Before adjourning late Tuesday night, the House of Assembly passed 11 bills ranging in subject from retirement benefits to tax evasion and other financial crimes. The ninth sitting started on May 13 and continues next Thursday. (Screenshot: HOA YOUTUBE)

Over the past week, legislators passed 11 bills in two days, including one that will alter their retirement package in a way that has not yet been disclosed to the public.

The nine other bills deal with judges’ pensions, terrorist financing, money laundering, birth and death certificates, money transactions with multiple foreign jurisdictions, and supplementary spending from 2016.

On May 6, legislators began the day by quickly passing the Retiring Allowances (Legislative Services) Amendment Act 2021, which had been carried over from the previous week.

When Premier Andrew Fahie brought the bill for a first reading on April 29, he requested to change the order paper and allow a suspension of standing orders to bring it for second and third readings in the same sitting.

The same day, he moved forward with the second reading and broadly explained the reason for the bill.

“There were quite a number of anomalies in the way this act has been written, and this has been recognised a few years after this legislation has been passed,” he said. “Over the years, persons have shied away from correcting it, but it has created some tension over the correct calculation of what the retirement analysis should be for retired persons after they have retired from elected office.”

He denied that the bill was about seeking a salary increase for legislators, explaining instead that it would update certain policies. However, he did not go into further detail, and no members of the House debated the bill publicly before heading into closed-door committee.

The House did not reconvene on camera that evening, and when members reconvened on May 6, the live broadcast’s audio was not working.

HOA Information Officer Linton Leonard later confirmed that the bill passed unanimously on May 6, with District Six Representative Alvera Maduro-Caines absent.

It now awaits final assent from Governor John Rankin.

In part because the bill was rushed through the HOA in one sitting, no draft was Gazetted as normally happens after a first reading.

Judges’ pensions

The premier made similar moves to quickly pass the Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court (Judicial Officers’ Pensions) Act 2021, which wasn’t Gazetted until after the Beacon’s print deadline on May 12.

The act passed without amendment on May 6, along with four other laws that day and five more on May 11.

In explaining the bill, Mr. Fahie said countries throughout the region have struggled in recent years to employ enough justices to meet the needs of the courts.

“We know the importance of our judiciary system throughout the BVI and throughout the entire [Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States] region,” Mr. Fahie said. “But we have seen as of late throughout all of the member states the difficulty to attract judges to come and be part of that profession.”

Mr. Fahie said Chief Justice Dame Janice Pereira — who was the first Virgin Islander appointed to the bench of the Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court — has repeatedly urged member states to address the issue.

When member states last discussed the problem of attracting judges, he added, they debated whether they could afford sweeping salary increases. He said this concern was raised even before many countries were hit with economic hardships from the Covid-19 pandemic.

“So the next possible solution given to all member states at OECS would be to work on a retirement package since the salary would be more of a challenge at that time,” he said.

Deputy Premier Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley noted that governments have to compete with private businesses in attracting appropriately educated and experienced staff.

“Persons who work within these judicial positions many times can make more money in the private sector, but many times they serve out of a great sense of duty, a great sense of purpose, a commitment to justice,” said Dr. Wheatley, who seconded the bill.

The pensions are currently governed under an act passed in 1990, he said, noting several changes included with the new bill, including early retirement provisions; judicial master pensions; coverage for spouses; and pensionable emoluments like salary, housing and utilities allowances.

Mr. Fahie said all member states decided to review their legislation and make retirement packages equal throughout the region, allowing justices to retire wherever they choose.

Antigua and Barbuda brought forward a bill by the same name in 2019, and St. Kitts and Nevis passed a similar bill earlier this year.

The bill, which now awaits assent from the governor, was fast-tracked in a single sitting.

Probates

The HOA also passed the Probates Resealing Act, 2021, a bill designed to enhance the probate process while earning revenue.

“It is anticipated that these reforms will increase the attractiveness of British Virgin Islands companies, by making it simpler to transfer the shares of these companies to a shareholder’s heirs following his or her death,” Mr. Fahie said.

