Dutch MPs grill PM over child benefits scandal

The Hague (AFP) –


Dutch opposition parties blasted Prime Minister Mark Rutte on Tuesday in the wake of his cabinet's resignation over a harrowing childcare benefit scandal, calling on him to take personal responsibility.

Thousands of Dutch parents were wrongly accused of fraud while claiming childcare benefits, forcing them to pay back large amounts of money which left them financially ruined.

Some families were also targeted for investigation by tax officials because they had dual nationality, underscoring longstanding criticism over systemic racism in the Netherlands.

"Distrust slowly crept into all systems," said newly elected Labour (PvdA) leader Lilianne Ploumen, whose party has said Rutte's "fingerprints are on every page" of the scandal.

Previous PvdA chief Lodewijk Asscher resigned on Thursday, a day before Rutte's cabinet stepped down. Asscher was social affairs minister in Rutte's previous cabinet.

The Dutch premier "cannot just cycle away from the problem with a smile and an apple in his hand," said Ploumen, referring to Rutte's arrival at parliament by bike Friday ahead of his cabinet's resignation.

"It would stand him in good stead if he (Rutte) could admit responsibility," Jesse Klaver, who leads the environmentalist Green-Left party, told a debate in parliament.

Anti-Islam MP Geert Wilders called on Rutte to step down as party boss.

"We need to do away with the Rutte doctrine of sweeping things under the carpet," said Wilders, whose Freedom Party (PVV) trails in a far second place to Rutte's Liberals, according to the latest polls.

Far-right Forum for Democracy leader Thierry Baudet also called for Rutte's resignation from his party.

"He (Rutte) doesn't want to take responsibility," Baudet said, "yet he continues to sit there".

During a heated answering session, Rutte said he took "full responsibility" as head of the Dutch government.

"I am not walking away from my responsibilities. It's a terrible thing that happened and lessons should be learnt so it doesn't happen again," Rutte said.

"But the cabinet took the ultimate step by stepping down, including myself" an under-fire Rutte said.

However, many observers believed the resignations were mainly symbolic ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled for mid-March.

Polls showed Rutte's VVD party set to again win the vote with a wide margin.

The Dutch government announced at least 30,000 euros ($36,000) in compensation for each parent who was wrongly accused, but payments are yet to be made, MPs pointed out on Tuesday.