Child Welfare Scandal Topples Dutch Government

The Dutch cabinet has resigned following the release of a reporting condemning the government for its role in a child care benefits scandal. 

This 2017 photo shows Prime Minister Mark Rute, center left, and Dutch King Willem-Alexander, center, posing with ministers on the steps of Royal Palace Noordeinde in The Hague, Netherlands. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong, File)

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (CN) — The Dutch government offered its resignation to the king on Friday after a report detailed its role in a 2019 scandal over the mismanagement of child care subsidies.

“Innocent people have been criminalized, their lives have been destroyed and Parliament has been incorrectly and incompletely informed about this,” Prime Minister Mark Rutte said in a press conference following the announcement. 

The government has been under pressure for weeks to address a month-old report detailing “unprecedented injustice” against some 30,000 Dutch families, wrongly accused of benefits fraud. 

Parents were erroneously forced to pay back the money they were given by the government to offset the cost of child care, in some cases losing homes and jobs in what’s become known as the “toeslagenaffaire” or the allowance affair. 

Rutte distanced himself from responsibility, despite turning in his resignation to the King Willem-Alexander. “I have no direct responsibility,” he told reporters, having cycled from his office in the parliament building to the king’s palace, “but I feel very involved and I feel shame.”

The Netherlands is currently in lockdown — all nonessential businesses are closed and travel is only permitted for emergencies — in an effort to curb the spread of Covid-19. 

The cabinet will remain in a caretaker role until national elections are held in March. Ministers legally only have the power to continue current practices, not make any new policies. 

On Thursday, member of parliament Lodewijk Asscher stepped down as leader of the opposition Labor Party. He served as minister for social affairs, the ministry which managed the distribution of the benefit, while thousands of families were targeted by the government partially based on their dual-nationality. 

In 2018, two Dutch media outlets published a series of articles showing the extreme treatment families had experienced at the hands of the tax office. Parents were ordered to pay back thousands of euros of benefits for making simple errors on forms, like failing to sign a page. They were also labeled legally as “fraudsters,” made ineligible for other benefits, and had cars and other belongings confiscated to pay off their debt. 

“It was a total nightmare,” said Roger Derikx, who says it costs him his business and his marriage. 

Finance minister Menno Snel stepped down from his role in the scandal in 2019. Three other ministers also had a role, including Wopke Hoekstra, who has been finance minister role since 2017, and Tamara van Ark, the minister for medical care who was the deputy minister for social affairs and employment during the affair. 

Eric Wiebes, the current minister of economic affairs and climate, was at the time the deputy finance minister. He was singled out by the December report for being “personally aware” of the “inadequate legal protection and the disproportionate consequences.” His resignation is immediate. 

Rutte is not planning to stand down as leader of the right-leaning People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy, which is currently ahead in the polls. 

At least 20 families are pursuing legal action against ministers who were involved in the affair. The public prosecutor announced this week that there will be no criminal charges filed against anyone from the tax office. “What we see here is that officials have implemented policies that turned out to be unfair in retrospect. That does not mean that they should be prosecuted,” a spokesperson said in a statement. 

Victims had mixed reactions to the news. Femke Smit, who was wrongly forced to pay back more than 40,000 euros, said she wished they would have fixed the problem, rather than quitting. “This isn’t a solution.” But another mother who didn’t want her name used said she didn’t believe the Cabinet would repair anything. “They should all go; I don’t trust any of them.” 

Friday’s resignation isn’t the first time the entire cabinet has resigned. In 2002, Prime Minister Wim Kok announced his cabinet would step down over the 1995 Srebrenica Massacre. Some 8,000 Bosnian Muslims were massacred during the Bosnia War when the outnumbered Dutch military battalion guarding them stood aside rather than fight advancing Bosnian Serb forces. 

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