In the interrogation room on Monday, Ludwijk Ascher said that one word was enough to describe the harsh fraud law he had to implement as Minister of Social Affairs in Rota 2. “Bad,” the PvdA member says firmly before the parliamentary investigation committee on fraud policies and services. In fact, even in his first months, he said he realized the law was too harsh.
It is a striking statement, especially since Asscher had long neglected to change the law he inherited from his predecessor Henk Kamp (VVD) in 2012. That is why Asscher was summoned to the interrogation room. It is true that Camp introduced the harsh fraud statute; This was carried out under Asscher’s ministry. The law imposed high fines on benefit recipients who entered data incorrectly. Even after making a simple mistake, they can be labeled as fraudsters.
Investigators Farid Azerkan (Dink) and Thierry Aartsen (VVD) quickly pointed out to Ascher during interrogation that there were sufficient indications that the law was harsh in practice. Not only did MPs sound the alarm, but the enforcers who had to put this tough approach into effect also came up with troubling stories shortly after it was introduced on January 1, 2013.
Asher admits that these signals also reached the ministry. These stories reached him already in the first months of his term. For example, the UWV stated during a consultation in the spring of 2013 that there were problems with so-called “self-reporters”. This concerns people who indicated that they received a lot of benefits due to an error, but still had to pay a large fine. “They were confused.”
According to Asher, it quickly became clear to him that the policy was “too severe and too stringent,” and that he was therefore dealing with “bad” law. This surprises Detective Farid Zarkan (Dink). Lassher noted that he defended the law before Parliament in the same year and responded to critical MPs that there were “few complaints” and that implementation of the law had been “positive”.
“I thought you were going to ask about that,” Asher replies. He says he would like to clarify this contradiction. He continues: “As a minister, you are obligated to implement the legislation as it is.” You can’t say when you’ll take office; “I don’t like this law, and we will put it aside.” At the same time, according to Asher, it is better to develop “your own view” that “the law really needs to change.”
Asher stresses that as a minister, he could not simply put forward his own point of view. This is because “the Council of Ministers speaks with one mouth.” You can’t say; This law must be changed, unless this is the opinion of the Council of Ministers. This common point of view did not yet exist at that time. For example, coalition partner VVD was in favor of a strict fraud policy. At the time, the former minister was accused in the discussions of not engaging with municipalities that “did not pursue fraud strongly enough.”
Asher says he initially tried to look for a more flexible policy within the current law. For example, he asked his officials to investigate whether municipalities and organizations like UWV could be given more leeway to deviate from higher fines. But due to legal obstacles, this turned out to be not possible. “It didn’t sit well with me,” Asher says. “But if it’s really against the law, we can’t continue with it.”
As signs of violations continue to pile up, Asher said he has become increasingly convinced of the need to amend the law. He asked his officials to investigate this matter, but there was no political space for it.
This space only became available when the Central Court of Appeal, one of the highest administrative courts, struck down the fraud law on several points at the end of 2014. Usher then announced that he would review the law and could now count on the strong support of the House of Representatives and his party. Remarkably, coalition partner VVD remained staunchly opposed to changing the law, even after the administrative judge’s harsh ruling. According to Asher, the law was “a kind of crown jewel” for the party.
Resistance at VVD
Henk Kamp, then Minister of Economic Affairs, was particularly critical of the amendment. According to Asher, just like the VVD faction, he still believes it is a “good law” and people should “abide by the rules.” In order to include the VVD, it was agreed to coordinate the change in the law with Kamp. Although the fraud policy was no longer Camp’s responsibility at all, Asher described it as a retrospective “common sense agreement” to gain support in the coalition.
According to Asher, the coalition partner’s resistance was one of the reasons why finally changing the law took longer than he would have liked. Moreover, he could not implement all the easing he said he wanted, because he might thus antagonize the LDP.
Ultimately, the VVD voted against the amendment, and the amendment was adopted with support from the opposition. When asked whether, with this knowledge, Asher might have been aiming for a more ambitious change, Asher replied that he was afraid of further delay. Asher admits that the mitigations have come “probably later than desired.” “But I am glad that, thanks to the Chamber and the Central Board of Appeals, I was the one who amended the law.”
Herma (CDA): “Soon signs of disastrous consequences of fraud law”
Immediately after the fraud law was issued, representatives received signals about the dire consequences for citizens. CDA MP Peter Herma told the inquiry on Monday. Herma also heard stories from people who “struggled hard with the law” during working visits to enforcement organizations such as municipalities and the UWV. It immediately became clear that this policy was so cruel that they began to look for a more humane policy “based on their personal integrity.”
For example, an employee of one of the implementing organizations said that they sometimes deliberately over-inflated the amount people received beyond the maximum of €50,000. Then the fraud case ended up in criminal law instead of administrative law. In criminal law, they receive “fairer treatment” than they do in administrative law, where under fraud law a person can expect a fine of 100 percent of the amount of fraud. “And then it will be the end of life,” Herma quoted the employee.
Ultimately, signals from the community were why Herma abandoned his party’s election manifesto, which also emphasized a tough approach to tackling fraud. According to the CDA member, it was a “struggle.” Although he was initially reluctant to change the law, he and his colleagues later insisted on doing so.
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