Wednesday, 16 October 2019
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
Local Authority Members
I welcome the Minister of State. My matter relates to maternity leave for councillors. I note from the Minister of State's reply to Senator Noone that he is engaged in a great deal of work on councillors' remuneration and conditions. It is recommended that a councillor who is due to take maternity or parental leave to care for a new baby take a sabbatical for up to six months, during which time their pay and conditions will not be affected. To say this is outdated would be a fair summation. In the context of our efforts to keep the country vibrant and given the increase in population, it is particularly outdated.This measure is overdue. I would appreciate the Minister of State's thoughts on this matter and on what might be done to include such a provision in legislation.
I thank the Senator for raising this important matter, which is relevant as it is now being discussed to a much greater extent than it previously was. Councillors, similar to Members of these Houses, members of the Judiciary and others, are officeholders rather than employees. As such, they are not covered by the statutory framework for employees on issues such as maternity leave, sick leave, and annual leave. In the case of local councillors, the current position is that under section 18(4) of the Local Government Act 2001, a councillor is deemed to have automatically resigned from membership of a local authority if he or she is absent from meetings for a continuous period of six consecutive months. Where the absence is due to illness or "in good faith for another reason", however, the other elected members may pass a resolution to allow the period of allowable absence to be extended to 12 months and then again to 18 months on foot of a further resolution.
A councillor who is absent for six months will continue to receive the full amount of his or her representational payment of €17,359 per annum. Thereafter, this payment is reduced by 50% for absences of six to 12 months. A councillor who is absent for more than 12 months will not receive any further payments, regardless of the reason for the absence. For comparison, a local authority employee who is absent for medical reasons will receive full salary for three months, thereafter reducing by 50% for the next three to six months. No further salary payments will be made after six months. Local authority employees are entitled to take six months of maternity leave on full pay with an option for an additional 16 weeks of unpaid leave. Of course, councillors are not entitled to have periods of absence counted towards the calculation of payment of their annual expenses allowance, which is provided to defray the actual cost of attendance at meetings. With effect from January 2017, the Social Welfare Acts were amended so that councillors gained access to the same benefits as self-employed contributors. Accordingly, councillors are now reckonable for the purposes of accessing class S benefits, including maternity benefit.
There are other solutions for councillors who need to take maternity-related leave or, indeed, paternity-related leave. These include temporary co-options, or technological or e-democracy solutions to facilitate remote attendance at council meetings, which would allow them to continue to serve their communities. Some such solutions would likely require amendments to primary legislation. For that reason, the issue of maternity leave for councillors is best considered in the broader and more general context of parental leave arrangements for all officeholders in the State.
It is critical that more women run for election as local authority members, as the Senator outlined, and that councils are more balanced. In that context, we are keeping this issue under review and I thank the Senator again for raising it and providing me with the opportunity to address the matter in the House. The Minister of State with responsibility for equality matters, Deputy Stanton, and myself are in the early stages of a full examination of the issue of maternity and paternity leave for elected representatives both local and national. At the moment we are operating with an ad hocsystem, which has developed over the years. Both the local and national systems were built around men. This work is in its very early days, but we are keen to implement changes in this regard within the lifetime of this Oireachtas.
I appreciate the Minister of State's answer. I am delighted that he and the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, are going to fully examine the issue. However, I am curious. Thanks to the Minister of State, there is a large review ongoing: Sarah Moorhead's report. She went to extreme lengths in having councillors report on what they do and so on. I presume that in this trawl and root-and-branch review of councillor's pay and conditions, Ms Moorhead has examined this issue. I am sure she will address it in her report.
I have not yet seen Ms Moorhead's report, so I am not sure. I do not know if she addresses the issue. However, the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, and myself will make use of her surveying work in examining broader issues of maternity and paternity leave. I am not sure exactly what the report will say on those matters.