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Contested immigration reform passed by MPs

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Immigration amendments to boost property sales brought chanting protesters pouring into the Senate when the Act was tabled in March (File photo by Nicola Muirhead)

Hotly contested immigration reform that brought protesters into the Senate when it was first tabled has been approved in the House of Assembly, despite opposition.

The Bermuda Immigration and Protection Amendment Act 2015, which the One Bermuda Alliance maintains will kick-start property sales, got some support from the Progressive Labour Party but was still criticised as a bailout.

The debate included an impassioned appeal for unity from OBA backbencher Leah Scott, who was moved to tears as she called an end to partisan bickering.

Ms Scott got applause from the Opposition after telling the House that people did not march because they wanted to, also imploring MPs to be “sensitive to the people of Bermuda because their hearts are crying”.

Conceding that she might get “rapped on her knuckles” and apologising for getting upset, Ms Scott said that “people are tired of hearing that it’s the PLP’s fault”.

Ms Scott said she had grown dispirited with the quality of debate in the House, adding that MPs “say the Lord’s prayer, and then we turn into devils”.

Her remarks were commended by the Opposition, and Ms Scott abstained from voting as the Government side rejected proposed amendments from the Opposition, 17 votes to 15.

The Act broadens the ability of Permanent Resident’s Certificate (PRC) holders to purchase property of any annual rental value (ARV), to a maximum of two houses.

It lowered the ARV threshold of $177,000 to $153,000 for non-Bermudians and non-PRC holders to buy houses, and loosened 90-day and 120-day annual restrictions on tourist accommodation and the division of fractional units, so that those holding licences for tourist accommodation would get up to six months annually.

The OBA have been accused of pandering to non-Bermudians over the interests of locals since the legislation was brought to the Upper House in March by Home Affairs Minister Michael Fahy.

It was brought before Parliament by the junior minister, Sylvan Richards, who emphasised that the purpose of the amendments was to bolster the real estate market, encourage foreign investment and create jobs for Bermudians.

Walton Brown, Shadow Minister of Immigration, said that while he had no issue with some elements of the Bill, its overriding nature demonstrated Government’s refusal to commit to collaborative immigration reform.

He questioned how Government determined how much Bermudian land was owned by non-Bermudians, saying that good data was required to develop good policy.

Mr Brown also challenged the OBA’s logic in creating jobs by bringing foreign workers to the Island, saying that such efforts had so far not yielded the desired results.

He suggested that Government claims that the amendments were intended to create jobs were “rhetoric”, saying it had nothing to do with tackling the hardships being felt by Bermudians, and encouraged Government to reconsider the bill.

Walter Roban, Shadow Public Safety Minister, said that the legislation reinforced the belief that the OBA was focused more on helping the wealthy than those who were struggling.

He said: “This is really an effort by the Government to bail out a group of people who have speculated on real estate and lost. They are trying to give them a second shot at it.”

Derrick Burgess, Shadow Minister of Labour and Seniors, questioned the retroactive nature of the amendment, which he claimed would essentially “legalise” past cases of fronting, allowing any PRC holders that had been involved in such activities to apply for status.

He said that when the PLP left office, there were 49 suspected fronting cases being investigated — about 12 of which were prepared to go to the Department of Public Prosecutions for review.

“I suspect that file may have gone missing, I don’t know,” he said. “Those people who broke the law by fronting, aided and abetted by law firms in this country, now they become law-abiding citizens, and those that had PRCs are eligible for status because the record has been expunged. It’s been cleaned by that bill, and that shouldn’t happen.”

Mr Richards later said that the retroactivity did not apply in such cases, saying those who had committed offences could still be prosecuted.

Dr Grant Gibbons, Minister of Economic Development, accused the Opposition of having “collective amnesia” and blamed their immigration policies for the economic downturn. While Opposition members described the OBA legislation as piecemeal, he said it was “triage”, telling the House that the Island had been “literally haemorrhaging jobs” when the OBA came into power.

However, Rolfe Commissiong, Shadow Human Affairs Minister, said Dr Gibbons was extolling a dishonest political narrative which had only worsened the divide.

Finance Minister Bob Richards emphasised the importance of immigration in building the workforce, saying: “Immigration policy is economic policy.

“If you look at the world around us, immigration is generally about economics, because there is this inconvenient link between the number of people who live in a country, the change in that number and the economy.

“I can’t think of any country that has a growing economy and a population in decline.”

Shadow Tourism Minister Zane DeSilva said Government had continued to ignore the concerns of the public on the emotive issue, noting the protests that disrupted the debate on the same legislation in the Senate.

While he said that some elements of the legislation were positive, he added: “When the people of this country shut down the Senate Chamber because they are not happy, we have got to listen to the people.”

Opposition MPs sought to amend the legislation, altering the proposed new rules for fractional units, but this was rejected when Government MPs voted to leave it as tabled.

However, Tourism Minister Shawn Crockwell admitted there were possible unintended consequences to doing away with restrictions on fractional units.

According to Mr Crockwell, the developers for Ariel Sands had pushed for the restrictions to be relaxed, and the issue had been “red flagged” over concerns expressed by the Bermuda Tourism Authority.

Leah Scott wept in the House of Assembly as she called for unity (File photo)