Public works payment plan under attack

Linda Choy

LEGISLATORS yesterday criticised plans to authorise payments for public works before projects were finished after the Secretary for the Treasury, Mr Yeung Kai-yin, failed to convince them of the urgency to settle the bills.

According to new guidelines issued by the Treasury chief late last year, works directors will be allowed to make payments based on the estimated amount of work a contractor or consultant will complete by the end of next month.

At the time, it was widely considered the Government had introduced the plan to help cut back already embarrassingly high reserves.

But during yesterday's lands and works panel meeting, legislators asked why the Government did not maintain the normal practice of paying for completed jobs.

Mr Steven Poon Kwok-lim said it was unreasonable that tax-payers' money was handed over at an advanced stage.

The Deputy Secretary for the Treasury, Mr Stephen Selby, said the Government was making early settlements in order to prevent the accumulation of payments at the end of the financial year.

Asked what the Government would do if contractors failed to complete jobs, he said the money would be deducted in their following payments.

But legislators were not happy with the explanation and appealed to Mr Yeung to reconsider the plan.

Meanwhile, to avoid slippage in works in the future, Mr Yeung assured legislators that new measures would be introduced to address the problem in the next financial year.

One of the measures is to boost the power given to the Financial Secretary, Mr Hamish Macleod, and Mr Yeung in approving spending without seeking prior approval from the Finance Committee.

At present, Mr Macleod and Mr Yeung are authorised to approve expenditure of $10 million or less and the Treasury chief said a new measure was to raise the ceiling although he failed to specify the amount.

Mr Yeung also attributed the delay to the red tape in government administration, adding that this had resulted in great under-spending in the financial years between 1990 and 1993.

''Under-spending is equivalent to under-performance by the nine government departments responsible for public works and I think this can be a serious matter,'' he said.