Lawmakers' budget queries 'a waste of time'
Lawmakers file a record 6,825 questions on this year's spending plan, angering critics who say public resources are being squandered
Tony Cheung and Gary Cheung
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Lawmakers scrutinising the budget have filed a record number of questions - 6,825 in all, much to the annoyance of Beijing-loyalist legislators, who question the time and expense involved in the annual exercise.
Topping the chart was pan-democrat Peter Cheung Kwok-che, who filed about 650 questions, and Kenneth Chan Ka-lok, who posted 620. The said they were just doing their job.
"In principle, they can [file as many questions as they want]. I don't oppose it, but I have reservations about whether it is cost-effective and whether it really helps our debate on the budget," said Ng Leung-sing, chairman of the Legislative Council Finance Committee.
The total tally of 6,825 questions was up 24.4 per cent on a year ago and nearly double the figure two years ago, when the legislature had 60 members instead of the current 70.
A top official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, also questioned the wisdom of some lawmakers filing a huge number of questions on the budget.
"It is legitimate for legislators to monitor the government. But I doubt if it serves any public interest if the administration uses a lot of resources to handle questions concerning trivial matters," the official said.
"It prompts the question: should public resources be better used?"
Wholesale and retail lawmaker Vincent Fang Kang of the Liberal Party echoed the view. He said he had not filed a single question to the government because he would rather ask them in Finance Committee meetings.
But Cheung, lawmaker for the welfare sector, said: "I'm asking what I need to ask. Many of my questions concern elderly care because this is important, and I want to make sure that public money is well spent."
He said that it should not cost the government any extra money to answer the additional questions this year, because it did not need to hire extra staff to handle the queries.
Chan endorsed Cheung's view, saying it was reasonable for lawmakers to raise hundreds of questions, given the wide range of policy issues that the budget touched on.
"It is very important for lawmakers to make sure that [policies] are value for money. Also, we don't usually get answers from the government on things like how many days off ministers, undersecretaries and political assistants have taken," he said.
On Friday, education minister Eddie Ng Hak-kim came under attack from lawmakers after a question from Chan helped to reveal that Ng spent more than HK$2.6 million on 13 working trips outside the city in the past 18 months - more than his predecessor Michael Suen Ming-yeung spent in his whole five-year term.
Cheung and Chan raised questions on welfare and education issues, but there were complaints that other lawmakers focused on less relevant concerns.
In a Headline Daily column on March 27, public affairs consultant Fanny Wong criticised "Long Hair" Leung Kwok-hung of the League of Social Democrats for asking about the number of reports of UFO sightings in the past five years, and for figures on how many civil servants and how much money was involved in handling such sightings.
The Observatory had said last week that Tai Po led other districts when it came to UFO sightings, with 25 reports in the area since 2009.
On Wednesday, when asked whether he found the UFO question stupid, commerce minister Greg So Kam-leung, who oversees the Observatory's work, said: "Some residents may be interested, and I think we have to accommodate the lawmakers' work as far as possible, if it's not wasting a lot of resources."
On the large number of questions his bureau received, So said: "We will answer them, and we will consider the overall interest of Hong Kong.
"But we also have to strike a balance, because our colleagues could be spending time [on these questions] at the expense of something else."