Following is a question by the Hon Paul Tse and a reply by the Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs, Mr Raymond Tam, in the Legislative Council today (June 20):
Recently, the media one after another have uncovered that the number of visits outside Hong Kong (visits) made by the Chief Executive (CE) and officials of various ranks (including the Political Assistants who are responsible for political liaison within Hong Kong) was, given the duties of their posts, disproportionately high, and it is suspected that officials of the overseas Hong Kong Economic and Trade Offices (ETOs) had inappropriately travelled on business class, which was several times more expensive than economy class, to make reconnaissance visits for CE's visits, causing a great outcry among members of the public. Moreover, some members of the public have pointed out that over the years, the SAR Government has been excessively "generous" in providing hospitality to foreign envoys and mainland officials visiting Hong Kong (visiting officials), and hence members of the public have reasons to believe that such hospitality is to be reciprocated, resulting in free and extravagant hospitality being offered for those Hong Kong officials paying return visits afterwards. In this connection, will the Government inform this Council:
(a) given that CE openly admitted his "mishandling of the various events" on June 1 this year when responding to the Audit Commission's report on "Hotel accommodation arrangements for the Chief Executive's duty visits outside Hong Kong" and to the report of the Independent Review Committee for the Prevention and Handling of Potential Conflicts of Interests, whether the Government will request CE to truly implement the political accountability system in the remaining time of his term and respond in detail to the reports that the number of visits made by Political Assistants was, given the duties of their posts, disproportionately high and that staff at the overseas ETOs had inappropriately upgraded their passages, etc., so as to salvage as far as possible people's confidence in the governance of the SAR Government; if it will, of the arrangements; if not, the reasons for that; and how CE implements the political accountability system when encountering inappropriate accommodation arrangements for visits;
(b) of the amount of public money spent by the SAR Government on providing hospitality to visiting officials in each of the past three years; the different grades of hospitality provided to visiting officials, the established standards and the upper limits on such expenditure; the mechanism for determining the grades of hospitality provided to visiting officials; and whether any reporting and monitoring mechanism is in place; and
(c) whether any assessment has been conducted to ascertain if the Government had in the past received visiting officials with grades of hospitality higher or more extravagant than those actually needed, and if such hospitality will indirectly encourage the visiting officials to provide extravagant hospitality of similar grades to CE or Hong Kong officials who make return visits?
On behalf of the Administration, I give the following consolidated reply to the three parts of the question:
(a) In the light of the earlier public concerns over the specific arrangements for duty visits of the Chief Executive (CE), CE immediately invited the Director of Audit (the Director) to review the mechanism adopted by the CE's Office in making arrangements for hotel accommodation during CE's duty visits. The Director published the Report on May 31. The Report was fully made public.
The emphasis of the Report was to take a full review of the current mechanism, identify areas for improvement and put forward recommendations. It was not meant to pinpoint and penalise anybody. While the Report concluded that the accommodation arrangements can be improved to tighten the planning and approval process and that transparency of the expenditure should be enhanced, it did not point to violation of any rules or regulations. As a matter of fact, the accommodation arrangements were similar to those adopted both before and after the handover. The important thing to do now is to implement the Report's recommendations, improve the current approval process and institutionalise the improved arrangements. To this end, we have started drafting internal guidelines and aim to submit draft guidelines incorporating the views from departments concerned to the CE-elect before July 1 for his consideration with a view to early implementation.
As to the details of duty visits made by Political Assistants, I would like to reiterate that overseas duty visits are made by politically appointed officials on the basis of operational need, and the arrangements are basically made in accordance with the guidelines set out in the Code for Officials under the Political Appointment System.
For the cases of Hong Kong Economic and Trade Offices (ETOs), long-haul flights for individual ETO officers were upgraded to business class according to the relevant provision in the Civil Servant Regulations (i.e. where flying time (including transit time) exceeds nine hours, the passage may be upgraded to business class).
(b) and (c) Visits to Hong Kong by foreign dignitaries and Mainland officials of a larger scale and the relevant established schemes are normally handled by the Protocol Division (PD) and the Information Services Department (ISD).
PD provides hospitality to senior officials such as heads of state, heads of government, ministers of foreign affairs, senior cabinet ministers, etc. As to the level of hospitality, limited hotel accommodation, transportation means and subsistence allowance are provided to visiting officials and their entourage according to their ranks. Details are set out in Annex 1. Every case handled by PD is submitted for approval by the Chief Secretary for Administration or the Director of Administration on specific hospitality arrangements. Before preparing for the visits, PD would seek advice from relevant bureaux. Details of the visits are reported to the Director of Administration regularly.
ISD runs the Sponsored Visitors' Programme, through which people from all over the world who need to know more about Hong Kong (for example, government officials, councillors, think-tank members, opinion formers, scholars doing studies on Hong Kong-related topics, etc.) are invited to Hong Kong. Arrangements are made for them to be briefed on the latest development of Hong Kong through visits to government departments and local facilities. Nominations are usually made by the Mainland and overseas ETOs as well as relevant bureaux. ISD will co-ordinate the visits and provide the visiting guests with air tickets, hotel accommodation, local transportation and accountable non-cash allowance. Details are set out in Annex 1. After the visits, ISD and the nominating bureaux/ETOs will collect opinions from the guests and the receiving officers for future reference to ensure that the specific arrangements of the visits can give them a better understanding of Hong Kong's latest development and advantages, and serve our guests' needs.
In receiving visiting guests, all expenses were incurred in accordance with the current policies, departmental accounting instructions and procedures. The standard of sponsorship mentioned above is adopted on the basis of protocol requirements, past experience and practices of other places. Providing state leaders with a higher level of accommodation is a standing practice not unique to Hong Kong. There is no question of the HKSAR Government's arrangements encouraging reciprocity of hospitality from the visiting guests.
Expenditure incurred by PD and ISD in providing hospitality to foreign and Mainland officials over the past three financial years (2009-12) are set out in Annex 2. Due to the need to accommodate the schedules of the visiting guests, the annual expenditure varied with the number of guests received.
Ends/Wednesday, June 20, 2012
Annexes 1 and 2