Parliament Returns: Social & Healthcare Reform, Working Life Legislation On Spring Agenda

New powers for intelligence services, and Brexit also occupying MPs thoughts as parliament gets underway today.

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File picture of columns at Parliament building in Helsinki / Credit: iStock

Finland’s two hundred members of parliament get back to work today after the Christmas break, with a busy legislative agenda ahead.

The holiday season was punctuated by a presidential election, and industrial action against the so-called ‘active model’ to reduce unemployment.

So now that politicians are getting back to work, what’s on their schedule?

For the autumn 2017 session of parliament, the focus was squarely on the economy, and raising the employment level. Now, there’s a slight shift in focus ahead, with another phase of ‘back to work’ initiatives set to kick in, and the social and welfare reforms known as SOTE expected to be finalised.

“I predict we’ll see more or less the same from this government” says Jenni Karimäki, Senior Researcher at the University of Turku’s Centre for Parliamentary Studies.

“The opposition has had their fair chance to influence the social and welfare reforms, and regional administration reform too. They have raised a lot of questions about these laws, which have been sent back for changes. So now they have a good chance of getting these new reforms finalised this season” she says.

The Government’s View

One of the coalition government’s flagship policies has been to overhaul the country’s social and welfare legislation – or SOTE as it’s known in Finnish. It’s been a long road, but they see the end is finally in sight.

SOTE reform legislation has been mired in political deadlock, and strongly opposed by health care professionals, opposition political parties and trade unions alike. It has taken a fair amount of horse trading to get to where we are; and if a final version is approved it will certainly not be in the form the government had originally imagined.

“Reform of healthcare and social services has been a long and detailed project” says Europe Minister Sampo Terho, Chairman of the Blue Reform Party.

“It has taken many years for this government to get to the point when we are making the last steps, where other governments had already tried. Certainly there is going to be criticism from the opposition, but we are very proud that we will be able to finish this legislation in this mandate” he tells News Now Finland.

The government will again push forward with measures to boost employment, which is creeping ever-closer to the 72% magic number that Prime Minister Juha Sipilä (Centre) has set as his goal.

“With regards to employment, the current governmental mandate has had a good success already and we wish to continue that so the economy keeps growing and the employment rate keeps getting higher. The employment rate has been very central to the government’s programme, and that is what we want to continue” says Terho.

EU Matters And Brexit Looming

The government will also push forward with new intelligence service laws, which proponents say will better equip law enforcement agencies to face potential terror threats.

But they are also looking further ahead to July 2019 when Finland takes over the rotating six month presidency of the European Union.

“We will have to start to prepare for our coming mandate as the EU Presidency, although it will be the next government who does the actual hosting” says Sampo Terho.

When Finland takes over the Presidency they’ll be in charge of a slightly smaller European Union, with Britain expected to exit the block a few months before.

The Europe Minister acknowledges that Brexit is a regular topic of discussion for the cabinet as the deadline approaches.

“In government, we discuss Brexit almost daily, and at least weekly, about what are the latest developments” explains Terho.

“The current Finnish government is very much a friendly one to the British government and obviously we respect the choice of the British people to leave the EU. But we want to keep economic, cultural and other ties as close as possible even after Brexit” he states.

The Opposition’s View

From the opposition benches in parliament, they’re also waiting for the latest SOTE reform drafts.

“If you look at social and healthcare reform it’s already been through a lot of changes and I expect more to be on the way […] for our party we’ve said it’s the biggest and most important topic in this election term” says Left Alliance chair Li Andersson.

“We are still very very unhappy with the proposal by the government because it is based on the ‘marketization’ of public services. All the experts are also saying it’s going to be more expensive than the current system, and we think it’s the wrong decision to use more money and not solve the biggest problem in healthcare which is lack of services for low income workers” Andersson says.

Fellow opposition party the Social Democrats are waiting for the government’s ‘trilogy’ of back-to-work measures to hit.

First came the ‘active model’ which imposes financial penalties on unemployed people if they don’t take steps to find work, go on a training course or undertake some entrepreneur activities within a certain period of time.

Next comes plans to make unemployed people report weekly to update their case officer on how their job search has been going. And thirdly, reform of working hours legislation which the SDP fears will ultimately erode rights for workers.

“It’s really amazing how little thought of consequences are in every piece of legislation the government are producing. It’s so shabbily put together” says SDP MP Timo Häräkkä.

“Now what the government wants is everyone who has the potential to work flexible hours from your home would be required to be outside the protection of the working hours law, regardless of the fact that you can really really influence your hours or working conditions or not” Häräkkä tells News Now Finland.

He cites 40 pages of dissenting opinion from labour unions and employers alike on the government’s draft last autumn as an indicator of heated discussions ahead.

“For us it seems there is going to be a lot of labour-related discussions in parliament. It’s our bread and butter” says Häräkkä.

Intelligence Law Requires “Thorough” Debate

The Left Alliance are also flagging up the proposals for new intelligence laws as an important piece of legislation to be debated in parliament this spring.

“It’s quite a complicated matter technically. And I would say it’s also legally quite complicated. It’s a large and complex package of measures” says Li Andersson.

“I think it’s going to be an interesting debate because it’s one where lawmakers have to balance different values that are important to society: security and the basic rights of citizens. I’m hoping parliamentarians will have the time and energy to debate thoroughly” she says.

Eye On 2019 Elections

As always in the world of politics, parties have their eye on the next general election, scheduled to take place in spring 2019.

The government needs a year to cement its central messages of Finland’s improved economic outlook through safe, steady stewardship (and hoping voters forget some  swingeing budget cuts at the start of their time in office).

The opposition needs to use the next year to paint themselves as parties able to do more for Finnish citizens, especially those who have been left increasingly marginalized under the current government.

“Of course the elections are always in the background, and as they get closer we see more political speeches being done with regard to the elections” says Turku University’s Jenni Karimäki.

“So probably the opposition’s politics are going to be more aggressive, making more statements, and making their mark ahead of the elections”.