Stricter conflict- of-interest guidelines set for politicians
Politically appointed senior officials will face stricter regulations on potential conflict of interests after the government released a new set of guidelines that broadly define “private interests” on Wednesday.
The 11-page plan, posted on the website of the Chief Executive’s Office on Aug 1 to complement the Code for Off icials Under the Political Appointment System, covers interests of the official’s personal friends and “groups of people with whom he has social ties”.
The document outlines conditions for the Chief Executive (CE) and the officials to determine what situation may constitute a conflict of interest for a politically appointed official (PAO) and how to prevent practical or perceived problems.
Members of the political team will report to the CE or their supervising principal offi- cial if a PAO’s “private interests” compete or conflict with the “interests of the government” or the official duties of the PAO.
Once the case of potential conflict of interest is established, the CE will decide what action should be taken, such as relieving the PAO from the task that may create the conflict or requiring the PAO to divest himself of all or any of the interests.
It was the definition of “private interests” that raised eyebrows on Wednesday – it is stated as those that “go beyond pecuniary interests” and includes “circumstances in which a tie of kinship or friendship, or some other association or loyalty” is involved.
Apart from the PAO’s own interests, he also has to look into interests held by “family or other relations”, “personal friends”, “clubs and associations” to which he/she belongs, “any other groups of people with whom he/she has personal or social ties” or “any person to whom he/she owes a favor or is obligated in any way”.
The practicality of these definitions raised questions from lawmakers. Wong Kwok-hing of the Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions said the definition has gone too far and doubted if social ties made before adulthood are also covered.
Jeffrey Lam Kin-fung of the Business and Professionals Alliance for Hong Kong, who also serves on the Executive Council (ExCo), said friends that meet frequently do not necessarily talk about personal assets. “It might be very hard to know if there is a conflict of interest,” he said.
While former civil service secretary, Joseph Wong Wingping, described the guidelines as a sign of progress, he advised the administration to improve transparency in light of the recent political storm surrounding development chief Paul Chan Mo-po.
Chan’s wife had held interests in three plots that are to be acquired by the government for a new town development. He made an oral disclosure to the CE in October last year.
Had the guidelines been enforced by then, both Chan’s report and the CE’s “management actions” would have to be recorded “properly”. But the new document apparently does not mandate publication of these records.
These new rules are made in response to recommendations made by the Independent Review Committee for the Prevention and Handling of Potential Conflicts of Interest. The committee only suggested revealing a conflict of interest to the public if the PAO is withdrawn from the decisionmaking process.
A spokesman of the Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Bureau said in a statement that the guidelines posted last week were only part of a series of work to implement recommendations made by the committee in May 2012.
He also explained reference was made to existing guidelines for the civil service when the broad criteria were adopted for “private interests”.