Bad practice

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 26 February, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 26 February, 2000, 12:00am

When semi-official bodies are given discretionary powers to carry out their work more efficiently, they are not expected to treat it as a licence to do as they please.

The Vocational Training Council took a number of decisions unilaterally without seeking prior approval from the administration. Public money was involved in several cases. In others, working terms were altered, contracts awarded without going to tender, and an all-in pay package offered to a staff member instead of the usual arrangement where pay includes accommodation in staff quarters.

Rarely does the council seem to have given more than a cursory nod in the direction of the regulations. But staff were possibly encouraged to act that way because government officials were members of the board, and a framework agreement with the Government was still not finalised, nearly seven years after the council was initiated. It is now in the final stages of preparation, and will be ready for signing in two months. But it will be too late to prevent an overspending of $85 million because of alterations to plans for staff quarters. Or to avoid a loss of $10 million in rent for property left standing empty.

So it is the administration, as much as the council, which is to blame for the situation. If guidelines had been drawn at the outset, the Director of Audit's criticisms could have been avoided. However, some procedures do not need to be spelled out. It should have been automatic to seek quotations before procuring stores. Or to check that a college swimming pool was well used before it was re-provisioned.

Belatedly, a brief memorandum will set the rules. But the council has been brought to the scrutiny of Legco, and a more professional standard is expected in future.