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James Reilly seeks extra month of split parental leave

Minister for Children wants extension as part of wider childcare reform package

Minister for Children Dr James Reilly. File photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish Times

An additional month’s split parental leave is being sought by Minister for Children James Reilly in budget negotiations as one of a number of first moves in a wider childcare reform package.

The Coalition had already signalled a move towards a full year’s leave during the first 12 months of the child’s life – split between both parents – as part of a long-term plan to be implemented over as much as 10 years.

However, sources said the first steps in extending split leave are being sought by Dr Reilly in his negotiations with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform.

It is understood talks involving the Department of Children and the Department of Public Expenditure are still taking place between officials and have not yet reached a political level.

Moves to extend shared parental leave in this budget would indicate a desire on Dr Reilly’s behalf to speed up the pace of introducing the year’s split leave.

‘Early days’

“It would be less than a month,” said one source of what is being sought by Dr Reilly. “It’s still early days. Decisions haven’t been made.”

However, it is unclear if there is available funding to accede to any such request, with Minister for Finance Michael Noonan and Minister for Public Expenditure Brendan Howlin again warning their Cabinet colleagues to rein in their demands for increased spending.

Mr Noonan, Mr Howlin, Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Tánaiste Joan Burton have said the Coalition will not spend more than €1.5 billion in the budget.

Both Labour and Fine Gael have identified childcare as a key election issue, and TDs and Senators at both parties’ recent think-ins said moves must be made to invest in the area in next month’s budget.

Currently, mothers are entitled to 26 weeks’ maternity leave with the option of an additional 16 weeks’ unpaid leave.

Employers are not obliged to give any special leave to the father. However, pre- and after-school care have been identified as the initial areas of priority, as well as merging four childcare schemes which provide subsidised day care to 35,000 babies and toddlers.

Mr Noonan last week said the budget should be viewed as the first of a second term in office, rather than the last of a first term, adding it would put in place a number of policy initiatives which could be built upon over a number of years.

It is likely childcare would be seen as such an issue.

Poor access

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”.

Coalition sources have previously said choosing to split a full year’s leave – 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 as possible with their child during its first year.