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There has been much discussion in the media in recent weeks about the possible introduction of both paternity leave and shared parental leave. Some of the debate has been triggered by the work of an inter-departmental working group on “childcare” policy, while some relates to the ongoing preparation of the Family Leave Bill.

It is by no means clear what reforms, if any, the Government will introduce. What is clear is that there is confusion about the different types of leave, and about how Ireland compares to other countries. In this article, we try to bring some clarity to the discussion.

Family leave in Ireland

“Family leave” refers to leave entitlements for working parents and guardians that allow them to take time off work to care for family members, often their children. In Ireland, it includes maternity, adoptive, parental, and carer’s leave.

Working mothers with a newborn child are entitled to Maternity Benefit for up to 26 weeks, paid at a flat rate of €230 per week, which may be supplemented by employers. At the end of paid leave, mothers can take up to 16 weeks’ unpaid maternity leave.

Both mothers and fathers are also entitled to 18 weeks’ parental leave, which is unpaid, and which can be taken at any time until a child is eight years old.

There is no statutory provision in Ireland for paternity leave, which is normally defined as leave that fathers can take immediately after a child is born. Many fathers in the civil service and public service can, through their terms and conditions of employment, take a few (typically three) days’ paternity leave, and some other employers also offer it, but most fathers have no such entitlement.

Ireland in European context

If we add together the different forms of family leave, parents across Europe are on average entitled to 19 months of paid leave after the birth of a child. The extension of leave entitlements has reflected the growing research evidence on the beneficial outcomes, for a child, of a parent caring for the child for at least the first 12 months of life.

In Ireland, the only paid leave available is maternity leave, which lasts just six months. The total duration of paid family leave in Ireland is the fourth shortest in Europe.

While paid maternity leave in Ireland is longer than the European average (four months), we do much worse than most European countries in relation to other types of family leave.

In particular, Ireland is one of only five European countries that has no paid parental leave (or other paid leave) that can be taken immediately after maternity leave. And Ireland is one of only nine European countries that has no paid paternity leave.

The level of payment for Maternity Benefit is also low by international standards. Ireland is one of only two European countries that provides no well-paid leave, where “well-paid” is defined by the European Commission as leave for which payment is at least 66% of previous earnings.

In some areas, Ireland provides just the minimum entitlement required by EU law, such as the 18 weeks of parental leave without payment.

Legislative developments

In 2012, Alan Shatter TD, then Minister for Justice and Equality, announced Government approval for the drafting of a Family Leave Bill, but a series of delays means we are still awaiting it. The Bill is currently scheduled for autumn 2015; however, the election timetable may yet mean that we do not see the bill at all in this Dáil term.

When Minister Shatter made the announcement, he said the Bill would do two things: transpose the EU Parental Leave Directive into Irish law (extending parental leave from 14 to 18 weeks), and consolidate all family leave legislation into one accessible Act. With publication of the Bill delayed, the Government used a Statutory Instrument to transpose the EU Directive in March 2013, just before an EU deadline.

That left just one, technical, aim for the Family Leave Bill: to consolidate existing legislation. However, several Government Ministers—including the current Minister for Justice and Equality, Frances Fitzgerald TD—have spoken since then about the possibility of introducing reforms through the Bill, including the expansion of leave opportunities for fathers.

Most recently, both the Minister of State for Equality, Aodhán Ó Ríordáin TD, and the Minister for Social Protection, Joan Burton TD, have said the Government is looking at introducing two weeks’ paid paternity leave, for fathers to take just after the birth of a child.

Next steps

So, the aims of the Family Leave Bill may now extend beyond merely consolidating existing laws, though some changes—such as paid paternity leave—may be introduced through financial measures in the Budget, rather than in the Family Leave Bill itself.

In its 2013 report to the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs (‘Right from the Start’), the Expert Advisory Group on the Early Years Strategy recommended that the Government should introduce paid parental leave—to be taken by either mother or father, after the end of paid maternity leave. Referring to research evidence on the benefits for children, the report recommended that paid parental leave should be introduced incrementally so as to achieve one year’s paid leave after the birth of a child. The Expert Advisory Group also called for the introduction of two weeks’ paid paternity leave.

A similar proposal for 12 months’ paid leave recently surfaced in the media, supposedly as one of the options being considered by the inter-departmental working group on “childcare” policy.

It is unclear at this stage what option the Government will choose. But with growing political interest in longer and shared leave entitlements, and with provision in Ireland falling further behind our European neighbours, there is at least the possibility of some reform being announced in 2015.

PAI will be hosting a seminar on Family Friendly Working Arrangements on Wednesday 17 June 2015. Speakers will include HR Consultant Sile O’Donnell and Solicitor of employment law Catherine-Ellen O’Keeffe. This seminar will provide a practical outline of statutory entitlements, policies and working arrangements that enable men and women in achieving a better work life balance. For more information, call 018198500, or visit the Public Affairs Ireland website.