The proposal would save the taxpayer more money, says Joseph Wong Long unpaid leave for civil servants is being considered by the government to help trim the multibillion-dollar payroll. Under the proposal, non-directorate grade staff would be allowed to take up to three years off to pursue a university degree with a government subsidy, or simply stay at home for a year or two if they wish. Secretary for the Civil Service Joseph Wong Wing-ping said yesterday the proposal would help save taxpayers' money. 'The aim is to save manpower resources and allow more flexibility in management,' he said. Mr Wong said staff currently working in obsolete jobs might want to take longer leave to prepare themselves for better postings. Others might want to opt for early retirement or to look after young children at home for a longer period. He stressed details such as whether employees on leave would continue to enjoy housing or education allowances for their children had still to be decided. But he saw no problems in giving subsidies for those taking leave to further their studies, even if they eventually decided not to return. Neither would it be a problem if they took up part-time jobs during the leave, as long as this did not bring the civil service into disrepute or involve a conflict of interest. 'We don't want to impose too many restrictions. But they have to seek our approval first. There is no question of the government issuing a blank cheque to them,' he said. Mr Wong dismissed claims that the private sector might find such a scheme too generous. 'What's so wrong about such an arrangement? It can save taxpayers' money. There is no reason to be jealous. Some companies also have such arrangements,' he said. He pledged that employees would not lose their jobs after they took leave. Individual departments would have the final say on whether employees could take leave in light of their work load. The staff side would be consulted on the details later this year, Mr Wong added. The chairman of the Government Employees Association, Chan Che-kwong, said previous audits found each civil servant had accumulated an average of four months of paid leave. He was concerned about stability if many staff opted to take leave at the same time, and believed the staff response would be mixed as some might not apply for unpaid leave, fearing they could lose their jobs. Mr Wong said consultation on the proposed pay comparison between the civil service and the private sector would be delayed to the third quarter of the year due to the complexity of the exercise. He also said there was room to cut staff benefits and allowances, in response to a Sunday Morning Post report saying expatriate police officers were infuriated by plans to reduce or scrap some of their colonial perks. He denied the review was targeting a particular group of staff, and said he would continue to listen to staff views. The review involving housing and education allowances for general staff would depend on the progress of the current review on fringe benefits, he added.