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The Immigration Department released a late-night statement slamming the Audit Commission. Photo: Roy Issa

Hong Kong watchdog, Immigration Department in unprecedented war of words over critical report on fake-marriage cases

  • Audit Commission released a report on Wednesday slamming Immigration Department’s handling of suspected fake marriages and other matters
  • Department then hit back at midnight saying ‘some people’ were ‘recklessly’ pointing fingers at the service

An unprecedented war of words has erupted between Hong Kong’s official auditor and a government department refusing to accept criticism about its work.

On Wednesday, the Audit Commission released a report slamming the Immigration Department’s handling of suspected fake marriages and other matters. The department then hit back at midnight saying “some people” were “recklessly” pointing fingers at the disciplined service.

“The department expresses deep regret that some people, who have no knowledge of criminal investigations, have recklessly criticised the disciplined force in how we handle cases, seriously damaging the Immigration Department’s professional image,” it said in a Chinese statement addressed to the watchdog.

Such criticisms are rare, as departments investigated by the watchdog usually respond by pledging to follow up on its recommendations or offer mildly worded explanations.

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In response, the watchdog issued a statement on Thursday afternoon, noting there was an agreement between the government and the Legislative Council’s Public Accounts Committee, which is tasked with looking into an audit report.

It said that between the tabling of a report to the committee and subsequent hearings, “any public debate on the issues to be further investigated should be avoided by both sides as far as possible”.

The watchdog added: “This will ensure the [committee] can carry out public hearings smoothly and in a fair manner. To this end, heads of the bureaus, departments and/or public organisations involved and their staff should refrain from initiating any publicity to counter the audit findings.

“In compliance with the requirements, the Audit Commission does not comment in public on matters relating to the audit reports.”

The Security Bureau, which the Immigration Department reports to, echoed the watchdog’s views, saying on Thursday evening it had reminded the department that public debates on audit reports should be avoided for now.

In the report, submitted to the legislature on Wednesday, the watchdog said that between January 2016 and last December the department investigated 2,547 suspected fake marriages, arresting 4,623 people and successfully prosecuting 356.

However, it also found 2,237 suspected fake-marriage cases were still outstanding as of last December, including 167 under investigation for between six and 11 years.

In relation to a case referred by mainland Chinese authorities in 2012, the commission said the department had been “not entirely effective” after it failed on multiple occasions to compel a suspect to attend inquiries. The man was later found to have died in a local hospital in January 2019.

Careful and detailed investigations on marriages take time, the department said. Photo: Felix Wong

In the report, the watchdog recommended, for example, that the department consider focusing on cases that had dragged on for a long time.

While the report included an earlier response from the department in which it “generally” agreed with the recommendations, it changed its tone in the late-night statement.

The department said it took the problem of fake marriages seriously, and had set up a special task force since 2006 to handle such cases. It has stored the personal data of fake-marriage suspects, allowing officers to stop and investigate them when they use the department’s services.

In the case of the suspect who died in hospital, the department said its officers had tried to ambush him at home many times but still could not reach him. The man’s data was saved in the department’s computer system, but he never used any immigration services.

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Lawmaker Paul Tse Wai-chun, vice-chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, said it was rare for a government department to issue such a statement. But he believed the incident would not affect the committee’s impartiality.

Article 58 of the Basic Law, the city’s mini-constitution, states that the commission shall function independently and be accountable to the chief executive. 

Former Civic Party lawmaker Alan Leong Kah-kit, who served on the Public Accounts Committee, said he was “very shocked” that the department had scolded the watchdog. The commission must have given the department enough opportunities to provide explanations before the report was released, he said on his Facebook page.

He did not believe it was the director of immigration’s decision to hit out at the commission and that there had to be someone behind it who planned to undermine the statutory function of the watchdog.

Lo Kin-hei, chairman of the opposition Democratic Party, said: “Does the Immigration Department think that it can be mean to the commission because it is a disciplined force?”

He added: “The next time, if the Audit Commission says something about the Education Bureau, will the bureau say commission staff are not professional educators and so should not be saying anything?”

In 2014, the commission criticised the Civil Aviation Department for spending HK$67.45 million on security and electronic systems at its new headquarters without the treasury bureau’s approval.

Norman Lo Shung-man, then director general, later apologised.