Due to the ‘weighty social interest’, the measure will take effect retroactively from last Monday. Wiersma announces two relaxations. The benefits agencies of municipalities, the Social Insurance Bank (SVB) and the benefits agency UWV may be more flexible with the rules from 15 November. A civil servant can waive the recovery of a benefit if the beneficiary has accidentally made a mistake. This can happen when applying for a benefit or if a benefits agency is accidentally not informed in time or in full about changes in the circumstances of the benefit recipient, the ‘obligation to provide information’. Only if there is ‘intent or gross negligence’ should a civil servant reclaim, writes Wiersma.
Wiersma also relaxes the repayment term if a benefit recipient has received too much money. Now debts that have arisen as a result of violation of the disclosure obligation must be repaid within one year. UWV and SVB can now temporarily deviate from this. They may agree on repayment arrangements of three years. ‘This temporary deviation from the scheme will be implemented over the next six months’, writes Wiersma, ‘after which it will be assessed whether sufficient space has been created, or whether more drastic changes or changes in other areas of the debtor policy are required.’
Small mistakes, big consequences
The relaxation of the regime appears to be a reaction to the parliamentary investigations into the allowance affair and into enforcement in social security. The tough attitude of the tax authorities in particular has brought thousands of families into major financial problems in recent years: small, sometimes unintentional mistakes had major consequences.
At the beginning of this year there was also a fuss about a fine for a person entitled to social assistance in the municipality of Wijdemeren because she received messages from her mother for three years. She had not complied with the obligation to provide information; she had not reported these gifts to the municipality. The highest judge in social security, the Central Appeals Board, lowered the fine from 7,000 euros to 2,800 euros in September. The ‘Wijdemeren affair’ caused a lot of fuss about the strict supervision regime in social assistance, and was an illustration of the conclusion of the House of Representatives inquiry committee about the gap between ‘bar and policy’.
The helm is turning
The helm now seems to move on more levels. In September, the UWV benefits agency waived 1,200 people repayment of benefits paid in excess. Incidentally, this involved errors on the part of the UWV itself. That was a trend break with the strict enforcement policy that for a long time required reimbursement.
According to Wiersma, it is up to the municipalities, UWV and SVB to ‘detail or not give substance’ to the greater freedom that he now offers. This can lead to different treatment of benefit claimants, depending on the political leaning of the municipal council. The municipalities are responsible for social assistance, the Social Insurance Bank for the AOW and the survivors’ law and the UWV for employee insurance such as unemployment benefit WW and the WIA and WAO incapacity for work.
Wiersma also wants to simplify the rules. ‘If citizens do not know exactly what information they should pass on, or do not know how to do this, there is a risk that they will not fulfill the obligation to provide information correctly due to errors or mistakes,’ Wiersma wrote to the House. ‘I notice that a vulnerable target group is confronted with very complicated rules.’ He sees ‘room for improvement (…) in the area of simpler legislation and regulations’. He is therefore setting up a Prevention Team that will ‘explore how legislation, policy and implementation can work better for benefit applicants and recipients’.