Following pressure from Webb-site, the Ombudsman has today published a summary of the submissions received during its investigations on Access to Information and keeping public archives. The submissions show strong support for legislation. Meanwhile, the wheels at the Law Reform Commission are slowly turning and covering similar ground.

Ombudsman discloses more information
17 April 2014

On 20-Mar-2014, the Office of the Ombudsman released two related Direct Investigation Reports, one on the Access to Information (ATI) regime in HK and the other on Public Records Management in HK. Obviously one cannot obtain records from the Government if they have already destroyed them. HK lacks laws on both issues.

In the ATI report, they key conclusion is:

"The Ombudsman recommends that Government consider introducing a law to underpin citizens right of ATI, covering information held by both Bureaus/Departments and public organisations, to be overseen by an independent body with enforcement powers."

The recommendation was not so much "consider introducing" as "introduce", given that it continues "Before such a law is passed, Government should,..." and there follows a list of stop-gap measures. Similarly, on public records and archives, the Ombudsman "urges the Administration to seriously consider" legislation.

As part of the investigation process, there was a poorly-publicised invitation on the Ombudsman's web site to submit views. On page 3 of the report, there was brief mention that the Ombudsman had received 39 sets of views and information from the public, some of which related to both reports. One of those submissions was from Webb-site, which you can read here.

Alright, we thought, what were the other 38 sets of views? But there was nothing in the reports on that, and no submissions were published on the Ombudsman's web site. So we wrote, asking under the existing Code on Access to Information for information on the submissions, and for the submissions to be published, suitably redacted as to identity for those who wish to remain anonymous. Well, it turns out that the Ombudsman, which handles complaints under the Code, is not subject to the Code itself. However, they do have a similar Policy on Access to Information. They wrote to us, regarding the 39 submissions:

"Most of them were from individuals; a few from groups/organisations. 14 submissions were related to public records management and archives; 11 were related to access to information; and the remaining 14 covered both topics. All submissions were in favour of introducing laws or strengthening measures to ensure access to information and/or proper public records management and archiving."

But on our suggestion that they publish the submissions, they wrote:

"As far as our reporting on the two investigations is concerned, we do not see a need to compile a compendium of the public views received"

Not good enough, we thought. So we wrote again, asking under their "Policy on Access to Information" for copies of the 39 submissions, redacted as to identity, so that we could publish them. After all, it would be rather ironic if, having called for legislation on ATI, the Ombudsman was not willing to comply with the spirit of the existing Code. After further cogitation, they came up with:

"While having to abide by the secrecy provision of section 15(1) of The Ombudsman Ordinance, we now agree that we can provide you with a summary of the public views received, as part of our reporting under section 15(3) of the Ordinance"

Well that's progress! So today (17-Apr-2014), the Ombudsman has sent us, and appended to both reports, the summary of public submissions. From reading this, you can see that there is, unsurprisingly, strong public support for laws on both access to information and public record keeping. At least one of the submissions would have come from the Archives Action Group Ltd.

So what is the Government doing about this? Well, on 14-Jan-2013, 10 days after the start of the Ombudsman's investigation, the Secretary for Justice announced that in Dec-2012, the Law Reform Commission had "decided to establish" two sub-committees. Moving in a gradual and orderly (read: glacial) way, 5 months later in May-2013, the LRC set up the Access to Information sub-committee and in Jun-2013 the Archives Law sub-committee.  The sub-committees are to "conduct detailed reviews of the local situation and comprehensive comparative studies of the relevant laws in overseas jurisdictions". Perhaps they should read the Ombudsman's reports, because much or most of this work has already been done, and duplicating that effort is a waste of taxpayer's money.

There is no announced schedule for when the LRC sub-committees will report.

©, 2014

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