Dutch PM Mark Rutte and his entire cabinet resigned today over a child benefits scandal in which thousands of families were wrongly accused of fraud.
Rutte accepted responsibility after as many as 26,000 innocent parents were left in financial ruin after being wrongly forced to pay back tens of thousands of euros in a scandal dating back to 2012.
Some were targeted because of minor errors in paperwork such as mis-matched signatures, while up to 11,000 were subjected to extra scrutiny for being dual nationals – leading to claims of systemic racism.
New elections will be held in March with the centre-right Rutte staying on as a caretaker until then to manage the country’s coronavirus response, with Holland currently enduring its strictest lockdown of the whole pandemic.
On his bike: Dutch PM Mark Rutte leaves the parliament building in The Hague today as the entire cabinet resigned over a child benefits scandal
Rutte, in office since 2010, described the affair as ‘shameful’ and announced today that ‘the buck stops here’ after a crisis meeting of his four-party coalition cabinet.
‘We are of one mind: if the whole system has failed, only joint responsibility can be borne,’ Rutte said.’ ‘And that leads to the conclusion that I have just now offered the King the resignation of the entire cabinet.’
He added: ‘The rule of law must protect its citizens from an all-powerful government, and here that’s gone terribly wrong.’
Rutte defended his decision to resign during a surge in virus infections which has been partly blamed on the new variant that surfaced in Britain late last year.
‘Our fight against coronavirus continues,’ said Rutte, adding that the caretaker cabinet would ‘do what is necessary in the interests of the country.’
Polls say that Rutte’s Freedom and Democracy Party is likely to win the most seats in the election, putting him in line for a fourth term since 2010.
But pressure had been mounting on Rutte to resign over the scandal, with the government facing a possible confidence vote.
The clamour grew after opposition Labour party leader Lodewijk Asscher, a former social affairs minister, resigned on Thursday over the scandal.
Far-right leader Geert Wilders, known for his strong statements against immigration and Islam, said it was ‘right’ that the government had quit.
‘Innocent people, were criminalised, their lives destroyed,’ Wilders said. ‘It is not credible that officials should continue as if nothing had happened.’
Rutte and his cabinet will stay on as caretakers until a March election to manage the country’s coronavirus response (pictured, an empty shopping street in Rotterdam this week)
Dutch authorities will pay compensation of at least €30,000 to around 10,000 families after an inquiry found that ‘unprecedented injustice’ had been done.
The parliamentary probe said civil servants cut off benefits to thousands of families between 2013 and 2019, leading to unemployment, bankruptcies and divorce.
Dutch media said some 26,000 people had been affected by the scandal.
Tax officials were also revealed to have carried out ‘racial profiling’ of 11,000 people based on their dual nationality, including some of those hit by the false accusations.
Victims lodged a legal complaint Tuesday against three serving ministers and two former ministers including Asscher.
Several parents released a video calling for the government to quit and ‘Rutte resign’ has been trending on Twitter since Tuesday.
Rutte has led three coalition governments since 2010, most recently winning elections in 2017 despite strong opposition from Wilders.
Earlier this week he announced that lockdown measures including the closure of shops and schools until at least February 9 because of the high infection rate.
The measures are the toughest yet in the Netherlands after Rutte championed an ‘intelligent lockdown’ with relatively mild restrictions in the spring.
Rutte also cited the threat posed by a much more easily transmissable variant of the disease first identified in Britain, describing it as ‘very, very worrying’.
Health minister Hugo de Jonge said new British variant of the virus currently made up two to five per cent of infections, but was expected to ‘gain the upper hand’.
Although the overall infection rate has dropped, the number of new daily cases remains too high to consider any easing of restrictions, Rutte said.