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EDITORIAL - Good move on tax bill, but ...

Published:Friday | June 14, 2013 | 6:00 AM

Wednesday's decision by Finance Minister Dr Peter Phillips to suspend parliamentary debate, to give critics more time to weigh in on proposed amendments to the Revenue Administration Act, was a good development for political discourse and policy formulation in Jamaica.

For, given the Herculean job to be done and the tough decisions to be taken to rescue the island's economy, the Government needs to get as much consensus as possible. In these circumstances, alienating the Opposition merely because the Government has the majority with which to pass bills is not good form.

There are, however, questions about what substantive change Audley Shaw, the shadow finance minister, should reasonably expect, having persuaded Dr Phillips' action. For the bill now before the House is driven as much, and perhaps more, by global momentum as domestic imperative.

The fact is that the bill Dr Phillips brought to the House is primarily to allow Jamaica to fulfil obligations to international treaties against tax and money-laundering crimes.

The bill not only seeks to clarify this obligation, but expands the definition of who is a taxpayer, among whom are persons who "may be of relevance to a treaty partner in respect of an international tax agreement".

Important, too, the law, if passed in its current form, will place an obligation on individuals and corporate persons to keep tax liability records for a longer time - at least seven years - and will make it infinitely easy for the authorities to sequester such information, even without the owners being previously informed that they are under investigation.

Mr Shaw believes that these powers are subject to abuse. He insists that there are adequate provisions in the current law to achieve all that the amendments are expected to accomplish.

That is a debate worth having. In the coming days, we expect Mr Shaw to speak with greater specificity than he did on Wednesday - lest he be accused of being merely obstructionist.


Indeed, we suggest that rather than suspending the debate for only a week, Dr Phillips should allow more time for a broader public discussion of the issues. He might formally invite comment to his ministry. Our preference would be for presentations before a parliamentary committee. This need not lead to a protracted or inordinate delay.

While we encourage this discussion and debate, we would hardly be surprised if the administration felt it had little option to go ahead with the bill with, at best, very minor adjustments.

It is worth noting that among the reasons Dr Phillips posits for the amendments is that the "removal of barriers to effective exchange of information would satisfy the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) standards on the effective exchange of information".

Indeed, the OECD has been pressing members and non-members alike to adjust their national laws and bilateral agreements to allow "the sharing of tax information by tax authorities with other law-enforcement agencies and judicial authorities on certain high-priority matters" such as the combating of money laundering, corruption and terrorism financing.

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