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Stop disregarding safety, says Pieter van Vollenhoven

He’s sometimes called Your Safeness. Leiden law alumnus Pieter van Vollenhoven, husband of Princess Margriet and the driving force behind the Dutch Safety Board, returned to the University yesterday for the symposium ‘A critical safety watchdog?’ to mark his 80th birthday. With a host of dignitaries and interesting discussions. ‘A watchdog? We need a whole pack.’

‘The Netherlands is the safest country in the world, but we have often got off lightly,’ says former chair of the Health Council of the Netherlands and the Netherlands Scientific Council for Government Policy, André Knottnerus. He is one of the speakers at the symposium. The Netherlands may have a name for being a safe country, but the images of the monster truck that drove into the crowds in Haaksbergen, the firework disaster in Enschede or the café fire in Volendam are etched into the country’s collective memory. And the houses affected by earthquakes in Groningen, and above all the response to this, are the greatest disgrace of the Netherlands, says Tjibbe Joustra in his presentation. He succeeded Pieter van Vollenhoven as chair of the Dutch Safety Board, and was himself succeeded last month by Jeroen Dijsselbloem. 

Inspections by appointment

Van Vollenhoven, who has a long career behind him in the field of safety, is worried about the disregard for safety legislation that has crept in. ‘Nor do we put the lessons learnt from safety research into practice.’

He thinks it is fine that safety is no longer the task of government alone. However, he says, the idea of ‘no nanny state’, which, along with ‘self-regulation’, has become the mantra has led to very hands-off government. ‘Inspections nowadays are by appointment only! Time doesn’t suit you? Don’t worry! We won’t come. And we’ll only look at your papers because we know how inconvenient it is if we inspect the machines. The duration of the inspection became more important than the quality of the inspection. And you had to pay for it! Which made speed even more important.’

Poisonous gas in container

How unsafe you can be in the Netherlands is painfully clear from the story recounted by research journalist Kees van den Bosch, from the Argos radio programme. ‘In 2010, Leonie from Emmen began to suffer from headaches, concentration problems and nausea. She was off school for months, but they couldn’t find anything in neurological tests. Her brother Stefan developed the same symptoms a few weeks later. It was five months later that their mother realised the symptoms had started after they had bought a new mattress at BeterBed. Van den Bosch: ‘I spoke to Leonie two weeks ago, and she’s doing well.’ Her mattress came from a container that had been treated in the country it was shipped from – with a gas pesticide. ‘Every single time Leonie turned over in bed, she became more ill.’ BeterBed took action and recalled the mattresses, but how many undiscovered cargos of poisonous goods have ended up with consumers?

Van den Bosch asked the Netherlands Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority where they were while all of this was going on. We don’t deal with poison in containers, they answered. So the situation remains unchanged. ‘It’s journalists who expose this wrongdoing, not the government,’ says Van den Bosch, ‘when they’re the ones who are responsible for inspections. Could this have anything to do with the economic value of the Port of Rotterdam?

‘Safety has become a lottery’

The event in Haaksbergen in 2014, when a monster truck drove into the crowds, had a permit. Van Vollenhoven says, ‘Because it was good for the economy. But three people died and 28 were injured. Safety has become a lottery.’ He wants an independent national safety inspectorate, a watchdog that will monitor our social, physical and digital safety.

The idea of a watchdog appeals to Jan van den Bos, the Inspector General of the Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management, ‘It can bark, bite and detect, but I’m more for a pack of dogs because regulating transport is completely different from regulating food.’

Very sensitive

Jeroen Dijsselbloem, the brand-new chair of the Dutch Safety Board, says he’s a dog lover, ‘If you ask me, you need a pack. In a pack, each animal has its own role. You don’t use a guard dog as a sniffer dog. A guard dog has to bark; it has to name and shame.’ 

He admits that in his days as an MP there were rather a lot of different inspectorates. ‘The cabinet that I was a member of straightened this out.’ But some things are still askew, this former finance minister admits, ‘Inspector generals are sometimes also on the executive board of the ministry that they belong to. Should this be possible?’ Dijsselbloem would prefer to see a new law that gives the existing inspectorates, which often have different powers, more autonomy.

Volkskrant journalist Remco Meijer wonders who should take the initiative for such a law. In the discussion that ensues, it becomes clear that this is a very sensitive matter for ministers. Nor is a law the be-all and end-all: Dijsselbloem explains how ministers are legally obliged to submit to parliament an annual report on the findings of their inspections. ‘There are enough years when that didn’t happen. I suggest that we as Safety Board supplement this.

The royal couple were met by Rector Magnificus, Carel Stolker, and Professor and Dean of the Faculty of Governance and Global Affairs, Erwin Muller

In the break, I speak to the National Ombudsman, Reinier van Zutphen, about asbestos roofs and solar panels, Q fever and wind turbines. And about the orange warning that the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Insitute (KNMI) has issued for the evening. Yet another warning... Is the KNMI covering its back? I leave for the train station – just in case the rail service wants to cover its back too and cancel all trains as a preventive measure.

Want to find out more? Enter the draw for the book

The symposium was organised by the Society and Safety Foundation and Leiden University. It was to celebrate not only Pieter van Vollenhoven’s birthday but also his recent book Oproep van een waakhond. Balans Publishers has three copies of the book [in Dutch] to give away. Send a mail with the book title and your postal address to: nieuws@leidenuniv.nl.

Text: Rianne Lindhout
Photos: Monique Shaw

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