The Fyzabad Chamber of commerce and the Couva Chamber of commerce are calling for more investment in crime fighting and no more new taxes in the upcoming budget, carded to be presented in Parliament on October 2.
Angela Jairam, Fyzabad Chamber president and CEO of DNA & Associates Ltd, said while other issues needed to be dealt with – such as implementing high-tech farming to attract young people, developing the tourism sector and increasing talent in vocational courses such as carpentry – none of those issues would be treated with fully if the government did not "fix" crime.
Jairam said a full revamp of the crime-fighting strategies implemented by police and security forces might be needed, because with 506 murders last year and 424 murders for the year to date, it was clear the current approach was not working.
She said, “When a business person makes an investment, they are taking a risk.
"You are not guaranteed a sale or a return on investment when the day comes, but when you add crime to the equation, that makes it all the more difficult.
“We are not free to do business the way we want to. We have to close early and put more security measures in place. Even customers are not comfortable enough to come and shop after certain hours.
"How does the government expect businesses to operate under those conditions?”
Head of the Couva Chamber of Commerce and managing director of the Metro Hotel in Couva, Mukesh Ramsingh, said more investment was needed in crime fighting and detection, noting that there was a reduction in allocations for National Security in the 2022/2023 budget when compared with the year before.
“When we look at allocations for ministries it gives an indication in what the government is pushing. When you see a drop in allocations it means they are not taking the situation as seriously as they should.”
In the 2022/2023 budget the Ministry of National Security was allocated $2.225 billion of an overall $57.685 billion budget. The year before, National Security got $2.202 billion from a $49.573 billion budget.
Ramsingh said more investment was needed in forensics and establishing harsher laws for criminal activities.
“One of the reasons people commit crime is because they believe they can get away with it.
"Our chamber, particularly, always has been advocating for changing legislation. We always hear that the CoP (Commissioner of Police) and police and officers of the security forces are operating within the law... but if the law doesn’t provide for them to take different measures then nothing is going to change.”
Ramsingh said using video as evidence, for example, while it was admissible in court, its use was also weighed down by red tape.
“People would prefer to go on Ian Alleyne or one of those shows rather than use it in court to get a conviction.”
An article written on the Martin George and Company Attorney at Law’s website indicated that sections 35-37 of the interception of communications act – an act which treats with the interception of communications, acquisition and disclosure of data relating to communications and acquisitions of data protected by encryptions – provides grounds which would allow video recordings such as those taken by cell phones to be admissible into evidence in civil proceedings subject to hearsay laws. Where a video is not hearsay evidence, it is generally admissible.
'No more taxes please'
Along with a reduction in crime, the chambers also requested that there would be no more taxes, still expressing concern over the looming implementation of the property tax law, first passed in 2009.
Ramsingh said, “We would not want any additional taxes, although we know that the land-and-building tax is coming.
“Our chamber has been lobbying that although we know that the property tax has to come, we were hoping for a different form of taxation and at the least lower taxes at the start and you can gradually increase the rate.”
Ramsingh said, with the economic effects of covid19, the Russian/Ukrainian war and other global shocks still negatively affecting local businesses, entrepreneurs in TT were simply not ready for more taxes.
“Heavy taxation now, would not be conducive to business.”
Jairam called for VAT-return payments to be made, echoing complaints from her membership that they had not.
“We are asking for payment for VAT returns and monies owed to contractors, service providers and suppliers.
“These two things could help our cash flow so we could get an ease from all the burdens that we are experiencing.
“We are saying that if government is having issues with paying VAT returns there should be a structured system that businesses could consider the sales tax so they would not get into trouble going forward.”
But Ramsingh said while it might not be coming in as fast as some businesses would like, several businesses in his chamber had gotten their returns.
He said if businesses wanted to access VAT returns their accounts had to be up to date.
“It is very unlikely that you will get returns if your taxes are not up to date.
“The amnesty that has been going on, there is a reason that it keeps extending, because a lot of people still have taxes outstanding. They are using it to bring in money by waiving fees and interest, but they are doing that because some businesses have been delinquent for some time.
"Based on the system, you cannot be delinquent and expect VAT returns.”
'Tourism industry ripe for investment'
Both chambers called for more diversification in the economy citing tourism as one of the avenues to diversify if given proper investment and development. But they added that tourism was also negatively affected by crime.
Jairam said, “Tourism is another way that they can create revenue so that we earn foreign exchange and employment. The hospitality sector needs to be improved so we can improve tourism and get people into our country.
Ramsingh said, “Based on what took place over the past couple days with Republic bank reducing the credit-card limit, now more than ever we need to diversify and lean on tourism to bring in that foreign exchange.
“If tourists that are coming in with that extra US dollars do not come in especially for the one time for the year when we get a bulk during Carnival that could be disastrous in the near future.”
The latest US travel advisory to TT, issued in July, warned potential visitors to “reconsider travel to TT due to crime,” noting that murders, robberies, assault, sexual assault, home invasions and kidnapping are common in TT.
US government personnel are not allowed to travel to areas such as Beetham, Laventille, Sea Lots, Cocorite and the interior of Queen’s Park Savannah after dark and disallowed to go to downtown Port of Spain, Fort George overlook and all beaches.
“Violence and shootings occur regularly in some areas of Port of Spain,” the advisory said.
“Terrorists may attack with little or no warning, targeting tourist locations, transportation hubs, markets/shopping malls, local government facilities, hotels, clubs, restaurants, places of worship, parks, major sporting and cultural events, and other public areas.”