then that men should be able to participate in maternity leave. It is unjust if they cannot enjoy a similar right to leave. As asked earlier, why should men not be able to share in leave at the same time as the mother when a baby is born?
I will withdraw my proposal and will be happy to work with the Minister of State on the issue. It is noteworthy that the Government is willing to accept an Opposition Bill and that the Leader wants the Seanad to move on its responsibility in society. This is a sign of the importance of the role of the Seanad, which will not be seen as just deciding it will not have anything to do with the Bill despite knowing heart and soul that it is for the better of Irish men and women.
I thank the Minister of State, the Leader and my colleague Senator Wilson who seconded the Bill, which came about as a result of my research into how to support and promote women entrepreneurs. If a woman is starting a business, she cannot very well run off for 26 weeks, because starting a business is time consuming. Also, many unemployed men would be glad to stay at home and let the women go out to work. There are many cases where the wives of unemployed men have new babies and would like to return to their work. The proposal in this Bill is a milestone in the evolving role of men in society. The proposal will also apply in the area of civil partnership and adoption and will be to the good of a more open society.
I commend Senator White on tabling this Bill. Today has been a good day for the Seanad - a day when the Leader has allowed Opposition Senators to move a number of Bills which have been on the Order Paper for some time. I understand that over the next number of weeks, a number of other Bills on the Order Paper will also be discussed and debated. This is the reason we are here and the decision to proceed in this manner is a positive move by the Leader. Senator White is a Senator who is policy driven and has brought forward Bills which are constructive and which result from engagement with the community and people who will be positively affected by the outcome of Bills such as this. She is to be commended on that.
The Constitutional Convention sat last weekend and discussed the possibility of including social, economic and cultural rights in the Constitution. It was very interesting to observe in the discussions taking place in the workshops and in contributions from the floor that there was all-party support for the concept of including social, economic and cultural rights in the Constitution. It struck me that we are moving in the right direction in this State, which is still a young State. Some 100 years ago, anti-slavery laws were being introduced in the US and in this country the right to vote for everybody was being introduced. These rights and the right of women to vote were all seen as radical ideas in their time, but now we take them for granted. We are moving in the right direction all the time and those of us who are progressive and on the left are always trying to push out the boundaries and force states to do the right thing. I believe the Constitutional Convention was thinking of issues like the one raised in this Bill when discussing social, economic and cultural rights.
I do not wish to make a Second Stage speech, but I do wish to make two comments before we come back to this on Report Stage. I am a firm believer in the Scandinavian model, which has a lot to offer. I do not believe we can just pick a model that exists in any one country and say it will work for us. Whatever we decide on must be a solution for the people of this State, for parents and for the economy and resources must be taken into account. However, it is worth looking at the Scandinavian model. It invests 1% of GDP in early childhood education, whereas we spend just a quarter of that.
This brings us back to a discussion we have had previously. We had a debate on the same issues in regard to mental health, but that debate was unhelpful in some ways because of other issues being brought into it. The issue is whether we want to pay for these services and whether we want to raise enough taxation to allow us put services like this in place. I am sure we will have the same debate when it comes to universal health care. It must be paid for and we must decide whether the moneys required should come from progressive taxation. I would say "Yes". I would like to see a universal child care system, but it must be paid for and must be paid for through progressive taxation. Therefore, I am prepared to support progressive taxation.
One issue I would like to raise, and I will bring forward an amendment on this on Report Stage, is the need for paid paternity leave. This is something we need in this State. Sinn Féin policy is that it would like to see a move towards the international standard, of at least one year's paid leave after the birth of a child and two weeks statutory paternity leave. That would be a huge step in the right direction for parents and children. I understand there is a cost implication, but it is about getting the right work-life balance and about ensuring both parents get the opportunity to bond with their children at as early a stage as possible. Unfortunately, fathers do not get those opportunities currently because they are not there.
