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'Parents face stark choices': Three-week extension to parent's leave criticised as too little, too late

Sinn Féin is going to introduce a motion to the Dáil today calling for 12-week extension to paid maternity leave.

Image: Shutterstock/Stephan Schlachter

CRITICISMS HAVE BEEN made of the government’s decision to extend parent’s leave by three weeks – with critics arguing that this measure was already in the Programme for Government, and not being created in response to the challenges brought by Covid-19.

The additional parent’s leave would also not be available until November, after the Budget is announced in October, according to critics.

Due to the pandemic and the subsequent lockdown, hospital appointments were cancelled across the health sector – new mothers weren’t able to access supports or medical appointments for their newborns. 

There had been calls to extend maternity leave by three months by activists; this was to help families when support services and childcare providers weren’t available due to Covid-19 restrictions.

Leo Varadkar, who was Taoiseach at the time, said that he would give the request for extending parent’s leave due consideration.

Although the National Women’s Council of Ireland (NWCI) welcomed the extension of parent’s leave from 2 to 5 weeks and the fact that the extension also applies to fathers, it said that it doesn’t go far enough.

Speaking on Newstalk Breakfast, Orla O’Connor of the NWCI said that “what is needed is something that was immediate”.

O’Connor said that her understanding was that this was due to be announced in this year’s budget in October anyway; she also said that the parent’s leave extension wouldn’t be available until November.

The point of extending parent’s leave was that it would “take place very quickly,” so that mothers and fathers would “not to miss out on things” in that period.

“In many cases, women gave birth without a partner or loved one present, and faced into motherhood without family or professional support.

“Babies have missed developmental checks, vital scans, hospital appointments and even vaccinations have been cancelled or delayed,” she said.

Parent’s leave entitles each parent to 2 weeks’ leave during the first year of a child’s life. Parental leave entitles parents to take unpaid leave from work to spend time looking after their children. You can take up to 22 weeks’ parental leave for each eligible child.

Political parties’ responses

Sinn Féin’s spokesperson on social protection Claire Kerrane called for the extension of paid maternity leave by an additional 12 weeks for women who have had their babies during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Today, Sinn Féin will bring a motion to the Dáil calling for paid maternity leave to be extended by 12 weeks, Kerrane said.

This extension is necessary because of the exceptional circumstances of the pandemic and the difficulties faced by new mothers in securing adequate childcare.
Right now, new mothers need the support of TDs and the government. Many are struggling to find suitable childcare for young babies and are deeply anxious about being forced to return to work without appropriate arrangements in place.

“The announcement of a three week extension of parent’s benefit this evening by the Minister for Children is welcome, but this was always intended to happen next year.”

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Labour spokesperson for Employment Affairs Marie Sherlock said something similar, arguing that ”parents are still facing stark choices”.

“The extension in parental leave will not become available until November 2020,” she said.

This means that the crisis facing a number of parents who have exhausted all their maternity, paternity and parental leave and who cannot secure childcare for their young baby is not resolved. 

Social Democrat TD Gary Gannon said that the news was welcome, even though it doesn’t “fully address” the calls for 12 weeks additional leave for women who had maternity leave during lockdown.

“These women didn’t have access to many postnatal supports, and the three additional weeks will not fully address these issues,” he said.

He also argued that it was “crucial” that the new measure begins as part of the July stimulus, and not as part of Budget 2021 (to be announced in October 2020); and said that single parents should get “two sets” of paid leave.

“Additionally, while it is welcome that all parents can avail of this leave, meaning a two parent family can, after Budget 2021, avail of ten weeks paid parents leave, it is crucial that one parent families get two sets of this paid parents leave.

“The aim must be to work toward ensuring a child can remain with their parents in their first year of life, and one parent families must not be disadvantaged in this.”

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