Garrison in crackdown on visits by Whitehall civil servants

THE British garrison in Hongkong is cracking down on visits to the territory from Whitehall civil servants, with the Army's Chief of Staff taking a leading role in the purge.

Brigadier Christopher Hammerbeck has told the Ministry of Defence (MOD) in London that any trips to HMS Tamar by the department's staff have to be approved by him.

An estimated 700 visits each year are made to Hongkong by ministry staff who often spend about a week in the territory - some bringing their families.

One Army officer said Brigadier Hammerbeck was trying to prevent ministry personnel from spending unnecessary time in Hongkong.

''In the past, a visit here was regarded as a perk and a civil servant often brought his family with him. Now those days are gone,'' the officer said.

''The number of military personnel coming to Hongkong has reduced considerably in recent years, but we have still had a large number of civilian MOD staff who arrive here. There is one man who has been here on eight separate trips this year alone.'' The source said Brigadier Hammerbeck had taken up the issue personally and was ''coming down hard on the MOD staff''.

''He is trying to make a trip to Hongkong look a less attractive proposition,'' the officer said.

''For instance, he has stated that visitors who arrive in Hongkong on a Monday should try to complete their jobs here by Friday so they can fly out before Saturday. This saves the Army the cost of providing accommodation over the weekend.'' The source said that some of the defence staff were flown to Hongkong on special RAF flights if there were enough numbers to fill a plane, while others travelled to the territory on normal airlines. If special flights had spare seats, families of officials were allowed to travel free.

Gulf War veteran Brigadier Hammerbeck arrived in Hongkong last June to take over the Chief of Staff role and deputy to the Commander British Forces, Major General John Foley.

It is not clear what the exact cost of each MOD trip is as it depends on the duration and whether the visitor uses a commercial or military flight. But last month it was revealed that 15,000 MOD people were sent on visits to the United States each year -at a cost to Britain of about GBP7.5 million (HK$88.87 million).

British Defence Minister Mr Malcolm Rifkind left Hongkong yesterday to continue his 10-day Southeast Asia tour, which also includes visits to Singapore and Malaysia.

During his four-day visit in Hongkong, Mr Rifkind visited a number of garrison facilities and held talks with the Governor.