The government must be praised for its assurance this week that all staff in the Inland Revenue Division and the Customs and Excise Division will transition from their respective positions to the proposed Trinidad and Tobago Revenue Authority (TTRA). Not only will all staff transition at terms and conditions no less favourable than those they currently enjoy, but they will also be allowed to opt out of the new TTRA at terms and conditions no less favourable than those they now enjoy in the Public Service.
With its assurances on Monday, the Ministry of Finance has effectively acknowledged fears of job cuts and has better positioned its proposal to allow proper debate of its substance. From its inception, the prospect of job losses has generated the most animus against the TTRA.
The question now is: what exactly is the TTRA meant to achieve and how will it set about doing this? These are matters that the ministry will have to spell out to the public and to the Parliament as it looks to table legislation on the matter by December. The devil is in the details.
For now, the Government is clear on at least two objectives. According to Minister of Finance Colm Imbert, one main objective is to facilitate “greater administrative and operational efficiency” through “the transfer of information between the two tax collection units.” Another is to allow for the recruitment of specialised staff not available in the Public Service.
It is for the Government to demonstrate how these twin objectives will be met by the proposals to be unveiled. We can assume the merger of the Inland Revenue Division and the Customs and Excise Division will result in economies of scale. One umbrella organisation will, in theory, reduce duplication of similar functions.
At a time when financing of terrorism, money laundering and customs offences are of grave concern, a streamlining of both functions could result in better collaboration with law enforcement agencies.
However, the State needs to convince the population and the Parliament that it is not simply embarking on a rebrand. For any real benefits to accrue from the TTRA, it must be a revamp of substantive systems and procedures, including training. It is laudable personnel changes will be kept to a minimum, but this must be counterbalanced with new and robust measures to deal with any “bad apples” within the ranks.
There is also the fear that centralisation of tax collection and law enforcement functions will – given the top-down design of this country’s national security apparatus – facilitate the use of the TTRA for political victimisation.
The new entity must be capable of dealing with corruption, must be insulated from undue influence by the Executive and must have adequate resources to enable it to handle cases purely on a policy basis – shutting the door to fears of discrimination.
These are some of the standards against which the impending legislation will have to be judged.
While the Government is to be lauded for addressing fears of job losses in a timely manner, it has not yet spelled out a detailed timeline of implementation for the new entity. It is not good enough to say the Ministry of Finance has started a process of mapping human resources. Indeed, if the objective is efficiency, that mapping should have been completed long ago. Its findings should already be available so that it can contribute to the debate.
We need a more specific vision of what will be done and when if we are to properly understand the TTRA as a reform proper and not just a rebrand.