Paul Chan

Ministers facing tougher conflict-of-interest rules

Business affairs of family highlighted in new guidelines after Paul Chan land controversy

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 07 August, 2013, 5:51pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 08 August, 2013, 8:18am

New conflict-of-interest guidelines mean Hong Kong ministers will have to take into account the business interests of family and friends to avoid being drawn into scandals.

The rules follow a series of embarrassments involving members of Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying's cabinet. In the latest incident, development minister Paul Chan Mo-po and his political assistant, Henry Ho Kin-chung, were caught up in a row over the ownership of plots of land that will be redeveloped in the New Territories.

Under the new rules, private interests are described as "the financial and other interests of the officer himself, his family and other relations, his personal friends, the clubs and associations to which he belongs, any other groups of people with whom he has personal or social ties, or any person to whom he owes a favour or is obligated in any way".

Previously, the code for political appointees, updated only last year, specified that an official must report to the chief executive if his or her private interests might appear to influence their judgment in performing duties.

But unlike the rules for civil servants, the code did not define the extent of such interests. The new guidelines also state that unless permitted by the chief executive, an official can only accept a loan from a "close personal" friend if it is of no more than HK$3,000.

The guidelines do not apply to non-official Exco members.

Pan-democratic and pro-establishment lawmakers gave the rules a lukewarm reception.

Wong Kwok-kin, a legislator of the Federation of Trade Unions, said phrases such as "to whom he owes a favour" could create more grey areas than it cleared up.

However, Lam Woon-kwong, convenor of the Executive Council, said the public should wait and see how the system worked.

Former chief secretary David Akers-Jones believed the new guidelines would "help to clear up matters'. He said: "The definition by the government today will be of some importance and some use for the future."

Chan has faced calls to step down since it was revealed his wife and her family owned land in the Kwu Tung area where a new town is planned.

Chan declared these interests to the chief executive two months after his appointment as secretary in July last year - but that was too late, according to most government critics. Ho quit after failing to declare his family's ownership of land in the same area.

The new guidelines state that in the event of a conflict of interest, the chief executive should consider putting another official in charge of that area of policy.

The Democratic Party's chief executive, Lam Cheuk-ting, a former anti-graft investigator, urged Chan to steer clear of the new-town project as his brother-in-law now owns land in the redevelopment area. "This relationship has already caused embarrassment for Chan," Lam said.

Akers-Jones, asked about Chan, said: "He has the support of the chief executive and will continue to do his job ... If at any time Chan thinks he can't do the job, the decision is his."