PUBLIC RECORDS

Ombudsman investigates information access code

Ombudsman's investigation welcomed by former records service chief

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 05 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 05 January, 2013, 4:15am

The Ombudsman has launched an investigation into the government's access to information code and records management system, after years of calls for legislation to better protect government archives and the public's right to see them.

Ombudsman Alan Lai Nin said yesterday it was necessary to determine whether Hongkongers' access to information was adequately provided for.

He said his office would compare the city's rules with other jurisdictions, including those with legislation on the issue, to see if the measures were in keeping with "modern standards of open and good administration".

He noted that the code had not been amended since its introduction 17 years ago.

Lawmakers - who have complained for years about the difficulty of obtaining information and retrieving records - welcomed the investigation, as did a former head of the Government Records Service (GRS), who said legislation was needed.

During his campaign for chief executive, Leung Chun-ying signed a press freedom charter from the Journalists Association, which included a pledge to facilitate the enactment of a freedom of information law if elected.

Departments are required to provide information upon request under the non-statutory Code on Access to Information, apart from a list of exceptions. But the only redress for someone denied information is to complain to the Ombudsman, who is powerless to order its disclosure.

Since the code was introduced in 1995, there have been 34,803 requests of which 746 were turned down. The Ombudsman received 13 complaints from July to September last year.

The government can refuse to disclose information about defence and security, external affairs, internal discussion and 13 other areas.

Former director of the records service Simon Chu Fook-keung welcomed the investigation, saying the city needed an archive law to plug the loopholes of existing government guidelines.

The current archival system is only outlined by a 15-page internal circular from the administration. The government said it would co-operate with the investigation and consider how arrangements could be improved.

The Ombudsman made 11 suggestions in 2010, including more training for officials and better internal promotion of the code. A government spokesman said these had been adopted.

Labour Party lawmaker Cyd Ho Sau-lan thanked Lai for launching the investigation but feared the government still might not pass laws even if the Ombudsman found it necessary.

"The Ombudsman doesn't have much power," she said. "The government can easily ignore its suggestions."

She said it was important to have laws to govern how the administration dealt with records and the public's requests for information, so legal action could be taken if there were suspicions that it was not following the rules.

The Civic Party's Kenneth Chan Ka-lok said current guidelines failed to protect the public's right to information and government archives properly.

He urged the government to consider passing laws to govern the storage of records and access to information. At present, it is up to bureaus and departments to decide whether or not they transfer documents to the GRS.