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Understaffed and inexperienced: high pressure on Dutch MPs has consequences for legislation

In recent years, the Dutch Parliament’s effectiveness has increasingly sparked concerns. The Netherlands boasts one of Europe's smallest parliaments per capita, a condition that is aggravated by understaffing behind the scenes of political parties. The Dutch political landscape has also fragmented over the last three elections, with a rise in smaller parties stretching thin resources over extensive duties. On top of that, after recent elections, almost half of Dutch parliamentarians are political newcomers, with many experienced politicians having signed off last December. These factors have led to an overwhelming workload for parliamentarians, making it challenging for Parliament to effectively oversee the government, which benefits from the support of thousands of civil servants. The newly devised concept of a 'programme cabinet' that seems to be on the table in the current formation could offer a solution to this imbalance between government and parliament. But will the inexperienced and understaffed MPs be up to the challenge?

 

Minor Row Exposes Major Problem

A recent incident highlighted the Parliament’s struggle to monitor government legislation. In a routine update of a civil registration law, Ministry civil servants changed the term "mother" to "parent from which the child is born.” This change nearly passed unnoticed, were it not for one eager MP reading the entire law by coincidence. Indeed, no other party had addressed the change. Even the PVV’s (Party for Freedom) 37 MPs had not noticed it, although the party was highly critical after hearing of it. The situation underscored Parliament's challenge in overseeing the government and raised questions about current MPs’ inexperience in the political arena and increased workload.

 

Parliament’s Size Far from Ideal

Parties' time and resources are often severely limited, especially since the House of Representatives has become ‘splintered’ in recent years. There is now an increased number of parties in the House, whose limited amount of MPs have the daunting task of controlling the government’s twelve Ministries, which each house thousands of civil servants. This has raised concerns about the size of the Lower House: The Netherlands’ House of Representatives has had 150 members since 1956. Since then, the Dutch population has almost doubled, from 10 million citizens then to now some 18 million in 2024. In addition to that, legislation has become more complicated, leaving a smaller proportion of MPs representing a highly increased population to control increasingly complicated legislation.

And if it seemed like Parliament’s work was already difficult enough, smaller parties’ work can be even more demanding. These parties are often stretched thin since they have to be selective with the number of debates they can attend, and the amount of time they can devote to overseeing legislation, due to their parties often only having one or two representatives in the House.

 

 

Inexperienced Parties and Staff Shortages

On top of that, the Lower House that has now been elected is the least politically experienced House in Dutch history. Indeed, nobody in Geert Wilders’ PVV (Party for Freedom), now The Netherlands’ largest political party, has experience in administrative government positions. NSC (New Social Contract), a party that was founded to strengthen the dynamic between government and parliament in the latter’s favour, has the largest number of MPs with no political experience at all. Ten out of the twenty seats that NSC won are occupied by political newcomers. On top of that, four out of the seven seats occupied by the farmers’ party BBB (Farmer-Citizen Movement) also belong to political newcomers. Exactly these three parties are now in talks with the VVD (People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy) to form a coalition, which, if successful, would mean that government support will mostly come from a largely inexperienced parliamentary faction.

Apart from being inexperienced, the House’s problems are exacerbated by problems of short staffing. While Ministers often have large teams of civil servants assisting them in debates, MPs often only have one assistant. While Ministers thus have the resources to extensively prepare for debates with the aid of large teams of civil servants, MPs have to do much of the work by themselves. This has further raised concerns about MPs’ ability to effectively oversee government, a worry that has now worsened considering MPs’ relative inexperience.

 

Alternative Ways of Opposition

Apart from the House’s difficulty in overseeing government policy, the parliamentary opposition generally has a very difficult time influencing which laws pass through the House. This can be blamed on government coalitions strictly adhering to pre-determined coalition agreements. Such agreements have excluded the opposition from having any real say in legislative matters, which has led MPs in the opposition to seek other ways to remain visible in the public spotlight. They often post snippets of debates on their social media accounts, showing them asking tough questions to Ministers, or they will post which motions they have proposed in Parliament. Such debates or motions often have little to no effect on actual legislation, however. They often serve solely for the purpose of remaining visible for the opposition’s supporters, limiting the opposition’s effectiveness and flooding the parliamentary process with ineffective but time-consuming activities.

 

Improved ‘Dualism’ due to ‘programme cabinet’

The opposition’s insignificant role soon could change, however. The right-wing parties currently in talks about forming a coalition have expressed their desire not to postulate a strict coalition agreement. This form of cabinet is very untypical in modern Dutch politics – the term ‘programme cabinet’ was even coined only a few weeks ago to describe this new form of governance. If coalition talks turn out to be successful, it could mean that Parliamentary majorities will no longer be pre-established but will have to be found in the House of Commons through forging alliances on a range of different issues. Majorities can thus be found across the entire political spectrum, also with the help of smaller parties that up until now only managed to engage in a limited amount of effective opposition. This new form of government could thus perhaps increase the dualism of the Dutch political system, restoring the balance between government and Parliament and decreasing the importance of pre-determined coalition agreements. The plan for a ‘programme cabinet’ mostly came about due to pressure from NSC’s Pieter Omtzigt, a very experienced MP. This new construction could allow him to coerce Parliament into a new position in relation to the government, while preventing Geert Wilders from becoming Prime Minister in the process. However, with one of the most inexperienced Parliaments to date, it is not unlikely that Parliament’s ability to oversee the government will remain limited.

 

Challenges and opportunities during government transition

For organisations trying to influence the parliamentary process, these are complicated times. The current cabinet is acting in a caretaker capacity and is therefore allowed to execute only a few plans, but decision-making continues and must be actively monitored. In the House of Representatives, members are getting acquainted with their roles and positioning themselves. Some will probably become important when a new cabinet is formed. Others play a less significant role, but can suddenly become important if indeed a 'programme cabinet' comes into being.

 

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