Expectations were high when Norway’s government minister in charge of labour and social welfare strode to the podium in Parliament Tuesday morning. Anniken Hauglie responded by issuing an official apology to all those wrongly accused of swindling the welfare system, and she promised full compensation for their losses.
Hauglie also promised a full external investigation into how government officials, those running the state welfare agency NAV and not least the courts could all have misunderstood EU regulations that Norway is obliged to follow, as a member of the European Economic Area (EEA/EØS). While Norwegian law requires recipients of welfare benefits to be physically present in Norway, EU regulations allow recipients to freely travel within the EEA and they override the Norwegian rules. All those whom Norway wrongly prosecuted and even jailed for having traveled to other EEA countries while receiving benefits can now expect compensation and that their criminal records will be overturned.
“I have called this all a scandal from the first day, and I stand by that,” Hauglie told Parliament. She openly admitted that there had been a systemwide “incorrect misunderstanding” of the EU rules in Norway.
“On behalf of the government, we beg your pardon,” Hauglie said in a message to those prosecuted for the misinterpretation that continued for at least the last seven years if not longer. “The state will make up for this,” Hauglie vowed.
‘Grave consequences for many people’
Hauglie also promised that “every stone will be turned” in the looming investigation. First, though, it’s most important to track down all those wronged, clear their records and compensate the financial losses they’ve suffered in terms of suspended benefits and fines, as quickly as possible.
“It’s clear that this (the scandal) has had grave consequences for many people,” Hauglie told Parliament. The conservative coalition government of which she’s a member has also announced plans to also offer free legal assistance to the so-called “NAV victims,” to make sure they receive the help and financial compensation they’re due.
Her clear and direct presentation “of what we know as of today” seemed to satisfy most Members of Parliament, also within the opposition. They are all well-aware that the “misunderstanding” of EØS rules began with a clarification of EU rules in 2011-2012, when the former left-center government led by the Labour Party had political control and responsibility for NAV.
It’s also been argued that the EU’s principle of freedom of movement over EU/EEA borders has applied to Norway since it joined the EEA/EØS in 1994. No one can understand how the EU rules allowing export of benefits across borders could have been overlooked by the administrative, political and judicial branches of government for so long.
Criticism has also been lodged against the European Free Trade Association’s Surveillance Authority (ESA) for failing to crack down on Norway long ago. Paal Frisvold, a Norwegian who has worked for the EFTA secretariat and led Norway’s pro-EU organization Europabevegelsen, told state broadcaster NRK that Norway “has used all the tricks in the book” to ward off the ESA and delay implementation of EU rules over the years. He also claimed ESA has let itself be pressured by Norway.
Problems began with Labour’s own minister
Labour Party leader Jonas Gahr Støre, who consistently defends Norway’s often-criticized EØS agreement with the EU, was restrained in his criticism of the current government. He realizes that the current government continued to follow the intepretation set by the former Labour-led government and Labour’s minister in charge of NAV, Hanne Bjurstrøm, more than a year before the current coalition won government power in late 2013. Støre even thanked Hauglie for her status report of the situation on Tuesday, and for her apology on behalf of the government.
Only one MP, Bjørnar Moxnes of the Reds Party, raised the possibility of proposing a lack of confidence vote Hauglie. Others noted that it wasn’t just NAV that made mistakes, but also prosecutors and the courts that upheld NAV’s charges against innocent welfare recipients.
Party leaders responding to Hauglie’s address still want a better accounting, though, of why it took NAV so much time to recognize and admit to its mistakes, and then take more time to inform Hauglie’s ministry and, ultimately, the state prosecutor. MP Audun Lysbakken of the opposition Socialist Left party (SV) surprisingly thanked Hauglie for her accoount and her apology. At the same time he criticized how NAV seemed to be more preoccupied with going after people believed to have cheated the system than in making sure people who need help get it.
Concerns were raised that NAV may not be able to continue functioning with the current leadership that carried on mistakes from the past. NAV boss Sigrun Vågeng is due to retire next year. Calls were going out that other NAV managers may need to leave as well, in order to restore public confidence in the agency that’s responsible for distributing everything from welfare benefits to sick pay and pension payments.