Lawmakers have criticised the transport and housing secretary’s continuing absence from legislative hearings about an audit which found that the government has been slow to replace aging marine vessels.
Last November, the Audit Commission reported that the Marine Department had not procured sufficient new vessels, causing increased maintenance times, construction expenses and safety incidents. Two of the Legislative Council Public Accounts Committee’s three scheduled hearings on the matter in December were cancelled.
In a break from tradition, Transport Secretary Frank Chan did not attend the sole hearing in December, and was replaced by Acting Secretary Raymond So. So replaced Chan again on Thursday.
“The secretary is in Hong Kong, but he is engaged in other matters,” So told the lawmakers. “Last time, I led my colleagues to this meeting as well, so this time I’m leading them again.”
Lawmakers from both the pro-Beijing and pro-democracy camps criticised Chan for his continuing absence. The Civic Party’s Tanya Chan said that the legislature was authorised under the Powers and Privileges Ordinance to conduct hearings into government matters.
“The secretary is unprecedentedly disrespecting the Public Accounts Committee, and is actively damaging the [executive-legislative] relationship,” she said. “I think this is unsatisfactory and unwise.”
“Does this mean once Acting Secretary So leads one meeting, he will lead the next one too?” asked the agriculture and fisheries sector lawmaker Steven Ho. “Then we will wait for the secretary before starting any meeting at all.”
Committee chair Abraham Shek proposed suspending the meeting until Chan would attend, but eventually decided against doing so.
A spokesperson for the Transport and Housing Bureau later said Chan had to attend a top level government internal meeting at the time and apologised to lawmakers on behalf of him.
The Marine Department has been authorised by the Legislative Council’s Finance Committee to procure a number of new vessels for government use. But the Audit Commission found that as of last August, at least five procurement projects have not been procured on time, with delays of up to four years causing increased expenses of over HK$30 million.