Rutte Cabinet accused of withholding tax scandal info from Parliament; PM denies anything “improper”

THE HAGUE - Caretaker Prime Minister Mark Rutte believes that "nothing strange or improper" happened when his government ministers collectively decided not to fully present facts and information about the tax scandal to the Tweede Kamer (Dutch Parliament) 18 months ago. He as responding to an explosive report from RTL Nieuws on Wednesday, and told reporters that a letter of explanation will soon be sent to the Tweede Kamer to offer further explanation, ANP reported. An emergency debate on the issue is imminent.

On many occasions the Tweede Kamer, the lower house of Dutch parliament, asked for a complete explanation of how the tax benefits scandal developed, including what senior civil servants knew about the issue, and when the responsible ministers became fully aware of what was happening. A review of minutes from weekly meetings of the Council of Ministers undertaken by RTL Nieuws showed that the Cabinet chose to withhold information from Parliament in 2019.

"It is shocking that the people's representatives are being kept," in the dark, Labor MP Henk Nijboer said. Members of Parliament who demanded the emergency debate said that the minutes from the Council of Ministers' meetings should be available for public review.

The years-long scandal dates back to the previous Rutte Cabinet in addition to the Rutte III Cabinet which fell as the result of a government investigation into the matter. The scandal saw thousands of parents unjustly accused of attempting to defraud the government out of social benefits payments based on their background and profile, and not on an individual review of material. They were often stripped of child care subsidies available to anyone in the Netherlands, and forced to repay benefits they received in one lump sum pushing many into deep debt.

RTL Nieuws alleged that the meeting records showed that ministers were particularly irritated by CDA MP Pieter Omtzigt, who was instrumental in bringing the tax benefits scandal to light. A source told the broadcaster that current finance minister and CDA leader Wopke Hoekstra said that Omtzigt had been approached and made aware of the sensitive nature of the issue, but was unwilling to relent.

The Tweede Kamer demanded clarification from Rutte and other ministers involved and asked for a debate on the matter as soon as possible. The issues put even more pressure on the already fragile trust between the parties in the midst of a difficult Cabinet formation process following the March election.

It was reported that a number of parties also approached new Cabinet formation advisor Herman Tjeenk Willink regarding this issue. While Rutte led his VVD party to victory in the March vote, many parties have already said they would not work with the VVD in a coalition government if Rutte remained their leader.

Rutte’s image was already damaged earlier in April following the Cabinet formation scandal when he narrowly won a no-confidence vote. This was called after it was accidentally revealed that Omtzigt was discussed by name during formation talks with Rutte, something which Rutte initially denied. After more notes surfaced demonstrating that the MP was a topic of conversation, Rutte said he did not remember discussing him, which irritated MPs who did not believe him. The prime minister refused to resign his office or his VVD leadership to the surprise of many voters.

The Cabinet formation process continued on Wednesday when the leaders of the eight largest parties in Parliament met with Tjeenk Willink who has been tasked with leading the formation discussions. He previously met with the leaders of the nine smallest parties on Tuesday.

Despite numerous issues, Rutte remained optimistic about the upcoming process.

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