The health ministry has decided to pay a €15,000 fine rather than hand over Whatsapp messages about a controversial coronavirus face mask deal to the Volkskrant newspaper, despite being ordered to do so in court.
News that the ministry is prepared to defy the courts and use taxpayers’ money to pay fines has been greeted with disbelief and anger by commentators and MPs, but it now transpires the practice has been going on for far longer.
In total, the Volkskrant says, it has received almost €100,000 in fines from government departments which refuse meet legal requirements to hand over documents under freedom of information legislation, despite the intervention of the courts.
‘It is not up to the health ministry to decide when it should comply with a request,’ Labour MP Khadija Arib said. ‘It is a court verdict. The threat of a fine is to get you to do what the court has ordered, not to get away with ignoring it.’
The ministry told the paper that it wants to release the face mask messages in stages, at its own pace, and has pledged to publish more in August.
According to broadcaster NOS, since 2017 the food and safety product board has spent almost €300,000 on fines, the transport ministry €47,500 and the justice ministry almost €30,000 after failing to meet freedom of information requests.
In some of the cases, the fines result from ministries failing to provide the information within the legal time frame.
‘Everyone should obey the law and that means ministers and ministries as well,’ said independent MP Pieter Omtzigt. ‘The fact that ministries never meet the deadline… means they do not have their archives in order and do not understand that the government is not above the law. It should be setting an example.’
Advisory group Deloitte is currently working on a report on the face mask deal which made three young entrpreneurs millionaires after they claimed to be working for charity. That investigation has reportedly cost the taxpayer an estimated €5m so far.
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