Parliament Passes Controversial Agricultural Bill Amid Opposition

Alþingi parliament of Iceland

A revised amendment to the agricultural products law (búvörulög) passed yesterday despite opposition from various stakeholders, paving the way for a potential monopoly in the agricultural processing sector. Critics argue the bill goes too far, with concerns that it could lead to higher prices for consumers.

Paving the way to a monopoly

A revised amendment to the law on agricultural products was passed yesterday, after the third debate in Parliament, despite requests for a postponement of the vote from the opposition and warnings from the Confederation of Icelandic Enterprise (ASÍ), the Consumers’ Association, and other stakeholders, Mbl.is reports.

The revised amendment, proposed by the majority of the Industrial Affairs Committee (atvinnuveganefnd), has been criticised for going further than the original bill, Mbl.is notes. Twenty-six MPs voted in favour of the legislation and nineteen against.

Members of the opposition, including Jóhann Páll Jóhannsson of the Social Democratic Alliance, Gísli Rafn Ólafsson of the Pirate Party, and Hanna Katrín Friðriksson of the Reform Party, requested a postponement. To no avail. The amendments include, among other things, an exemption for agricultural processing plants from competition laws, facilitating their consolidation.

“This means we will end up with Agricultural Products Inc. – a single company handling everything, and thus achieving an effective monopoly in Iceland, able to raise prices for us consumers without our ability to do anything about it. The same applies regarding what is paid to farmers, since there will only be one processing plant left,” Gísli Rafn stated in a speech before Parliament, as quoted by Mbl.is.

Competition from abroad

The Confederation of Icelandic Enterprise (ASÍ), the Commercial Workers’ Union (VR), the Consumers’ Association, the Federation of Trade and Services (SVÞ), and the Icelandic Federation of Trade have warned against the passage of the bill, stating it goes against public interest. The Chair of the Industrial Affairs Committee, Þórarinn Ingi Pétursson of the Progressive Party, argues, however, that consumers are prioritised in these changes. “There will be no farmers if there aren’t consumers to consume their products.”

Þórarinn stated that if farmers and processing plants cannot offer consumers high-quality goods at competitive prices, there will be no domestic food production anyway: “So, consumers are always a priority when discussing domestic food production, and let’s not forget that we have competition in the food market. It comes from abroad,” Þórarinn observed.

“Unnecessary” changes

Kristrún Frostadóttir, the chairperson of the Social Democratic Alliance, stated that while farmers could not live with the status quo, it appeared that “something has gone seriously wrong in the processing” of the legislation. Instead of revising the bill back within the ministry to grant exemptions to those agricultural sectors most in need, a decision was made to proceed with a flawed bill.

“The result is a blanket exemption that could lead to a single large processing plant for all meat processing in the country, regardless of the type of livestock. This was unnecessary,” Kristún stated, noting that the methodology employed disadvantaged those who needed the changes the most.

Icelandic Police Bill to Boost Surveillance Powers

police station reykjavík

Icelandic police would be given increased powers of surveillance if a bill proposed by Justice Minister Guðrún Hafsteinsdóttir is passed. RÚV reports that Guðrún introduced the bill in Parliament yesterday. Opposition MP Arndís Anna Kristínardóttir believes the power the bill grants police is too extensive.

The aim of the bill is to strengthen the police’s ability to respond to organised crime and to give it the authority to monitor individuals who have not committed a crime. To have this authority, there must be a suspicion that an individual is connected to criminal organisations and could potentially commit a serious offence.

The bill would grant police the right to carry out such surveillance in public places, but not within private homes. The police would not need a court order to carry out such surveillance, although a special steering group that includes police officials would have to approve the measure.  The Minister of Justice stated that the bill would bring Icelandic legislation closer to legislation in other Nordic countries.

No independent supervision of police

Pirate Party MP Arndís Anna Kristínardóttir criticised the bill for not including any independent supervision of police and the use of this surveillance permission. “What is being done here is that the police are being given authority to monitor ordinary citizens who have done nothing wrong and even without any suspicion that the person has done anything wrong,” she stated. The Minister of Justice stated that the bill also includes increased supervision of police through establishing a monitoring group for police work and regular reports on the matter to Parliament.

Read More: Police Powers in Iceland

The Ministry of Justice, under the leadership of the Independence Party, has been pushing for increased police powers for some time. In 2022, then Minister of Justice Jón Gunnarsson introduced a crime bill with similar measures to the bill Guðrún Hafsteinsdóttir introduced yesterday. It was criticised by the Icelandic Bar Association as well as opposition MPs.

“There are, of course, some conditions in the bill, but it gives the police authority to monitor people’s movements without they themselves being under suspicion of criminal conduct, whether or not they have committed a crime or are preparing to commit a crime,” Sigurður Örn Hilmarsson, the chairman of the Icelandic Bar Association, stated at the time. He suggested that establishing a dedicated organisation such as an intelligence service would be a better way of investigating the most serious crimes, such as terrorism or organised crime.

Regulation Changes Needed to Ensure Safe Housing

Slökkvilið höfuðborgarsvæðisins bs / Facebook. Fire in Hafnarfjörður, August 20, 2023

Iceland’s housing problem gets worse with each passing year, President of The Icelandic Confederation of Labour (ASÍ) Finnbjörn A. Hermannsson stated in a radio interview yesterday morning. One died and two others were hospitalised in a fire earlier this week that broke out in an industrial building that was being used for housing. Thousands are likely living in buildings that are not classified as residential in Iceland and Finnbjörn says such residences should be legalised to ease safety monitoring.

Housing a key issue in upcoming wage negotiations

Finnbjörn says there simply isn’t enough housing to meet demand in Iceland. “We can’t even keep up with normal [population] growth, let alone when we get such a huge wave of working people that the society needs,” he stated. “Everyone needs somewhere to live and so they go to these industrial buildings that are not intended for residence.”

Following a fatal house fire in June 2020, Icelandic authorities launched an investigation into housing conditions in Iceland that found that between 5,000 and 7,000 people were living in properties classified as commercial or industrial buildings in Iceland in 2021. Finnbjörn says that housing will be at the forefront in the coming collective agreement negotiations. He expressed his faith that the situation would improve.

New legislation on the way

Living in buildings that are not classified as residential buildings is currently illegal in Iceland. It has proven difficult for fire departments to monitor such buildings due to privacy laws. However, the Minister of Infrastructure plans to introduce a bill next month that would allow for temporary residence permits in buildings that are not classified as residential, provided they fulfil safety requirements. The legislation would also authorise fire departments to monitor such buildings more closely.

Taxi Drivers Stage Protest in Reykjavík

Taxi in Iceland's capital, Reykjavík

A heated meeting took place among taxi drivers in Reykjavík and Suðurnes yesterday evening to discuss a bill on taxi services sponsored by the Ministry of Infrastructure, RÚV reports. This morning, taxi drivers staged a protest outside the Minister’s Residence in Reykjavík.

Protest stopped by the police

Outside the Minister’s Residence in Reykjavík this morning, numerous taxi drivers staged a protest, which was eventually stopped by the police; expressing their strong objecting to a new bill on taxi services, taxi drivers drove down the street and honked their horns in front of the residence.

Drivers were not allowed to enter the government meeting inside the minister’s residence, however, but Daníel O. Einarsson – the Chairman of the Federation of Icelandic Taxi Drivers (Bandalag íslenskra leigubílstjóra) – took the time to read out a special appeal, Fréttablaðið reports. He requested that the processing of the bill be postponed.

“The Federation asks the government to grant working taxi drivers a hearing as regards the bill on taxi services,” Daníel stated. Approval of the bill would open up the door for ride-share services like Uber, which have gained a foothold abroad.

Abolition of designated taxi zones and more licences

The Ministry of Infrastructure posted the bill to the government’s consultation portal (Samráðsgátt) in July. As noted on the website, the draft of the proposed law is similar to former bills that have previously failed to pass through Parliament.

Among other things, the bill proposes the abolition of designated taxi zones and removal of restrictions on the number of work permits. It also removes the obligation for taxis to operate through designated stations and proposes alterations to requirements for those who intend to work as taxi drivers.

