A pay review should be conducted every three to five years to keep civil service salaries in line with those in the private sector, the government said yesterday. The proposal came as officials insisted that they would begin the pay comparison next month and finish it by September, despite reservations expressed by staff unionists. It is 17 years since the last study of this kind. Secretary for Civil Service Joseph Wong Wing-ping yesterday met staff representatives in a last-ditch attempt to win support over the controversial pay review, which might end up with civil service salaries being reduced. The move is widely seen as a crucial step to help ease the mounting budget deficit, which is estimated to soar to about $70 billion by March. Chinese Civil Servants' Association vice-president Peter Wong Hyo - who walked out of the meeting with Joseph Wong - warned of more disputes ahead. However, Joseph Wong sought to play down the differences with the unions. 'I think there is a lot of consensus . . . I don't think the differences are something that could not be resolved,' he said. The civil service secretary said that the dialogue would continue. He stopped short of saying whether a pay cut was inevitable. However, he said he hoped to hammer out a mechanism which allows for such a cut, and the submitting of the necessary legislative changes for approval, before the end of the year. Joseph Wong suggested reviewing pay every three to five years. The annual pay trend survey for salary adjustment - a different process - will continue except when the pay level review is being conducted that particular year. The pay trend survey measures changes in wages in 100 businesses in the previous 12 months. The figures will help determine civil service pay adjustment each year. The pay level study, which was last conducted 17 years ago, seeks to find out if officials have outstripped their private sector counterparts in pay. Peter Wong criticised the government for rushing to finish the study without first clarifying issues concerning pay policy and the adjustment mechanism. 'If some matters of principles are not settled first, arguments will arise again and again in the coming talks. The survey will be a wasted effort if people refuse to endorse the findings because these differences have yet to be resolved,' he said. William Chiu See-wai, who represented another seven unions at the talks, criticised the review as being too hasty. The seven groups disagreed that the annual pay trend survey should not be conducted when the pay level review operated. Members also urged the government to postpone the deadline from September to March next year to allow a more thorough review. Joseph Wong was adamant that the government's timetable was realistic. 'The important thing is why don't both sides demonstrate our commitment, demonstrate our sincerity, get on with the exercise quickly and see whether or not we indeed can complete the exercise as early as possible?' he said.