Private Members’ Bill – Parental Leave (Amendment) Bill 2017
Dáil Second Stage – Thursday 08 February 2018
Minister of State’s Response to Deputy Shortall’s Second Stage Speech
I am happy to have the opportunity to join in the debate on the Parental Leave (Amendment) Bill 2017. At the outset, I’d like to say that this is a significant Bill and it is regrettable that pre-legislative scrutiny is not a feature of Private Members’ Bills. It is, of course, a feature of Government Bills, and allows for difficulties to be identified before Bills are debated at Second Stage.
I believe that this Bill could be greatly enhanced by having the benefit of a consultative process that would engage key stakeholders such as the National Women’s Council of Ireland, the trade union movement and the business sector. They have considerable expertise in this area. It would be very beneficial if the Justice Committee could undertake legislative scrutiny of the Bill and hold a consultative process with key stakeholders, and receive detailed briefing on the work underway h domestically and at EU level, including on gender equality. It is important that our policies in these areas are coherent in both a domestic whole-of-government- and EU context.
But tonight is an opportunity for Members to put their views on the record and I have been pleased to have the opportunity for this engagement. In particular, I am pleased to have the opportunity to update the House on the work underway in Government in this important policy area.
I commend the aim of the Bill. It seeks to support parents and to give families more options when it comes to meeting their childcare needs. I am sure that all of us in the House tonight are supportive of the tenets underpinning the Bill.
As presented by the Deputies, the Bill provides for the extension of the existing entitlement to parental leave from 18 weeks leave to 26 weeks leave, and creates a further entitlement to an additional 8 weeks parental leave for those parents who have already used their 18 weeks.
I am sure the majority of the members of the House will agree with me when I say that we must do our utmost to help and support parents. I can remind the House that over the past three budgets, the Department of Children and Youth Affairs has secured an increase in the childcare budget by an unprecedented 80%, reflecting the Government’s commitment to parents and children.
In 2018 alone, investment in childcare will be €487 million. This investment is being used to improve access to high quality, affordable childcare for approximately 170,000 children and their families. As the House will be aware, free pre-school provided under the Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) Programme has been extended. From September 2018, all children will be eligible for 2 full years of free pre-school education before transitioning to primary school. This delivers on a commitment in the Programme for Government.
In addition, a range of new and improved measures to reduce the cost of childcare was recently introduced. These include a non-means tested universal subsidy of up to €1,040 per year for children under 3 years of age and significantly increased targeted supports (of up to €145 per week) through existing childcare subvention schemes. These too deliver on commitments in the Programme for Government.
The development of the Affordable Childcare Scheme, which was announced in Budget 2017, will add to these measures. The Affordable Childcare Scheme will radically redesign how support is delivered to make high quality childcare more accessible and affordable for families in Ireland. This Scheme will replace all existing targeted childcare subvention schemes with a single, streamlined scheme that will provide the framework for increasing public investment in childcare over the years ahead.
Work on developing the Affordable Childcare Scheme is well underway. The Childcare Support Bill, which will provide the critical legislative underpinning for this Scheme is being considered in committee stage in Dáil Éireann shortly and the development of a new IT system is also being advanced.
The Government agrees with the Deputies as to the need to support families. It agrees with the Deputies on the principle of improving family leave available to parents. It is for these reasons the Government will not oppose the Deputies’ Bill this evening.
However, the Government believes that the focus should now be on introducing parental leave on a paid basis. I believe that the provision of paid leave will bring much greater benefits to parents and children at this stage than the further extension of unpaid leave.
The House will already be aware that the Programme for Partnership Government includes a commitment to increase paid parental leave during the first year of a child’s life, as research shows children benefit most from parental care in the first year of life. To further this commitment, the Government has established an interdepartmental working group to develop proposals to give effect to the Programme commitments. The key objectives of this group are to:
· Develop options as to the duration of the leave, the age of the eligible child, and the level of payment to be offered;
· Determine the usefulness of adopting a phased approach;
· Estimate the likely costs arising; and
· Align any proposals as much as possible with a European Commission Proposal for a Directive on work-life balance for parents and carers, which I will address next,
The group is currently working on a policy approach and I expect it to report with its proposals at the end of April.
