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31 October to 4 November

This week in Parliament

The Bahamas Parliament met on Wednesday of this week and as expected Parliamentarians provided updates on the restoration efforts in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew. Additionally and at long last the Public Accounts Committee tabled its report on the Urban Renewal Small Homes repair program.

Prime Minister Christie focused his House communication on the restoration efforts in Grand Bahama.

“While various social and humanitarian programs are being implemented” said the member for Centreville, “Government, at the same time in consultation with the private sector is taking the necessary steps to rebuild, repair, reopen and expand the many businesses and public infrastructure which have been severely impacted by the Hurricane. This is in addition to assistance which is being made available for the restoration of so many homes which have been damaged or destroyed.”

From a policy and legislative perspective, the Prime Minister communicated that his government thought it “both expedient and necessary to effect amendments to the Grand Bahama (Port Area) Investments Incentives Act 2016, to allow more time for licensees to avail themselves of the opportunity to apply for concessions available under that Act.”

Some of the proposed legislative amendments are as follow:

  • A proposed amendment to section 15 of the Principal Act to extend the application time for concessions from six months to ten months (as of the 4thMay 2016).
  • Circulate draft regulations to support the structure and functioning of a One Stop Shop that is “intended to optimize the process for approving new business in the Port Area by harmonizing the agencies required for investor outreach and business development.”
  • Under section 14 of the Grand Bahama (Port Area) Investments Incentives Act 2016, existing companies will benefit from the concessions set forth in the Act for a period of twenty years.
  • Add affiliated companies of The Hutchison Group to the applicable Schedule thus allowing those affiliates to benefit from concessions under the Act.

Labour Minister and Hurricane recovery Coordinator the Hon. D. Shane Gibson provided an update on recovery efforts nationally. He told House Members that 10,000 customers now have power in Grand Bahama, BTC had restored mobile communications to 99.5% of New Providence customers and restored fixed line services to 94% of its customers. He also revealed a colour coded voucher system designed to facilitate the distribution of repair materials in New Providence, Grand Bahama and North Andros.

“We feel that the use of vouchers will prove to be a more efficient, cost effective and accountable process. The vouchers will be colour coordinated by island in denominations of $100, $300 and $1,000 and redeemable at approved establishments that have agreed to participate in the program” said Gibson.

Commenting on the Exigency Order, Minister Gibson revealed that to date, the Government has received almost $1.4 million worth of applications submitted by persons seeking to utilize the exigency order. The 180-day exigency order, declared effective from October 7, allows residents affected by the storm to import certain items into the country duty and tax free.

Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) the Hon. Hubert Chipman tabled the long awaited report that focused on Urban Renewal’s Small Homes repair program; it was the majority report. The report indicated that the financial and operational procedures “suffered from a host of functional deficiencies.” It pointed out a lack of “appropriate record keeping and filing systems” and highly questionable quality control standards where staff “failed to maintain even minimal levels of oversight.”

Delivering the minority report was the Hon. D. Shane Gibson who slammed the entire process, pointing out that at no time did the Auditor General invite co-chairs Cynthia Mother Pratt and Algernon Allen to examine the findings of the Auditor’s “leaked report.” He also criticized the fact that former Parliamentary Secretary the Hon. Renward Wells was never interviewed by the PAC. Mr. Wells had oversight of the program in 2012 and 2013. Gibson also criticized the Auditor General’s decision not to include the response by Permanent Secretary Diana Lightbourne, dated 17th February 2015. He characterized this omission as an “exercise not to discover truth or fact in the said audit of the Urban Renewal Commission.”

Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Works Philip Davis pledged to probe the extent of the involvement of former Parliamentary Secretary in the Ministry of Works the Hon. Renward Wells in the Urban Renewal Small Home Repairs (SHR) program, amid these claims in Mr. Gibson’s minority report.

In addressing the letter about the emotive proposed agricultural development plan, Agriculture Minister Gray had this to say.

“Mr. Speaker, the letter I wrote was to the Bahamian Ambassador to China; I never spoke to any Chinese…The Bahamas Ambassador presented me with a few initiatives that he was considering and he was approached by investors and he wanted my permission to discuss those initiatives that he had for investment in The Bahamas, and we gave him the permission to discuss it.” The letter authorized the Ambassador to initiate discussions with the Chinese Embassy and relevant Chinese government agencies “in order to produce a comprehensive report on the viability of the proposed initiative.” This explanation followed a statement Mr. Gray released earlier in the week calling the newspaper report on a $2.1 billion Chinese partnership in agriculture “utterly false,” denying that the government of The Bahamas was considering the lease of 10,000 acres of land or the grant of crown land as stated in the newspaper article.

Minister of National Security Dr. Bernard Nottage told House members that The Bahamas is in the “critical stages” of establishing a Drug Treatment Court to provide an alternative to incarceration for drug-dependent offenders through treatment and rehabilitation.

State Minister of Finance the Hon. Michael Halkitis told House members that the Government is seeking to borrow $28.3 million from the Caribbean Development Bank to improve the access and quality of water in The Bahamas. He tabled the resolution for the loan on behalf of the Water and Sewerage Corporation to fund the Water Supply Improvement Project at a total cost of approximately $41.8 million.