Saturday 9/25/21

Sanna Marin's food payments with public money cause outrage in Finland

The prime minister's office angers the family of former prime minister Paavo Lipponen (SDP), saying these benefits have been used since his time in government.
Plenary session on April 28, 2021. Announcement by Prime Minister Sanna Marin (sd) of the exit strategy from covid-19. Photo: Hanne Salonen/Eduskunta.
Prime Minister Sanna Marin, at the Parliament. Photo: Hanne Salonen/Eduskunta/file photo.

Many Finns are stunned to witness a new alleged case of misuse of public funds by high-ranking politicians. Now it is Prime Minister Sanna Marin (SDP) who is under fire after the Finnish press revealed payments of 300 euros a month with taxpayers' money for the breakfast of Marin and her family at the official residence of Kesäranta.

In a country that boasts very low levels of corruption, the case has caused quite a bit of outrage and sparked debate in the press and on social media, where the hashtag 'aamiaisgate' ('breakfastgate', in English) is a trending topic. This is the second case of alleged misuse of public funds to shake the five-party coalition government, after the scandal that forced then-Finance Minister Katri Kulmuni to resign less than a year ago.

The matter was revealed two days ago by the newspaper Iltalehti, which reported that the Prime Minister uses 300 euros a month of public money to buy groceries that are conveniently delivered to Kesäranta for her and her family's breakfast.

This new controversy comes at a bad time for the prime minister, just over two weeks before the municipal elections and with her popularity on the decline. Voting intention polls place the Social Democratic Party (SDP) behind the the right-wing opposition, embodied by the National Coalition Party (Kokoomus) and the right-wing populists True Finns (Perussuomalaiset).

A questionable argument

The Prime Minister's Office justifies the expenses and says that the prime minister and her family members have the right to use state money for their breakfast and cold meals during their stays at the official residence. However, the argument is questionable, as the newspaper emphasizes and is understood by many Finns.

In fact, the Prime Minister's Office used Articles 6 and 7 of the Act on Ministers' Salaries and Allowances to try to justify the legality of paid breakfasts.

However, the aforementioned articles do not not refer to any kind of food provisions. They just state that "The prime minister is provided with housing in a state-owned building and the State is responsible for the costs incurred due to its maintenance, heating, lighting and furnishings, plus the necessary staff" and that " Based on a decision by the Prime Minister's Office, a minister is reimbursed for reasonable extra costs associated with ministerial responsibilities."

A tax issue

The question has also involved the Tax Administration (Vero), which the Finnish press has asked to clarify whether Marin notified the enjoyment of these tax-free breakfasts, which could be considered a benefit or payment in kind.

A prominent tax expert told the newspaper Ilta Sanomat that if someone receives 300 euros worth of food from their employer to make breakfast at home, then the amount, of course, is taxable income at its full fair value. In these cases, both the payer and the receiver of the income have the obligation to declare the benefit to the tax administration.

The Prime Minister's Office has also tried to get rid of the scandal by arguing that this benefit has been used before since the term of Paavo Lipponen, who was the premier between 1995 and 2003 and who also chaired the SDP. From Brussels, Sanna Marin herself alluded to this alleged prior use of public money for breakfast and stated that "the practice has been the same as for previous prime ministers."

The controversy has also angered Päivi Lipponen, the wife of former Prime Minister Paavo Lipponen. Outraged after her family was mentioned in connection with this scandal, she wrote on Facebook that she always paid for her family's food herself, cooked and cleaned and even paid rent during the time her husband was prime minister.