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Rules to scrutinise official lavish trips

Colleen Lee
4:21pm, Jun 28, 2012

New curbs on lavish spending by the chief executive will compel officials to explain why a lower-grade hotel suite was not chosen for the city’s leader on future duty trips, lawmakers were told on Thursday.

The outgoing director of the Chief Executive’s Office, Professor Gabriel Leung, told lawmakers that the proposed new guidelines would be given to the office of the incoming leader, Leung Chun-ying, before he takes office on Sunday, for him to put the measures into force.

The guidelines were drawn up following controversy over Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen’s lavish hotel expenses on official trips abroad. They come nearly a month after the Audit Commission found that Tsang had stayed in plush hotel rooms without good reason, and the Chief Executive’s Office had no internal rules to govern the choice of accommodation.

“In our guidelines, we will say very clearly: apart from fulfilling all these criteria [on spending] please also tell us why a [suite] one grade lower is not suitable and how much [its room rate] is,” Professor Leung said in a joint meeting of the panels on commerce, industry and economic development.

The audit earlier found that, of the 49 nights of accommodation paid for by the Hong Kong government – rather than hosts or sponsors – over the past five years, Tsang stayed in a superior suite on 41 of them.

The proposed new rules would require the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Offices to consider six criteria when deciding which suites to recommend to the Chief Executive’s Office. They include any sponsorship of accommodation by a host, organisation or country, and the nature of the facilities and design of the room.

“We will see if [the suite] can be used to hold meetings with the press, local officials and important persons in the political and economic sectors,” Leung said.

“In case of emergencies, say the outbreak of Sars in Hong Kong in 2003 and swine flu in 2009, and [if the chief executive] was on duty visit abroad – he would need an emergency control centre.”

Other considerations, Leung said, were security, diplomatic protocol to reflect Hong Kong’s status, auxiliary facilities required such as telecommunication services, and a complete quotation of prices from hotels.

Under the new plan, the Chief Executive’s Office should post on its website a record of its spending on duty visits every quarter; and such disclosures should be made within six months after each trip.

In future the office would explain in more detail to the public, after each trip, how it could benefit Hong Kong, Leung said.

As recommended by the audit, payments for the chief executive’s accommodation would need approval from the office’s permanent secretary instead of the leader’s private secretary, Leung said.

The leader’s office has asked the Financial Services and the Treasury Bureau to consider, again, whether the government should apply for a corporate credit card for spending on duty visits, Leung said.

The government reviewed the matter in 2006, he said, and found that using a corporate card might have more disadvantages than advantages, although he did not explain the disadvantages on Thursday.

Democrat Kam Nai-wai said the criteria for spending should include public sentiment.

Leung responded: “The public’s feelings are crucial … [As mentioned in the audit report,] such expenditure is sensitive in the eyes of the public. I totally agree with that, and I am fully confident that the next administration and relevant officials will give high consideration to it when [choosing accommodations].”

Tsang has faced calls to step down from office over his luxurious official trips and favours received from tycoon friends.

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