Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Gov't responds to PAC reports

Chief Secretary Carrie Lam

Laid on the table today is the Government Minute responding to Reports No. 63A and 64 of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC).

 

When presenting Reports No. 63A and 64 on June 3 and July 8 to the Legislative Council, the Chairman of PAC gave comments on four chapters in the Director of Audit's Reports:

 

* Administration of the air traffic control and related services;

* Buildings Department's actions on unauthorised building works;

* Operation of the Government Flying Service; and

* Public cooked food markets managed by the Food & Environmental Hygiene Department.

 

I am grateful for the time and efforts that PAC has devoted to investigating these subjects. The Government basically accepts PAC's various recommendations and has set out in detail the specific responses of the relevant bureaux /departments in the Government Minute. Today, I would like to highlight the key measures that the Government has taken in these important policy areas and the progress.

 

Air traffic control administration

When presenting Report No. 63A to the LegCo on June 3, the chairman of PAC gave comments on Chapter 4 of the Director of Audit's Report concerning the administration of the air traffic control and related services.

 

First of all, I agree fully with PAC that, for the purpose of protecting life and property, air safety must not be compromised under any circumstances. As a professional department in charge of air traffic management, the Civil Aviation Department (CAD) has the responsibility to ensure air safety.

 

As regards PAC's very severe criticisms against CAD and the Director-General of Civil Aviation, the senior management of the Government will certainly give them very serious attention and deal with them properly.

 

The Government accepts PAC's various recommendations and has set out in detail the specific responses of the Transport & Housing Bureau (THB) and CAD in the Government Minute.

 

Regarding the administration of the air traffic control and related services, the Government attaches great importance to the observations and recommendations of PAC and the Audit Commission (Audit).

 

Maintaining the safety of air traffic is our topmost priority as far as the planning and operation of air traffic control is concerned. Therefore, the safety and efficacy of the new Air Traffic Control (ATC) system must fulfill the highest standards and must not be compromised in any case. CAD will ensure the safe, reliable and stable operation of the new ATC system before its commissioning.

 

All the acceptance test events of the new Air Traffic Management System have been conducted in accordance with the requirements specified in the contract in order to ensure that the system operation complies with the contract conditions and CAD's safety requirements. CAD was generally satisfied with the test results.

 

Since 2012, CAD has engaged an independent consultant from overseas for providing safety assessment for the new ATC system to ensure that the contractor keeps up with the international quality standards and the International Civil Aviation Organisation's safety requirements in the process of system development.

 

Furthermore, the Secretary for Transport & Housing has decided to have another overseas consultant appointed by THB to advise the Secretary directly and independently. The consultant will assess whether the operations of the new ATC system and the operational staff are both prepared, to ensure that both the system and the operational staff are completely ready before the new system could be commissioned. The recruitment procedure has commenced.

 

In view of the current progress, the new ATC system will be ready for operation in the first half of 2016. In parallel, CAD has stepped up the maintenance measures for the existing ATC system to keep it in smooth and reliable operation and at the best international standard until the new ATC system is in service.

 

Separately, Government departments have strictly followed the rules and procedures as stipulated in the Government Stores and Procurement Regulations and the Agreement on Government Procurement of the World Trade Organisation during major procurement projects, and timely consulted the Department of Justice and the Government Logistics Department to ensure impartiality and fairness throughout the procurement process.

 

In response to the comments made by PAC and Audit, CAD has implemented various measures to enhance internal control and alerted its staff the lessons learnt from the audit findings.

 

Regarding the management of the precision runway monitor project, CAD has devised mechanisms and updated the Departmental Project Procedures Handbook to incorporate Audit's recommendations to ensure prudent use of public funds and the cost-effectiveness of the equipment procured in future.

 

In addition, CAD will provide the LegCo with sufficient information regarding the pros and cons, as well as the potential risks, of the proposed project in future funding applications, so that members could make informed decisions. As a matter of fact, we stress the same importance of transparency and timely reporting for all the funding applications made by other Government departments to the LegCo.

 

As the Hong Kong International Airport is expanding and air traffic keeps growing rapidly, the demand for CAD's regulatory work and services will increase sharply. To ensure that the administrative management, resource planning, liaison and co-ordination work involved can be conducted effectively, the Government will consider allocating additional resources to strengthen the senior management of CAD.

 

We expect that the commissioning of the new ATC system will further strengthen Hong Kong's status as an international and regional aviation hub, and meet the robust growth in air traffic and also the rapid development of Hong Kong's and the regional aviation industry.

