Wednesday, August 12, 2020
By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Key government agencies that form The Bahamas' commercial hub were yesterday urged by an ex-attorney general to rapidly "step up their game" in adapting to COVID-19's digital business demands.
John Delaney, now principal at the Delaney Partners law firm, told Tribune Business that The Bahamas' competitiveness and reputation as an international business centre could ultimately be undermined if the likes of the Registrar General's Department did not significantly "fortify" their ability to facilitate commerce in a remote electronic environment.
While acknowledging that there would be minimal impact if the present COVID-19 lockdown lasted only a fortnight, Mr Delaney said it would become "quite concerning" if the present shutdown lasted for longer - as many persons expect - with the Registrar General's Department only providing an online ability to incorporate companies, International Business Companies (IBCs) and other vehicles.
With international investors expecting The Bahamas to have long adjusted to COVID-19's fall-out, given that the country is now in its sixth month under the prime minister's emergency powers, the former Senator argued that investments in the digital capabilities of all agencies would be "money well spent" as he warned: "The future is now."
Based on his own experience, and that of his attorney team at Delaney Partners, Mr Delaney said the Registrar General's Department - which has been the subject of several computer hacking and "intrusion" attempts since last year - was the "most challenging" government agency to deal with in the present lockdown.
Besides its Companies Registry, which handles company incorporations, name reservations, annual return filings and payments of the necessary fees, the Registrar General's Department also deals with the lodging and recording of real estate title deeds and associated lender mortgage security via its registry of records.
Without the recording of conveyances and mortgage loans, purchasers and lenders lack complete security over their investments. Yet Mr Delaney revealed that the registry of records is "closed for the period of lockdown", thereby bringing any real estate deals that are still occurring to a potential halt or delay.
And, while the Companies Registry's online portal is still open for incorporations, he added that his firm's "experience" is that the e-mail facility put in place during the first COVID-19 lockdown to facilitate private sector inquiries and the agency's response was "non-existent" this time around.
Instead, it appeared that a "drop box" service was being provided, which Mr Delaney said was problematic in itself given the restrictions imposed on movement by the Government to fight the virus' spread.
Describing most of the business dealt with by the Registrar General's Department as being "on pause" as a result, then ex-attorney general argued that making its digital functions "more robust and safe" was critical given that COVID-19 was likely to be with the world for some time.
"An investment by the Companies Registry to fix these things would be money well spent in fortifying the ability of this jurisdiction to operate," Mr Delaney told Tribune Business. "If it's a situation of two weeks we can live with that. If it's a situation of months on end it becomes very concerning.
"We happen to be in the sixth month of our emergency period, so at this point it's very concerning. Five months ago it would be less concerning. We have to get past that. At this point we need to have our game on and overcome this."
While international investors may be forgiving to some extent in the short-term, Mr Delaney added: "It's expected that as a jurisdiction we will adapt. Let me put it this way. In the commercial sense it is not credible for a commercial firm to say in relation to their own activity that they are not functioning well because of COVID-19.
"You could have said that in March, but cannot say that now. The whole world has to function with COVID-19, and you're supposed to have done what is necessary to manage by now. If that's true of a private entity, the same is also true of a government agency."
Mr Delaney added that The Bahamas' competitiveness as an international financial and business centre depended on its ability to adjust to the pandemic reality, and said: "I know it's not easy, but these are all challenges we have to manage and get over. We're not going back to the way it was, the world is not going back to the way it was. The future is now."
Carl Bethel QC, the current attorney general who has ministerial responsibility for the Registrar General's Department, did not respond to Tribune Business calls and messages seeking confirmation of its lockdown status.
However, feedback from the legal profession indicated confusion over the status of several government agencies critical to facilitating the conduct of what little business activity there is during the present lockdown.
Wayne Munroe QC said he thought the Registrar General's Department was using a 'drop box' service for conveyances and their recording. Another attorney, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the use of such a facility during the first lockdown had created some concerns.
They revealed that the Registrar General's Department was ultimately forced to change procedures and staff that box, providing signed receipts to deal with attorney fears that original copies of title deeds might be lost and never recovered.
Meanwhile, Gaynell Rolle, the Department of Inland Revenue's acting controller, confirmed that the agency was fully functional online and processing VAT, Business Licence, real property tax and VAT payments on real estate transactions.
Describing the agency as "up to speed", she added that conveyances requiring stamping and the payment of due VAT could still be dropped off at the Department. Once stamped, attorneys will be contacted to make payment and pick the documents.
Ms Rolle said calls to the Department of Inland Revenue will be fielded by customer service staff working from home, but one attorney grumbled that they had not been informed of the agency's plans for the second lockdown.
"We got our information from the messenger service that we use, which drove by and did not see any activity," they said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "We had a conveyance due for stamping yesterday, and are concerned we're going to have to fight with the registry to avoid a late fee as it's coming up to three months [after the sale]. We'll see how that goes."