First head rolls in the NAV scandal

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A massive scandal within Norway’s state welfare agency NAV has already claimed thousands of victims. Now it’s spreading within NAV’s own ranks, with the director of welfare benefits resigning her post at the end of this week, and leaders admitting that public confidence in the agency has been severely weakened.

Kjersti Monland has earlier said she thought the government backed NAV’s strict practice in granting or revoking welfare benefits. PHOTO: NAV/Eivind Skifjeld

Management at NAV, which administers welfare benefits from pension pay to sick leave and unemployment benefits, also admitted in a press release Wednesday that “many employees of NAV” now have “a difficult workday.” Several have earlier complained to Norwegian media that they’re routinely yelled at, ridiculed or scolded by members of the public, many of whom are now skeptical about how NAV operates and are more likely to challenge NAV’s decisions. Sick leave among NAV workers has risen as the agency scrambles to correct mistakes it made over many years.

“In recent weeks NAV has received powerful criticism over how it handled EØS (European Economic Area) regulations tied to cash benefits,” NAV wrote in announcing that Kjersti Monland, who’s headed the benefits division, will “leave her post” as of Monday December 9. She’ll be replaced by Bjørn Lien, director of NAV’s inland region, at least on a temporary basis.

“I have come to the conclusion that it’s both necessary and correct to install a new leader who can take important work further, and strengthen the division in this critical phase,” Monland stated. She admitted that her division’s work in finally uncovering discrepancies between EØS regulations and how NAV interpreted them “should have been handled differently and we should have done it more quickly.”

Still has a job
Like many public sector employees, however, Monland won’t be left without a job herself. She’ll be able to continue in another position at NAV and retain “a central role in our development moving forward,” stated embattled NAV chief Sigrun Vågeng, who’s managed to hang on to ther own job so far despite calls for her resignation. Monland “will also make herself available” as NAV works to correct thousands of cases in which unemployment benefits and sickpay were halted and NAV clients were ordered to repay them because they’d traveled abroad. In some cases, welfare recipients were even sentenced to jail and branded as welfare cheats, even though EØS regulations allow travel anywhere within the European Economic Area.

Not only did NAV misinterpret the EØS regulations (which Norway is obliged to follow as part of its trade and policy agreement with the EU), it failed to recognize several court decisions on the issue and failed to own up to its mistakes until late October. The scandal has been called the biggest in modern Norwegian history, several investigations of how this could happen are now underway and an open hearing in Parliament about why alarms didn’t ring earlier is set to begin in mid-January.

More heads on the block
The government minister in charge of labour and welfare issues, Anniken Hauglie of the Conservative Party, is also under fire for not reacting more quickly when she was first made aware late last year that somthing was amiss at NAV. “We need to confront Hauglie in an open hearing, where everyone can see that questions aren’t being answered,” said MP Freddy André Øvstegård of the Socialist Left party (SV) last week.

Hauglie has acknowledged that NAV changed its practice earlier this year and started allowing those receiving benefits to travel within the EØS area. Several earlier cases, however, continued to be prosecuted, with some benefit recipients wrongly being convicted as late as this fall. Last week Hauglie refused to release minutes of a meeting she had with NAV boss Vågeng on October 25, three days before they finally went public with what many call “a travesty of justice.”

Hauglie claimed as late as last week that she still had confidence in Vågeng, while Prime Minister Erna Solberg has claimed she still has confidence in Hauglie. The public, however, has lost much of its confidence in NAV, which is serious in a heavily taxed welfare state like Norway. Many want to see more people held accountable for having branded innocent Norwegians as welfare cheats while NAV invested in doubling the numbers of those charged with weeding out fraud.

Others have noted how the EØS’ own monitors at the European Free Trade Association’s Surveillance Authority (ESA) failed to detect NAV’s misinterpretation of EØS rules. One legal expert, Jon Midthjell, thinks ESA needs to be questioned and examined as well.

“The ESA’s acquittal of itself is not credible,” Midthjell told newspaper Dagsavisen. More inquiries are likely as the NAV scandal spreads.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund