Averil Opposes Cut to Maternity Benefit in the Seanad

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Fianna Fáil is strongly opposed to section 5. For the second year in a row, working mothers have been targeted for huge cuts in maternity benefit. Last year, the payment was taxed for the first time with the result that many women lost an incredible €2,700 over the course of one maternity leave period of 26 weeks. In this Bill, the payment is being cut by €32 per week for over 90% of claimants. Between budget 2013 and budget 2014, new mothers will have been hit for an astonishing €3,500. These are women who have worked and paid PRSI – it is a PRSI payment – so they have paid their social insurance. As the Minister pointed out earlier, it is one of the few payments that is available to self-employed women on the self-employed stamp. These are people who have worked and made their PRSI contributions. It is an incredibly expensive time in family life. Having infants is extremely expensive in terms of all the additional costs put on families. Now they are being hit for €3,500.

It is a savage cut. The National Women’s Council described it as anti-women and anti-family while Barnardos described it as anti-parenting, callous and unsupportive. It was one of the worst cuts to target young mothers in this budget and the previous one. Many women simply will not be able to afford to take the full six months of paid maternity leave and will be forced to return to work early, which is bad not only for themselves, but also for their children. In terms of child care provision, the early years strategy and where we are trying to go in terms of prioritising investment in children at the youngest possible age, the first year is crucial. Ireland only has six months paid maternity leave when best practice internationally is to pay a year so that women can spend the crucial first year at home with their children. Not only do we only pay for the six-month period, we will now make it even harder for women to take that period.

Some women will be hit harder than others. Public sector employees will not be hit at all because the State will pick up the tab so female civil or public servants at least have some comfort in knowing that they will still get their full maternity pay when they are out on leave. A total of 75% of large companies pay top ups to ensure their female staff are able to get their full pay while on maternity leave. The number of companies doing this even among our largest employers has dropped considerably. Some surveys show it has dropped by 25% since 2008 because companies are cutting back in this area due to other financial pressures. In respect of women who work in small companies, only one quarter of SMEs pay top-up maternity pay so the majority of women who are in low-income employment or who work for small companies will not get any top ups so they will struggle financially as a result of these cuts.

It is crazy that this group is singled out in such a savage way by the Government. The Minister made the point about protecting core rates in all the budget commentary and in our earlier debate today. That is fine but I do not think there is any group that has not been cut for other ancillary payments at this stage. How can the Minister say that core payments to women on maternity leave have been protected when they have been cut by €3,500? It is an incredible cut that is really unfair, which is why we are opposing this section. I appeal to the Minister to look at it again because it is really savage. Over 45,000 women will be affected between last year’s cut on the taxation side and this year’s cut in payment. It is crazy to cut it by that amount.

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