But a decision is unlikely before 2006 to allow time for consultation The possibility of a further civil service pay cut in Hong Kong has not been ruled out, the government said yesterday. But Civil Service Secretary Joseph Wong Wing-ping stressed that any decision would be made in 2006 at the earliest to allow ample time for discussion and consultation. Yesterday, Mr Wong released a progress report on improving the annual pay adjustment mechanism and conducting surveys to see if civil service pay has outstripped that of the private sector. Under the revised timetable, the exercise will be completed by mid-2005, six months later than originally planned. The government had said it would not introduce further civil service pay cuts after the so-called '0-3-3' package was passed into law. Under this package, civil service pay has been frozen this year, and will be followed by 3 per cent cuts next year and again in 2005. Mr Wong said the government was aware of the sensitive issue of whether the results of any pay-level survey should be applicable to civil servants who joined the administration before the handover. Article 100 of the Basic Law states that those civil servants shall retain pay and benefits 'no less favourable than before' the change of sovereignty. Mr Wong said government lawyers were divided on whether it was legally viable to have a further pay cut for civil servants in addition to the two rounds of reductions adopted since the handover. 'It's not merely a legal problem. It's more a policy issue that hinges upon a number of factors including public opinion, the views of civil servants and the process of discussion.' He admitted the public might feel disappointed with the delay, but said more time for thorough discussion and consultation was worthwhile. 'It's not a short-term task. There's no urgency. It should not be linked with the need to reduce budgetary deficits in the short run. The most important thing is the formulation of an appropriate pay adjustment mechanism.' He dismissed suggestions that the process was delayed to avoid the run-up to the Legislative Council elections next September. Under the government schedule, details such as the methodology of the pay-level comparison, as well as how civil servants would be affected, will be available for consultation in the second quarter of next year. Mr Wong said: 'That doesn't mean we will not go ahead if there is no consensus. As a government, we cannot duck the issue ... views are quite divided now. 'Instead of shying away from the controversial issue, we need to put all the details to the public for them to discuss it.' Felix Cheung Kwok-biu, Hong Kong General Civil Service Unions chairman, stressed that the Basic Law guaranteed that staff recruited before the handover should not face further pay cuts. Anthony Cheung Bing-leung, City University public and social administration professor and a member of the steering committee on the pay review, said the government should abide by its promise of not going further than the '0-3-3' agreement to cut salaries.