The cast-iron case for an archival law in HK

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 07 March, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 07 March, 2007, 12:00am

The lack of a properly maintained government archive for documents and records has long baffled those who would benefit from such a collection - civil servants, journalists, researchers and historians among them. That ours is one of the few jurisdictions in the world not to have legislation enshrining the need for such a repository begs the question of what the government is keeping, what has been thrown away over the years and what has been neglected.

Finding such matters out is difficult because the government is not obligated to open its archival material to public scrutiny. There is, after all, no law saying that it must.

With the controversy over the demolition of the Star Ferry pier in Central still fresh, ensuring that history, no matter whether physical, in the collective memory or as paper or electronic documents, is maintained for future generations should be a priority for the government.

But as a report released yesterday by the think-tank Civic Exchange shows, this is much more than just an issue of historical record. The report highlights the problems encountered by the Audit Commission in 2004 when investigating an illegal change of land use in Discovery Bay, estimated to have cost the government HK$160 million in lost land premiums. A failure by officials to keep proper records prevented the commission from determining the extent to which those involved were responsible for irregularities.

As the report points out, this case highlights the failure of the existing archiving system to create and keep key records. There is little point in the public having access to information if that information is not documented and therefore not capable of being accessed.

That brings us to another important issue raised by the report - access to information. Hong Kong has freedom of expression, as defined by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which is incorporated into the Basic Law. This provides people not only with a right to express themselves freely, but also to access information.

Freedom of information laws are commonplace throughout the world. The mainland put in place its archive law in 1987, while Britain has had such a provision since 1939, significantly augmented by a freedom of information act in 2000.

Hong Kong does have guidelines on accessing information, and applications can be made for specific documents and data. This does not mean, however, that the government is obligated to provide what is being asked for.

The lack of a law on archival resources and access to them has led to government inefficiencies and a lack of transparency.

Civic Exchange points out that the present record system is haphazard. Government agencies are not required to create or maintain records or to transfer those of long-term value to the archives agency. Important public documents may therefore never be created, may be destroyed or never be made publicly available. The government records agency has no authority to track documents, ensure that they are kept or impose penalties for non-compliance with the guidelines.

Electronic records, increasingly the main method for the government to carry out its business, are as vulnerable. Without policies and standards in place, important data is daily being lost.

We like to think of our city as being efficient and modern. Being a regional hub of the information society and an integral part of the global economy, ensuring quick and uncomplicated access to all manner of public domain documents and records should be our goal.

This can only be fully attained through the creation and enactment of archival legislation. The government and civil society would benefit through such a system, which would ensure efficiency, accountability and transparency - while maintaining a valuable record.