An article appearing in daily Postimees published Saturday claims an interior ministry under-secretary tried to mislead it over its strategy on staff cuts at the police authority and other bodies. The ministry itself, however, rejects the paper’s charge, though notes the information it presented had some ambiguities.
The incident is related to controversy which broke towards the end of the week, where finance minister Martin Helme called for the resignation of Police and Border Guard Board (PPA) chief Elmar Vaher, claiming the latter had misled his staff on the issue of cuts and redundancies. The demand for Vaher’s resignation was repeated by interior minister Mart Helme on Thursday afternoon. Vaher stood his ground, backed by the prime minister. On Friday the government confirmed that Vaher would be staying put as PPA chief.
Martin Helme later conceded he had overstepped his role and interfered in the affairs of another ministry. Even the relevant ministry itself (I.e interior) is not by precedent permitted to unilaterally fire heads of state bodies under its remit (the PPA in this case), something which is a matter for the government as a whole.
According to the Postimees piece on Saturday (link in Estonian), ministry undersecretary Piret Lilleväli had presented to the paper minutes from a June ministry meeting which seemed to indicate a guarantee against widespread layoffs, including at the PPA, as decided at the same meeting.
However this section was not in the original minutes and thus meeting, according to Postimees, being a later addition. The ministry concedes this, saying that miscommunication was key and no deliberate attempt to mislead was made, adding that Postmees does not get to dictate how the ministry should conduct its affairs.
Since both the Helme’s lines have consistently been that no cuts were in the pipeline at the PPA elsewhere, documentation appearing to suggest this decision had been the case already in early June obviously works in their favor.
Ministry intention questioned, not stance itself
The key passage read as follows according to Postimees:
“People are a priority: salaries for internal security staff remain unchanged, and proposals for staff reductions are rather an exception and can only relate to a substantial reorganization of a service, just not to plan staff reductions.”
What is disputed is whether the ministry attempted to sneak this wording in as if it dated from an earlier time than it was drafted.
An interior ministry meeting held Jun. 5 followed an announcement by its secretary-general Lauri Lugna in late May, which tasked the ministry’s departments, including the PPA, with finding costs savings including in areas such as investments, grants, labor and management costs.
The figure for the PPA was reportedly put at €8.2 million, ERR’s online news in Estonian says (Vaher himself quoted a figure of €6 million for next year, rising to over €20 million in the following years, in his original leaked communication claiming redundancies were imminent).
The key passage noted above was not in the original minutes of the meeting, however, and was only later added at the end of July. These were presented to Postimees along with the original minutes of the meeting by Lilleväli, with no distinction made; the latter later conceded the passage was an addition.
Lilleväli also said that Vaher found the original strategy concerning the PPA amenable to him.
Ministry of Interior response
On Saturday, Lilleväli noted, via a ministry communication, that there had been a communication breakdown on the part of the ministry.
“We communicated the information to the [Postimees] journalist via the Ministry of the Interior in such a way that the summary I enclosed and the extract from the minutes were not clearly distinguished,” Lilleväli said.
Lilleväli qualified this by saying that the ministry’s line was one of protecting staff where possible, all along, albeit in a separate communication which refers to salaries rather than positions.
“An article published today by Postimees gives the impression that the ministry did not provide guidance to government leaders on austerity policies, including staffing, until July. In fact, on May 17, I sent a letter to our leaders explaining the austerity needs as well as the principles to follow. Among other things, I wrote that the proposal must not include a reduction in the basic salaries of workers, and that the proposal may include reorganization of structures and services and reduction in the volume of non-essential services, an extension of the life of assets, etc. This letter was also forwarded to Postimees,” Lilleväli wrote.
Lauri Lugna also set out the ministry position in a press release Saturday, as reported by ERR (link in Estonian).
“We have weekly senior management meetings and staff issues are constantly on the agenda. We are continually discussing the need to keep internal security staff in place because there are so few
of them. As of today, all agencies have put forward very sensible proposals that maximize staffing. This has also been done by the PPA,” Lugna noted, also stating that Postimees were the ones misrepresenting the situation, claiming the ministry had deliberately embellished the minutes of the June meeting.
“I confirm that I have not supplemented the minutes, but, since these were pretty basic, I wanted to pass on to the journalist a theme we have discussed at this and many other meetings, i.e. that people are a priority in the field of internal security,” Lugna said.
Key word in wrong place in information ministry sent to Postimees
Lugna also admitted the materials sent to Postimees had some ambiguity, particularly related to the word “decision” being wrongly placed, before the above topics of discussion on staff.
“We emphasize that these were not minutes, but explanations sent by e-mail. Further reading of the letter sets out the principles that have been agreed upon by the leaders of the administration and the decision of the minutes,” Lugna said.
“The only passage taken verbatim from the minutes is the one-sentence decision followed, by the table. Therefore, neither Piret Lilleväli, nor anyone else has supplemented the minutes,” he added.
Comes two days after Elmar Vaher resignation papers digital signature incident
The ministry also said that not everything discussed at meetings was taken down verbatim, with meeting minutes being more a summary of discussions and decisions.
“I do not share the [Postimees] journalist’s view that everything must run to tight protocols. The right things can only come about through healthy cooperation, agreements and trust, not through bureaucracy,” Lugna added.
“[Government] Agencies [under the interior ministry’s remit] were to present at least two alternate cost-savings plans for the period 2020 to 2023, by August 15, respectively, with the relevant figures,” the ministry added Saturday.
The episode comes just a couple of days after reports of another incident involving a procedural lack of clarity at the interior ministry. At a meeting Thursday at the ministry between Elmar Vaher and Martin Helme, who is in fact the finance minister not the interior minister, Vaher was reportedly presented with documents requesting his resignation, which were printed in such a way that they may have been interpreted as having been digitally signed by Lugna. In fact, the latter had not digitally signed the document; naturally paper documents do not contain digital signatures as such in any case.