Following is a question by the Hon Charles Peter Mok and a reply by the Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs, Mr Patrick Nip, in the Legislative Council today (January 24):
It was reported in the press on the sixth of this month, the day on which the Secretary for Justice (SJ) took office, that there were a number of unauthorised building works (UBWs) contravening the Buildings Ordinance in SJ’s residence which she owned through a company. SJ subsequently stated that an authorised person appointed by her and personnel of the Buildings Department had, after verification, confirmed the matter. Some members of the public have expressed concern about the integrity and conduct of principal officials, and whether there were errors or omissions in the integrity checking conducted on candidates for principal official posts, resulting in the failure to uncover the UBWs in SJ’s residence. In this connection, will the Government inform this Council:
(1) how the Government ensures that criminal investigations and legal proceedings (if any) relating to the UBWs in SJ’s residence are conducted impartially;
(2) whether the existing Code for Officials under the Political Appointment System has provided that punishments may be imposed on those principal officials found to have made false statements or misleading omissions in the process of integrity checking; if so, of the details; if not, the reasons for that; and
(3) as UBWs have been uncovered in recent years in the residences of a number of principal officials, whether the Government has reviewed if there are any inadequacy in the integrity checking conducted on candidates for principal official posts; if it has reviewed, of the outcome; whether improvements will be made, such as requiring the candidates concerned to submit certifications issued by authorised persons that no UBWs are found in the properties in which the candidates have beneficial interests?
With regard to the Hon Mok’s question, after consulting the relevant offices and bureaux, I am providing a consolidated reply as follows:
(1) The Building Authority (i.e. the Director of Buildings) is responsible for taking enforcement actions in accordance with the Buildings Ordinance (BO). In handling matters relating to unauthorised building works (UBWs), the Buildings Department (BD) has been following the principles of acting in accordance with the law and impartiality, and takes appropriate actions pursuant to the BO and the prevailing enforcement policy. In accordance with the established practice adopted since mid-2011, if the owners involved in the UBWs cases under media inquiry or report are senior government officials or community celebrities, BD will accord priority in carrying out site inspection with a view to investigating if the UBWs in fact exist so as to clear any public concerns as soon as practicable. If any UBWs are identified in the site inspection, BD will take appropriate actions in accordance with BO and the prevailing enforcement policy in an impartial manner and will not adopt different enforcement standards because of the identity of those who involved.
So far, the Police have separately received reports from two individuals requesting the Police’s investigation, based on their knowledge from the newspaper and public information that there were suspected illegal structures in a public officer’s property and no reference to the relevant information was made in applying to the bank for mortgage. The cases, classified as “Request for police investigation”, are followed-up by the Wanchai Police District.
The Police, in respect of each case, will conduct fair and impartial investigation regardless of the background of the person involved. If there is reasonable suspicion of any contravention of law, the Police will carry out enforcement according to the law.
Politically appointed officials (PAOs) must ensure that no actual or potential conflict arises between their public duties and their private interests, and should refrain from handling cases with actual or potential conflict of interest. In order to avoid possible perception of bias, partiality or improper influence, the Secretary of Justice has delegated to the Law Officer (Civil Law) the authority to handle all civil matters relating to alleged suspected unauthorised/illegal structures of her property at Tai Lam, Tuen Mun, including advising the Government bureaux and departments concerned, and representing the same in the conduct of any civil proceedings. Based on the same considerations, the Secretary for Justice has also delegated to the Director of Public Prosecutions the authority to handle all prosecutorial matters relating to such matters, including (should it become necessary to do so) the decision as to whether any prosecution action should be commenced against any persons involved in the matter. The Secretary of Justice will not participate in any relevant decisions or legal proceedings regarding such matters.
(2) The Code for Officials under the Political Appointment System (the Code) states that PAOs shall abide by the law and observe the highest standards of personal conduct and integrity at all times. They shall also ensure that no actual or potential conflict arises between their public duties and their private interests. While the Code provides rules and principles for appropriate conduct under certain circumstances, it is difficult for the Code to specify every type of act or behaviour expected of PAOs. Where the circumstances have not been prescribed, it is the responsibility of PAOs to make judgements in accordance with the principles set out in the Code on how best to act in order to uphold the highest standards, and they shall act in the best interests of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region as a whole.
(3) All PAOs are required to undergo extended checking before appointment. The procedures are largely the same as those adopted for extended checking in the civil service. The Hong Kong Police Force is responsible for conducting the checking (including conducting interviews with the subject, his/her referees and supervisors as well as inspecting relevant records, etc.). In order to maintain the effectiveness and integrity of the extended checking system, it is necessary to keep the specific arrangements and the related details of the system strictly confidential.