By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The Government believes it has “accommodated 80-90 percent” of non-profit concerns over plans to regulate the sector, although it remains on a collision course with the church.
Carl Bethel QC, the attorney general, told Tribune Business that the Christian Council and Bahamian churches were seeking “a complete exemption” from the Non-Profit Organisations Bill and its provisions despite his agreement to make the legislation less onerous and “more user friendly”.
Speaking following his meeting with the council and church leaders on Friday, Mr Bethel said they cited one other jurisdiction that had developed a law exempting the church from such regulation, arguing it as established a precedent to justify their demands.
The attorney general, though, described the church’s viewpoint as an “unsustainable position”, adding that the information he possessed contradicted their assertions. While agreeing that one country had drafted such a law, he added that it never been brought to Parliament or passed on to the statute book.
“What we have done is drafted a series of amendments that will remove the bulk of their concerns, save for this one issue of complete exemption for the church,” Mr Bethel told Tribune Business, “which in my view is not a sustainable position. But we’re assessing to see what other jurisdictions did with it.
“We had, I think, very constructive meetings with the church, Christian Council and also civil society. We’d already gone through the civil society bit and proposed a number of amendments that we think will make the bill more effective in terms of making it more user friendly and are broadly acceptable to all parties.
“The church is seeking either a complete exemption, and they are saying there is some law in one other jurisdiction that enabled them to do so,” the Attorney General added. “My information is that it is not accurate that there is any law in any jurisdiction that gives an exemption to the church.
“One jurisdiction drafted something along those lines, but it was not tabled in Parliament. There is no jurisdiction that has done that. I’ve asked for a copy of that legislation but can’t get it because it was only a draft and never passed into law.”
Churches are arguably some of the wealthiest non-profit organisations (NPOs) in The Bahamas, but the pressure on the Government to regulate all such groups threatens to create a collision between state and church.
That pressure is coming from the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), the organisation that sets the global standards for combating money laundering and terrorism financing. It is understood to be particularly vexed by what it views as minimal to non-existent regulation of non-profits by The Bahamas.
An insight into the church’s opposition to the Bill was given over the weekend by Bishop Walter S. Hanchell, head of Great Commission Ministries and Citizens for Justice, who expressed fears that it “will allow the Government to control churches”.
Arguing that Bahamian sovereignty was again being undermined, he said in a statement: “Non-profit organisations exist not for the benefit of the organisations or their staff but entirely for the benefit of the community which they serve.
“After closely examining the Non-Profit Organisations (NPO) Bill 2018, we are convinced that the Bill has numerous flaws and is not in the best interest of the Bahamian people or existing NPOs.”
Bishop Hanchell added: “This Bill will negatively affect all charitable organisations, foundations, sporting groups, civic groups, churches and NGOs (non-governmental organisations) throughout the country.
“The Bill in question will not only regulate NPOs, but will allow the Government to control churches and other non-profit entities while frustrating and demoralising their efforts. The Bill in its present form may cause some organizations to close or wind up their affairs.
“We are still trying to determine the true purpose of this bill. Is the NPO Bill a part of the United Nations’ agenda in establishing a one-world government? s this a plot to destabilise the sovereignty of the Bahamas?”
Questioning why political parties were not explicitly identified as entities that will be regulated by the Bill, Bishop Hanchell listed several concerns with the Bill, most of which centred on the powers of the Registrar of Non-Profits and the process for NPOs to register with it.
“Registration is too stringent,” Bishop Hanchell said. “Fifteen different items are needed for a non-profit to register. Many current NPOs will not be able to comply with the registration process.
“There should be no registration fee. Organisations that offer a service to improve the life of citizens should not be taxed; rather, they should be given concessions and sufficient financial support from the Government in order to achieve their mission.
“The Minister and the Registrar have too much power, and penalties are far too severe. The Bahamian people never elected any government to legislate unfair burdensome laws that oppress the people. The electorate was promised transparency and accountability in governance. This cannot happen without consultation on national issues.”
