WE congratulate the Independent and Opposition Senators for exposing the potential pitfalls of the Financial Intelligence Unit (FIU) Bill 2009 debated in the Senate on Tuesday, but we wonder whether the Government made sufficient concessions to their concerns.
This stringent Bill sets up the FIU with sweeping powers to investigate any business activity deemed “suspicious,” with hefty fines of up to $1 million and imprisonment for up to three years for someone refusing to disclose information.
The Government brought the Bill to combat money-laundering at the proverbial 11th hour with Senators being made to sit late into the night to pass the Bill before tomorrow’s deadline at which Trinidad and Tobago (and its financial sector) would otherwise be blacklisted internationally.
At a first glance, what could be nobler than tough laws to combat money-laundering? Daily murders and robberies, plus chronic vagrancy, are all our daily reminders of the rampant cocaine trade which can only occur if someone, somewhere is laundering the resulting dirty-money.
However any law must be subject to safeguards, especially near-draconian Bills such as the FIU Bill. Independent and Opposition Senators forced the Government to drop clause 4(a) of the Bill which allowed the Minister of Finance to “give to the FIU directions in writing of a general nature as to the policy to be followed in the performance of its functions.” All well and good, but we are very concerned that the Bill retains its clause 3(1) which states the FIU is “established as a department of the Ministry of Finance.”
Indeed the Bill remains peppered with references to the Ministry of Finance.
The Government has tried to assure that the FIU would not prosecute cases but just investigate, and that FIU top-brass would be chosen by the Public Services Commission and would report to the Permanent Secretary, rather than falling directly under the Minister of Finance.
We welcome these small concessions, but lament that the Government has failed to scotch the feeling that the FIU will in fact still fall directly under a Government Minister and so not enjoy insulation from the political directorate. The Government ignored many pleas that the FIU be run by the Central Bank rather than the Finance Ministry. Independent Senator Prof Ramesh Deosaran called for the FIU to be autonomous and be run by its own new authority, but he too was ignored.
We refuse to accept the Government’s argument that because this country might supposedly be blacklisted if it does not comply with an international treaty by Friday, that this means that the Trinidad and Tobago Parliament must be rushed into passing what might be bad laws.
This is particularly so in light of the abuse and misuse of the Integrity Commission within recent memory which was clearly done in pursuit of a political vendetta, even in spite of supposed safeguards in the Integrity in Public Life Act, including penalties for misuses of confidential information.
Despite Independent Senators recognising that they were indeed under duress in the debate in having to meet Friday’s deadline, it seems to us that they might not have wrangled enough concessions from the Government. We urge that Members of the House of Representatives now carefully scrutinise this amended Bill.
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