Czech Institute for Social Inclusion: If local authorities must seize benefits from the most impoverished to cover debts, poverty will intensify
On Friday, 9 July, the Czech Chamber of Deputies adopted a bill proposed by the Civic Democratic Party (ODS) that would make it possible for local authorities to seize benefits from the poorest of the poor to cover certain debts owed by such people to the local authority - apparently when lawmakers do not know how to address the complex problem of poverty and social exclusion, then they are prepared to say that not only do they not intend to solve it, but also that they want to perform some experiments on people, at least, if any of the other long-rejected paths to a solution don't work out. ODS is already an authentic and traditional pioneer at building these dead-end streets into Czech social policy.
We all know you cannot make gold by releasing tobacco smoke into water, but the ODS is intending, with the aid of the power-hungry ANO movement, the obscure "Freedom and Direct Democracy" (SPD) movement, various unaffiliated apostates in the lower house and the intolerant Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSČM) to demonstrate to us all once again that weaning poor people off of the housing benefit leads to hunger, because the poor then have to use their food benefits to pay for their housing - which we are seeing thanks to the Constitutional Court having gone limp for a fourth year in a row on the issue of "housing benefit-free zones" - not to mention their demonstrating the "surprising" finding that cutting both of these benefits will create the dilemma for a family of whether to live in a garage somewhere or whether to commit crimes so they can afford to live in real housing. Because both Christian parties fear not being re-elected to the Chamber of Deputies this fall, both of the Christian parties (with the exception of Czech MP Jan Čižinský, who is no longer really a Christian Democrat) have befriended ODS and combined their forces in the movement called SPOLU (TOGETHER).
"It is difficult to say why the Christian Democrats (KDU-ČSL) and TOP 09, for example, have voted for this anti-social law that will push thousands of the most impoverished households, including families with children, into absolute poverty," Institute for Social Inclusion (IPSI) director Martin Šimáček commented after the vote. This rejection of Christian values, which include aid to the needy, is reminiscent of the KSČM's noticeable rejection of families with children and their rejection of impoverished workers.
This is a sad state of affairs. Once again, therefore, we have had to listen in the Chamber of Deputies to fairy tales about how the local authorities allegedly lack any legal tools for ensuring local order and peace for their decent, working residents while "THEY" (the "inadaptables", the "Roma", the "welfare cheats") just laugh at the fines levied against them locally (feigned emotion is a necessary ingredient of these speeches about this unrecognized poverty) and the Czech Labor Ministry does "nothing" about it.
The voice of Pirate MP Olga Richterová was heard in the Chamber of Deputies more than once, each time in vain, as she pointed out that the addressing of misdemeanors actually falls under the Interior Ministry, which keeps a list of such offenses committed and the sanctions levied for them (which are far from just involving fines) and that therefore it is the municipal police and the Police of the Czech Republic which are in charge of this, just as they are also in charge of enforcing local authorities' agendas, including municipal ordinances. However, since we do not have "famine" listed as a sanction in either the Criminal Code or the laws on misdemeanors, it is probably "logical" to blame the insufficient effect of modern punishments on the ministry running the Labor Offices that disburse money for food and housing.
Be that as it may, the Chamber of Deputies was still permeated by a medieval spirit, and there was no lack of clear visions of how to reinstate the poorhouse. "We, in Most, do not have a problem with residential hotels - our problem is that 'they' are living in our apartment units!" Czech MP Hana Aulická Jírovcová (KSČM) told the lower house.
What is it that the Senate must now review?
People who repeatedly draw on aid to those in material distress - currently 67 300 families, i.e., about 200 000 individuals - if they themselves or somebody judged as co-responsible for them (e.g. a minor's parent whose whereabouts are unknown) commits a misdemeanor mentioned in the bill (ALL IT TAKES IS ONE) and then fails to pay the fine levied by the municipality (ALL IT TAKES IS ONE MISSED PAYMENT), will lose part of their housing benefit, the value of which is currently an average of CZK 4 260 [EUR 165] per family. If that is not enough of an incentive to get them to pay their debt, they will then lose their subsistence contribution (currently CZK 4 330 [EUR 170] per family).
Here we must recall there is actually no such thing as a "serious" or "significant" misdemeanor - that idea is the invention of Ivana Řápková, formerly of the ODS, who got her law degree in Plzeň (suspiciously quickly). We will now cite from lower house publication number 290/5, B2, Section 51a paragraph 1 of Act No. 111/2006, Coll, on aid to those in material distress: "Deductions may be made from the subsistence allowance and the housing supplement for the payment of fines imposed for the offenses referred to in paragraph 2 committed by a natural person who is not a juvenile and who is the recipient of a subsistence allowance or housing supplement, or if the offense is committed by a PERSON ASSOCIATED WITH THE RECIPIENT, if more than three years have elapsed and no more than one year has elapsed since the final imposition of the fine."
