A bill is making its way through the Oireachtas (the Irish parliament) that would bring shared parental leave to the Republic of Ireland. The Shared Maternity Leave and Benefit Bill would allow parents to split the first 26 weeks of maternity leave between the mother and a "relevant parent," usually the father.
Unfortunately for expectant Irish parents, this news comes on the heels of disappointing data from the UK on the leave's popularity in its jurisdiction. With fewer than 5% of eligible participants in the UK availing themselves of the new benefit, Westminster has responded by investing £1.5m to publicize the scheme.
However, reports from the ground indicate that the issue seems not to be an awareness problem but an inability/reluctance of fathers to partake in the scheme due to financial pressures and practical issues (such as the mother requiring the vast majority of the initial paid leave for rest and recuperation, or the demands of breastfeeding). In short, the scheme largely does not work in achieving its aim of facilitating shared parental responsibility and women continue to take on the vast majority of childcare responsibilities, staying out of the workplace for longer than their male counterparts.
It is hard to see how an Irish scheme could avoid the same fate if it is structured almost identically to the UK counterpart. In fact, Ireland may have built a fatal flaw into its rules. As the bill is currently drafted (it is still being debated) only the first 26 weeks of "ordinary maternity leave" is available to the father compared to the UK entitlement of 52 weeks. From research to date, the fathers who do take up shared parental leave in the UK usually do so in the latter half of the additional maternity leave. From a practical perspective this makes sense, as the mother will often want to spend the first few months breastfeeding and/or recuperating. With only the first 26 weeks available to be split between the parents, will this be another barrier to those who wish to cooperatively care for their children using the parental leave system?
Altogether, this leads to a hard question being asked – should it be introduced at all in Ireland right now? There is general agreement that shared parental leave is a positive step towards creating a more modern workplace, enabling parents to have greater flexibility in the care of their children. However, with the UK being a direct comparator in terms of how it works in practice, perhaps the Irish government should learn from others' mistakes and try to fix them. Introducing a shared parental leave regime that is known to be flawed does nothing but pay lip service to equality. Surely it is better to fix a flawed system before it is introduced, rather than overhaul it on the fly?
The Irish government should be looking closely at what is required to ensure shared parental leave is a useful tool in the gender equality arsenal. The uneasy truth is that the government needs to invest considerable resources to ensure parents are not taking an unsustainable financial hit when choosing to share caring responsibilities. A properly funded childcare scheme and an employer's ability to recoup generous maternity pay from Revenue (Ireland's inland revenue department) is what is realistically required to get this scheme off the ground in a meaningful way. Whether any Minister for Finance will ultimately support this goal remains to be seen.
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