Following is a speech by the Secretary for Housing, Mr Dominic Wong, on the motion of no confidence in the Chairman of the Housing Authority and the Director of Housing moved by the Hon Fred Li in the Legislative Council this afternoon (June 28):
The Government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region adopts a mode of operation in which the executive machinery is monitored by the legislature to achieve a check-and-balance effect. In monitoring the Government, the Legislative Council ("LegCo") Members, I believe, should discern between right and wrong, adopt a positive and forward-looking rather than negative attitude, focus on issues instead of personalities and work for the interests of the general public.
We shall examine today's motion against the above criteria.
A number of Members have expressed their views on the recent problems with substandard piling and building quality of public housing. Public housing is an issue closely related to the well-being of the community. The Government understands Members' concerns and agrees that urgent and effective measures should be taken to regain public confidence in the quality of public housing.
At the LegCo meeting on 3 November last year, there was a motion debate on whether members of the Housing Authority ("HA") should resign collectively on account of poor public housing quality. Many Members were of the views that the HA and Housing Department ("HD") should take viable, thorough and urgent actions to address the issue rather than to politicise it in the LegCo. In the end, the motion calling for the collective resignation of the HA members was defeated.
The motion moved by the Hon. Fred Li Wah-ming today is probably out of line with the views expressed in the motion debate in November last year. Notwithstanding that the substance of the motion, expressed in simple wording, states no detail about the reasons for casting a vote of no confidence in the Chairman of the HA and the Director of Housing, it hints a very stern criticism and censure on both of them.
Are these criticisms fair, valid and reasonable? I hope that Members would cautiously think it over. As the Chief Executive and a number of Government officials, including I myself, pointed out time and again, the HA and the HD have attached importance to the quality of public housing, have striven to strengthening the monitoring mechanism and improving the culture of the construction industry and have been proactive in the early detection of problems related to project supervision and building quality of public housing. They fully understood that once the incidents were revealed, they would have to face insurmountable pressure and harsh criticisms. Yet, for the sake of public interests, they honestly gave a full account of the incidents without making any attempt to cover up the facts and without paying heed to their own honour. Notwithstanding all the difficult circumstances, they went all lengths to hammer out remedies and a series of reform measures were drawn up in April this year.
Up to the present stage, both the Government and Members can find no evidence in proof of malpractice or partiality on the part of the HA Chairman or the Director of Housing. Ms Rosanna Wong, as the head of an independent organization, and Mr Tony Miller, as the Department head, of course should, to a certain extent, be held accountable for the substandard piling works. But, if Members of the LegCo are to insist on a no-confidence vote against them as a result of their dedication to improving the quality of public housing, strengthening the operation of the HD, especially the working attitude of the supervisory staff with day-to-day monitoring duties, and disclosing non-compliances, is this not a case of calling white black and confounding right with wrong?
We should distinguish between different levels of responsibility. The contractors who have failed to meet required standards and contractual obligations should be held fully responsible. The supervisory staff with day-to-day monitoring duties should also bear responsibility. The senior managerial level of the HD cannot be expected to deal with operational supervisory duties though it should ensure that a good overall supervisory and management framework is in place to facilitate the operation of the HD. The Chairman of the HA and Director of Housing have all along been leading the HD with resolve to produce quality public housing. Following the piling incidents, they have been taking active steps to tackle the problems and looking into ways to strengthen the supervisory and managerial framework of the HD.
The problem with the quality of public housing, which has already been discussed on a number of occasions in the LegCo, is caused by a host of complicated factors. At present the first priority should be initiating reforms and putting an end to similar problems. The HA, HD and the officially-appointed Construction Industry Review Committee are now carrying out the finalized public housing reforms and conducting review on the quality of private residential developments and other related issues in an active, brisk and positive manner. Following the investigation headed by Messrs Philip Nunn and John Strickland, I have appointed Mr Stephen Selby to follow up the staff disciplinary matters arising from the two housing projects in Tin Shui Wai and Yuen Chau Kok, Shatin. The Ombudsman has also decided to conduct an independent inquiry into the incidents to see if any maladministration existed.
Over the past few years, Ms Wong and Mr Miller tackled numerous difficulties and challenges as if they were treading on thin ice. Undaunted, they spared no efforts in performing their duties. Under the leadership of Ms Wong and Mr Miller, the HA and HD have made major improvements to the living environment of most Hong Kong residents. One of the most important tasks accomplished is to reduce the average waiting time for a public rental flat from seven years in 1994 to five years. Meanwhile, the number of applicant families on the waiting list has significantly decreased. Through increased supply of public rental flats, hopefully the HA can bring forward the further reduction of the average waiting time for a public rental flat to three years to 2003. In addition, with the efforts made by Ms Wong and Mr Miller, the HA has successfully launched the sale of public rental flats scheme to help public housing tenants to buy their own homes. Home ownership rate in the public sector has increased from 23 per cent in 1993 to 34 per cent this year. Moreover, with the implementation of the "excessively well-off tenants" policy and the abolition of public housing "hereditary" system by the HA, a large number of misused public rental units have been taken back and re-allocated to families with genuine need. Ms Wong and Mr Miller also initiated the setting up of Estate Management Advisory Committee, which has greatly increased the opportunities for residents to participate in public housing estate management. With the devolution of power in estate management, problems in this area are now handled more efficiently and properly.
