Foreign prisoners’ benefits spark debate

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Political debate has erupted over reports in newspaper Aftenposten that foreigners serving time in Norwegian prisons can become eligible for Norwegian welfare benefits. “Utterly unacceptable,” shrieked opposition politicians in the Parliament, and the government had to agree.
Not only does the current Norwegian law on welfare benefits open up for health care and pensions for foreign prisoners, new EU rules may also make them eligible for other generous welfare schemes in Norway, like child care and disability.

Newspaper Aftenposten reported that Norway’s current Labour-led government had determined that under current law, foreigners sentenced to prison for at least 12 months in Norway become members of the state social security system (folketrygden) , even if they initially entered the country illegally.

That means they become eligible for health care benefits and, if their prison sentences are three years or longer, pension benefits.

The government’s legal interpretation of the law set off immediate howls of protest across a broad political spectrum, because it infers that people who come to Norway to commit crimes can benefit from their misdeeds. A professor at the University of Oslo, who’s the leading national expert on Norway’s social security system and welfare regulations, claimed, however, that the government was correct in its interpretation.”If you’re handed a prison term, and sit in a Norwegian prison, that’s considered legal residence permission,” Professor Asbjørn Kjønstad told Aftenposten . “Then you become a member of the social security system, with all the benefits that implies.”

In order to avoid having to pay out welfare benefits to foreign prisoners, Kjønstad said, the Norwegian Parliament (Stortinget) must change the current law and specifically state that serving time in a Norwegian prison shall not qualify as legal residence permission. Such a change, Kjønstad said, would likely also satisfy new EU rules that would further extend other benefits to those meeting legal residence requirements.

A change in the law now seems likely. While the Labour Ministry, in charge of carrying out welfare laws, initially defended its interpretation, Justice Minister Knut Storberget conceded that it defied most Norwegians’ sense of what’s right.

“It is, to put it mildly, most unfortunate that someone can build up pension rights by serving a lengthy prison term,” Storberget told reporters. “It sends a bad signal and doesn’t exactly help us fight crime by foreigners.”

Storberget, who also faced grilling by angry opposition politicians during the Parliament’s weekly question and answer session, said “we now must look at the possibilities for changing” the current legal situation. He stressed that the interpretation of the current rules hadn’t been up for political discussion by government leaders.

New Labour Minister Hanne Bjurstrøm also issued a press release later in the day that she “could see that the information in the media (about the benefits for foreign prisoners) can seem unreasonable and defy a common sense of justice.”