The District Councils Bill was introduced at the Legislative Council Meeting held on 16 December 1998. The purposes of this Ordinance are to establish 18 District Councils and to stipulate their composition, functions and the relevant electoral procedure in order to provide the legislative basis for the first District Councils election of the HKSAR.
The Bill divided into 11 parts and comprising 86 clauses and 6 Schedules, is very comprehensive in its contents. Yet this Council has taken less than 2? months to complete scrutiny of the Bill. For this I would like to convey my whole-hearted thanks to all the people involved in the matter. It should, of course, come first to the Honourable Ambrose Lau, Chairman of the Bills Committee, and its other 28 Members, the Council's Legal Adviser and Secretariat as well as the concerned colleagues from the Department of Justice and the Constitutional Affairs Bureau. The Bills Committee altogether held 13 meetings during which Members had raised many useful and constructive comments. On the basis of some of these comments, we have suggested a total of 25 sets of Committee Stage Amendments (CSAs) with a view to further improving the Bill.
With regard to the CSAs proposed by the Members, there are another 18 sets. Out of them, we do not find 16 sets acceptable either on policy or technical grounds. On the other hand, the Administration does not have grounds to object to the remaining two which are to be moved by the Honourable Ronald Arculli as they do not affect the actual arrangements.
At this meeting the Legislative Council will, in accordance with the Legislative Council Rules of Procedure, handle many CSAs to the Bill proposed by the Members. In the first instance, I have to indicate clearly that while the Administration totally respects the autonomy of the Legislative Council in formulating its Rules of Procedure, we did indicate our reservation last year on the application of Legislative Council Rules of Procedure in handling matters in relation to certain Articles of the Basic Law. We consider it necessary to register the Administration's position in this respect once again.
Since the Council's Rules of Procedure have not been changed for the time being, we have to handle Members' CSAs according to the existing Rules. In the circumstances, without compromising our stance over this matter, we decide to resume the Second Reading debate of the Bill in order not to cause delay to the holding of the first District Councils election near the end of 1999 after the establishment of the HKSAR Government.
As in the past, any constitutional reform will give rise to different responses from different sectors of the community. The most controversial part of the Bill is the provision concerning appointed members and ex officio members. I wish to reiterate that the Administration's proposal to retain a small proportion of appointed seats in the District Councils is based on the following consideration -
- Firstly, during the consultation on the Review of District Organisations, we received diverse opinion about the retention of appointed seats and many indicated their support to retain an appropriate proportion of appointed seats so as to facilitate these people who were capable, experienced and enthusiastic in district affairs to join the District Council so that the views and experience of the different sectors within the district could be taken into account and looked after. It is noteworthy that during the recent public hearing held by the Bills Committee on the District Councils Bill as well as the meetings of some Provisional District Boards discussing the Bill, we have heard views in support of the retention of the appointed seats.
- Secondly, as the role of the new term of District Councils will be enhanced, in particular in the promotion of building management, fire prevention, etc. as well as monitoring of food and environmental hygiene services and promotion of cultural, recreational and sports activities at the district level. In this connection, the District Councils will need greater participation from different sectors in order to enhance their capability in deliberating district affairs.
- It is also important to note that the number of elected seats has not been compromised by the number of appointed seats. The total number of elected seats will increase from 346 before 1997 to 390. As the number of appointed seats will only be about 20% of the total number of seats in a District Council, it should be reasonable and acceptable.
With regard to the ex officio seats, they have all along been filled by the 27 Chairmen of the Rural Committees since the establishment of the District Boards. Ex officio membership is a characteristic in the New Territories Districts and is also a long standing and effective arrangement to ensure that the views and interests of indigenous residents will be reflected. This proposal has the popular support of existing Provisional District Board members in the New Territories.
If the Member's CSAs on the deletion of appointed members and ex officio members are passed today, it would have a great impact on the composition of the whole District Council. The Administration's effort to accommodate the interests of different sectors in the community would also become in futile. I therefore very much hope that Members would pay particular attention to the CSAs in relation to these two sets of proposals and vote them down in favour of the retention of the appointed seats and ex officio seats.
