New commission for NAV complaints

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Prime Minister Erna Solberg vowed at her annual pre-holiday press briefing on Tuesday that her government will “clean up” after what she readily admitted is a “scandal” at state welfare agency NAV. Efforts will also include formation of a new commission that will be set up to handle any complaints over the compensation that’s already being paid back to those who were wrongly prosecuted for welfare fraud.

Prime Minister Erna Solberg is setting up an additional commission to handle complaints tied to the NAV scandal. PHOTO: Statsministerens kontor/Eirin Larsen

“The word ‘scandal’ is often used in political exchanges,” Solberg told reporters gathered in the goverment’s guest house adjacent to her residence, “but this case actually deserves that word.” For at least seven years, NAV violated European Economic Area (EEA) rules that allow receipt of welfare benefits in another EEA country, resulting in a scandal “like none we’ve ever seen,” Solberg said. Norway’s misinterpretation of the EEA rules (which Norway must follow as part of its trade and policy agreement with the EU) spread over the country’s political, administrative and judicial sectors.

“The government will get to the bottom of this,” Solberg declared. “Every stone will be turned, we’ll get all the facts on the table.” She noted how several investigations are already underway, while NAV itself is identifying those affected by the scandal for compensation. Solberg also claimed the state has expanded its offer of free legal aid for NAV victims.

“The government will also, in the near future, set up a commission that will handle compensation complaints that may come up,” Solberg said, adding that she and her government colleagues were highly aware that the NAV scandal has damaged Norwegians’ traditionally high confidence in state authorities.

Need to rebuild public confidence
“We know that confidence is easy to tear down, but takes a long time to build up,” Solberg said. “We’re starting that job, and we’ll work hard to rebuild confidence.” While all the investigations into the NAV scandal are important, it’s most important to clear and compensate the more than 2,400 Norwegians whose benefits were halted and were ordered to repay benefits received while they’d been staying in another EEA country. At least 85 people are now believed to also have been wrongly convicted of welfare fraud, nearly half of whom were sent to jail.

NAV itself just unveiled results of its own initial internal probe of the NAV scandal, which involves not only Solberg’s Conservatives-led government that’s held political power since 2013 but stretches back several years to when the Labour, Center and Socialist Left parties ruled. Newspaper Aftenposten reported on Tuesday that Labour’s former government minister, Dag Terje Andersen, has been drawn into the NAV scandal.

Labour Party veteran was the government minister in charge of NAV in 2008-2009 and a member of former Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg’s cabinet from 2006 until he became President of the Parliament from 2009 to 2013. He now leads the Parliament’s disciplinary committee but told newspaper Aftenposten that he sees no paradox regarding his own early role in the NAV scandal. PHOTO: Arbeiderpartiet/Bernt Sønvisen

Andersen was in charge back in 2008, when NAV asked his ministry for its own interpretation of the EEA rules, and whether they should apply when Norway’s own rules restricted export of welfare benefits. They never received a clarification, with Andersen’s ministry responding that NAV had an “independent responsibility” to follow legal decisions on the matter itself.

In documents sent from Andersen’s ministry to NAV in 2009, after a second request from NAV for help, the ministry wrote that it couldn’t see “any general need for signals from the ministry” regarding the EEA rules, even adding that they would not lead to any relevant material rule changes.” Andersen referred to that as “the same misunderstanding from 2004,” just before the Labour government in which he served took control in 2005.

Andersen, now a Member of Parliament for Labour and leader of its disciplinary committee, told Aftenposten that “all” of Norway’s political parties are responsible for the “misunderstanding” of how EEA rules can affect Norwegian law. In this case they overrode Norway’s own law on export of welfare benefits, while benefit recipients were prosecuted under Norwegian law.

While there have been other examples of Norwegian politicians passing the buck on the NAV scandal, Solberg seems intent on “making things right” for all those who’ve suffered unjustly. She also noted how she’s instructed all her ministries to monitor their interpretations of EEA rules that can override Norwegian policy in their areas of political responsibility.

Not just NAV on Solberg’s agenda
Solberg touched on a variety of other issues during her press conference, noting how fully one-third of Norwegians are likely to have new addresses after January 1 as a result of municipal mergers. Many have been controversial, while several county mergers have been forced. Solberg insists the goal is still to improve public services through consolidation and economies of scale, and to spread power from the state to more local levels. The number of Norwegian municipalities will shrink from 422 to 356.

She claimed that “things are still going well in Norway,” in terms of economic growth, low unemployment, more job creation and a huge pension fund built up on oil revenues over the years. She cited an “historic boost” in building up defense capabilities and terror preparedness.

“2020 will be a new year with new opportunities,” Solberg said, to maintain a “safe and sustainable welfare state.” Despite enormous criticism of Norway’s oil industry and her government’s support for it, she claimed Norway would meet its emissions reduction goals for 2030, even though it never has before.

Solberg otherwise seemed to look forward to some time off over the Christmas and New Year holidays, and urged reporters to do the same: “We all need a little break, so that we can meet with renewed work spirits and new ideas in the New Year.”

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund