Seanad debates

Thursday, 30 May 2024

Parent’s Leave and Benefit Act 2019 (Extension of Periods of Leave) Order 2024: Motion


9:30 am

Photo of Mary Seery KearneyMary Seery Kearney (Fine Gael)
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I move:

That Seanad Éireann approves the following Order in draft: Parent’s Leave and Benefit Act 2019 (Extension of Periods of Leave) Order 2024, a copy of which was laid in draft form before Seanad Éireann on 24th May, 2024.

Photo of James BrowneJames Browne (Wexford, Fianna Fail)
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I begin my statement today by welcoming all present to the Seanad. I thank Members for having me to provide a statement on this motion on behalf of the Minister, Deputy O’Gorman.

The Government continually has a strong commitment to achieving gender equality in Ireland through a variety of actions, which is a key tenet of the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth’s mission towards a fair and inclusive society where everyone can reach his or her full potential. One way that this can be achieved is by ensuring that family leave meets the needs of working parents and families throughout Ireland. The Minister, Deputy O’Gorman, and the Department have already made great strides in improving leave entitlements for working families. Since the formation of this Government we have increased parent's leave and benefit from two weeks to the current entitlement of seven weeks, enabling parents to spend time away from work and know they will be financially supported. As Members are aware from the subject of the debate today, the Minister, Deputy O’Gorman, has laid a motion to expand this entitlement even further, to nine weeks' paid leave in total, as required by the EU work-life balance directive. It is hoped that this increase will further support working parents and improve equality for those with caring responsibilities in the home, with both parents able to take the additional two weeks' leave from 1 August 2024, to be used before their child turns two years of age.

This is just one of the measures that the Government is taking to expand entitlement to family leave for working families in recent years. Parental leave was increased in 2019 from 18 weeks to 26 weeks, and the period in which the leave can be taken was extended from when the child attains the age of eight years to when the child attains the age of 12 years. Where the child has a disability or long-term illness, parental leave can be taken up to when the child reaches the age of 16.

Further significant developments to family leaves were introduced under the Work Life Balance and Miscellaneous Provisions Act 2023. Notably, this Act introduced five days' leave for medical care purposes for parents of children under 12 years of age and for carers, as well as the right to request flexible working for parents and carers. Such flexible working arrangements will allow parents and carers to alter their working day or pattern to care for children or others for whom they have caring responsibilities.Under this Act, all employees now have the right to request remote working from their employer. The Workplace Relations Commission has prepared a code of practice which includes guidance for employees, and employers, on this new entitlement.

This Act also expanded the entitlement to breastfeeding or lactation breaks from six months to two years, following the birth of the child. This is a further important support for mothers returning to the workforce.

In addition, five days domestic violence leave over a period of 12 months is now available to employees who are experiencing domestic violence, to be paid at 100% of the employee's normal rate, to ensure that their economic situation is not altered. The Department commissioned Women’s Aid to develop supports for employers to ensure that this leave is embedded within a robust workplace policy.

As I hope I have demonstrated by my statement today, family leave provisions are kept under review to ensure that they are effective and respond to the needs of families. This Government remains committed to ensuring parents and families are supported.

Today, I move that parent's leave and benefit be expanded from its current entitlement of seven weeks to nine weeks from 1 August 2024. This increase will allow parents to spend more time with their baby during the crucial formative years. This leave is to be taken within the first two years of the child’s life.

The Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O'Gorman, is committed to working closely with our colleague, the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Humphreys, to deliver this increase so that new parents can be assured the State will continually work for them.

I thank Senators for the opportunity to speak in Chamber today as we mark another significant increase in family leave provisions for working families. This provision signifies our continued commitment to achieving gender equality in our society today.

Photo of Mary Seery KearneyMary Seery Kearney (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister of State for coming in and taking this motion. It is really good news that we are extending leave by two weeks and that it is accompanied by a paid statutory benefit. I have no doubt that everyone welcomes such good news.

