Chomutov benefit seizures provokes new row over Romany integration

Michael Kocáb (right) with Chomutov mayor Milan Šťovíček (left), photo: CTK

The city of Chomutov in North Bohemia is under fire over a controversial new method of reclaiming debts owed by low-income families – sending bailiffs to recover the money as soon as they receive it as social benefits. Most of the families are from the Romany or gypsy minority, and the method has ignited a new row over the integration of the Roma into Czech society.

Michael Kocáb  (right) with Chomutov mayor Milan Šťovíček  (left),  photo: CTK
Chomutov, like many other towns and cities in North Bohemia, has long struggled to reclaim debts owed by low-income families, most of them members of the Romany minority, who have no jobs, little education and rely on social benefits to survive. They live in crumbling apartment blocks and some owe the city thousands of crowns in unpaid rent and unpaid fines for public order offences.

Last week the city tried a new way of getting them to pay up – they sent bailiffs to the local social security office to seize the debts as soon as they withdrew their benefits. The method was criticised by human rights groups as well as the Ombudsman’s office in Brno. The mayor of Chomutov, Ivana Řápková, gave this withering response to the deputy Ombudsman during a debate on Czech Television:

“The deputy Ombudsman is speaking from her nice warm office in Brno. I recommend that she try swapping her flat with one of my constituents here in Chomutov, where she’ll be living next door to socially unadaptable people who’ll be making noise all night when she has to get up at six am to go to work. She’ll be living in a town where she parks her car at night and in the morning it doesn’t have any wing mirrors. A town where she has to walk through puddles of urine because socially unadaptable people can’t be bothered to use a toilet. I don’t know who the deputy Ombudsman represents, but I’m here for decent people, and I represent their interests.”

Waiting for social benefits,  photo: CTK
Mrs Řápková says her office has now suspended the seizure of benefits, although she warns they may resume in March. Meanwhile the newly-appointed minister for human rights, Michael Kocáb, has also been drawn into the dispute. On Monday Mr Kocáb sent his spokeswoman to Chomutov to meet the mayor. She was sent back to Prague with an invitation for the minister to spend a few nights in one of the apartment blocks to see the situation at first hand. Initially he declined, something that was immediately seized upon by the Czech media, which, he told Radio Prague, were partly responsible for distorting the whole situation.

“It’s a storm in a teacup. Now I’m being bombarded with questions – will I take up their offer of staying in Chomutov for a few days to see what it’s like. First of all I said I don’t have time. They said that’s no answer. So I said, OK, I’ll go, but I have to clear it with the government first, because we’re all working 14, 16, 18 hour days at the moment with the EU presidency. I have to figure out what kind of agenda I’d be taking to Chomutov, it’s just not that simple. Me – Michael Kocáb – I’m really interested in it, I’d go there today if it was up to me. So I’ve told them we’ll choose a date and I’ll go up there and I’ve got no problem meeting the mayor and talking to her. But to be honest with you I don’t think it’ll help because the way I see it she’s breaking the law deliberately, and that’s something else.”

Mayor Řápková says she’s received letters of support from all over the Czech Republic, and that many of the rent-defaulters have been frightened into paying their debts. Opponents insist seizing people’s social benefits is illegal. The pressure is now on Mr Kocáb, who must mediate in a divisive, highly complex issue with strong racial overtones and no obvious solutions.