Photo credit: SOMO

On 18 September NUJ member Katrin McGauran lead a debate at the branch meeting on the opposition to government’s plans to abolish the dividend tax focussing on the importance of Freedom of Information requests in holding the government accountable.

Katrin worked for the Amsterdam-based Research Centre on Multinational Corporations (SOMO) for nine years until the end of September this year. SOMO has complemented journalistic investigations exposing the influence of corporate lobbying on Dutch tax policy-making, with FoI requests as evidence.

This is a summary of the debate, updated with developments until 14 October 2018.

Why this presentation on FoI requests now?

Katrin McGauran. Photo credit: SOMOWe try and provide topical discussions relevant to English-speaking journalists in the Netherlands. There is an important public debate about the dividend tax at the moment. The media debate has been, in part, supported by FoI requests. I have personally been involved, through SOMO, in these requests and tax justice work in the past years.

Once a year the branch meeting coincides with the Dutch budget day (Prinsjesdag) where the dividend tax, something most people never heard of before, has now become a mainstream media topic and hot political potato. The abolition of the dividend tax (which is a tax imposed by the state on dividends received by shareholders of a company) is now being publicly debated in the context of economic inequality, political choices about financing public sector workers versus rich shareholders and the corporate capture of decision-making in this country.

Tax is a complex issue…

Decision-making on tax has for a long time been a black box. Tax policy seems complex and best left to experts, but campaigners and journalists have opened it up to public debate because it’s the centre of economic justice. The financial crisis helped to alert people to tax matters, because they suffer under the spending cuts, something classically-trained economists like to call ‘fiscal discipline’.

When I started at SOMO nine years ago, I hadn’t the faintest idea about taxation. But in my time there I learned that most people who, in my eyes, talk sense abut tax rules from a public interest perspective, are not fiscal experts. On the contrary, they are usually social geographers, social anthropologists, economists, or even physicists who learn about tax policy in their advocacy work. Fiscal lawyers and accountants just kept repeating fiscal rules that are obviously broken, because everyone by now knows that corporate tax avoidance is a massive leak to the public purse and the main reason for economic inequality. I kept wondering in my work, how is it possible that everyone knows this, but that the people who could fix it are not doing anything? After all, we have a corporate tax rate of 25% that the government has set, but no large corporation pays that.

I realised fiscal lawyers belong to a profession that is trained to live by the letter of the law, not to think critically, and to write advice that confirms and reproduces these laws. But these laws are drafted in the interests of a very small minority in this country. These are shareholders and businessmen who need to ensure that shareholder value, and that does not coincide with social value, is protected. In classical economic terms that means low or even no taxes for corporate activities, and thus more profits and more dividends, which are distributed from a company's earnings to its shareholders, usually decided annually by the board of directors. Throw in decades of half-hearted policy making to close tax avoidance loopholes and a horde of highly paid professionals working for companies to look for new loopholes and you have a crazy complex system that corporations and the advice industry benefit from. The problem is: who do governments hire to reform tax laws? The same people who corporations pay to circumvent them. The circle is round.

Why are FoI requests so important in this recent debate on the dividend tax?

They basically exposed that the abolition of the dividend tax does not make sense, not even to classically trained economists. And that it is the result of decades of lobbying by a very specific corporate group. Public scrutiny of documents that show how policy gets made, which players get invited to the table, who speaks to the Prime Minister and his or her civil servants in the Ministry of Finance, whose written input is used to make policy, in short whose interests new legislation serves, is immensely important in a democracy. There is no natural good will in the corridors of power to serve ‘the people’. Journalists need to incessantly check that governments represent the interests of a majority, by monitoring economic interests of parliamentarians, like Follow The Money has just done in regarding Senate members, and looking at how decisions are made.

Documents released as a result of FoI requests have shown us that when it comes to fiscal policy, the Dutch government listens only to the largest Dutch multinationals, Shell, Unilever, AkzoNobel, Philips, and in the case of dividend tax, not even to its own civil servants or its the Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis (Centraal Planbureau, CPB).

SOMO made its first FoI request in 2015 but the first documents pertaining to that request were released only 1 ½ year later in 2016. We asked for copies of all documents, i.e. e-mails, minutes, reports, memos, agendas and annexes, advice and draft reports relating to the Dutch fiscal climate on all contacts, talks and meetings between Ministry of Finance staff and major business players. The latter are VNO-NCW, Philips, Unilever, AkzoNobel, Royal Dutch Shell, American Chamber of Commerce, the Dutch Association of Tax Advisors (NOB), corporate service providers (PwC, Deloitte, KPMG, EY, Stibbe, Houthoff, Loyens & Loeff, De Brauw Blackstone Westbroek, Baker & McKenzie), and business associations such as Holland Quaestor and its big members TMF Group and Intertrust.