The community is also concerned about the relationship between the HA and HD and their accountability. In fact, Ms Wong and Mr Miller started to restructure the HA and HD a few years ago, from streamlining the organizational structure, expediting the process of outsourcing and stepping up supervision to the recent comprehensive reforms on the quality and safety standards and daily operation, enhancing the accountability of the HA and HD, as well as improving their efficiency and cost effectiveness. Facts speak louder than words. The improvements and reforms made by the HA and HD in the past few years are obvious to all.
Public housing development has gone on for 46 years. Over this long period of time, massive housing programmes have been implemented to provide accommodation for half of the population in Hong Kong as well as fulfill the wishes of those who aspire to home ownership. They also enable the formation of countless model communities that are conducive to maintaining social stability. When people's demand for comfortable housing is met, they will enjoy their work and make a good living. This creates the conditions for Hong Kong to thrive and prosper.
It is by no means an easy task to manage such an important and independent organization, shouldering the endless expectations and enormous pressure from the community. Unreasonable and unfair criticisms against the leadership of the organization would only impede the pace of reform in the HA and HD, with the result of making double efforts with half return. Isn't this more damaging to public interests?
The HA and HD are in the course of reforms and tremendous efforts are needed to overcome the various difficulties encountered. The faults found in the construction industry, the problems with the quality of buildings caused by the attitude of a few staff responsible for the day-to-day supervision of the construction works, coupled with the misgivings of the HD staff towards the organizational changes and the public criticisms are barriers to the reform process. Should those who devote themselves to bring about the reforms be subjected to condemnation and censure in the reform process? Would this have an adverse impact on other people who are enthusiastic in community services and civil servants who have always discharged their duties with conscientiousness?
Most of the Members here have had official or private contacts with Ms Wong and Mr Miller on different occasions and should know well of their impartial and pragmatic attitude towards their work. Over the years, Ms Wong's and Mr Miller's contributions have been highly commended by members of the public as well as the HKSAR Government. As regards the substandard piling of public housing, why does the LegCo insist on a no-confidence vote against Ms Wong and Mr Miller in the absence of evidence?
Experience tells us that conventional thinking alone is not enough to deal with the challenges of the new century, and that mere reliance on wider and stricter monitoring will not ensure the quality of our products. The best method is to have every person concerned fulfil their duties on their own initiative, rather than simply count on the top management's supervision. To achieve this, reforms at institutional and community levels are necessary. That takes much time and is a formidable task. Moreover, we have to eliminate the practice of promptly shifting the blame to others, and positively face and tackle the apparent and potential problems. In this regard, Ms Wong and Mr Miller have displayed remarkable dynamism and dauntless courage. Over the years, they have pro-actively implemented numerous measures to enhance the quality of housing and services. In particular, Ms Wong and Mr Miller have, within a short period of 6 months, implemented many key initiatives out of the 50 recommendations relating to housing quality. These include changes to the structure of the HD, authority and responsibility, commitments, operation procedures, monitoring as well as partnership with the construction industry, etc. It is apparent that comprehensive reforms are well under way.
The effective operation of the HKSAR Government hinges on the solid work of the civil servants as well as prominent social personalities' commitment to public affairs. The Hon Fred LI Wah-ming's motion, if supported and carried, will significantly dampen interested persons' enthusiasm for community services and promote the culture of "doing less to avoid making mistakes". This is against the expectation of Members and the general public.
Ms Wong and Mr Miller have unreservedly expressed their apologies to the community over the piling incidents on 1 June. Last Saturday, Ms Wong even resigned from the HA chairmanship.
Madam President, today's motion debate has, in fact, made me feel deeply sorry and embarrassed. A community leader with mission, remarkable dynamism, undaunted commitment to reforms and community services has decided to leave the HA. I am deeply sorry for Ms Wong's resignation. Similarly, Mr Miller is my long-time colleague. Over the past four years, Mr Miller and Ms Wong have endeavoured to implement the massive public housing projects. We should not therefore doubt Mr Miller's ability and devotion to work.
Madam President, I earnestly urge Members to reject the Hon Fred Li Wah-ming's and the Hon Leung Yiu-chung's motions. With our concerted efforts to face difficulties, I believe that the issue of public housing quality can be gradually resolved to restore the public's confidence in public housing.
Thank you, Madam President.
End/Wednesday, June 28, 2000