Tackling problem debt
Tackling problem debt is high on the agenda of both government and the House of Representatives. It is estimated that 16% of all households in the Netherlands have a problem debt or are at risk of having one. The problem has been the subject of several studies in recent years. Our recent report on it presents an overarching picture of how the government is tackling it. We asked what was known about the organisation and impact of debt assistance, debt management and debt restructuring.
Limited national picture of numbers, results and costs
The State Secretary for Social Affairs and Employment (SZW) and the Minister of Security and Justice (V&J) have only a limited understanding at national level of:
- the number of people with problem debts;
- he number of people owing money to the government;
- the number of people with problem debts who do not receive help;
- the number of people with problem debts who do receive help in the form of debt assistance and debt management services;
- the results of debt assistance and debt management services;
- what happens to people who no longer receive debt assistance, debt management or debt restructuring programmes but still have problem debts;
- the cost of debt assistance and debt management.
As a result, they do not know how effective or efficient the system is at tackling problem debt and are consequently unable to account to the House of Representatives for the measures they take.
No understanding of the total amount owed to creditors
People who owe money to more than one government institution, such as the Tax and Customs Administration and the Central Judicial Collection Agency (CJIB), currently have no convenient means to calculate the total amount of their debts to the government. Such a means would help people with problem debts because they could then be admitted to municipal debt assistance programmes. The government has indicated that it will enhance its transparency regarding the amounts the public owe to government bodies.
The government is not the only creditor in the Netherlands. Municipalities, housing associations, energy providers, webshops, mail order companies, banks, telecom providers and credit card companies are all major creditors. There are no national data, however, about the amounts owed to each type of creditor.
- To gain a national understanding of the operation of the system in place to tackle problem debt and the associated costs, the State Secretary for SZW and the Minister of V&J must make national agreements with the municipalities on debt assistance and with debt administrators on debt management. The agreements should produce lean and smart information on the operation of the system, with the information recorded by municipalities and debt administrators underpinning an aggregated national understanding. This would also prevent the government’s information requirements diverging from the municipalities’ and debt administrators’ requirements. For the municipalities, the agreements should be consistent with the agreements already made for the municipal social policy monitor. National agreements with municipalities and debt administrators would also strengthen the sharing of lessons learned and the accumulation of knowledge regarding the causes of problem debt (risk factors), the target groups of problem debt, what works and what does not work, and at what cost.
- By ensuring that government bodies exchange (anonymised) information with each other about debts and their collection, the government should not unintentionally frustrate measures to tackle problem debt. At the same time, the government should provide individual members of the public with a convenient one-stop means to see what they owe to different government bodies so that they can use the information in a variety of programmes if necessary.
Response of the Minister
The State Secretary for SZW and the Minister of V&J responded to our report on 22 June 2016. They noted that measures had already been taken on many fronts to optimise government policy on debt. However, municipalities had the freedom to pursue their own policies and the system of municipal debt assistance was not strictly prescribed. The state secretary agreed with our point regarding debt collection by government bodies. She was currently studying the implementation of the Government Debt Collection Vision of 4 April 2016 and the steps that are necessary to connect government bodies to the asset seizure register and the related time path.