KINGSTOWN, St. Vincent, May 23, IWN – Parliament last week amended the nation’s anti-money laundering laws amidst Opposition protest that the changes give authorities the power to probe where there is no suspicion of a crime and cower to unjustified international pressure.
Prime Minister Dr. Ralph Gonsalves, in presenting the bill to Parliament, said the amendment was intended to give the Financial Intelligence Unit (FIU) the authority to obtain information specifically from financial institutions and persons engaged in relevant business activities.
With the amendment, the FIU, which monitors money laundering, proceeds of crime, and the financing of terrorism and related criminal activities, can also collect information from law enforcement and governmental bodies and domestic regulatory authorities in order to investigate relevant offences and to analyse suspicious transaction reports filed by any reporting institutions.
The amendment inserted a sub-clause that seeks to underscore that the expression “governmental bodies” shall include the Immigration Department, Inland Revenue Department, Electoral Office, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and the National Insurance Services, Gonsalves said.
“… These amendments are being proposed by the Financial Intelligence Unit after consideration of deficiencies highlighted and recommendations made by the International Monetary Fund in the detailed assessment report … on the anti-money laundering and counter-financing of terrorism regime of St. Vincent and the Grenadines,” said Gonsalves, who is also Minister of Finance and Legal Affairs.
“…The cabinet has agreed with these particular provisions, upon the advice of the Honourable Attorney General’s Chambers and our own reflection to really strengthen the oversight by the Financial Intelligence Unit. And that’s all there is to this, Mr. Speaker,” Gonsalves further told Parliament.
But Opposition Leader, Arnhim Eustace, in a very brief contribution to the debate, said that probing by the FIU where there is no suspicion of a crime could have a negative impact on investment and the economy.
He told Parliament that during the 1980s and 90s, he thought that offshore finance services could be a major pillar of the Vincentian economy.
“When some success seemed to have been made by countries like ours, we suddenly had a barrage of heavy hands resting on our heads. All sorts of concerns about our legislations,” he said, adding, “and there were some areas where it could have been improved…
“If you don’t have a suspicion, what are fishing for?” he further said in reference to the amendment. “On one hand, you are trying to attract business to your country; on the other hand, you don’t want to encourage, by law, that kind of heavy hand of fishing. I understood that to be a fundamental clause of old.
“…in these small countries, we are not powerful… But we have a responsibility to promote development for our own people. And, very often, to do so, you have to kick against those who are more powerful.
“And it is not for us to give them opportunities to improve their capacity to bring pressure on us. And that is how I see this piece of legislation. I believe it is very important to control and deal with money laundering. I have no problem with that. I am not going to agree to give to those, who themselves are often more guilty to demonstrate to us and insist that we, as a people, do things that are not in our own interest.
“In the circumstances, Mr. Speaker, I am finished. I will not support this piece of legislation,” Eustace said.
Meanwhile, Opposition senator Dr. Linton Lewis, an offshore finance expert, also objected to the amendment.
He argued also that it extends the power of the FIU to look into the affairs of transactions even though there are no reasonable grounds to suspect that a relevant offence has been committed.
“Mr. Speaker, I am all for having tight legislation on money laundering issues where it is required to be introduced. And I am saying here that I am just a bit concerned about the wording of it,” he said, adding that while Gonsalves said the IMF required the amendment, he did not say what are the implications.
“Is it that in St. Vincent we are experiencing serious money laundering problems more than we experienced in the past, thus the reason for strengthening this provision in the way it is strengthened? Because, it is very strong,” Lewis said.
“We in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, we have had some trying times with respect to issues like these, where the international community or international organisations impose on us certain legislations that I think sometimes aren’t relevant to our needs here,” he further stated.
Lewis said this country does not seem to have an overwhelming problem with money laundering or even drug trafficking.
“Because, Mr. Speaker, it is rather interesting to note that for years, 5 per cent of our overall crimes are attributed to drug trafficking, which is rather strange; but no account is taken of the crimes which are committed as a result of the abuse of drugs.”
He said St. Vincent and the Grenadines has never reached anywhere close to the top 20 countries for money laundering in the world, in terms of where money is stored or originated.
“… When we are tempted to amend our legislation, our people out there must not believe that we are doing so because we are riddled with the scourge of money laundering and other relevant criminal activity,” Lewis said.
“And that is why I find it a little awkward that this amendment has been made here, because, I am trying to see the reason for it,” he further stated, adding that he had not seen how the amendment, in the manner in which it is drafted, could make any big difference to the old law.
But Government senator, Julian Francis said he was concerned that there seemed to be a fear to amend the legislation.
“And when I heard the Honourable Senator speaking about today when we are in Parliament and tomorrow when we are not politicians, I wonder why a parliamentarian will think that way,” Francis said.
“If the law which you are amending is to allow the FIU to be more effective in finding something, why are you fearful of amending it?” he further stated, triggering an objection by Lewis that Francis was misrepresenting his position.
But Gonsalves, in defending the amendment, said that while Lewis had said he is not against tightening up the legislation he was saying it was unnecessary.
“What I took it to be saying, there is no real reason for him to have any apprehension. But he is manufacturing an apprehension on the basis of opposition politics. … Mr. Speaker, I am satisfied that this amendment is in order,” the Prime Minister said.