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Minister McEntee speech on Dáil Private Members Bill: Temporary Extension of Maternity Benefit in 2020

Dáil Éireann – 14 July 2020

 

I move the Counter-Motion:

 

“That Dáil Éireann:

notes that the public health emergency has caused significant hardship and stress across our population, not least parents and children, and acknowledges the issues raised by the  #ExtendMaternityLeave2020 campaign established by mothers currently on maternity leave and by the National Women’s Council of Ireland’s support of the campaign.

recognises that support for families as we begin to reopen is of paramount importance and welcomes the:

acknowledges the many advances made in enabling work-life balance for parents in recent years:

 

 

Welcomes the fact that the Government proposes to examine in early course, as part of the budgetary process:

 

It is entirely understandable that new mothers are seeking an extension of maternity leave and benefit due to the Covid-19 pandemic. These have been a strange and stressful few months for us all, and being at home with a new baby, without the usual support systems must have been extremely challenging. Not having grandparents, siblings and friends around to share the joy and the work of minding a newborn is difficult and I think everyone in the House today can recognise this.

 

The Government is acutely aware that families across the country have suffered during the pandemic, and that social distancing is especially hard when you are caring for a young child and have to be cautious about every social interaction.

 

However, the Government is of the view that a temporary enhanced entitlement to maternity benefit is not the most appropriate measure to address these concerns. 

 

The change being sought is complex from a legal perspective. Adopting the proposed measure would require me, as Minister for Justice and Equality, to bring forward primary legislation to amend the Maternity Protection Acts 1994-2004, in order to provide that women who had already started or completed their maternity period would be entitled to take a further 13 weeks’ leave. The Minister for Social Protection would also be required to amend the Social Welfare legislation Consolidation Act 2005 (as amended) to provide for the associated payment of maternity benefit at €245 per week for the period of any extension.

 

The amendment would require legislation to have a retrospective effect.  Retrospective legislation is extremely rare and can raise constitutional issues. In addition, there may be legal difficulties in identifying the relevant cohort to which the amendment would apply.

 

There are also practical considerations for how such an extension would, in fact, be implemented in circumstances where some mothers may have already returned to the workplace or are intending to in the very near future.

 

An extension to Maternity Leave, while benefiting a small number of people, would also impact on others, most obviously on employers who are already struggling with the impact of Covid19 on their workplaces, and on other employees, who may themselves have had to manage complex childcare arrangements during the last three months, as many in this House will have done.  Any time we introduce a change in the mandatory leave arrangements for employees, we have to consider these impacts and we have to try and achieve the right balance between home life and work.  That is all the more important now given the extraordinary changes to working arrangements that the whole country has undergone. It would not be a responsible act as Minister to add a significant additional element to the challenges that business managers and employees, in particular in SMEs, are facing to resume their work during the COVID-19 pandemic. These are businesses struggling to stay open and keep their employees healthy and working. The issues they are likely to face have been raised with me. I know that they are concerned about the additional burden this proposal would place on the businesses and on their employees.

 

That being said, this Government is firmly committed to enhancing the time that parents can spend with their new children but we want to do so in a way that the benefits, and any resulting burdens, are spread widely and equitably between mothers and fathers and don’t come as an unexpected additional burden to our key SME sector. So the Government is proposing to advance the extension of Parent’s Leave and Benefit to five weeks for all parents of children born on after 1 November 2019, as an alternative to the temporary targeted extension of maternity leave and benefit. The proposal will enable every eligible parent of young children to spend additional time with their child in the future. I’m sure deputies will agree that this is a more desirable outcome than a reform limited to a specific group and a specific time.

 

Parent’s Leave and Benefit was introduced on 1 November 2019 with the commencement of the Parent’s Leave and Benefit Act 2019. The Act allows for a possible extension of the period of Parent’s Leave and Benefit. An order can be made by the Minister for Justice to provide for an extension of Parent’s Leave. This can be done with the consent of both the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. The making of such an order requires prior approval of both Houses of the Oireachtas.

 

In addition to leave for parents that is already in place – such as maternity and paternity leave - the legislation provides an individual entitlement for each parent for a child born or adopted on or after 1 November 2019.

 

The Parent's Leave entitlement is currently two weeks leave for each parent, to be taken within 52 weeks of the birth or placement of his or her child. Parents may also be entitled to Parent’s Benefit which is paid at €245 per week for two weeks. This is the same rate as Maternity Benefit.

 

An extension of Parent’s Leave and Benefit will have a positive impact on family life. Evidence shows that children benefit from being cared for and spending time with both parents, particularly when they are very young. Parent's Leave provides fathers with an opportunity to participate in the care of their child at this young age.

 

Given that paid Parent’s Leave cannot be shared between parents, an increase from two weeks to five weeks in effect provides an additional six weeks per family.

 

We also intend to extend the period in which the leave can be taken, allowing the leave to be taken in the first two years’ of a child’s life rather that the first year, as is the case at present.

 

These changes would apply to all new parents once the reforms are approved and the parents of children born in the pandemic will be eligible to take the leave at the same time as all other parents, once the budget 2021 process is completed in November.

 

The proposals contained in the counter-motion will be considered part of the Budget 2021 process, coming into force thereafter.

 

I and the Government understand the difficulties faced by new parents who cared for their babies during the pandemic but we believe that the measures we intend to introduce in the Budget will go some way to helping those parents.

 

I commend the motion to the support of the House.