Lands officials not restricted from buying land, rule says amid conflict-of-interest row
Officials aren't barred from buying land as long as they declare it, but former civil service secretary says the guidelines need clarifying
Senior lands officials are not allowed to buy stocks related to property development, but they can buy land as long as they declare it, a Lands Department internal circular states.
The circular obtained by the South China Morning Post was issued on June 12, 2012 - the day assistant lands director Anita Lam Ka-fun was promoted from chief estates surveyor.
Lam, who oversaw Yuen Long, is embroiled in a conflict-of-interest row for having bought 13 plots of land in the district's Tsing Tam village - just beyond the area being studied for the Kam Tin new town - in 2012.
The circular states that "an officer must fully satisfy himself or herself that such an investment will not give rise to any actual or potential conflict of interest with official duties", but it does not bar officials from buying land.
However, in light of the controversy, former civil service secretary Joseph Wong Wing-ping called for rules to be tightened.
"Buying land is a much bigger investment than buying stocks, so why are lands officials being stopped from buying stocks but not land," Wong asked. "The Lands Department is responsible for giving a clearer instruction."
A Development Bureau spokeswoman said it might review its declaration system, including how to prevent negative public perception of situations.
Lam and her husband had bought 8,000 square metres of land in Yuen Long for HK$18.8 million in 2012. Last month, she got Town Planning Board approval to build four houses there.
Although she declared her interest, the department said on Thursday Lam would be moved to a new post. It came after further controversy as it emerged she did not declare a surveying firm she set up with her husband. The firm is no longer in business.
The circular outlines how its officials should handle their private investments: "All officers [in] contact with property developers in discharging their duties are strongly advised to refrain from making investments in business … that have an interest in property development in Hong Kong.
"All directorate officers and some designated posts and their secretaries cannot invest in local property shares."
Other rules include officers being barred from playing mahjong or gambling with anyone dealing with the department.
Democratic Party lawmaker Wu Chi-wai warned against excessively stringent rules. "If a district lands officer is responsible for Kowloon, should he also be barred from buying property in the New Territories?" Wu added that, at present, civil servants could be moved to a new post or told to give up an investment if there was a conflict of interest.
A Civil Service Bureau spokeswoman said departments may draw up additional rules in line with operational circumstances.
Lam said she would seek legal advice before offering an explanation to the public.
THE LANDS COMMANDMENTS
A lands official should not:
- Invest in local property shares (applicable only to directorate officers and their secretaries)
- Give or ask colleagues for classified information on small house applications and lands projects
- Give views on development proposals in their personal capacity
Lands officials are also advised to refrain from:
- Investing in businesses or securities that have an interest in Hong Kong property development
- Taking part in any official decision-making that involves their private interests