The move has been in the works for years, with then-Governor John Duncan listing the fee for resealing probates as a revenue-generating measure to consider in his 2014 Speech from the Throne.

The Probates Resealing Act, 2021 passed with amendments on May 6 and awaits assent from the governor.

Birth, death

The Registration of Births and Deaths Act, 2021 also passed with amendments on May 6. Mr. Fahie brought it for a first reading on March 4, and its initial version was Gazetted on March 12.

This bill would modernise the process for obtaining birth and death records, replacing a current law that is more than 56 years old.

Under the proposed law, people could get notifications and apply for records digitally. The bill also makes special provisions for the registration of stillbirths, and sets certain fines for activities like falsifying records.

“The current procedure of notarising documents must be further developed to facilitate the online submission and filing of documents, as there must be a means of validating said documentation,” Mr. Fahie said last Thursday. “The Commissioner for Oaths and Notaries Public Act 2007 may perhaps require an amendment, but for now this will bring us into a more modernised stance of doing everything.”

The final version of the bill also awaits the governor’s assent.

Customs

In the area of organised crime, the House passed a bill on May 6 designed in part to combat money laundering and terrorist financing.

The Customs Management and Duties Amendment Act, 2021 — which was Gazetted on March 12 — passed without amendments to help the VI be fully compliant with Financial Action Task Force recommendations.

Mr. Fahie said the move should help the VI avoid blacklisting during an upcoming FATF evaluation.

Transportation, Works and Utilities Minister Kye Rymer added that the bill should help address illegal activities like travellers carrying undocumented money in and out of the territory.

The bill now awaits the governor’s assent.

Proliferation

The HOA also followed up on its efforts earlier this year to crack down on crimes like terrorist financing. Members concluded on May 6 in closed-door debate on the Proliferation Financing Prohibition Act, 2021.

Mr. Fahie said this bill, which is based on recommendations from the United Nations Security Council, is designed to prevent “the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.”

It includes a lengthy list of punishable offences, with corporate bodies facing fines up to $500,000 for facilitating transactions to fund terrorism, while individuals could pay up to $250,000 and serve three years in prison.

Mr. Fahie said the UNSC resolutions specifically require member countries to freeze the funds of individuals engaging in proliferation. But besides ensuring international compliance, the bill should also aid the VI in policing itself, Mr. Fahie said.

The bill, also Gazetted on March 12, passed on May 11 with amendments, and it awaits the governor’s assent.

After passing that bill on May 11, the HOA discussed and passed the Supplementary Appropriation (2016) Act, 2021.

Then the premier bumped four scheduled bills to be debated at a new sitting on May 13: The Cruising and Home Port Permit Act, 2021; Contractor General Act, 2021; Whistleblowers Act, 2021; and Explosives Amendment Act, 2021.

Money services

Also on May 11, legislators discussed the revenue raised recently under the Financing and Money Services Act, 2020, which imposed a seven percent tax on funds sent outside the territory via money services companies.

A portion of the levy, which is overseen by the Financial Services Commission, benefits certain social programmes in the territory.

On May 11, legislators passed the Financing and Money Services (Amendment) Act, 2021, which would allow the FSC to retain $10,000 each quarter from the levy to cover administrative fees.

The money from the levy is divided equally to support first-time homeowners, seniors, scholarships, and fishing and agriculture. Mr. Fahie said the FSC has collected $2,314,958.21 since April 2020 — meaning that $462,991.64 went to each of these programmes.

Opposition member Julian Fraser, however, said that more guidance is needed for how exactly the funds in each category are being spent.

Dr. Wheatley, who is also the minister for education, culture, youth affairs, fisheries and agriculture, said it is important for the VI to invest in the areas supported by the transaction levy.

“Yes, we have to become more efficient at spending [tax revenue], but regardless of how you feel about how tax money is being spent, the tax money that we have cannot sustain our society right now,” Dr. Wheatley said. “I commend the minister of finance and the entire government for being proactive and forward thinking about growing the pie.”