I name them because it is actually an eye opener to see these documents, agenda points, and see names of who gets invited to the table and who does not. Your presumptions get confirmed but also refuted, you begin to understand how policy making works, it’s liberating to base you arguments on facts rather than a gut feeling, and sometimes you expose what some would call corruption [1].

The 2015 documents showed how VNO-NCW, the Dutch Association of Tax Advisors (de Nederlandse Orde van Belastingadviseurs or NOB), and the American Chamber of Commerce in Nederland (Amcham) not only provided input to Dutch tax policy but that the Ministry of finance works closely together with them as partners in writing that policy. The ministry asks them what they want, thinks together with them how policies can be sold not only to the public but to parliament. They first agree on a strategy with businesses and then present it to parliament. It goes much further than lobbying, it’s a government-corporate matrimony of tax policy making [2].

FoI documents are not your documents once they are released; they are documents every member of the public has a right to see. So they are not given to you but published on a government website. The 2015 documents were scrutinised not only by SOMO but by journalists and one critical professor in fiscal law. I would say there are only two outspoken critical fiscal lawyers in the Netherlands at the moment. And one of them found a reference to another unpublished document, which he requested and got published. This one document exposed how Dutch officials also facilitated tax avoidance structures with advance tax rulings. [3] This led to parliamentary debates and more scrutiny.

One FoI request, many stories

Released or leaked documents do not hold one story, but as the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists likes to reiterate, they hold many stories. So the role of journalists is to go through these documents and find the story. You can scrutinise the same bunch of documents a year later and find important information that’s relevant to developments in the present, which a colleague of mine did when the dividend tax abolition was proposed by Rutte at the end of the government formation.

In late 2017 and early 2018 journalists and SOMO started requesting documents about contacts between government and businesses on the dividend tax, but it took the government until September 2018 to release them. Meanwhile, my colleague, who also coordinates the civil society network LobbyWatch dug into the documents released in 2016 and wrote first a blog in November 2017 [4] and then another in-depth story for Follow the Money, which was published on 29 August 2018.

He revealed years of lobbying amongst others to abolish the dividend tax and a shared strategy of the ministry and businesses to devise a defence against tightening legislation against tax avoidance worldwide under OECD BEPS project (Base Erosion and Profit Shifting) and resulting EU policies aimed at ending corporate tax avoidance: VNO-NCW, the NOB and the AmCham warned in a so-called Catshuis session (the Prime Minister’s official residence), to which only business advisors were invited: 'There is a danger that, as a result of BEPS and the initiatives in the EU, crucial matters - the fiscal crown jewels - come under fire one by one for the business climate of the Netherlands. A broad strategy must deal with this.’ Note this term as well, fiscal crown jewels, and it’s not a joke. Their defence against anti-tax avoidance measures included abolishing the dividend tax (a loss of at least EUR 2 billion a year) and lowering corporate income tax (an even higher annual loss of EUR 3,3 billion). [5] Anything but paying a fair share of tax.

When the new documents got released in early September this year, journalists from RTL, NOS and Trouw found in them the newsworthy detail that 2 months after Rutte became PM (in 2010) he met Unilever and Shell who lobbied for the abolition of the tax, and this whilst the PM had denied such specific lobbying since the plans were made public. The leader of the Socialist Party, Lilian Marijnissen called him ‘morally corrupt’ as a result, Green Party leader Jesse Klaver said he would try and get the law blocked at the level of the Senate next year and it looks the dividend tax might become the straw that broke the camel’s back regarding this fragile coalition government.

The exposures have also triggered a much wider political debate about the relationship between multinational corporations and democratic decision-making, which has now rather strangely led to a framing of a ‘soured relationship’ between the Dutch parliament and large corporations. The PM has called top Dutch CEOs to talk about how they can be less arrogant towards public demands and better themselves, or rather their PR departments.[6] But this framing simply does not recognise that the neo-liberal policy-making of the past decades, with its increase in capital concentration and withdrawal of binding regulation and democratic oversight, has fundamentally changed the political system. It has increased the influence on corporations on the policy process to more than lobbying. Look at Trump’s administration; in the US the business elite has even compromised the independence of the judiciary with Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment to the Supreme Court.[7]

It remains to be seen what happens to the announced ‘review’ of the abolition of the dividend tax. It’s great to see that public pressure could turn this around, but I am not very hopeful that - if the tax is retained - the budget freefall will lead to more public expenditure. We need to keep the pressure up, follow the developments closely and critically report on them to ensure this will not become a Pyrrhic victory.

