Records go into black hole instead of archives
Historians, journalists and the public interested in digging out details of controversial issues such as the scrapping of former chief executive Tung Chee-hwa's target of supplying 85,000 flats a year or his feud with former chief secretary Anson Chan Fang On-sang will not get any clues in the near future.
They should not even take it for granted that they will be able to get any more information from government records even three decades after the events, when records created by government departments are made available.
This is because since 1997 the Chief Executive's Office, the Chief Secretary's Office and the Financial Secretary's Office - the nerve centre of the administration - have not transferred their records to the Government Records Service.
They have not made the transfer because of 'operational needs', a government spokesman said.
Former record service director Simon Chu Fook-keung said that with the proliferation of electronic records and the government's lack of will and capacity to deal with their management and preservation, Hong Kong faced the prospects of a 'huge historical black hole'.
The absence of an archive law leaves it up to bureaus and departments whether or not they transfer documents to the service, which oversees the overall management of government records.
Critics said the recent dispute over whether Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen had lobbied Legislative Council president Tsang Yok-sing to vote for the constitutional reform package highlights the need for legislation on government records and archives.
Donald Tsang categorically denied the claim. While the Legco president said that no officials had pressured him, he admitted officials had contacted him on the matter.
'In the absence of an archival law, there is no need for the Chief Executive's Office or for any other government departments to transfer their records to the GRS,' Chu said.
This is contrary to the practice in many developed countries.
'In countries and governments where archive laws are in force, officials are required to create records for all official business and to keep and manage the records for evidence of such business,' Chu, who retired in 2007, said.
A government spokesman said the offices of the chief executive, chief secretary and financial secretary created and kept records for official business including meetings and activities.
'Records in these three offices are created, filed, stored and disposed of in accordance with the records management procedures and guidelines promulgated by the Government Records Service,' the spokesman said. According to these procedures, if the offices considered that any records needed to be closed and disposed of, they should seek the GRS' consent.
'In the process, records appraised to have historical value will be transferred to the Public Records Office of the GRS as archival records for preservation,' the spokesman said. 'Since 1997 these three offices have not transferred records to the GRS because of operational needs. They, however, keep under review which files should be closed and disposed of.'
A former senior official familiar with the record-keeping procedures of governors and top officials before 1997 said during the tenure of governor Murray MacLehose from 1971 to 1982, a private secretary was present to take notes of all meetings with the governor unless they were about personal matters.
These minutes were circulated to the policy secretary or department head responsible for the subject discussed. They were also filed at Government House, the official said.
'By the time of David Wilson [governor from 1987 to 1992], private secretary's note-taking was comprehensive, even on the most sensitive topics. These records would have given almost 100 per cent coverage of every significant conversation the governor had with officials or outsiders,' the former official said.
A spokesman for the Government Records Service said it had appraised some 2.4 million records from 2004 to last year. Thirty-three bureaus and departments referred records to the service for appraisal last year, compared with 40 that did so in 2008.
In general, public access will be granted to archival records containing classified information which has been closed for 30 years. However, information provided by the GRS indicates only 485 out of 2,561 government records due for annual review between 2004 and last year were opened after review.
In February, the British government amended the 30-year rule, under which most government records are made available for public inspection, to 20 years.
How we compare
No archival law
Access to archival records transferred to the Government Records Service is managed through the Public Records (Access) Rule. Public access normally granted to archival records containing classified information that has been closed for 30 years.
The Public Records Act requires government departments to transfer records to the National Archives when they are 30 years old. The Freedom of Information Act requires most records to be released to the public when they are 30 years old.
In a report last year an independent panel recommended the government replace the 30-year rule with a 15-year rule. In February the government cut it to 20 years.
Under the Presidential Records Act, records will be released 12 years after the end of an administration.
The Freedom of Information Act allows for the full or partial disclosure of documents controlled by the government.