CUSTOMS (AMENDMENT) BILL 2013 – Bill No. 2/2013
Minister within the Ministry of Finance [Bishop Edghill]: Mdm. Deputy Speaker, I rise to move that the Customs (Amendment) 2013, Bill No. 2 of 2013, published on 8th January, 2013 be read for a second time. While I heard the Hon. Member Mr. Carl Greenidge asking for a deferral may I indicate to you Mdm. Deputy Speaker and this Hon. House that it was the Opposition which asked since January that this Bill be deferred for consultations and up until today’s sitting, when I was approached again by the Hon. Member who spoke before me for the deferral, no substantive objection to this Bill was made. I do not believe this is a matter that should attract any significant controversy or I do not believe it is a matter that is set in any difficult circumstances. I would propose to highlight why this Hon. House should support this legislation and we should have a unanimous vote of yes to support it.
In February, 1995, Guyana introduced an environmental tax on imported beverages in specified containers. The environmental Tax Legislation, Bill No. 4 of 1995, dated 15th February, 1995, was enacted through an amendment of Section 7 of the Customs Act. The new Section 7A of the Customs Acts stipulates:
“That an environmental tax shall be raised, levied and collected at a rate of $10 on every unit of nonreturnable metal, plastic, glass or cardboard container of any alcoholic or non-alcoholic beverage imported into Guyana. And every import of such beverage shall pay such tax to the Comptroller of Customs and Excise at the same time when customs duties are paid.
The objective of this tax was based on the grounds of environmental protection. I believe that all the Hon. Members of this House are aware that in Guyana we have a difficulty as it relates to plastic. I think here in Georgetown we see the brunt of it and sadly, as I travel around the country, I am seeing the effect of this in other regions as well. Non-returnable containers in which beverages are imported have been deemed to pose a negative impact on Guyana’s environment primarily as a result of their non-biodegradable nature and like I indicated we have the pile-up and the attendant higher waste management cost for public authorities. It was deemed as reasonable to expect that a cleanup cost should be borne by the businesses concerned. The issue here, however, is that the environmental tax as currently applied by Guyana has been determined by the Council for Trade and Economic Development of CARICOM to be discriminatory on the grounds that it applies on imports only and not on domestically produced goods. This amendment that we are proposing is to bring us in line and cause us to honour our treaty obligations. It is as simple as that.
The amendment is seeking to amend the first schedule of the Customs Act by the deletion of Section 7A and to implement the new legislation for the administration of the environmental tax. It is intended to bring Guyana into compliance with its obligations under the Treaty of Chaguaramas and the World Trade Organisation Convention, both of which Guyana is a party.
The current provision imposed environmental taxes solely on non-disposable containers of imported alcohol beverages. This is not only discriminatory, but in breach of Guyana’s obligations under the Treaty and the Convention aforementioned thus exposing Guyana to the risk of litigation and sanctions under the originating jurisdiction of the Caribbean Court of Justice, notwithstanding unfair trade practices. I am sure that my colleague, the Hon. Attorney General, when he speaks to this matter will highlight that there is actually active legislation as it relates to this matter of which Guyana is involved.
This amendment seeks to apply a tax on every unit of nonreturnable containers of alcoholic beverages on both imported goods and goods manufactured in Guyana. We are proposing as well, through this piece of legislation, to reduce the rate of the tax from $10 to $5 in an effort to allow the tax to remain revenue neutral. We are also seeking to remove the applicability of the taxes when the goods aforementioned are exported and not used in Guyana. This provision, while it imposes an additional tax of $5 on domestic manufacturers of alcoholic beverages, will encourage the said manufacturers to retrieve and re-export the said goods since when such goods are exported the tax no longer becomes applicable. This is anticipated to have two benefits. One, upon the re-export of the said containers to refund a tax may be paid to the domestic manufacturers resulting in no increase in the cost of locally produced beverages. Second, attempts to retrieve and re-export the said items will have significant environmental benefits and result in job creation.
While it is true that we have companies in Guyana that may have concerns about this particular, amendment consultations were held and time was asked for consultation. However, the bottom line is that we cannot continue to delay. As a matter of fact another country in CARICOM was deemed to be non-compliant and has since taken steps to bring themselves in line. I am sure some of the other speakers to this amendment will highlight this.
Like I said before, I believe this is a matter that should attract the support of all Members of the House since it only brings benefits to be people of Guyana. I am sure with proper understanding and proper review coming out of today’s debate this amendment will attract the full support of all Members of the House.
I thank you Mdm. Deputy Speaker. [Applause]
Bishop Edghill (replying): What I thought, at the beginning of this discussion and debate, would have been a very simple matter it has developed into something that has produced a lot of confusion, in my own mind, because I am sitting here all afternoon listening for the arguments to support why even the request of the deferral should have been granted. I must admit there is no argument in any serious manner that has been presented to support that request for the deferral.
