A group of 20 TDs have called on the Government to extend maternity leave benefits for women who were on maternity leave at the height of lockdown measures to stop the spread of Covid-19.
The TDs will this Thursday present a petition signed by 20,000 people in support of the proposal, which also enjoys support from the National Women’s Council of Ireland (NWCI).
People Before Profit TD Brid Smith is also seeking a way of putting a motion before the Dáil supporting the extension of leave and benefits. However, currently opposition TDs cannot place motions before the Dáil.
Ms Smith said women on maternity leave during lockdown had been left “isolated” from many of the support services offered to new mothers and newborn children, and were also struggling to secure childcare in many instances, as creches are further curtailing already-scarce facilities for younger children. So-called baby rooms are often uneconomical to run because of the carer-child ratios required for the care of very young children.
Alongside Ms Smith, the measure is being supported by Independent TDs Thomas Pringle, Danny Healy-Rae, Cathal Berry, Catherine Connolly, Michael Fitzmaurice and Marian Harkin, as well as Cian O'Callaghan of the Social Democrats, Aontú leader Peadar Toibin, the six Labour Party TDs, as well a Solidarity PBP's Gino Kenny, Richard Boyd Barrett and Mick Barry, alongside Rise TD Paul Murphy.
Claire Scully, a Laois nurse who had a baby in February, said she became involved in the campaign after finding it difficult or impossible to access normal post-natal services. "We all missed out on post-natal checks, development checks for kids, a lot of the vaccines have been delayed."
She now wants maternity cover and benefits extended to give her time to bond with her baby in a less stressful and demanding time, access services and arrange childcare.
Orla O’Connor, Director of the National Women’s Council of Ireland, which is supporting the campaign, said visits from public health nurses had frequently been interrupted, while mothers had not been able to join breastfeeding or other support groups. “They felt extremely isolated and that they had lost out on all of this.”
“On top of that, all their other children are at home, partners at home, and the piece about having time with their new baby was gone. They felt stressed and highly anxious and wanted support,” she said.
While maternity benefits are paid and administered by the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Minister Regina Doherty has indicated that a decision to extend the period of maternity leave for employees would have to be implemented by Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan.
In response to a parliamentary question put down by Ms Smith, Ms Doherty said extending the period of maternity leave for employees by three months would cost in the region of €134 million. “It should also be noted that there are additional significant costs to the Exchequer as these estimates do not include the costs of salary top-ups and substitution in the public sector.”
Ms Smith said she felt the cost “is small considering the social good and impact it will have on new mothers and their children”. She said she was hopeful of securing the support of Sinn Féin for the motion, which would bring the number of TDs supporting the campaign to almost 60.
A spokesman for the Department of Justice said Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan is “very conscious of demands on parents at this time”. He continued: “Any amendments to the Maternity Protection Acts would likely require primary legislation, and this will be a matter for the incoming Government.”
A spokesman for the Department of Social Protection referred queries to the Department of Justice.