Equal Opportunities Commission

Equal opportunities watchdog may have lost its bite

Appointment of former health chief is latest controversy of many that have hit equal opportunities body

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 March, 2013, 6:36am

The controversial appoint-ment of former health chief Dr York Chow Yat-ngok to head an anti-discrimination watchdog has drawn much criticism, something the statutory body has seen plenty of in its 17-year history.

Established in 1996, the Equal Opportunities Commission was tasked with overseeing anti-discrimination laws covering sex, race, family status and disability. The EOC was seen as an impartial body that could openly criticise public policies, so it was naturally a potential thorn in the government's side.

The watchdog also supported people bringing discrimination cases against the administration so it was not surprising when, 10 years ago, rumours abounded that it would be disbanded and its roles dispersed among government departments.

Those 2003 rumours were due, in part, to the commission's tough stance against gender bias in Form One allocations, a high-profile legal case in 2001 spearheaded by Anna Wu Hung-yuk, chairwoman at the time.

Wu was a driving force behind the commission's formation, tabling a bill, as a Legislative Council member, in 1994 to outlaw discrimination based on sex, disability, race, age, family status and sexual orientation.

But only a watered-down version was passed, leading her to fight for a statutory body to protect human rights. Dr Fanny Cheung Mui-ching was the first chief; major issues she dealt with included recruitment procedures in the disciplinary forces and an exemption from the Sex Discrimination Ordinance that allowed only male indigenous residents to build a small house in the New Territories.

In 1999, Wu took over the role and, in the next four years, she lobbied tirelessly against gender-typing in school textbooks and racial discrimination. She was replaced in 2003 by retired judge Michael Wong Kin-chow, who quit three months later amid a spate of scandals that erupted after he sacked a senior director, Patrick Yu Chung-yin.

The next chief was Patricia Chu Yeung Pak-yu, a former deputy director of the Social Welfare Department. She was given a one-year contract but when she asked for a one-year extension, saying more time was needed to make a difference, she was turned down.

In December 2004, former privacy commissioner Raymond Tang Yee-bong was awarded a five-year contract, the longest of any chief, but his tenure was marked with more controversy, including accusations of lavish spending and serious governance problems at the commission.

Lam Woon-kwong took over in 2010 and, despite being a long-time civil servant, he did not shy away from criticising the government, describing Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah's one-off budget handouts the following year as "poisons" that were short-sighted and failed to address the needs of the poor.

He also pushed a debate over legalising same-sex marriage, saying it was important to start having a conversation on the issue, despite opposition from conservatives.

In July, Lam announced he would quit as EOC chief, but not until he had spent another six months juggling that job with his new function as Executive Council convenor, sparking fears that the commission would lose its independence.

His departure this month signals another shift in leadership style, with early hints of Chow's more conservative stance on a move to introduce new laws to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Chow, 66, was vague on the issue when his appointment was announced on Wednesday, saying it was too early to define any possible legal protection for sexual minorities.

He will receive HK$219,200 per month in his new role, which starts on April 1.