By RASHAD ROLLE
Tribune Staff Reporter
THE Progressive Liberal Party has pledged to repeal the Commercial Enterprises Bill when the party returns to power and has warned investors and people who may accept the bill’s benefits to “think carefully” before doing so.
The bill passed the House of Assembly with unanimous support from the Free National Movement last week Wednesday and is headed to the Senate. The bill would liberalise the granting of work permits to enterprises that wish to establish themselves in the Bahamas in niche sectors and require work permits for management and key personnel.
“When we come to office we will repeal [the bill] and those who accept its benefits ought to think carefully before accepting the benefits of this legislation,” Official Opposition Leader Philip “Brave” Davis said in a press statement.
This is the first time the PLP has pledged to repeal outright a bill the Minnis administration has tabled.
The Bahamas Chamber of Commerce and Employers Confederation (BCCEC), for its part, gave a mixed reaction to the bill over the weekend. It announced support for some provisions but listed concerns and suggested some components of the bill are unclear or contradictory.
Mr Davis said: “The bill is an unnecessary intervention for attracting Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) or to support growth or empower entrepreneurship. During the debate in the House nothing was advanced to justify the intervention of this bill. All that was said to justify the policy of the government can be achieved by improving management protocols and the efficiency of the public administration.”
Mr Davis said the PLP is “suspicious” of the “specified enterprises zones” the bill would create. According to the bill, the zones would be created “for the purposes of rationalising infrastructural investment, efficient land use or the encouragement of clusters of commercial development.” The bill says the minister responsible for the matter could create regulations establishing any island or part of an island as a specified commercial enterprise zone.
Mr Davis said such a designation of land “will no doubt enhance its value.”
“We know who the land barons are in this country. They hold too much of the wealth of the country as it stands. This will only further enrich them at the expense of the public at large.”
Mr Davis singled out Financial Services Minister Brent Symonette –– who he termed “the mover of the bill and a major land owner in the city of Nassau” –– as someone who would personally benefit from this. This is one of the bill’s “more obvious conflicts of interest,” he said.
During an appearance on the show Political Review with Quincy Parker yesterday, Mr Symonette was asked whose idea it was to produce the bill.
“[The bill],” he said, “is an FNM bill thought of by the prime minister and his Cabinet.” Responding to concern the bill has been rushed through the legislative process, Mr Symonette said the public relations efforts of the administration may need to be improved but noted that the bill had been tabled in Parliament one month before debate began.
The chamber, on the other hand, characterised the bill as a possible “interim solution for businesses in certain industries with a foreign ownership component” that need to navigate the process of obtaining approvals and work permits. The chamber said it supports the bill’s creation of a Commercial Enterprises Facilitation Unit, which would receive and consider applications “in a timely manner” and advise the Investment Board.
“However, the BCCEC wishes the attraction of foreign investment to be balanced with the support of local businesses, particularly small and medium sized enterprises which are the backbone of the local economy,” the group said. “Wholly owned Bahamian businesses are not currently required to apply for Investments Board approval. In order to take advantage of benefits contemplated by the bill, a newly established wholly Bahamian owned business would be required to apply for approval from the board.
“Accordingly, in parallel with the initiatives outlined in the bill (subject to the amendments that have been provided) which are aimed largely at foreign investors, incentivising Bahamian businesses in these sectors and addressing the ease of doing business is also of paramount importance for the growth and diversification of the economy.”
In its list of concerns, the chamber said it’s not clear whether the bill applies only to “businesses with a foreign ownership component” or to solely owned Bahamian businesses as well. Mr Symonette said yesterday the bill covers “[Bahamian owned business] and also joint ventures.”
The chamber said not only may the list of businesses to which the bill applies not have been subjected to widespread consultation to determine if it is “comprehensive enough” or “represents areas of potential economic growth for the country,” but the inclusion of certain sectors––mutual fund administration, wealth management and boutique health facilities, for example––will also disadvantage Bahamians, not allowing them to compete.
The chamber said the list of industries to which the bill applies are “too broadly referred,” adding: “For example, if one were to invest $250,000 and set up a doctor’s office with two physicians is that a ‘boutique health facility?”
The chamber also said the requirement that a business invest a minimum of $250,000 to benefit from the bill “might be too low for international companies wishing to establish a commercial enterprise in the Bahamas.”
Among the elements of the bill is that businesses could qualify for unspecified concessions. Mr Symonette, asked why concessions aren’t included, said to include a list of potential concessions in the bill would lengthen the bill greatly.
The chamber said: “Perhaps an indication of ‘general’ concessions that may be considered should be articulated. It will be important that there is no perception that any particular applicant is receiving advantageous treatment over another.”
As for the expediency and efficiency involved in the bill’s work permit approval process, which would allow a person to automatically receive a work permit if the director of immigration does not deal with their application within 14 days, the chamber said it wants this “same level of expediency and efficiency applied to other areas of government services to aid and improve in the ease of doing business.”