Dutch cabinet resigns in wake of childcare benefit scandal
Following a two-hour ministerial meeting in The Hague on Friday, Prime Minister Mark Rutte and his fellow cabinet ministers have decided to step down as a result of the role the cabinet played in the childcare benefits scandal (toeslaganaffaire).
The Dutch tax office and the national child benefit scandal
The national child benefit scandal came to a head in 2020. In May of last year, it was revealed that the Dutch tax office (belastingdienst) carried out additional screening in 2012 in an attempt to uncover fraudulent requests for financial support. However, the tax office admitted to signalling out people with dual nationality, which led to reports that 20.000 families didn’t receive the child benefits they were entitled to and were required to pay back tens of thousands of euros.
In December, a report published by a parliamentary committee found that an “unprecedented injustice” had been done to parents who were accused of defrauding the system and were ultimately left facing serious financial difficulties. The report held a number of government ministers, authorities, and civil servants accountable for the mistake, but signalled out Eric Wiebes, current Minister of Economic Affairs who acted as junior finance minister at the time and was responsible for benefits, for particular criticism.
Rutte and his cabinet ministers face pressure from MPs
When the report was published, a number of politicians were critical of the government’s handling of the issue, and scrutinised not only Prime Minister Mark Rutte, but also Wiebes and leader of the Dutch labour party (PvdA) Lodewijk Asscher, who at the time of the scandal was Minister of Social Affairs. Former junior finance minister Menno Snel resigned in December, but MPs demanded further accountability from the cabinet.
Since December, Asscher has apologised for the role he played in the scandal, announcing his resignation as party leader on social media on Thursday - a decision which placed further pressure on Rutte and his cabinet - and the government has arranged for all the victims to receive 30.000 euros in compensation.
This week, 20 families affected by the tax office’s mistake took legal action in the Supreme Court against current and former cabinet ministers, including Wiebes, Snel, and Wopke Hoekstra, Minister of Finance.
GroenLinks’ Klaver demands Rutte’s cabinet stands down
Snel’s resignation had not been enough to satisfy the political opposition, and Jesse Klaver, leader of GroenLinks, demanded the whole cabinet resign as a result of their role in the scandal. Klaver made it clear that, should the cabinet refuse to take action, he would issue a motion of no confidence, saying that he was determined to stop Rutte staying in power after the elections in March.
The cabinet therefore met on January 15 to discuss which political steps should be taken. Before the meeting took place, the coalition parties - D66, Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA), ChristenUnie, and the People's Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) - were said to have agreed that the scandal was too large to support the idea that only one minister take on the role of scapegoat and resign - if anyone chose to resign, then the whole cabinet must resign.
This standpoint led to much debate, as some ministers felt that the ongoing coronavirus crisis was too important to ignore, and that resigning now would only lead to further instability. Rutte didn’t reveal much in the run-up to Friday’s meeting, but did say that he wanted to stay on as Prime Minister.
What will happen now?
Now that the cabinet has agreed to resign, many may be worried about what this means for the future of the Dutch government and the ongoing coronavirus crisis. As the next election is scheduled for March, no snap election will be held and the ministers will stay in their positions until the new cabinet is elected. However, they will only be allowed to handle day-to-day issues, but will not be able to take any action in regards to larger, more controversial issues.
The Prime Minister has said that the coalition and most of the opposition agree that the handling of the coronavirus crisis is not controversial, and so Rutte and his ministers will still be able to take decisions about vaccines, coronavirus measures, and financial support packages. Resignation will also not stop Rutte from running for Prime minister for a fourth term.
What about the families affected by the scandal?
The cabinet may have been under pressure from MPs to stand down, but a recent survey conducted by I&O Research revealed that, while the general public believed the scandal should result in political consequences, 90 percent felt that it wasn’t necessary for the whole cabinet to resign.
The act of stepping down at this point may also serve as a purely symbolic gesture. One victim of the scandal told De Telegraaf that the cabinet’s resignation would change “absolutely nothing” about her situation, and would only result in her difficult circumstances being further prolonged. She said her priority was receiving her compensation - but a lawyer who represents nearly 600 victims of the scandal revealed on Friday that none of his clients had received the 30.000 euros they’d been promised.
Rutte to host press conference
Mark Rutte is expected to host a press conference on Friday afternoon to provide further information about what happens now and what this means for his party and the future of the country. First, he must deliver his official resignation to the King. Wiebes has also resigned with immediate effect - he will be replaced by Cora van Nieuwenhuizen.