In recent weeks the Dutch media have paid a great deal of attention to the app traffic between Minister Hugo de Jonge (former minister of health) and Sywert van Lienden about the purchase of mouth masks. As a result of the revelations of de Volkskrant, the integrity of administrators was extensively discussed in the Netherlands, from parliament to talk show tables. This fits in with a broader discussion on political integrity and integrity of public administration in the Netherlands, including in the House of Representatives. A committee debate on integrity in public administration was held on 10 March, there was a written consultation on the interests of members of government on 8 April and just before the Easter weekend a two-minute debate was held following the aforementioned committee debate on integrity in public administration.
A good time to take stock.
In 2019, the Group of States against Corruption (GRECO), the corruption watchdog of the Council of Europe, examined the Dutch integrity systems for members of government based on 7 indicators. Conclusion: the Dutch system was assessed as substandard. Of the 8 countries studied, none scored a red tick on all 7 points – except for the Netherlands. Worse than countries like Poland, Malta and North Macedonia.
Based on the findings, GRECO made 8 concrete recommendations to the Netherlands. In an evaluation report published in 2021, the corruption watchdog concluded on the implementation of the recommendations that the Netherlands was still doing far too little to promote integrity and counter corruption among politicians and top officials; “We regret that no tangible progress has been made on any of our recommendations,” GRECO said.
Naturally, this scathing assessment provided fodder for discussion again in the House of Representatives, which led to a cautious first step in late 2021: the cabinet came up with an integrity policy for former ministers. This policy consists of a broadening of the already existing lobbying ban, the introduction of the so-called revolving door ban and a cooling-off period for members of government with mandatory advice from an independent committee. Although an important and much-needed first step, there were still plenty of comments to be made about the (feasibility of the) proposals.
There are still questions about this in the Lower House too, as became apparent during the Integrity Committee debate on public administration last month. Despite the appreciation expressed to Hanke Bruins Slot (CDA, Home Affairs) for her prioritization of the integrity theme, the debate was dominated by a number of recognizable points of criticism and concern. The main criticism: the measures in their current form leave too much room for discussion and interpretation, and due to the lack of sanctions they have virtually no clout. It is therefore a nice gesture, but at the same time a toothless tiger.
Take, for example, the lobbying and revolving door ban. According to members of the committee, both measures are still too non-committal and not sufficiently enforceable. This means that compliance is still largely based on the ministers’ own responsibility – and let GRECO identify that as precisely the vulnerable point of the Dutch system. In addition, with both measures, the Secretary General of the relevant ministry has the option to grant the former minister exemption from a ban. Given that the minister and the SG have worked together intensively and often have a good personal relationship, the potential inconvenience of this construction is evident, in the Committee’s view, and this waiver construction is therefore undesirable.
In addition, the mandatory cooling-off period, during which former members of government are obliged to seek advice from an independent committee for a period of two years before accepting a follow-up position, raises questions. Here, too, there is no sanction, which makes the ‘obligation’ nothing more than an urgent recommendation. The Cabinet’s response to concerns about the non-commitment expressed by the House of Representatives: ‘…one possibility is to publish the advice if a former member of government fails to follow the advice of the independent advisory panel. Ideally, however, it should not come to that: after all, the intention is that a former member of government should follow the advice of the independent panel.’
Finally, following GRECO’s advice, work is being done on a code of conduct for ministers. The Chamber calls this “a nice gesture”, but without consequences it is nothing more than an empty shell. During the debate, a large part of the committee therefore asked for the code of conduct to be sanctioned (legally or otherwise). Anyone who reads in the current Handbook for Government Officials that “the use of a private email account for work-related purposes is strongly discouraged” and has spent the past few weeks reading the