Solveig Horne, minister with a blue-blue view of Norwegian integration
“I am now in government,” says the Progress Party’s Minister of Children, Equality and Social Inclusion Solveig Horne. She will stick to the cooperation agreement with the Conservatives and the supporting parties the Liberals and Christian Democrats. There’s a lot of good Progress Party politics right there, says the government minister. She has “no comment” about party colleagues who call for more Progress Party politics.
Some political party colleagues were seriously critical when they heard Solveig Horne would give the 2013 diversity award to the Norwegian armed forces. The Progress Party is opposed to the use of the hijab in the forces, while the forces themselves allow it. How did you experience this criticism yourself?
“I will not comment on that.”
Is it not the case that the Progress Party is against the use of the hijab in the armed forces, in the way the armed forces have opened for in their integration policy?
“I am part of the government, which comprises the Progress Party and the Conservative Party, and one of my tasks in this government is to give out some awards, and my task was also to give out the diversity award to the armed forces. The armed forces have done a lot of good work with recruiting minority youths, whom we also need in Norway’s forces. More than that I am not going to comment.”
Have you changed your mind?
“Both the Conservatives and the Progress Party are very clear that we do not want to see religious symbols and clothing in the armed forces or in public services.”
The Nordic Labour Journal has been granted 30 minutes with the Progress Party government minister some 100 days after she was appointed.
“It’s been full on from day one, hasn’t it,” the minster says to her media relations advisor.
She has been in the spotlight since the very beginning. If you search the name Solveig Horne in the newspaper archive Retriever for same month she became a minister, the results jump from 35 to 400 hits. At one point things got so bad because of certain things she had expressed in social media in the past that Prime Minister Erna Solberg had to come out and say she had full confidence in her minister. There has now been 1,200 archive hits on her name since she got the job. Her party leader and Minister of Finance Siv Jensen’s name pops up 9,000 times on Retriever over the same period of time.
“But it has been good fun too. It’s supposed to be full on when you are a politician on this level,” she says, now turned towards us.
Solveig Horne is the Minister of Children, Equality and Social Inclusion in the blue-blue Conservative and Progress Party coalition government. The Conservative leader Erna Solberg is Prime Minister and the Conservatives have another ten government ministers. Solveig Horne is one of seven government ministers from the Progress Party.
“My focus is on the protection of children and family politics, as well as the integration and housing of refugees,” the minister says. She is also overseeing consumer issues, the drawing up of a universal discrimination and equality law, the inclusion of people with physical handicaps and more.
Quicker housing of accepted refugees
The focus has been largely on the housing of refugees pretty much from the beginning. Many of them have been stuck in reception centres long after being accepted as refugees because there are not enough municipalities willing to house them.
One of the first things the blue-blue government did was to send a letter to all of the country’s municipalities asking them to accept refugees, and the very first thing Horne did was to call Progress Party mayors to tell them that this was a challenge they had inherited from the outgoing government.
What was the response like?
“They recognised that this was a shared challenge which we must figure out how to solve. Right now more than 5,400 people with permission to stay are sat in reception centres waiting for a municipality to house them. These are very large numbers,” says Solveig Horne.
She wants to get a good cooperation going with the municipalities. One commentator in the daily Aftenposten suggested the state should take on the entire responsibility, but she disagrees:
“The municipalities, that’s where people live and that is who we need to listen to. I want to be a team player together with the municipalities and to listen to what challenges they have.”
Tightening asylum and immigration policies
The government minister also wants to highlight the correlation between immigration and integration policies, and she says something needs to be done.
“This government made it very clear in its agreement with the Christian Democrats and the Liberal Party that we will follow restrictive and good immigration and integration policies. The Minister of Justice faces an important task of tightening integration and immigration policies, speed up the processing of asylum applications and family reunions while quickly returning illegal immigrants.”
A group of undersecretaries from the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Local Government, the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Children, Equality and Social Inclusion will look at the entire immigration chain as a whole. The aim of a tighter immigration policy is to release resources from asylum centres to be used on housing.
“The Norwegian Directorate of Immigration (UDI) says they need to build more reception centres because more asylum seekers are coming to the country, while at the same time people who have been granted permission to stay are still sitting in reception centres. I want to turn this support around. Rather than spending more money on reception centres, more of it should be given to the municipalities so that they can cover more of their integration costs. This way we can house people quicker and the UDI would free up capacity in the existing reception centres.”
