Wednesday, February 8, 2023

Dutch government resigns following child benefit scandal

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The Dutch government resigned two months before the elections over a child benefit scandal that rocked the country’s political establishment.

Netherlands Prime Minister Mark Rutte announced his quadripartite coalition would step down after an emergency cabinet meeting on Friday. The move was expected after the government came under pressure to take responsibility for a family allowance scandal in which thousands of Dutch families were falsely accused of defrauding the state, forcing them to repay the money they were owed and have their benefits halted.

The cabinet resignation is a largely symbolic gesture ahead of the national elections on March 17, where Rutte is fighting to lead his fourth government after 11 years in office. This will mean the Netherlands will have a caretaker government led by Mr Rutte, with tacit support from opposition parties, to continue to lead the country during the pandemic.

“The rule of law must protect citizens from an all-powerful government and that has gone horribly wrong here,” Rutte said at a press conference after the cabinet meeting. He criticized the errors “throughout the police, administrative and judicial system”. Mr Rutte will officially hand in his resignation to the king later on Friday.

A parliamentary report released in December released scathing findings about how government tax officials have tracked down thousands of parents falsely accused of defrauding the child welfare system over the past seven years. The tax department has also been charged with racial profiling, after authorities were found to have targeted families who had dual citizenship, forcing many of them into financial ruin.

Last year the ministry apologized for the mistakes and set up a € 500 million fund to help compensate around 10,000 families who lost payments, often for minor administrative errors such as missing signatures on the forms.

A government resignation was virtually inevitable after the resignation of Lodewijk Asscher, leader of the opposition Dutch Labor Party and former Minister of Social Affairs in the last government. This paved the way for the cabinet to take collective responsibility to prevent further ministerial resignations.

Finance Minister Wopke Hoekstra, Tax Minister Eric Weibes and Minister of Medical Affairs Tamara van Ark are also facing lawsuits from 20 families who have taken legal action against the government. Mr Weibes said on Friday that he would not return to serve in the interim government.

Jesse Klaver, leader of the Dutch Green Party, said the resignation was a “moment of justice” and should mark a turning point “so that we can rebuild our welfare state again”.

According to polls, Mr Rutte, a former prime minister and accomplished political survivor, is expected to weather the crisis and lead his center-right Liberté party to victory in March. The 53-year-old has been criticized for largely reversing a so-called ‘smart lockdown’ strategy aimed at quelling the rise in infections in late 2020.

The fall of the government is unlikely to derail the Dutch ratification of the EU stimulus fund, which will have to be adopted by both houses of parliament in the coming weeks. Mr Rutte’s coalition lost its slim majority in the lower house last year, but the Brussels borrowing plan will win the support of center-left and Green MPs.



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