The bill — the initial version of which was Gazetted on March 12 — passed with amendments, and it awaits assent from the governor.

Once in effect, HOA Clerk Phyllis Evans said, it would be deemed to have come into force May 4, 2020.

Criminal code

Later on May 11, the House turned its attention to financial crimes as Attorney General Dawn Smith brought the Criminal Code (Amendment) Act, 2021 for second and third readings. The bill, updating a law from 1997, is designed to deter tax evasion.

“The bill is part of a package of legislation before this House to assist the Virgin Islands in its readiness for the upcoming [Caribbean Financial Action Task Force] mutual evaluation, and to enable it to continue to meet our international obligations as a responsible and reputable jurisdiction,” Ms. Smith said.

She thanked the FSC for its technical assistance with drafting a recent suite of bills dealing with financial crimes, particularly under the guidance of its retired former director Robert Mathavious.

Dr. Wheatley, who seconded the bill, said legislators need to understand the difference between “tax avoidance” or “tax planning” versus illegal “tax evasion.”

Opposition Leader Marlon Penn also lent his full support, and he said it’s important for all HOA members to work collectively to continue advancing a well-regulated financial services industry in the territory. The premier also supported the bill.

After a brief debate in closed-door committee, the House passed the bill with amendments. It awaits the governor’s assent.

Drug trafficking

The HOA also voted to update the territory’s primary legislation related to drug money laundering activities.

Ms. Smith brought the Drug Trafficking Offences (Amendment) Act, 2021 for debate on May 11.

The proposed law would empower an investigating officer of the Financial Investigation Agency to explore whether certain drug trafficking offences also involved money laundering, according to the text of a draft bill Gazetted on March 12.

Under the bill, the FIA would also assume sole responsibility for suspicious transaction reports, taking away the power of police officers to receive such reports in keeping with a FATF standard to eliminate any doubt about who is in charge of such an investigation.

The bill also states that it seeks to widen “the scope of the circumstances under which a police officer or customs officer may seize cash.”

“These enforcement powers will ensure greater certainty with regard to the ability of law enforcement to appropriately deal with cash found in the territory without attaching any specific threshold,” the bill reads. “The governing rule will be the suspicion attached to it in relation to drug trafficking or drug money laundering.”

Again seeing little debate and brief closed-door workshopping, the bill passed without amendments. It awaits the governor’s assent.

Crime proceeds

The last financial law to pass in the House on May 11 was the Proceeds of Criminal Conduct (Amendment) Act, 2021, which would allow law enforcement to more broadly investigate money laundering, terrorist financing and proliferation financing.

Like the drug trafficking amendment, it also makes the FIA responsible for dealing with “suspicious transaction reports.”

“These enforcement powers will ensure greater certainty with regard to the ability of law enforcement to appropriately deal with cash found in the territory without attaching any specific threshold; the governing rule will be the suspicion attached to it in relation to criminal conduct,” the bill states.

Mr. Fraser took particular interest in the National Anti-Money Laundering and Terrorist Financing Coordinating Council, questioning what it could do to more strictly crack down on criminal activity that he said has become more visible during the pandemic.

The premier, who chairs the council, responded, “We have to continue to further strengthen our ability to police ourselves, especially when the international world looks up on us in financial services in different areas.”

The bill passed with amendments and awaits the governor’s assent.

May 13’s sitting

After passing that bill but before adjourning late on May 11, the House also bumped three more bills to the new sitting scheduled to start on May 13: the Criminal Justice (International Cooperation) Amendment Act, 2021; the Counter-Terrorism Act, 2021; and the Financial Investigation Agency Amendment Act, 2021. Government leaders also agreed to answer questions from the opposition at the new sitting.

Note: This story has been updated to accurately reflect an absence in the vote on the Retiring Allowances (Legislative Services) Amendment Act, 2021.


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