Norway’s state welfare agency NAV has erred in its intepretation of how welfare payments can be received while residing abroad. Nearly 40 people have thus been wrongly convicted for alleged violations, leading to what one top commentator was calling a “scandal of major proportions.”
The welfare payments include sick pay and unemployment benefits paid to recipients resident in Norway but temporarily staying in other countries in the European Economic Area (EEA/EØS), of which Norway is a member. An internal audit of NAV’s practices revealed that the rules haven’t been practiced correctly by NAV since new EU rules took effect in 2012.
As many as 2,400 people who “took their benefits with them” abroad, but had permanent residence in Norway, have wrongly been ordered to refund the money or even been sentenced to jail for welfare fraud.
“Several people are wrongly cited, and several have been convicted or received some other punitive response,” said Anniken Hauglie, the government minister from the Conservative Party in charge of labour and social issues, at a press briefing on Monday. Both she and NAV director Sigrun Vågeng publicly apologized for the errors, not least because of how it has affected peoples’ lives.
“This is very serious and troubling, and I apologize in the strongest of terms,” Vågeng said. Hauglie admitted on state broadcaster NRK’s national nightly newscast Dagsrevyen Monday that “this is a near you can come to a scandal,”
Hauglie told NRK that it was disturbing “how this could have occurred over so many years without NAV, the courts or prosecutors having recognized the error, given the consequences this has had for people.”
Retiring state prosectuor Tor-Aksel Busch cited at least 48 incorrect court verdicts because of how EU rules weren’t applied. “Many people have served jail time who should not have been convicted,” Busch said. “Now we must do what we can to make up for that.”
Everyone whose sick pay and unemployment benefits were revoked because they were abroad can now file claims for full compensation of the money that should still have been paid out. Vågeng vowed that NAV would put lots of resources into handling claims and refund payments as quickly as possible.
“This is a high priority,” Vågeng said in a prepared statement on Monday. “We will make amends in cases where we have made a mistake.” Many people already viewed as having grounds for a claim will be contacted by NAV directly.
Several Members of Parliament were also upset that innocent people have been convicted. “That’s had great consequences for the individual, their families, their careers and for their social status,” said Erlend Wiborg of the Progress Party. Audum Lysbakken. leader of the Socialist Left Party (SV), called it a “catastrophe” for those involved. The leader of the Reds, Bjørnar Moxnes, said his party would evaluate a lack of confidence vote in Hauglie.