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Abbasová comes to Chomutov, collections agents don't seize welfare

Chomutov, 23.2.2009 13:20, (ROMEA)

Collections agents did not seize any social welfare today in Chomutov. People waiting in line for their money since morning at the town hall were in a much better mood than last Tuesday, when collections agents, assisted by journalists invited by the town, seized almost all the welfare money from approximately 100 debtors. Each person was allowed to retain roughly CZK 1 000.

"I do not know whether the town is succumbing to pressure from the media, which publicized the disagreement of the ministry, the ombudsman and other organizations with its step and criticized the town's approach as illegal. However, it is also possible the town wants to continue collections at another time," said Lejla Abbasová, spokesperson for the Czech Human Rights and Minorities Minister. Abbasová came to Chomutov to monitor the activity of the collections agents together with Lucie Otáhalová of the Czech Government Council for Human Rights.

"The collections agent was supposed to be here, I do not know why he is not, whether they could not reach him or whether they have backed down. If the town really stood behind its statement that it is in the right, then the collections would be continuing," Jan Šipoš, a field social worker with the People in Need organization in Chomutov, told the web server Deník.cz.

"The collections agent decides the place, the method and the time for collections. We have information that he under pressure from the ministry," was how Mayor Ivana Řápková (ODS) explained the agent's absence. The agent has refused to communicate with the media.

Ivana Řápková gave Abbasová the message that Czech Human Rights and Minorities Minister Michael Kocáb should come to Chomutov in person. "I would be glad to pay the minister to live for one week in a building with unadaptable people to see what it is like," was the mayor's populist statement. She was angry that Kocáb had not come in person and only sent his spokesperson.

Abbasová confirmed to ČTK that she would deliver the mayor's message to the minister. "The minister would have come in person, but he has to review candidates for a position," said Abbasová. Today the minister and his co-workers are selecting a new director for the Agency for Social Inclusion in Roma Localities.

"The mayor has criticized us for favouring the unadaptable inhabitants of the town, but that is not the case. Our concern is that collections, as they have been realized in Chomutov, are not in accordance with the law. This also applies, for example, to the presence of the police during the disbursement of material emergency payments and their subsequent seizure by the collections agent," Abbasová said.

According to Tomáš Branda, the press spokesperson for the Chomutov town hall, the meeting at the mayor's office was not scheduled. "Lejla Abbasová burst into the mayor's office," the spokesperson told the server iDNES.cz. Abbasová rejects the spokesperson's claim that she "burst into" the office as exaggerated and said the meeting had been agreed with the mayor's assistant, who told her she could come at that time.

The mayor says the town will continue the collections in March. "We are taking a break from the collections because of the pressure the ministry put on the collections agents' chamber and because we want to give the debtors time to come to the town hall and resolve their situations. After the first collections, for example, dozens of people have expressed interest in paying their debts. We have agreed payment schedules with them," she added. Chomutov has up to 4 000 debtors on its rolls, representing a debt in excess of CZK 240 million.

"I am really glad they didn't collect from me today. I would not have been able to pay my rent, which is CZK 12 000," a 50-year-old woman waiting in the welfare line told ČTK.

Petra Šachová of the People in Need organization was also prepared to explain to the collections agent that it is illegal to seize material emergency disbursements. "Our local field social workers asked us to intervene. We wanted to investigate the manner in which the collections agent is proceeding, but we discovered the agent is not at the town hall today," she added.

According to information published on the web server Deník.cz, lawyer David Valouch also came to the town hall over the extortion of the money. "I came to represent my clients and to pick up their welfare for them on the basis of a power of attorney so it could not be seized on the spot," said the attorney, who cooperates with People in Need. If an empowered attorney picks up the money on behalf of his client, collections agents cannot seize it, as the attorney does not owe any debts to the city. This is one way to prevent monies from being seized. Valouch also considers the town's approach to be illegal, reports Deník.cz.

Czech Justice Minister Jiří Pospíšil will send a monitor to Chomutov to audit the collections agents' approach. Pospíšil considers the collection of money during the disbursement of social welfare payments to be unfortunate. Deputy ombudsman Jitka Seitlová says the seizure of the monies is unconstitutional.

The town, however, rejects these criticisms, and several lawers have called the Chomutov approach legal.

The town has decided to take a harsh, uncompromising approach to individuals and families who fail to meet their obligations; in addition to collections agents, it also evicts rent defaulters and houses them in hostels. On Friday, town social workers accompanied by landlords and security began to check the flats of rent defaulters or families occupying flats without authorization.

CTK
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