25 September 2014

"Families and Work: A Chance for Change" - Speech by Minister Fitzgerald

Speech by the Minister for Justice and Equality at the "Families and Work: A Chance for Change" Conference, European Parliament Building:

"I am delighted to be here with you all this morning.  Firstly I want to pay tribute to the National Women’s Council, Start Strong and ICTU for hosting this event and presenting us with an opportunity to debate this important but often neglected topic.

I also want to thank Peter for his informative and thought provoking address.

The first and most important thing is that families matter. They're the building blocks of a great society.

That's why, as Minister for Children and Youth Affairs I made sure the National Policy Framework for Children and Young People contained a commitment to evaluate current policy on how we support families.

In that context,  maternity, parental and carers are pivotal, crucial essential.

it is a fully accepted fact that development in the early years is a key determinant of the child’s future learning capacity, the ability to choose right from wrong, the ability to interact with others, develop trust and respect for other people. Parental leave is key in supporting that early learning.

Ireland has one of the highest fertility rates in Europe.  This is a very positive and important fact for future economic development and social cohesion of our country.  Falling birth rates are a concern for many European countries. The capacity to create good family support systems is therefore particularly important in this country.

All of which says parental, maternity and carers leaves are important.

But they're not simple.

The various Family leave legislation protects individuals from discrimination when accessing such leave.  However there remain cultural challenges and it is without doubt women of a children-bearing  age are viewed differently than male colleagues by certain employers. The evidence may be anecdotal, but that doesn't mean it's inaccurate. This is an area for constant vigilance.

Families now have different expectations and changing parenting roles than previous generations. The majority of fathers are keen to play an active role in family life.  We should support this better sharing of caring duties.

One of the key obstacles is that many parents of young children struggle finding suitable and adaptable childcare.  It is worth noting approximately €260 million is invested annually by the Government specifically to support the provision of early childhood care and education.  The childcare programmes of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs support the provision of childhood care and education for more than 100,000 children each year.

Over the last years we have seen extraordinary growth in the numbers of women in employment with women now accounting for over 45 per cent of all those in employment in Ireland. Despite this positive trend, women continue to be grossly over-represented in part-time employment.

The high percentage of women employed on a part-time basis (some 35 per cent of all female employment) likely reflects their need to balance work and family life. As just 14 per cent of men in employment are employed on a part-time basis we must question ourselves continually about the reasons for this.

The economic recession led to large numbers of men becoming unemployed. As a result, the dynamic of some family households has changed considerably whereby the woman has become the main or sole breadwinner and the man has taken on the childcare and domestic role. But does society and culture support men and their family’s in making such choices?

Normalising the equal sharing of care responsibilities has a positive impact  inside and outside the home. Women should be encouraged to fulfil their potential in the labour market while men should be supported in taking a more active role in caring for dependents. Nearly forty years after the introduction of maternity leave we need to take a long look at statutory paternity leave for fathers.

The sharing of family and caring responsibilities is a pre-requisite to promoting true gender equality in the labour market and to allowing both parents to undertake a caring role within the family. It's a “win-win” situation. A win-win for  families. Equally a win-win for the economy.

In modern society it is a reality that both parents will often work outside the home. The availability of quality, affordable and accessible childcare, including for after school and atypical hours, is essential to help to support parents in choosing the best options for their families and for their careers.  According to the National Longitudinal Study of Children Growing Up in Ireland  27% of 3 year olds were in centre-based childcare. 

Where are the other 73%? In some informal arrangement? Probably. Many young women end up working part time or leaving the workplace completely when they have young children – because of a lack of supports. The most recent CSO figures  show that more than 55% of women aged 25 – 34 have a third level qualification. 

It's all about choice. If working part-time or taking time away from the workforce to take care of your children works for you -- great. 

National policies including parental leave provide unpaid leave of 18 weeks to parents to care for children. Recently revised parental leave legislation also provides parents the option when returning for such leave to request a change in their working pattern.

However I also want to ensure that when they return to full time work the opportunities are there.  This period out of the workforce should not damage their future career.

The Family Leave Bill in early 2015 will consolidate maternity, adoptive, parental and carer’s leave into one piece of legislation.  This will assist all practitioners in this areas including employers and employees. 

As you know in 2013 the Government agreed not to oppose a Private Members Bill presented in the Seanad by Senator Mary White.  However during the debates in the Seanad my colleague Minister Kathleen Lynch addressed the concerns of Government these include ;

·        the compulsory entitlement to 14 weeks leave for fathers is created without any qualification and without giving the mother any choice.  A mother currently has 26 weeks leave which attracts maternity benefit.  This Bill would reduce that to 14 weeks without any consultation with the mother. The provision of maternity leave was long and hard fought for by women over many years. This new right is given to fathers regardless of whether there is a continuing relationship between the parents or making any contribution to his child’s support. Nothing in this proposal should weaken the rights of women and I am sure all of you agree with me regarding this point.

·         The Bill also requires the mother and father to take the leave at separate times.

 I understand that following the Seanad discussions Senator White agrees that this approach is too prescriptive and that we need to find another way of achieving the principle of what is our shared objective.

The most glaring flaw I see in our current  legislation is the lack of support for fathers around the birth and early days of their child’s life.

We could address this through a dedicated period of paternity leave.  Organisations in the private and public sector already provide a short period of such leave.  It is common  across Europe. 

Another  option is to  examine parents sharing existing maternity leave.  The UK and France  are introducing legislation to encourage fathers to seek parental leave to care for a new baby by offering six additional months of paid leave if taken by the second parent.

There has to be a period of compulsory leave for the mother for health and safety reasons – current 6 weeks in our system (2 weeks before the birth and 4 weeks afterwards).  I favour an approach whereby the mother remains in control of the leave, but can decide to share some of it after the compulsory period with her partner. 

Such a flexible system would help to create a system of parental leave that works for modern lives and respects a family’s right to choose how to care for their children. 

This flexibility would also enable working fathers to take a more active role in caring for their children and help towards reducing the gender bias that currently applies to women’s careers. One concern I have regarding this approach would be that it might be considered as a “watering down” of maternity leave and employers would place pressure on mothers to return early from maternity leave.  The introduction of any sharing scheme must not be - or be seen to be - a dilution of existing provision.

Of course finding the money's going to be hard, whether in the public or private sector.

But we mustn't start there. It's our duty to aim at the ideal, not be halted by negative possible implications. 

When maternity leave was introduced over 30 years ago all sorts of doom and gloom was predicted – it did not happen.

I welcome this debate and I am delighted to engage with you all. My colleague Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, Minster of State for Equality, New Communities and Culture will also speak to later this morning and my officials are also here today.  I see today as a starting point in discussions which I hope will lead to change and better reflect the Ireland that our families live and work in today."