House: Belco ‘should be nationalised’
A Government MP claimed Belco should be nationalised during a Parliamentary debate about allowing ministerial approval over the company’s sale.
Derrick Burgess, the Deputy Speaker, suggested interest in the power provider could be increased incrementally until the public owned or had control over at least half.
His comments came in the House of Assembly on Friday when Members approved the Electricity Amendment Act 2019.
The legislation would require the Regulatory Authority to consult and receive approval from the minister responsible for energy if it intended to allow the transfer or assignment of a bulk generation or transmission, distribution and retail licence.
Walter Roban, the Deputy Premier and Minister of Home Affairs, highlighted that a proposed takeover of Ascendant Group — Belco’s parent company — could not be finalised until the RA agreed a licence transfer.
The Act would also ensure that the authority will not give consent until an integrated resource plan has been approved, published and properly considered in the decision-making.
Mr Burgess welcomed any Government’s ability to have “final approval” on a sale of the energy provider.
The Progressive Labour Party MP said: “We all know that Belco is a so-called private company, and I say so-called because Belco, their electricity, really should be nationalised.
“We can’t continue to leave ourselves open to a private company that can do almost what they want.
“I’m just hoping one day, even if we start now, that the Government should acquire some interest in Belco, with the eventuality down the road of taking it over, or at least having at least 51 per cent of the shares in Belco, some sort of figure where we can have a say.”
Mr Roban told the House that he had “every confidence” the regulator will carry out due diligence before it reaches a decision on the licence transfer, which comes after Ascendant Group accepted a takeover offer worth about $365 million from Canadian firm Algonquin Power & Utility Corporation.
However, he added: “History has instructed us that in any organisation there should always be adequate checks and balances.”
He told the House that Belco was “a strategic asset”, which was “critical to our social and economic wellbeing”.
Mr Roban said: “Therefore, it is the duty of this Government to ensure that any proposed sale will promote economic efficiency and sustainability in order to reduce our reliance on fossil fuel, increase the use of renewables and make electricity more affordable for all residents.”
Leah Scott, the Shadow Minister of Regulatory Affairs, said she was concerned about the Act’s potential impact on the authority’s independence.
The Deputy Opposition Leader told MPs: “It’s concerning when you have people that are devoting their time to contribute to the running of the authority and to make decisions, to essentially then be micromanaged because whatever they do or whatever efforts they expend can then be overturned by the minister.”
Rolfe Commissiong, a PLP backbencher, said reducing energy prices had to be “an integral piece” of any prospective sale.
He added: “It has to deliver that benefit, primarily to the Bermudian people and consumers but also to Bermudian businesses because the cost of energy is one of the most major headwinds hurting our competitiveness.”
Scott Pearman, the One Bermuda Alliance Shadow Minister for Legal Affairs, claimed the move was about ministerial power.
He drew comparisons with an earlier Bill that provided for Government policy direction to the Bermuda Casino Gaming Commission, and another that allowed a minister to appoint Bermuda Tourism Authority board members.
Mr Pearman said: “The Bill seeks to assert the clunking fist of Government over an independent regulator.”
He added: “It would be far better if we let independent institutions remain independent and do the role that they are supposed to do without Government sticking its nose in.”
Kim Swan, a PLP backbencher, said: “When it comes to the Progressive Labour Party wanting to put forward legislation, the code words and the code languages that are constantly coming forward are ‘ministerial power’ and ‘misuse of Government power’ when the very Government of the day can be vetoed on any legislation by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office through the Governor.
“But that’s OK for persons who are quite comfortable with the legacy arrangement that has been handed down to them by their forefathers.
“I don’t accept that, it’s wrong, and any right-thinking person would know that it’s wrong because the playing field is tilted in one direction — to favour those who inherited the legacy.”
Craig Cannonier, the Opposition leader, agreed nationalisation of the power company could be an option but said he would give it more thought.
David Burt, the Premier, said that prospect left a question over “how exactly does that happen?”.
He added: “The only way that actually happens is an amendment to the Electricity Act, which is what we are doing today.
“Just to be clear, I am not saying that it is the policy of this Government to take private property.”