'Nothing to fear' - Phillips stands by Customs bill
Finance Minister Dr Peter Phillips said yesterday that the joint-select committee considering the Customs bill is open to making adjustments to the proposed legislation if necessary.
A raft of private-sector groups, including the Private Sector Organisation of Jamaica, has written to Phillips asking him to withdraw the bill and have it redrafted.
They argued that the bill appears to be nothing but an update of fees and lacks the necessary tools to allow business facilitation.
But the minister, while chairing yesterday's first meeting of the committee, said some of the concerns about the bill being purely about increased penalties and fines are misplaced.
Likening the legislation to the green channel at airports, Phillips said it is aimed at removing hurdles to doing business with Customs.
"It is like the green channel ... . Walk through, but if we find that you are in breach, penalties are going to be high and severe," Phillips said.
The amendments proposed for the 1941 Customs Act are intended to ensure that importers and exporters will be able to conduct legitimate business in a more efficient environment and will assist in providing a framework for the efficient movement of goods through the ports in anticipation of Jamaica becoming a logistics-centre economy.
However, Charles Johnston complained that the current bill would do nothing to help bring to Jamaica logistics businesses that reside in places like Panama, the Dominican Republic, and Miami in the United States.
"You have a Customs law that is coming to Parliament after years ... and it is not doing what it is supposed to do to create a logistics hub. Instead, it is increasing penalties and reasons for penalties ... . We are not going in the direction of making the regime that is needed to make logistics work," said Johnston, who is the chairman and managing director of Jamaica Fruit and Shipping Company Limited as well as Seaboard Freight & Shipping Co Limited.
Phillips, however, said the Customs bill represents part of a group of legislative initiatives that are aimed at "improving trade facilitation generally and enabling the emergence of a more competitive economy in the country".
"It has to be viewed in conjunction with legislation to come later on the special economic zones, and there are to be further amendments to the Customs Act after these. That will flow from that bit of legislation and also from the full and complete implementation of the ASYCUDA system," he added.
ASYCUDA is a web-based system designed to transform the agency to a paperless operation through the use of electronic documents.
Committee member Imani Duncan Price requested that the finance ministry provide the committee with a policy note to allow members to understand whether the bill meets the desired objectives.
"I want to feel assured that the bill does add up to the other expected legislation," she said.
Phillips told the committee that contrary to criticisms, the bill is not a revenue measure. He said, too, that the bill was developed along the lines of best practices internationally.
"One which is the trendsetter and is the dominant tendency, which is successful at least among the dominant Customs jurisdictions sees a partnership between freer movement alongside high penalties for those in breach, which essentially said that those in conformity have nothing to fear from the penalty regime and it is aimed at encouraging a pattern of self-policing and self-regulation among those using this system," he said.
"You know that you ensure that all the rules are observed, and if you are deemed to be in wilful breach, then there is high probability of penalty being applied," he said.