There is a huge shortage of baby and toddler places in child care facilities where the staff-child ratio is particularly tight or intense. So the better it is, the longer that parents can be at home in a paid capacity with their children. This leave is particularly good. This legislation first came through the House when the Seanad had to sit in the Dáil Chamber at the height of Covid. I noted then that the description of parents who could be the beneficiary of this leave left it open so that surrogacy families could benefit from this leave. I have a memo here from the Department on the types of leave from which surrogacy families can benefit.

Yesterday evening, the Dáil completed its consideration of the Health (Assisted Human Reproduction) Bill and the Bill is now moving into the Seanad. In a matter of weeks there will be an ability by families to ensure they have parental rights over their child, who will be born through surrogacy, from pretty much the birth of that child. Absolutely necessary to that is the provision of surrogacy leave. Some fantastic employers have already moved ahead of statutory bounds. My problem with the memo from the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, and I had hoped that the Minister from that Department would be here, is that no timeline has been set for when surrogacy leave will be delivered. The Minister of State's words, from the Minister's speech, were that these are "crucial formative years." There are "crucial" formative months for mothers, particularly a mother who has been unable to carry the pregnancy of her own child, who really need to be at home and financially supported by the State, if not the employer, if she is not lucky enough to work for one of the fantastic employers I mentioned.

The formative months are crucial times. In my instance, I literally got off a plane and went to work with my child strapped to me. I continued working for six months and all along. My child was in a wrap all of the time. I kept her close to me and I had to work because I had no other choice. I must state that I was self-employed so the scenario is a little different. I did work for an organisation at the time but there was no way of saying, "Actually I want to be here" so my only other alternative was to go to work. I was very fortunate to have an employer who was prepared to allow me to keep my baby with me all the time. There are other families who have already spent a fortune in trying to go through a surrogacy and then, returning here, they have to go back to work. It is a real deficit that they do not have a statutory entitlement to surrogacy leave that is akin to maternity leave and adoptive leave. It is the job of the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth to provide that. They are aware of this and know all about it.

I believed until a year and a half ago that this was about the Department of Social Protection because it was that Department that would pay for the leave until it became very clear that responsibility lay with the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth. There has been loads of time to work on this provision. The Minister for Health and his team have been extraordinary in getting us to where we are. We are 95% there and only 5% remains to be dealt with in a Bill in September, which I believe should provide for surrogacy leave. I also believe that the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth could add such provision, as an amendment. There will be a miscellaneous health provisions Bill that will deal with the last tidy up of the AHR and there is no reason for the Bill not to contain a statutory entitlement. There are lots of ways to make provision. It could be contemporaneous with the birth of the child, when we are providing for guardianship at the time of the birth of the child awaiting a parental order. There is no reason a bespoke solution cannot give statutory entitlement thus allowing for "crucial" bonding during the "crucial" formative months.

Again, I thank the Minister of State for the great news he has delivered but there is another piece of work that needs to be done.

Photo of Eugene MurphyEugene Murphy (Fianna Fail)
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Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit go dtí an Teach. This is a very important day and it is a good day, as stated by Senator Seery Kearney.

Fianna Fáil very much welcomes this motion as it seeks approval for the increase in parental leave, for the third successive time in the term of this Government. As the Minister of State has already said, the motion details the final increase in parent's leave and benefit from seven weeks to nine weeks, which will take effect from 1 August of this year. The support applies to both parents. It is part of the Government's ambition to ensure that parents can enjoy meaningful quality time with their newborn in the knowledge that they will be financially supported.

Parent's leave and benefit is available to anyone with a child under two years of age, or who has adopted a child within the last two years. Parent's benefit is available to employed and self-employed parents with the required number of social insurance-PRSI contributions.

Parent's benefit is paid at a rate of €250 per week. This is the same rate for maternity, paternity and adoptive benefits. The parent's benefit scheme is family-friendly and flexible as it facilitates parents to avail of the benefit in a block of seven weeks, soon to be nine consecutive weeks, or in separate week blocks over a longer period.

There have been significant developments in the entitlements to different forms of family leave for working families in recent years. We must welcome that because any of us who have reared children will know that when children are small there is a lot of stress, particularly in today's world. My own children are virtually young adults, with one in work and one in college. I believe it is important and vital that parents spend as much time as possible with their children. It is really time well spent, and Senator Seery Kearney and the Minister of State are right in that regard.

