Govt gets licks for NPO Bill; Senators feel charity groups will be hit hard

Wednesday, April 10, 2019 - 11:00

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, “’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