Will they, won't they?
The Family Leave Bill will cover statutory leave provision in Ireland, so perhaps it is appropriate that waiting for it is like waiting for a birthday present - you don't know what you're going to get until you get it. Cian Molloy reports
WHEN it was first announced about two years ago that the Government would be publishing a Family Leave Bill, some of those who campaign for improvements in the welfare of children and parents got a bit excited. Organisations like Start Strong, the National Women's Council of Ireland and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) expressed the hope that the bill would lay the foundations for paid parental leave akin to that found in Europe. Under this system, parents can, in addition to maternity leave, take a year or more of paid leave to care for their children, all the while guaranteed a job to return to when the leave is complete.
The government reaction to these hopes was a bit like a sensible, but hard-up, parent, telling a child that perhaps what they really wanted was a new coat. Civil servants from several government departments have said that the new bill will only be a 'consolidation of existing legislation', a tidying up of anomalies to create a more coherent whole.
Until it is published, no one knows what the bill will contain, and we have already had one delay.
"It was supposed to be published last autumn," says ICTU equality officer David Joyce. "But now the Department of the Taoiseach says that it won't be published until this autumn. Our concern is that if there is an early election, the bill may never be published, but we are hoping that it will be."
Pre-publication excitement was sparked again this January when Labour politician Aodhan O Riordain, a junior minister in the Department of Justice and Equality, made a surprise announcement that he was 'confident' that the Family Leave Bill would include provision for two weeks' paid paternity leave. But the Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton has thrown cold water on that, saying such a measure would only be possible if the resources were there to pay for it. So we are back to the skint, sensible parent scenario.
The reaction to the possibility of paternity leave from employers' organisations was a bit mooted, with Patricia Callan of the Small Firms Association saying that paternity leave has not come up for discussion among the social partners (the interest groups the Government consults with before introducing work-place legislation). Callan told Mothers & Babies: "If statutory paid paternity leave is introduced, the pay will be provided by the Department of Social Protection, so there will be no direct cost for most employers, except that they will have the administrative headache of organising cover for that two-week absence.
"There is an issue for larger companies, where the practice is to top up maternity benefit; they will have to top up paternity benefit too in the interests of equality, so there will be a cost to them."
Of the 26 countries in Europe, Ireland is one of the nine that do not have paid paternity leave. While our 26 weeks of paid maternity leave is relatively generous, a large number of mothers are unable to take advantage of the additional 16 weeks of unpaid maternity leave available because they cannot afford to do without an income. That has a profound, lasting effect on children, says Toby Wolfe, Start Strong's policy and research officer. "The research shows again and again that one-on-one care for a child in a stable home environment for its first year of life produces better cognitive, behavioural and health outcomes in the child than the child being in group childcare. High-quality group childcare can work very well, but we all know that we have very varied standards in group childcare in this country."
At the moment in Ireland, in addition to maternity leave, a parent or guardian, male or female, can avail of the 18-week long parental leave scheme, which is unpaid and which can only be taken as a block with an employer's agreement. In fact, that 18 weeks is the minimum possible under European law. Several EU countries, in addition to maternity leave, have parental leave that lasts for three years.
In Ireland, the combined entitlements of maternity leave and parental Leave gives a total amount of family leave of 18 months, which is only half the European average of 36 months. Whatever the Family Leave Bill contains when it is published, there is no escaping the fact that Irish mums, dads and their children are overdue a measure that would allow them to enjoy and fully benefit from each others' presence.