Speech from the Throne 2003

The Hague, 16 September 2003

National and international developments over the past year have increased the insecurities of our daily lives. Day after day, many innocent people suffer the effects of civil wars, terrorist attacks and violence in other forms. This raises the question of how the Netherlands can contribute to sustainable peace, security and poverty reduction.

Throughout the world, earthquakes, floods and drought confront us with our own limitations. In this country, too, we have not been spared the consequences of prolonged drought, despite the efforts devoted to water management.

The effects of economic decline have been felt acutely in the Netherlands. After years of prosperity, this has brought unforeseen insecurity for many people. Hundreds of jobs are lost every day. The problems facing us are not just related to the state of the economy. To achieve a sustainable recovery, we must strengthen our economic structure and thoroughly review our social security system. The government is aware that this will initially have a considerable impact on many people.

Cohesion in society is also a source of great concern. Different groups in society sometimes have widely varying values and integration is not going as well as hoped. People are disturbed by the lack of safety on the streets and the deterioration of the living environment. Large towns and cities are having to deal with an accumulation of problems.

The government is aware of these insecurities and problems and sees it as its task to restore people's confidence in the future. It wishes to help build a sound and sustainable economy, effective government, a vibrant democracy and a safer society. This will require structural reforms, in which the long-term results are more important than any detrimental effects in the short term. With an eye to the future, the government believes we now have to make difficult choices.

In following this course, the government also aims to bring about a cultural sea change. It should allow individuals and companies more scope to take the initiative. Genuine improvements are possible only if everyone takes their share of the responsibility and participates in our society. The government cannot provide solutions to all problems, nor should it try. Its task is to create the conditions in which problems can be solved. This means setting fewer rules and making sure that they are complied with. These principles are at the core of this government's policy.

The Netherlands is increasingly becoming an integral part of Europe, both politically and economically. The European Union is a community of law and values. It has gradually developed into a free market for goods, people, capital and services. Integration is strengthened by common policies on trade, agriculture and asylum, and by the single currency. Internationally, the Union is becoming a major force in issues of peace and stability.

The number of member states has increased considerably since the Union was established. Next year, it is expected to comprise 25 members. This enlargement is to be welcomed, but it will also put the Union's resilience to the test.

The Intergovernmental Conference on the European Union's new Constitution will start in October. The government will be helping to make the Union's decision-making procedures and its actions more effective. This will mean reinforcing the central role of the European Commission and extending the system of qualified majority voting. The Union should also be made more democratic by consolidating the position of the European Parliament. Furthermore, it must control its expenditure and ensure that the burden is distributed fairly. This is the only way to maintain support for the financial contributions of the member states.

In the second half of next year, the Netherlands will hold the Presidency of the European Union. The government will actively pursue the Union's aim to become the most competitive and dynamic knowledge economy in the world. Partly with a view to combating terrorism, we will submit proposals for more intensive European cooperation in the field of foreign and security policy. Special attention will be given to maintaining our close ties with the United States.

The government attaches great importance to strengthening the international rule of law, peace and security. With the participation of more than 2,200 military personnel in crisis management operations, the Netherlands is making a substantial contribution in this area. The Netherlands will continue to help with the reconstruction of Iraq and Afghanistan. Additional funds have been earmarked to ensure that Dutch military personnel have the improved equipment they need to fulfil their tasks under difficult conditions.

The government continues to devote attention to Africa, the poorest continent, where conflict, inequality, regional instability, hunger, and AIDS and other diseases are hampering development. Partly with this in mind, a separate fund for peace and stability has been set up under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs' budget. To achieve sustainable poverty reduction, developing countries need not only aid but also free access to the global market.

We need to take a fresh look at the cooperative ties within the Kingdom in the coming period. The Netherlands Antilles and the individual islands are faced with fundamental questions relating to financial and economic problems and the nature of their administrations. These issues must be addressed urgently. The government believes that the administration of justice and law enforcement need to be improved structurally throughout the Kingdom. The 50th anniversary of the Charter for the Kingdom of the Netherlands is a good opportunity for us to explore together the future prospects of the Kingdom.