Worried that income will be lost in the form of foreign currency

In an interview with RÚV, Guðmundur Börkur Thorarensen, Managing Director of BSR Taxi, stated that the association was dissatisfied with the bill:

“We are concerned that a large part of the drivers’ income, 30%, will leave the country in the form of foreign currency; that it will reduce income among drivers; and make the service that we have been offering, over the past few years, much worse,” Guðmundur remarked.

Guðmundur maintained that BSR had repeatedly pointed out that more work permits were needed: “But the idea that we should just completely open it up and that there would be no filter as far as quality standards are concerned or the number of drivers, that’s never been on the table.”

Minister of Justice’s Police Bill Approved by Cabinet

Jón Gunnarsson Minister of Justice

A new bill on policing, sponsored by the Minister of Justice, was approved by the coalition government this morning, Vísir reports. The Minister expects the bill – which will, among other things, authorise proactive investigations – to be enacted shortly after the new year.

Proactive investigations to be authorised

A day after Minister of Justice Jón Gunnarsson announced his intention to “wage war on organised crime in Iceland,” his proposed amendment to the Police Act has been approved by the cabinet. The bill, which was been in the works by the Ministry of Justice for some time, was submitted for public review and commentary in March of this year.

Speaking to Vísir, Minister of Justice Jón Gunnarsson stated that he expected the bill to be distributed among the parliamentary parties tomorrow. The purpose of the bill is to grant greater authority to the police in its effort to deter crime, especially in relation to organised crime and national security. “We’re trying to move closer to those police protocols that have been adopted by our neighbouring countries,” Jón stated.

The bill will authorise proactive investigations and enshrine in law regulations concerning the use of weapons among police.

“We refer to it as crime deterrence, allowing the police to begin investigating individuals who although not suspected of committing a crime are believed to be associated with organised crime, or other operations that pose a risk to national safety. Such investigations would, however, always be launched by the Chief of Police or other senior officers. We will also establish an office of internal affairs, which will always be notified in the event of such investigations. A supervisory committee will also be notified as early as possible.”

Jón hopes that the bill will be enacted quickly.

“I’m hoping that the bill passes through parliamentary review tomorrow and that I’ll be able to address Parliament next week. Then it’s, of course, up to the parliamentary committee to discuss. I know that the general committee has been quite busy recently, so we’ll have to see how quickly things progress. I think it’s realistic to hope that the bill would be enacted shortly after the new year, that is, if it’s not been enacted before Christmas.”

Bill to Amend Foreign Nationals Act Distributed Among MP’s

Jón Gunnarsson Alþingi

Minister of Justice Jón Gunnarsson distributed his bill to amend the Foreign Nationals Act among members of Parliament today. If passed into law, the bill would, among other things, strip asylum seekers of their rights 30 days after their applications have been rejected.

“A difficult situation”

Last spring, Minister of Justice Jón Gunnarsson announced his intention of submitting a bill to Parliament that would amend the Foreign Nationals Act. The Foreign National Act concerns the “authorisation of foreign nationals to enter Iceland, their stay in the country, and their right to international protection.”

Earlier this month, Jón observed that the government was facing a “difficult situation” when it came to asylum seekers in Iceland. He maintained that the welfare system was unable to cope with increased demand and that it was his hope that the new bill would help to solve “certain problems.” As noted by RÚV, a record number of individuals (2,500) have applied for international protection in Iceland this year.

Speaking to RÚV, Jón maintained that it was the “government’s duty” to establish a closed facility for asylum seekers whose applications for international protection had been rejected. “This means that individuals are placed in particular housing, with limited access, limited freedom to travel, while they wait to be deported.”

Jón added: “We’re dealing with a specific problem when it comes to deportations, namely that we’re unable to reach certain individuals, we don’t know where they are, or whether they’ve left the country.”

Backlash and disagreement

The minister’s rhetoric inspired immediate criticism from members of the Pirate and Reform parties, among others, who accused Jón of stoking fear with “vague claims and assertions” about asylum seekers.

PM Katrín Jakobsdóttir, who leads the cabinet to which Jón Gunnarsson belongs, stated that she disagreed with the Minister of Justice’s assertion that “chaos reigned” in matters relating to asylum seekers in Iceland.

