Speech/statement | Date: 02/09/2010
Speech by Hanne Bjurstrøm, Minister of Labour, 2 September 2010.
Speech by Hanne Bjurstrøm, Minister of Labour, 2 September 2010.
Dear friends – both visitors from other countries and Norwegian participants,
Norway participates in the European Year for Combating Poverty and Social Exclusion 2010 together with Iceland and the 27 member states. As you all know, Norway is not a member of the EU, and the EEA Agreement does not provide automatic access to this kind of joint European project. But for Norway this is an ideal occasion to cooperate with other countries on a major sociopolitical issue. The European Year is an excellent opportunity to share experience and knowledge on strategies and measures to combat poverty and promote inclusion across Europe, and to raise awareness of the problem in society at large.
In many parts of Europe Norway is regarded as different – as an isolated welfare paradise with almost no social problems. And this is largely correct. We live in a country that scores very high on the various parameters for living conditions compared with most other countries. Most people in Norway have a high standard of living and good living conditions. Labour force participation is high and unemployment is fairly low. But precisely because we are so fortunate, it is important that we do not cut ourselves off from countries that have greater problems to deal with. I believe that participation is also a question of solidarity.
The objectives and guiding principles adopted by the EU for the European Year 2010 are in line with our national goals for combating poverty and promoting a more inclusive society.
The understanding of poverty
Although we have a low incidence of poverty in Norway compared with many other European countries, the problem is a complex one, and we cannot allow ourselves to become self-satisfied and ignore it. Not on behalf of society, not on behalf of the persons experiencing poverty. Poverty reduction does not depend on the size of the problem. Poverty is quite simply unacceptable, whatever the statistics.
In Norway, the general income level is high, pulling the median income at a rather high level. In addition, in Norway all people regardless of income have equal and free access to health, education and well developed welfare services. In order to recognize and understand poverty issues in peoples’ lives, it is necessary to go beyond pure income statistics. We have to address the causes, the dynamics and the consequences of poverty in order to develop efficient policy measures.
Even though most people in Norway live very good lives, and even though at the international level we are unbelievably wealthy, there are people in this country who have not taken part in the increase in prosperity. Indeed, not having what other people have, and not being included in the community, may be even worse in a rich country than in other, less wealthy, societies. It is especially distressing to know that there are children who are excluded from social activities for financial reasons. Everybody has the right to live in dignity and participate fully in society.
Poverty prevention and reduction policy
The Norwegian Government’s main strategy for poverty reduction is to ensure equal access to education and the labour market. The aim is to give everyone, regardless of their social background, the same opportunities for acquiring knowledge and to participate in the labour market. Poverty and social inclusion issues call for a wide range of interrelated policy responses, involving economic policy, labour market policy, education policy, integration policy as well as health and social policy.
The Nordic welfare model is marked by a relatively large redistribution of wealth through the income tax system, universal welfare systems, publicly financed health and education systems, an active labour market policy and a flexible labour market. The welfare model has resulted in less poverty and a more equitable income distribution in Norway than in many other countries.
Poverty and a low income often go hand in hand with weak attachment to the labour market. Work provides income and financial security, reduces economic and social disparities and prevents poverty. We cannot accept a situation where persons who are able and willing to work on a long-term basis are excluded from working life. This situation has high costs, both for the person concerned and for society as a whole. The Government considers it important to facilitate efforts to provide opportunities for everyone to participate in working life and support themselves. Of course, persons who cannot work must be ensured basic financial security. All welfare states are facing the issue of balancing the level of benefits to the outcome from earnings, to ensure that work will pay. There is also a question of how to incorporate activity terms within the welfare schemes.
The qualification programme
In line with the concept of mutual rights and obligations, a qualification programme for vulnerable groups was introduced in 2007. The programme is targeted at people who are remote from the labour market, severely diminished working capacity, dependency on social assistance benefits and who are in danger of getting trapped in a passive, low-income situation. The aim is to help them into employment through an individual two-year scheme. A standardised income support is given. The qualification programme was legally established as a nation-wide programme on 1 January this year. Currently there is approximately 9 000 participants throughout the country. The results are so far good. One out of three (35 per cent) is in paid work after participating in a qualification programme. Another 8 per cent is in education, and 27 per cent in some other labour market measures.
Through the Peer Review system under the EU PROGRESS programme, Norway has presented to our colleagues in other countries the qualification programme as a concrete example of poverty reduction.
In order to obtain effective, permanent solutions for long-term recipients of social assistance, we must first of all make them independent of social assistance. Social assistance should never be a long-term solution. For these persons, the answer is not primarily to raise social assistance rates. With regard to the administration of the social assistance scheme, I believe the principle of adapting allowances to the individual should be retained, since people’s needs and life situations vary so much. However, although social work should not be standardised, the allowance must ensure each person a decent livelihood.
The European Year 2010 shows in a very concrete way that the EU is much more than just an internal market for economic integration. The new Europe 2020 strategy gives further weight to the social dimension, by giving priority to inclusive growth. I fully believe that people`s welfare and well-being should be the goal for most policies. An egalitarian society with universal and fair social security promotes stability and economic and social development.
In conclusion, I would like to thank the Welfare Alliance - EAPN Norway - for so actively contributing to the Norwegian efforts to implement the European Year for Combating Poverty and Social Exclusion, and for its active participation in the current welfare policy debate. I wish you every success with this conference, and with the many other European Year activities you have arranged for the next few weeks.
Thank you all for your attention.