MANY years ago, when the last dinosaurs were being hunted to extinction on the north slopes of Tai Mo Shan, the great ice sheets were retreating across Tolo Harbour, and Sir Murray MacLehose was Governor, the then Director of Audit gave up. He made no bones about it. The phrase he used was, as far as I remember, 'I shall now abandon the Sysyphean task' and the task referred to was persuading government officials not to abuse the cars provided for use in their work. Sysyphean has nothing to do with social diseases. It is the adjective from Sysyphus, a Greek gentleman who was condemned to roll a rock up a hill. Or so the legend has it. Chan Yin-tat, the current Director of Audit, has apparently decided it is time to start rolling stones again. He complained in his latest report about the phenomenal amounts of overtime put in by government drivers. Emily Lau pointed out at the last meeting of the Public Accounts Committee that this was a particularly wasteful piece of government spending, because the drivers were spending most of their time waiting around while their lucky passengers whooped it up at social gatherings. Michael Sze, who fields questions on this item because he is Secretary for the Civil Service, assured the committee that top civil servants occasionally took the MTR, adding that he would do so himself if invited for lunch in Tsim Sha Tsui. Mr Sze's office is in Central. Using the MTR to cross the harbour must save him about an hour spent in tunnel queues and the Kowloon one-way system. One wonders if enthusiasm for public economy is the main reason for his choice. Still at least he knows where the MTR is. I remember entertaining a freshly retired Top Official to lunch in a Nathan Road hotel. Afterwards he announced that he was returning to the Hong Kong side by tube and headed for the nearest MTR artefact, which happened to be a ventilation shaft. The station entrance was in the next street. Ms Lau's vision of chauffeurs hanging about for hours round the territory's more up-market fleshpots does not really get to the heart of the problem. Evening knees-ups do not occur that often. The thing which ensures that government drivers are on overtime every day is the almost universal convention that any official who has the use of a car can order it to collect him at home and take him to work. Later, of course, it will also waft the exhausted administrator back home. These two tasks alone mean that the driver can hardly hope to start work later than eight, or finish before 6.30 in the evening. That is a 101/2-hour day and the social life has not started yet. Naturally, overtime piles up. The big spenders are not the senior civil servants who go to a lot of balls and dinners, but the ones who live a long way from their offices. Unfortunately in the years since the Director of Audit complained annually about the misuse of cars the whole matter has come to be taken for granted. We can see this from Mr Sze's response to the suggestion that civil servants contemplating evening excursions might call a cab. 'I need to discuss this suggestion with my colleagues, because using government cars and chauffeurs is one of their benefits,' he said. This is, with respect, quite wrong. The provision of government cars and chauffeurs is not a benefit and is not supposed to be part of the civil servant's remuneration. It does not feature in the inducements offered in civil service job ads and it is not stipulated in employment contracts. There is no reason why already perk-sodden officials should be supplied with a car and driver, a privilege virtually reserved in most countries for heads of state and people who pay for it themselves. In other places the provision of a car is almost invariably accompanied by the expectation that the lucky recipient will do his own driving. The provision of government cars and chauffeurs is based on the idea that the official cannot do some items of work without them. If the user travels in his official capacity, whether to a distant branch office or to a charity ball, there can be no objection to him or her using the official car. There is, however, no reason why any civil servants - at least below the rank of those exalted personages who have official residences on the bus-bereft Peak - should be collected from home or taken there after work. This is not a perquisite. It is an example of theft from the employer, sanctioned by custom and habit. And the employer in this particular case is us. Nothing will change. Blessed are the pessimists, for they shall never be disappointed.