October 16, 2019

70+ TT NPOs appeal to Independent and Opposition Senators on NPO Bill 2019

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A new request yesterday by 70 Non Profit Organisations (NPOs) to delay the passage of legislation that will substantially impact their functioning has been rejected by Attorney General Faris Al Rawi. At their meeting with him, Al Rawi also declined to consider amendments that the NPOs’ representatives proposed to the legislation. The groups are now calling on all 15 members of the Independent and Opposition Senate benches to ensure Parliamentary debate on the Non-Profit Bill, 2019 is delayed for a short period, there is effective consultation with them, and reasonable amendments to the bill are made.

After 20 of the NPOs texted Mr. Al Rawi earlier this week to “Stop the NPO bill,” he offered them a meeting Thursday afternoon. Thirty groups had made a similar request the prior week, but he had dismissed their letter on the floor of the chamber as he wound up the debate as the House passed the bill Friday.

Government aims to pass the Non-Profit Bill in both Houses of Parliament just 18 days after its introduction. Senate debate is scheduled for Tuesday. As the bill requires only a simple majority, Government Senators could effectively railroad its passage without the contributions of civil society or the remaining Senators. The “timebound” delay was requested by nonprofits concerned with improving the legislation’s feasibility through adequate input from those it will affect.

Compliance with the Financial Action Task Force’s Recommendation 8 in advance of an International Cooperation Review Group meeting scheduled for late April, which is Government’s rationale for the 11th-hour legislation. Recommendation 8 requires governments to have in place risk-based measures to detect and deter the small number of nonprofits that are used to finance terrorism and arms. The NPOs believe the proposed measures are an overreach that will stymie the operations of the majority of them who are at no risk. They are skeptical that the bill’s one-size-fits-all, punitive approach is necessary for FATF compliance, and that it risks shrinking the sector, to the detriment of wider society and the economy.

Nonprofits hope to convene a forum on Monday to educate legislators and others about FATF compliance and to highlight their concerns about the bill. The groups affirm the need for sensible legislation to reform and harmonise state oversight of NPOs and to achieve Trinidad & Tobago’s requirements for participation in the international financial system. However, they feel strongly that transparency and active collaboration are a base requirement for achieving this and for responsible legislating. They attempted to convince the AG for time to propose simpler, similarly compliant, but less intrusive and disruptive measures.

Other elements of the bill trouble the groups. The authority to demand access to records at any time and to de-register groups for failure to update information can expose NPOs to harassment, particularly those that may be seen as thorn in the side of government. The cost of the regime is an additional concern. Many NPOs have no paid staff and do all their good works with the contribution of volunteers. They will not have the capacity for the level of constant record keeping that is not demanded even of most private sector companies. Substantial investment will be needed to put the implementing mechanisms in place on the part of both the Government and NPOs. This burden of compliance will lead to the closure of a number of groups and inhibit the development of new ones. The NPO sector plays a significant role in delivering public services that Government is demonstrably not in a position to do technically or financially.

The Non-Profit Bill also imposes its new measures atop of a patchwork of inconsistent, outdated and unwieldy fiscal and tax frameworks that currently regulate nonprofits. Nonprofits have long clamoured for law reforms to modernise them. In November of last year, the CSOs for Good Governance Project submitted a paper to the Attorney General proposing a single regulatory regime be created to deal with both these and FATF. Veni Apwann’s Colleen Davis, one of the representatives at the meeting, lamented: “A piecemeal approach to regulating the NPO sector just makes nonprofits have to dance harder to comply.” Veni Apwann helps nonprofits strengthen their functioning, so she sees their challenges and resource constraints up close.

But the organisations are celebrating one big win from their meeting with the Attorney General. While the AG refused to take the integrated approach to regulation they proposed, he made a firm commitment to the groups to immediately begin working with them on reform of other nonprofit and charities laws.

“It’s a step forward,” said Nicole Leotaud, executive director of the regional environmental group the Caribbean Natural Resources Institute (CANARI), who also attended. “We’ve been asking for this for 15 years.”

The Attorney General also sought to reassure groups that considerable time and awareness raising will occur between the legislation’s passage and its proclamation as law. He accepted the groups’ offer to partner in engaging nonprofits about the legislation—but only after its passage. “But no matter how well informed we are about the provisions of the law, that doesn’t increase our capacity to be constantly in full compliance with all of these new measures,” noted Colin Robinson from CAISO: Sex & Gender Justice that started the texting campaign. “That’s what the bill ignores.”

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