"THE PROVISIONS EXEMPTING BENEFITS FROM COLLECTIONS DO NOT APPLY IN THIS CASE," states the amendment. An overview of the offenses and the amounts of the fines that can be levied for them, which can be up to CZK 10 000 [EUR 390], can be found at this link (Czech only).
Part A, Section 4a, paragraph 2 and 4 of the adopted bill reads as follows: "The housing supplement and the subsistence allowance CAN THEN BE REDUCED AGAIN FOR MORE THAN A MONTH until all fines for selected offenses reported to the relevant regional branch of the Labor Office (hereinafter referred to as “notified selected offenses”) are paid; THE HOUSING SUPPLEMENT WILL BE REDUCED FIRST, AND IF THAT DOES NOT PROVE SUFFICIENT, THEN THE LIVING ALLOWANCE WILL BE REDUCED. The amount by which the benefit is reduced due to the payment of a fine for a notified selected offense BECOMES THE REVENUE OF THE MUNICIPALITY THAT IMPOSED THE FINE FOR THIS SELECTED INFRINGEMENT."
As of 1 January 2022, when the bill is meant to take effect if it passes the Senate, that would mean the exemption from collections of such aid to those in material distress, just with respect to fines levied by municipalities - back alimony or child support payments, damages awarded for causing pain and suffering, even debts owed to the Czech state could not be deducted from these benefits, even though such debts are reportedly of priority. Apparently debts owed to individuals or to the state itself are of less social significance than is the payment of a fine for violating a municipal ordinance or stealing a pair of shoes left outside your neighbor's door.
It is more than apparent that what this actually is about is a stupid rush to cover for incompetent leadership at the municipal level. This amendment is the result of a kind populism within the parties that proposed it: "Take care of this in the Chamber of Deputies however you can!"
Local authorities and Labor Offices will manage misdemeanor records but will not have time to help people
Here at IPSI we have been keeping track of the municipalities that were the first to adopt housing benefit-free zones and then to expand them ahead of local elections - and when that didn't work, local governments got together again to tighten the screws... so if this ability for local authorities to collect their unpaid debts from people's welfare becomes law, we will be able to check whether the order of events will follow a similar pattern in these places. It's not going to be that easy, though.
In practice, when punishing the poor, a reasonable town will probably be surprised once they realize that this time the MPs have adopted something that is not optional, but that they are requiring the COMPULSORY WITHDRAWAL OF BENEFITS AFTER THE THIRD UNPAID FINE, while a bonus for the municipalities that shouted for the amendment is also the possible COLLECTION OF BENEFITS IMMEDIATELY FOR A FIRST OFFENSE. Any mayor who does not want to increase social tensions in a municipality by being able to time the application of such punishment will be out of luck.
Part B2, Section 50 paragraphs 3 and 4 of the bill read as follows: "The local authority of a municipality with extended powers will inform the relevant regional branch of the Labor Office of the fine it has imposed for an offense pursuant to Section 51a para. (c) to (f) that was not paid in time if it finds that, in the last 12 months following the commission of the misdemeanor, the offender has also committed at least two other offenses under Article 51a (2), as well as informing the relevant regional branch of the Labor Office of the time of the commission of all such offenses. THE LOCAL AUTHORITY OF THE MUNICIPALITY WITH EXTENDED POWERS WILL INFORM the relevant regional branch of the Labor Office of the fines imposed and NOT PAID ON TIME for an offense under Section 51a (2) (c) to (f) as well as of the time of the commission of said offence if the fine cannot be enforced by any way other than through the procedure according to Section 51a and IF, AT THE SAME TIME, THERE ARE SERIOUS DOUBTS ABOUT THE OFFENDER'S ABILITY TO MAKE RESTITUTION; the reasons for the procedure provided for in this paragraph must be justified in such a way that the procedure can be reviewed."
What happens next?
The bill is heading to the Czech Senate (led by the ODS), where we will again attempt to fight it. It would be fine if the senators, as opposed to most of their counterparts in the lower house, would stick to the subject of the law being amended and consider responsibly whether taking away people's benefits for food and housing because they haven't paid a fine for a misdemeanor - somebody who may well not even live in that particular municipality - will help the situation.
It is necessary to consider that under this bill it willnot be optional for municipalities to report unpaid fines to the Labor Offices, but it will be required of them, which means they will therefore contribute to cutting benefits for the basic living needs of all those involved who are in material distress. In other words, the frequently-told story of the "known elements" whom municipalities will finally be able to stamp out will not apply in this scenario - they will not be able to fine-tune their use of this legal instrument to target just some offenders and not others.
We hope to find comprehension in the Senate at least for the idea that any change to the law on aid to those in material distress should contribute to addressing the problem of poverty. A bill that will intensify poverty must therefore be rejected.
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