Foreign affairs ministry accused of sabotaging Saudi fraud investigation

The Hague to repay €2.6m in taxes claimed from Jewish families during WWII

The foreign ministry has been accused of obstructing a criminal inquiry into corrupt payments by a Dutch building firm to the Saudi royal family. The Telegraaf newspaper reported in 2013 that Ballast Nedam had paid hundreds of millions of euros to a member of the House of Saud to secure military building contracts on the Arabian peninsula. The bulk of the money, some $450 million, went to Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Alsaud. Documents obtained recently by the TV station Human revealed that the ministry of foreign affairs blocked an attempt by the Dutch tax service's fraud division (FIOD) to interview a Saudi witness during its investigation of the case. According to the document, which is the basis of a documentary broadcast on Monday, the interview was abandoned 'because of bilateral relations, the status of those concerned and the possible risks to the witness who was to be heard.' Investigators in the case told the Telegraaf that they had been frustrated by the ministry's intervention. The then foreign affairs minister Frans Timmermans denied any interference in the case when the issue was raised by Socialist MP Harry van Bommel. 'The Netherlands' interests in Saudi Arabia, whether diplomatic, economic or of any other kind, have not been allowed to have any kind of influence on the criminal investigation into the illegal payments affair,' said Timmermans when questioned by the Telegraaf. Ballast built two airfields in Saudi Arabia for a total sum of $580 million. FIOD believes the contracts were only worth $249 million and the illegal payments made up the difference.  More >

Wilders in yet another election no-show

The Hague to repay €2.6m in taxes claimed from Jewish families during WWII Geert Wilders has pulled out of a TV interview with late night news show Nieuwsuur because he 'doesn't like it'. It is the latest walkout by the PVV leader, who was absent from last night's television debate on RTL4 and the Radio 1 leaders' debate on Friday. Wilders has also declined the regional TV debate on March 11 and withdrew from the March 5 debate in Amsterdam's Carré theatre in protest after RTL Nieuws, one of the organisers, broadcast an interview with his brother, Paul. Wilders cancelled all public engagements last week after it emerged that a member of his security team had connections with Moroccan gangsters. However, a spokesman said that the decision not to appear on Nieuwsuur was not security-related. Wilders had decided 'only to do things we like, and this isn't something we like,' the party spokesman explained. Nieuwsuur has been running individual interviews with all party leaders in Parliament in the two weeks running up to the election on March 15. Programme editor Joost Oranje said: 'We're running the rule over 13 parties and it's a real shame if one of those parties declines because they “don't like it”.' Wilders is still due to take part in a head-to-head debate with Rutte in EenVandaag on March 13 and the final leaders' debate on NOS the following night. Prime minister Mark Rutte said on Monday that there was no increased threat to Wilders's safety and his decision to cancel public events was down to him alone. 'If he wants to, we'll make sure he can,' Rutte told NOS.  More >

The Hague to repay WWII land taxes to Jews

The Hague to repay €2.6m in taxes claimed from Jewish families during WWII The city of The Hague has set up a restitution fund for Jewish families who had to pay land taxes on confiscated property during and after the Second World War. Research by the municipality found that Jews who returned to the city after the war were sent bills for unpaid ground rent and road tax on their homes up until 1955, NOS reported. The council concluded the charges were immoral and has set aside €2.6 million to compensate families who were ordered to pay the taxes. It will also work with Jewish groups to try to trace those who are eligible. The investigation was set up in response to written questions submitted by the PVV party. Any leftover funds will be donated to the city's Jewish community, the council said in a statement.   More >

Campaign trail: trouble for voters abroad

The Hague to repay €2.6m in taxes claimed from Jewish families during WWII The Netherlands will elect a new government on March 15. With 17 days to go, here is a round-up of the latest election news. Trouble for voters abroad Over 530 Dutch nationals abroad have not yet received their ballot papers, making it impossible for them to vote in the general election, according to research by D66. This year, a record 77,000 Dutch nationals have registered to vote abroad. 'In The Hague they said they would send out the last ballot papers on February 7, but there were so many applications, some were not sent until February 24,' said D66 parliamentary hopeful Eelco Keij. Voters either have to send back their ballot paper to the Netherlands or hand it in at a Dutch embassy. But most of the embassies have a deadline of March 1, Keij points out. Wilders is safe, says PM Geert Wilders can continue with his election campaign perfectly safely, and has chosen himself to stop public appearances, prime minister Mark Rutte said on Monday. Wilders suspended his campaign last week because of a security scare surrounding his police protection detail. Rutte said he is concerned about the reports but that it would be wrong to say the entire protection squad is a mess. 'It includes the best people we have,' Rutte said. Women first While none of the big parties are lead by women, the top five all have a woman in second place on their list of potential MPs. Fleur Agema (PVV), Jeanine Hennis (VVD), Mona Keijzer (CDA), Stientje van Veldhoven (D66) and Renske Leijten (SP) took part in a televised debate on Sunday morning to discuss healthcare, public safety and the Dutch identity. The only party currently in parliament to be lead by a woman - the pro-animal rights PvdD, was not invited to take part.  More >

