THE HAGUE – Since January this year, people applying for social welfare benefits have had to prove that they meet the Dutch language requirements in order to be eligible for full Social Assistance. People already receiving welfare prior to the start of this year have until the 1st of July to show that they are at the required level of Dutch proficiency.
The aim of this new element of the Participation Law (Dutch: Participatiewet) is to help those who, due mainly to their Dutch language skills, cannot get a job that earns them enough to support themselves. It was proposed by State Secretary for Social Affairs and Employment Jetta Klijnsma, of the Dutch Labour Party (PvdA).
In the Netherlands there are different types of benefits which are meant to act as a social security safety net. There is National Insurance, such as old age pension and child benefit, Employee Insurace in cases of unemployment and sickness or long-term disability, and Social Assistance, which is administered by the separate municipalities. How much Social Assistance you can receive depends on your age, your current or most recent job, and your libing situation.
The extended Participation Law recently implemented concerns people who are able to work but who may need assistance, hereby hoping to ensure that as many people as possible are employed. Social Assistance helps them herein by financially aiding those who do not earn enough to support their, and in some cases their families’ basic needs.
There were aready requirements set by the government in order to qualify for Social Assistance. For example, there is an income limit in place if you have a job but still wish to receive welfare, and if you are unemployed you are obliged to actively search for work. Aside from this, municipalities were free to make people improve their Dutch in return for welfare if they found it necessary, even though this was not yet a national requirement.
In addition to these already active laws, the new law will oblige those wishing to receive Social Assistance to have a Dutch proficiency of at least 1F (A2). In other words, they must be able to hold simple conversation as well as read and write simple texts.
Someone’s Dutch level can be proven by showing that they have finished at least eight years of Dutch school, passed the Civic Integration Exam, or are in the possession of another document that indicates their proficiency. If the applicant does not have any of these ways to show that they speak Dutch, they will have to take a language proficiency test.
In the case that the language test shows that someone’s Dutch skills are lacking and they are doing nothing to improve, the municipality may initially lower their social benefit by 20% in the first six months. by 40% if it takes longer, and after a year it can go so far as withholding the benefit entirely.
The Association of Dutch Municipalities (VNG) was strongly against the implementation of the new element of the Participation Law. Given that municipalities were already allowed to enforce language proficiency tests where they found it necessary, the VNG feels this national law is unnecessary. It has been said to lead to increased costs and bureaucracy, and according to the VNG it does not necessarily increase the chances of getting a job.
The government has set aside €5 million for language assessment and enforcement of the law for the entire country.
Not all municipalities are happy with the implementation of the language level law. Arjan Vliegenthart, alderman of Amsterdam, has stated that the city will employ an “ultralight” version of the set requirements.
An issue several municipalities have brought up concerns who will pay for language courses in the case of test failures. This point was not included in the regulations set by the Dutch law, and therefore poses a problem for people who cannot afford their own lessons.
According to the Foundation for Reading and Writing (Stichting Lezen en Schrijven), 1.3 million Dutch residents a low literacy level, 65% of whom are native Dutch. It estimates that the lack of literacy costs the Netherlands €550 million each year. Given this information, many mayors and aldermen have said the €5 million national budget will prove to be insufficient.
The Court of Audit released a report late last month stating that the ministers’ ambitions in terms of raising literacy levels are rather modest. The goal amounts to the linguistic improvement of less than 5% of the target group between 2016 and 2018.
It appears that quite a few municipalities will employ a similar method to Amsterdam, making use of loopholes in the legal terminology that allows for city-specific alterations of the Participation Law. How Dutch municipalities will use this wiggle room and deal with issues of an apparent lack in the national budget, however, remains to be seen.