Less talk but more sleep over covert bill

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 05 August, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 05 August, 2006, 12:00am

Speeded-up debate on surveillance legislation avoids overnight session for lawmakers

Lawmakers speeded up their marathon deliberation on the covert surveillance bill yesterday, getting through most of the sticky issues and averting the threat of an all-night sitting.

Of the remaining issues, the fight for a 'sunset clause' limiting the life of the law - to be discussed at the very end of the debate and which is almost certain to be voted down - is the one the Democrats and their allies are most desperate to win.

In view of the progress, Legco president Rita Fan Hsu Lai-tai decided against holding an overnight session last night, to the relief of lawmakers and officials alike. Some legislators predicted their scrutiny would be completed by tonight.

Democrat Cheung Man-kwong denied that Mrs Fan's threat of an overnight meeting had led the bill's opponents to cut short their speeches.

'We have talked less because the major controversies concerned the definitions in the bill, which took so much time in the first day of debate. Right now, it has gone to the more technical terms and of course it would speed up until another controversial issue such as the sunset clause [comes up].'

Civic Party leader Audrey Eu Yuet-mee chastised Secretary for Security Ambrose Lee Siu-kwong for saying he would not repeat to the full chamber the government's views on issues discussed earlier by the bills committee.

'There is a huge difference between saying something in the bills committee and in this chamber - the secretary did not attend bills committee discussions and there is a difference between him speaking to the chamber and the permanent secretary speaking at the bills committee,' she said. 'Most people do not have access to bills committee records. Lawyers arguing cases go through the Hansard records [of the full chamber's proceedings] and these are very important.'

But Mr Lee countered that if they were to air all the points made in the bills committee meetings, where deliberations lasted 130 hours, 'we will need to have overnight meetings'.

Among the issues discussed yesterday were amendments proposed by Margaret Ng Ngoi-yee and James To Kun-sun to limit the duration of snooping authorisations and renewals of authorisation. Ms Ng proposed a total duration of two years. The lawmakers also proposed giving more power to the independent commissioner supervising compliance with the legislation.

'The only power the commissioner has is the power to read files, and the power to write a report to the chief executive,' Mr To said. 'Why didn't the chief executive want to give him more power? Perhaps he felt the non-criminal-related intelligence police gathered could help him get re-elected.'

All the amendments proposed by the Democrats and their allies were voted down, as they had been in the first two days of debate in the special session.