Imbert: WASA, TTEC, TTPost info to help property tax

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

Attorney General Reginald Armour and Finance Minister Colm Minister during the Senate sitting to debate the Finance Bill 2022 on Tuesday. – SUREASH CHOLAI

FINANCE Minister Colm Imbert said a current law and a court decision both allow WASA, TTEC and TTPost to join a list of entities required to supply information to help compile a list of house/land occupants (ahead of enacting the property tax.)

He was piloting the Finance Bill 2022 in the Senate on Tuesday, where he sought to anticipate opposition objections. Later, Opposition Senator Wade Mark vowed to go the court to challenge the bill if passed, insisting it violated people’s constitutional rights and so could only be passed by a special majority in Parliament.

Imbert said the Valuation Act allows valuation information to be sought from certain entities such as the BIR, Registrar General and Registrar of the Supreme Court, while the Data Protection Act (DPA) would permit the Commissioner of Valuations (CoV) to seek people’s details from WASA, TTEC and TTPost. More so, he said a 2022 court ruling in the Dominic Suraj case would refute any opposition argument that a special majority was required to add this trio of organisations to the list of entities which must comply with the CoV.

He said in 2021 acting president Christine Kangaloo had proclaimed section 42 (a) and (b) of the DPA Act to allow the gathering of public information, including by the CoV.

Imbert said when the Finance Bill was in the House of Representatives last week, the Opposition had seemed unaware of the Dominic Suraj case but perhaps understandably as it was a 2022 ruling. He said the ruling could be aptly applied to the addition of WASA, TTEC and TTPost to the list of complying entities.

Otherwise, Imbert said the latest tax amnesty could net the government some $680 million, adding, “But it could be double.” He expected 30,000 taxpayers to comply.

He listed sums collected in past amnesties. These were 2010-2011– $1.6 billion; 2014-2015 – $1.2 billion; 2016 – $766 million; 2019 – $2.5 billion; 2021– $1.1 billion, and 2022 – $700 million.

Imbert said the pandemic had made some businesses select how to use limited funds to pay rent, salaries or taxes. The amnesty would simply relieve any extra burdens of penalties or interest but not remove the underlying tax debt, he said. Imbert said the sums charged for firearms users and dealers licences were just a fraction of the administration costs to issue these, such as for the police to investigate whether one was a fit and proper person to be a firearms dealer. Imbert complained that it cost $2 million to clean up an oil slick for which an errant company would be fined up to only $100,000, and lamented that the recent theft of a $200,000 sluice gate attracted a fine of just $15,000.

Mark urged the Government to no longer pursue the property tax which he said was a draconian measure. He feared repeated tax amnesties gave delinquent taxpayers an opportunity to duck their obligations, and reckoned this all could damage the BIR.

He objected to the proposed addition of WASA, TTEC and TT Post to the list of entities supplying information under the Valuation of Lands Act.

Mark said the DPA had a definition of information, which he described as “personal and sensitive” and as including race, religion, address, phone number, medical status, education, and views and opinions. What information would be requested from WASA, TTPost and TTEC, he wondered aloud.

“We warn this Government. We will take you to court.

“We will not let the Government undermine the privacy rights of the people of TT.

“I want to warn WASA, TTEC and TTPost. If you provide any data to this Government we’ll come after you.” He said under the law, these entities must first get someone’s permission before passing on their data. Saying the Constitution provides protection from intrusion, Mark said, “If you want to invade, come with a special constitutional majority.”

He urged the Government to table in Parliament the form which the finance minister must use to request people’s details from public entities. “The Government is asking us to sign a blank cheque.”