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Bill to subject welfare to collections passes Czech lower house

Prague, 25.9.2011 23:14, (ROMEA)

On Friday 23 September, the Czech lower house passed a bill which would make it possible for welfare benefits to be subjected to collections. The bill makes it possible for welfare recipients to sign an agreement with the authorities to have their benefits attached in order to pay off any debts. According to Czech MPs Ivana Řápková (Civic Democrats - ODS) and Lenka Kohoutová (ODS), the aim of the bill, which has been criticized by experts, NGOs and the opposition because of its likely results, is to make it more possible to collect fees and fines from people on welfare. The amendment to the law on aid in material distress is now heading to the Czech Senate despite being criticized by the opposition.

The authors of the bill say that in practice, people are entitled to draw welfare but do not use the money to pay off various fees that they owe or outstanding fines that have been levied against them as punishments for misdemeanors. The bill establishes that after the collections process, people on welfare would retain the minimum amount of money deemed necessary to survive, which is currently calculated at CZK 2 020 per month (EUR 82). Should they be drawing welfare in order to support an entire family, that minimum would be calculated to include all of their dependents, according to an amendment to the bill drafted by the lower house's Social Committee.

The bill did not pass unanimously. Czech MP Roman Sklenák (Czech Social Democrats - ČSSD) emphasized that while all debtors must be treated the same way, it is not possible to deprive people of all of their assets entirely; they must retain the ability to finance their basic survival. "The authors of this legislation are attacking that principle with this bill," he said.

The opposition also pointed out that one likely consequence of the bill is that it will expand the circle of people to whom inappropriate loans are likely to be offered and approved. Thanks to the option of collecting welfare benefits, creditors will be able to get their money back more easily from more people. "I don't want to pay loan sharks out of the state budget," said Jeroným Tejc (ČSSD). However, Řápková such a practice is customary already. Loan sharks reportedly wait for their debtors when people go to pick up their welfare at local authorities' offices.

The authors of the legislation say welfare recipients must become more responsible and that situations in which people abuse the social welfare system must be restricted. Czech MP Zbyněk Stanjura, chair of the ODS MPs, pointed out that the law will help town councilors. "If someone is in material distress, he shouldn't commit misdemeanors," Řápková said. In her view the bill is a tool for mayors to address the situation in their towns.

During the first reading, some governing coalition MPs opposed the bill, but on Friday they were united in favor of it. It is expected that the Czech Senate, where the left wing predominates, will return the bill to the lower house.

The Chomutov town hall confiscated people's welfare benefits when Řápková was chief magistrate there. Once people received their benefits at the town hall, a collections agent was on hand to confiscate the money from those who owed back rent. The Czech Government Human Rights Commissioner and the ombudsman opposed the town's procedure. The Czech Justice Minister also investigated it on suspicion of violating the Czech Constitution.

ČTK, Gwendolyn Albert, Radka Steklá, ras, Czech Press Agency, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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