Minister defends tax record access
The Minister for Revenue and Customs has defended his new powers to access individuals’ and corporations’ previously private tax records.
The measure was first introduced in October 2019 amid heavy criticism in Parliament.
But Minister Tialavea Tionisio Hunt told the Samoa Observer there was a pressing need to access information - a power he gained since the Bill was signed into law last month.
Tialavea said the legislation was essential as a means of cracking down on tax avoidance by businesses.
“In my line of work, I consult with the Revenue Commissioner on the businesses that have unpaid taxes and access to information will allow me to confront the businesses, to see what amicable solution we can come up with to resolve tax issues,” he said in an interview this week.
Under the Tax Administration Act 2020, the Minister may access any records or documents relating to customs for purposes deemed necessary for the Act.
“Any information in which the Minister has access to or disclosed to the Minister for the purposes of this Act must be kept confidential by him or her unless he or she is authorised under this Act or any other law for the disclosure of such information,” the law reads.
In May 2019 the Samoa Observer reported that businesses’ outstanding taxes bill had reached $70 million. Tialavea at the time said the Ministry had been working hard to collect the outstanding amount.
In Parliament last year, the bill drew heavy criticism.
One Member of Parliament (M.P.), Sulamanaia Tauiliili Tuivasa, rhetorically asked why a law that wasn't broken should be fixed.
The then M.P. for Vaimauga Sasa’e said there were good reasons for the Minister’s powers to access information to be limited.
“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," Sulamanaia said.
“The Minister can inquire about tax information from his staff. This is the 16 Parliament term and previous Ministers did not have access to the tax information."
Salega East MP Olo Fiti Vaai went further in his criticism, saying that as a business owner the amendment will benefit him personally.
“My biggest worry is affording the opportunity to alter information in the tax system. Ministers and Members of Parliament have businesses in the country and one can never be too sure,” said Olo.
The Salega M.P. said he believes tax and customs information should be disclosed to the Minister when required, but any direct access to the system should be denied.
The Minister said the sole purpose accessing the information is to assist the Ministry.
“Also this access to information I will be able to make informed decisions and will benefit the Ministry.
“Put it this way, I am the Minister and yet I can’t access the information and so I consult with the Revenue Commissioner and it appears as if I am making decisions blindly because I have no idea which business, we are talking about or making decisions for hence the difficulty in fulfilling my duties,” said the Minister.
Tialavea who is a former business man was asked to explain as to what assurance that he will not “access tax documents pertaining to businesses involving his children and siblings.”
The Minister said he does not need to access that information because it is a clear conflict.
“Also I am able to view the accounts for my children’s businesses from their records, not of the Ministry’s.”