The secretariat for Hong Kong’s legislature has finally released some records on a 22-year-old inquiry into the mysterious departure of an immigration chief in 1996, more than four years after the Post filed a request for access.
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The delay in disclosing the records came nearly five years after the Legislative Council launched a new access to information policy in 2014, which states that documents in unclassified files may be made public when in existence for 20 years. Classified files can stay under wraps for a maximum of 50 years. There was no policy on information access before 2014.
Laurence Leung Ming-yin was asked in July 1996 to quit as director of immigration after he was found to have failed to declare investments on the mainland, and repay a government housing loan.
But, a belief persists that Leung’s departure had more to do with political considerations than his financial affairs.
A Legco inquiry began in November that year, but received confidential information from the government behind closed doors.
A comment from inquiry chairman Ip Kwok-him, who described an Independent Commission Against Corruption report given to his committee as “shocking”, was one of the few insights the public got into what was going on.
Its 1997 report condemned Leung’s failure to declare his business interests and repay the loans, but also criticised government officials for painting his departure as a purely personal affair. Leung unsuccessfully ran for a National People’s Congress seat later that year. He died in 2008 at the age of 67.
The Post filed a request on January 15, 2015 for access to the records relating to the inquiry and has received 25 “interim replies” from an access to information officer under the secretariat since then, saying “your application is being processed. We will inform you once the result is available”.
Matthew Loo, assistant secretary general of Legco, said in 2015 the secretariat was having a “page-by-page review” of records on Leung. He said at the time the case was complicated and, “it may take some time”.
In its reply to the Post last week, the Legco secretariat said the inquiry conducted an investigation into a sensitive matter involving a particular person, and the records were contained in 18 files, with seven of them classified as confidential, meaning they may not be released until 2047.
Eleven of 18 files are unclassified or not confidential, although those 11 files are believed to be mainly newspaper clippings about the hearings of the select committee, and details such as the date and venues of meetings.
An access to information officer of the Legco secretariat said on January 22 that the Post’s request was the very first for access to documents of a Select Committee of the Legco tasked with an in-depth consideration of matters or involving a particular person.
“We hope you understand that careful assessment on each document contained in these files is required,” the officer said. “In processing your request, the secretariat needs to study each document contained in the files in detail and consider various issues including the legal duty to keep the documents and records in confidence, the statutory duty on the protection of personal data contained in the documents and records, and the operation of select committees to facilitate members’ deliberation on sensitive issues.
“We apologise for the long time taken in processing your case. Our assessment has almost been completed and we will notify you of the result in due course.”
The officer said last Thursday that access to the 11 unclassified files had been approved and would be available for viewing from Monday.
“Approval of the Committee on Access to Legislature’s Documents and Records is required for the access of classified records,” the officer said.
The committee is expected to meet after the Lunar New Year to consider the Post’s request for classified records on Leung. The committee will discuss if there is any justification for overriding the “50-year rule” regarding the “classified” files.
Cheung Man-kwong, a member of the select committee that looked into Leung’s forced retirement, said the secretariat erred on the side of caution when it processed the Post’s request for records.
Cheung, who decided not to seek re-election in 2012, said the secretariat’s failure to release the records four years after the Post filed the application was a sign of the bureaucracy involved.
“Members of the select committee should have the confidence that their remarks and decision at the time were made in good faith, although they may not be completely correct in hindsight,” Cheung said.
“When the records are made public after a reasonable period of time, members of the public and historians can judge whether they said the right thing or made the right decision at the time.”
Inquiry chairman Ip Kwok-him, now an executive councillor, said it was understandable that the Legco secretariat needed some time to review the records before disclosing them.
“It’s difficult to say whether the four-year review is too long,” Ip said.
Lam Woon-kwong, who was secretary for civil service in 1996 who defended the government’s position on Leung, said he would not comment on the issue.