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Time is running out: Committee determines "sote" bill still needs fine-tuning

Parliament's constitutional law committee said 20 changes must still be made to the plan, casting doubt on whether the bill will reach the finish line in time.

Vasemmalta, kansanedustajat Ben Zyscowicz (kok.), Mia Laiho (kok.), valiokunnan puheenjohtaja Annika Lapintie (vas.), Maria Guzenina (SDP) ja Ilkka Kantola (SDP) valiokunnan kokouksen alussa eduskunnassa.
An April meeting of the Finnish Parliament's constitutional law committee. Image: Antti Aimo-Koivisto / Lehtikuva

The parliamentary constitutional law committee finished its long-awaited report on the latest version of the government's proposed social, health care and regional government reform on Friday, calling for many corrections. This means the bill will move to the committee on social affairs and health, which will have little time to execute the required changes before Parliament starts its pre-election recess on 15 March and the government term comes to an end.

The constitutional law committee is charged with examining the constitutionality of law proposals and their bearing on international human rights. It's unanimous decision on the latest version of the proposed overhaul of Finland's social and health care system and regional government included 20 different requests for "constitutional law fine-tuning".

"Yes, there's some work that has to be done, but that's why we are here," said vice-chair of the constitutional law committee Tapani Tölli, in a press conference arranged after the report was submitted.

The report's list requires, for example, a better explanation of customer plans, a re-examination of the timing of regional elections, clearer service requirements for private facilities, requirements for social and health care quality monitoring, the resolution of some data protection issues, and further clarification of regional funding and compensation paid to municipalities.

Skirting compliance with EU law

The constitutional law committee also called once again on the social affairs and health committee to reconsider so-called EU notification. If member states of the European Union wish to use EU aid, they are required to notify the EU commission. The Finnish government has avoided having to do this, but the committee says that EU commission approval would ensure that the "freedom of choice" element of the proposed reform would be compatible with EU competition law.

The constitutional law committee has struggled with this issue since the first drafts of the proposal were submitted. The report released on Friday contains wording that says that if the social affairs and health committee cannot guarantee the reform's legality in terms of EU law, then the application of the "freedom of choice" component of the bill should be postponed.

The report also calls for the entire regional government component of the bill to also be changed, if it turns out that there is no time to resolve various related issues first. The plan to create larger regions to oversee the administration of the new social and health care system would require that regional funding and municipal taxation are redefined, with a guarantee that regional financing models would ensure that adequate funding is always available to meet social and health service needs.

Time is running out

The parliamentary term will end on 15 March already, due to the lead-up to the next general elections on 14 April. This leaves the social affairs and health committee of parliament with just a few weeks to implement the changes in Friday's report. The committee has already called an extraordinary meeting on Monday to go through the report.

"We'll do what we can. We need guidance from the government about what our next course of action should be: which details should be changed and how they want to proceed," said Krista Kiuru, chair of the committee.

Minister of Family Affairs and Social Services Annika Saarikko says her ministry will start in on the work required immediately.

"We've got some sweaty weeks ahead, but I am hopeful that we can work together with the civil service to come up with solutions to all of the points that the social affairs and health committee requests," she said.

Opposition: The game is over

Opposition leaders commented on the report and its ramifications on social media on Friday.

"Not only does the constitutional law committee require that the social affairs and health committee ensure EU law compliance, but it also calls for the 'adoption of the freedom of choice law to be postponed'. In practice, the social affairs and health committee cannot guarantee this without significantly altering the bill," Left Alliance Chair Li Andersson posted on Twitter.

"My personal conclusion: this is the end of the line. It's high time the government blew the whistle – time is out and the game is over. The problems of the model are just too great and there's no way we can confirm its relationship to EU law with this little time left. We should spend our time thinking about what to do moving forward instead." she tweeted later.

Green chair Pekka Haavisto called for a meeting of all the parliamentary parties to discuss the bill's current status.

"The changes required by the constitutional law committee are significant. It looks quite likely that implementation of the sote reform will transfer to the next term," he tweeted.

The Swedish People's Party chair Anna-Maja Henriksson appeared in an Yle interview Saturday morning to say that the reform will not be finished in time for a vote this term, as there are too many outstanding problems.

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