Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte has announced the resignation of his government, accepting responsibility for years of mismanagement of childcare subsidies, which wrongfully drove thousands of families to financial ruin.
Rutte, who heads the liberal People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy, said he had handed his resignation to King Willem-Alexander.
“The rule of law must protect its citizens from an all-powerful government, and here that’s gone terribly wrong,” Rutte told reporters on Friday.
The cabinet would remain in place in a caretaker capacity to manage the coronavirus crisis for now, with an election already due on March 17.
The resignation follows a parliamentary inquiry last month that found bureaucrats at the tax service had wrongly accused families of fraud.
The inquiry report said approximately 10,000 families had been forced to repay tens of thousands of euros of subsidies, in some cases leading to unemployment, bankruptcies and divorces, in what it called an “unprecedented injustice”.
Al Jazeera’s Step Vaessen, reporting from Amsterdam, said: “The prime minister said the most important thing now is to compensate these parents for their loss and their suffering.
“But he also said that all the documents and decisions made by the cabinet in the future will be open to the public. He doesn’t want to face any accusations again that things are going on behind closed doors.”
With some parents racially profiled during the investigation, the affair underscored criticisms of the Dutch state under Rutte, including an addiction to frugality and a failure to tackle systemic racism.
Orlando Kadir, a lawyer representing about 600 families, told Dutch radio people had been targeted “as a result of ethnic profiling by bureaucrats who picked out their foreign-looking names”.
The scandal has now tarnished the liberal leader’s carefully honed image as a plain-speaking, pragmatic politician whose traditional values have chimed with voters in the Netherlands since 2010.
Rutte arrived for Friday’s crunch cabinet talks in the same low-key style he uses for any other day at the office – alone on his bicycle, jokingly nicknamed the “Rutte motorcade”.
The Netherlands is the third European country thrown into political uncertainty this week in the midst of the coronavirus crisis. In Estonia, the government resigned over a corruption scandal, while Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte’s governing coalition is at risk of collapse after a small partner party withdrew its support.