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Welfare agency must respect privacy

11 April 2007 - By carrying out inspections of people’s homes without due cause, the social assistance agency (DWI) is violating the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). The 1.3 kilo weed found at the home of a social assistance recipient is therefore unacceptable as evidence, the Central Court of Appeal ruled today.

The ruling implies that Amsterdam will have to stop the large scale inspections of social assistance recipients’ homes in their present form. According to former alderman Ahmed Aboutaleb, these inspections are an effective means to fight fraud. Critics say that social assistance recipients are treated in an improper way.

The Central Court of Appeal finds that social assistance recipients’ privacy may only be violated if there is a concrete indication that they have provided incomplete or incorrect information. In other cases, they must have the right not to accept the inspectors entering their homes.

In addition, the DWI must inform them properly of their rights. In the Amsterdam case, inspectors stated that the client would have said: “You explain the reason of the inspection. I understand that”. The client denies that this is how it went. The Central Court of Appeal has doubts about the credibility of the inspectors.

The Court further finds that the municipality has violated the conduct that may be expected of a properly functioning government to such an extent that the obtained evidence - the 1.3 kilo weed - must be considered a ‘forbidden fruit’ and may therefore not be used as evidence.

The Bijstandsbond, an organisation of social assistance recipients, has long protested against the inspections. In response, it launched the ‘Focus on Inspectors’ project (photo), which consisted of following inspectors and taking photos.

Piet van der Lende of the Bijstandsbond is happy with the ruling of the Central Court of Appeal. However, he does warn that municipalities may try to find excuses in order to carry out the inspections after all.

For example, a fault in the address provided may be considered a cause for an inspection. “But who organises his paperwork so tightly that it never contains any incorrect information?”, Van der Lende asks.

Aboutaleb, now State Secretary of Social Affairs, has announced that he will change the law if necessary to ensure that home inspections remain possible. However, that would seem to be a non-starter. Van der Lende points out that the Central Appeal Court’s ruling is based on the ECHR, which has precedence over national legislation.

Earlier, the Ombudsman concluded that the inspections carried out by the DWI are ‘not proper’.

“I have no compassion with people who intentionally commit fraud, let me be clear about that. But there is not someone committing fraud behind every front door. This has to be done in a more decent way”, was the response of Ton Heerts, then vice-chairman of the Netherlands Confederation of Trade Unions (FNV) and now MP for the PvdA, which is also Aboutaleb’s party.


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