Member for the Elizabeth Constituency
Address to Parliament
STRAW MARKET AUTHORITY ACT, 2011 and STRAW MARKET AUTHORITY (GENERAL) REGULATIONS, 2011
October 10, 2011
Mr. Speaker …
Today I am honoured to rise on behalf of the good people of the Elizabeth Constituency to discuss a Bill that has great impact to a generation of heroes in the Bahamas, those who were the original small business entrepreneurs, those who championed the cause through independence, the Straw Vendors. Their legacy is engrained in the history of our great country, and I am pleased to say that I have a number of straw vendors who live in the great constituency of Elizabeth. I want to thank them and the good people of Elizabeth for their confidence in me as we debate this Act and corresponding Regulations.
Mr. Speaker, I have had the opportunity to speak with a representative group of straw vendors regarding the Bill and Regulations we debate today. I have spoken with them on numerous occasions throughout the process of the new straw market, and I must say, I want to commend them on their mature and professional discourse on the issues. The straw vendors throughout this entire process has concerns and recommendations as to moving into the new market. Before speaking to specific provisions and recommendation to the Act and Regulations, I would like to speak to some of the general concerns of the straw vendors.
Lack of Consultation and Disclosure
Mr. Speaker, What I do find shocking, although I should know better, is the lack of consultation that this Government has had with the straw vendors, and the complete lack of disclosure on the Government’s plans. The Prime Minister in his contribution last week gave the impression to the Bahamian people that he had disclosed the Act and Regulations to the straw vendors prior to coming to Parliament. I am told that the straw vendors were only provided the Act and Regulations less than 30 minutes prior to the House of Assembly commencing last Wednesday, providing the straw vendors no opportunity to review the legislation prior to being tabled. I cry shame on this Government; the least you can do is treat Bahamians with the respect they deserve.
The deceit doesn’t just go to a lack of disclosure of the legislation, but a complete lack of consultation and disclosure as to the plans to create a Straw Market Authority. During any communications, the straw vendors were merely told to prepare some ideas for rules, but were never informed about the concept of an Authority. I mention this, not to argue against the concept of an Authority, but to say, a Government of common decency, a Government that respected Bahamians as individuals, a Government of transparency, would have at the very least discussed with the straw vendors their intentions, and would have allowed this group of patriots to at the very least give some input into the future of their industry, the future of their livelihood, the future of a self-defining Bahamian institution. I cry shame on this Government for their disrespect and intentional deceit of Bahamian straw vendors.
Concerns of the Straw Vendors
Mr. Speaker, the straw vendors expressed to me in our conversations concerns they had about the operations and their involvement in the new straw market. Given the lack of consultation by this Government with the straw vendors, I want to take the opportunity to address some of their concerns.
Mr. Speaker, of primary concern is the uncertainty about the process for existing straw vendors to move into the market. The straw vendors have never been informed whether they will gain automatic entrance into the market. Will the current license holders be grandfathered in the new market, or not. The legislation before us does not even address this. I understand that the draft legislation presented to the vendors had some transitional language in it, but the one presented to the House of Assembly does not. Is this to intentionally deceive the straw vendors, or is it just more sloppy legislating by this FNM Government? I suggest that if the current straw vendors can satisfy what the prerequisites in the legislation for a license, then they automatically be granted a license in the current market.
Another concern is the assignment of a stall, how the allocation of stalls will be undertaken. These are real world and fundamental concerns of the straw vendors. I urge the Government to consult with the straw vendors and work with them in arriving at a procedure to allocate the stalls in the new straw market.
One proposal suggested by the straw vendors was for the most senior and the leaders of the market to have seniority in the allocation of the stalls, and then an order based upon years in the market. This seems logical to me, and I encourage the Government to arrive at a mutual understanding.
This also brings forward a genuine concern of the vendors, and frankly of mine as well. The general public has not had an opportunity to view the new market, but I have, and so have some of the vendors. In the new market there is a center aisle that some call “The Mall”. In The Mall there are larger and more elaborate stalls, more than 30 of them. These are strategically located in the center of the market, with intricate shelving and display counters. This in contrast to the other stalls on the sides (some 450+ of them) that are too small and not designed for effective vending in their layout. Furthermore, there is no room at these stalls for tourist families to patiently wait while others members of the family shop.
There is an unanswered question on who these prime spaces are intended for. Will the straw vendors have opportunity to select the prime retail space, or, as I am informed, these will be reserved for a set of vendors who have never worked in the straw market. Will these be allocated, as I am informed, according to political favour, with certain members from the other side vying for a number of locations to give to their choice persons? This FNM Government claims to be transparent, but they are far from it. Disclose to the Bahamian people who these stalls are reserved for and why.
Mr. Speaker, this legislation seems rushed and poorly drafted. Furthermore, if the Government had consulted the straw vendors during the process, much of the confusion could have been avoided. I would like to now identify provisions in the Bill and the Regulations that in my opinion require further review and amendment.
