Words by Ewan Vellinga
The Dutch government resigned on 15 January after a scandal in which thousands of families were falsely accused of fraud and told to repay childcare benefits.
Prime Minister Mark Rutte admitted “innocent people have been criminalised and their lives ruined”, and said responsibility lay with his cabinet.
The government will assume a caretaker role until parliamentary elections in March so as to deal with the ongoing impact of Covid-19.
The resignation follows a report published on 17 December, in which a parliamentary committee concluded that the scandal amounted to an “unprecedented injustice,” and that the “fundamental principles of the rule of law were violated” by the Tax Office.
It revealed that, between 2013 and 2019, tax authorities had unjustly accused thousands of parents of fraud due to minor errors in paperwork. Many lost their childcare allowance, whilst others were forced to re-pay benefits they had already received, often amounting to tens of thousands of euros, leading many into significant financial, social and psychological difficulties.
The BBC reports that as many as 26,000 parents may have been affected, describing a specific case in which a mother was told to repay €48,000. When she tried to explain the mistakes that had been made, officials started withholding other benefits too.
The tax authority has also previously admitted that 11,000 families were placed under special scrutiny because they held dual nationality, escalating claims of unjust discrimination and racial profiling.
Compensation amounting to €30,000 per family was already set aside last March, with assurances that those who lost more would get a higher amount. However, some stated that this is not enough to offset the damage caused.
The Nederlandse Omroep Stichting (NOS) reports that, according to the committee, the scale of the injustice is partly the result of the long time it took for the government to recognise the problem, as well as insufficient information being provided by the Tax Office.
The committee also found that “there was so much emphasis on efficient implementation and on the desire to prevent fraud that there was little or no consideration of individual situations,” with the House of Representatives, Cabinet Ministers and even some judges all seen as contributing to the creation and implementation of unjustly stringent laws.
This is reflected in committee chairman Chris Van Dam’s statement, as quoted in The Guardian, that the system was “a mass process in which there was no room for nuance”, with as many as 20,000 families pursued for fraud before court, and denied the right to appeal.
However, The Guardian notes that 20 of the families involved have now filed their own complaint and are pressing charges against several ministers, alleging “criminal negligence through a failure of good governance, discrimination and violating children’s rights.”
This includes Economics Minister Eric Wiebes, who was singled out in the report as being “personally aware of the group approach, the inadequate legal protection, and the disproportionate consequences for parents of the fraud approach” since August 2017.
Wiebes resigned with immediate effect on Friday, following the resignation of opposition Labour leader Lodewijk Asscher, who was Social Affairs Minister under the previous government, the day before.
Mr Rutte and the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) he represents is currently one of the four parties that make up the coalition government that will continue in a caretaker role until the next elections.
Despite the scandal, Mr Rutte is still ahead in opinion polls, and it is possible that he will form a new coalition government in March. This would be the fourth successive government he has headed since 2010.
Picture Credit: ALDE Party