Minister of Energy and Water Resources Wilfred Abrahams is not fazed by the possibility of legal challenge by a minor opposition party over Government’s use of the Barbados Water Authority (BWA) to collect the Garbage and Sewage Contribution (GSC) tax.
In an interview with Barbados TODAY, Abrahams said he was confident Government was standing on solid legal footing and welcomed the declared intent by the Lynette Eastmond – led United Progressive Party (UPP) to test this.
“The UPP is free to approach the court over this if they wish to because that is what the courts are there for. No citizen should be afraid of approaching the court to get a ruling on what is fair and just and legal. But I stand behind the Government entirely on this one. So they would do what they have to do,” said Abrahams.
While the BWA moves to ramp up disconnections as result of ongoing customer rebellion against the tax, the two-year-old UPP has revealed that its “legal team is reviewing this situation and will escalate to the courts if required.
“As far as the UPP can determine, under the BWA Act there is no penalty for the non-payment of the tax as is typical in tax legislation. Government should never require a Social Services Act to do the work of a Taxing Statute,” the UPP said in a statement
The UPP argues the BWA has now been made into a Government tax collector, but outside the purview of the Barbados Revenue Authority (BRA).
In addition, the UPP contends that such an approach runs counter to the United Nations General Assembly (UN) Resolution 64/292, of which Barbados is a signatory.
In it, the UN explicitly recognizes the human right to water and sanitation and acknowledges that clean drinking water and sanitation are essential to the realization of all human rights. The resolution calls upon UN member states and international organizations to provide financial resources, build capacity and transfer technology to help countries, in particular developing countries, to provide safe, clean, accessible and affordable drinking water and sanitation for all.
However in his response to the UPP’s charge, Abrahams said that the humanitarian component of the argument was non-starter. He said the UPP was misleading the public into thinking that Government had imposed on the basic human rights of Barbadians.
“In the same way that you paid for water before, you are still paying for water now. Government must contemplate access not free access. Even the vulnerable in Barbados through the mechanisms of Government still access these things. So these rights are not denied to anyone,” he said.
The Minister said that the measures were not intended to be permanent and that Barbadians needed to decide if they were willing to sacrifice in the short term to fix this country failing infrastructure, which included the compromised south coast sewage system.
“The alternative is sewage back on the street and we do nothing about the poor garbage collection. At some point people need to decide if we are serious about getting Barbados back on track,” Abrahams said.
The Minister strongly disputed the UPP’s assertion Government’s approach to collecting the GSC was out of touch with the economic hardship facing Barbadians, noting that special provisions had been made for those with extenuating circumstances to apply for relief from the levy.
Last Friday, BWA Chairman Leodeane Worrell revealed that customers were flat out refusing to pay the GSC tax, which has resulted in revenue at the BWA plummeting by 40 per cent between August and September.
Worrell said the BWA was merely the conduit for collecting the $1.50 per day tax. This meant that even though customers were paying their bill minus the levy, the BWA was still obligated to take the GSC from the amount paid. At the press conference summoned by Minister of Energy and Water Resources Wilfred Abrahams in the Committee Room of Parliament, Worrell revealed that on average the BWA hauls in $10 million in monthly revenue. Since the introduction of the tax on August 1, the intake for the cash-strapped public water company dropped to about $6 million.
The situation threatens to worsen the company’s outstanding arrears, which to date run to $15 million.