Swedes face benefits clampdown

The new head of the Swedish Social Insurance Agency, or Försäkringskassan, has said that he intends to stop people cheating the national insurance system, and says that his clampdown is likely to lead to higher unemployment figures.

Curt Malmborg has just taken over as director general of Försäkringskassan, which handles sick benefit payments. Writing in Dagens Nyheter, he hit out at Swedish attitudes to sick benefits.

“For sick benefits to work, it is necessary that they are only used to compensate for inability to work caused by illness,” he wrote, adding that people should not be able to claim sick benefits on the basis that they have bad relationships with their colleagues.

The number of Swedes on sick leave, many of them away from work for over a year, has doubled since 1998. This, says Malmborg, despite the fact that Sweden has one of the world’s healthiest populations.

The Economist Intelligence Unit has marked out tackling sick leave as one of the main challenges facing the Swedish government. Of the 450,000 Swedes between twenty and 64 to live entirely on state benefits in 2002, about 75 percent were either on sick pay or had taken early retirement.

According to Malmborg, the main problem with the way that Försäkringskassan handles sick benefit claims is that it only assesses whether claimants are able to carry out their current jobs, not whether they are able to work in other jobs.

“Having an illness is not always the same thing as completely lacking the ability to work,” he wrote in Dagens Nyheter, “Many people can work full or part time despite their illness. Försäkringskassan’s job is to test this ability.”

Malmborg admitted that a clampdown on sick benefit claimants would increase the number of people registered as unemployed, but said that it was important that workplace problems were not just “dumped” on his organization.

Sick benefits aren’t the only areas in which Försäkringskassan is promising a clampdown. Activity support for people on labour market training programmes is also being misused.

A new report has shown that around one in twelve people whose claims for activity support were investigated were found to have made false claims to be taking part in employment programmes, according to Uppsala Nya Tidning. The insurance office calculates that false claims for activity support alone costs Swedes up to 115 million crowns every year.

Getting people off benefits and into the workforce has become a hot political issue, and this week the opposition Moderate Party tried to reach out to Sweden’s powerful trade unions. Leader Fredrik Reinfeldt adopted a suggestion made by the LO trade union organization to reduce employers’ costs when hiring people who have been off the job market for a long time.

The Moderates have also suggested reducing benefit levels, which Reinfeldt said this week would make work a more profitable option for people.

“It is impossible to increase employment levels without making it more profitable for people to work,” he wrote in Dagens Nyheter.

Yet Hans Karlsson, Minister for Working Life in the Social Democrat government and a former official in LO, said that what Reinfeldt was really saying was that “people work harder when they are insecure and afraid.”

Sources: Dagens Nyheter, Sveriges Radio, Webbfinanser, The Economist, Uppsala Nya Tidning,