Watch: Dutch PM announces resignation
The Dutch government collapsed on Friday over an escalating scandal in which thousands of families were driven to financial ruin after being wrongly accused of child benefit fraud.
“Today the question was about political responsibility,” said Prime Minister Mark Rutte on Friday. “If the whole system has failed we must take collective responsibility. We have offered the king the resignation of the whole cabinet.”
The move was seen as largely symbolic. Mr Rutte's government will remain in office in a caretaker mode in order to manage the coronavirus response until a new coalition is formed after the March 17 general election.
Mr Rutte’s VVD party is expected to win the March election, with a predicted result of 41 to 45 seats out of a total of 150.
That would put Mr Rutte, who has been the Netherlands’ leader for a decade, first in line to begin talks to form the next ruling coalition.
However, other parties such as opposition leader Geert Wilders’s PVV or the Socialist Party could well capitalise on the scandal to gain voters.
Mr Rutte’s Cabinet's resignation had been expected this week after growing criticism over the childcare subsidies scandal, described by a recent parliamentary inquiry as an "unprecedented injustice".
For years, the Dutch tax office has been demanding all benefits be paid back after people made small errors such as missing a signature or misreporting €100.
Its approach hardened in 2013, after some gangs from Bulgaria were involved in widespread, organised benefits fraud in the Netherlands.
Watch: Dutch PM cycles to resignation
But a parliamentary inquiry last month found that instead of a clampdown on genuine crime, thousands of innocent families were unjustly labelled “fraudsters” and told to pay back every cent of child benefit they had ever received - sometimes almost €100,000.
Following the resignation of former deputy prime minister and social affairs minister Lodewijk Asscher yesterday as Labour leader, pressure had increased on the Dutch cabinet to resign collectively.
Speaking on Friday, Mr Rutte said that the caretaker government would ensure a €500m compensation package quickly reaches parents, with first payments of €30,000 each disbursed to some 10,000 families by May 1.
He added that he had not considered resigning as leader of his VVD party.
“I think it is up to the elector,” he said. “Of course, I am responsible at the end of the day for what doesn’t go well in the cabinet, and I feel ashamed of what has happened. But I wasn’t directly responsible for this dossier, so I believe I can carry on.”
Some disagree. Roger Derikx, a 49-year-old chef from Hoofdorp, was made to pay back €60,000 in benefits after being incorrectly labelled a fraudster.
Mr Derikx said: “He has taken responsibility for the Cabinet, not for his actions. Now it is up to people to vote on March 17 against him.”
Mr Derikx is among 20 families who have filed charges for criminal negligence against five leading politicians, including Finance Minister Wopke Hoekstra and Economy Minister Eric Wiebes, for their role in the affair. If convicted, they could face up to six months in prison.
Several politicians have also said that the scandal is not yet over.
Pieter Omtzigt, a Christian Democratic Appeal MP who started investigating the affair in 2017, told The Telegraph there were still questions to answer over a potential cover-up.
“Why did probably between 20,000 and 30,000 families become victims of this, and why was I not told the full details after two and a half years of parliamentary questions and debates?” he said.
“The other question is: how are we going to set things straight for these parents, some of whom have been evicted from their homes, had divorces and lost their jobs over it? Lives have been ruined.”
Renske Leijten, a Socialist Party MP who has also been campaigning for justice for broken families, told The Telegraph: “It is right that the government should step down. It is terrible that this is necessary and this injustice should have been made right a long time ago.
"Parliament wants to provide compensation that is quick and just, it hasn’t happened with this government, and now we must make sure it happens. We also believe there should be a parliamentary inquiry.”