If structural reform and a cultural sea change are to be achieved in our country, we must alter the relationship between government and people, radically improve the provision of public services and reform our democratic system.

To give more scope to individuals and businesses, we must deregulate and reduce the administrative burden. Our aim is to reduce it by a quarter in the coming four years. In addition, the government will become more selective in what it considers to fall within its sphere of responsibility, while aiming to perform its core tasks more efficiently. With this in mind, the government's tasks, working methods and size are to be reviewed. The ultimate aim is a government that is an accessible and efficient provider of services. To this end, the government will be presenting a modernisation programme.

To make the government more accessible, it aims to make half its public information available on the Internet by 2004. Furthermore, people will only have to provide the authorities with their personal details once, instead of repeatedly.

The government wants to make democracy more effective. To achieve this, voters will be given a greater direct influence on their political representatives, including those at municipal level. In 2004, the government will submit proposals for a new constituency-based electoral system and, from 2006, the direct election of mayors. Within the scope provided by the Constitution, proposals will also be submitted to give mayors a stronger position in municipal councils.

The aim of integration is to give people hope for the future and to strengthen social cohesion. Too many members of ethnic groups are not participating sufficiently in society. Integration means participation, and that requires the knowledge and skills necessary to cope independently. The provision of integration courses is to be deregulated. Newcomers will only be admitted to the Netherlands if they have a basic knowledge of the Dutch language. In addition to measures to enhance integration, further steps will be taken to restrict the influx of immigrants.

The presence in our country of asylum-seekers who have spent many years waiting for a decision on their applications is a serious social problem. A circumscribed group who meet verifiable criteria will be offered a one-off arrangement allowing them to remain in the country. A more vigorous expulsion policy will be pursued regarding those who have no right to remain in the Netherlands.

This year, after a prolonged period of prosperity and strong economic growth, the Dutch economy came to a complete standstill. Next year, unemployment is expected to rise substantially. This will affect many people, not only the unemployed themselves, but also their families and those around them. Wage costs have risen sharply, while productivity has lagged behind. In this respect, the Netherlands is performing considerably less well than most other countries in the European Union.

Moreover, the post-war baby-boom generation will be reaching pensionable age in the next few years, while the group that must provide the money to pay for their pensions is declining. All these factors mean that new measures are needed to strengthen the economy, curb pay rises and increase the number of people in work. This calls for greater individual responsibility, in social security in particular, and reduction of the national debt. At the same time, we must honour our commitments within the framework of the Economic and Monetary Union.

Dealing with economic and budgetary problems now will prevent present and future generations from being burdened with the consequences in the form of structural unemployment, enduring economic problems and the need to put government finances back in order. Painful measures are needed now if there is to be any prospect of recovery. The purchasing power of almost the entire population will decline in the coming year. However, the burden will be shared as equitably as possible. The government also intends to take appropriate measures to prevent excessive increases in the remuneration of top executives in the private and semi-public sectors. Wage restraint is essential to achieve growth in the job market. The government will make an active contribution by curbing pay rises in the public sector and benefit payments.

Returning to work and finding suitable work are the principles underlying a new invalidity insurance system. As of 2004, the period during which employers continue to pay salaries to incapacitated staff will be increased from one year to two. In the second year, this income will be limited to 70 percent of the full salary. Only people who are totally incapacitated and have no prospect of being able to work will receive permanent income protection.

The government intends to tighten up the conditions for eligibility to benefit under the Unemployment Insurance Act and considers it necessary to abolish follow-up benefits.

Individual responsibility and labour-force participation are also at the heart of the work and social assistance bill. Those unable to find work on their own will receive assistance in the form of a reintegration programme. They will receive social assistance for as long as necessary. Municipalities will be responsible for this programme.

Older people must also continue to work as long as possible. In this light, the fiscal arrangements facilitating early retirement and pre-pension schemes cannot be maintained. Many people, especially in the 30 to 50 age group, have difficulty in combining work and care. The introduction of a life-course savings scheme will help to make this easier.

The productivity of the Dutch economy will be strengthened structurally through investment in education, knowledge and innovation. To stimulate the country's knowledge economy, the government has established an innovation platform where members of the government will meet with influential experts from the business, research and education sectors to develop ideas together.

