Informal consultations held by the authorities and meeting arrangements made via instant messaging apps are some of the items that should be put on the record if Hong Kong passes an archives law, a former government records official said on Friday.
The remarks by Simon Chu Fook-keung, an ex-director at the Government Records Service (GRS), came a day after the Law Reform Commission called for legislation to protect public records and archives, as well as the public’s right to gain access to them.
“[An archives law] stipulates that records should be set up when it is a business matter. Soft lobbying is also official business,” he said on a radio show.
Citing informal discussions with rural leaders that took place over a controversial public housing project in Wang Chau as an example, Chu highlighted how then housing minister Anthony Cheung Bing-leung had told the media in 2016 that there was no official record of the soft lobbying.
With such legislation in place, Chu said, reporters would have been able to ask why no files had been set up. This would exert pressure for supervision. Keeping records could help reflect the accountability of civil servants, he added.
The government drew fire two years ago for the Wang Chau development, which involved plans to build 4,000 public housing flats on a 5.6-hectare green belt site after shelving initial plans to develop a nearby brownfield site.
The change was made after private consultations with rural strongmen, and the administration was accused of bowing to pressure from rural leaders who had vested interests in the area.
Chu said that with the enactment of an archives law, all sorts of documents involved in businesses dealings, regardless of media type, would need to be recorded. That included tapes and images.
Asked if that included arrangements for a business meal made over WhatsApp, he said: “It is a meeting. It’s a meeting arrangement. Of course it needs to be recorded.”
Chu, who retired as GRS director in 2007 then established an action group calling for an archives law, reiterated his demand for penalties under the legislation, saying the law would be toothless without them.
The commission’s archives law subcommittee chairman Andrew Liao Cheung-sing said, however, that the proposed law would mean many tasks and responsibilities for civil servants when it came to handling documents.
He questioned whether there was a need to criminalise all wrongdoing, adding that most of the time, mistakes were not made intentionally.
Chu said the law should differentiate between general and extreme mistakes, but added that existing measures were not effective enough.
Public consultation on the proposed law is expected to last until March 5 next year.
There is no archives law in Hong Kong. GRS, under the chief secretary’s office, has been tasked with overseeing the management of archival records with administrative rules.
Under current regulations, government records that are 30 years old should be transferred to and appraised by the GRS to determine whether they possess archival value for permanent preservation.