Approximately one million Dutch citizens have to live on an income that puts them on or only slightly above the poverty line. Most of this group live in long-term poverty and struggle to keep their heads above water financially. The Covid crisis is threatening to widen this financially vulnerable group, with young pgoeople, sole entrepreneurs and workers on flexible contracts most at risk. More than most, these individuals find themselves depending on complex forms of government support and become entangled in a web of rules and obligations. The slightest error or failure to comply with their obligation to provide accurate information, for example, can have dire financial consequences. Fines and repayment requirements can leave them with problematic debts.
In his agenda for 2021, the National Ombudsman will prioritise the problems experienced by people on minimum incomes in their dealings with the government. What problems do these citizens face? To what extent are they supported by the government? And where do the potential solutions to this persistent problem lie?
Informal caregivers are also in a vulnerable position. They have an important role to play in society and a strong desire to devote their time and effort to their loved ones. But they can only fulfil this role if they receive sufficient support. In 2021, the National Ombudsman will talk with informal caregivers, interest groups, the academic world and the government to critically examine developments surrounding the support for informal caregivers and to call for practical improvements.
Here are just two examples of investigations on the 2021 Ombudsagenda. In 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic impacted the lives of every adult and every child on a day-to-day basis. Many citizens needed the government more than ever before. Entrepreneurs needed financial support, people who lost their jobs needed social benefits, and children needed laptops as much of their education moved online. At the same time, the government became less accessible to its citizens. Counters were closed and some government services suddenly became unavailable. Aspects of good governance such as accessibility, responsibility and reliability come under closer scrutiny in times of crisis. Some processes falter, while others make unexpected leaps forward thanks to the ingenuity and improvisation of those who find ways to apply rules more flexibly in times of crisis.
Themes for 2021
The themes on which the National Ombudsman, the Ombudsman for Children and the Ombudsman for Veterans will focus in 2021 are perhaps even more relevant due to the Covid crisis and its social consequences.
On the theme of Fundamental Rights, this year’s agenda will include an investigation into the use of ethnic profiling and the handling of complaints on this issue. We will also look at housing: a pressing social problem for many different groups of citizens and their children, despite the fact that adequate housing is so crucial to enabling participation in society.
On the theme of Participation and Influence, we plan to examine the decentralisation of various public services and how this has failed to meet the expectations of many citizens. In the role of local ombudsman for three quarters of Dutch municipalities, the National Ombudsman wants to see how citizens can exert their influence in areas of responsibility that are transferred to municipalities. With this in mind, the Ombudsman for Children is focusing specifically on a toolkit to ensure that the interests of children are properly represented in decision-making processes that affect them.
When it comes to Access to Public Services, all three ombudsmen are focusing on many different topics, from informal caregivers to emergency support for veterans and complaint handling at certified institutions. The underutilisation of facilities is also on the agenda. Does the government always do enough to ensure that citizens actually make use of provisions set up specifically to help them?
Poverty is also a theme that is high on the agenda due to the Covid crisis. The aspects the ombudsmen plan to look at include access to debt relief for sole traders earning close to the minimum wage, and pursuing investigations into poverty among single parents and their children in the Caribbean Netherlands.
On the theme of Liveability, there will be a continued focus on the impact of gas production in Groningen, while the energy transition is also firmly on the agenda.
For a complete overview of all topics, read the Ombudsagenda for 2021