Dutch coalition on brink over child benefits row as Covid crisis rages

Scandal over 20,000 families being accused of benefit fraud threatens government

A deserted street in the centre of Groningen. Photograph: Kees Van de Veen/ANP/AFP via Getty

A deserted street in the centre of Groningen. Photograph: Kees Van de Veen/ANP/AFP via Getty

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With the Netherlands in the midst of its second Covid-19 lockdown and considering overnight curfews to control socialising, the coalition government of premier Mark Rutte is on the verge of collapse over a child benefits scandal that has rocked the country.

The government decided on Tuesday evening to extend the lockdown until February 9th at least – but by then the Dutch could be well on their way to an early general election if the cabinet decides on Friday to step down over the benefits row.

At the heart of the controversy are some 20,000 families “hunted down” and branded fraudsters for claiming special benefits for childcare between 2012 and 2017. Many were plunged into serious debt by repayments. Twenty began legal proceedings in the supreme court this week.

However, the scale of the scandal and a damning report last month, An Unparalleled Wrong, showed the remarkable extent to which politicians continued to allow the tax office unfettered control over the mismanagement of the benefits scheme, despite a growing outcry.

Mr Rutte has promised “a substantial response” to the report on Friday, and is believed to want to stay on to oversee compensation and to combat the coronavirus pandemic – but the four coalition parties are divided on their strategies.

In particular Sigrid Kaag, recently elected leader of junior partner the centre-left D66, says she believes “the political consequences of the report are unavoidable”.

Tainted opposition

Even the opposition has been tainted. On Thursday, Labour leader Lodewijk Asscher, who was social affairs minister in an earlier Rutte coalition at the height of the scandal, stepped down.

However, that’s unlikely to assuage public anger that the only government resignation so far has been that of a junior minister.

If the government does collapse, catapulting forward the March 17th election, Mr Rutte and his ministers – including health minister Huge de Jonge, responsible for combating Covid-19 – will remain as caretakers until a new government is formed, which typically takes many months.

The number of new infections has been falling slowly. The weekly figure was down 12.5 per cent in the first full week of the new year compared with the previous seven days.

The daily rate was 4,986 in the 24 hours to Tuesday, its first time below 5,000 since December 2nd. The reproduction rate or R number is 0.95.

The UK variant of coronavirus now accounts for 2-5 per cent of new Dutch cases, including an outbreak at a primary school where a 38-year-old teacher died.

On Tuesday, Mr Rutte commented: “What we see coming out of Britain and Ireland is alarming and heartbreaking.”

The spread of the more infectious variant is driving calls for a nationwide curfew from 8pm to 4am to further restrict contacts.

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