The chair of the bills committee for the controversial Express Rail Link joint checkpoint arrangement says she aims to complete the committee discussion by May 7.
When it is complete, the bill will be passed to the legislature’s house committee, and then onto the general meeting for final scrutiny. The government is aiming for the bill to be passed before the legislature’s summer break in mid-July – ahead of the rail system’s launch later this year.
Committee chair Regina Ip received a letter from the government on Thursday evening. Referencing the handbook for committee chairs, it urged the committee to finish its debate within three months from its formation in February.
Hong Kong will effectively give up its jurisdiction across a quarter of the new West Kowloon terminus, where immigration and customs procedures will be performed by mainland law enforcement agents. The pro-democracy camp and the Hong Kong Bar Association have cast doubt over the constitutionality of the arrangement, with critics saying it amounts to a ceding of land to China.
Transport Secretary Frank Chan said he was concerned about the progress of the committee, and said it must complete its work in early May in order to allow the high speed rail to Guangzhou to operate by September.
He said the government will work with the legislature if extra meetings are required.
Chan denied the letter was intended to put pressure on the committee: “We are only looking at the matter from the view of time requirement and progress, we do not have other factors of consideration.”
Chan maintained that the bill was in line with the Chinese constitution and did not violate the Basic Law: “There are always two different opinions on the legal dispute – we will never have a consensus through discussion.”
Ip also denied she was forcefully pushing the bill through: “All of us has a tremendous responsibility to exercise effective time management control. Moreover, it is in the chairman’s handbook – a long standing document – which says that bill scrutiny should ideally be completed in three months.”
“The committee’s responsibility is very big. It involves an important infrastructure and investment, and many residents hope for its operation as soon as possible,” she said.
Ip said lawmakers have been repeating their questions and airing their opposition to the bill in principle: “We will not have any consensus even if we discuss it for another 100 hours.”
Lawmaker Tanya Chan said she suspected that it may be Ip herself who told Chan to write to the committee: “This is very inappropriate.”
She said that, when Ip was still security secretary in June 2003, she made an unprecedented verbal complaint at the bills committee for the controversial national security law. She criticised lawmakers for discussing it too slowly, and suggested that the process should end in two weeks – despite the fact the committee had yet to start reviewing the bill section by section.
She also said the legislature had yet to arrange for newly elected lawmakers to visit the West Kowloon terminus, or for a visit to the Shek Kong depot for all lawmakers.
“What is this attitude? Is it the case that not one word, not one punctuation mark can be changed, and there cannot be any concessions?” Chan said.