Dutch government resigns over child benefits scandal

Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s government stepped down on Friday after it emerged that officials had wrongly pursued thousands of people over welfare fraud.

Rutte called a Cabinet meeting in The Hague where ministers had to make up their minds on quitting just two months before a planned general election. Following the meeting, Rutte informed King Willem-Alexander of the government’s resignation.

What is the scandal about?

The Dutch tax office had accused thousands of families of fraudulently claiming child welfare payments between 2013 and 2019. It demanded repayments of tens of thousands of euros, driving many families into financial ruin and, in some cases, divorce.

A parliamentary report called it an “unprecedented injustice” to claw back tens of thousands of euros without giving the accused a chance to prove their innocence.

Rutte, who has been prime minister since 2010, described the episode as “shameful.”

What have the political consequences been so far?

Green leader Jesse Klaver took to Twitter on Friday to welcome the resignation as the “right decision” for the Netherlands.

“Let this be a new beginning. A turning point,” he wrote, saying this could be “the moment when we rebuild our welfare state.”

The pressure on Rutte’s four-party coalition to resign had increased on Thursday when the leader of the opposition Labour party, Lodewijk Asscher, quit.

Asscher, who will no longer contest the March 17 parliamentary election, served as social affairs minister from 2012 to 2017.

“‘I did not know that the tax office was wrongfully hunting down thousands of families,” the veteran of Dutch politics said as he offered his resignation.

Dutch Labour leader Lodewijk Asscher, seen here in 2019, has resigned from his position over the scandal. He served as social affairs minister in the previous government.

What have the affected families said?

Compensation of at least €30,000 ($36,400) is being paid to roughly 10,000 families.

The families this week filed charges against five politicians, including Finance Minister Wopke Hoekstra and Economy Minister Eric Wiebes, for their role in the mismanagement.

Roger Derikx, 46, from Hoofddorp, is a chef by trade and a father of two. He was caught up in the benefits scandal and was asked to repay €60,000.

“The enormous strain was one of the reasons I got divorced,” he told DW. “The tax office is very powerful. Without going to a judge, they dry you out.”

Derikx’s children are 14 and 17, and he said that despite the fact they now have a good relationship, this experience threw the whole family into “chaos — it was absolute chaos.”

“They came to my house and took my refrigerator, they took away my car, they took 40% of my salary,” he said.

What happens next?

Despite the scandal, opinion polls show Rutte’s government had the approval of two-thirds of the public.

Rutte said the government would continue to lead the country’s COVID-19 response team in a caretaker capacity.

Voters will cast their ballots to decide who will take up the 150 seats in the Dutch House of Representatives on March 17.

Rutte’s closest challenger is Geert Wilders, the leader of the anti-Islam, eurosceptic Party for Freedom, who he beat into second place in the 2017 election.

The Netherlands is currently under a strict lockdown to halt the spread of coronavirus.

Watch video 00:24 Dutch PM finds shaking hands a hard habit to shake

jf/sms (AFP, Reuters)