The Legislative Council has not always found it easy to win the respect it deserves. In recent weeks, however, it has faced new threats to its powers and privileges. This is a worrying trend. Tung Chee-hwa has refused to appear before the Legco panel investigating Sars, preferring to meet for an informal chat with lawmakers. And discussion of motions criticising the central government has not even been allowed. In both cases, dubious constitutional grounds have been cited. Legco, it seems, is coming under increasing pressure. Some may wonder why this is a cause for concern. After all, there are those who view Legco as no more than a glorified talking shop and voting machine for the government. Others see our lawmakers as rebellious, politically immature troublemakers. At times, the goings-on in Legco have provided evidence to support each of these opinions. There has been bickering, filibustering, and many a political stunt. Insults have been hurled and walkouts staged. And in the end, the government usually gets its way. For all its faults, however, Legco is part of the lifeblood of Hong Kong. The first Legislative Council meeting was held in 1844. There were only four official members - and one of them was the governor. Over the decades, however, this small advisory body has grown into an institution which, despite its limitations, resembles the sort of legislature that sits at the pinnacle of democratic systems around the world. It is not the most representative of parliaments. But it provides a valuable forum for the open exchange of opinions and, in its own way, acts as a check on the executive. This is why attempts to curb its powers should be viewed with concern. No satisfactory explanation has been given for Mr Tung's refusal to appear in public before the Sars inquiry. All we are told is that it would be 'constitutionally inappropriate'. No one has been prepared to tell us why. The Basic Law provides that the chief executive is accountable both to the central government and to Hong Kong. His appearance before Legco would seem to be consistent with the second part of this provision. Under the Law, Hong Kong's leader has the right to decide whether government officials should attend. But this is to be done 'in the light of security and vital public interests'. Such a restriction would not seem to apply in the case of the Sars inquiry. Clearly, the public interest would be best served if he appeared. The informal arrangements put in place for Mr Tung to face the lawmakers on the panel at least ensure his participation. But it is difficult to see how it can be constitutionally inappropriate for Mr Tung to appear before the panel in public, yet appropriate for him to undertake a similar exercise behind closed doors and with conditions attached. The government should explain the legal reasoning behind this decision. Legco's freedom to debate issues of public interest has also attracted attention. The legislature's president, Rita Fan Hsu Lai-tai, has twice now rejected motions put forward by democrats that criticise the central government. These, too, have been held to be in breach of the Basic Law. Beijing added its weight to these decisions on Friday, stating that it was 'highly concerned' about the proposed motions, which were described as 'confrontational acts'. Whether the motions are helpful or not in the current climate is open to question. But gagging Legco in this way constitutes a restriction on freedom of expression. These motions are non-binding. They are in keeping with Legco's power under the Basic Law to 'debate any issue concerning public interests'. The Legislative Council is an important symbol of our traditional freedoms. To weaken it is to weaken Hong Kong.