Wednesday, 9 December 2020
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
I welcome the Minister of State and I wish her continued success in her portfolio. I urge her to continue all of the good work she is going in that regard. This matter relates to maternity leave for county councillors. I raised this matter in the previous Seanad. If my memory is correct, Fianna Fáil backed a motion on this issue in a previous Seanad. It is an issue that has been kicked around for some time and it came to light again recently in regard to a Minister.
A lot can be said about politicians. The people they represent worst in many ways are themselves. I firmly believe that. I am sure Senator Boyhan and other Senators will agree with me that the people councillors and others represent worst are themselves. This is a case in point in terms of a county councillor who might fall due for maternity leave. Following on from the recent announcement by a Minister, it is to be hoped we will hear more joyous news in the Dáil and the Seanad as well in our lifetime. It would be great to hear the patter of new feet. Currently, female councillors and politicians are told to take sick leave. What sort of society are we living in? Politicians need to take a look at themselves. There is nobody to blame for this but us. We are misrepresenting our own people. We should be ashamed of ourselves and the work we have not done for councillors, Deputies and Senators in regard to this matter. This would not be acceptable in any other sector and it needs to be rectified immediately.
Ireland is at the back of the queue in terms of looking after councillors and other political interests. It would not be accepted anywhere else. I am of the view that this is illegal. I hope the Minister of State will be able to clarify if legislation on this matter will come before the Houses soon.
As I said in regard to the previous matters, I am representing the Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Peter Burke, today. I will read the script provided but I have a personal opinion which I will happily deliver when I have finished the script.
I thank Senator Davitt for raising the important matter of maternity leave for local authority elected members. In the programme for Government, Our Shared Future, the Government has clearly set out the commitment to address the need for greater diversity and gender equality in local government, especially where there are too few women involved in elected politics.My colleague, the Minister of State with responsibility for local government and planning, Deputy Peter Burke, is determined to act on this commitment and, since his appointment, has already approved a number of important initiatives, working with key partners, to encourage greater participation of women in local politics. This work will continue through the current local electoral cycle and beyond.
It is clear that the issue of maternity leave is an important consideration for women entering political life at a local level. The matter is also the subject of ongoing debate within these Houses. However, as the Oireachtas debate has shown, the matter is not straightforward.
As the Senator will be aware, local authority elected members are officeholders rather than employees and, as such, are not covered under the statutory framework for employee protection on issues relating to leaves of absence, including maternity or paternity leave.
As matters stand, however, it is appropriate to point out that the Local Government Act 2001, as amended, already makes important provision for councillors' absence. Under section 18(4) of the Act, a councillor may be absent from meetings for six consecutive months while continuing to hold his or her seat - depending on who the chair is, I might add. This period may be extended for a further six months by way of a resolution passed by the other members of the council where the absence is "due to illness" or "in good faith for another reason". This can be extended again for another six-month period on foot of a further resolution, allowing for a maximum of 18 months' consecutive absence - I must add, depending on which county council one is a member of.
A councillor who has been absent from meetings for six months will continue to receive the full amount of his or her representational payment, worth €17,000 per annum. Thereafter the payment will be reduced by 50% for absences of six to 12 months' duration. No further payments may be made after 12 months' consecutive absence. Maternity leave is not an absence. I need to add that because it seems to be missing from the script.
I have to deliver it.
Separately, with effect from January 2017, the Social Welfare Acts were amended such that most councillors gained access to similar benefits as self-employed contributors. As a consequence, councillors under the age of 66 are now reckonable for the purposes of accessing class S benefits, including maternity benefit.
Any change to the provisions allowing for councillor absences would require an amendment to the Local Government Act 2001 by the Houses of the Oireachtas. The Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage has previously examined the possibility of introducing amending provisions specifically to allow for maternity leave absences of longer than six months without the requirement for the other elected members to pass a supporting resolution. This was not advanced due to the possible implications for the status of councillors as officeholders.
I am aware that when this issue was debated in the Houses, important legal matters were also raised. It is important, therefore, that proposals relating to maternity leave for councillors are considered in the context of arrangements for all officeholders in the State.
The Minister of State with responsibility for local government and planning is willing and interested in inputting constructively to wider consideration on the matter, which is important in ensuring that elected councils are fully representative of the constituents they serve.
It is also important to say that the Act in question has not been changed since 1870. That is not in the script.
To be fair, we have a very proactive Minister of State with responsibility for local government and he has some cutting-edge legislation on councillors coming very soon, I hope. We are all very hopeful. This needs to be addressed, and the Minister of State, Deputy Burke, has shown he has the ability to deal with it. I ask him to be brave and grasp this nettle and deal with the matter because somebody has to deal with it. We have only ourselves to blame and we should hang our heads in shame as politicians with this going on. I thank the Minister of State.
It is also important to say that during the term of the previous Government, under confidence and supply, I brought forward legislation to address this. An amendment to the statutory instrument is what is required. I can speak ad nauseamabout this. If we are to be really serious about increasing the number of women taking up roles in politics, we should ensure they do not need to use a sick certificate for maternity leave. We need to be very serious about this. It is important. I have no doubt but that the Minister of State, Deputy Burke, will shine a light on this. I will work constructively with all elected representatives to ensure we have the mechanisms in place for women who wish to enter politics at council or national level. This means the very basic maternity leave, not a sick certificate.
I must add my penny's worth. I know of many female councillors who are very joyously expecting at the moment and they will not get maternity leave. Our colleagues in Europe are absolutely shocked that this is the case. They do not believe me when I say it.