It was raised by the Hon. Member Mr. Carl Greenidge that we do not have a treaty obligation to implement this particular measure and I think it was adequately addressed, both by the Attorney General and the Minister of Foreign Affairs. I would want to indicate to us that we should seriously look at this matter in a very reasonable and responsible manner because we know full well what the issues are before us and making arguments for the sake of arguments is insufficient, especially when we have been elected to this honourable House to represent the interest of the people of Guyana and when a matter of public interest, an interest to the people of Guyana, is being considered.
The facts are that, right now, the people of Guyana are paying $10. This amendment is asking that there be a change and the people will pay $5. There is no rocket science into seeing that. The tax, as it is, right now, is discriminatory and this measure is to correct that in keeping with what are our treaty obligations. There could be no excuse for that. I sat here and I wondered what we are saying to the people of Guyana and to our CARICOM brothers and sisters, because if we withhold support to this amendment we are actually saying that honouring treaty obligation is not necessary or important. Guyana as a leading light in CARICOM, one of the founder Members of CARICOM, I think our whole character, as a country, is under question here in the way we behave this afternoon in the National Assembly. I think we are also articulating very carefully, for the people of Guyana, that special interest comes before national obligation. That is very dangerous because the way we act, this afternoon, in the National Assembly, we will be carefully articulating for the people of Guyana that special interest comes before national obligation. As I am hearing that we have encouraged the lawlessness, the Government, through this amendment, is seeking to create what should be considered to be correct and produced an environment that is non discriminatory. I think that is what we are asking for all Members of this House to support.
I have listened to several Members, on the other side, who spoke to this motion, including the Mr. Carl Greenidge and Mr. Ramjattan and Mr. Harmon, just now, who are all fully aware that there is a matter that is before the CCJ. I am concerned that while I am hearing arguments from the Hon. Members about the people of Guyana paying more because the local companies would be required to pay the $5, it would be the people of Guyana who will have to pay should judgement be granted against to us. If, currently, we lose this case at the CCJ I think the Government of Guyana will have to pay in excess of US$5 million, which is about more than G$1 billion. I am wondering if Members of the Opposition will support the supplementary that will have to come to this House to facilitate such a payment.
I have listened to this matter being tied to all kinds of issues - the Public Procurement Commission (PPC), Rights Commission and assent to Bills. I would have been happy to hear some substantive arguments, as they relate to some serious objection, as they relate to the proposed amendments. This proposed amendment, I can assure, will be revenue neutral.
We have checked it out and we have looked at it and we would want to indicate that while there may be some slight increase for locally produced beverages, because of the $5 that will be asked for now, in terms of the revenue collection, there is no cash cow here. This is a revenue neutral measure that is being implemented, and that must be said, and that must be stated here this afternoon.
This Bill is before this honourable House for the last five months...
Mdm. Deputy Speaker: Just bear with me for one second. Hon. Minister Ali if you want to get involved in the exchange you would be required to return to your rightful seat. I have no problem with you entering the little exchange, but you will need to go back to your proper seat. I am now making a general request. Please allow the Hon. Minister to proceed with as little interruption as possible.
Hon. Minister, please proceed.
Bishop Edghill (replying): I have listened to the presentations of the Hon. Member Mr. Carl Greenidge and Mr. Harmon, which were the two presentations that came from that side of the House, that sought to explore some aspects of an environmental tax and I would want to say that this Bill has been before the House for the last five months. A request came from Members of the Opposition for a deferral, the Minister concurred. Over the last five months none of those suggestions were submitted or made to the Minister. My question is that if we defer for another month or we defer for another year or we defer indefinitely, what will happen during that time that did not happen during the five months?
This issue is one that, I believe, requires the support of all the Members of the House. While it is true that Members on the other side of the House have concerns about other issues that seem to be being raised at this time, whether it is the PPC, the assent of Opposition Bills and the Rights Commission as raised by the Hon. Member Mr. Harmon, I think this piece of legislation should be considered on its own merit; it should be considered based upon what the facts are, what the realities are, what obtains presently, what we are seeking to correct and what are the likely outcomes. All that I am asking, at this particular time, is that in an atmosphere of nationalistic pride and in an atmosphere of where we gather in this august House as legislators to provide leadership on behalf of the people of Guyana, where we sit in this House as men and women of honour who took an oath that says we will operate without fear or favour, ill will or malice, that we, from a standpoint of a pure conscience, knowing all the facts that surround this particular issue, be magnanimous and we rise above the current political tensions and expectations that exist and examine this piece of legislation on its own merit and provide support, so that we can see the safe passage of this amendment this afternoon.
Mdm. Deputy Speaker, I thank you very much. [Applause]