Budget 2014: Paid parental leave boost, free GP visits to under-13s

02:20, May 15 2014

Paid parental leave is being increased gradually to 18 weeks and doctors visits will be free for under-13s under $500 million of new Budget measures to support families.  

Labour Minister Simon Bridges said paid parental leave, currently 14 weeks, would be extended by a fortnight in April 2015 and another fortnight in April 2016.

While the move was widely expected, and is subject to public consultation, the leave will also be granted to new parents who have recently joined a new employer, have more than one job or fall under approved permanent foster arrangements.

"The changes will ... ensure New Zealand's parental leave framework better reflects modern working arrangements and today's diverse family structures," Bridges said in a statement.

About 26,000 families take paid parental leave each year, with Bridges estimating the cost of the extension at $141 million over four years.  

Extending the programme to "home for life" foster parents, and other similar permanent arrangements, will see another 600 families become eligible for paid parental leave, costing $12.1m over four years.

New employees who work more than stipulated minimum hours will also become eligible.

"Under the extension, this group of workers will not automatically have their job held open for them, but will be able to get parental leave payments if they work a minimum number of hours over a specified period," Bridges said, claiming the change would see another 800 become eligible for the leave, costing $18.7m over four years.  

The rules around working during paid parental leave will also be relaxed, a move Bridges said was designed to allow parents to take part in training activities or planning days.

"Making parental leave more flexible will mean people could, for example, work an occasional day during their leave period without jeopardising their entitlement," he said.

"Flexibility promotes connection to the workplace and encourages employees to maintain skills, which can be beneficial to both the employee and employer."

Other parent friendly measures will see the parental tax credit increased from a maximum of $150 a week for eight weeks, to $220 a week for 10 weeks. The move is targeted at lower income families, because parents cannot claim both the credit and paid parental leave. According to Budget documents, some 1200 additional families would be better off under the credit than paid parental leave.

Free doctors' visits and prescriptions, currently offered for children up to six years old, will be extended until children turn 13.

"Primary school-aged children can go to the doctor for free, any time of the day or night, and get their prescriptions free as well," Health Minister Tony Ryall said.

An additional $155.7m will be spent to help early childhood education centres remain affordable and meet demand. In 2014-15 $33.2m will be spend to help vulnerable children, including eight new teams nationwide to identify and work with at-risk children and families and to screen people who work with children.

Labour has proposed increasing paid parental leave to 26 weeks, a move it is attempting to advance through Sue Moroney's private members' bill. While the bill is believed to have enough support to pass in the House, National is filibustering the move and would almost certainly use its financial veto if it were to pass.

Today's announcement may be pragmatic, with the latest stuff.co.nz/Ipsos political poll showing only moderate support for an extension. Asked if they thought extending paid parental leave would be good for the country, only 45.4 per cent of respondents said yes. Asked whether it would help their own family, only 32.3 per cent said yes.