 

Unauthorised building works actions

The Government welcomes the comments made by PAC and Audit on the Buildings Department (BD)'s actions against unauthorised building works (UBWs) and generally agrees with their recommendations. The Government has taken proactive follow-up actions to implement the recommendations as far as practicable.

 

The UBW problem in Hong Kong is prevalent and complex. Despite our past efforts in tackling UBWs, including the removal of over 400,000 UBWs between 2001 and 2010 through various enforcement programmes, there are still UBWs in the order of tens of thousands pending clearance.

 

Tackling UBWs in accordance with the law is meant to ensure building safety and also to uphold the rule of law. Formulation of enforcement policies based on prioritisation is also required to ensure building safety on the one hand, and deter further UBWs on the other hand.

 

If some owners are allowed to carry out UBWs to increase their usable floor areas and are left unpunished with the excuse of not imposing any risk to building safety, would it be fair to other law-abiding owners?

 

To this end, the Government has been taking a multi-pronged approach over the years to tackle UBWs, comprising legislation, enforcement, assistance to building owners, and publicity and public education.

 

It is our goal to develop a culture in the community that puts emphasis on building safety, through measures such as raising public awareness of the potential severe consequences caused by UBWs and deepening public understanding of the statutory provisions related to the building plan approval process and the simplified procedures for minor works control, such that the public will, on their own volition, remove their UBWs and comply with the Buildings Ordinance when carrying out any building works. We believe this is the best solution to the problem in the long run.

 

But certainly, before such long-term goal is attained, BD's ongoing and effective enforcement actions against UBWs must go on. In view of the sheer quantity of existing UBWs, BD must take a "risk-based" approach to prioritise its enforcement actions. Specifically, BD will take priority enforcement actions against "actionable" UBWs, which comprise UBWs constituting obvious or imminent danger to life or property and newly built UBWs.

 

As for "non-actionable" UBWs, BD may issue warning notices and register non-compliant notices at the Land Registry (LR); or issue advisory letters and refrain from taking enforcement actions for the time being. The UBWs in the two categories are reviewed from time to time, taking into account the changing needs and community concerns. It is the Development Bureau's policy objective to progressively tighten the control regime by expanding the category of "actionable" UBWs.

 

We understand PAC's concern over whether BD has sufficient resources to carry out the Government policy against UBWs. As a matter of fact, BD has a rather demanding workload in recent years. In particular, the multi-pronged efforts introduced since lately, together with several major building safety incidents, have deepened public understanding of UBWs. This has led to a significant surge in the number of case reports to BD, and hence an unprecedented increase of its workload.

 

The drop in the number of UBWs removed since 2011 is not indicative of a decline in the amount and effectiveness of BD's work. In fact, with the completion of the aforementioned programmes between 2001 and 2010, most of the UBWs on external walls of buildings were removed.

 

On the other hand, the UBWs being tackled by BD at present, such as in sub-divided flats, pose greater challenges against enforcement, as more time and resources are needed for BD personnel to gain access to the relevant premises, or arrange for the removal of occupants. The decrease in the number of UBWs removed is understandable.

 

PAC has recommended that the Government provides BD with sufficient resources or reviews the policy on UBWs. We also note PAC's recommendation that BD should consider exploring other effective means to clear the large number of long-outstanding removal orders, such as granting amnesty to UBWs constituting no obvious or imminent danger to life or property.

 

We are of the view that we must be cautious in making any major change to the existing UBW policy, lest causing confusion to the public or even conveying a wrong message to the community that the Government has no determination to combat UBWs. The Government has no plan at this stage to introduce any major change to the existing UBWs policy.

 

BD will continue to take a multi-pronged approach to tackle the problem of UBWs. Apart from existing measures including instituting prosecution, imposing surcharge on default works, operating validation schemes and financial assistance schemes, and providing support through social service teams, BD will explore other effective means to encourage owners to remove their UBWs.

 

BD will also endeavour to raise its efficiency and reprioritise its work as necessary, such as by adjusting the number of target buildings under large scale operations (LSOs) or focusing its resources on conducting LSOs against buildings with higher risk owing to the existence of UBWs. The Development Bureau will monitor BD's work progress and continue to reserve the needed resources for BD.

 

We are grateful to PAC and Audit for their various recommendations to enhance BD's work against UBWs. BD has established a Task Force to consider PAC and Audit's recommendations, BD's manpower situation and workload, et cetera, and propose specific enhancement measures in respect of each stage of actions such as dealing with non-compliant removal orders, devising strategies and targets for combating "actionable" UBWs, registering removal orders at LR, instigating prosecution against and carrying out default works for those in breach of orders, encouraging owners to remove UBWs, et cetera, with a view to enhancing the effectiveness of BD's efforts in combating UBWs.

