Greater push for archival law for more transparency

Campaigners cite statistics on destruction of papers to bolster calls for an archive law

PUBLISHED : Monday, 05 May, 2014, 5:01am
UPDATED : Monday, 05 May, 2014, 5:01am

Calls for an archive law have been heightened after it was revealed that two government bureaus have not stored a single file in the government archives for at least three years.

Government replies to lawmakers' questions on the budget showed that over the three-year period from 2011 to last year, a total of 80,054 files were sent from all 12 policy bureaus to the Government Records Service for permanent storage.

In the same period, a total of 1,336,510 files from these bureaus were destroyed.

For every official document retained at the service during that time, about 17 were destroyed.

This is a huge reduction from one file retained for every 289 destroyed between 2006 and 2010, as found in a South China Morning Post study conducted in 2011.

But former records service director Simon Chu Fook-keung said this was still not enough to ensure public access to key files.

Legislation was the only way to hold the government accountable, he said.

"The government can manipulate the numbers of files retained to give the impression they have done something in data protection," said Chu, who co-founded the Archives Action Group with former judges and scholars to push the government for archive legislation.

"Official records management is not only about quantity, but also about the files' quality."

There are also huge discrepancies between the numbers of files stored by different bureaus, with some storing none at all.

Between 2011 and 2013, the Financial Services and the Treasury Bureau transferred the highest number of records to the service, with almost 37,000 files.

But the Food and Health Bureau and Labour and Welfare Bureau sent no records at all for permanent retention during the same period.

The Food and Health Bureau said "all records proposed for disposal were appraised as having no archival value".

The Labour and Welfare bureau said: "From 2011 to 2013, we have requested GRS' approval of the disposal of time-expired records. After appraisal, GRS has … [asked the bureau] to transfer those records for permanent retention later this year."

In March, the Ombudsman criticised the government for failing to implement a full electronic record-keeping system.

Chu said the problem lay in records officials having no professional expertise.

"How can I trust the GRS heads - who are just executive officers - to have kept the important records," the archivist asked.

The Law Reform Commission is studying the city's open access to government data, but its report is not due until 2016.

"The protection of official records cannot wait," Chu said, citing scandals over former chief executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen and former anti-graft chief Timothy Tong Hin-ming, who respectively allegedly received favours from tycoons and spent public money lavishly.

The chief executive's office has failed to answer previous media questions on its wine storage records, saying the data "had been destroyed".

In the past three years, the chief executive's office has destroyed 493 records and transferred 92 for permanent storage. The chief secretary's and financial secretary's offices together destroyed 52,842 files and transferred 75 for permanent storage.

Chu's group is lobbying Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor - who oversees records - and the Law Reform Commission for a new law, but the response has been lukewarm.

"The ongoing electoral reform work gives officials another excuse to put aside the archival legislation work," Chu said.