Freivalds attacks tour operators

The travel industry was let off the hook too easily by the Catastrophe Commission for the failures in its handling of the tsunami disaster, Laila Freivalds has said.

Sweden’s foreign minister has faced calls for her resignation since the commission’s report last week, in which she emerged as one of the most heavily criticised members of the government.

In an interview in Focus magazine, the foreign minster excoriates the commission for not looking at how society as a whole was prepared to deal with catastrophes.

“The commission was suppose to look at the whole of society’s capacity for dealing with disasters. But it closed in on parliament, the government and government agencies,” Freivalds said.

The law forbids embassies from paying for trips home for those who are injured; they are limited to providing loans and help with contacts. The responsibility for this lies with tour operators and individual travelers, Fokus writes.

“I am astounded by how the tour operators acted,” says Freivalds.

“They cancelled their contracts with travelers and promised instead to give them their money back. Why did they do that – did they do it to get out of their responsibilities to take their customers home? Or did they think that the costs would get so big that the taxpayers would stump up and pay.”

“I don’t know, but I’m asking the question. Is the level of responsibility taken by the travel companies appropriate?”

Tour operators were widely praised in the immediate aftermath of the tsunami for the speed with which they realised the seriousness of the situation, in contrast with the government, which was seen as slow off the mark. Lottie Knutsson, tour operator Fritidsresor’s public relations manager, became a symbol of the travel industry’s quick reaction to the crisis, contrasting with the perceived slowness of Freivalds and Prime Minster Göran Persson to act.

In another interview, this time with Svenska Dagbladet, Freivalds brushes aside demands for her to quit. She is not considering leaving her job, she says, although she does ask whether the price of staying put is worth paying:

“It isn’t easy for my family – they are paying a high price,” she says.

“Sometimes I question whether I am right to ask this of them.”

Meanwhile, the opposition parties met on Friday morning to discuss their disagreements about holding a vote of no confidence. The Centre Party had wanted to hold an immediate vote of no confidence in Freivalds, but met with resistance from its Alliance partners who wanted to wait until the parliamentary constitution committee reports after Christmas.

A minimum of 35 deputies are needed to force a confidence motion, according to Swedish parliamentary rules. The Centre Party failed to find further support for an immediate vote on Freivalds’ future.

“It has become clear that the Centre Party’s 22 seats in parliament are not enough, so now we can leave this behind us,” said Moderate Party leader Fredrik Reinfeldt.

The centre-right party leaders have now agreed to continue to talk to deputies from the Left and Green parties about the possibility of holding a confidence vote on Freivalds. The parties’ parliamentary leaders will meet again on Tuesday to discuss progress.

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