It was logical that the approach to benefit fraud was sharply tightened at the beginning of this century. This is what outgoing Prime Minister Mark Rutte said before the parliamentary inquiry committee on Fraud Policy. Rutte was State Secretary for Social Affairs from 2002 to 2004 in the first two Balkenende cabinets.
“Broader, smarter and more” became the starting point for enforcement. The fraud policy became ‘risk-driven’, meaning that people were targeted based on characteristics that were thought to increase the likelihood of fraud. This approach ultimately led to the benefits scandal, in which people were dealt with more harshly based on their origins.
Rutte said before the committee that the tightening was “a logical consequence” of the policy that had previously been implemented in the purple cabinets. “I picked up what was there. Fraud was a serious problem when I took office. There was a lot going on, there were many indications of fraud.”
I looked for a balance between prevention and repression. Benefits must reach those who are entitled to them. That is very important for support.
He referred to various reports, which showed, for example, that social assistance was susceptible to fraud. But he had no concrete figures on how big the problem was. “It was mostly anecdotal.”
Whether this risk-based approach could also have disadvantages was not investigated in advance. Rutte saw no reason to do so and it also seemed “obvious” to him that such an approach would have added value. “I was looking for a balance between prevention and repression. Benefits must reach those who are entitled to them. That is very important for support.”
Extra control of Somalis
In 2004, Rutte sent a letter to all municipalities in which he asked to specifically check Somali Dutch people. The reason was a report from the British Aliens Service that possibly thousands of them were receiving Dutch benefits, while they were now living in the UK.
Rutte said before the committee that it was “unthinkable” not to intervene, because the Dutch inspection also spoke of a “fraud pattern”. He believed that there were sufficient reasons to infringe the principle of non-discrimination, even though it was not clear exactly how many fraud cases were involved.
The judge thought differently in 2007. It ruled that there was indeed “improper management and discrimination on the basis of race”. At the time, Rutte reacted angrily to that verdict and said that the law should be amended to make it possible.
He no longer supports that. “That was not a wise statement.” Rutte would now look for another way to conduct further investigation, although he does not know exactly how to do that.
In the 1950s, social security was seen as an achievement, but for many people, social security has now become synonymous with fraud.
Earlier in the day, the committee questioned former Volkskrant journalist Gijs Herderscheê, who wrote a lot about the subject. He painted the picture that at the beginning, in the 1950s, social security was seen as an achievement. “But for many people, social security has now become synonymous with fraud.”
According to Herderscheê, this has especially become the case after politicians increasingly emphasized combating fraud in the 1990s. “The policy on social assistance has become harsh. Fraud became a determining factor in the image.”
Politics was leading, but journalism also contributed to the image. A term like ‘Bulgarian fraud’ was coined by journalists. Herderscheê: “Then it seems as if all Bulgarians were committing fraud, but that was not the case. It was only a small group of criminals and most of the money was returned from Bulgaria within a year. But that image can no longer be nuanced.”
Signals that things went too far
There were certainly signals that the government, and in particular the Tax Authorities, went far too far in the hunt for fraud. For example, the National Ombudsman wrote a report in 2017 stating that thousands of families were victims of this.
That report was reported, also by the Volkskrant, but then it became quiet. Herderscheê finds this incomprehensible in retrospect. “We should of course have called the Ombudsman and asked if we could get in touch with such a family.”
The benefits affair got started because Trouw and RTL Nieuws got involved. Yet the ministry and the Tax Authorities continued to maintain for a long time that there was not much going on. “It may be going too far to say that we have been misled for years. But they were very misleading,” said Herderscheê.
- Public hearings of Commission of Inquiry on Fraud Policy started
- Preparations for parliamentary inquiry implementing bodies began
- Mark Rutte heard next week by the Commission of Inquiry on Fraud Policy