The Government on Wednesday left Trinidad and Tobago bewildered and acted in bad faith on the Tax Information Exchange Agreement Bill 2016 as it closed the session of Parliament without honouring a public commitment.
On Monday, Finance Minister Colm Imbert had stated publicly that the Government had agreed to a proposal of the Opposition for the establishment of a Joint Select Committee (JSC) to consider amendments to the legislation.
But, on the floor of the Parliament on Wednesday there was no mention of this agreement, as debate on the Bill resumed.
The Parliament was then abruptly adjourned sine die, meaning that unless there are urgent and unforeseen circumstances, the first session of the 11th Parliament has come to an end.
In the interest of properly advising the nation on the shock and worrying turn of events, I wish to provide the following relevant timeline:
· During my contribution to the debate on the Bill last Friday (September 9), I stressed that the Opposition appreciated the importance of the legislation and Trinidad and Tobago’s international obligations with respect to FATCA. I pledged that the Opposition would vote for passage of the Bill. But I stated that there were specific concerns. I proposed the establishment of a JSC and of the Opposition’s active cooperation in the review of the Bill. I made recommendations for amendments to the Bill.
· In a subsequent public statement, I reiterated my recommendations. I stressed the Opposition’s concerns about the need for appropriate stakeholder consultations, for protecting citizens’ rights and privileges. I said the Opposition would not support ministerial access to private financial information.
· At a meeting with representatives of the Government on Monday, Opposition members re-stated the position.
· Following the meeting, Minister of Finance Colm Imbert told the media that the Government would establish a JSC, would seek an extension of the deadline for FATCA compliance and would carefully scrutinise the Bill.
· Debate resumed in the House of Representatives on Wednesday with no mention of the Government’s previously-announced commitment to the establishment of a JSC.
· In his contribution to the debate, Dr. Bhoe Tewarie (Member for Caroni Central), expressed surprise that there was no mention of the setting up of a JSC. He reiterated the Opposition’s position, including its commitment to supporting the legislation once there are appropriate amendments to safeguard citizens’ privacy.
· Attorney General Faris Al Rawi joined the debate, with gross misrepresentations of the Opposition’s stated position and with malicious and misguided allegations against Opposition members.
· Opposition Chief Whip Ganga Singh intervened and advised that the President of the Bankers Association had been quoted in the media as stating that they had not seen the legislation.
· Leader of Government Business Camille Robinson-Regis hurriedly brought the day’s sitting to an end, even while the Attorney General was in full flight. She also proposed an end to the current session of the Parliament.
· The Opposition voted against ending the debate, but the Government’s motion was carried.
· The sitting and session of Parliament ended without the public being made aware of the following:
a. What is next for this Bill?
b. Would a JSC be established, as the Government has publicly promised, and would the Opposition’s proposals be considered?
c. Has Trinidad and Tobago been granted an extension by the United States authorities for passage of the Bill?
d. Would the Government consult with the Bankers Association and other stakeholders?
e. When next would the Parliament sit?
· I wish to express my deep concern over the disturbing developments, the absence of probity by the Government and its lack of good faith in discussions with the Opposition and in informing the national community.