Minister of Finance Martin Helme (EKRE) recently demanded that certain associations be required to return gambling tax support sums. The Ministry of Social Affairs says it does not plan to comply, nor would it be possible.
The National Audit Office concluded three weeks ago that five projects that were funded last year should not have been allocated support from gambling tax proceeds. Gambling tax money can be made available to projects to do with medicine, welfare, families, elderly, people with disabilities or gambling addiction. The five projects audited were rather aimed at equality policy, the audit office found.
The Ministry of Social Affairs replied that equality policy needs to be seen in broader context. For example, the project "Sexual and gender minorities awareness and interest protection activity and community support" is connected to families and mental health, the ministry finds.
Minister of Finance Martin Helme (EKRE) was not satisfied with the social ministry's explanation and ordered the State Support Services Center to stop payments to the five projects.
However the minister overlooked the fact that the projects mentioned in his letter have no link to the center. Besides, projects were concluded last year and the NGOs behind them have already received the money.
Helme also turned to the social ministry and asked it to demand return of support sums.
Deputy secretary general of the ministry Rait Kuuse said the ministry is planning to do no such thing. First, the ministry finds that support was paid in accordance with rules. The second reason is purely legal.
"There are no legal grounds for demanding the project support recipients return anything or for the projects to be reopened. I would add that even altering the support criteria, should it be decided, would not render the projects null and void," Kuuse said.
The National Audit Office also concludes that associations that were paid support "had and have reason to expect support to be paid out in full."
Kuuse added that the ministry is also not considering launching supervisory control proceedings sought by Helme because it is unnecessary. Support rules are fixed in laws and regulations.
Nothing will change for projects still underway. Even though the project applications committee still resides at the social ministry, funding decisions are now made by the support services center. That is also where the money is paid out.
Projects that qualify for support until 2021 include the Estonian Human Rights Center's "Equal opportunities in a coherent society" and the Estonian Women's Studies and Resource Center's "ENUT and partners promoting gender equality." Both NGOs have received a single payment and stand to receive another seven.
The audit office did not analyze the latter projects. At the same time, they are also tied to equality policy. A letter demanding funding to be pulled for these projects would also come to nothing.
Head of the support department for the State Support Services Center Tiina Kams said that finding an administrative act null and void is regulated by the Administrative Procedure Act. "We definitely cannot revoke funding decisions based on a memorandum from someone. Recipients have applied for support in good faith, been granted it and are busy putting projects into practice. We can only act in accordance with rules."
Kams said that revocation of support requires a legal basis and that no such basis exists at this time.
Rait Kuuse said that even though the social ministry does not agree with the audit office's conclusions, the watchdog's position will be noted for future reference. It is possible the ministry's awareness efforts will be revised.
"One possible avenue where adjustment could be considered is defining the aim of eligible projects a little bit more specifically for applicants. For example, gender equality topics are largely family matters. Perhaps this element should be phrased more clearly in our materials," Kuuse said.
Editor: Marcus Turovski