Norwegian Employment Minister Anniken Hauglie has issued an official apology to those wrongfully accused of abusing the country's welfare system and promised full compensation for their losses, as well as a full external investigation into the state welfare agency NAV, the newspaper Dagsavisen reported.
In what has been dubbed “the biggest legal scandal in Norway's history”, the country's authorities wrongfully demanded that welfare recipients be physically present in Norway, thus erroneously overriding EU rules that Norway is obliged to follow as a member of the European Economic Area (EEA). The EU, by contrast, allows recipients to travel freely within the EEA.
In misinterpreting the law for at least seven years, NAV unlawfully demanded benefits back from people who travelled abroad, or stopped the payment to reported “violators”. While at least 2,400 people were forced to pay back their benefits, dozens were wrongfully convicted, of them 36 sentenced to prison, the newspaper Aftenposten pointed out. In just the last few days, courts found dozens of new cases where innocent people may have been convicted of social security fraud. According to legal professionals, the real number of “NAV victims” could be several times higher.
“I have called this all a scandal from day one, and I stand by that”, Hauglie told the Norwegian Parliament. She openly admitted that there had been a systemic “incorrect misunderstanding” of the EU rules in Norway. “On behalf of the government, we beg your pardon”, Hauglie said. “The state will make up for this”.
Hauglie also promised “to leave no stone will be unturned” in the looming investigation. For the time being, the government's priority is to track down all those wronged, clear their records, and compensate the financial losses they’ve suffered in terms of suspended benefits and fines.
“It’s clear that this has had grave consequences for many people”, Hauglie said, pledging free legal assistance to “NAV victims”.
According to Aftenposten, the error in the legal interpretation was first discovered in 2017, so it's therefore taken over two years for the government to admit its mistake.
Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg said that the responsible authorities “should be humble and apologise”, which they also did.
The government's move to eat humble pie and admit mistakes satisfied the majority of the Norwegian Parliament, even the left-of-centre opposition. Labour, Norway's largest opposition party has been somewhat restricted in its criticism as the wrongful interpretation of Norway's much-criticised EEA agreement originated from a Labour government. The Reds were the only party demanding a lack of confidence vote for Hauglie.
NAV boss Sigrun Vågeng is due to retire next year. There have been calls for fellow top managers to leave as well, in order to restore public confidence in the agency.
NAV is responsible for distributing everything from welfare benefits to sick pay and pensions.