An internal review has resulted in Norway’s state welfare agency admitting to several “possible reasons” for why it wrongly accused thousands of Norwegians of welfare fraud, many of whom were fined and jailed. It pointed to a lack of competence regarding EU regulations, inadequate personnel capacity to handle cases, along with misunderstandings and poor communication both internally and externally.
“This is a serious case,” embattled NAV director Sigrun Vågeng stated at a press conference that brought swift reaction from beleaguered NAV employees. Several declared that they raised questions about NAV’s interpretation of the EU rules Norway must follow as a member of the European Economic Area (EEA). “Are Norwegian citizens EEA citizens?” they asked according to the review itself. Do the EU rules allowing export of benefits apply only when you live in another country, but not when you’re just staying there? NAV management, however, didn’t respond to or follow up on their questions and concerns.
‘Collective misinterpretation’ involving more than NAV
Vågeng admitted that NAV misinterpreted EU rules, which allow residents of EU and EEA countries to take welfare benefits including sick pay and unemployment benefits with them if they travel to other EU or EEA countries. NAV’s insistence that such travel was not allowed led to court cases that also involved misinterpretation of the rules, and landed many defendants in prison. Vågeng attributed it all to “a collective misinterpretation,” adding that “NAV takes it share of the responsibility.”
NAV’s internal probe is just the first of many into what’s shaped up as one of the biggest scandals in Norwegian history. Vågeng still, however, seems to have no intention of resigning her position, claiming instead that she wants to stay to “clean up” and help the state agency recover.
Labour Minister Anniken Hauglie still has confidence in Vågeng, while nagging questions continue over whether Hauglie and the rest of the Norwegian government consciously avoided taking any questionable cases to the European court that handles intepretation of EU rules. Newspaper Klassekampen has reported that NAV asked the government in January for permission to change its practice (of prosecuting those who traveled outside Norway while receiving benefits) because a Norwegian court had raised questions and wanted to consult the EU court.
Hauglie reportedly told the parliament’s disciplinary committee earlier this week that her ministry didn’t think it was wise to consult the EU court because it would likely refer to the EU’s main principle allowing free movement of people, goods and services within the EU. That in turn would jeopardize Norway’s own restrictive policy of not allowing welfare benefits to be exported.
‘Purely political evaluation’
“For the first time we have received the reason as to why they didn’t take the issue with the EU court,” Freddy André Øvstegård, a Member of Parliament for the Socialist Left party (SV) told Klassekampen. The government clearly didn’t want NAV to change practice, and wanted to hang on to Norway’s own rules.
Øvstegård accused Hauglie and the government of all but making NAV the scapegoat in the scandal. “A purely political evaluation is behind all this, not a professional or judicial evaluation,” he said. He believes the government didn’t want to risk getting an EU decision that would crack down harder on NAV than they wished.
Hauglie told news bureau NTB on Thursday that NAV’s internal report shows that it has faced “major challenges” within the agency. She said that management of NAV will be improved and that she’ll look into whether NAV’s competence in interpreting EU/EEA rules needs to be improved.
Most believe that’s already clear, and that many other Norwegian agencies need to boost their competence regarding the rules they must follow as well, even when they collide with Norwegian regulations. “The NAV scandal has shown that Norwegian authorities haven’t managed to understand the consequences of decisions made within the EU system,” editorialized newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN).