Opposition senator Jayanti Lutchmedial has accused Minister of Finance Colm Imbert of undermining the independence of the proposed Trinidad and Tobago Revenue Authority (TTRA) board by having oversight of the appointees.
She was speaking during the Senate debate on the TTRA Bill on Tuesday afternoon.
Lutchmedial accused the government of proposing a structure in which a politically appointed board of management would control the hiring of staff.
In referencing clause 16, she said, this would “decimate an entire portion of our public service,” and usurp the fairness and equity of the service commission, thereby removing the layer of protection between politicians and taxpayers.
“The men and women appointed to positions established under the civil service regulations are being effectively removed from positions where they are shielded from political pressure and the treacherous intentions which we know politicians can possess.
“This bill will no longer allow our civil servants to carry out the important function of collecting revenue on behalf of the state in a manner that is free and fair and free from fear of political interference,” Lutchmedial said.
And while the appointments of the director general would require notification and affirmative resolution, she said, this would be overrun and controlled by the government’s simple majority vote.
“When you look at this simple little bill, with a mere 42 clauses, it looks so benign and non-threatening. But it impacts upon a host of other laws including the POCA (Proceeds of Crime Act) and FIU (Financial Intelligence Unit), where this director general will now be the lead who will receive intelligence reports and has the power to investigate or not.
“So, it is there in black and white: the minister will set policy direction and guide the work of the private tax army in terms of commencing litigation against taxpayers.”
Lutchmedial added that the Board of Inland Revenue (BIR) and the Customs and Excise Division lacked management, and the inefficiencies of the current system were a result of poor planning and poor resourcing, for which government was seeking privatisation.
She said Imbert said he wanted to operate as a business and not be subjected to the strictures of the public service.
“Well, these strictures, as he calls them, are the buffers which preserve the independence of these offices. These strictures allow citizens who are not supporters of the People’s National Movement (PNM) to feel some sense of security that they would not be targeted.
“See, this is why no matter how the government demonises the public service, and the service commissions, the checks and balances which exist prevent politically appointed people from taking decisions which are contrary to the public interest and then seek indemnity.’
Government senator Nigel De Freitas said the accusations of the control of the TTRA board were erroneous and the claims of the level of political interference were not true.
He said the appointment of the nine board members would be fair and the process of appointing other boards was carried out in similar fashion.
“The minister is really and truly only responsible for appointing six members of this board. The act of a minister appointing boards is not abnormal, it is something that occurs throughout the length and breadth of the executive arm in this country.”
“What is important is that the bill goes on to state the board is limited to certain actions, so we as legislators know fully well what the board is capable of what they can do and what they can’t do,” De Freitas said.
He added that the country has suffered greatly with generating revenue due to the pandemic and the need for structured taxation was a step to recover from a budgetary deficit.
De Freitas said, “We do not have enough revenue coming into the economy as we should have and one of the things we need to do is to ensure that we fix the leaks in that bucket. And in this particular case, it is the ineffectiveness of tax collection.”
At Monday night’s United National Congress (UNC) virtual meeting, opposition leader Kamla Persad- Bissessar said the UNC will legally challenge the outcome of the TTRA Bill if it is passed only with the government’s simple majority votes.
“I declare and I know it will be challenged in the courts should they (government) pass the TTRA bill in the Senate and bring it in the House and pass it only with their simple majority votes. It is unconstitutional and it will be struck down by the courts of TT,” she said.
The bill seeks to provide for the establishment of the TTRA to replace the BIR and the Customs and Excise Division.