The Netherlands needs to overhaul its legislation, implementation and case law if it is to prevent another childcare benefit scandal, according to a confidential report by the European human rights organisation, the Council of Europe.
The report, seen by Trouw and RTL Nieuws, was compiled by the Council’s Venice Commission at the request of MPs following the scandal in which thousands of families were wrongly accused of defrauding the tax office. They were then ordered to pay back benefits, causing many acute financial problems.
The fallout from the scandal eventually brought about the collapse of the government in January this year.
In particular, a culture of holding back information and frustrating attempts at information gathering by MPs representing parties in the coalition government came in for particular criticism.
‘It should be acceptable and normal for coalition MPs to represent parliament as an institution and not be seen as disloyal if they question parliamentary procedure,’ Trouw quoted the report as saying.
Former CDA MP Pieter Omtzigt, who was at the forefront of the battle for justice for the parents, was frequently hampered by the cabinet in his attempts to get to the relevant information.
In order to curb the power of the cabinet, MPs and parliamentary commissions must be given more money and support, the report said. The right to information of the members of the lower house, which is anchored in the constitution, must be ‘practical and effective’, the commission said. It also said a minority of MPs should be enough to initiate a parliamentary enquiry.
Information and criticism should not be swept under the carpet but find its way to the highest level, the commission said.
Meanwhile the result of an enquiry into the failings of the tax office in the benefits scandal by two independent lawyers and seen by the NRC is about to land on MPs’ desks.
It shows that details about problems experienced by citizens often remain with the people who staff the tax office phone lines. They were told numerous times by their superiors that ‘this is the law and that is all there is to it’, the paper quoted that report as saying.
The report said the tax office culture is one of fear, where staff are afraid of jeopardising their job if they draw attention to abuses and wrongdoings they had seen.
The report concludes that the ‘emphasis is still on the smooth execution of working processes’ to the detriment of solving people’s problems.
The Council of Europe report also criticised the lower house of parliament in this respect, saying it had not paid enough attention to the basic principles of resonableness and fairness when it helped draw up the benefit system legislation.
Algorithms and judiciary
The use of algorithms and artificial intelligence is another danger to the protection of citizens, the Council said. The system used to identify alleged fraudsters in the benefits scandal was discontinued in 2020 when privacy watchdog Autoriteit Persoonsgegevens (AP) labelled it discriminatory. .
The report recommended an annual report from the judiciary to the government and MPs about possible abuses. Last week a committee of judges concluded that judges too had failed citizens by ruling almost unanimously for the tax office when alleged benefit fraud cases came to court.
Despite the critical tone of the report the Council said it had faith in the government’s ability to carry out the necessary reforms.
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