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More Hongkongers complain to Ombudsman in 2017-18 about access to official information

Watchdog dealt with 91 complaints in the last financial year about how government departments handled requests

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 18 July, 2018, 7:30am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 18 July, 2018, 7:30am

More Hongkongers are turning to the Ombudsman to gripe about how government departments are handling their requests for information, with the watchdog receiving 91 complaints in the year ending in March.

The figure was 56 in the 2014-15 financial year and 85 in 2016-17.

Complaints included the Highways Department not revealing details of a trial conservation scheme to release juvenile fish into waters around the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge.

In another complaint, the Registration and Electoral Office was accused of not providing statistics on the 2016 polls for seats in Hong Kong’s legislature.

There is no law in the city requiring officials to release data to the public, but the government follows a code of conduct on information disclosure and how Hongkongers can request it.

Ombudsman Connie Lau Yin-hing urged the government to speed up the introduction of a law to protect the right to access information.

“Openness and transparency are fundamental to good governance,” she said.

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In the fish case, the watchdog told the Highways Department that its staff had wrongly interpreted the code and should offer up the requested information.

On the 2016 Legislative Council elections, Lau’s office agreed with the electoral department’s explanation that some details should be withheld until a report had been submitted to Hong Kong’s leader. However, Lau said it had been unreasonable for the department to withhold data such as the cumulative voter turnout rate “as it had already been released on the day of the election”.

Lau, who will finish her five-year term next March and not seek renewal of her contract, said her office had received 4,826 complaints in the 2017-18 financial year – a slight drop from the 4,862 in 2016-17.

The largest sources of complaints were the Housing Department, Food and Environmental Hygiene Department and Lands Department, while the number aimed at the Registration and Electoral Office and Correctional Services Department was higher than previously.

In most cases, complainants were unhappy with the time taken to release information, or a refusal to do so.

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Opposition pan-democrat lawmaker Charles Mok said: “When many advanced overseas countries have a freedom of information act, it is a real shame that Hong Kong still lacks one. Bureaucrats do have a penchant for keeping things beyond the reach of the public.

“I hope the government will not drag its feet in introducing a law,” he said.

Lau on Tuesday said her office had launched a larger number of direct investigations into government departments. Twelve had been undertaken in the last financial year as opposed to seven in 2014-15, she said.

“By getting to the root of the problems, we can make long-lasting improvements and help reduce recurring complaints,” Lau said.

However, more complaints were also resolved through mediation, at 237. That figure was an 80 per cent rise on the year before in the number of cases which ended with “more amicable and satisfactory outcomes for all parties involved”.