Licks from the Opposition, plus licks from some Independent senators.
That was the state of play yesterday as the Senate began debating Government’s controversial bill to regulate Non-Profit Organisations (NPO) - legislation which the Independent bench’s first two speakers feared could destroy the NPO sector and discourage participation in it.
The bill, which was passed in the House of Representatives recently, has generated concern from some organisations which said they weren’t consulted.
Yesterday, Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi said the sector is scattered and adequate reach was a “real issue.” He said the bill, which is part of Financial Action Task Force requirements to prevent terrorist financing and money laundering, is intended to prevent abuse of NPOS by such problems.
Al-Rawi said the bill didn’t involve a “one size fits all” approach since it targets NPOs with gross revenue of $10 million upwards, for auditing and is geared toward a unified NPO sector via registration. He said the NPO sector comprises 7, 698 organisations and $544 million went to charitable organisations via ministries in one year. The AG said the doubles man, cake and raffle sales won’t be affected, but if the bill wasn’t passed, “...it’s blacklist and shutdown of the financial sector.”
However, Independent Senator Deoroop Teemul said NPOs contributed to the national good and were engaged in development in many spheres. He said such organisations operated on the noblest aspirations, including philanthropy and volunteerism spirit.
If the bill treated all NPOs as one, Teemul said the effectiveness of medium/small NPOs could be seriously affected. He noted such groups operated freely in communities where Government wasn’t able to.
Teemul said the bill would prevent rehabilitated people from volunteering to help others - although they shouldn’t be condemned for life for the crime they committed. He also took issue with clauses which would subject an NPO head to criminal charges for administrative offences.
“The Companies’ Ordinance is more generous to profit companies. This law will be a deterrent for volunteers and those who engage in philanthropy and the social sector will collapse without their contributions,” Teemul said.
He said proposed forfeiture of property for failing to register NPOs was too drastic. Teemul said it was unfortunate the first law on NPOs didn’t examine the entire sector holistically.
“Any law must be done in the framework of an enabling environment for NPOs to flourish. When NPOs flourish, T&T flourishes. Any nation should have law to promote, support and enhance NPOs to function and develop them to become more effective partners for Government and the private sector,” Teemul said.
Independent Senator Cherisse Seepersad said the bill was punitive and its onerous nature could lead to the closure of many NPOs and stymie the addition of new ones, adding it appeared due consideration and consultation wasn’t done on the bill. She said it was imperative a workable model be found,”so as not to destroy a benevolent intent - who’d want to volunteer in a punitive, hostile environment?”
Seepersad said the FIU couldn’t be both regulator and investigator of NPOs. She also felt the bill sought to go beyond FTAF requirement on terrorist financing and money.
Opposition Senator Wade Mark, who demanded the withdrawal of the bill, warned it would be challenged in court if passed.
“It’s disproportionate, draconian and punitive! Government is only going after small people! Is this state capture by powerful interest groups to destroy NPOs?”Mark asked.
Mark said clauses debarring people with criminal background from heading NPOs would affect Wayne Chance’s Vision on Mission NGO.
“Poor Wayne - VOM gone through with this!”
He added that proposed forfeiture of NPO property if NPOS failed to register also infringed constitutional rights to property
Mark listed NGOs - from the Emancipation Support Committee to the Papa Bois group - who unsuccessfully sought time to examine the bill. Calling for Government to consult with 100 left-out groups, he declared, “No legislation without consultation!”
Mark said the proposal to have the Financial Intelligence Unit (FIU) be both investigator and regulator of NPOs was a conflict of interest. During Mark’s contribution, Al-Rawi went to the public gallery to speak with some NGO representatives present.
- Gail Alexander