By MIKE CORDER
THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte and his entire Cabinet resigned Friday to take political responsibility for a scandal involving investigations into child welfare payments that wrongly labeled thousands of parents as fraudsters.
In a nationally televised speech, Rutte said he had informed King Willem-Alexander of his decision and pledged that his government would continue work to compensate affected parents as quickly as possible and to battle the coronavirus.
“We are of one mind that if the whole system has failed, we all must take responsibility, and that has led to the conclusion that I have just offered the king, the resignation of the entire Cabinet,” Rutte said.
Not long after delivering his statement, Rutte got on his bicycle and rode to the king’s palace in a forest in The Hague to formally inform the king. Dutch television showed him parking his bike at the bottom of steps leading into the palace and walking inside.
The move was seen as largely symbolic; Rutte’s government will remain in office in a caretaker mode until a new coalition is formed after a March 17 election in the Netherlands.
The resignation brings to an end a decade in office for Rutte, although his party is expected to win the election, putting him first in line to begin talks to form the next government. If he succeeds in forming a new coalition, Rutte would most likely again become prime minister.
Geert Wilders, leader of the largest opposition party in the Dutch parliament said it was the right decision for the government to quit.
“Innocent people have been criminalized, their lives destroyed and parliament was informed about it inaccurately and incompletely,” he tweeted.
The Netherlands is the third European country thrown into political uncertainty this week in the midst of the coronavirus crisis. In Estonia, the government resigned over a corruption scandal, while Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte’s governing coalition is at risk of collapse after a small partner party withdrew its support.
Rutte said earlier this week that his government would be able to keep taking tough policy decisions in the battle against the coronavirus even if it were in caretaker mode. The Netherlands is in a tough lockdown until at least Feb. 9, and the government is considering imposing an overnight curfew amid fears about new, more contagious variants of the virus.
“To the Netherlands I say: Our struggle against the coronavirus will continue,” Rutte said.
Jesse Klaver, the leader of one opposition party, told national broadcaster NOS he would continue to support the government in its coronavirus campaign.
On Thursday, the leader of the opposition Labor Party stepped down because he was minister of social affairs in a coalition led by Rutte when the country’s tax office implemented a tough policy of tracking down fraud with child welfare.
A sitting minister, Eric Wiebes, who also was linked to the scandal, said Friday he was resigning with immediate effect and would not be part of the caretaker administration.
At Friday’s Cabinet meeting, ministers decided their reaction to a scathing parliamentary report issued last month, titled “Unprecedented Injustice,” that said the tax office policies violated “fundamental principles of the rule of law.” The report also criticized the government for the way it provided information to parliament about the scandal.
Many wrongfully accused parents were plunged into debt when tax officials demanded repayment of payments. The government has in the past apologized for the tax office’s methods and in March earmarked 500 million euros ($607 million) to compensate more than 20,000 parents.
In a written reaction, the government pledged to reform the welfare system as a result of the scandal and to quickly pay affected parents 30,000 euros ($36,300) and expand existing compensation schemes.
“Everything is aimed at offering the parents and their children a new start in life,” the government said.
One of the parents waited near parliament as the Cabinet met and said she wanted it to resign.
“It’s important for me because it is the government acknowledging, ‘We have made a mistake and we are taking responsibility,’ because it’s quite something what happened to us,” Janet Ramesar told The Associated Press.
Rutte plans to lead his conservative People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy into the March election, and polls suggest it will win the most seats. That would put Rutte, who has been in office for a decade at the head of three different coalitions, first in line to attempt to form the next ruling coalition.
But he said that it was up to voters at the election to decide on his future, noting that he took ultimate responsibility for failings within his government.
“The buck stops here,” he said.