A meeting of the Dutch Council of Ministers. (Dutch government/Valerie Kuypers file photo)
THE HAGUE–The Dutch cabinet will decide on Friday how it will respond to a damning report on the tax office’s treatment of families wrongly suspected of child-benefit fraud. Commentators have not ruled out the possibility that the government could fall over the scandal just two months before the general election, either before or after Parliament debates the report on Tuesday. Prime Minister Mark Rutte and his team of ministers would then stay on in a caretaker capacity until the next cabinet is formed.
Rutte said after an extra ministerial council meeting on Tuesday evening, following the COVID-19 press conference, that the government intended to draw “fundamental and substantial” conclusions, but refused to speculate on the future of his administration.
“We agree on a great deal, but the texts need to be revised and put on paper. I expect we will wrap it up and we can present the results on Friday,” he told reporters.
The four coalition parties will try to settle their differences at the regular ministerial council meeting on Friday. Rutte is known to want to stay on to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic, but other party leaders, such as centre-democrat D66’s Sigrid Kaag, say “political consequences” of the report are unavoidable.
The cabinet is expected to either stand or fall in unison, but is anxious to avoid the “nightmare scenario” of losing a no-confidence vote after a closely-watched, combustible debate.
Opposition party green-left GroenLinks plans to table a motion of no confidence on Tuesday which will be supported by the Socialist Party (SP) and Party for Freedom PVV.
Ministers from three of the four coalition parties were cited in the report “Unparalleled Wrong” which was published in December 2020. It found that the tax office and its political masters had violated the “founding principles of the legal system” in reclaiming childcare-support payments from around 20,000 working families.
This week 20 families launched legal proceedings in the Supreme Court against current and former cabinet members, including Minister of Economic Affairs and Climate Eric Wiebes, Minister of Finance Wopke Hoekstra and former State Secretary of Finance Menno Snel for failing to apply the principles of good governance.
Parents were labelled fraudsters over minor errors such as missing signatures on paperwork, and were forced to pay back tens of thousands of euros with no means of redress. Many were plunged into financial hardship and had to give up their jobs or move to a smaller home, or saw their relationships break down under the stress.
At the same time a single ministerial resignation will not be enough to satisfy the demands of parents and Members of the Dutch Parliament (MPs) in response to the findings of Parliament’s investigative committee. Snel is the only cabinet member so far to lose his job as a result of the scandal.
The three parties supporting the no-confidence motion hold 44 of the 150 seats in the Dutch Parliament’s Second Chamber, but other MPs from both government and opposition parties could be persuaded to support them if the cabinet’s response is deemed inadequate.
Pieter Omtzigt of coalition party Christian Democrat CDA has been one of the most prominent campaigners for the parents caught up in the scandal, along with Renske Leijten (SP).