'Fake census' officers may be criminally liable

Commissioner will head a task force looking into claims answers were fabricated over 10 years

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 09 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 09 January, 2013, 5:17am

Frontline census officers accused of faking answers in an apparent bid to speed up their work could be criminally liable, and the commissioner says she will lead a task force investigating the case.

But lawmakers said the Census and Statistics Department probe was not enough and called for an independent inquiry.

It came after reports in Ming Pao newspaper alleging that as many as nine out of 10 frontline offers fabricated answers over the past 10 years to improve efficiency - and their performance reports. Former officers said it was common practice to make up answers, and that errors found in household survey interviews were often ignored.

The allegations have sparked fears that policies and decisions concerning resource allocation have been, and will be, made based on false numbers.

One former officer, responsible for general household surveys, said that when he did telephone interviews following up on information collected from field surveys, he found deviations, but they were ignored.

"My interviewee would not say whether she was a housewife and whether she was seeking employment, but [the field interviewer] had written that she was a housewife and not seeking employment," the officer told a radio programme yesterday. He said he informed his boss of the discrepancies and was told: "You can't complain about this. This is just how they do it, just ignore it."

The officer believed some officers faked answers to lift their success rates up to 97 per cent, which helped with promotion.

Section 19 of the Census and Statistics Ordinance states that any census officer who knowingly makes any false return or alters any particular contained in the document with intent to falsify it commits an offence. Offenders convicted of the crime could be jailed for six months and fined of up to HK$5,000.

Commissioner for Census and Statistics Lily Ou-yang Fong said she would chair a department task force to look into the matter. It also included an independent member of the Statistics Advisory Board. A report would be submitted to the secretary for financial services and the treasury, but she did not say when.

A Financial Services and the Treasury Bureau spokeswoman said it would not refer any case to the police until the investigation was completed.

Civic Party lawmaker and senior counsel Ronny Tong Ka-wah said if the allegations were true, the officers could have committed a criminal offence. He and several other lawmakers called for an independent investigation.

Professor Paul Yip Siu-fai of the University of Hong Kong said if data was inaccurate resources may have been misallocated.