The Reds Party has become the first to propose a lack of confidence vote in the government minister responsible for Norway’s scandalized state welfare agency NAV. Labour Minister Anniken Hauglie’s head could thus become the first to roll, unless she fires NAV boss Sigrun Vågeng first.
The two are already quarreling in full view over the scandal that sent scores of Norwegians to jail for alleged welfare fraud they did not commit. On Monday, the leader of the rapidly growing Reds Party, Bjørnar Moxnes, urged his fellow Members of Parliament to join him in declaring a lack of confidence in Hauglie that would force her resignation.
It’s unlikely the Reds will prevail since the leader of the largest opposition party in Parliament, Labour, thinks it’s “too early” to decide Hauglie’s fate. Jonas Gahr Støre doesn’t yet share the Reds’ evaluation that the extent of the NAV scandal, which began seven years ago when Labour still held government power, has increased during Hauglie’s term as the government minister with political responsibility for NAV.
The welfare agency, it emerged last month, has misinterpreted EU and EEA regulations at least since 2012. That has resulted in at least 48 and, as of Monday, possibly 78 people being wrongly sentenced to jail because they traveled to other EU/EEA countries while receiving unemployment benefits, sick pay or other welfare assistance. Norwegian regulations don’t allow travel outside the country, but the EU allows free movement of goods, services and people anywhere within the EEA (European Economic Area). Norway’s trade and policy agreement with the EU obliges Norway to follow EU policy.
At least 2,400 other residents of Norway who traveled abroad without requesting special permission in advance from NAV are likely to be owed compensation for punitive fines or benefits that were withheld.
Probes have begun
Several investigations into the scandal are underway. Hauglie and Vågeng, meanwhile, have recently been pointing fingers at each other. They’re disputing each other’s version of when they first became aware of NAV’s misinterpretation, which finally was detected in a few court cases dating back to 2017. Others have suggested both Hauglie and Vågeng overlooked the EU/EEA rules because they undermined Norway’s.
Moxnes told newspaper VG on Monday that he’s basically lost patience with the discrepancies. He claims it’s “clear that the NAV scandal is the result of political will, and an unwillingness to clear it up.” He said the Reds have chosen to put forward a lack of confidence vote because:
*** the ministry “instructed” NAV in February of this year not to go through old cases (to correct past wrongs) but rather to simply “change practice” and start allowing Norwegians to travel within the EEA, of which Norway is a part.
*** Hauglie allegedly was told on August 30 that it was “probable” many Norwegians were convicted for welfare fraud and sentenced to jail on an incorrect basis. It took two more weeks (after municipal elections on September 9) for Hauglie’s ministry to meet with NAV, then another five weeks before the state prosecutor’s office was informed.
Hauglie, meanwhile, has maintained that she wasn’t told about a possible misinterpretation of EU/EEA law until around Christmas of last year, and that it wasn’t until August 30 that her ministry was told by NAV that people could have been wrongly convicted. Alarms sounded, but at least two more alleged welfare fraudsters were sentenced and called in to start serving jail time in September and early October.
“Hauglie has not done what we should be able to expect of a government minister after Norway’s biggest legal scandal ever has landed in her lap,” Moxnes claimed. “And nothing suggests that she’s capable of cleaning up after this scandal.”
Støre wouldn’t rule out an eventual lack of confidence vote in Hauglie, but he’s not ready for one yet. Both the Parliament’s own disciplinary committee is investigating the scandal as are an independent commission and various internal government and administrative entities. Prime Minister Erna Solberg has insisted there will be “full investigations” into all aspects of the scandal.
Others worry that will take too much time. NAV’s own immediate response has already resulted, however, in repayments of more than NOK 1 million to 57 people who’d wrongly been ordered to refund NAV benefits. An internal task force at NAV is working from early in the morning to late in the evening to tackle the cases where it’s clear mistakes were made.
The biggest questions involve what Hauglie and Vågeng knew, when they knew it, and whether Hauglie withheld information from Parliament. Moxnes is already convinced Hauglie is responsible for “the biggest travesty of justice” in recent times. Colleagues from the government’s four non-socialist parties that hold a majority in Parliament are likely to back her up, while both Labour and the Socialist Left (SV) seem inclined to wait with a lack of confidence vote until more details emerge. The Center Party also wants “more facts on the table” before they’ll join in any call for Hauglie’s resignation.