Bureaus won't provide details of spending on gifts
Post inquiries into who gave what to whom meet with formula e-mails and no details on spending
Ada Lee and Cheung Chi-fai
The government has came under fire for withholding information about principal officials' expenditures on gifts and treats for mainland officials, which critics said only made monitoring of the use of public funds more difficult.
The South China Morning Post requested all 15 government bureaus, the police force, the Customs and Excise Department and the Immigration Department to provide lists of gifts and treats made during the term of the previous government.
The request was made after it came to light from the audit report and subsequent media reports that the Independent Commission Against Corruption and its former chief, Timothy Tong Hin-ming, had abused entertainment expenses.
The inquiries were filed separately to each bureau and department on April 25. The replies began coming in from about 4.30pm yesterday, with each taking it in turn to file a standardised e-mail that did not state clearly that it would provide the information requested.
A source familiar with the situation said it would take a long time, perhaps months, for the bureaus and departments to dig out the records, such as receipts for meals, which might not even be kept in a uniform way. But the source did not say why it could not be done.
Hong Kong Journalists Association chairwoman Mak Yin-ting said it was unreasonable for the government to take the attitude that the activities of a previous government were none of its business. "They should at least tell the journalist whether they would check for the information, and whether they would answer the inquiries," she said.
"In the past, we said the government was evading the questions. Now they don't even evade. They just answer with something unrelated."
To Yiu-ming, assistant professor in Baptist University's department of journalism, said the government's attitude showed the city desperately needed a freedom of information law, giving public access to government information and documents.
"They ought to disclose how they're using public money, especially when the ugly example of the ICAC is now emerging," he said. "Without a freedom of information act, freedom of speech is just empty talk."
Lawmaker Dr Kenneth Chan Ka-lok said he had asked Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Raymond Tam Chi-yuen a similar question in the Legislative Council's Budget debate. He quoted Tam as saying the government did not have such records.
Chan said he believed the government held the information, but perhaps thought it was "too embarrassing" to release.
The standardised reply just stated that the government had "established procedures and guidelines" on the use of public funds. It said full justification must be provided and approval sought for any meals and banquets exceeding budget ceilings.
"Soon after assumption of office, [the government] decided not to accept or exchange souvenirs or gifts in functions and activities," the reply said.