Six things to learn from Norway’s NAV social security scandal hearings

Six things to learn from Norway’s NAV social security scandal hearings
This photo from November last year shows Prime Minister Erna Solberg answering questions in parliament about the Nav social security scandal. Photo: AFP
A two-day hearing has begun into the scandal surrounding Norway's Labour and Welfare Administration, NAV, which incorrectly interpreted EU rules on certain types of social security over a number of years.

The issue resulted in people being wrongly convicted of benefit fraud since at least 2012.

At least 48 people have been wrongly convicted of social security fraud after spending time in EEA countries while receiving social security assistance from Norway, according to prior reports.

A two-day parliamentary hearing began on Friday. At the hearing, former Director of Public Prosecutions (Rigsadvokaten) Tor-Aksel Busch used the expression “collision of laws” in relation to Norway’s social security act (folketrygdloven) and the EU regulations, Aftenposten reported.

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Here are five key things which emerged on the hearing’s first day.

Conflict between Norwegian and EU regulation

In order to receive Norwegian sick pay (sykepenger) or unemployment benefits (arbeidsavklaringspenger) Norway’s social security act requires the recipient to remain in Norway and not travel abroad.

This Norwegian regulation remained unchanged when the country Norway incorporated into Norwegian law an EU regulation which states that no matter whether “one lives or resides in another Member State”, one should be entitled to such benefits. The EU regulation takes precedence, Aftenposten reports.

Busch repeatedly stated during the hearing that this was difficult for “practitioners” to relate to.

33 rulings could have been blocked by Director of Public Prosecutions

Busch, whose term as Director of Public Prosecutions (Rigsadvokaten) ended last year after the scandal broke, stated “clearly” that he thinks he should have been informed much earlier, Aftenposten reported.

He did not decide who should have informed him; Nav or the foreign ministry. But he stated five specific occasions where he thought he should have been brought into proceedings.

He said that he should have been informed the second half of 2017, after courts began to change practice based on the notion that Nav had not properly implemented the EU regulation. This could have resulted in 33 judgments in 2018 and 2019 being stopped.

Former Director of Public Prosecutions criticizes government minister

Busch’s statements can be considered critical of Anniken Hauglie, the government minister in charge of labour and social issues.

He stated that Hauglie's ministry did not understand the seriousness at the time Hauglie has said “the alarm went off” over the issue, i.e. August 30th last year.

“There was still an absence of inquiries to my old office,” said the now-retired director of public prosecutions.

Busch also said he was surprised by the instructions from the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs (Arbeids- og sosialdepartementet) not to look at cases retroactively.

Disagreement between court and Nav

Trine Fernsjø, head of Trygderetten, the court which assesses social security cases, said the court had on several occasions rejected Nav's interpretation of the law, which penalized people who went to EU or EEA countries without applying to take their social security benefits with them.

Former ministers give statements

Three former labour ministers, Hanne Bjurstrøm, Anniken Huitfeldt (both Labour) and Robert Eriksson (Progress Party) testified at the parliamentary hearing.

Both Eriksson and Huitfeldt both stated that they were concerned about limiting the export of social security, but that they were also concerned with complying with EEA law.

Records not taken at meetings

Civil servants pointed out that minutes were recorded at all meetings. That may in at least one case have prevented the scandal being detected earlier.

No minutes were recorded at an October 2017 attended by two departmental directors from the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs and employees from Nav. ‘Social security export’ was on the agenda, and a question directly connected to the current scandal was asked, according to Aftenposten’s report of today’s hearing.

Too early to conclude

After the first day of the hearing, Labour spokesperson Eva Kristin Hansen declined to comment on whether Hauglie's position had been weakened.

“I don't want to say anything about it until the hearing is completed,” Hansen said to Aftenposten.

But Freddy André Øvstegård of a smaller opposition party, the Socialist Left, told the newspaper that Busch was “clear-cut in his crushing judgment on the government's management” by identifying a number of times when he should have been notified of the case.

“I did not expect such a clear statement, and that puts the matter in a very bad light for the government,” he said.


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