By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Eliminating corruption at the Immigration Department is a "primary focus" for the government, a Cabinet minister said yesterday, adding that he "cannot stress how vital" this objective is.
Elsworth Johnson, pictured, minister of financial services, trade and industry and immigration, told an internet-based conference that the government is hoping to significantly reduce graft by eliminating cash payments for work, residency and other permit types.
Addressing more than 350 Bahamian financial services industry executives, Mr Johnson said efforts to digitise the Immigration Department through implementation of an information technology (IT) management system were not only aimed at making the permit application process more efficient.
Acknowledging that this project has been in development since 2016, the minister said the government was some four years later now working to "accelerate" the process so that all permit applications, border entries, arrests and detentions are recorded and stored electronically.
To give the project "the focus it deserves", Mr Johnson said the government has appointed a steering committee featuring private sector executives with project management and IT backgrounds, and who are "regular customers" of the Immigration Department.
"Our goal is not just to streamline Immigration processes through digitisation, but to also eliminate corruption by making the system cashless through online payments," Mr Johnson said. "I cannot stress how vital tackling corruption in the Department of Immigration is to our agenda.
"It is a primary focus for us here at the Ministry, and I am happy to report that we have create a new position to specifically accept and investigate complaints, and to root out corruption. This is not just conceptual. The Cabinet has discussed the need for such an officer, and we are moving forward in the hiring process."
The Bahamian financial services industry frequently has to deal with the Immigration Department for both work permit applications involving expatriate workers, and the various residency options sought by their high net worth clients. Any improvements to the speed and efficiency of processing such applications, combined with a reduction in corruption, would serve to boost both The Bahamas' competitiveness and attraction as a jurisdiction.
Mr Johnson, meanwhile, also promised the Bahamian financial services sector that "substantive progress" is being made on the development of long-awaited Tax Residency Certificates and their accompanying legislation.
Acknowledging the importance of the initiative, given the global focus on establishing a taxpayer's residency in determining their tax liabilities, the minister said the Law Reform Commission in the Attorney General's Office is heavily involved in drafting the necessary legislation.
"The concept of 'residency', and specifically 'tax residency', in The Bahamas has to be carefully defined, especially if The Bahamas is to remain progressive and ahead of the changing global dynamics in international financial services," Mr Johnson added.
"The Tax Residency Certificate (TRC) will be issued with a unique NIB TRC number. To be eligible for a tax residency certificate, the resident must pay the relevant fees and make an annual payment towards National Insurance at the rate and maximum wage ceiling for that particular year or be subject to another applicable tax."
The tax residency certificate initiative was developed under Mr Johnson's ministerial predecessor, Brent Symonette, as a means for expatriate residents and investors to prove they are domiciled here and complying with both local tax laws and those of their home country.
The initial proposal, as reported by Tribune Business earlier this year, mandated that to qualify for a TRC, which would give successful applicants the right to reside in The Bahamas for up to three years, persons must stay in this nation for a minimum 90 days per year and not spend more than 183 days in any other country annually. A "substantial presence test" will be conducted if there are suspicions that persons are abusing this criteria.
Each certificate was to have its own Taxpayer Identification Number (TIN) in a bid to address concerns expressed by the likes of the OECD, which claims The Bahamas' permanent residency product is in danger of being abused by tax evaders. It will confirm that the holder is a permanent resident of The Bahamas, and not liable to pay tax in their home countries.
Mr Johnson, meanwhile, yesterday said other legislative initiatives in the pipeline for the financial services industry include removing the requirement for using seals; clarifying the rule against perpetuity; and who can benefit from using foundations.
And, noting that there will be "necessary cuts to the national Budget", the minister said The Bahamas needed to "transform our promotion strategy" for financial services via greater use of social media, the internet and other digital/electronic means.