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Dutch government steps down over child benefits scandal

Dutch PM Mark Rutte on his way to offer his resignnation to the king. © Belga

The Dutch government led by prime minister Mark Rutte has announced it will resign rather than face an expected motion of no confidence from the opposition next week.

The problem comes as a result of a report issued in December by a parliamentary investigative committee looking into what has become known as the ‘benefits scandal’.

Following reports in 2013 of gangs from Eastern Europe carrying out massive fraud with child benefits, among other things by registering children in multiple municipalities at once, the authorities decided to crack down.

That resulted in thousands of families, who had done nothing wrong apart from perhaps filling in a form wrongly, being treated like criminals and having their child benefits withdrawn.

Not only did the families lose that income, they were required to refund benefits they had received in the past, driving many households into serious financial difficulties.

When the scandal came to light on the basis of a growing number of complaints, politicians did nothing, which only made matters worse.

A parliamentary commission was set up to investigate the problem, and produced its report in December.

Under the pressure of an overheated political need to fight fraud, parents were falsely branded as wilful fraudsters,” the report said. The victims were “powerless against powerful institutions of the state” and “did not receive the protection they deserved.”
Some 26,000 families were affected by the anti-fraud campaign.

Those who might have hoped the scandal would be overshadowed by the Covid-19 crisis were disappointed. The opposition seized on the opportunity to attack Mark Rutte, who had been prime minister at the time, and who has managed to score well in the polls for his handling of the pandemic in the Netherlands.

Rutte, up until yesterday, was prepared to hang on until a general election in less than two months, but yesterday the minister for social affairs at the time of the crackdown, Lodewijk Asscher, resigned, leaving his PvdA social-democrat party without a leader and unlikely to uphold any remaining coalition.

Rutte had given his three coalition partner parties an ultimatum of today to state their intentions. The result is that the government has fallen.

Rutte will now present his resignation to King Willem-Alexander. In the interim, between now and the election, his government can continue to govern, especially in relation to the Covid-19 crisis, where it can expect cooperation from the opposition, who will have to be careful of making political hay out of the government’s troubles, particularly at a time of national emergency.

One source inside the coalition told the broadcaster NOS, “Everything remains unchanged in that area. There is still a majority in the Second Chamber for our corona plans.”

Alan Hope
The Brussels Times