Creating scope for entrepreneurs is also essential to increase productivity. Anyone wishing to start up a business will encounter fewer obstacles and receive appropriate assistance. The government is also working to make the important agricultural sector sustainable and innovative.

The economy and the Netherlands' competitiveness will be strengthened through investments in the maintenance and more effective use of the existing infrastructure. The programme to introduce rush-hour lanes along the most congested stretches of motorway will be stepped up. In addition, the government considers the further development of Schiphol Airport and the Port of Rotterdam to be of vital economic importance to the Netherlands.

To strengthen our cities and towns, we need to build more houses. The government will set parameters to enable the sluggish home-building sector to step up production and urge private-sector stakeholders to shoulder their responsibilities.

It is vital that care remain accessible, affordable and of a high quality. However, the present economic circumstances and the ageing of the population compel us to make explicit choices on this issue too. The cost of care has risen sharply over the past few years, but the quality has failed to keep pace. To limit costs the statutory insurance package will be reduced and the patient's contribution increased. These measures will not apply to essential medical care. A special compensation scheme will be introduced for chronically ill people with a low income. The public, organisations and insurers will have to take it upon themselves to ensure that high-quality, affordable health care remains available in the longer term. The government will set the conditions and parameters. The new standard cover to be introduced in 2006 will be based on these principles. Fewer regulations, greater effectiveness and more efficient organisation are essential to achieve higher performance in the health care sector.

A great deal of attention will be devoted to medical ethics in the coming years. Legislation on euthanasia and the termination of pregnancy will come under review in 2004. The object is to ensure that existing legislation is indeed being complied with.

Notwithstanding budgetary restraints, the government will make extra funds available to improve our society in several areas.

Education makes a major contribution to the satisfactory functioning of society, both now and in the future. At present, too many young people are leaving school without any qualifications. Pupils will be given closer supervision to prevent them from dropping out. Measures will also be taken to tackle the shortage of teaching staff. Schools will be given more scope to employ support staff and teachers will be given more opportunity to prepare themselves to meet the new demands that will be made of them.

Diversity and accessibility will remain the key elements of cultural policy.

The environmental impact of the production and consumption of goods and services has not yet been fully recognised. More efficient use of raw materials must be achieved by promoting sustainable innovation. The quality of the environment and countryside determine the quality of life in our society. With this in mind, extra funds will be invested to create natural areas and protect the vitality of the countryside.

The reduction of violence and nuisance on the streets will further improve the quality of life. Surveillance and checks in public places will be stepped up. The problem of habitual offenders will be given priority. Prevention and surveillance are vital to improving security, as is effective action on the part of the police and the courts. Wider powers and organisational changes are urgently needed if this is to be achieved. Extra funding will be made available to the public prosecution service, courts and prisons to ensure that offenders are given a fair trial without delay.

One of the government's key tasks is to promote the development and enforcement of the rule of law. The legal order must be upheld and, if necessary, adapted to suit the needs of a changing society. The aim is to achieve a legal order that provides scope where possible, and sets parameters where necessary. Parties to a dispute should first try to resolve their differences themselves. Legal standards for doing so have been explicitly formulated. An effective legal system remains essential as a last resort. In the coming period of government, proposals will be submitted to you aimed at tailoring legislation, law enforcement and the administration of justice to these objectives.

Members of the States General,

The government considers it of great importance that, with the approval of the States General, its envisaged policy be implemented as soon as possible. It is confident that the structural reforms aimed at achieving a strong and sustainable economy will afford the Netherlands the prospect of sharing in the benefits of the global economic recovery.

The government's proposals aim to contribute to effective governance, a dynamic democracy, a safer society and, by doing so, to improve social cohesion in our country.

In submitting these proposals the government is aware that results can only be achieved through the concerted efforts of all sections of society. The government is committed to achieving its aims together with you and looks forward to rewarding discussions.

You have a responsible and difficult task. I am confident that many people join me in wishing you wisdom in discharging that task and in praying for strength and God's blessing upon you.