By Latrishka Thomas
Government has made several attempts over the years to plug land holding loopholes that are often exploited by foreigners.
On Thursday, parliament unanimously supported a Bill to address more ambiguities in the relevant legislation.
The Non-Citizens Land Holding Regulations (Amendment) Bill 2020 was put forward by Prime Minister Gaston Browne who said it seeks to amend and clarify the Non-Citizens Land Holding Regulations Act and provide “greater certainty, as well as to prescribe for certain matters not specifically mentioned but classified in section 18 under the general term of any other licence”.
He explained that lawyers representing foreign citizens have often manoeuvred their way out of certain obligations.
“We have had some issues in terms of the interpretation of certain provisions … and what we have found is that some recipients and their attorneys have been manipulating the system for various reasons.
“For example, ‘non-belongers’ – individuals who are not citizens of Antigua and Barbuda who are interested in owning land – are required to get a non-citizen land holding licence but what we have found is that legal practitioners have assisted them to circumvent the process by using shares in companies, by having nominee shareholders and so on,” Browne elaborated.
The amendments require for the effective owners of companies to be determined.
But there are some ambiguities in terms of interpretation.
He explained that some individuals “conveniently” apply mortgages to their properties that ordinarily would require a non-citizens land holding licence and “occasionally, especially when they are about to sell, almost invariably they come up with some form of directors’ loan that existed before which would not have been previously disclosed”.
But they are required to “renew their registration annually so at least we know what is happening”.
Also, at present, foreigners who buy real estate in Antigua are required to pay a five percent tax “but they have utilised the issuance of shares in companies and they get the company to buy the land then argue that the five percent does not apply”.
“The value of the five percent is not on the value of the shares but the value of the real estate that the company owns,” the PM clarified.
The Bill therefore seeks to eliminate any “opportunity for legal practitioners and certain investors to work around the system” and “get the maximum yield from the five percent non-citizen land holding tax or licence for that matter that is required…as well as for the undeveloped land tax,” Browne said.
MP for Barbuda Trevor Walker supported the Bill and commended the government for “continuously trying to plug those loopholes”.
Walker said “non-citizens have an obligation based on this legislation to put into the treasury of Antigua and Barbuda what is required by this law”.
The Bill must be approved in the Upper House or Senate before it is gazetted.