‘The people in charge are generally good people, and hence they will take the right decision.’ I’ve come across this phrase a few times in my TU Delft career when I proposed regulation changes. It’s the final argument when they seem to agree with everything you propose, yet disagree. It’s a particularly tricky one to counter. I then have to argue that there are bad people too, or, what I think is more likely, that conflicting interests and differences in personal values can keep someone from taking the ‘right’ decision. But somehow the person sitting across the table does not seem to think that this is very likely.
The kindertoeslagenaffaire (childcare benefits fraud scandal), is unfortunately a prime example of where the people in charge did not take the right decision. The case involved 26,000 parents being unjustly accused by the Dutch Tax Authority of having received childcare benefits fraudulently. They were required to pay back all the childcare benefits received over many years in a short period of time, and future benefits were stopped. Going to court was generally unsuccessful: the Tax Authority withheld documents, and the court assumed that as a government institution, they would follow the law as a matter of course and ‘do the right thing’. Sound familiar? Many of these parents are still in debt. Furthermore, unable to use childcare services, some of them also lost their jobs, and hence subsequently even their homes. All this while they were entirely innocent. Amazingly, this went on for over a decade.
‘Yet some provisions seem to be lacking here in the Netherlands’
Two Members of Parliament (Renske Leijten and Pieter Omtzigt) fought relentlessly for several years to uncover this scandal. The Wet Openbaarheid van Bestuur, WOB, (the law on open government) gives all citizens the right to request that certain government information be made public. As citizens, Members of Parliament naturally have this right too. Leijten and Omtzigt requested information from the Government, but the documents were released sporadically, often with large fragments blacked out. (The Government has now started to white them out as it looks better when people tweet images of these documents.) The limited release of information was motivated by a Government guideline that communication between civil servants and ministers does not need to be disclosed.
We put things into law to protect citizens from the arbitrary exercise of authority, and to improve legal security and equality under the law, yet some provisions seem to be lacking here in the Netherlands. Regulations in universities serve the same purpose. Two particularly relevant examples are the Teaching and Examination Regulations (TER) of the different degree programmes, and the Student Charter which applies to all TU Delft students. The Boards of Studies of the educational programmes I am involved in recently proposed to amend our TER to include provisions in educational and examination facilities for pregnant and lactating students, similar to those provided to students with chronic illnesses. This should include amongst others the right to an examination date outside a reasonable window around a student’s due date. Essentially, this means finally adopting the Netherlands Institute for Human Rights’ recommendation (in Dutch) that educational institutes put the facilities that pregnant students have a right to in writing. The first response was that while the Advisor Educational Policy agreed with all the provisions I proposed, as the student advisors’ in our faculty in principle already handled cases in that manner, it was not necessary to put it in writing. So akin to ‘The people in charge are generally good people, and hence they will take the right decision’.
‘So my message is, don’t accept that as the final answer’
In fact, the study advisors in our programmes do wonderful work and have handled relevant cases admirably in the past. Yet it doesn’t always go well. In one case, an international student in another faculty simply needed information on the Dutch childcare benefits system, yet received none from her study advisor. Instead, she was told that “You need to prioritise your family, and perhaps stop studying”. The Programme Director said that the situation went beyond his remit. In the end, the student and I got into contact with each other, and I simply looked up the relevant Government regulations and explained to her that she could get full child care benefits, and how to apply. But this happened only after she had been studying with a child at home for almost a year. So my message is, if people agree with your proposal, but disagree on the basis that ‘good people will take the right decision’, don’t accept that as the final answer. I didn’t in this case, and it seems that provisions for pregnant and lactating students will become part of our TER. I harbour the hope that this kind of bottom-up action will be followed by other faculties, and that provisions for pregnant and lactating students will finally become part of our Student Charter.
Monique van der Veen is Associate Professor at the Faculty of Applied Sciences, department of Chemical Engineering. You can read about the work of her research team here and follow her on Twitter at @MAvanderVeen