Things we have not noticed – conclusion

This week I continue to raise questions on matters we may not have noticed in areas of public finance and management in Guyana. If former President Bharrat Jagdeo is rightly credited as the mastermind for the circumventing the financial provisions of the constitution and the financial laws, the credit for the execution of any schemes go to his choice as Minister of Finance, Dr Ashni Singh. Dr Singh as an accountant and former deputy Auditor General has used all his knowledge to confuse all and sundry over the Consolidated Fund and its sub-fund the Contingencies Fund, and other funds known and unknown.

Minister Clement Rohee should justifiably feel aggrieved that he is the only Minister of this government to have been targeted with a no-confidence vote in the National Assembly. After all, Dr Singh must at least have been aware of the deception over the rate of the VAT and the $4 billion for which Irfaan Ally was taken before the Committee of Privileges in the last Parliament while he, Dr Singh, was creatively spared by the then Speaker. He was central to the Clico debacle which has not been followed by any investigation into the serial illegalities that continue to this day; is solely responsible for the annual abuses of the Contingencies Fund; would have played a major role in moving more than $30 billion, yes thirty billion dollars, in dormant bank accounts without proper accounting; and is the minister with responsibility for the state of the National Insurance Scheme. And let us not forget that he is the Chairman of the NICIL Board that has been central to the breaches of the constitution and the inappropriately named Fiscal Management and Accountability Act. NICIL under him is several years in breach of the Companies Act and basic rules of accounting but he continues merrily on. Mr Rohee has every reason to think that there has been some goat in his past.

No more lottery accounting
We can assume that the Minister of Finance has had no hand in the decision to have Mr Ramson offer opportunistic advice on the lottery funds, but he clearly has no problem with the discontinuance by the Audit Office of the annual reporting of the funds collected and how they have been spent. It would be excessively charitable, however, to believe that he has not been consulted and has played no part in ensuring that his colleagues who were targeted for budget cuts earlier this year remain funded, parliament or no parliament, cut or no cut.

However assiduously, and at times clumsily, Attorney General, Mr Anil Nandlall, has rushed to position himself for entry into the Guinness Book of Records for the highest number of cases brought by an attorney general against his own parliament, the responsibilities and the powers of the minister of finance make his office the next most important one in the land. For that reason, while we just cannot afford not to notice the things the does, he and his government, with the help of a hardly working parliamentary opposition, a media that is at best poorly informed, a conflicted and handicapped Audit Office under an unqualified Auditor General, an equally unqualified Accountant General and a Finance Secretary with his own challenges and biases, have made sure he is the only brainer in the country, to use a word he employed recently to disparage his hosts at a public function.

As a specific example, how else does one explain the failure by the Audit Office, the National Assembly, the Public Accounts Committee and the press to demand an explanation for the non-tabling of a mandatory annual report on tax holidays granted by the Minister of Finance? There is sufficient anecdotal evidence that tax concessions alone cost this country about a half as much again as the taxes we collect, to make us take the Minister’s cavalier attitude to tax holidays a matter of substance and seriousness. Yet we as a country choose not to notice. We must have lost our marbles along the way.

Unrestrained powers
Who in the political opposition, the wider National Assembly or the Economics Affairs Committee have taken the time to consider and understand the powers the laws give to the Minister to grant all forms of tax concessions without any disclosure or accountability? I am convinced that the reason tax reform is not on the agenda is that it might expose the lawlessness as well as the ease and impunity with which even illegal concessions can be granted to friends and family alike. We have all forgotten that it is now one year since President Ramotar set up a Tax Review Committee while ensuring that it would not function. As the GMA, the Chamber of Commerce and the Private Sector Commission head into the fund-raising activities and the fun of the cocktail circuit, maybe one of their leaders would ask about the fate of that committee as well as the state of the NIS.

But let us stick to the question of taxes and see the extent of the powers of the Minister of Finance in addition to the power to grant tax discretionary holidays.

The Minister of course has powers to make laws under what is referred to as delegated legislation, and should have these tabled in the National Assembly and published in the Official Gazette. While this tool is seen as useful in enhancing the efficiency in public administration and is available generally to all ministers, the proliferation of such subsidiary legislation has aroused increasing scrutiny. As a result, countries around the world and more recently Australia have introduced legislation to regulate when and how such delegated legislation is used.