Is it possible to know how many asylum seekers can come to the country? There is for instance a great need to accept more Syrian refugees.
“Yes, in the government’s agreement wight the Christian Democrats and the Liberal Party we say we will accept 1,000 Syrian refugees, and we stand by that. If we were to change this, the Minister of Justice must renegotiate with the other parties.”
How do you see the money which now goes to the UDI being used for integration?
“We have started by increasing the integration grant, we have simplified the integration system, we have written letters to all of the municipalities asking them to house refugees and we have established a committee of undersecretaries to look at integration challenges as a whole. I have also been visiting many municipalities to listen to the challenges they are facing.”
When you were listening, what did you hear?
“That municipalities are very positive about housing refugees but that they see the challenges of finding space because there is already pressure on the property market. They also see that accepting refugees costs more than it brings in, so it is important to set up good language training to get people into jobs quicker.”
“Get them into work”
Figures from Statistics Norway show only 54 percent of immigrants who attended Norway’s introduction programme in 2010 had entered the labour market or started education in 2011. What do you think about that?
“This is very serious. If we are to succeed with integration people must get an education, they must get language training and we must get them into work. So of course when so many fail to enter education or work after a two years introduction programme, we need to see whether the programme is good enough, flexible enough and whether it safeguards the interest of every individual who will be passing through it.
“People are different after all. Some are illiterate and have no education whatsoever, others have a higher education and others still have basic schooling, so we need the training to be better targeted at the individual’s needs. I’m not saying that we will extend the introduction programme but we need programmes which are good enough to get people into education and work.”
By visiting municipalities Solveig Horne has got more ideas to explore.
“Yesterday I went to Ålesund. They have done a good job by accepting minor asylum seekers who are put through elementary school. They have set up a year 11, an extra year after elementary school, to prepare them for their upper secondary education. Now the Directorate for Education and Training and the Labour and Welfare Administration have been tasked with finding better solutions for a smoother transition from elementary school to upper secondary education.”
Another municipality runs a project aimed at getting refugees into work first before giving them language training in the workplace plus more work-related training in the evening.
“This is a pilot project we want to study closer. I think we need to look at whether the Norwegian language training on offer in the municipalities is good enough. Refugees are also different, some are illiterate and others arrive with an education. The government has also said we want to consider making it easier to get the education from your home country accepted here.”
A question of attitudes
Presumably this is also a question of attitudes. One of your party colleagues recently said immigrant youths get angry faster than other youths. Does this aid integration?
“Look, the Progress Party has always wanted a stricter immigration policy. We will integrate those who get permission to stay and demand that they get an education and find work. Our party political programme states clearly that they must be integrated and this means municipalities must be covered for the costs related to integrating accepted refugees. We have also said very clearly that those who are refused permission to stay must be transported out, and the Directorate of Immigration has to speed up their processing of applications to make sure applicants get a quick response to whether they can stay or not.”
The government has also said it will expand the cash-for-care benefit for parents. Isn’t paying parents, women, to stay at home for longer contrary to the idea of good integration?
“No, not at all. It must be possible to think two thoughts at once. The cash-for-care benefit is a tool which gives families a choice and flexibility while they parent small children. This is for the very youngest children.”
While you were an MP you suggested the benefit should be linked to citizenship. Have you moved away from that idea?
“This government says it very clearly, and we have the support of the Christian Democrats and the Liberal Party in this, that we must consider making the cash-for-care benefit local. This means it would be a state benefit administered by the municipalities.
“But I am a government minister working out of the coalition agreement which we reached, and I will make policies based on the agreements we have with the other [supporting] political parties.”
You have been a deputy member of the Nordic Council of Ministers over several periods, and now you are part of the cooperation between Nordic ministers. How is that progressing?
“I believe it is important for politicians to learn from others and for others to learn from us. We don’t really have to travel far to get good ideas, because the Nordic countries are very similar. In my first three months I have already met the Nordic ministers for equality and the ministers for integration, and we have exchanged experiences.”
Who has inspired you the most?
“I think they have achieved much in different areas. Sweden and Denmark are perhaps the countries we can learn the most from.
“It has also been interesting talking to the Swedish Minister for Integration, Erik Ullenhag, and I will definitely keep in touch with him.”
A desired legacy
When you finish your job as a government minister, what do you want your legacy to be?
“I want families to have been given greater flexibility and for there to be more focus on families, that children in care have been given a better life than they have today and not least that we have managed to house people who have been granted permission to stay.”