House approves banking data access legislation

The National Assembly on Thursday approved a bill that will enable the Guyana Revenue Authority (GRA) to access the banking data of citizens, even as government rejected proposals from the PPP that would require that customers be given prior notice of any attempt to access their financial information.

The Financial Institutions (Amendment) Bill 2015 sought to amend section 63 of the Financial Institutions Act to permit disclosure of customer information by a financial institution to the GRA, where a law so requires or where the revenue authority makes a lawful request or demand for the information. It was passed by the House late on Thursday and will become law when signed by President David Granger.

Previously, the Private Sector Commission (PSC) had urged government to take parallel steps to ensure data protection and privacy rights. Among other measures, it had called for notice to be served on citizens regarding intended request for access along with an indication of the law for which enforcement is being sought via such access. The PSC had also urged that measures for recourse be available to citizens if the data is unlawfully released or published by the GRA.

Former Attorney General Anil Nandlall tabled two amendments to this effect but after over two and a half hours of debate, the government rejected the proposals. The first amendment says that before any lawful request is made for the information, “the customer must first be served with the intended said lawful request or demand either personally, or by registered post at his last known address, at least twenty-one (21) days prior, together with a Notice which shall state with sufficient particulars, the nature of the lawful requirement, or the lawful request or demand and the purpose for which the information thereof requested is intended to be used.”

The second amendment sets out penalties for any government or GRA representative who discloses any of the information or use it for a purpose other than the reason for which it was accessed.

In his contribution to the debate, Nandlall called on government to see the light. “If you reject this amendment then you are sending the most dangerous signal to the Guyanese people, you are confirming their every fear,” he said. The former AG said the amendments would provide a level of security to citizens in that access to their financial records will not be done without due notice and will be done through the proper legal channels.

Former Minister of Commerce Irfaan Ali told the House that greater consultation was needed. He warned of a public perception that the passing of the bill will mean the GRA has access to private information.

Minister of Finance Winston Jordan sought to provide clarification and highlighted that prior to 2000 when the GRA was formed, the various tax departments were considered part of the State and the bill was specifically attaching the responsibilities of those departments to the GRA.

Junior finance minister Finance Jaipaul Sharma said the information could be made available to another jurisdiction in a reciprocal arrangement, which, according to him, would cause ire in the PPP camp. “This move by Guyana will not just allow the financial institutions of this country to submit information to the Guyana Revenue Authority who will package and transfer it to the US treasury. What it would do, it is a reciprocal arrangement when we send this information to the United States, the United States will send their information [about Guyanese] that have money in their banks accounts,” he said.

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