Plan to give Minister access to private records slammed

Members of Parliament have questioned the motivations behind a proposed change to the law that would give the Minister of Revenue power to access details of any private citizen's tax and customs records.  

The Tax Administration Amendment Bill 2019 was one of three bills discussed during a Members pre-sitting briefing session on Monday at the Tofilau Eti Alesana Building. 

The Bill would give the Minister, currently Tialavea Tionisio Hunt, access to any information, records or documents in relation to customs and tax matters as may be necessary for the purposes of the Act. 

The proposal drew widespread criticism from Members of Parliament, who raised concerns about the Bill's ambiguous definition of personal information, privacy concerns and the unfettered power the amendment would vest in the office of the Minister. 

The Commissioner of Revenue, Matafeo Avalisa Viali – Fautua’alii, made a presentation to Members of Parliament in favour of the proposed changes. 

But several questions from the floor emerged about the Bill, its intentions and necessity.

“I don’t understand why he wants this special access to information,” said the M.P. for Falealili East, Fuimaono Teo Samuelu.

The M.P. noted the Minister can already request such information via official channels. 

“It sounds suspicious to me what this law [is asking for]," the M.P. said.  

“It feels like there is something more behind it as to why he wants to have access to these information.”  

The Bill stipulates the Minister must keep any information he accesses or has disclosed to him confidential unless he or she is authorised to disclose it.

Opposition M.P., Olo Fiti Vaai, asked for clarification on the extent of information the Minister could access. 

The M.P. for Salega East explained access to information generally and access to the tax information system were completely different. 

“I’m worried about it if he wants access to tax information system,” said Olo. 

He made the point that it is no secret that many M.Ps have businesses and such a change could present an opportunity for a future Minister to make alterations to business records. 

“I don’t agree to it because [a] Minister might abuse it once given such power and access to information," he said. 

“Give the Minister information that he asks for but I say no to this…there is always a suspicion over these things.”  

The Deputy Speaker, Nafoitoa Talaimanu Keti, also sought clarification about the scope of the amendments. 

He singled out a particular clause - the Minister’s access to information clause – that gives the Minister access to information “during his or her time as Minister and continues after he or she no longer holds the office as a Minister”. 

The M.P. for Aleipata-Itupa-i-Lalo, Tafua Maluelue Tafua, questioned the timing of the amendment, noting that private details of individuals personal finances such as electricity or water debts were published publicly. 

Tafua said those people with unpaid bills include Board members, Members of Parliament, those well off in the community who are not exempt from written off debts unless deceased. 

He asked why the Minister requires access to the information now when there was a recent case with the Minister of Justice being queried for going through files. 

This prompted the Minister of Justice, Katopau Fa’aolesa Ainuu to interject.

The Minister clarified that it is allowed under the law for the Minister to go through the Courts file upon request. 

Other concerns raised are in relation to Parliamentary committees and some Government Ministries being unable to present detailed report to support financial documents. 

The former Minister of Finance and M.P. for Palauli Falefa, Faumuina Tiatia Liuga, said once Government assets are being considered it also includes arrears. 

He pointed out there are many reports tabled in Parliament that do not have detailed information due to the Ministry of Revenue being unable to disclose information. 

Faumuina argued if businesses or individuals are loaning and owing the Government money, such information should be publicly available.

In response, the Commissioner of Revenue, Matafeo, said the Ministry can only provide summaries of arrears but the amendment is targeting individual taxpayers. 

At the moment, the Commissioner said information about taxpayers cannot be disclosed to a third party without consent. 

She added often when the Ministry presents its report to Finance and the Auditor’s Office, they use tax numbers or coding to conceal identity of the taxpayers. 

Parliament will commence sitting on Tuesday. 

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