Education minister Mailis Reps (Center) has told ERR that while she is ready to make changes to her work practices following an article on the website of evening paper Õhtuleht which provided evidence her official ministry car had been used for taking her children to and from school or kindergarten, no childcare staff were on the Ministry of Education and Researches' payroll.
As reported on ERR News, Õhtuleht had followed her official ministry car on three separate occasions recently, finding each time it was being used to transport her children.
Reps, who has opposed switching schools in Estonia to distance learning save for in the most serious cases and as directed by the Health Board, denied any wrongdoing, though she did concede that the rules had not been clear and alterations and clarification would be needed. With that, she would stay in her post, assuming the saga did not disrupt ministry work unduly.
Reps also said that a recent uptick in car use for transporting her children – Reps has six of them – was largely due to an increased workload in the coronavirus pandemic and with the ongoing state budget negotiations which started in September.
"Unfortunately, the main picture that now emerges from these videos and the article arises from the fact that there have been budgetary procedures and COVID crisis meetings during this time, due to a number of very extraordinary circumstances," Reps told ERR's online news in Estonian Wednesday.
"This is really concerning those days where I have to be at work beyond 5 p.m., when the children come home from their kindergarten and school, and then the driver has conveyed them home and then driven to where my meetings are," Reps went on, adding that in recent weeks her driver had been taking the children more than she had.
"My desire as a mother is always to do things for my own children. The reason being that while driving the car during rush hour, you get to talk so much about world affairs, and it's such a great time to be together."
Reps: I will stay in the job provided fallout doesn't interfere with work
As to the question of whether she would continue in her post, Reps said in principle her desire was to do so, adding that some changes might be needed.
"I face a lot of challenges expected of me today, especially now during the difficult coronavirus times. Without a doubt, I do not want to miss out on the challenges the educational field provides," she said.
"However, of course, we need to be better at reconciling the family and work life balance and finding practical solutions, and we need to find solutions to make this combination work more in proportion."
Reps denied claims that there were people in ministry pay whose sole function was to take care of her six children.
"This is absolutely untrue. This issue goes back to the previous driver's comments (that official ministry cars on child-ferrying duties was standard practice – ed.) and, as I also told Õhtuleht, this dated back to when [the name of Reps' youngest child] was very young and for the first seven months of their life, they came with me to work each day."
"Add to that the period of Estonia holding the Council of the EU presidency (in the second half of 2017 – ed.) where there were a lot of trips to Brussels."
Reps added that during this time she had assistants who went with her to Brussels and who were of great assistance during that time, and most likely made the difference between her being able to perform her role, or not being able to and having to be replaced.
However, a dedicated babysitter or child minder was at no time on ministry payroll, she added.
"I categorically reject the question that someone would have been hired separately, or had the task of caring for the children, which is not true. I repeat, I have had [my own] babysitter for 17 years. Otherwise, I would not have been able to pursue a career like the one I have done in politics. So we have that back at home, and I am very grateful for that."
As to the question of the legality of a special agreement to use a ministry car for effectively non-ministry tasks, Reps said all was above board and that a special tax is payable for the purpose, which facilitates using the car for private trips, or for school or shopping duties. Having said that, there had been a lack of clarity on where the dividing line lay on when the car could be used and when not.
Reps did not answer directly if any money would be paid back relating to the ministry car's use, saying that there had been some confusion over categories.
"If the question is whether the use of a car granted to a minister for which a special preferential tax has been paid is not suitable for private travel, then things must be adjusted in that case. At the end of the day, the information given to me has been incorrect thus far."
Another charge which the Õhtuleht article made was that staff had been pressured into performing child-related duties, which Reps also rejected.
"This, of course, was by mutual agreement. It has not been a question of coercing or influencing anyone. It developed over a period of four years, with both the previous driver and the current one. The change of driver was also not related to me personally; there were other issues at play in the administrative department."
Reps added that since the story broke overnight Tuesday to Wednesday, she had not had time to formulate things further going forward, but that a balance needed to be found and scheduling would be improved, and that she would also continue to use her own private car.
Editor: Andrew Whyte