Mr Bethel, though, said he planned to go beyond the issues discussed with non-profit/civil society groups on Friday and further examine the Bill over the weekend to find ways to improve the
“ease of doing business” for them.
Promising that he was also “looking closely” at civil society’s calls for the creation of a ‘council’, or technical committee, that would act as a point of co-ordination and collaboration between the sector and the Government, the Attorney General said: “I am reviewing the Bill to find other areas that were not covered by them to facilitate the ease of charities.
“I think we’ve accommodated 80-90 percent of their concerns, and possibly even more than that..... At the end of the day, the Government does not wish to make life difficult for anybody. We don’t want to make it so difficult for non-profits to function that we drive them out of their causes.
“It’s in light that the Government has taken on as many of their concerns as we possibly can, and is still trying to find other ways to make the Bill more effective and serviceable. This week we’ll be preparing the Bill, cutting it down and making it more user friendly. It requires a bit of good thought. We’ll come up with something broadly acceptable, and I think they’ll be alright.”
Mr Bethel confirmed that plans to pass the Non-Profit Organisations Bill through the Senate this week had been shelved, as the changes needed to be discussed with the Minnis Cabinet tomorrow. And, with no further House of Assembly meetings until the New Year, there is no opportunity for MPs to consider and approve the amendments, and enact them into law.
“There’s every facility to have a meaningful discussion into the New Year and, before the end of January, have an Act that’s broadly agreed and acceptable for the proper regulation of non-profit organisations,” Mr Bethel said.
“We are carving out the load of paperwork, lessening the paperwork that has to be done, and creating a perception of regulation that allows people in existence to accomplish easily the registration and be incorporated on to the register.”
Mr Bethel said the Government has dropped the requirement for non-profits to supply their financial statements and balance sheets before they can be registered, and will now only mandate that basic information such as the identity of principals and location of main office be supplied.
This was confirmed by Civil Society Bahamas, although its secretary, Mark Palmer, told Tribune Business last night that it “may be a little optimistic” to suggest that 80-90 percent of the sector’s concerns have been addressed.
“The meeting went better than expected,” he said. “The Attorney General made a lot of concessions. We have to see the language [in the revised Bill] to see for sure, but if we get what we done in the meeting I think we’ll have done very well.
“The important thing for us is to grow the sector. We know it has to be regulated. It will be good for the sector, as it will give confidence to the donors and strengthen the corporate governance of the sector. We’ll have to see when the Bill is being re-drafted and go through it with a fine tooth comb to make it as good a Bill as we can get for our constituents.”
Civil Society Bahamas, in a statement, said the Government had agreed to raise the $50,000 threshold above which donors - and their donations/disbursements - must be reported, Mr Palmer said this would be “considerably higher”.
The fines levied for non-compliance by the Registrar will be reduced, and jail time limited to one year, while the regulator - not the non-profit - will now pay for compliance inspections. Individuals carrying out charitable work will also be exempted from the Bill’s provisions.
Civil Society Bahamas, though, expressed concern over whether political parties will be regulated under the Bill, while praising the Government for showing “good faith” over the planned changes.
Dr Anthony Hamilton, its president, added that he was disappointed over the Bill’s lack of accountability for Registrar when it came to the timely registration of non-profits with completed applications.
“The BVI Act, which the Government apparently benchmarked, provides that within 30 working days of receiving a registration application from an NPO, the Registrar must consider it and if satisfied that the applicant complies with the requirements for registration, approve the application,” Dr Hamilton said.
“This provides a level of accountability that currently does not exist within our Registrar. It often takes two years or more to register as a new non-profit. While we commend the Government’s commitment to significantly simplify the registration requirements within the Non-Profit Organisations Bill, without this important safeguard we fear non-profit registration will continue to be a daunting task.”
The Bill, as drafted, will apply to all charities such as the Salvation Army and Bahamas Feeding Network; advocacy groups such as Save the Bays and the Organisation for Responsible Governance (ORG); and envrionmental activists such as reEarth.