The Government committed in the programme for Government 2020 to support parents, including by extending paid leave to allow parents to spend more time with their children during their earliest years. I wish to note that parent's leave is available to both employees and people who are self-employed. I think that many times in the past Governments forgot about the self-employed people. I refer to people with small businesses who were not making a lot of money. They could not get a medical card if they got sick and they could not get any benefits. Thankfully, such a situation is being rectified. Thankfully too, as we move on with situations like this, we make sure to ensure provision is extended to self-employed people.

We should note that the Government has committed to reviewing these provisions after two years to consider extending the right to request flexible working to all employees. Statutory domestic violence leave was also introduced under the Work Life Balance and Miscellaneous Provisions Act. That makes Ireland one of the first countries in the EU to introduce such leave. All of this will stand to this country into the future.

Victims of domestic violence are entitled to five days leave over a period of 12 months, to be paid at 100% of the employee's normal rate thus ensuring the employee's economic situation will not be altered.The Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth also commissioned Women's Aid to develop supports for employers to develop their own domestic violence workplace policies.

Persons are treated as being in employment while on parent's leave or any of the other types of statutory leave for parents. They are also entitled to return to their job after parent's leave. They can build up annual leave while on parent's leave and are entitled to any public holidays that occur during parent's leave. I have been asked whether people can get credited PRSI contributions while on parent's leave, and they can. It should be noted parents of children born between November 2019 and July 2020 do not qualify.

I cannot stress enough the importance of creating as much time as we can for children when they are young. It is time well spent. It can be very sad when we see parents having to rush from A to B to C, and it breaks their hearts that they do not have that time to spend with their children, so it is good the State is acknowledging this as a matter that has to be addressed. Coming from a rural area, I have been well aware over the years of what small employers do to facilitate people if they know they are under stress when a baby arrives. They are often flexible with the hours they give them and they try to help them out, and that should be acknowledged in this debate. It does not happen everywhere, but it often happens in family businesses where the employer says that if the employee is under pressure, they can take off a few extra days and work four days a week or whatever, and in doing that, they help those parents who are under a lot of stress.

As Senator Seery Kearney said and I am sure Senator Hoey will agree, today is a good day. I am glad to be part of the debate. Let us move on and ensure this extension happens as quickly as possible.

Photo of Annie HoeyAnnie Hoey (Labour)
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It is great to have the Minister of State in the House on this good news day and to see the extension. I hope people will take note of it and avail of the leave. Does he have any information on the uptake of parent’s leave and benefit and is there any data on that?

I was in Iceland a couple of years ago on a study trip to learn how Iceland had built one of the most gender-equal societies in the world. It has the smallest gender age gap and so on. We trundled around the place talking to politicians on the left and right, trade unionists, workers, women's groups and many other groups about how the country had achieved that over the preceding 20 years. The two measures we were told had led to it were parent's leave, in line with the good news here, and childcare having been made available from the age of two years, which is built into the education system. From the age of two, everyone has access to childcare because it is part of the education system. It was highlighted there is a gap between when parental leave ends, when the child is one, and the age of two, and the country is working on that. I was struck by how the people we talked to talked about parental leave as the reason they have the most gender-equal society. Iceland does parental leave a little differently from how we do it here, and I have spoken to a couple of people here about this and they cannot even imagine it. While we are here discussing parent's leave, I may as well discuss it here, and we might go on an imaginarium as to how it could look.