 

The progress made by the Development Bureau and BD in implementing PAC and Audit's recommendations has been set out in the Government Minute. The Government will continue to monitor closely the effectiveness of the work against UBWs, and report to PAC further progress of implementing the recommendations.

 

Government Flying Service operation

Regarding the operation of the Government Flying Service (GFS), I agree with the observation of PAC that GFS performs a number of roles including the provision of round-the-clock air rescue and search, firefighting, supporting law enforcement agencies, aerial surveys and passenger-carrying service.

 

This makes GFS unique among its international counterparts. In recent years, there has been a significant increase in service demand. In the past five years, the flying hours of emergency call-outs have increased by 25%. At the same time, the wastage of some experienced pilots has also considerably constrained the department's operation and training capacity.

 

The Security Bureau (SB) and GFS both welcome and attach importance to the various recommendations made by PAC and Audit. In view of the ever increasing demand for services and to address shortage of manpower, GFS has implemented a number of measures, including expediting the recruitment of civil servants and engaging more contract staff as a stop-gap measure.

 

Also, SB has commissioned the Efficiency Unit to conduct a management study on GFS for exploring room for improvement in the areas of manpower deployment, workflow, automation, administrative support, service scope and so forth. The study is expected to be completed in the first half of 2016.

 

Other recommendations made by PAC and Audit have been implemented or are being actively followed up by GFS.

 

I have visited GFS to learn about the department's work and talk with the staff. On September 23, I met Mr Liu Zhigeng, the Vice-Governor of the People's Government of Guangdong Province and Director of the Guangdong Provincial Maritime Search & Rescue Centre, who visited Hong Kong to thank GFS for its assistance.

 

Mr Liu highly commended GFS for saving all 20 Chinese crew members from the two vessels in distress in two maritime rescue operations on July 21 this year. The Government fully understands that adequate manpower resources are the key to maintaining the highly efficient services of this excellent team. The Secretary for Security and I are personally handling the problems faced by the department.

 

Managing public cooked food markets

The Food & Health Bureau and the Food & Environmental Hygiene Department (FEHD) generally accept the comments and recommendations made by PAC and Audit regarding the management of FEHD's public cooked food markets including Cooked Food Hawker Bazaars (CFHBs), Cooked Food Markets and Cooked Food Centres.

 

We recognise the need to formulate exit plans for CFHBs with high vacancy rates to ensure that scarce land resources are released for redevelopment. CFHBs were meant to serve as a transitional arrangement and hence were not built in the first place with an intent for long-term use. We have since 1972 stopped issuing new hawker licences under normal circumstances.

 

Barring exceptional circumstances, we would not issue licences to newcomers to fill the stalls left vacant by hawker licensees who have passed away or surrendered their licences. As such, a progressive increase in the vacancy rate is inevitable over time.

 

Taking into account the fact that most of the hawker licensees operating in CFHBs are coming from the grassroots, the Government has been adopting a relatively accommodating approach and consciously refrained from forced eviction to avoid causing significant social acrimony. This gives rise to the present state of high vacancy rate.

 

Having said that, FEHD has stepped up its efforts to actively formulate improvement or exit plans for individual CFHBs, having regard to their business viability, community needs, resource availability and competing priorities with a view to ensuring better utilisation of scarce land resources.

 

FEHD will also fully take into account the implications for stakeholders when pursuing closure of CFHBs. FEHD has started to discuss the exit plans with the affected cooked food hawkers of two CFHBs, and will also discuss the exit arrangements with the affected hawkers of another CFHB within 2015.

 

FEHD is also following up with relevant departments in a proactive manner on the recommendations in relation to fire safety measures and the study on upgrading electricity supply. FEHD will continue to step up its efforts in enhancing the overall management of public cooked food markets, with due regard to the historical background of public cooked food markets and the concern of stakeholders.

 

The Government generally accepts the recommendations of PAC and Audit on market rental, rates and air-conditioning charges. Although our proposals put up in the last couple of years on the market rental adjustment mechanism and the recovery of air-conditioning charges did not have the support of the LegCo, we will continue with our effort in identifying a suitable rental adjustment mechanism and setting up arrangements to recover the rates and air-conditioning charges. We aim to revert to the LegCo Panel on Food Safety & Environmental Hygiene with a proposal in 2016.

 

Chief Secretary Carrie Lam presented this Government Minute in response to the Reports of the Public Accounts Committee No. 63A and 64 in the Legislative Council.

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