Two bills and their wider implications if passed into law

Parliament has been busy this week analysing proposed legislation, discussing their merits and looking at what their impact could be on constituents in the long-term period.

Two bills have been particularly contentious amongst lawmakers: the Teachers Amendment Bill 2019 and the Tax Administration Amendment Bill 2019. 

Explanatory notes for the two proposed legislation – courtesy of electronic copies of the proposed legislation uploaded to the Parliament of Samoa website – states the following:

The Teachers Amendment Bill 2019 “seeks to amend the Teachers Act 2016 (“Principal Act”) to provide that all prescribed fees are to be paid to the Treasury Fund and therefore allowances of the Council will be paid explicitly”.

The Tax Administration Amendment Bill 2019 “seeks to amend the Tax Administration Act 2012 and to make a consequential amendment to the Customs Act 2014 to allow the Minister to have access to tax and customs information for the purposes of the Act”.

On Tuesday Members of Parliament expressed concern that the prescribed fee of $50 – which all teachers will pay to the Teachers Council – should go direct to the Council and not the Government’s Treasury Fund as stipulated in the proposed law.

The Associate Minister for Communication and Information Technology, Lealailepule Aiafi Rimoni, went a step further and warned the bill had a loophole.

“The proposed law has shifted from its core purpose," he said. "In the beginning the Council’s sole purpose was to assure certified teachers are registered and the funds collected will go back to the Council for their developments and projects.”

The establishment of the Teacher’s Council early this year – as a regulatory body of Samoa’s educators – was a step in the right direction. The Teachers Act 2016 pushed for the Council’s establishment with the objective of professionalising the teaching profession, through the introduction and maintenance of high teaching standards, and the delivery of quality education to the children. 

But the Council would need funding in order to formulate programmes to introduce standards in teaching and childhood education for teachers in Samoa. Therefore, it makes sense to get its members (teachers) to pay a fee, but the decision to park the fees in the Treasury Fund instead of a Council-run bank account sounds dubious. Giving the Council some level of financial autonomy is a vote of confidence in a new body charged with the responsibility to formulate, regulate and uphold teaching standards.

On the Tax Administration Amendment Bill 2019, some politicians have questioned the rationale to give the Minister power to access “tax and customs information for the purposes of the Act”.

The M.P. Sulamanaia Tauiliili Tuivasa, who represents the Vaimauga Sasa’e seat, believes the law should not change and there is good reason to prohibit the Minister from having access to such information.

“The Tax Administration Act 1974 prohibits the Minister from accessing tax information. The Act was amended in 2012 but that clause remained in the Act, and that is solely to protect tax information of members of the public," he told Parliament.

“The Minister can inquire about tax information from his staff. This is the 16th Parliament term and previous Ministers did not have access to the tax information." 

Sulamanaia said the responsibility to access tax and customs information lies with the Ministry responsible and the Minister should task the chief executive officer.

The Salega East M.P. Olo Fiti Vaai expressed similar sentiments and warned the proposed amendment could open the door to abuse, where information held by the Ministry could be “altered”.

Concerns about the risks of altering government information should not be downplayed. There have been cases of civil servants caught manipulating official government information for personal benefit. 

We concur with the concerns highlighted by the two Members of Parliament and like Sulamanaia should ask the same question. Why fix something that is not broken? Surely, the Minister responsible can liaise with his Ministry C.E.O. on information he will need to do his job effectively.

The Chief Executive Officers of Ministries are custodians of vital State data, which any government of the day can access and use, in order to effectively roll out goods and services to the constituency and the targeted population. Let us not blur the lines of responsibility between that of a bureaucrat and a Member of Parliament or a Minister of State. 

By the same token, there is merit in the establishment of a Teacher’s Council, whose 13 members are charged with the responsibility to uphold teaching standards in Samoa. Giving them space and a measure of financial autonomy to carry out their mandate, could go a long way in giving them confidence to do what they do best.

Have a lovely Thursday Samoa and God bless. 

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