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The Hong Kong government destroyed more public records than ever last year. Photo: Shutterstock

Paperwork destroyed by Hong Kong government would be five times higher than world’s tallest building Burj Khalifa if stacked together

  • The 4,488 metres of files in 2018 was a three-year high for destruction of public records
  • Housing officials contributed more than half that number, with environment bosses posting large year-on-year increase

The Hong Kong government destroyed 4,488 metres of paperwork in 2018, or about five times the height of the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, it was revealed on Thursday.

Among 17 policy-making departments, housing officials destroyed about 2,655 metres of records, which accounted for more than 59 per cent of the total and was 633 metres more than the previous year. The overall amount of records destroyed hit a three-year high, according to the Government Records Service (GRS).

The service’s latest report was released as the Law Reform Commission was expected to submit its report into a three-month public consultation on two new laws governing the management of government records, and public access to official archives.

At present, the creation and disposal of government records is only regulated by internal guidelines, which do not specify criteria for the destruction of paperwork.

Among 17 government departments, those responsible for housing and the environment destroyed a record amount. Photo: Nora Tam

Though the guidelines say departments must obtain consent from the GRS director before disposing of records, several high-profile cases have highlighted deficiencies in the system.

In 2011, the government admitted it had destroyed documents equivalent to almost 2½ times the height of Hong Kong’s tallest building, the International Commerce Centre, before it moved into its new Admiralty headquarters, prompting questions over whether the destruction involved valuable data.

That amount rocketed to more than 4,488 metres last year, or nine ICC buildings, marking a record high since the data was first released in 2016.

The Environment Bureau, and the Innovation and Technology Bureau, which had the second and fourth largest year-on-year increase, destroyed 205 metres and 138 metres more of records in 2018 than in 2017.

Contrary to its position as a protector of the city’s environment, the watchdog put nearly 395 metres of records into waste last year, of which 310 metres, or about 79 per cent, were administrative records, including those for the management of information technology. More than 75 per cent of the 219 metres of records removed by the innovation and technology authorities in 2018 were files relating to various programmes, ranging from computer projects to equipment for government departments.

The Burj Khalifa is 828 metres tall and has 163 floors. Photo: EPA-EFE

Information technology sector lawmaker Charles Mok called on the bureau to explain why it destroyed such a large amount of paperwork.

“The chief executive often told us lawmakers should not be so tough on this issue, because many of the files destroyed were forms for the general public,” Mok said.

“But the offices and bureau in the government headquarters are policymaking departments instead of executive departments, and they shouldn’t have so many forms to handle.”

Law Reform Commission urges Hong Kong government to pass law bringing greater transparency to its record keeping

Mok said the slow-paced consultation and legislation processes would lead to the increased loss of public records concerning significant public interests.

Lawmaker Charles Mok expressed concern that any new law would be largely ineffective. Photo: Dickson Lee

The lawmaker also expressed concerned that any future law governing the destruction of public records might end up being largely powerless to punish those that did not comply.

“It worries me that the commission made the questions for public consultation rather open-ended, instead of providing a clearer legislative direction, after five years’ study,” he said.

“It did not propose to turn the GRS from a government department to an independent organisation, or list out potential penalties for inappropriate handling of public records.”

Housing authorities said that the department had “adopted the mandatory and good practice of regular disposal of records in accordance with the…schedules approved by GRS”.

The Environment Bureau, responding on April 30, said the increase in the amount of records destroyed was mainly due to the disposal of about 280 metres of used chits.

These chits were presented by waste haulers for verification and record purposes when they delivered construction waste to a disposal facility under the Construction Waste Disposal Charging Scheme.

“As a transaction record, a part of each chit is kept by the department for a minimum of two years,” the bureau’s spokesman said. “According to our records, no used chits were destroyed in the year of 2016 and 2017.”

Additional reporting by Sum Lok-kei

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Towering stacks of official papers destroyed last year