The introduction of a full year's paid parental leave, split between both parents, is under consideration as part of a new childcare package from Minister for Children Dr James Reilly.
Choosing to split the year – which could be divided however the parents wish – may also entitle parents to bonus weeks of leave to encourage each parent to spend as much time with their child during its first year.
The European Union has consistently highlighted childcare as a problem in Ireland and has described poor access to childcare, as well as its high cost, as "a significant barrier to parents finding employment and avoiding the risk of poverty".
A group established by Dr Reilly is examining various options to make childcare affordable and introduce a more structured system which would allow more mothers, in particular, to re-enter the workforce.
Dr Reilly’s group is due to report by the summer, and efforts at tackling childcare are likely to follow in October’s budget.
The initial phase is likely to focus on after-school care, and the Coalition has also agreed in principle to the introduction of a second year of free pre-school, although this is unlikely to happen during this Government’s term.
Sources said the split parental leave initiative was being examined by Dr Reilly’s group but stressed no decisions had yet been made. Final proposals from the group will have to be agreed by Government.
A move on parental leave may be a part of election manifestos for a second term of office, as an element of a broad childcare strategy to be implemented over a number of years.
While individual measures will only be introduced as they can be afforded, a source said: “You are clear about what the destination is and what that would look like.”
Currently mothers are entitled to 26 weeks’ maternity leave with the option of an additional 16 weeks’ unpaid leave. In her speech to the
Party conference in February, Tánaiste Joan Burton said that by the end of the year the Government would “set out the steps that will enable us to introduce two weeks’ paid paternity leave”.
Those close to the childcare reform process say the provision of leave in Ireland is “on the lower end of the scale”.
One source said: “What some systems do is say: here is a period of parental leave. You have to take these minimum periods but you guys decide how you want to split it up. And, actually, if you split it we’ll give you a couple of extra weeks.
“We will certainly be looking at the issue of leave. A year is what we know from research is good for kids to be at home. At the moment, we’re at half a year so you might be looking at trying to cover some of that distance between the two. Our breastfeeding rates are also low and people often tie those two things with the ability to be at home from work.”
In Britain, new rights to allow parents share leave come into effect this week. Aside from an initial two weeks of maternity leave for the mother, up to 50 weeks of leave and 37 weeks of pay can be shared between parents.
While Dr Reilly’s group is working on a range of proposals, it is acknowledged that the most underdeveloped area is after-school care.