Addressing Parliament, Katrín remarked that the situation in Iceland was merely a reflection of unprecedented times and the offshoot of two governmental decisions in Iceland, namely to receive a greater number of refugees from Ukraine and Venezuela.

Asylum seekers stripped of rights 30 days after rejection

This morning, the Minister’s bill was distributed among members of Parliament. It marked the fifth time that such an amendment was submitted to Parliament.

As noted by RÚV, the bill stipulates that the rights of a foreign national (the right to housing, healthcare, etc.) whose application for international protection has been rejected be stripped 30 days after said rejection. This would, according to the authors’ rationale, prevent individuals from seeking services, even for years on end, after they’ve been made to leave the country.

If passed into law, asylum seekers would “no longer have access to healthcare or schools; however, the rights of children; parents or custodians; pregnant women; or disabled individuals with long-term support needs cannot be revoked.”

To review the bill in Icelandic, click here.

Bill to Ban Oil Exploration to Be Resubmitted

Minister of the Environment Guðlaugur Þór Guðlaugsson has announced that he will resubmit a bill to Parliament banning oil exploration within Iceland’s exclusive economic zone, RÚV reports. The ban is “fully consistent with the government’s climate policy,” says the minister.

Focusing on green, Icelandic energy

Last spring, Minister of the Environment Guðlaugur Þór Guðlaugsson submitted a bill to Parliament banning oil exploration within Iceland’s exclusive economic zone. The bill was in line with the ruling parties’ government agreement, which stipulated that the authorities would not grant any oil-exploration licences (while also setting a few climate-related goals, among them Iceland becoming carbon-neutral by 2040).

Although the bill was not voted on prior to Parliament’s summer hiatus, the minister has now announced his intention of resubmitting the bill this fall, RÚV reports. The ban will not only extend to oil exploration within Iceland’s exclusive economic zone but will also ban all research and oil and gas processing in the area. The bill implies revisions to several Icelandic laws.

When asked by RÚV whether eliminating this option during the energy crisis in Europe was wise, the minister responded thusly: “This option would not solve our current problems. Any benefit from oil exploration would not be felt in a matter of years – but decades. We do, however, need energy, and we’ve got it. We know how to generate energy, by which I’m referring to geothermal heat, hydroelectric power, and other alternatives.”

As noted by RÚV, the history of oil exploration in Iceland is relatively brief, having mostly been focused on the so-called “Dragon Zone” to the northeast of Iceland. The first oil-exploration licences were granted in 2012. Three companies were granted licences, all three of which have since relinquished them (the last of which in 2018).

The minister clarified that any criticism of the bill, which was “perfectly natural,” stemmed mainly from the observation that Europe, and the world at large, was facing an energy crisis – but that that energy was needed quickly.

“Those countries with which we like to compare ourselves – not just because of climate change but also because they’re trying not to rely on Russia – are trying to find [cleaner solutions fast], which is why our focus is, first and foremost, on green Icelandic energy.”

In a “prime position”

Earlier this month, Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir addressed the bill during her keynote speech before Parliament, observing that Iceland was in a “prime position” to transition to greener sources of energy for the sake of public and planetary good, by ensuring, among other things, that energy companies owned by the Icelandic government would not be sold.

“A bill will be submitted that will ban oil exploration in Iceland’s exclusive economic zone. It’s important that this bill be passed for it offers a clear message to the world: Iceland intends to do its part when it comes to the greatest challenge of our time; we are driving full-speed ahead out of the carbon economy – and into a new, green economy,” Katrín stated.

Opposition Proposes Changes to Asylum Seeker Bill

Alþingi Icelandic parliament

MPs in Iceland’s Parliament have not reached an agreement on several bills, and it has become clear that Alþingi will not be prorogued at the end of this week, as planned. Justice Minister Jón Gunnarsson’s immigration bill has been one of the most controversial, and three opposition parties have submitted proposed changes to the bill.

The proposed changes submitted by the Social-Democratic Alliance, People’s Party, and Reform Party are in six parts and their aim is to reach an agreement before the end of this parliamentary session. The first change proposed is for asylum seekers whose applications have been denied continue to be provided with services until they leave the country, instead of being cut off from basic services like housing and food allowances after 30 days, as the bill currently outlines.

