WHATEVER happened to openness and accountability? Those were the key themes of Chris Patten's message when he arrived in the territory three years ago. Now the words cannot be uttered without irony. The Legislative Council's Public Accounts Committee has been shown the limits of its powers. Under the Powers and Privileges Ordinance, it can summon Executive Councillors, including the Chief Secretary, and order them to testify under oath and supply confidential documents. Having at last found the courage to quiz the Executive in detail over the establishment of the Hospital Authority and attempted to gain access to the documents it requires, it now finds that the orders it issues under this muscular ordinance can simply be side-stepped. Any official summoned under oath and would certainly appear. However, confidential Exco papers belong to the Government, not to the individual officer, who may not therefore disclose their contents. To do so would be to break the Exco oath and the Official Secrets Act. If that puts the official in breach of the ordinance, then so be it. The committee decided the fight was not worth the damage. Its own position would have been badly undermined if it lost, and the Government would have been shown up in a bad light at a time when Hong Kong needs credible institutions. But, on balance, the committee should have taken up the challenge. From now on the administration - and its post-1997 successor - can hide behind Exco secrecy, knowing there will be no comeback. It is not as if Exco confidentiality is truly sacrosanct. Officials have already leaked those parts of the discussions which suited their case. This Government is showing itself to be no more of a believer in openness than its predecessors. Its treatment of the committee demonstrates the contempt in which it holds the elected councillors to whom its accountability should be owed.