I thought it might be useful in an article of this nature to separate the powers of the minister of finance into those that have been used to help in curbing corruption from those which enhance public financial management in Guyana.

The incumbent has done nothing on corruption other than to challenge the Transparency Institute and question Guyana’s place on the Corruption Perception Index. He has centred procurement in his office, and his ministry was the biggest defender of Fip Motilall who cost this country so much.

The incumbent has to consider himself the luckiest man alive for not having been subject to a motion that he be brought before the Privileges Committee of the National Assembly.

Tax laws
Let us now look at some of the powers of the office granted to him by various laws. The Minister can effectively make laws to provide that the interest payable on any loan charged on the Consolidated Fund or guaranteed by the government is exempted from the tax; to approve as a mortgage finance company any company which has entered into an agreement with the government whereunder the company agrees to finance housing development; for the introduction of a presumptive tax on the income from self-employment of individuals who have annual turnover from self-employment of less than ten million dollars (not done); for the introduction of a minimum tax on the income from self-employment of individuals whose annual turnover from self-employment exceeds ten million dollars (not done); exempting under defined circumstances the income of non-resident shipping companies; deciding which sectors and products receive export allowances; designating the allowable expenditure for development of agricultural land; designating the central authorities for transacting diamond business; providing for minimum tax on self-employed professionals (not done); exemption from filing returns by persons whose income comes mainly from employment or interest (not done); specifying the books and records to be maintained by persons carrying on any business; appointing an agent in the UK for the purpose of facilitating the assessment of the income of persons residing in the United Kingdom (a clear throwback to the days when England was the Mother Country); appointment of the Board of Review (which has not been done for several years); making and revising Double Taxation Agreements (which has not been done for nearly two decades); entering into agreements with other countries for the exchange of information for the prevention of evasion or avoidance of income tax and the carrying out of those agreements (not done); prescribing the times for the payment of taxes by companies; and providing for the remitting wholly or in part of the tax payable by any person or category of persons on such income, in respect of any year of assessment, and in accordance with such conditions as may be specified in the regulations.

And that list is under the Income tax Act only.

Under the Corporation Tax Act the Minister can declare as exempt the income of any institution established for the encouragement of thrift or any income arising from investments of any fund or scheme established for the provision of annuities to designated persons.

But his real opportunities for acting in the most unaccountable and irresponsible manner lie in his power to grant tax holidays and two other lesser known provisions of the laws, one in the Income Tax Act and another in the VAT Act. Under the Income Tax Act, the Minister has the power to reduce the rate of withholding tax on any distribution or payment for the purpose of giving effect to any agreement relating to tax between the government and any person not resident in Guyana. Neither the GRA nor the Commissioner General has any say in the matter but must simply do as the Minister says. Nor is there any reporting of the exercise of this discretionary power.

And under the VAT Act, in order to zero-rate a supply of goods and services, all the Minister has to do is sign with a person an investment agreement for which there is no definition, specified contents or penalties for non-compliance with any promises by the investor.

Additionally, the Minister of Finance makes all the delegated legislation under the Value-Added, Excise and the Customs Acts and appoints directly or indirectly all the members of the Revenue Board which exercises wide policy-making powers over the administration of all the revenue collecting agencies.

These are enormous powers that are hardly regulated, if at all. True, the Financial Management and Accountability Act has certain guidelines on the charging of expenditure on the revenue of the country; how sums due to the revenue be remitted; and the authority for the remission, concession, or waiver of taxes.

The Minister has shown himself time and again to be irresponsible and willing to bend and if necessary to circumvent the law. There is hardly a qualified accountant in the traditional public service, and both the posts of Auditor General and the Accountant General are held by unqualified persons. It is not the ideal environment in which the Minister of Finance is a Dr Ashni Singh. Rather than allowing Deodat Sharma to misdirect them with petty cash issues, the PAC must make a concerted effort to rein in the excesses of Dr Singh which have cost this country tens of billions.

The Economic Affairs Committee has work to do.

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