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Orla O'Connor: New tax on maternity benefit will make a bad situation worse

FOR many working parents, but particularly for mothers, working outside the home means a continuous trade-off between costs and benefits, between necessity and choice.

Most women now work outside the home. Fifteen years ago, 44pc of women were part of the labour force. In 2012, the figure was over 52pc.

However, the impact of having a child on women working is considerable.

According to the EU, in 2011, the employment rate for women in Ireland was 85.7pc for a woman with a husband or partner but no children.

It plummeted to 51.5pc for women whose youngest child was aged between four and five years. OECD figures suggest that employment rates for women with three children are as low as 42.3pc.

The National Women's Council of Ireland (NWCI) is very aware of the challenges for mothers who both work inside and outside of the home.

The availability of good-quality childcare is an acknowledged requirement for working parents, particularly women. In Ireland, childcare costs remain exorbitantly high by international standards, largely because of very poor levels of public investment.

Public spending on childcare and early education as a percentage of GDP is among the lowest in the OECD. The average is about 0.7pc, with some countries, such as Iceland, Denmark and Sweden, as high as 1.4pc.

In Ireland, we spend about 0.4pc. Consequently, childcare costs in Ireland are among the most expensive anywhere.

The OECD estimates the childcare cost in Ireland is 29pc of family net income, more than double the OECD average of 13pc and the third most expensive behind the UK and Switzerland.

The National Consumer Agency nationwide survey of childcare facilities found that the average cost of full-time care for one child was €181 per week. Mothers who have contacted the NWCI report prices between €800 and €1,100 for a full-time place, depending on where you live.

A survey carried out by the Irish Independent found that a creche place for one child costs more than average home repayments for many parents.

Despite the evidence of the barriers women face, the Government is not making life any easier.

CAMPAIGNED

Family-friendly policies in Ireland are also in need of government action and investment. The NWCI successfully campaigned for the extension of maternity leave to 26 weeks, which has made a significant positive difference for mothers.

However, there is still no statutory fathers' leave and parental leave remains unpaid.

The cuts to child benefit in successive Budgets have made the situation harder. And the recent introduction of the taxation of maternity benefit was a mean measure.

In their report, the Commission on Taxation noted that maternity benefit is intended to allow mothers to remain outside the workforce for a period to nurture their newborn children. It recommended leaving the payment outside of the tax net.

Despite this, the benefit will be taxed from July 1, which will hit many women, particularly those on low and middle incomes who do not receive a full salary top-up from their employers. The NWCI has recommended that the payment should only be taxed where a woman is receiving her full salary on maternity leave.

Mothers often make career choices based on balancing their care responsibilities and take the decision to work on a part-time basis. Almost 70pc of part-time workers are women and 36pc of women work part-time compared to 14pc of men. What is interesting is that increasing the economic participation of women is a core objective of government policy.

Clearly a significant shift is needed – where we invest in quality affordable childcare services and provide extensive parental, paternity and family-friendly policies that facilitate mothers and fathers to combine work and family life with ease.

This is not utopia, it is a reality for many working mums across Europe.

Orla O'Connor is director of the National Women's Council of Ireland

Irish Independent