AN ATTACK and an affront to the Constitution is how Opposition Leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar described proposed amendments to the TT Revenue Authority Bill, which seeks to remove the Board of Inland Revenue (BIR) and Customs and Excise Division and replace it with a TT Revenue Authority (TTRA) to oversee the collection of taxes and management of customs.
The bill was presented in the House of Representatives on Friday by Finance Minister Colm Imbert. It has 43 clauses. The bill explains the structure of the proposed Revenue Authority which would include a board of management with nine members, other staff and an enforcement division.
Persad-Bissessar took issue with the selection process for workers and the level of influence the Finance Minister would have on the TTRA.
Saying it should be really called the Imbert Revenue Authority Bill, Persad-Bissessar suggested that several employees would not be protected from political influence, as the Finance Minister is the one to appoint a board that would be tasked with managing the authority’s affairs.
“The minister failed to tell us that under this said enforcement division there will be such other employees as a board, so other people would be hired and not just public officers.
"There will be non-public officers hired by a board and that board will be hand-picked by the minister. In fact, throughout this bill the minister’s name appears multiple times. His hands are there in the cookie jar all over the bill. This is not a TTRA, this is an Imbert Revenue Authority,” Persad-Bissessar said.
She sounded alarm over parts of the bill which said enforcement officers who would exercise coercive powers of the State – which could include fines, levies and even imprisonment – are amenable to vague, general policy directions of the minister.
“Don’t tell us about insulation or protection when all over this is the long reach and the long hand of the government in every aspect of this TTRA Bill,” she said.
Saying this is a dangerous piece of legislation, Persad-Bissessar pointed out that employees in the TTRA's enforcement section, would be hired under the board and would have no security of tenure as they would most likely work on contract.
This she said, raised the possibility of these workers, who would have access to sensitive information, being beholden Government since they had no security of tenure and would struggle to say no, if there was a request for the "leaking" of financial information.
Hitting Imbert's rationale for a TTRA as being an inefficient BIR, which has many weaknesses, and that the TTRA would be chock full of new and high performing technology "and a modern, new TTRA, blah, blah, blah. So, why don’t you just give that to the existing BIR and Customs and Excise?”
In response, Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi said the bill shares similar aspects to bills around the world.
“If we take the Leader of the Opposition’s big statement that this is the Imbert TTRA and it is so fundamentally flawed because of its major constitutional issues, the IMF working paper on tax administration reforms in the Caribbean, or jurisdictions such as the US IRS, US Customs, the Barbados Revenue Authority Act of 2014, the Guyana Revenue Authority, the Jamaica Tax Administration Act, the Kenyan model which very much resembles what we are doing today, should all be renamed the Imbert Revenue Authority,” he said.
Responding to her claims that officers could possibly breach privacy rules and leak documents, Al-Rawi said the enforcement of the Income Tax Act cannot be separated from the secrecy clause.
“We are replacing the Board of Inland Revenue with the Revenue Authority. When we replace it, there is a further subsection where it is only the enforcement officers who have that information,” he said.
Debate was halted while San Fernando East MP Brian Manning had just began his contribution, to allow for the laying of, debate on and passage of another bill to allow for people not employed by the Ministry of Health such as dentists and pharmacists to be able to legally administer covid19 vaccines.
When that bill was read and passed, debate on the TT Revenue Authority Bill did not resume as the House was adjourned to a date to be fixed.