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Dutch government risks collapse over benefits scandal

Thousands of parents were wrongly accused by Dutch authorities of fraudulently claiming child allowance, with many of them forced to pay back large amounts of money and ending up in financial ruin.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte gives a press conference in The Hague, on 12 January 2021, for an explanation of the COVID-19 measures in the Netherlands. Picture: Bart Maat/AFP

THE HAGUE - Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte's government is set to decide on Friday whether to resign over a child benefits scandal, threatening political turmoil as the country battles the coronavirus pandemic.

Thousands of parents were wrongly accused by Dutch authorities of fraudulently claiming child allowance, with many of them forced to pay back large amounts of money and ending up in financial ruin.

Dutch public broadcaster NOS, quoting sources close to the government, said that it was now "inevitable" that liberal leader Rutte's four-party cabinet would resign when it discusses the issue at its regular meeting on Friday.

But Rutte - who has been in power since 2010 and is one of Europe's longest-serving leaders - said late Thursday that he did not want to prejudge the cabinet's chances of surviving the scandal.

"Tomorrow we will talk again about the substantive reaction to the report on the benefits, and then I suspect the political question will also be discussed," Rutte told reporters.

A hard-hitting parliamentary investigation in December said civil servants cut off benefits to thousands of families wrongly accused of fraud between 2013 and 2019.

The row comes just two months before elections are due on 17 March, and could leave the Netherlands without a government in the midst of a surge in cases of a new COVID-19 variant that first emerged in Britain.

Rutte has opposed the cabinet's resignation, saying the country needs leadership during the coronavirus pandemic.

He has however said that if it resigned he could be authorised to lead a caretaker government to deal with coronavirus until elections - in which polls say his Freedom and Democracy Party would likely come first.

'RACIAL PROFILING'

But other parties in the coalition are pressing for the government to resign, saying they need to take responsibility for a scandal that Dutch media said had affected some 26,000 people.

They could also face a possible confidence vote in parliament next week.

Pressure mounted on the government after opposition Labour party chief Lodewijk Asscher, who was social affairs minister in Rutte's previous government, resigned on Thursday over the scandal.

Victims this week also lodged a legal complaint Tuesday against three serving ministers and two former ministers including Asscher.

Many were required to pay back benefits totalling tens of thousands of euros.

Tax officials were also revealed to have carried out "racial profiling" of 11,00 people based on their dual nationality, including some of those hit by the false benefit fraud accusations.

The Dutch government announced at least 30,000 euros in compensation for each parent who was wrongly accused but it has not been enough to silence the growing clamour over the scandal.

Rutte has led three coalition governments since 2010, most recently winning elections in 2017 despite strong opposition from far-right leader Geert Wilders.

Polls say he is likely to win a fourth term in the next election, with public opinion still largely backing his handling of the coronavirus crisis.

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