Straw Market Authority Act
Approved Goods – The Authority has complete discretion on what goods can be sold in the straw market. This is rather arbitrary and can lead to uncertainty by the vendors. One can also envision the scenario where vendors invest in certain inventory and then it is suddenly removed from the list, putting a person’s business at risk. I would suggest that a permanent list of goods be established comprised of the common goods sold in the market.
Funding the Authority – Section 6 speaks to the funding sources for the Authority. There, however, is no clear guidance from the Government on whether this Authority can be self sufficient, whether necessary revenues can be generated to satisfy the financial obligations of the straw market and Authority. I demand that a budget and financial forecast be tabled. There are too many uncertainties, and the history of financial mismanagement of this Government would imply that the Authority will have to either be continually subsidized by the Bahamian people, or the vendors themselves will be at risk for rising fees.
In fact, the Bahamian people are responsible for advance of $750,000 to the Authority for it to operate. How do the Bahamian people know, in a time where there are significant financial challenges, that this will be paid back. I propose that the Authority will not be able to do so. This is a key difference between this FNM and the PLP Government, where we planned for an entertainment area that would generate necessary revenues to ensure the operation of the straw market was self-sufficient. The PLP were financially responsible, this FNM Government, everyone can recognize their irresponsible nature. I call on the Government to table the financial forecasts and budget of the Authority.
Penalty for Non-Payment of Fees – Section 17 of the Bill speaks of penalties for non-payment of fees. In a typical commercial arrangement, you would be evicted for non-payment of rental fees. Not in the case of the straw vendors. This Government finds the straw vendors guilty of an offence and liable for a fine of $1,000. This is no way to treat Bahamians. What the Government is saying is that if you cannot pay your fee and therefore do not pay your fee of $35 a week, you are penalized and fined $1,000. There is no logic in this other than a Government unreasonably punishing its citizens. This provision should clearly be amended to speak to suspension, payment plans, or forfeiture of the stall as the penalties for non-payment.
The First Schedule speaks to the composition of the Authority. This was clearly drafted in haste, as certain important provisions are omitted.
Composition of Authority – There are provisions throughout that deal with things such as disqualification of directors, resignation of directors and removal of directors, however, there are no provisions that deal with the composition of the Board of Directors of the Authority and selection of the Chairman. Who appoints the Board, are there any permanent members, how many members of the Board are there? These elementary but necessary provisions are completely missing in the legislation. This Government can do better. There is no mechanism for appointment to the Authority.
I would propose a 7 member Board of Directors for the Authority. 2 positions are reserved for straw vendors and 1 position reserved for the Downtown development partnership, consisting of interested merchants. The Government, through various interested agencies can appoint the remaining 4 members. The Chairman will be voted upon by the Board members. The legislation is completely void in this regard, and should be amended.
Straw Market Authority (Regulations), 2011
The Regulations provide for a number of questionable provisions that frankly could have been avoided with proper disclosure and consultation with the straw vendors.
Application – An application for a license requires a number of items, some necessary, some that raise questions. A health certificate is required certifying a tuberculosis test. Why specify only tuberculosis, what about other contagious diseases? Also, an immunization record form the last 10 years is required. Many vendors are older, and might have difficulty locating immunization records from 50 years ago. I understand the logic in this, but practically, how is this to be administered, especially for those immunized decades ago?
Fees Charged – Throughout the Regulations there is discussion about fees charged to straw vendors. There is an application fee, a weekly license / rental fee, a renewal fee every year. Many of these fees are at the discretion of the Authority. We see in other legislation where these fees are set out in legislation or Regulation. Given the uncertainty, and the confusion this has placed on the straw vendors, I would ask the Government to set forth the scope of fees, and how much will be charged. It is only the right thing to do for small business owners planning for such a transition.
Disciplinary Committee – The Regulations provide for a disciplinary committee that investigates matters and makes recommendation as to suspensions, cancellations or re-instatements of licenses. This committee is appointed by the Authority and reports to the Authority. I have always thought it unjust to have a disciplinary tribunal appointed by the enforcing agency. I would propose that any disciplinary committee be independently appointed and be composed of independent persons. This is for the best interest of all involved, avoiding any allegations of conflict of interest.
We are here today to discuss and debate the regulation of a group of Bahamians, straw vendors, who historically has represented a new Bahamas. We have to recognize their contributions to our country, but also as small business owners. This Government has an obligation to recognize this, to respect Bahamians, and be completely honest and up front with this group of Bahamian business people. This was obviously not done, and the straw vendors deserve better.
There are genuine concerns of the vendors that the Government must take into account. I suggest that consultative efforts be undertaken to ensure that all concerns are addressed.
We require better legislative efforts by this Government. Since I have been in this honourable place, I have witnessed sloppy drafting, unsatisfactory effort in bringing legislation to this House. Today is no exception, you on the other side, you who Govern this country, do your job, the Bahamian people demand better, and in short time, they will get better.