In sum, it’s worth wobbing. Not only for the big national stories, but local corruption, decisions on housing projects in your neighbourhood, who gets planning permission, how are decisions taken? Sometimes it takes a long time to get your story, but it is worth it.


Sign the petition to retain the Dutch dividend tax here:

If you want to join the FoI club or just have questions regarding Wobbing in the Netherlands, join the LinkedIn group of Dutch Freedom of Information Specialists (, headed by the long-time Dutch Wob expert Roger Vleugels.

The government website on FoI requests (Dutch) also contains useful information:


Reading (also in Dutch, long live online translation platforms):

[1] SOMO/Indra Römgens, 2 February 2017, Waarom we moeten (blijven) Wobben,

[2] SOMO/Jasper van Teeffelen, 17 June 2016, Interne overheidsdocumenten leggen belastinglobby bloot,

[3] Jan Vleggeert, 30 March 2017, Behind the scenes: Dutch ruling practices revealed,

[4] SOMO/Jasper van Teeffelen, 8 November 2017, De dag die je wist dat ging komen: jarenlange lobby multinationals eindelijk beloond met afschaffen dividendbelasting,

[5] Follow The Money/Jasper van Teeffelen, 29 August 2018, De aanhouder wint: hoe Rutte zwichtte voor de jarenlange lobby van het bedrijfsleven,

[6] Ulko Jonker & Pieter Couwenbergh, Financieele Dagblad, Topberaad multinationals met premier Rutte, 11.10.2018,

[7] Paul Waldman, 13.09.2018, How Brett Kavanaugh could help create an era of rampant corruption,


How and what to Wob (by Roger Vleugels)

1. Who can be Wobbed? State organs: executive powers (administrative bodies and independent administrative bodies including functioning bodies: government, ministers, state secretaries, national, communal and municipal level). Not legislative and controlling powers (parliament, sitting magistrates, High Council of State, privatised semi-public bodies).
2. What can be Wobbed? Information contained in documents.
3. Documents that fall under the Wob: all, regardless of the method of recording, including data files, emails or audio / video. Unless: in contravention to laws with an exclusive disclosure regime (secret service or tax laws).
4. What to ask: common mistake is to formulate a wrong question in the request. Don’t be too vague or too narrow:
- Ask for a copy of a document (not the document itself) or for insight into the document, not both. Think of which form of document: digital copy.
- Ask a non-exhaustive question. Ask for everything about a topic. Never work with a finite summary in the question. Use the term 'including'. Otherwise most documents do not fall within your request.
- Ask for everything about your subject, specify in a non-limitative sense, and be sure to ask for underlying, background and follow-up documents.
- Consider subsidiary questions. E.g. not only the document in integral form, but also partial or summarised [e.g. without names or third party information].
5. Anticipate in the request grounds for refusal, including illegal ones:
Absolute grounds
art. 10.1.a The unity of the Crown
art. 10.1.b The security of the State
art. 10.1.c Company / manufacturing data confidential to the government
art. 10.1.d Personal data as referred to in the data protection act
Relative grounds
art. 10.2.a Diplomacy
art. 10.2.b Economic and financial interests of State
art. 10.2.c Ongoing investigation and prosecution of criminal offenses
art. 10.2.d Inspection, control and supervision by the government
art. 10.2.e Privacy and third party protection
art. 10.2.f Prevention of inside information
art. 10.2.g Avoidance of disproportionate advances or disadvantages
Limited grounds
art. 11.1 Internal deliberation as far as personal policy views
art. 11.2 Non-anonymisable personal policy views
art. 11.3 Advice from committees if confidential
Unlawful grounds:
Non-valid use of refusal grounds [e.g. without good motivation]
Documents not available
Documents not accessible via the Wob
Quality of the files, documents too low / uncontrolled
Work pressure [other work-related reasons]
6. Think strategically about your target authority: 1) the body that is weakest in that subject and/or is most inclined to provide info. Choose the highest body, i.e. management, minister, highest ministry and include bodies underneath it if you want a broad request.
7. You are entitled to an answer within 28 days, but this is almost always delayed by 28 days. Start calling around day 20, from then on weekly. Stay polite.
8. There are standard options in administrative law for complaints against unlawful overtime in answering the request.
9. Object if the answer is insufficient.