Legislation aimed at carrying out consumer protections was walked back this week in the House of Assembly as legislators expressed concern about the cost and staffing of a new statutory Trade Commission. (Photo: DANA KAMPA)

Government legislators reversed course this week on their previous plan to establish a Trade Commission as a statutory body in place of the existing Trade Department.

The commission, which was to be created pursuant to a 2020 law that took effect last November, was initially billed as a badly needed reform that would help modernise trade processes and oversee the framework needed to enforce consumer protection laws.

Now it’s off the table. On Tuesday, the House of Assembly voted to suspend the commission by rushing through the Virgin Islands Trade Commission (Suspensory) Act, 2023, which was fast-tracked through its first, second and third readings in one sitting.

Government legislators passed the law Tuesday in the absence of the six opposition members, who all walked out earlier that day after Premier Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley successfully proposed to reorder the agenda to move opposition questions to the end of the sitting.

Opposition Leader Ronnie Skelton and his colleagues objected to Dr. Wheatley’s motion, claiming that the government was being disrespectful by delaying the question-and-answer session.

The premier replied that public officers needed more time to compile the answers to the nearly 120 questions on the opposition’s list.

After the reordering motion passed on a 7-6 vote, all opposition members left the sitting, and government legislators proceeded to debate and pass the trade commission law as well as amendments to jury legislation.

Deputy Premier Lorna Smith — the minister of financial services, labour and trade — introduced the bill to suspend the Trade Commission.

“Upon assuming office as the minister responsible for trade at the end of April 2023, it became evident that the [Trade] Commission was still in its early stages of development, raising concerns about its viability and effectiveness,” she told the HOA. “Given the circumstances, a careful evaluation of the act’s implementation became imperative.”

Trade Department employees, she said, were put in a difficult position by the passage of the law last November.

“Employees were granted six months, from November 2022 to May 2023, to choose be- tween remaining with the central government or transitioning to the statutory body, which was still inactive,” she said. “In fact, one of my initial official duties was to attend the orientation of the board on May 15, nearly six months after the act had become law. It was on that day that I began to question the wisdom of implementing the Virgin Islands Trade Commission under our current circumstances.”

Cost of commission

Ms. Smith also said she sought a clear implementation plan and budget from officials working to establish the commission.

Eight months after the legislation was enacted, she said, she received a budget estimate of $1.5 million, and a timeline estimate of implementing services by 2026.

“This expenditure was primarily aimed at maintaining the status quo in terms of service delivery while funding core administrative costs such as [human resources] management, financial management, payroll systems, information technology, and legal services separately from central government,” she said. “Achieving financial independence in the commission’s second year was projected to require a 154 percent increase in trade licensing fees.”

The minister acknowledged that a fee increase is warranted given that previous fees were set more than 30 years ago.

But she added, “I was surprised to inherit a Business Licensing Act, passed in 2022, with even higher annual licensing fees — as much as $1,000 for belongers and $15,000 for non-belongers engaged in certain business activities.”

Such high fees, she said, can lead to business failures and higher costs for consumers.

“The Business Licensing Act, 2022 is part of a suite of legislation intended to be administered by the Trade Commission, along with the Consumer Protection Act of 2020 and the Virgin Islands Investment Act of 2021,” Ms. Smith added. “It is crucial to note that neither of these pieces of legislation has been put into effect.”

Laws have ‘merit’

These laws, she said, have “merit” and won’t be abandoned.

“Appropriate amendments can be made that would allow the Ministry of Financial Services, Labour and Trade to administer all trade-related legislation,” she said.

Ms. Smith said she has also met with “numerous small- and medium-sized businesses” while reviewing the Trade Commission.

“Importantly, none of the hundreds of individuals we spoke to indicated the need for this statutory body as a solution to their challenges,” she said.

Coming review

The government intends to review the Trade Department’s current structure and responsibilities over the next year to decide the way forward, according to the minister.

“It is crucial to emphasise that as we navigate this period of suspension and re-evaluation, the importance of consumer protection will remain at the forefront of our priorities,” Ms. Smith said.

She added, “The Consumer Protection Act of 2020 holds great significance in ensuring fair and ethical business practices within our jurisdiction. During this transitional phase, we will work diligently to strengthen and enforce consumer protection measures through existing government channels.”

The premier said that he supports the concept of a Trade Commission and wants to see its successful implementation, but he agreed with Ms. Smith that the legislation should be suspended.

“It won’t be successful if it’s too big to solve the problem,” he said.

Health and Social Development Minister Vincent Wheatley also voiced his support of suspension while trade-related needs are reassessed. He claimed this is an opportunity get it right the first time when establishing the commission, rather than “rushing” and needing to fix operational issues later.

Education, Youth Affairs and Sports Minister Sharie de Castro and Communications and Works Minister Kye Rymer also voiced support.

After amendments were made in a closed-door committee sitting, the House passed the bill. As of Beacon press time, it had not yet been Gazetted or otherwise made public.

Jury legislation

In the Tuesday sitting, the remaining HOA members also passed the Jury (Amendment) Bill, 2023 and the Jury (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill, 2023. The latter bill, like the trade act, was expedited through first, second and third readings in one sitting.

The bills amend a previous act that passed in October 2022 and replaced an outdated law from 1914. The biggest area of debate at the time was a provision for the addition of certain categories of non-belongers to the juror list.

Though the act received the governor’s assent last November, Dr. Wheatley said it is not yet in force.

“Because of the inflection of time between the passage of the act and the preparation of the jury rules and regulations, it has become necessary to amend Section 53 of the 2022 Jury Act before bringing it into force,” he said.

The approved bills have not yet been Gazetted or otherwise made public.

No opposition

Later in the HOA meeting on Tuesday night, government legislators returned for the question-and-answer session, but all opposition members were still absent.

Speaker of the House Corine George-Massicote said they would need to re-submit their questions for a subsequent sitting.