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Self-regulatory board could be a better option for policing district councilors

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Self-regulatory board could be a better option for policing district councilors

By Joseph Ho and Kacee Ting Wong

In March 2020, the Home Affairs Department (HAD) warned two Sham Shui Po district councilors from the opposition that a controversial and insulting notice they had posted outside their office, which made clear their dislike of government supporters, may have violated the Code of Conduct for elected representatives. 

At the root of the issue is whether the HAD should be entrusted with additional power to investigate the complaint and punish those district councilors who have breached the Code of Conduct for members of a district council or its committees. Or should district councilors be allowed to form a self-regulatory disciplinary body to ensure their fellow councilors comply with the Code?

More concerned with pleasing their supporters in the yellow camp, two newly elected Sham Shui Po district councilors put up a provocative notice stating that service would be refused to supporters of the blue camp. It seems commonsensical that district councilors must serve all residents in their designated districts indiscriminately. In response, DAB lawmaker Vincent Cheng alleged that the move may have constituted misconduct in public office. The HAD correctly pointed out that there had been a possible breach of the Code. Most disappointing was the fact that no follow-up disciplinary action was taken by the HAD.

The provocative notice was not an isolated challenge encountered by the sixth-term district councils. According to the Undersecretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Clement Woo Kin-man, some newly elected district councilors deliberately divided the community and created confrontation. These acts included smearing the police force in their speeches, evicting other district council members who opposed them, detaining government officials who attended the district councilor meeting, introducing biased terms when vetting and granting funds to some of the activities and funding the propaganda organizations that glorified “black-clad” violence. Some of these may have breached the Code or attracted criminal liability.

Published by the HAD in December 2019, the Code ranges from big-picture ideals to specific standards. Firstly, the four General Standards are ethical standards and obligations for district councils that may exceed the requirements of the law. For instance, a district councilor shall ensure that his or her conduct must not be such as to bring the council into disrepute (point one of the General Standards of the Code). It’s obvious that a breach of point one does not attract criminal sanction. 

Secondly, the eight Specific Standards set out clear guidelines for acceptance of advantages/gifts/entertainment, conflict of interest and use of confidential information. Point one of the Specific Standards is a reminder that district councilors shall comply with the Prevention of Bribery Ordinance. But the Code is flawed because it makes no reference to provisions concerning disciplinary actions or follow-up measures to refer the unlawful breaches to law enforcement agencies. The absence of these disciplinary actions and follow-up referrals has cast a long shadow on the Code.

Some of the General Standards of the Code seem to have drawn inspiration from the seven principles of public life (Nolan principles) promoted by the Committee on Standards in Public Life in the UK. The committee was set up in 1994 to advise the British prime minister on ethical issues relating to standards in public life. But the committee does not investigate individual allegations of misconduct. In stark contrast to the general ethical principles promoted by the committee, the General Standards of the Code have specifically put an emphasis on the obligation of district councilors to maintain the honor and dignity of the district council.

Since a performance monitoring mechanism will be introduced by the government under the proposed district council reform plan, we may feel there are a lot of ifs and buts about the need to establish another regulatory framework for overseeing matters relating to breaches of the Code. The performance monitoring mechanism has some inherent limitations because some of the underlying goals of the key performance indicators are not easily quantified. Therefore, we strongly believe that the establishment of a Code-enforcing disciplinary board may offer an effective mechanism to further strengthen the post-election accountability system.

But the “pro-democratic” camp may be less than impressed if the HAD is given additional power to discipline district councilors who have allegedly breached the Code. Adding new duties to the HAD may strain its capacities to breaking point. It’s worthy of note that the operation of the performance monitoring mechanism is complicated and time-consuming. If the district officer is required to lead the investigative and disciplinary work of the disciplinary board, he or she may not have enough time to do other necessary tasks. District officers are responsible for leading the district councils and care teams as well as the three committees — the area committee, the district fire safety committee and the district fight crime committee.