Read More: “Everyone Loses” in New Legal Scheme for Asylum Seekers

Other proposed amendments to the bill include continuing to grant applicants for international protection the minimum protection of the Administrative Procedure Act on reopening a case due to new data and information. The parties also propose that quota refugees (those invited to settle in Iceland via international agreements) would have the same rights regarding family reunification in Iceland as others who have received protection here through other routes. These proposals are now being reviewed by the Ministry of Justice.

Criticised by human rights organisations

The first version of this controversial bill was introduced in Alþingi in 2018 but was not passed at the time. This is the fourth version of the bill, which has been criticised by human rights organisations each time it has been introduced.

“This is an attempt by the government to establish a policy that involves significantly constricting refugees, curtailing their human rights, and reducing their possibilities for receiving protection in Iceland,” Activist Sema Erla Serdar of the aid organisation Solaris tweeted. “The bill especially targets children and other people in a particularly vulnerable situation.”

Will Submit a Revised Decriminalisation Bill this Autumn

Minister of Health Willum Þór Þórsson

Iceland’s Health Minister Willum Þór Þórsson says he will submit a revised bill to decriminalise possession of illegal substances in small quantities, RÚV reports. Willum has faced criticism for withdrawing his decriminalisation bill from Parliament’s spring agenda. He says the bill is now being reviewed by a group that includes specialists on the matter.

Read More: Disappointment as Health Minister Shelves Decriminalisation Bill

MPs and rights organisations have criticised the Minister’s decision to drop the bill from Alþingi’s spring agenda. Willum says that the working group will collect data, define terminology, and better organise the issue. They are expected to finish their work by the end of this month. He added that while there has not been consensus on the bill within Parliament, he believes the working group will help solve existing disagreements.

“I have put the matter into a very broad consultation, which is what is often called for, and then I intend to introduce it in the autumn session, which is only five months away,” the Health Minister stated.

Human Rights Organisations Criticise Immigration Bill

Dómsmálaráðherra Ríkisstjórn Alþingi Jón Gunarsson

Several human rights organisations, including the Icelandic Red Cross, Unicef Iceland, and the Icelandic Women’s Rights Association, have submitted formal letters criticising an immigration bill that was recently introduced in Parliament for the fourth time. Activist Sema Erla Serdar of the humanitarian aid organisation Solaris states the bill is “a manifestation of systemic racism in Iceland” that aims to “grant protection to as few refugees as possible.”

The bill in question was originally drafted in the Ministry of Justice and first introduced in Alþingi, Iceland’s parliament, in 2018, but was not passed at that time. It has been criticised by human rights organisations each time it has been introduced.

“This is an attempt by the government to establish a policy that involves significantly constricting refugees, curtailing their human rights, and reducing their possibilities for receiving protection in Iceland,” Sema Erla Tweeted. “The bill especially targets children and other people in a particularly vulnerable situation.”

Bill would allow forced physical exams

The bill proposes several changes to Iceland’s current legislation governing asylum seekers, including granting police the authority to force physical examinations of asylum seekers. “This is a major encroachment of people’s privacy that does not conform with the law, Iceland’s constitution, or the Icelandic government’s international commitments,” Sema wrote.

Along with the above-mentioned organisations, several others have submitted comments on the bill, including No Borders Iceland, the Icelandic division of Amnesty International, the Icelandic Confederation of Labour, the Teachers’ Association of Iceland, and more. In their criticism of the bill, No Borders Iceland point out that the demographic that would be most impacted by the proposed changes does not have the opportunity to read them, as most asylum seekers do not read Icelandic, the only language in which the draft bill has been published.

Permits withdrawal of basic services following refusal

The bill also proposes that the rights of asylum seekers to basic services in Iceland would expire 30 days after a final refusal of international protection is published in their case. The Red Cross criticised this proposal, in particular, stating that it would put asylum seekers in Iceland at increased risk of abuse, human trafficking, and violence. This in turn would increase the burden on police and municipalities, the Red Cross statement asserts. In 2021, Iceland’s Directorate of Immigration withdrew housing and food allowances from a group of asylum seekers for refusing to undergo COVID-19 testing, a prerequisite for their deportation. The action was later ruled to be illegal.