Central Government and Dutch Caribbean: fulfilment of agreements

On 10 October 2010 constitutional reform took place in the Kingdom of the Netherlands. On that date the islands of Bonaire, St Eustatius and Saba became part of the Netherlands and obtained the status of public body. Central government made a number of agreements with the islands about the consequences of this constitutional reform. We have examined three of these agreements, namely those concerning: legislative restraint (limited introduction of legislation) after the constitutional reform, the level of public services and consultation with the public bodies about new legislation.
We have taken stock of what has been agreed about these three subjects. And in the case of two policy fields – education and curative health care (‘health care’) – we have examined to what extent the agreements are being fulfilled.

Conclusions

Legislative restraint

Agreements were made between central government and the public bodies about the limited introduction of legislation during a five-year period following the constitutional reform. It is unclear from them what legislation should comply with the agreement about legislative restraint. We have therefore been unable to assess whether this agreement has been fulfilled. The government also gave a number of undertakings to the Senate about safeguards for the limited introduction of legislation. For example, it undertook to ensure that the reasons for any new or amended legislation would be explained against the background of legislative restraint. And it also agreed that bills and other draft laws that have administrative and financial consequences for the public bodies would be coordinated at interministerial level with the Ministry of the Interior and Kingdom Relations (‘Ministry of the Interior’). In the case of the two policy fields we have examined – education and health care – we conclude that the undertakings have been fulfilled.

Level of public services

Central government and the public bodies agreed to formulate criteria for an acceptable level of public services. For this purpose it was important to determine the starting point for the policy field concerned. Only then would it be possible to decide what needed to be done in order to achieve the desired level of services and to assess in retrospect whether this level had been achieved. Prior to the transition (i.e. the constitutional reform) this information was not available for either education or health care. The Ministry of Education, Culture and Science (‘Ministry of Education’) and the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport (‘Ministry of Health’) therefore first carried out studies to determine the existing situation. Improvement plans were then drawn up on the basis of the findings. 

The two ministries used different methods to determine the level of services ultimately desired. The Ministry of Education set out to ensure that the public bodies would have a level of services comparable to that in the European part of the Kingdom, whereas the Ministry of Health chose to determine the level for each healthcare institution separately. Target values have been formulated for the level of educational services, but the same is not yet true of all areas of health care.  

Consulting the public bodies

Initially, the agreements on consulting the public bodies about new legislation were found to be insufficiently specific. For example, no agreement had been made about the response period. A six-week response period was later agreed and is for the most part  now being observed. Nor were any agreements made about the stage in the legislative drafting process at which the public bodies should be consulted. The ministries concerned dealt with this in different ways: in some case a ready-made bill would be presented and in others the public bodies would be consulted at an early stage of the drafting.

Even where the agreements are observed, the public bodies are not always able in practice to give an adequate response to the proposals. This is mainly due to the quantitative and qualitative staffing problems of the public bodies. When legislation is introduced it is therefore possible that insufficient account may be taken of the specific circumstances of the public bodies.

We would note that the public bodies have generally been given the opportunity to comment on legislative proposals relating to education and health care. The correspondence shows that local administrators and their staff have raised many questions about the new legislation in these two policy fields and have also suggested numerous amendments. The Ministries of Education and Health have answered these questions and explained which suggestions have or have not been adopted and why.

Recommendations

In our view, it is important to determine as accurately as possible the desired level of public services in all policy fields, particularly in view of the evaluation in 2015. This has been done successfully in the education field, and we have also seen positive developments in the healthcare field. The experience gained in these fields can be put to good use in other policy fields.

Response

The Minister of the Interior, who also wrote on behalf of the Ministers of Education and Health, responded to our report on 16 October 2012. In her letter the Minister indicated that she regards our audit as an encouragement to continue with the present policy of promoting the involvement of the public bodies in the drafting of new legislation and in implementing it on the islands. She adds that much has already been done in this respect, but also endorses our observation that there is still some way to go.

On the subject of legislative restraint the Minister states that our assumption that some legislation has been excluded from this principle, without a clear indication of what legislation is involved, is based on a misunderstanding. She explains that it is important for the reasons for all new legislation to be explained, in each case against the background of the policy of legislative restraint, but that separate reasons need not be given in the case of legislation belonging to what she terms 'the transitional package'. In our view, however, the Minister still does not make sufficiently clear what legislation belongs to the transitional package and what legislation is new.

The island executives of Bonaire, St Eustatius and Saba have also responded to our report, and have indicated that they agree with our findings and conclusions.

See also