The move to introduce a paid parental leave entitlement is aligned to the policy approach put forward by the European Commission in its proposal for a new Work Life Balance Directive. That Directive is currently under discussion at working group level under the Bulgarian Presidency of the EU. The Directive’s key proposal is that parental leave should be made available to parents on a paid basis. The Directive recognises that the provision of paid parental leave will be more effective and more appropriate in terms of encouraging fathers to share the caring role for their children and thus contributing to the promotion of gender equality.
The Directive is part of a package of EU measures aimed at addressing the under-representation of women in employment and supporting women’s career progression by creating improved conditions whereby they can reconcile their working responsibilities and family commitments.
We have to support families. However, we also have to promote the objective of gender equality. For too long, the majority of caring responsibilities has been shouldered by women. We now have to put policies in place that encourage fathers to share that caring role. Children do best when both parents are facilitated to take an active role in parenting them. It makes sense in terms of child welfare. Equally, it makes sense in gender equality terms. Women’s equality has been constrained within the workplace because of their caring roles. They often have not had the same opportunities – or pay – as men as a result. Women’s empowerment is a key theme running through our Programme for a Partnership Government
The then Tánaiste, Frances Fitzgerald T.D. and I launched last May the National Strategy for Women and Girls 2017-2020. The Strategy agreed by Government has as its overall goal, over its four-year timeframe, to change attitudes and practices preventing women's and girls' full participation in education, in employment and in public life, at all levels, and to improve services for women and girls, with priority given to those experiencing, or at risk of experiencing, the poorest outcomes.
The Strategy includes a set of actions specifically aimed at supporting parents. The Government has committed to providing a platform of parenting supports for families and working parents and has undertaken to publish proposals to expand paid leave in the first year of a child's life and to legislate for those proposals as soon as possible, as set out in in the Programme for a Partnership Government.
When it comes to improving and expanding our current family leave system, there are wider and more complex factors which I have set out above, that the Deputies’ Bill does not consider. Because of this, it would be remiss of me not to say that the Government has concerns with the approach proposed in the Bill.
Extending an unpaid family leave requirement would make it more likely that the lower paid of the two parents, often the mother, would take the unpaid leave, with consequent impacts for these mothers in terms of pay and pension entitlements. It potentially perpetuates the tendency whereby caring responsibilities are seen by employers as the responsibility of mothers rather than of fathers. This has negative implications in terms of gender equality and in terms of the opportunities potentially available to women within the workforce. Equally, only parents on higher incomes may have the resources needed to avail of the leave.
I feel very strongly that fathers should be facilitated to undertake a caring role for their children. I was proud to bring the Paternity Leave legislation through the House in September 2016 which provides two weeks’ paid paternity leave for fathers on the birth of their child.
The Deputies’ Bill, while laudable, does not take account either of the move domestically and at EU level to introduce parental leave on a paid basis or of the need to promote gender equality for fathers and mothers in terms of caring responsibilities. As I mentioned earlier, that is why I believe it is important that the Oireachtas Committee, which I myself chaired in the past, has the opportunity to scrutinise the proposals and their implications, intended and unintended.
We all share the objective of wanting to support families. As I mentioned in my opening remarks, the Government and every member of the Oireachtas are committed to providing the utmost support to parents and families in the State. I would remind the House that it was the then Minister for Justice, Equality and Defence, Alan Shatter TD who extended parental leave from 14 to 18 weeks, demonstrating the commitment of successive Fine Gael Governments to improving the entitlements offered to parents. Members of the House will also recall that only recently we introduced and passed legislation that provided additional leave and financial support to parents of children born prematurely.
Our focus is now on introducing parental leave on a paid basis. The benefits of such an approach for families and for children are obvious. I would urge the Deputies to work with the Government to see how we can develop legislation that builds on what is already in train in the EU and domestically. I believe that by collaborating on an agreed approach, we can develop legislation that responds more effectively to the needs of women, of men, of parents and children alike.
With this in mind, I would propose that if Deputies Shortall and Murphy are willing, I would like to meet with them in the coming weeks to discuss their proposals and to examine how their approach, and that of the Government’s and the European Commission’s proposal for a work life balance directive, once finalised, can be aligned for the benefit of all families.