Legislators must be honest about expenses

PUBLISHED : Monday, 01 June, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 01 June, 2009, 12:00am

Lawmakers should be community role models. We should have no reason to doubt their honesty and integrity. Allowances they are given to carry out their work must be spent for the purposes for which they are given and done so in good faith. Our report on Page 1 today casts doubts as to whether this can be said of every legislator.

Almost every third member of the Legislative Council regularly claims the maximum allowable amount for entertainment and travel expenses. Rules based on lawmakers being people we can trust mean that more than HK$164,000 a year can be claimed without providing receipts. Honour systems are not unusual in the world of politics. But as the expenses scandal rocking Britain's Parliament so plainly proves, assumptions should never be taken for granted.

There, politicians from outside London given allowances for maintaining second homes have sparked public anger by making extravagant and false claims. The most eye-catching have been for mock Tudor beams for the front of a house, a duck island and cleaning a moat. Some were living with relatives, yet still taking the allowance. For all the differences, though, at the heart of both cases is honesty, trust and transparency.

Here, the circumstances are far removed from the scandalous situation in Britain, but are nevertheless worrying. Some of our legislators admitted they were using the allowance to meet shortfalls in office running costs. Others were claiming the same amount each month - obviously an impossibility when dealing with fares and bills. The four lawmakers from the Federation of Trade Unions each put in the highest monthly claims of HK$13,720, while three of the Democratic Party legislators and one from the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong claimed HK$13,699 a month. Others claim only part of the maximum amount and a few none. Legally, nothing is amiss. However, it is obvious that they are treating the allowance as part of their salary and this is wrong.

Our legislators receive more than HK$1.5 million a year to operate an office and pay staff. Their monthly salary is HK$68,200. An additional HK$26,130 is provided for yearly medical and dental costs. There has long been debate that such amounts are insufficient and do not reflect the importance of the job. But entertainment and travel expenses have not featured in such a discussion.

Perhaps these expenses should be included in office running costs rather than be treated as a separate allowance. Yet, as long as the distinction remains, legislators should not abuse it and should claim only as much as they have spent. They should keep impeccable records of their expenses, whether required to or not. They should be able to prove how they have spent taxpayers' money. Most of all, they should be honest and open. To do otherwise is to erode a system of government that is our lifeline to the rights and freedoms we hold so dear.