Sunday 20 June 2021

Good lawyers, jobs and their good names back: child benefit victims don’t want just cash

Photo: Bic via Wikimedia Commons

Dutch parents who were wrongly accused of fraud by the Dutch tax office and forced to repay thousands in childcare benefit want their names cleared and better support from local councils.

Rotterdam city council last Friday announced that it will be repaying the private debts that the worst-affected 50 local victims took on in order to pay back benefits. But others have told DutchNews.nl that it is unclear what has happened with €11m the government has given local councils to help, while consistent, practical support is desperately needed.

‘It won’t work for every council to have its own policies,’ said Lynn Woodrow, one wronged parent from Sneek in Friesland. ‘It’s not that council employees don’t want to help: they don’t get any information. The communication between the VNG [councils’ association], the tax office and the town councils seems very bad.’

In January, the entire Dutch cabinet resigned after a parliamentary commission report said ‘unprecedented injustice’ was done to up to 20,000 parents who had child benefit stopped and were ordered to repay everything, in a ‘tough’ approach dating back to 2005.

Some were financially crippled by bills of as much as €92,000, losing their jobs, homes, marriages, health and custody of children. The tax office has admitted 11,000 dual national families were subjected to special scrutiny, which was illegal.

The government has put aside €500m to repay the benefits and give €30,000 each to around 15,500 sets of parents, and has also promised to take over victims’ other debts. But parents say the compensation process – which has already run into problems – is slow, chaotic, and practical help is lacking in the meantime.

‘Listen’

Woodrow, 32, who is half-British, told DutchNews.nl that only after her story appeared on a Dutch television programme did she get help from the tax office. She had wrongly been ordered to repay €28,000 in childcare benefits, suffered a spiral of ill health and entered a conservatorship arrangement in 2017.

‘I called the Belastingdienst for hours as I had a court case on May 4 to get out of the conservatorship and needed to show the judge I didn’t have any more debt, because I was a victim of the childcare benefit affair,’ she told DutchNews.nl.

‘When EenVandaag put on Twitter that I was on their programme, I was called by the Belastingdienst saying they had seen an emotional tweet from me, and asking if they could do anything. I had the first payment of €30,000 on May 4.’

Woodrow says that as well as the compensation, wronged parents need concrete local support. ‘The help can be very small,’ she said. ‘They need to start by listening to the parent, and asking what they need, practically. A washing machine might be broken, or a child might need a laminate floor in their room. From my council, Súdwest-Fryslân, I don’t need so much, but I do want their policy to change to help other people in my area.’

‘Fraud’ 

Gjalt Jellesma, chairman of the Boink group that supports parents using childcare, says some victims are still suffering because their records as ‘fraudsters’ have not been corrected.

‘I have contact with one well-known victim, and for the first time in six years he now has a house, which is great,’ said Jellesma. ‘But he has been trying to get his gas and electricity connected for a week: but he’s still on a list as a defaulter, as a result of the child benefit scandal.’

Jellesma called for local councils to help deal with the problems these parents encounter because of their history of debt. ‘They can keep the debt collectors away – that’s the first thing,’ he said. ‘But town councils shouldn’t promise too much as these people have been disappointed so often.’

However, he praised Rotterdam’s approach in taking over some of its 4,000 victims’ debt because they have been waiting ‘too long’ for government help. ‘Rotterdam is definitely a good example,’ said Jellesma. ‘Parents want to be compensated but they also want to be heard: they want it to be recognised what they have gone through.’

Jobs, lawyers, physio

For some victims, concrete help could be offered at a local level in finding jobs, according to Janet Ramescar, from The Hague. ‘The council asked how they could help and I said I want to get help with finding a job,’ she said. ‘There are a lot of parents who can also do the job [of being employed to help the others]. They still treat as us victims who can’t work or do anything.’

Wendy van Hofwegen, who is based in Amsterdam, said local advice on a good lawyer would help people like her, who lost their business due to being wrongly accused of fraud by the tax office.

‘I was called by a woman who asked what the council could do for me, but the problem was that apparently they can’t really do anything: they can’t even recommend a good lawyer,’ she said. ‘Nobody knows what is reasonable and what is achievable. There’s no information.’

Kristie Rongen, from Lelystad, one of the highest-profile victims who has been particularly critical of caretaker prime minister Mark Rutte, said local councils could also help with health problems. ‘I hear that parents aren’t getting any real help, although local councils are getting a heap of cash,’ she said. ‘They should think about help with mental health or things like physiotherapy because the stress has broken some people. I met one woman in a wheelchair, who couldn’t walk any more.’

Worrying

Although many praised Rotterdam’s proactive approach, Socialist Party politician and campaigner Renske Leijten pointed out that not every local council has its expertise or set of resources.

‘It is a good step that Rotterdam is taking for all of the Rotterdam parents, but at the same time I think it’s a worrying sign,’ she said. ‘This will mean there are differences depending on where people live but they have all been wronged by the national government. If Rotterdam is doing this but Groningen isn’t, then you’ve got a problem.’

She said that the tax office needs to work quickly to compensate people and take over their debts while local councils build up a help team. ‘Local authorities can offer concrete help in people’s lives: some need help to get a decent job, others have problems getting a house, others have issues with children who have gone off the rails,’ she said. ‘It would be good if this help comes locally, with a special team to work with these people who have been traumatised.’

Change

Meanwhile, others involved in the child benefit scandal say that it demonstrates a larger story about a lack of consistency and transparency in Dutch governmental organisations. Debate about the future of a backbench MP involved in bringing the scandal to light, Pieter Omtzigt, has derailed and delayed coalition negotiations, and MPs have called for more powers of parliamentary scrutiny to stop this ever happening again.

‘The tax authority isn’t even equipped to put together people’s dossiers, which is worrying enough because it is your right to request the information the government has about you,’ said Leijten. ‘Under the bonnet, there’s a rattling motor, and now this is plain to see.’

Eva González Pérez, the lawyer from Advocatencollectief Trias who first approached Omtzigt about her clients’ plight, added that there is a deeper problem in Dutch society where the weakest are treated as fraudsters while large businesses and multinationals seem subject to entirely different rules.

‘Everyone who asks for help from the government is checked from head to toe, but big companies can apparently funnel away millions in taxes,’ she said. ‘Someone who earns €15,000 a year and gets an extra €200 has to pay more than them. We live in a Netherlands where you can’t be the weakest, because you won’t survive. The wronged parents, my clients, don’t yet see any evidence of a change.’

Thank you for donating to DutchNews.nl

The DutchNews.nl team would like to thank all the generous readers who have made a donation in recent weeks. Your financial support has helped us to expand our coverage of the coronavirus crisis into the evenings and weekends and make sure you are kept up to date with the latest developments.

DutchNews.nl has been free for 14 years, but without the financial backing of our readers, we would not be able to provide you with fair and accurate news and features about all things Dutch. Your contributions make this possible.

If you have not yet made a donation, but would like to, you can do so via Ideal, credit card or Paypal.