Passing of 2022 Barbuda Amendment Bill interrupted by MP’s misinterpretation

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By Elesha George

[email protected]

Tensions were high on Thursday morning when the executive branch of the government tabled a bill that would amend the category of lessees who must pay to the state.

The Barbuda Amendment Bill 2022, which was sponsored by Barbuda Affairs Minister Samantha Marshall and moved by Attorney General Steadroy Benjamin, was changed to allow only individuals and entities who lease Crown lands to pay that money to the Accountant General which will go towards benefitting the Barbuda Council.

This means that monies charged for rent on leased lands will be paid to the Accountant General only if those lands belong to the Crown. Private land owners will conduct their own lease agreements and facilitate their own payments.

The government said that the amendment brings clarity to the process of payment of land ownership for Barbudans who, on completion of a cadastral survey, will be allowed to own lands on the island for the first time since Antigua and Barbuda gained independence in 1981.

But before the bill was amended and passed by the Lower House, it was evident that the angst between the Barbuda Council and the developers of the Peace, Love and Happiness (PLH) project was still alive and well.

Barbuda MP, Trevor Walker, who initially misunderstood the reason for the bill, vehemently chastised the government during his contribution to its debate, accusing the mover of the bill of wanting to authorise the “wholesale repatriation of resources [and] monies to Antigua” in an effort to appease the developers.  

“Fu me concern today is about money, money – that a mi concern and you can’t take Barbuda land money from ova ya, because e nuh right. And we a nuh pickanearga fu some Accountant General fu ask for no money, when Barbuda land money e be,” he told parliamentarians.

The Barbuda Council, of which MP Walker is vice chairman, has had a contentious relationship with the foreign developers over land degradation, as well as their unwillingness to pay over US$4 million in yearly taxes and fees directly to the Council.  

In February 2022, Walker told the developers that they could leave the sister island if they refused to comply with the 2007 Barbuda Land Act which states that monies for rent should be paid to the Council. Instead, the developers have continuously made payments into the treasury of the central government, which has in turn delayed in remitting payments to the Council – monies it uses to pay its employees and to execute its functions.

On Thursday, Walker suggested that the government created the law, which he described as “divisive,” without having a conversation with the officials on Barbuda, arguing then that the amendment would allow Antigua to “collect lease monies” to facilitate the PLH development on Barbuda.

He refused to acknowledge the Attorney General Steadroy Benjamin who rose on a point of information early on, in an attempt to clarify the direction of Walker’s debate.

During his contribution, however, Benjamin reminded Walker that based on a preliminary judgement by the Privy Council, all lands on Barbuda are property of the Crown, saying “the Council owns no land in Barbuda”.

“One, two, three words … by the Crown,” is what was being changed in the law, stressed Prime Minister Gaston Browne who went on to explain that the current law was “taking private monies and converting it into public ownership”.

“Now that you’ll have private ownership it becomes absolutely quintessential that we make this amendment,” he noted.

He said that Walker’s argument bore no relation to the bill being debated, and relegated it to political rhetoric. Walker ultimately digressed from the argument, stating that the amendment as written was not clear enough about its intention.

The bill was amended slightly to ensure that the Barbuda Council is consulted, now reading that: “The rents payable under any lease of land granted by the Crown in the island of Barbuda shall be paid to the Accountant General for the benefit of the Council, unless the Cabinet in consultation with the Council directs otherwise.”

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