A Member has also put forward a proposal to add provisions to bar those politically active persons from being appointed and from holding office as appointed members. We do not consider that this is appropriate at all. Since the Chief Executive is empowered to appoint persons to the District Councils, the legislation should give him the discretion to select these persons. In this connection, I can assure this Council that the Chief Executive will carefully consider the candidates' potential contribution to District Councils during the selection process. Some Members are concerned that candidates who fail in the District Councils election to be held later this year should not be appointed as members. This concern is noted and I trust that the Chief Executive would also prove with his action to show his consent to this view point.
A Member's CSA suggests that the ambit of the functions of the District Council be widened by specifying that it can undertake local public works and environmental improvements, and take up the management of the places and facilities for recreation, relaxation and the performance of sports within the District. We do not feel the District Councils are fit for undertaking these functions, as this will change the existing consultative role of District Boards and the operation of the Government substantially. At the same time, this CSA will possibly lead to additional public expenditure, fragmentation of responsibilities and diminution in efficiency.
Another Member suggests that the accounts of District Councils should be audited by the Audit Commission and their Chairmen should submit the audited accounts to the Chief Executive. As the Vote Controller of District Board allocation is the Director of Home Affairs who has issued very clear guidelines on the use of funds by the District Boards and the expenses and accounts of the Department are already subject to audit by the Audit Commission, we do not find this CSA necessary.
With regard to the 25 CSAs proposed by the Administration, with the exception of a few technical amendments, the majority are drawn up on the basis of the precious comments received from Members.
They include an amendment which requires changes by the Chief Executive in Council to Schedules 1, 2 and 3 of the Bill in relation to the number of and declaration of Districts, establishment of District Councils and the number of elected members and appointed members to be subject to the approval of the Legislative Council. Amongst these CSAs, the Administration also proposes to withdraw the flexibility for the Chief Executive to specify a shorter term of office for appointed members. It is also made clear directions by the Chief Executive to a District Council must be "in relation to matters which affect the public interest".
In response to Members' request to clarify the relevant arrangement for the Chairman of a Rural Committee to fill the office of ex officio member, we also recommend to set out in Schedule 3 the number of Rural Committees, their names and the District Councils to which they belong.
Some Members are of the view that the incumbent District Council members should not take advantage of District Council business to gain advantage in election. In the light of Members' advice, we have added a new provision to provide for the suspension of operation of District Councils just prior to an ordinary election. If passed, this arrangement will be applied to the District Councils election to be held near the end of 1999.
Also, in response to Members' concern over the functions of District Councils, we agree to delete from the relevant provision the wording "including matters relating to food and environmental hygiene services". In this respect, we share the view that the provision even without this wording is wide enough to cover this aspect of work. Nonetheless, I should emphasize that it is beyond question that the role played by the future District Councils on food and environmental hygiene services and on the promotion of recreational and cultural activities within the District will become increasingly important.
With regard to the disqualification of members due to absence from meetings of District Councils, we have after listening to the views of Members amended the provision and clarified the method of computing the period of absence.
There are also CSAs relating to the electoral procedure. They include, for example, adding new provisions in order to facilitate the smooth completion of the election as far as possible. Besides, we have also proposed several technical CSAs to two definitions in the Bill as well as some consequential and miscellaneous amendments to other Ordinances in Schedule 6 to make the Bill as complete as possible.
We believe that the District Councils Bill, after being amended by the Administration, will widely be accepted by the public. Apart from achieving a balance of interests for different sectors, the Bill also actually follows the stipulations regarding the nature and functions of district organisations and their legal status laid down in Articles 97 and 98 of the Basic Law. I hope Members would give your support to pass the 25 sets of CSAs proposed by the Administration.
For the details of each CSAs proposed by the Administration and Members, I will elaborate each of them and explain the views of the Administration on them during the Committee Stage of the Council.
Thank you President.
Constitutional Affairs Bureau