Executive Council convenor Lam Woon-kwong will stay as head of the government's top advisory body but stand down as chairman of the Equal Opportunities Commission when his term ends in January to end concerns about the independence of the equalities watchdog, he announced yesterday.
Lam - under fire in some quarters since being named as part of the Exco team two weeks ago, amid concerns about a possible conflict of interest - had previously said he would quit Exco if he decided to stand down from one of his two jobs.
His decision to retain both roles was condemned as 'the worst [possible] outcome' by two EOC members yesterday, while one rights groups said it would be reluctant to work with the commission while Lam remained its head.
Lam admitted yesterday that the public might perceive the EOC's independence as being weakened if he stayed in both roles for a sustained period of time, but he said it would be irresponsible of him to quit either post abruptly when the chance of a conflict arising was minimal.
'I have therefore decided that I should carry on with both jobs, for the remaining term of my current [EOC] contract, which ends at the end of January next year', Lam said at a press conference yesterday.
'For the next six months, I will continue to carry out my duties ... and be vigilant to avoid any real or perceived conflicts in serving my dual role.'
Hong Kong Unison - a rights group that is considering bringing a lawsuit against the government over its lack of help on language teaching for ethnic minority children - said Lam's decision had 'damaged [our] confidence in the EOC'.
'This has come as a shock. My group and my clients do not feel comfortable to seek help from the EOC when its chairman has such a close relationship with the government ... How can we trust that he did not leak our plan or data to the government's advisory group?' said Fermi Wong Wai-fun, Unison's founder.
Wong said the decision had led her to doubt Lam's commitment to the EOC as 'after all, he chose a position that is more glamorous and powerful rather than helping the underprivileged groups'.
'The human rights watchdog should be as independent from the government as possible, as they should be the one monitoring the government,' Wong said.
Lawmaker Frederick Fung Kin-kee said he would carry out his threat to resign from the EOC, while fellow EOC member John Tse Wing-ling expressed his disappointment with Lam.
In a joint statement, 11 NGOs expressed 'deep regret' that Lam would stay on in both roles, citing the Paris Principles, a set of international standards under which the EOC operates, which state that human rights watchdogs should be independent of government.
Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, meanwhile, last night welcomed Lam's decision to stay with Exco and said he believed he would be able to serve the community and contribute to society in his dual role.
Lam hinted on Tuesday that he would stay with the EOC, after a meeting with members during which the majority gave him their support.
He denied yesterday that his decision to leave the EOC at the end of his term was a U-turn, despite previously having promised to relinquish the post with Exco if he deemed there was a conflift of interest. Lam said he was being 'open' and 'consistent'.
'I could not openly consult the public about accepting the post in Exco before it was announced. But after that I heard a lot of voices against me accepting it. It is a responsible thing to be open-minded and listen to different voices,' he said.
'Now after a week or so, I believe it is time for me to make a judgment. I did not receive any pressure from anyone. [Taking on two such roles] should not been seen as 'monstrous', as it is quite common and it has its merits. It allows [people to] experience learning from different roles and [helps them] make better judgments.'
He is paid HK$200,000 a month for his EOC role, and HK$102,000 a month for his Exco work.