Wrestling with pay

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 01 July, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 01 July, 2009, 12:00am

Disgruntled police officers called off their protest march last Sunday following the personal pledge by their commissioner, Tang King-shing, to fight for an early, backdated implementation of the recommendations in the grade structure review. At the same time, they placed an advert in newspapers explaining to the public their side of the dispute.

The police disagree with the government on three counts. First, they do not accept this year's pay trend survey results because they consider the data collected from two companies to be flawed. If these two were excluded from the calculations, the pay trend indicators would be substantially different.

Second, they are upset by the government's decision to delay consideration of the grade structure review that was completed by the end of last year. Third, the government continues to ignore their long-standing request for an independent pay review mechanism.

On the first issue, the full report of the pay trend survey is not available to the public because it contains commercially sensitive information. So it is not possible to judge whether the police representatives on the pay trend survey committee are right to reject the findings.

Circumstantial evidence, however, does not favour the police. First, the list of companies included and the methodology for collating the data were endorsed by the whole pay trend committee before the survey started. Second, only four staff representative members (including two police representatives), out of the 16 committee members, refused to accept the outcome. Also, six staff representative members, including two non-police disciplined services staff, accepted the results. Third, the pay trend survey has been conducted for decades and it is the first time in the last 20 years that the outcome has not been endorsed unanimously.

If the police consider that there are valid reasons to exclude the two suspect companies, they can pursue their case through the proper legal channels, such as by seeking a judicial review. As matters stand, it would be difficult for the public to accept the police's case.

On the grade structure review, the police have a fair point that it should have been completed much earlier than last year. But the government's delay was a deliberate policy decision. Secretary for the Civil Service Denise Yue Chung-yee explained at the time that, as Hong Kong had been hit hard by the worldwide financial crisis, the government had decided to defer implementing recommendations involving additional financial implications 'until the economy returned to a steady state'.

Miss Yue has undertaken to submit the recommendations to the Executive Council in September or October. So the more substantive question is whether all the recommendations in the review report should be accepted in full, and implemented retrospectively.

The grade structure review report deserves full consideration and its recommendations should not be taken for granted. It is necessary to evaluate the policy and financial implications of the main recommendation: to increase incremental pay points of various ranks and to lift their pay scale maximum by an additional pay point. It is not normal government policy to implement pay review recommendations retrospectively, so a case for exceptional treatment would have to be made - particularly at a time when the paying public is still suffering.

It is true that the government has consistently refused the request for an independent police pay mechanism, mainly because any change would bring uncertainty to the system and lead to similar demands from other disciplined services. It would also send an unsettling signal to the public that the police are somehow above the rest of the civil service.

The fact that the police commissioner has staked his personal reputation in pursuing the police demands makes things difficult for the Civil Service Bureau and Exco. But this should not remove the government's responsibility to take account of the larger public interest.

One of the values the police force proclaims is 'fairness, impartiality and compassion in all our dealings'. This should provide the key to resolving the pay dispute. The public should be the final judge of where the right balance should lie.

Joseph Wong Wing-ping, formerly secretary for the civil service, is an honorary professor at the University of Hong Kong