BitDepth 570 - April 03

Changes in tariff numbers lead to an inadvertent re-introduction of value added tax on computer peripherals...
Retrograde steps

Planning to import one of these? RAM, hard drives and displays for a computer will now cost you 15 percent more. Photo by Mark Lyndersay.

It must have come as an unpleasant surprise to many local computer buffs when their new gear arrived in T&T with an unwelcome addition, a 15 percent VAT surcharge levied by the Customs and Excise Division beginning earlier this month.
The charge is said to be the result of a new global classification of goods that has changed tariff numbers. But nobody wants to talk about how we went from what seems to be a clerical matter to a blunt overturn of the 1999 budget decree and a 2006 update that computers software and related parts would be exempt from both Customs duties and VAT.

The original decision to remove VAT and duty, initiated under the UNC administration, put teeth in long mouthed declarations about the importance of computer technology to national development. Somebody thought that making it easier for individuals to choose and import their own computers might lubricate the flow of technology.
That's exactly what happened, and companies like Dell found themselves flooded with so many orders for their computers that they began authorising service centers in Trinidad and Tobago. 

Everything but the CPU liable
Providers of US postal addresses found themselves lugging more and more computer cargo and the population as a whole embraced the idea of computers as an information tool that occasionally needed upgrading, peripherals and new software instead of a piece of furniture to be bought and stuck in a corner.
That was a key advance, because most computers are pretty barebones on arrival. Most require more RAM and as their users became more savvy with technology, they began adding scanners, digital camera card readers, better printers new software and networking devices to what was once thought of as a once and done purchase.

E-Couriers, the folks who ship my stuff in from Miami report that 30 percent of their cargo is computer related. According to a spokesperson there the key items being targeted for VAT are computer monitors, system memory and printers. But my own experience with Customs charges suggests that anything shipping under an invoice that describes it as a "computer part" will be charged VAT.

All that's required to change this situation is an amendment to the VAT act to adjust for the new tariff numbers, something that should have been in place even before the new classifications took effect, but now it's an agenda item that's going to take some time to get to Parliament if someone doesn't light a fire under this situation.
So this is me, with a bottle of kerosene and a box of matches, looking for the best larded political butt to commit some socially active arson on.

Chilling effect
This, politicians and bureaucrats at large, is what's called a chilling effect. 
It isn't the money (though that can be substantial when it isn't budgeted for), it's the inference that for all the Fast Forward, technology-nation talk, we aren't really serious or ready to embrace the idea that rapidly-deployed, government endorsed and encouraged computer use is a crucial lever to anything we hope to do in the future.
Hit the average citizen up for a couple of hundred dollars for his new hard drive upgrade and he's likely to be a lot less receptive the next time you take to a podium to talk about a commitment to the growth of technology.

And make no mistake, error or not, nobody's getting their money back on this.
Customs is said to have referred queries about refunds to the VAT office, who have, in turn, distanced themselves from the whole debacle.
And as long as we're on the subject of Customs classifications for computer equipment, why not hew to this new spirit of revoking state charges on computer equipment more decisively? 
Let's drop the ridiculous charges that crop up from time to time on blank CDs, DVDs, cables, photo quality printers and ink in favour of a simple benchmark; if it hooks up to, can be read by or otherwise requires a computer to work, then we let it pass without additional charges. I'm pretty sure that would make the work of many customs officers and brokers a whole lot easier.

The Ministry of Finance responds
This is the Government's statement, issued by the Ministry of Finance over the signature of Beverly Foster, Corporate Communications Manager, in response to a questionnaire on this matter sent to Fitzroy John, Comptroller of Customs:
"In the budget for fiscal 2006-2007, Government proposed to exempt from VAT and Customs Duty all computer peripherals in addition to those accessories that were already free of these taxes pursuant to previous legislation.

As a result of the implementation of the Revised Structure of the Common External Tariff based on 2007 Revision of the Harmonised System (HS) Nomenclature, changes occurred with respect to the classification of the computer accessories due to technological progress in this area.
Resulting from these changes an anomaly occurred whereby a number of computer parts that were free of Value Added Tax under the preceding HS 2002 have now become liable to the payment of this tax, as VAT exemption has been aligned to specific tariff heading numbers.
The Customs & Excise Division has made appropriate recommendations to address this anomaly and the legislation to give effect to Government stated policy in the last budget is being addressed."
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