Fresh unrest over MPs post-job pay

By Cathy Leung

Cathy Leung looks at the growing concern that severance pay arrangements for Dutch politicians are being abused.

Ranked at an impressive 9 out of 176 in Transparency International: Corruption Perceptions Index in 2012, the Netherlands is relatively free of political scandals. However, there’s a small rebellion brewing over MP’s wachtgeld, and the most recent outburst has come from one of their own …

Wiegel speaks out

At the end of April, the prominent VVD politician, Hans Wiegel gave his strongly worded opinion on the matter of wachtgeld to De Telegraaf. He wants a more modest redundancy scheme for politi-cians, and it seems the last straw for him was the recent news that Wassila Hachchi of D66 would be making use of the severance pay under dubious circumstances. Wiegel was a former Interior Minister in the Dutch government so he knows his stuff. More than this though, he is willing to take action to correct the situation himself and bring a private members bill to the House. He even accused the current Labour (PvdA) Minister of the Interior, Ronald Plasterk, of the Labour Party (PvdA) of being “too busy tweeting” to do anything about the situation.

What is wachtgeld?

An informal name, wachtgeld is what the Dutch call the redundancy allowance that is paid to politi-cians and other public officials after their service. Crucially, it is paid if MP leaves their position voluntarily as well as if they are sacked. This term, literally meaning ‘waiting money’, historically came into use at a time when it wasn’t possible to ultimately terminate a politician’s employment, rather, they would enter a kind of waiting period until they were assigned a new position. A politician is still free to perform voluntary or low paid work whilst receiving wachtgeld, in the understanding that it can take time for them to find a new job at a comparable level. The Netherlands is not the only country to have such an allowance for MPs who lose their jobs and it is perhaps interesting to look at an example for comparison. In the UK, for example, there has also been a severance pay package for politicians. Previously called a Resettlement Grant, there was a maximum of six months salary paid to the recipient of between 50-100% of their salary. It is only payable when an MP fails to achieve re-election and so does not pay out when a politician chooses to resign. Compare this with the Netherlands, which provides wachtgeld to MPs for a minimum of two years, and a maximum of 3 years and two months (though at a rate of 70-80% of their original salary), with MPs who chose to leave also eligible for the benefit. Though there has already been some adjustments in the Netherlands: an exception is now made if a post has been held for less than three months; then only six months’ wachtgeld is allowed, and if you can believe it, the maximum term of the wachtgeld used to be even higher than it is now.

What did Hachchi do?

So why did D66 MP, Wassila Hachchi provoke the consternation of conservative MP, Hans Wiegel when she got her wachtgeld? In January 2016, Hachchi resigned abruptly from the Tweede Kamer, (the lower house of the Dutch parliament), in order to become a campaign volunteer for Hilary Clinton, the United States presidential candidate. An MP for five years and active in several parliamentary committees during her service, nevertheless, Wiegel believes Hachchi does not deserve the wachtgeld in this scenario. (Presumably this is more to do with the voluntary nature of Hachchi’s departure than with the work she is going to do in the US.) Wiegel is adamant that the law was not intended for this sort of situation and would like to see an end to wachtgeld for people who chose to go. At the time, her fellow D66 parliamentarian and house leader, Khadija Arib remarked, “I wish her every success in America with a job that, whatever the outcome may be, affects the whole world”.

Previous criticism

It is not the first time there has been criticism of the wachtgeld arrangement, though. As far back as 2002, there was the notorious case of Philomena Bijlhout of the Lijst Pim Fortuyn party. Serving only nine hours as Secretary of State under Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende, Bijlhout had to resign unexpectedly after allegations of wrong doing. According to television channel RTL 4, in Surinam (the country of her birth) Bijlhout had been part of a militia under dictator, Dési Bouter-se whilst they had committed attrocities. Bijlhout was entitled to two years of wachtgeld under the system at the time — the exception for those serving less than three months was only introduced later.
Not so long ago, in 2013, the Mayor of Groningen, Peter Rehwinkel, provoked criticism when he resigned his position two years before his contract terminated. His reasons were, according to him, linked to the looming restructuring of the province from 23 to only 6 municipalities. On leaving, Rehwinkel’s stated intention was to go to abroad to join United Cities and Local Govern-ments (UCLG) to perform unpaid work. The PvdA politician intended to fund this vocational work with his wachtgeld, as reported at the time by RTV Noord. D66 and VVD councillors objected to this use of wachtgeld, with the latter’s Max Blom venting his anger on Twitter: “Rehwinkel is going to do voluntary work in Barcelona, and Groningen will pay”. Rehwinkel didn’t even end up going to go to Spain in the end, as it turned out he didn’t qualify for the UCLG position anyway, unpaid or not.

How could it change?

The principle of a safety net for politicians will most likely remain. It’s recognised that, for example, when there is a fall in government, politicians should be supported after the loss of their income. It’s possible though, that any future contentious cases of the awarding of wachtgeld could be discussed and ruled on by a small committee.

And with the recent news that the Minister of Infrastructure and the Environment, Melanie Schultz, will be voluntarily quitting politics next Spring, it will be interesting to see if she takes up wachtgeld and stirs the debate further. Or perhaps MPs like Wiegel will get their way and the system will be reformed by then …