Parliament met on Tuesday to discuss a citizens’ initiative aimed at undoing the Juha Sipilä government’s activation model, which aims to get unemployed people into jobs.
Left Alliance MP Ann Kontula wasted no time in slamming the empty seats of government MPs who failed to show up for the debate.
"From the composition of the hall you can see that everyone knows what’s going on. Everyone knows how embarrassing the activation model is. All the threats that have been embedded in it have come to pass," she charged.
She was not the only lawmaker to comment on the sparse representation of the government side, as shouts of "Where is the government!" echoed through the chamber. Government MPs did indeed appear to be missing in action – initially, the only parliamentarians to represent it were Labour Minister Jari Lindström and Social Affairs and Health Minister Pirkko Mattila.
Many other opposition MPs took turns in condemning the government for its empty benches and speculated that the administration was experiencing pangs of conscience. However as the discussion progressed, National Coalition party MP Juhana Vartiainen arrived, followed by the Blue Reform’s Simo Elo and Antti Kaikkonen of the Centre Party.
The citizens’ initiative being debated calls on the government to dismantle the unpopular programme, which requires jobseekers to meet certain conditions or have their unemployment benefits cut.
Minister admits injustices in model
The Social Affairs and Health Minister referred to a memo from the Social Affairs and health Committee, which concluded that the activation model has already changed, given that compared to the original proposal, jobseekers now have additional means of proving that they are pursuing training or that they are attempting to land a job.
However Mattila’s comments failed to placate the opposition. "Humiliating, disrespectful and evil are some of the words used about the activation model," said Finns Party MP Arja Juvonen.
Pia Viittanen, of the largest opposition party the Social Democrats continued in the same vein.
"When this activation model came, I asked ministers why they needed to do this. I remember Minister Lindström, that you said something along the lines of this is just a bitter pill that needed to be swallowed. But surely common sense would prompt you to ask what’s the point of baking a stone in your bun? Everyone will tell you to take the stone out and it will taste better," she commented.
During his speaking turn, Lindström admitted that the scheme contained certain injustices that government had attempted to address.
“The philosophical question is, ‘what should we replace it with?’ I am confused that on the one hand people are saying that we have to get rid of these cuts. Ok that’s one thing. But then people are saying let’s get rid of the entire model. To replace it with what? Was the philosopher right when he said that you will be punished if you don’t do what needs to be done and you’ll be rewarded if you do? It’s quite clear to me that’s the way it should be,” he said.
The labour minister repeatedly said that the state-owned research hub VTT was currently assessing the impact of the model and that everyone would be wiser when it completed its work. He added that the government’s aim was not to lay blame on the unemployed.
Vartiainen stirs up opposition
The discussion heated up when former state think tank head Juhana Vartiainen spoke. He declared that the activation model had proven its functionality since some people had been able to satisfy the conditions for maintaining their benefits while others hadn’t.
“If it were the case that all of the unemployed had succeeded in meeting the activation criteria then there would hardly have been any unemployment reduction impact and satisfying the conditions would have been as easy as flipping off the lights,” he remarked.
He added that the system should not be watered down to allow jobseekers to sign up for any kind of easily- attainable training programme to meet the activation requirements.
The SDP’s Antti Lindtman described Vartiainen’s comments as uncharitable.
"But the core of this is that the activation model does not work and it is unjust. It is not right that even the unemployed who are doing the best that can be reasonably be expected and are still not finding work are losing their benefits," he observed.
Silvia Modig of the Left Alliance said that she was shocked by the government’s view of people. "The majority of people want to be active, they want a good life for themselves," she pointed out.
"I can assure representative Modig that my view of people can stand up to scrutiny. I do not think of unemployed people as superfluous or that they can be kicked [around]," minister Lindström countered.
The committee report includes dissenting statements from four opposition parties indicating that the government should accept the citizens’ initiative, which proposes terminating the programme.
MPs will vote on the initiative in the weeks ahead.