Around 3,500 Norwegian widowers are still owed pension money denied to them by a 1976 law that was ruled to discriminate on the basis of gender by a European court in 2007.
The implementation of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) Court judgment of four years ago is overseen by EFTA’s Surveillance Authority (ESA), which ensures that EFTA members conform to European Economic Area (EEA) directives to which they are also party. ESA was forced to call Norwegian authorities back into court just before Christmas 2010 after the country failed to follow up on the four year old ruling, something which the authority has never had to do before.
1976 law discriminated
The judgment regards a law passed in 1976, which legislated that widowers would receive a reduced state pension if they had a second source of income. The law applied only to widowers, and not to widows, which led the EFTA court to declare that this amounted to gender discrimination under EU directives that Norway is party to by virtue of EFTA’s cooperation with the EU through the EEA, which allows EFTA members to participate in the EU’s common market without formal membership of the EU. As the EEA was only founded in 1994, and therefore Norway only fell under the EU equality directives at that time, Norway was only forced to repay the widowers for any underpayment from 1994 onwards. The first complaints regarding the law were received by ESA a decade ago.
Speaking to newspaper Aftenposten, ESA’s Norwegian president, Per Sanderud, criticized the Norwegian government for failing to devote necessary resources to the issue. He stated that he “hopes that Norway will now put in sufficient resources” to follow up the case, adding that “this is a vulnerable group of elderly people, and therefore it is even more important that these wrongs are fixed quickly.”
650 die waiting for payment
The state pension authority confirmed to Aftenposten that around 3,500 widowers were entitled to back payment. Some 650 of these have died while waiting to receive the money. The government has confirmed that the inheritors of the deceased men will be paid. 900 widowers have already received around NOK 270 million (just over USD 50 million), and the state has now promised to pay all those owed money within the year.
A number of commentators were quick to criticize the government’s handling of the issue. Tor Henning Larsen, a representative of the Norwegian Senior Citizens Association, told Aftenposten that he “cannot understand why this has been so difficult to clean up,” adding that “it seems almost as if they have let time pass in order that the problem will be solved by natural wastage.”
‘It has taken too long’
The state secretary in the government’s employment department, Jan-Erik Støstad, confirmed that the Norwegian government had “agreed in principle” that the 1976 law was discriminatory from the beginning of the case, but that it had been “a complicated case without simple solutions.” He admitted that “the case has not been a high enough priority,” but emphasized that “we have now taken a grip of it.” He said that the government “can only apologize to those that had to wait,” adding that they “believe that it has taken too long.”
Støstad suggested that one of the reasons that the case took so long is that the pension services “must treat the cases manually, and each case takes four hours on average.” When asked why the government would not carry out back payments for the period between 1976 and 1994, the state secretary said that “there has been a collective judgment by reasonableness in the case,” and that the state “feels this is a favourable provision.”