Seanad Éireann - Volume 184 - 27 June, 2006

Adjournment Matters. - Social Welfare Benefits.

  Mr. Browne: I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Gallagher, to the House. I recently called to a constituent who explained that her daughter was born with a serious birth defect. She literally requires 24-hour care, seven days a week. She made a simple point to me. In her case, where she must constantly supervise her child, would it not make more sense for her to be given extended paid maternity leave? If she had left her baby in hospital to be looked after, she argued, it would have cost the State a fortune. Instead, she was doing the State a service by taking on the enormous responsibility of looking after her daughter, constantly. Yet the State is, in effect, giving her a slap across the face by not giving her extended paid leave.

As it happens, she works for the health board, so that she is in a better position than many other people might be in the circumstances. I thought it was a very valid point she raised. I do not have any children, but I am appreciative of her position, based on the experience of my sister, whose son has a serious allergy complaint. He required an enormous amount of supervision and care for the first few months of his life. It would make sense in the case of a baby born with a serious birth defect that the normal paid maternity leave should be extended to allow the mother or father to look after the child properly.

She also made the point that the domiciliary allowance is a pittance relative to what she should normally be getting. I want to put on record the fact that she is saving the State money by minding her baby at home. The Government should give serious consideration to this proposal. It does not necessarily affect her personally because she is a public sector employee and is lucky enough in that sense. I was struck by the amount of care and effort she put into looking after her child. The State should recognise that and should allow people the option of getting paid maternity leave in such serious cases. She has not slept a full night [495]since the baby was born. The State should look seriously at this proposal.

  Mr. Gallagher: I thank the Senator for raising this issue and I apologise on behalf of the Minister for Social and Family Affairs, who cannot be here.

Entitlement to maternity benefit is contingent in the first instance on entitlement to statutory leave. The right to statutory maternity leave is established under the maternity protection legislation, which is the responsibility of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform. Where women have accrued the requisite number of contributions required to establish entitlement and they are certified by their employers as entitled to statutory maternity leave, maternity benefit is paid for 22 weeks of their absence from work. Any changes in the duration of maternity leave and the circumstances under which the duration could be extended are for the Minister to consider in discussion with the Minister for Finance. Entitlement to maternity benefit would normally follow.

The question of entitlement to maternity leave in situations where a new baby is hospitalised for an extended period after birth, and the implications arising from that situation where entitlement to maternity benefit and maternity leave is of a defined duration, was considered by the social partners in the context of a review of the maternity protection legislation in 2001. They recommended that in the event of hospitalisation of the child, the employee should be able to return to work after a minimum of 14 weeks maternity leave, retaining her entitlement to take the balance of her leave when her baby is discharged from hospital. With effect from October 2004, the legislation was amended to provide for these situations. Where maternity benefit has been in payment for a minimum period of 14 weeks, payment may be postponed where the baby has been hospitalised. The legislation requires that an application to postpone payment must be made in writing; that the maximum postponement of benefit will be six months, and that payment will resume within seven days following written notification of the baby’s discharge from hospital. Payment will then resume until the full duration of the benefit is completed.

The question of extending the duration of maternity leave to cater for children born with particular needs who require full-time care for the first year of life was not specifically considered by the social partners. However, the Department already operates a number of schemes that cater for the needs of carers in these circumstances.

The carer’s schemes provide both means-tested and social insurance-based payments. Carer’s allowance is a means-tested payment directed at carers on low incomes who live with and look [496]after certain people who need full-time care and attention. This includes those needing care due to advanced age, disability, chronic illness and the circumstances considered in this case. Carer’s benefit is a weekly social insurance payment that supports those who are entitled to statutory carer’s leave to give up their job temporarily in order to look after someone requiring care. This payment is based on the social insurance contributions paid by the worker who becomes a carer. Maternity and carer’s benefit payments serve as a non-means tested income transfer in lieu of earnings foregone during a period of statutory leave.

As with all other social insurance based payments, the criteria for eligibility require a recent link to the labour force, as reflected in the minimum number of contributions paid, and a number paid or credited in the period prior to claiming the benefit. Women who have accrued the required number of PRSI contributions at class A, E, H or S may establish entitlement to maternity benefit. Carer’s benefit is available to those workers who pay PRSI at class C, D, H and E. Where care is provided beyond statutory entitlement to leave, there is no provision for the payment of insurance-based maternity or carer’s benefits.

Starting from this month, the number of hours per week that a carer may work and receive a carer’s allowance is increased from ten to 15. The duration for payment of the carer’s benefit scheme is being extended from 15 months to two years, with an associated increase in entitlement to the statutory carer’s leave scheme. Improvements have also been made to the respite grant. Significant improvements have been made in the rates, duration and qualification criteria relating to the carer’s and maternity schemes. The Minister is satisfied that the levels of income support available represent a reasonable response to the income needs of women who are on maternity leave and caring. Any further improvements to the schemes would have to be examined in a budgetary context.

  Mr. Browne: I would like to make two quick points.

  Mr. Dardis: The Senator knows we cannot debate this matter.

  Mr. Browne: I know that, but I would like to make two quick points. The Minister of State referred to babies being hospitalised and the payment being temporarily suspended. My case refers to a child taken out of hospital and based at home who still requires round-the-clock care.

The scheme is based on stamps, but the person may not have the necessary stamps. If someone is to look after her baby at home on a full-time basis and the child needs 24-hour supervision, then the State should help that person. That person ultimately saves the State money because it [497]would cost ten or 15 times more if the baby was kept in hospital.

  Mr. Gallagher: I will convey that to the Minister.