Complaint filed over secrecy on salaries

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 07 June, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 07 June, 2008, 12:00am

Post asks Ombudsman to look into political appointees pay saga

The Ombudsman has been asked to consider whether the government has breached the code on access to information by refusing to disclose the salary of individual undersecretaries and political assistants.

The South China Morning Post yesterday lodged a complaint to the Ombudsman after the government declined a formal request under access to information measures to provide the data.

The move followed repeated refusal by the government to disclose the salaries since the political appointees were announced last month, and as the Democratic Party pressed ahead with a motion aimed at using Legislative Council powers to force disclosure.

Under the access to information code, members of the public may obtain official information from government departments under certain criteria.

Last Friday, a Post journalist filed an application asking the salary of each undersecretary and political assistant.

In a written reply dated June 4, the Chief Executive's Office provided information on the number of political appointees paid at each salary point, but said: 'The actual salaries of individual appointees are personal data, and we cannot randomly disclose information.'

However, asked about the matter last week, the Office of the Privacy Commissioner for Personal Data said appointees should expect their salaries to be disclosed in the interests of government transparency.

A spokeswoman said that while non-disclosure of the salaries did not breach the privacy law, disclosure of appointees' pay would be consistent with the purpose of data collection, one of the criteria on which information can be disclosed under the code.

The spokeswoman noted that the commission would neither support nor oppose the disclosure of appointees' salaries.

According to section 2.15 of the Code on Access to Information, the government may refuse to provide information if it falls within the privacy of any individual. Exceptions arise when 'such disclosure is consistent with the purposes for which the information was collected' and when 'the public interest in disclosure outweighs any harm or prejudice that would result'.

The Post reporter filed a complaint to the Ombudsman yesterday about a possible breach of the code by the Chief Executive's Office.

A spokeswoman for the Ombudsman said a received complaint would be acknowledged within five working days. An assessment team would decide whether the complaint fell under the Ombudsman's jurisdiction. An investigation, if launched, would take three to six months.

In a written reply to the Post by the privacy commissioner's office after the filing of the complaint, the spokeswoman outlined four criteria for ascertaining whether disclosure of the salaries was consistent with the purposes of collecting the data:

Whether at the time of employment the government had made it known to the employees that their salaries would be disclosed;

Whether there is reasonable expectation of the parties as to the public disclosure of the salaries;

Public accountability and transparency of senior government officials of directorate pay scale;

The fact that remuneration pay scales of civil servants are available on the government website.

'In any event, the data subject may at any given time give consent to the disclosure of such information,' the spokeswoman added.