By Suzanne Koelega
THE HAGUE–“Poverty must stay.” It is the painful conclusion and the title of the chapter on Kingdom relations in the new book by former Member of the Second Chamber of the Dutch Parliament Roelof van Laar of the Labour Party PvdA, who was deeply committed to fight poverty and to improve children’s rights in the Dutch Caribbean.
As a member of the Second Chamber’s Permanent Committee for Kingdom Relations, Van Laar made multiple attempts and drafted various proposals with the aim of making things better for the islands’ less-fortunate residents, young and old, mainly those living in Bonaire, St. Eustatius and Saba.
Establishing a social minimum, introducing and later increasing the family allowance (“kinderbijslag”), increasing the maternity leave for new mothers, all for the Caribbean Netherlands: proposals of Van Laar, some of which received no support from the liberal democratic VVD party and PvdA coalition.
In his 190-page book which will go on sale today, Monday, titled Honesty didn’t last very long, Van Laar described his struggles and victories while serving as a Member of Parliament (MP) from May 2013 to March 2017. He may have been a back-bencher, but one with strict principles and the desire to help make the world a little bit better.
With his book he aimed to show what happens behind the scenes in Parliament. “Most people don’t know what really goes on, other than what is being said during the public debates. I want to tell people what takes place behind the public eye,” he told The Daily Herald.
Having worked in developing countries for several years to combat child prostitution, Van Laar is dedicated to fight poverty and child labour and to improve children’s rights, efforts that earned him the title of the “Most Honest Politician of the Year” early 2017.
“I noticed grinding poverty within our very own Dutch Kingdom. I wanted to do something about it and decided to put poverty and children’s rights on the front burner,” he said.
Van Laar had not counted on the resistance by the VVD party, then-Minister of Home Affairs and Kingdom Affairs Ronald Plasterk and the State Secretary of Social Affairs and Labour at that time, Jetta Klijnsma.
“I managed to achieve some things, but not everything, because the government coalition didn’t always support me,” he said in an interview.
Van Laar was successful with the introduction of the family allowance, but an increase was out of the question for the VVD and PvdA. He tried to secure a substantial increase in the family allowance after the Dutch Government neglected to execute his adopted motion to establish a social minimum for Bonaire, St. Eustatius and Saba that would help to eradicate poverty.
Sixty per cent of the people live in poverty, which has a negative effect on children, but also the economy, security and public health, Van Laar explained. Guaranteeing a social minimum would cost millions per year and as such his proposal met a lot of resistance.
Van Laar said he had been shocked when State Secretary Klijnsma initially advised against his motion. “A liveable income is an internationally-recognised human right and a cornerstone of the PvdA! I am not often angry, but I could barely contain myself during the debate,” he said.
Ultimately, Van Laar’s motion was adopted, but it remains on the shelf.
“Jetta [Klijnsma – Ed.] doesn’t make any progress and she does not want to arrange a realistic social minimum, let alone guarantee it. She proposes to substantially increase the social allowances, but this doesn’t bring them anywhere close to the social minimum,” Van Laar wrote in his book.
Looking for ways to get families with children closer to a social minimum, Van Laar prepared a motion requesting that the Dutch Government look into whether the family allowance could go up from US $40 to $150 per month per child. This motion too was adopted by the Parliament and again not executed by the government.
During the handling of the draft 2017 budget, Van Laar prepared another motion to once more call for a steep increase of the family allowance. “Ronald [Plasterk – Ed.] did not let this go by. He called André [Bosman, VVD MP – Ed.] and arranged that the VVD will block the motion. I can no longer submit the motion,” wrote Van Laar. He stated that at this time his already-troubled relation with Minister Plasterk hit “rock-bottom.”
It deeply bothered Van Laar that Plasterk and Klijnsma kept objecting to “any” increase of the family allowance. “Ronald doesn’t want the increase to be paid from his budget and Jetta considers the increase of the social allowances enough. No additional million, not half a million. Nothing. Apparently, poverty has to remain on the islands,” was his harsh conclusion in his book.
“If the family allowance had been increased per my proposal, we would have been able to reduce poverty on the islands, to make things a little better for the children and to have happier parents with less financial worries,” Van Laar told this newspaper. He said he hoped new State Secretary of Home Affairs and Kingdom Relations Raymond Knops and State Secretary of Social Affairs and Labour Tamara van Ark would “do better” for the islands.
Van Laar said he found it positive that the new Second Chamber has indicated its support to continue the work he started in the area of children’s rights when, through his amendment, the Parliament approved a three-million-euro amendment to the budget for children’s rights on the islands.
“Securing the rights of children – that comes first. It starts with the human aspect. Poverty will continue as long as the income situation of parents does not improve,” he said.
Cooperation with Plasterk was never good, wrote Van Laar in his book. He attributed this to “clashing characters” and a “lacking mutual agenda.” In his opinion, Plasterk sometimes unnecessarily pushed the relations with the islands, joined forces too much with Prime Minister Mark Rutte and often chased the local government officials without need.
According to Van Laar, too much energy was wasted on quarrelling within the portfolio of Kingdom Relations, creating fuss over nothing. A sensitive issue was the law proposal of MP Bosman of the VVD which hampered the registration of people from Aruba, Curaçao and St. Maarten in the Netherlands, the so-called Bosman Law.
Van Laar opposed this law proposal, which in his opinion was direct racial discrimination. The PvdA supported him in his stance and Van Laar requested a differently-worded law proposal. Ultimately the Bosman law proposal was rejected in 2016.
Sometimes success is quick, as in the case of Van Laar’s proposal to extend the maternity leave from 12 to 16 weeks in the Caribbean Netherlands. His motion received broad support, except from the VVD, and maternity leave was extended per January 1, 2017.
A few months later, Van Laar learned that he was not in an eligible spot on the PvdA list for the Parliamentary elections on March 15. Attempts to get a higher spot on the list failed and Van Laar was not re-elected. He now studies for his Master’s degree in children’s rights at University of Leiden and works as an advisor for organisations that combat child labour.