Anger at absence of responsibility over HK tourists left stranded

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 04 December, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 04 December, 2008, 12:00am

Lawmakers criticised the accountability system yesterday after the government refused to hold any individual official responsible for the chaos surrounding the evacuation of Hong Kong tourists stranded in Thailand.

And, as politicians blamed the practice in which deputies stand in for absent ministers for the confusion, it emerged that eight ministers and two policy secretaries had taken out-of-town leave in the past two months.

Lawmakers, incensed by Chief Secretary Henry Tang Ying-yen's remarks yesterday that a 'collective decision' was responsible for the delay in sending chartered flights to evacuate stranded Hongkongers in Bangkok, said the incident highlighted a failure in the political system.

'What is the meaning of 'collective responsibility'? It means nobody in particular is responsible,' said Democrat James To Kun-sun, deputy chairman of the Legislative Council security panel. 'It also means nobody knows who should be blamed.'

Mr To said the incident pointed to flaws in the system, which would be especially relevant in the event of a security emergency, for example when the government needed to deal with terrorist-related matters.

While security chief Ambrose Lee Siu-kwong was in Japan last weekend senior civil servants were asked to brief the news media on the Thailand situation in the absence of a stand-in for Mr Lee.

Mr Tang said Mr Lee did not have anyone acting for him during his absence. He said Secretary for Constitutional Affairs Stephen Lam Sui-lung, who stood in for Mr Lee to answer questions in Legco, had only 'handled issues on his behalf'.

Former secretary for security and now legislator Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee said the stand-in system was unclear. She said it would have been better if a senior government leader, rather than a civil servant, were to take the helm in the absence of the minister.

The South China Morning Post found that eight of the 12 ministers, plus Mr Tang and Financial Secretary John Tsang Tsun-wah, have taken leave or had out-of-town duties in the past two months. It has sparked criticism that there has been a lack of decision-makers present in Hong Kong.

All except Mr Lee, who does not have a politically appointed undersecretary, had formally arranged for deputies to act on their behalf.