Paid paternity leave could be provided for the first time under new laws being drafted by the Justice Minister, Frances Fitzgerald, who said fathers need more support in sharing duties to care for children.
“Nearly 40 years after the introduction of maternity leave we need to take a long look at statutory paternity leave for fathers,” she said.
Ms Fitzgerald was addressing a conference in Dublin which heard that Ireland is one of the few countries that does not provide any paid leave to fathers and is “lagging behind” its European counterparts in leave entitlements for parents.
A leading international expert on the issue, Peter Moss of the University of London, said six months’ maternity leave, six months’ paternity leave, and six months’ shared leave would be the ideal provision for parents in Ireland.
Ms Fitzgerald said while extending leave entitlements would cost money, encouraging fathers to share in the caring role could be “win-win for the economy”.
Addressing the conference, Families and Work — A Chance for Change, she said: “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.”
In what was seen as a warning to businesses, likely to oppose the move, she said when maternity leave was introduced in Ireland “all sorts of doom and gloom was predicted”.
A Family Leave Bill is currently being drafted by her department and is likely to be published next spring. The initial plan by her predecessor, Alan Shatter, was to consolidate existing laws on maternity, parental, and carers’ leave.
However Ms Fitzgerald left open the possibility of extending the provisions, saying: “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.”
Another option could be the sharing of existing leave between both parents, as is in France and Britain.
Ms Fitzgerald said she had concerns this could lead to the “watering-down” of maternity leave and “employers would place pressure on mothers to return early from maternity leave”. She warned: “The introduction of any sharing scheme must not be — or be seen to be — a dilution of existing provision.”
Ms Fitzgerald also said “without doubt, women of a children-bearing age are viewed differently than male colleagues by certain employers”.
She said: “The evidence may be anecdotal, but that doesn’t mean it’s inaccurate. This is an area for constant vigilance.”
The minister of state with responsibility for equality, Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, said parental leave was a “top priority” for him.
He said it was “a bit cold” if the best the Government has to offer was a return to the bond markets and to be “the best little country in the world to do business”.
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