CUSTOMS (AMENDMENT) BILL 2013 – Bill No. 2/2013
Lt. Col. (Ret’d) Harmon: Mdm. Deputy Speaker, I rise to speak on this amendment to the Customs Act and from the outset I would wish to say that the arguments coming from this side made by the Hon. Members, Mr. Carl Greenidge and Mr. Khemraj Ramjattan, are persuasive and ought, in the normal course of things, to persuade any right thinking jury sitting and listening to these submissions that they ought to come down on the side of the arguments made by the Opposition.
It is heartening to hear, on the other side, my colleagues speak about respect for treaty obligations that bind the country, in relation to other countries. However, I believe that charity begins at home and, therefore, when we are talking about respecting treaties, let us, first of all, talk about respecting our own Constitution; let us talk about the establishment of the Public Procurement Commission that the Constitution requires; let us talk about respect for the constitutional agencies which the Constitution requires. Let us speak about those things. Charity begins at home.
I believe that good sense ought to have prevailed and that the Government side, having listening to the presentation by the Hon. Member Mr. Greenidge, should have considered that the situation, as it is, needs to be reorganised. “Let us reflect on what Mr. Greenidge has said and let us come back on this thing. Let us try to consult on it a bit and arrive at a position which can guarantee unanimity in the House.” But that is not to be. In fact, I was prepared to speak on this amendment from the first time it came up because, as like the Alliance For Change (AFC), we held consultations with the Private Sector Commission and these were consultations held at the office of the Leader of the Opposition. We held consultations with private business persons who are not active in the Private Sector Commission and we held consultations with the ordinary Guyanese people who will be affected by this tax. All of them have said to us that they have a problem with this. When a government says that it has no problem that the private sector has a problem with the tax; when a government says that it has no problem that the people of a country has a problem with the tax, then that government is not listening.
The last speaker spoke about 18 years that this thing has been in the making. I want to go back there because he took us there. Since he took us there, 18 years ago, I would wish to refer this House to the debate itself in 1995 when this particular Act, the amendment to this Act, was raised in the National Assembly by the then Minister of Finance Mr. Asgar Ally. The question of this environmental tax formed a part of the budget debate in that year and when the actual tax came up to be debated there were so not much said on it, because a lot was already said in the budget debate, but that little which was said I would like to refer this House to it. Even though there was so little said it has big significance for us all in this House.
The Hansard of the 22nd February, 1995 states this of what the Hon. Minister of Finance said. He said:
“I want to assure this House that we have taken heed of the points made by the Hon. Minority Leader and the Opposition spokesman on finance that these funds be put in a special fund for environmental activities. It is our objective to have this environmental fund put in place so that the proceeds from this levy can be put into a fund for that purpose.”
He went on to say:
“In terms of the environmental tax, we are going to be setting out clear guidelines on this matter.”
We have heard figure such as $1 billion per year collected on this tax so, for the 18 years we are talking about $18 billion, but I wonder if the Hon. Minister of Finance can say whether there is a specific fund called the environmental fund. Where is this money? Where is it? Where are the guidelines for the use of this fund after 18 years? What has happened here is that this has become a cash cow for the Government, so all it is doing is raking in taxes all of the time. This, in our respectful view, is just going to be another way of taxing the already overburdened Guyanese people.
Further, this is also what the Hon. Minister said:
“We, on this side of the House, wish to repeat the strong reservations we made during the debates on these matters. Let me say, from the outset, that we agree with the honourable spokesperson on finance...”
That was the Hon. Dr. Kenneth King at that time.
“...who adverted to the impact that this was going to have on our obligations under CARICOM.”
This was nothing new. The Hon. Member Dr. Kenneth King indicated that and the Hon. Minister of Finance Minister Mr. Asgar Ally said that he was aware of it and that they were going to take measures to ensure that it did not impact on us negatively. [Mr. Nandlall: Did Mr. Kenneth King say that?] That is what he said, since 18 years ago and you have done nothing about it. You are now coming to ask us to pass an amendment. Even before the tax was put into place you were told about it, you were told this thing would have an impact on your CARICOM brothers [Mr. Nandlall: We all said that.] Yes. You still went ahead and did it. [Mr. Nandlall: We were protecting the private sector.] Now protect them still. You want to put a spin on it. Tell us where the money is. I ask that the Hon. Minister tells us where that money is. Where is that $18 billion? Where has it gone?
In 1995, the Opposition trusted the Government do what is right. Dr. King’s words were “I welcome the Minister’s return top good sense”, but in 2013, having regard to all that has happened - the fact that our Bills cannot be assented to, the fact that we are being ridiculed on a daily basis - are we prepared to say that good sense still prevails? It has gone through the window.
