News that the two top political and administrative leaders of embattled state welfare agency NAV were stepping down should perhaps have satisfied members of the opposition in Parliament. They’d signalled a lack of confidence in both NAV boss Sigrun Vågeng and the Conservatives’ Labour Minister Anniken Hauglie, but have since postponed presentation of their own conclusions over what’s widely viewed as the biggest welfare scandal in Norwegian history.
The Parliament’s disciplinary committee was supposed to present its conclusions in the case this week, after hearings last month, but now that’s been put off until later this month. “The political situation has changed,” Eva Kristin Hansen of the Labour Party, who’s handling the case, told newspaper Dagsavisen.
She was referring to how Conservative Prime Minister Erna Solberg already replaced Hauglie when Solberg’s majority government collapsed in January after the Progress Party withdrew from her coalition. It amounted to a pre-emptive strike by Solberg, since Hauglie faced a lack of confidence vote in Parliament, while Hauglie insists she’d asked to step down after several years in the high-pressure ministerial post.
Then the 69-year-old Vågeng announced she’d be leaving her post as NAV chief this summer, before she turns the manadatory retirement age of 70 in late October. “It’s correct for me to clarify this now,” Vågeng stated in a press release earlier this month. “My contract runs out in October. By giving plenty of advance notice, I hope I can contribute towards predictability in the work ahead. The work to find my replacement is already undersway.”
Vågeng’s voluntary resignation of sorts foiled any plans that the opposition might have had to effectively fire both Hauglie and Vågeng. It also gave Hauglie’s replacement, the new Conservatives’ minister in charge of labour and social welfare issues, Torbjørn Røe Isaksen, a chance to announce that he was “glad Vågeng would continue over the summer,” since there’s still “a big job ahead to clean up after the EØS case.”
He was referring to how NAV officials led by Vågeng had misinterpreted EØS/EEA (European Economic Area) regulations for years. They had maintained it was illegal to travel abroad while receiving unemployment benefits or sick pay from NAV when in fact the EU and EØS/EEA allow travel among member nations. NAV’s misinterpretation resulted in the wrongful convictions of at least 78 people, some of whom were even sentenced to jail, while many others were denied benefits, ordered to repay any benefits NAV had paid out, and fined.
Prime Minister Solberg has attempted to “clean up” herself, not just with Hauglie’s departure sanctioned by King Harald V, but also through a commission appointed to investigate and determine how such a scandal could occur. Some members of the commission, however, have been harshly criticized for not being entirely objective. Two of the members were, as judges, part of convicting defendants for allegedly illegal export of Norwegian welfare benefits. Even Solberg’s own justice ministry has pointed to their partial conflicts of interest, yet Hauglie and presumably Solberg let them remain sitting on the commissions.
Some law professors including Jan Fridthjof Bernt fear even partial conflicts of interest will weaken confidence in the impartiality of the commission’s investigation and conclusions. Others, including labour organization officials representing NAV workers, continue to claim that Solberg should have waited to replace Hauglie, at least until the Parliament’s own disciplinary committee could have made its own conclusions after the January hearings and its own probe.
Opposition eager to place blame
“We must have confidence that the Parliament’s own probe would provide a good foundation for how this entire case should be handled,” Mimmi Kvisvik, leader of the labour organization FO (Fellesorganisasjonen) told Dagsavisen. Even a veteran of the Conservative Party, MP Michael Tetzschener, criticized Solberg and her government claiming it “wasn’t enough to hear Hauglie’s replacement (Isaksen) say that everything is just fine.”
Hansen, the Labour Party politician leading the disciplinary committee’s work on the NAV scandal, opted to at least postpone any conclusions or action on the NAV case until last February.
“We no longer have a minister (Hauglie) in limbo,” she told Dagsavisen late last week. “That means we have more time and can more thoroughly prepare documents.” Some opposition parties including the Socialist Left (SV) want to at least file a corrective measure against the government, in which it acknowledges responsibility for the NAV scandal, and admits to fault “and that’s why Hauglie resigned.”