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Questions dodged over tobacco customs duty concession

David Burt, the Premier (File photograph by Akil Simmons)

The Premier dodged questions six months ago about how many millions of dollars the Government waived in customs revenue when it gave a concession to a local cigarette manufacturer.

His finance ministry also ignored a public access to information request for records about the hefty discount given to The Smoke Shop, until it was ordered to respond to The Royal Gazette by Information Commissioner Gitanjali Gutierrez.

The decision to slash the duty rate by almost 80 per cent, after The Smoke Shop had already shipped about 15,000 kilograms of loose-leaf tobacco to the island and before it brought in another container with the same amount, saw the Government forgo almost $12 million in tax.

Former finance minister Curtis Dickinson allowed the company to benefit from the parliamentary-approved concession after Michael Heslop, the owner of The Smoke Shop, told him the business would otherwise have to close and his workforce be let go.

Questions were sent to David Burt, now the Minister of Finance, last November by the Gazette about the discount The Smoke Shop received on the usual $500 per kilogram duty rate on imported loose-leaf tobacco.

But no answers were forthcoming from him about the waived revenue or the amount of tobacco brought in by Mr Heslop between April and September 2021.

The newspaper followed up repeatedly by e-mail and telephone with the Department of Communications, which handles press queries for Mr Burt, to no avail.

But a release of records under public access to information legislation from the Ministry of Finance reveals that the Assistant Collector of Customs provided answers to all The Royal Gazette’s questions in an e-mail to senior civil servant Jennifer Attride-Stirling on December 1 last year.

Dr Attride-Stirling sent the answers to Cheryl-Ann Lister, the acting Financial Secretary, four days later, adding: “...a decision will be needed on whether to pass on to DCI to respond”.

Those answers were not shared with the newspaper until the finance ministry was ordered by Ms Gutierrez to respond to a Pati request submitted last July by the Gazette.

Seeking answers: a timeline

March 19, 2021: MPs approve the Customs Tariff Amendment Act 2021, which includes a slashed duty rate for manufacturers of cigarettes and cigars.

April 1, 2021: A six-month concession is granted to The Smoke Shop allowing it to import loose-leaf tobacco at a duty rate of $105 per kilogram – a discount of nearly 80 per cent on the normal rate.

July 27, 2022:The Royal Gazette submits a Pati request to the Ministry of Finance seeking publicly held records about the concession.

September 7, 2022: The deadline passes for the ministry to provide an initial response.

October 4, 2022:The Royal Gazette asks the Acting Financial Secretary Cheryl-Ann Lister for a review.

November 15, 2022: The deadline passes for Ms Lister to provide a decision within the statutory time frame, after she fails to even acknowledge the request.

November 23, 2022: The Royal Gazette puts questions to the Premier and finance minister about the concession, via the Department of Communications. There is no response, despite repeated e-mailed follow ups and phone calls.

December 1, 2022: The Information Commissioner’s Office, which is reviewing the lack of response to the Pati request, asks the finance ministry why it didn’t issue a decision but it does not respond. The same day, the Assistant Collector of Customs provides answers to the Gazette’s questions for the Premier in an e-mail to senior civil servant Jennifer Attride-Stirling, who forwards them to Ms Lister, but they are not sent to the newspaper.

December 19, 2022: The Information Commissioner orders the ministry to respond to the Gazette’s Pati request by January 23.

April 13, 2022: The ministry releases records to the Gazette, including the answers to the questions it put to the Premier the previous November.

The ministry had not provided a decision on the initial Pati request or replied to a request for the acting financial secretary to review the lack of a decision.

Ms Gutierrez found that the ministry failed to respond to the request under the statutory time frame and she ordered it to do so by January 23, adding that it should consider apologising to the Gazette.

That deadline was missed and the ministry’s Pati officer apologised for the delay on January 24, when she also asked for clarity on the records being requested.

The finance ministry finally released records revealing the “unrealised duty revenue” of $11,868,420.80 on April 12, more than eight months after the request was submitted.

Many of the documents held by the ministry were redacted before release and some were withheld altogether on seven different grounds, including that they contained commercially sensitive and confidential information, Cabinet documents and the deliberations of public authorities.

The Gazette has appealed that decision to acting financial secretary Cheryl-Ann Lister, with her decision due by June 13.

There was no response to a request for comment from the Premier for this article.

· Note: this article was amended after the Ministry of Finance disclosed a further record today showing that Dr Attride-Stirling passed the answers to the RG’s questions to Acting Financial Secretary Cheryl-Ann Lister on December 5. The ministry said the record was accidentally omitted from the initial disclosure.

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Published May 15, 2023 at 7:58 am (Updated May 15, 2023 at 1:20 pm)

Questions dodged over tobacco customs duty concession

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