Let me speak a bit on this environmental tax business that we are talking about. I had the good fortune of being in Trinidad in November of last year, at a conference, and a Container Tax Bill was being debated at the same time, so I had the opportunity of going into the Senate, where it was being debated, and saw one of my colleagues Mr. Faris Al-Rai, who was at law school with me, speaking on this matter. [Mr. Nandlall: Good guy.] Good guy, but you would not like what he said because he is a Member of the Opposition.
This country, such as many other countries in the region, subscribed to an environmental action plan that was adopted by the United Nations Conference on the Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro, in June, 1992, and that conference commits us, the participating states, into changing consumption patterns to encourage specific consumer-oriented programmes, such as recycling and deposit refund systems and the use of economic instrument, including environmental charges and taxes and deposit refund systems to influence consumer behaviour as an aspect of developmental national policies and strategies to change unsustainable consumption patterns.
Although several clean-up activities of the environment, clean-up campaigns and social programmes, have been initiated, they have all been short-lived and are of limited success. The “Pick it Up” campaign itself is one such current activity. The results, of course, have been continued, wanton pollution of our roadways, drains, parks, open spaces, rivers, coastline and the sea by solid waste. This not only renders our environment aesthetically unclean, but it distresses the habitat, it destroys our eco systems, creates flooding and threatens human health. I am sure the Hon. Member Mr. Carl Greenidge can attest to the fact that his porch was affected by the recent flooding in Bel Air Gardens.
The common feature of legislation in this regard, legislation in the country, such as Barbados and Trinidad, where there are container taxes, is that these were taxes which took a long time in a gestation period. In the case of Trinidad, it took over 12 years before it actually got to the point of a debate in the House and in the Senate. The fact that we have no precise legislation for the use of the funds, which were allocated for this purpose and we are seeking to add a further taxation on the Guyanese people, it is a burden which we are not prepared to support.
It is a known fact that when a tax is reduced... [Mr. Neendkumar: Mr. Harmon, this speech will be left [inaudible] and it will haunt you.] I know you long enough, so I would not comment on that statement you are making. It is a known fact that when taxes are reduced the companies, which benefit from that, see it as a windfall, as a profit, so they do not pass it on to the people, but when taxes are increased it is passed on to the people. That is what the Hon. Member Mr. Ramjattan was saying, and that is our experience. Even though it is levelling off, instead of taking $10 at the point of entry on certain goods coming in, it is spreading out, taking $5 for containers that have stuff inside of them and $5 for containers that do not have anything, and it is going to the manufacturers and producers. Even though it is the same $10 the burden has been shifted from one section to another, so that the persons who now have to pay an additional $5 are not paying that themselves, they are passing it on to us, the consumers, so that we, who are already overtaxed by Value Added Tax (VAT), and so on, will have to face the burden of additional tax. We cannot have that.
Now, when it comes to the issue, which is before the Government, that it faces an action by a company that has sued it in the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ), and contrary to what the Hon. Minister of Legal Affairs and Attorney General wants us to believe, I have a copy of the action here and the specific relief that the company has asked for against the Government. There are four specific reliefs that the company has asked about and I will read two of them, because I believe the first two are of [inaudible] moment. The second relief orders the State of Guyana to revoke and remove from its domestic laws section 8 of its Bill No.04/1995 inserted in its Customs Act, chapter 82:01, at section 7(a), the Guyana Fiscal (Amendment) Enactment Act No.3/1995. That is what Mr. Ramjattan was talking about, just now. That is what it is asking the court to ask the Government to do, and to abstain from the imposition of the environmental levy tax and collecting of every unit of nonreturnable container of any beverage imported into the State of Guyana.
Secondly, the order asked that the State of Guyana compensate the applicant – this is the big story here – for loss suffered by them as a result of the imposition by Guyana of the environmental levy tax and collected from CIDI on the import in Guyana of nonreturnable containers of beverages of community origin in breach of the revised treaty in the aggregate sum of US$4,658, 445 for the period 2007 up to and including October, 2012, and this is what we are running from.
What we are asked here to do, as a National Assembly, is to help the Attorney General in his defence in this action. We are being asked here to ratify a breach of the law for 18 years on the basis that a company has sued us for $4.8 million. Well, this is more than the money the Government collected anyhow, over the 18 years.
I wish to say this: Old people say that when your ears hard you does feel. The Government was told since 1995 about what is the likely impact, but it went ahead nonetheless and now it is coming here to say to us that we must support it in this regard. For those reasons and the others, which have been raised by my other colleagues on this side, I believe that we cannot support the amendment. [Applause]