Saturday 24 August 2019

Cormac McQuinn: 'How the minister sparked gender war rather than addressing the issues around paternity leave'

Regina Doherty. Photo: Frank McGrath
Regina Doherty. Photo: Frank McGrath
Cormac McQuinn

Cormac McQuinn

It was an announcement made with great fanfare by Social Protection Minister Regina Doherty on Tuesday.

Up to 60,000 parents a year are to benefit from two weeks' extra parental leave from November. The State will offer parents €245 per week for the leave, the same rate as maternity and paternity benefit. This may be voluntarily topped up by employers if their staff are on a higher salary.

And the Government's intention is to extend parental leave further to seven weeks by 2021.

On the surface, it is a very positive development for new parents who want to spend more time with their babies.

But remarks by Ms Doherty questioning fathers' motivations in not taking up existing paternity leave benefits sparked a well-deserved backlash.

She seemed more intent in starting a gender war than addressing the glaring problems with the current parental leave system and the futility of extending it without solutions.

Under the existing scheme, 60pc of new fathers don't take paternity leave.

The dilemma for parents essentially boils down to this: yes, it's great that the option to take leave is available but can they afford to if they're supposed to get by on as little as €245 a week? This is, after all, an era of sky-high rent or mortgage payments.

And while the public sector may top up salaries for parents on leave, only a minority of private companies do so.

There have already been fears that small businesses won't be able to cover the cost of top-ups.

Meanwhile, even in Government, Education Minister Joe McHugh expressed concern at the bill for topping up the salaries of teachers taking the leave.

The Department of Public Expenditure last night confirmed if the decision is taken to top up the €245 payment for public servants, the estimated annual cost for the full seven weeks would be €132m.

That includes the top-ups and "unavoidable cost" of staff substitution in front-line areas. A decision on the issue of top-ups in the public sector is to be made ahead of the Budget.

But aside from issues of the cost to the State, the Government's plans were overshadowed by Ms Doherty's remarks.

In comments branded as "insulting" by parents and the Opposition, Ms Doherty claimed there's a narrative that the sums on offer in the scheme aren't enough for men to take time off work.

"It doesn't seem to have stopped women from taking maternity leave for time immemorial," she added.

It came after she was keen to highlight the 'use it or lose it' aspect of the new parental leave benefit.

Dads will not be able to transfer their two weeks of parental leave to mums.

The minister said she hopes this will "incentivise fathers to take more time off work to care for their children than has been the case up to now".

Ms Doherty has not directly addressed criticism that highlighted the financial reasons that are the cause of many fathers not availing of the paternity leave.

Public Expenditure Minister Paschal Donohoe was careful not to throw his Fine Gael colleague under the bus when he was asked about her remarks yesterday. However, he also stopped short of agreeing with her suggestion that money worries are not the reason for low paternity leave take-up.

He insisted the new policy will make a "real difference" but could only offer a vague promise that: "Of course we'll continue to look at are there any reasons for why it cannot be availed of."

The Government said up to 60,000 parents will benefit from extended leave next year.

If existing paternity leave trends are replicated, around 36,000 fathers won't avail of the extra time off. In many of the cases it will be because the couple has decided they simply can't afford it. It's unlikely Ms Doherty's remarks - which missed this crucial point - will encourage them to do so.

Irish Independent

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