Check Against Delivery
Dáil PMB: Motion re Extension of maternity leave and Maternity Benefit for mothers of premature babies and in relation to paternity leave and other related matters
Minister David Stanton T.D., Department of Justice and Equality
Wednesday, 5 April 2017
A Cheann Comhairle
On behalf of the Tánaiste and the Government as a whole, I would like to welcome the opportunity to speak on the motion before the House.
The Government is not opposing the motion, which proposes the extension of maternity leave and maternity benefit for mothers of premature babies, and suggests consequential provisions in relation to paternity leave and other related matters.
The Government is acutely aware of the different pressures that families with pre-term babies face, and believes that the State can and should support families at a time when the pressures of nurturing a new life can be daunting and stressful. The Government also believes in investing in a child’s critical early years. We all know how important and life-defining these are and this is why investment in early years is a recurring theme in the current Programme for a Partnership Government. Studies have shown that the first years of life, particularly the first three years, are crucial to a child's lifelong growth and development, and further research shows that children benefit most from parental care in the first year. We owe it to our children to give them the best start in life, and enabling them to be cherished and nurtured by their parents for as long as possible will provide a vital foundation for their future lives.
It’s for these compelling reasons that the Government expanded paid leave in the first year of a child’s life in 2016, through the introduction of two weeks of statutory paternity leave and benefit for new fathers. The Paternity Leave and Benefit Bill 2016, which the Tánaiste and I progressed, and which these Houses collectively enacted in July, brought the number of weeks of paid support to parents upon the birth of their child to 28. This comprises 26 weeks of maternity leave (two weeks of which must be taken before the birth) and two weeks of paternity leave.
The Government is very much aware that even when things go according to plan with the arrival of a full-term and healthy baby, families need the 28 weeks of combined paid maternity and paternity leave that are currently available and would welcome an increase to cover the first year of the child’s life. We have a commitment in this regard in our Programme for Government, to which I shall return in a moment.
When babies are born prematurely however, bringing all of the attendant concerns that have been outlined by the proposing Deputies, there is a particularly strong case to be made for expanding maternity leave on public policy grounds. Indeed, the Tánaiste has signalled in replies to several recent PQs that this is an issue that she is very open to considering, in the context of the Family Leave Bill that the Department of Justice and Equality is currently working on. A draft Bill has been produced, which needs to be updated to reflect the redress reforms made in the Workplace Relations Act 2015 and the Paternity Leave and Benefit Act 2016. The Tánaiste has also signalled that the Family Leave Bill will be the vehicle by which other necessary updates and amendments to existing family leave legislation will be made. In this regard, I would also mention that there are two other substantive issues on which work is nearing completion in the Department of Justice and Equality. These are: -
- Firstly, the provision for adoptive leave and benefit in the case of same-sex male couples. This is currently not provided for and the anomaly could not be addressed in the time available for the Paternity Leave and Benefit Act 2016, due to the complexity of the interaction with the Adoptive Leave Acts. The Department of Justice and Equality has completed consultations with the Department of Social Protection, and the Tánaiste intends to bring a separate Memorandum to Government on this essentially technical issue shortly.
- Secondly, the provision for the Programme for Government commitment to increase paid parental leave during the first year of a child’s life. Discussions have recently taken place between the relevant officials in the Department of Justice and Equality and the Department of Social Protection and further discussions with other relevant Departments will take place shortly. The Tánaiste intends to develop these policy proposals with Government colleagues in the coming weeks, including the technical details of how the male same sex adoption issue can be addressed in the Family Leave Bill, and have it published later this year.
Returning to the motion before the House, clearly the question of costs will be a key consideration in the context of any forthcoming legislative proposals. The Government, as I said, is not opposing the motion before the House and we believe the State should support families at a time when the pressures of nurturing a new life can be daunting and stressful. However, we need to closely examine the costs of any legislative proposals, in conjunction with the Department of Social Protection and the Department of Public Expenditure & Reform. In relation to the substantive point – extra maternity leave for mothers of premature babies – the Department of Social Protection has provided some preliminary and tentative costings on what this might involve. Obviously, the weekly cost to provide for all premature babies at week 37 would be much more than the initial weekly cost for the smaller number of babies that are born very prematurely, at week 24, 25, 26 and so on. But we have an obligation to conduct detailed costing work to establish what such reforms would cost for the Exchequer and employers. We also need to define in law precisely what is to be regarded as a premature birth and what extra provision is to be made. Insofar as there is such a thing as a normal birth, it is generally taken to be 39 weeks, with a preterm birth in the medical world being taken as any birth in week 37 or earlier. Births in week 37, however, are not so unusual as to be abnormal and most babies born at that time are healthy and without significant additional support needs. Clearly births at week 24 are in a radically different category and one of the issues it would be important to tease out at a policy level is how one defines in law that category of births that are so early that significant additional support needs arise for the child and the parents.
There is more work to be done before the Government is in a position to suggest legislation on this point and my Department will consult closely with the Department of Health and with the Department of Social Protection and other Departments in formulating precise proposals.
So, as I mentioned at the start, the Government is not opposing the motion. We would instead like to place on the record of the House our intention to address the substantive issue raised in the Family Leave Bill and I look forward to the support of the House when these proposals come to be debated.