We are moving in the right direction and the Bill being discussed today gives us an opportunity to discuss the issues. I welcome the helpful contribution and clarifications given by the Minister of State today and commend Senator White on her excellent work in this area.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I too support Senator White and what she is trying to achieve in this Bill. As Senator Cullinane has said, she is looking at policy and trying to work for the betterment of children and their parents. I welcome the healthy approach the Minister of State has taken today, which shows us how the Seanad can work in a collegial way to achieve the outcomes we all want.
When it comes to Report Stage, what I will seek to ensure is that the Bill will provide for the first year of a child's life, which is critical for a child's development. We need to develop our own model, but we must ensure that parents have a choice about which parents will take the major role. We must find a way to do that. The last time I checked the figures for Sweden, some 2% of children under the age of one year were in a child care setting. The rest were being cared for by a parent or parents. In Sweden, leave is provided to both mother and father and parents are allowed to choose how to mix that leave. This also means that employers look at males and females in the relevant age category in the same way. Therefore, the Swedish model has equality ramifications which are important for society and the type of equal society we wish to have.
I support Senator White on this Bill and encourage her endeavours. Let us all work together for the same aims.
I move amendment No. 1:
In page 19, after line 20, to insert the following new section:
AMENDMENT OF THE ADOPTIVE LEAVE ACT 1995
4.—(1) Section 2 of the Adoptive Leave Act 1995, as amended by the Adoptive Leave Act 2005, is amended as follows:(a) by deleting the definition of “Employed Adopting Mother” and substituting the following:I move the amendment, but in light of what the Minister of State has said, I will withdraw it and come back to it on Report Stage.“ “Employed Adopting Parent” means a female or male employee in whose care a child (of whom she or he is not the natural parent) has been placed or is to be placed with a view to the making of an adoption order, or to effecting of a foreign adoption or following any such adoption;”,(b) by deleting the definition of “Sole Male Adopter”.(2) Section 6 of the Adoptive Leave Act 1995, as amended by the Adoptive Leave Act 2005, is amended by deleting subsection (1) and substituting the following:“(1) Subject to this Part, an employed adopting mother or adopting father shall be entitled to leave (to be known as ‘adoptive leave’) from the employee’s employment.”.(3) Section 7 of the Adoptive Leave Act 1995 is amended as follows:(a) by deleting in subsections (1) and (2) the reference to “an employed adopting mother (or sole male adopter)” and substituting “an employed adopting parent”;
(b) by inserting in subsections (1) and (2) the words “or his” after the word “her” in paragraphs (a), (b) and (c);
(c) by deleting in subsection (3) the reference to “the employed adopting mother (or sole male adopter)” and by substituting “the employed adopting parent”;
(d) by deleting in subsection (4) the reference to “the employed adopting mother (or sole male adopter)” and substituting “the employed adopting parent”;
(e) by inserting in subsection (4) the words “or his” after the word “her”.(4) Section 8 of the Adoptive Leave Act 1995, as amended by the Adoptive Leave Act 2005, is amended by deleting subsection (1)(a) and substituting the following:“(1) (a) Subject to this Part, an employed adopting parent who is entitled to, or is on, adoptive leave, shall, on request, be entitled to further leave (to be known as ‘additional adoptive leave’) from the employee’s employment.”.(5) Section 9 of the Adoptive Leave Act 1995, as amended by the Adoptive Leave Act 2005, is amended by deleting subsection (1) and substituting the following:“(1) Subject to this Part, an employed adopting parent who is entitled to, or is on, adoptive leave, shall, on request, be entitled to further leave (to be known as ‘additional adoptive leave’) from the employee’s employment.”.(6) Section 10 of the Adoptive Leave Act 1995, as amended by the Adoptive Leave Act 2005, is amended by deleting subsection (9) and substituting the following:“(9) Subject to this Part, an employed adopting parent who is entitled to, or is on, adoptive leave, shall, on request, be entitled to further leave (to be known as ‘additional adoptive leave’) from the employee’s employment.”.”.