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Norway's new Super Minister: Bjarne Håkon Hanssen

| Text: Berit Kvam, Photo: Scanpix

Work for all is one of the main aims of Norway's new left-of-centre government. "Super Minister" Bjarne Håkon Hanssen carries a great responsibility. He controls one in three of every krone in the budget. He has to make sure the government reaches its goal of a more inclusive working life. The hidden unemployment must be fought, and more people of employable age must be included in working life.

Bjarne Håkon Hansen AIN nr 1 2006It's a massive reform in the making: the entire labour and welfare system is being re-organised, along with a revamping of the pension system and a renewal of the instruments needed to develop a more inclusive working life.

"Social inclusiveness demands a comprehensive policy”, the minister says.

The Nordic co-operation is changing too.

Since Norway chairs the Nordic Council of Ministers this year, Bjarne Håkon Hanssen heads the Nordic co-operation on working life.

“What's exciting with the Nordic countries is that we have so much in common; history, political traditions, I'd even say ideology. The Nordic co-operation is like a giant lab where we can test various measures, see how they work in the different countries and then learn from that. The consequence is not that we should do the same thing everywhere, but that we should come up with safe solutions, anchored in Nordic experiences."

The minister says it is important that the co-operation is tangible, however.

“The Nordic co-operation is lagging a bit behind.”

He wants to do something about that.

More dynamism

Denmark started modernising the Nordic co-operation during its chairmanship in 2005. Bjarne Håkon Hanssen wants to take it further. He wants the co-operation on working life to be more dynamic. It means focusing more on current challenges.

“The point of the Nordic ministers getting together must be to face topical issues that need to be discussed. That way maybe the press will get interested too", he says.

There are several big topics on the agenda where cross-border dialogue is important. One such topic is the transition rules regulating the flow of workers after the EU/EEA enlargement. May 1st 2006 is the deadline for deciding whether these rules should still apply.

“This is something we will be working with intensively in the time to come. I am going to listen to the Swedish experiences."

Social dumping is another theme where it can be useful to learn from what the different countries have done to prevent it, and whether it works.

“We'll stick to the Norwegian idea of universal tariff agreements as a principle, but we also want to make this tool more efficient. During the spring term we'll decide exactly how this is going to look.”

More people in work

At home, Bjarne Håkon Hanssen must make sure the coalition government policy becomes reality. What used to be the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs is now the Ministry of Labour and Social Inclusion, and has been given new areas of responsibility, like immigration and integration.

“We realise that we haven't succeeded with our work on integration. There are three times as many unemployed among immigrants as in the rest of the population. To succeed with integration, we must make improvements on integrating people into working life. Integration of immigrants must be seen in relation to a more general labour market policy. The change in the ministry's structure makes it easier to see the connection between labour market policy, welfare and securing people with an income.”

There will be increased emphasis on active labour market measures; work is the road to integration and work is the way out of poverty. It must pay to work rather than to receive social benefits. Still, the chronically ill or others who cannot work because of ill health, do have the right to a decent life.

As Minister of Labour and Social Inclusion, Bjarne Håkon Hanssen is responsible for one in three budget kroner, and for using it sensibly.

Change in the immigration law

When Denmark introduced the 24-years rule for family reunification - which prevents young immigrants from bringing over a spouse from their home country before they are 24 years old - it got lot of attention in the other Nordic countries. Bjarne Håkon Hanssen has publicly wondered whether a similar rule should be introduced here. A commission publishing recommendations for a new law on immigration has suggested introducing a 21 years age limit.

"We really want a debate on this, and we want to look to Denmark to learn from their experience. But it is too early to draw conclusions. There are arguments for and against this idea. We want to prevent forced marriages. We want young people to finish school, and for them to be mature enough to decide for themselves whether they want to get married. But at the same time this is a major infringement on individual freedom. You could, arguably, be a government minister at the age of 20. Also, the rule must apply to everyone, not only young people from immigrant backgrounds.”

"Aren't you just trying to beat the opposition with this?”

"No, this is an attempt to develop a good integration policy. We must succeed in this if we're to be re-elected in 2009.”

Renewal of tri-partite agreement

All the tools aimed at improving integration in working life must, according to the minister, be linked to the agreement the government has made with the parties in the working life on a more inclusive working life. The tri-partite deal was renewed in late autumn 2005.

An evaluation of the former agreement (2001- 2005) showed only parts of the three main goals had been achieved; sick leave was down 10 per cent, compared to the stated goal of 20 per cent, there had been no increase in the number of physically or mentally challenged people in working life and there had not been any real increase in retirement age.

“We still need to get the agreements final details in place. We have further meetings with the social partners during spring 2006 in order to develop the tools we need to do this."

Do your duty

It's a controversial theme. Lack of press coverage is hardly the question here. He has had a lot of criticism already. With statements like “People on benefit must get up in the morning”, he has provoked a debate with more than those who snuggle to access the labour market. But there are still no clear ideas of what is in the pipeline, only signals.

The Labour Party slogan is “Do your duty, demand your right". The minister wants to make the slogan tangible with a welfare contract linking rights with real duties. There is hectic work already to review the entire mechanism to control the means at disposal, and a brand new labour and welfare administration is being established. The Labour Market Administration and the National Insurance Service merge into an Employment and Welfare Agency, and will be housed together with parts of the Municipal Social Welfare in each municipality.

The main goal for the reform is to get more people in work and fewer on benefits. Users get one single point of reference, the service will be tailored to the individual and the labour and welfare administration aims to be wholesome and efficient.

“We have the greatest challenge. It is easy to believe that when the economy is doing well, the unemployed get jobs. But that's not the case, because of more pressure on working life and more import of manpower. The great challenge is: how to get the hidden unemployed into work, and to include more into working life. We have to succeed”, says Bjarne Håkon Hanssen.

Facts

Bjarne Håkon Hanssen

Minister of  Labour and Social Inclusion, Norway, since 17 October 2005.

Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg's government is a majority government representing the Labour Party (Lab), the Socialist Left Party (Soc) and the Centre Party (Cent).

The Minister of Labour and Social Inclusion, Mr. Bjarne Håkon Hanssen (Lab) assumed responsibility for the following fields:

Labour market policy, Working Environment and Safety, Poverty and Welfare, Integration and Diversity, Sami and Minority Affaires and Migration.

Main objectives:

  • to establish a new employment and welfare service,
  • to reform the Norwegian pension system
  • to present a comprehensive rethink of our policies in a white paper on "Employment, welfare and inclusion."

Mr. Bjarne Håkon Hanssen has been a member of the Storting (Norwegian Parliament) since l997. In 2000-2001 he was Minister of Agriculture in Jens Stoltenberg’s first government.

 

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