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Opposition and Independent Senators have expressed concern that the Property Tax, which will also be levied against squatters on state land, may open the floodgates to land grabbing and an expectation by squatters that they have a right to ownership because they are paying tax on the land.
However, the Government says they do not agree with this.
The concerns were raised during the Committee Stage of the Property Tax Act when the Senate went through the legislation clause by clause yesterday.
Opposition Senator Wade Mark observed that there are laws regulating squatting in the country and “what Government is seeking to do is impose a tax on persons who might be in two instances occupying land without title.
“On the one hand, people with Certificate of Comfort waiting to go through the process to regularise properly, that is one category and then you have new visitors on the compound and may not have satisfied the legal requirement under the law.”
Mark said everyone is aware there are more than 30,000 people occupying lands illegally, to which Finance Minister Colm Imbert responded: “That’s in one town, more like 300,000.”
Government argued that if someone is illegally occupying land but benefiting from services of the state they should pay the tax, but Mark described this as a “conundrum, you say I illegal but I have to pay taxes.”
This, he said, would strengthen the hand of the squatter to a right to ownership.
“If I have to pay the tax then make me the legal owner of the property, would that not be a legitimate expectation?”
But Finance Minister Colm Imbert argued that all the state is saying is that “if you don’t own property but you on it you receiving services, the fact that you pay tax does not mean you will get legal ownership.”
Independent Senator Paul Richards expressed concern that “in many instances, people will look at this as a subtle encouragement to go on a land grabbing spree.” He said people may not be “au courant with the nuances” of the content of the bill,” and “people may pay the tax and then think maybe I could grab another acre somewhere else.”
He suggested that there should be something whereby “if you extend the situation you will be removed by the state.
“It is way too open to interpretations and we may be open to set off a chain of events that we find untenable in the future.”
Minister in the Ministry of Finance Allyson West assured that the state has the “authority to take action against people squatting” on state lands. What was required, she said, is to “action the powers that we have.”
But what of squatters on private lands who are trespassers?
Independent Senator Dhanayshar Mahabir proposed that the Property Tax should be levied only on persons who are occupying private lands with the permission of the owner.
Mahabir said squatters on private land are “trespassing, they are illegally occupying someone’s land.”
But Imbert noted that dealing with squatters on private lands for elected members of Parliament is “not black and white.”
As an MP, Imbert said he has many communities in his constituency where persons are occupying private land and in some cases for as much as 50 years, “and I have to provide them with services because they are my constituents, they voted for me. I can’t tell them I don’t recognise you as a human being or as a resident and therefore I am not going to put the roads, drains and water supply and electricity I can’t do that.”
Imbert said there are many constituencies where it is an “obligation” on the part of the MP to “improve the standard of living” of persons squatting on private land.
He said he could not agree with Mahabir that although the state may be obliged to upgrade the infrastructure and provide services in terms of garbage collection and water supply, that squatters on private lands should not be taxed.
“I cannot agree with that,” Imbert said.
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