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Do breakaway groups in the Dutch House of Representatives have the right to vote?

In Dutch newspaper NRC, Pieter Omtzigt says he finds it 'unconstitutional' that he has no right to vote in committee meetings. Omtzigt believes he is as much a Member of Parliament as other MPs. However, since 2017, a breakaway group is no longer entitled to a proportional share of staff support and speaking time in the House of Representatives.

Committees are very important

'Committees are the workhorses of the Upper and Lower Houses', says Wim Voermans, Professor of Constitutional and Administrative Law in Leiden. According to him, two-thirds of the work in the House of Representatives is done in some 20 committees. 'They act as a kind of preparation for the plenary session, so in reality, all that remains to be done there is hold a vote,' Voermans explained on Dutch television programme EenVandaag.

'Those committees are very important,' Voermans says. 'If you're not able to vote there, it's very annoying. Because then you're not really sitting at the table, as it were, where the real decisions are made, questions are asked of the minister, and negotiations are held with other parties.’ 

Breakaway group has no voting rights

But a one-man group consists of only one person, and they can only be in one place at a time. So, as a result, MPs may find themselves unable to attend all committees. 'You can't be represented everywhere, and as a breakaway member you therefore have no voting rights in those committees either,' Voermans says.
'Formally, according to our Constitution, legislation can only be voted on during the plenary sessions of the Upper and Lower Houses,' Voermans notes. 'But if, when it comes down to it, everything has already been settled and people have shaken hands on it, then that vote is, of course, only a formality.'

Behind the scenes majority already in place

The Constitution stipulates that an MP may ask for a roll-call vote during a plenary session in the House. That vote must then also take place in the House, Voermans explains. 'But this kind of thing often happens very quickly, and often involves matters for which there's already a majority behind the scenes. So, it's not very likely that that one vote's going to change anything. That puts you at a disadvantage as a one-man group.'

No procedures in the Constitution

'But formally Omtzigt is wrong, because our Constitution does not go that far,' the professor of constitutional law explains. 'The Constitution says little about procedures within the House of Representatives. It only states that votes may be held during plenary sessions and that the Houses are free to organise themselves otherwise.'

'But substantively, of course, he does have a point,' Voermans says of Omtzigt's criticism. 'Because of the way Parliament operates, it's nearly impossible to exert influence. As most of the work happens in committees and the voting that takes place there determines the outcome of plenary session.'

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