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Transcript of SCA's stand-up briefing

Following is the transcript (English only) of a stand-up briefing given by the Secretary for Constitutional Affairs, Mr Stephen Lam, after the LegCo motion debate on the accountability system today (July 10):

Reporter: How would you interpret the vote?

SCA: I think this has been a very open and thorough debate that we have had in the Legislature this afternoon. People have given us very frank and honest assessment of how the team of Secretaries has performed in the first year. I think all the views which they have expressed both with regard to our ability to communicate with the public and the effectiveness of our policies, I will take to heart and digest. And, as we move forward in the months ahead, I believe that the views expressed have been very useful and constructive. I would also say that the fact that there are still a majority of Members in the Legislative Council who support the continued implementation of the accountability system demonstrates that we are still on the right track and we have made a move in the right direction in the open society which Hong Kong is. It is possible for a system of political appointments to be introduced to enhance the accountability of the Government to the Hong Kong public.

Reporter: But Mr Yeung Sum in moving the motion maintained that the system is a failure. You don't go along with that, why?

SCA: I would say that firstly, after introduction of the new accountability system, the team of government secretaries as a whole have become more willing to adapt our policies to meet public demands and needs and are moving ahead much more rapidly than before. For example, during the SARS crisis in Hong Kong, within a matter of weeks, we came up with an economic package of $11.8 billion to help certain sectors of the Hong Kong economy to tide over their difficulties. We introduced schemes to create 72,000 jobs and training opportunities to alleviate the unemployment situation. All these things were done within a matter of weeks. This goes to show that the Government Secretaries colleagues are now more attuned, more responsive to public needs and opinions.

The second point I would make is now that we have a system of political accountability. If things do go wrong, or if things unfortunately do not go as planned, then the Principal Official responsible is quite willing to stand up and be counted, assume political responsibility and when necessary, apologise to the public. So this is a new change. This was not possible when we had civil servants appointed as Government Secretaries. As civil servants, they stay until full pension is earned, until they retire. But now that we have a system of political appointments whereby Secretaries serve coterminously with the Chief Executive who nominates them for appointment, this is more flexible and this is closer to what the community needs by way of political accountability.

Reporter: Some legislators do agree that the system has to go on, but they think that even they are less critical of this system, they think you will have to improve it, and then more decisive action has to be taken, for instance, action to be taken on officials who have been found to have made mistakes.

SCA: It is the prerogative of the Chief Executive as the head of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region and of the Government to decide whether a Principal Official who find themselves in a political situation should be admonished, criticised, should apologise to the public, or should be asked to leave his job. The Chief Executive has to take into account the overall interest of the community, the ins and outs of the political incident, and also the views of Hong Kong people. This is a question of judgement. This is a judgement which the Chief Executive has to make in each and every political incident and the prerogative is vested in him. So the ultimate decision is made by him according to the powers and responsibilities which have been bestowed upon him by the Basic Law.

Reporter: You have mentioned that the Government would try to improve the system. What kind of improvements will you look at?

SCA: I think in particular in terms of our communication with the public, explaining the policies adopted to Hong Kong people, taking into account their aspirations, needs and anxieties in formulating Government policies. I think this is one important area in which we need to strive to make improvements. Our team of Government Secretaries have tried very hard during their first year of office to come up with policies which fit Hong Kong's needs with some effective policies being adopted. For example, after the SARS crisis -- reviving the economy; for example, in introducing the free trade arrangement with the Mainland. These are beneficial initiatives as far as Hong Kong's community needs are concerned. But, on the whole we do believe that we need to make further efforts to communicate with the public and explain our policies better so that we can take into account public views in formulating Government policies more effectively.

End/Thursday, July 10, 2003