TOP government officials fumbled their answers yesterday about whether the Executive Council had been fully informed about the luxury housing package paid to Hospital Authority staff. Legislators mounted a serious challenge in the Public Accounts Committee meeting about their knowledge of the package which breached two fundamental principles: the disparity in what civil servants receive and the double-benefits rule. Officials were unable to state they had been fully informed about the deal, instead offering an explanation that the package had been offered under a difficult situation. They said the Government had an urgent need to set up the Hospital Authority to improve medical and health services, and the package was needed to attract staff to it. The Director of Audit report revealed the authority's 3,150 senior staff would be paid $6.7 billion more than their civil service peers in 20 years' time. It also said the package did not comply with the double-benefits rule preventing employees married to other civil servants from claiming benefits. The officials said that as was stated in the Auditor's Report, the Executive Council had concluded in July 1990 that the issue of the housing package would be left to the then Provisional Hospital Authority to decide. But when the Provisional Hospital Authority advised the Government that a housing allowance scheme had been adopted, the administration found that the cash payment - increased annually with the pay rise - breached the rule about cost comparability with the civil service. However, then chief secretary Sir David Ford finally ruled that the question should not be pursued further so as not to affect the formation of the authority. When asked by legislators about the Executive Council's role, Secretary for Health and Welfare Mrs Katherine Fok Lo Shiu-ching remained silent for more than a minute. 'If you don't know whether the Executive Council knew about it, why don't you say so?' legislator Albert Chan Wai-yip asked. Secretary for the Treasury Kwong Ki-chi finally intervened: 'We actually didn't know the detailed situation at that time.' The officials said Exco was informed that the package was cost comparable with the civil service in 1990 but was not provided with any consideration as to the long-term effect. They insisted Exco was told the cash allowance scheme was not in keeping with the double-benefit rule, despite the remarks in the auditor's report. 'We are not going to hide anything,' Mrs Fok said. However, she confirmed the allowance had not been considered again in Exco.