The big election issues: housing

The Hague to repay €2.6m in taxes claimed from Jewish families during WWII The Netherlands goes to the polls to elect a new government on March 15. Gordon Darroch is taking a close look at the five big issues dominating the campaign: healthcare, immigration, Europe, the elderly and housing. Part 4: housing The Dutch housing sector is under increasing pressure to keep up with demand. A working group set up by the government has concluded that 50,000 new homes need to be built in the next few years. Rents and house prices are both rising faster than inflation, making it especially challenging for young professionals and those looking to buy their first home. At the same time some homeowners are still feeling the after-effects of the house price crash and negative equity that was a major feature of the 2008 recession. The problem is particularly acute in the social housing sector, which still accounts for 29% of all homes despite the efforts of Mark Rutte's government to liberalise the sector. According to D66's manifesto the average waiting time for a house in the public sector is eight years and in extreme cases people are having to wait for 21 years. D66 has set a target of building 100,000 new affordable homes to cut the waiting list. Other parties to specify housebuilding targets include Labour (PvdA), which wants to build 50,000 homes a year. The animal rights party PvdD calls for empty offices to be converted into homes to ease the shortage. Private sector Several parties see the private sector as key to easing the housing crisis. The Christian Democrats (CDA), D66 and the ChristenUnie all want to liberalise the market, particularly for tenants whose rents are just above the limit of €700 a month for social housing. A shortage in the €700-€1000 bracket is causing a backlog in social housing and exacerbating the problem of scheefhuurders – sitting tenants whose incomes have risen far faster than their rents, sometimes over decades. The Socialists (SP) focus on reducing rents, pointing out that average housing sector costs have increased by 30% in six years, creating hardship for half a million people. 'Rents down' is also the full extent of housing policy in the PVV's manifesto. The Socialists would use social housing to tackle the shortage of homes for low earners, by extending eligibility to people earning 150% of the average income. This is in direct contrast to the VVD, who want to make space for more private landlords by lowering the upper threshold for social housing to €600 a month. 50Plus says social housing landlords should be compelled to build enough homes for elderly people. Owner occupiers In the housing market itself, much attention has been focused since the recession on the hypotheekrenteaftrek – the mechanism that allows homeowners to offset their monthly mortgage payments against income tax. Labour, Denk and the ChristenUnie would all bring the maximum level down from €750,000 to €500,000, while D66, the SP and the SGP also have plans to scale it back in the longer term. The latter two parties also want to reduce the level of mortgage debt; in the case of the SGP this would involve allowing people to use money from their pension pots to pay off their mortgages. Several parties want to relax the criteria for new mortgages to help first-time buyers; the VVD, for example, say banks should be able to look at buyers' potential future earnings as well as their current earnings. One reform from the Rutte government that many parties target is the verhuurdersheffing, or landlord's levy, applicable to owners who have at least 10 rental properties within the social housing price bracket. The measure is worth around €1.3 billion a year to the public purse, but opposition parties say it deters landlords from investing in improving the quality of housing. Free-market champions VNL want to abolish it outright, while the CDA would cut it by around 30% so corporations can build more affordable homes. The VVD, which pioneered the scheme, would increase the charge and use the money raised to fund an income tax cut. Finally, energy use and sustainability feature in several parties' manifestos. GroenLinks want more investment in parks and green spaces, and will campaign for a European agreement to make all new buildings energy neutral within two years. D66 have a more modest target of making 30% of homes energy neutral by 2030. The PvdD wants to permit more 'tiny houses' – small portable homes or extensions which could be used, for example, as granny annexes – to tackle the housing crisis without needing to develop green space. Party manifestos VVD: Lower the rent ceiling for social housing to €600 to encourage more private sector landlords. More flexible mortgage lending criteria to help first-time buyers and non-contract workers. New migrants no longer to be given priority in waiting lists. Housing benefit to be based on income rather than rent level. PVV: 'Rents down' PvdA: At least 50,000 new homes a year to be built, with quotas for affordable housing. Structure rents so that people on lower incomes pay less. Cap mortgage tax relief at €500,000. SP: Cut social housing rents by €400 a year with no rent increases above the level of inflation. Extend eligibility for affordable housing to people earning 1.5 times the average salary. Oblige social landlords to invest in improving their buildings. D66: Build 100,000 affordable new homes to cut waiting lists. Scale back mortgage tax relief and encourage householders to pay off mortgages. Incentives to cut energy use to make 3 million homes energy neutral by 2030. CDA: More rental homes in €700-€900 pm bracket to cut waiting lists. Cut landlord tax by €500 million so corporations can build more sustainable homes. Raise rents for scheefhuurders – social housing tenants on low rents and relatively high incomes. GroenLinks: Invest in parks and green spaces to improve quality of residential areas. Adjust rents in social housing to reflect tenants' income. Phase out mortgage tax relief and provide support for first-time buyers. ChristenUnie: Stimulate private rental sector to create more homes in the €700-€1,100 price bracket. Abolish landlord tax. Exemption from purchase tax for first-time buyers. Cap mortgage tax relief at €500,000. SGP: Scale back mortgage tax relief and scrap the homeowner's tax (eigenwoningforfait). Allow pension contributions to be used to pay off mortgages. Starter loans and longer mortgage terms to help first-time buyers enter the market. More affordable homes for families and low earners. 50Plus: Compel housing corporations to build enough homes for elderly people. Fiscal incentives and changes to planning regulations to encourage energy saving. National programme to tackle shortage of affordable homes. No change to mortgage tax relief. PvdD: Convert empty offices to homes or student residences. Encourage 'multiple generation homes' so families can stay in the same neighbourhood. Raise rents for social housing tenants on higher incomes. Phase out mortgage tax relief over 30 years and abolish purchase tax. Denk: Abolish landlords' levy to cut rents and encourage investment. At least 30% of land sales to go to small developers. No rent rises above inflation for low earners. Limit mortgage tax relief to €500,000 but extend eligibility to interest-free ('halal') mortgages. VNL: Build more homes. Abolish landlords' levy for private tenants.  More >