CHECK AGAINST DELIVERY

Private Members’ Bill – Maternity Protection (Members of the Houses of the Oireachtas) Bill 2018

Dáil Second Stage Thursday 31 May 2018

Minister of State Stanton’s response to Deputy Rabbitte’s and/or Deputy Smyth’s Second Stage Speech

 

Ceann Comhairle,

I am happy to join in the debate on the Maternity Protection (Members of the Houses of the Oireachtas) Bill 2018 and I would like to commend Deputy Rabbitte and Deputy Smyth for bringing it before the House.

 

As presented by the Deputies, the Bill provides for female members of the Oireachtas to have an entitlement of 18 weeks of maternity leave and up to 8 weeks of what is termed “additional maternity leave”.

 

I note that the Maternity Protection Acts 1994 and 2004 provide for 26 weeks of maternity leave with an additional 16 weeks unpaid maternity leave.

 

In principle, I and my Government colleagues completely support the introduction of supports for Oireachtas members who become parents.  However, there are a number of fundamental issues that we need to tease out.  I will set these out in synopsis, then I want to elaborate on the wider context of Government policy to promote gender equality, then I will return to the Bill.

 

In short, there are legal questions to be answered and the Government will seek guidance in this regard and there are also questions which I want to put to the Bill’s sponsors and to the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission, who I understand are also doing some work in this area.

 

Firstly, I would invite the Bill’s sponsors to clarify the core aims of the Bill, having regard to the fact that Oireachtas Members as “office holders” are automatically entitled to a salary as a matter of law (with limited exceptions) from the period they sign the roll until they are no longer a member of either House of the Oireachtas, regardless of attendance.

 

Having regard to the constitutional concerns and the powers of the Oireachtas itself, I am also asking the Oireachtas Commission and associated Reform Committees  to advise on possible provisions, that could be made under Standing Orders to provide for maternity leave with particular reference to pairing arrangements and to identify the scope for amending these Orders and the work, if any, underway to ensure a family-friendly work environment.  I know the Ceann Comhairle has a particular interest in this area as he was the original sponsor of  a similar Bill in 2013.

 

The Government will seek advice as to whether it is constitutional to legislate for Members of the Oireachtas to be absent from duty and how they might be remunerated during any such absence. We also need to define what “absent from duty”  or “leave” means. Can a member on leave, for example, table Parliamentary Questions? How are constituents to be represented by a member “on leave”.

 

Should we be advised that there is no constitutional impediment, the question could then arise as to whether the appropriate statutory framework lies in the Maternity Acts 1994-2004 or the Oireachtas (Allowances to Members) Acts pursuant to the provisions of Article 15 of the Constitution or elsewhere.

Article 15 states:

“The Oireachtas may make provision by law for the payment of allowances to the members of each House thereof in respect of their duties as public representatives and for the grant to them of free travelling and any such facilities (if any) in connection with those duties as the Oireachtas may determine”.

 

I do agree that we should discuss this matter and indeed the related matter of paternity leave which the Government introduced recently and I’m glad to report there has been a good uptake.

 

All members of the House will, I am certain, agree with me when I say that we must do our utmost to support working mothers in the workplace in general.  Last May the then Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality Frances Fitzgerald and I launched 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 in order to encourage and support women 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.

 

I am also wholeheartedly supportive of the intention underpinning this Bill, that is to encourage women into public life, and to promote work-life balance in the workplace.  I am sure that this is view is shared by all members of the House.

 

The Nationals Women and Girls Strategy includes a set of actions specifically aimed at supporting parents. The Government has also 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.

 

I can also 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.

 

The development of the Affordable Childcare Scheme, which was announced in Budget 2017, will also improve matters. The Affordable Childcare Scheme will radically redesign how support is delivered to make high quality childcare more accessible and affordable for families in Ireland.

 

However, while the central intention of the Bill before us is sound, the Bill does not consider some important legal and procedural issues. One element of the Bill that I would suggest we need to look at is:

 

·         Whether there are provisions possible under Standing Orders, to provide for maternity leave with particular reference to pairing arrangements and to identify the scope for amending any such orders and the work, if any, underway to ensure a family-friendly work environment; the Bill makes no provision for pairing arrangements during the Member’s absence.  Such pairing arrangements can be complex, particularly where the Member is not a member of a political party. However, the absence of a Member potentially for 26 weeks could require some form of arrangement by the Oireachtas.  As such, the Bill could potentially  impact on the Standing Orders of the Oireachtas in respect of Members’ attendance or absence. 

 

It is also important to note that the Bill potentially affords Members of the Oireachtas an entitlement (to maternity leave) that is normally reserved for employees.  Members do not otherwise qualify for the various social welfare schemes in place to support workers when they are sick or on adoptive leave.  Equally, members are not covered by other workplace-related legislation such as unfair dismissal legislation or by legislation concerning the organisation of working time. The Deputies’ Bill, while laudable, potentially categorises Members as employees rather than as office holders.   

 

The Bill does not propose any arrangements to address the parliamentary or constituency business that would arise during the Member’s absence.  It does not consider how constituency representations or concerns would be handled during that period.  In this context, it would be important for the Bill to undergo a consultation process at Committee Stage to consider how business would be addressed and to consider the arrangements in place in other Parliaments.  The possibility of putting in place a system whereby a Member chose a substituted during the period of absence might be one means of addressing this issue.  To allow for substitution or an alternate might have constitutional implications. Of course if an alternate system was put in place it might be possible to allow the alternate to replace a member when vacancies arise through resignation or death. This could mean an end to by-elections – a really radical step. 

 

Perhaps given the implications for electoral law, this is an issue that could be considered by a Citizens Assembly. In the event of a member taking maternity or paternity leave it would be reasonable to expect that extra support would be put in place during the absence of the Member. This of course could have cost implications for the Exchequer.

 

In view of the concerns with the Bill and the issues which still need to be addressed, the Government is reserving the right to bring forward amendments to the Bill as appropriate. The issues arising will be conveyed to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice and Equality in advance of Committee Stage and to the Bill’s sponsors.

Thank you.