Iceland's parental leave is for one year plus a four-week period, and the one year has to be split evenly between the parents. It is a case of using it or losing it. There is six months for each parent. There are not a lot of lone parents in Iceland, so there are different structures there and there is a high incidence of divorce. We are imagining a slightly different society, therefore, but we will imagine it in any event. There is six months for each parent and that cannot be switched over. It is a policy of use it or lose it and there is a period of four weeks that can be used whichever way, which is often used for the birth parent, or the mother. This was introduced just over 20 years ago and everyone we spoke to said it has led to such a radical shift in society because both parents, from year 1, have to take equal responsibility for caring for the child. Parent's leave is going to be really important in contributing somewhat to that societal shift given that, very often, the birth parent takes the maternity leave or the majority of the time, and that sets off a tone or trend throughout that child's life. The people I spoke to in Iceland found that had shifted that trend whereby both parents had to be equally responsible in the first year of the child's life. Obviously, there have been issues with it. Not everyone has taken it up and there has been some reluctance, especially for higher earners because the gap is quite different from what they might get from the state, but as a general rule, it has become almost unacceptable that both parents would not, in the first year of the child's life, be responsible for him or her. This includes cases even where the family unit has broken down. Whatever the structure is, both parents are responsible for minding the child in the first year of his or her life, and that has been credited as one of the main drivers in building a gender-equal society. It shifts the paradigm in the context of who is the breadwinner and who is the carer, which continues, inevitably, throughout the child's life and the structure of the family unit.

I wanted to put that out as an example of how one society has found the provision of parental leave or the provision of care for children in the first year of their life, and the knock-on impact that has had, such as the reduction in the gender age gap and the promotion of how the society treats women. All of us who were there noted and commented on how things just felt a little different. The way people spoke to one another felt different and we saw an equal number of genders out and about during the workday with children. As I said, we spoke to people on the left, the right and otherwise and they all credited this with the change. It was only 22 years ago that Iceland introduced it - I was on the trip two years ago - and in 22 years, it managed to see an enormous societal shift. For me, parent's leave, parent's benefit and shared opportunities to care for children go societally far beyond being able to care for a child. They also have long-term benefits for what society looks like because when both parents are able to present and care for a child, it shifts that dynamic throughout the child's life, which has positive socioeconomic benefits for society. It is really great and I would love it to be extended ever further.

Photo of James BrowneJames Browne (Wexford, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Cathaoirleach and the Senators for the debate on the expansion of the parent's leave and benefit entitlement from seven to nine weeks. Regarding the uptake, from January to end of April 2024, there were 25,578 applications for the benefit, comprising 10,285 men and 15,293 women. Perhaps the gap is not as big, therefore, as we might have expected. As for surrogacy leave, officials are working with the Department of Health, Social Protection and enterprise to scope out surrogacy leave. I am told it is still at an early stage but I will certainly raise it with the Minister because lot of good work has been done in this area and it is important to get it resolved.

I thank those who have made welcome and insightful contributions. An important facet of parent's leave is to encourage the sharing of the childcare role. We hope this additional period of leave will support and encourage fathers to take a more prominent role in the care of their young children and this is further supported by the availability of the benefit while taking the leave, ensuring parents are not financially discouraged from taking time away from work to spend this important time with their child. My statement highlighted just a key selection of the steps the Government has taken to support working families in Ireland, including increasing parent's leave to nine weeks, increasing parental leave to 26 weeks and a suite of measures introduced under the Work Life Balance and Miscellaneous Provisions Act 2023 to further assist working families. I am delighted that since the formation of the Government, we have been able to support tens of thousands of new parents to take time away from work to allow them to spend meaningful, quality time with their families in the knowledge they are financially supported.

I again thank the Acting Chairman and Senators for the opportunity to speak in the Seanad Chamber as we mark another significant increase in the family leave provisions for working families. I hope this proposed increase in paid parent's leave from seven to nine weeks, which has been debated in the Chamber today, will encourage even more parents to take up the offer.

Question put and agreed to.

Photo of Paul DalyPaul Daly (Fianna Fail)
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Before we adjourn, I welcome rang a cúig agus their múinteoirí, Liam agus Daithí, from Gaelscoil Osraí in Kilkenny to the Public Gallery. They made it just in time before the curtain came down.

When is it proposed to sit again?

Photo of Mary Seery KearneyMary Seery Kearney (Fine Gael)
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At 1 p.m. on Tuesday, 11 June.

Photo of Paul DalyPaul Daly (Fianna Fail)
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Is that agreed? Agreed.

Cuireadh an Seanad ar athló ar 12.10 p.m. go dtí 1 p.m., Dé Máirt, an 11 Meitheamh 2024.

The Seanad adjourned at 12.10 p.m. until 1 p.m. on Tuesday, 11 June 2024.