Running a disciplinary board is not an easy task. In some cases, a particular act of misconduct will also breach the law. Strict referral guidelines are needed to determine whether an alleged breach of the Code should be referred to the police force or the Independent Commission Against Corruption for follow-up criminal investigation. Investigative work by the board is also time-consuming. For fear of placing the HAD-dominated disciplinary board in an unfavorable light, members of the board should declare their relations with the targeted councilor so as to avoid conflicts of interest. It may require some screening tests.

As an alternative to the HAD-dominated disciplinary board, a self-regulatory board may be in a better position to deal with matters relating to breaches of the Code. The self-regulatory board would be formed by district councilors and board members would be selected either by election or through consultation. They would be expected to play the fullest possible role in regulating the conduct of district councilors. To enhance the credibility of the board, we suggest inviting lay participation in investigative and disciplinary work.

We also propose that the board should appoint more than one legal adviser to give legal advice on referral issues. District officers may also be invited to act as advisers. An appeal system should be set up to ensure the disciplinary proceedings can meet the basic standard of a fair hearing. The Code should be amended to set out clear guidelines for disciplinary sanctions and follow up referrals to law-enforcement agencies.

We should no longer tolerate the misconduct of district councilors. Not only will the misconduct of the “black sheep” affect the credibility of all district councils, it will also adversely affect the relations between government and residents. There are some pearls of wisdom to the proposal that a Code-enforcing self-regulatory board is more suitable for regulating the conduct of district councilors.

Joseph Ho is a solicitor, director of Sino-Australia Relations of Chinese Dream Think Tank.

Kacee Ting Wong is a barrister, part-time researcher of Shenzhen University Hong Kong and Macao Basic Law Research Center, chairman of Chinese Dream Think Tank. 

【CDTT Newspaper Article】Joseph Ho & Kacee Ting:Self-regulatory board could be a better option for policing district councilors (China Daily HK Edition, page 8; 6 July 2023)

https://www.chinadailyhk.com/epaper/pubs//chinadaily/2023/07/06/08.pdf

https://www.chinadailyhk.com/article/339286#Self-regulatory-board-could-be-a-better-option-for-policing-district-councilors

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

This article is reproduced by Kwun Media with the consent of China Daily.

Chinese Dream Think Tank is a non-profit Hong Kong-based organization working with skilled volunteers, experts and professionals who are passionate about telling the China story well.

中國夢智庫|應修訂《區議員手册》 准許區議會成立自我規管機制

2020年3月,兩名深水埗區民主派區議員在辦事處外張貼具爭議與侮辱性告示,提出不提供地區服務於支持特區政府的當區居民。「民政事務總署」(「民政署」)隨即發出警告,陳述此等言行可能違反民選區議員的行為準則。問題的中心在於「民政署」應否被賦予額外權力,調查有關投訴與懲罰違反《區議員手冊》(《手冊》)? 為確保區議員們遵守《手冊》,是否應准許區議會自行成立一個自我規管的紀律機制?

區議員必須無條件服務各自選區的所有居民,這是常識。上述兩名前區議員卻表現得本末倒置,更關心的是取悅黃營的支持者,他們張貼挑釁性告示,表示將會把藍營支持者拒之門外。對此,民建聯立法會議員鄭泳舜先生指出,此類行徑可能構成公職人員行為失當(註1)。「民政署」正確指出,此等行為涉嫌違反《手冊》。但非常遺憾,「民政署」沒有採取任何後續紀律處分行動。

上述極具挑釁性事件在第六屆區議會期間不是冰山一角,現任「政制及內地事務局」副局長胡健民先生曾表示,當時一些新當選區議員蓄意分裂社區、製造對抗:行為包括在會議發言時抹黑警隊、驅逐其他持反對意見的當區議員、拘留出席區議會會議的政府官員、在審查與資助某些活動時提出偏見性術語與通過動議資助美化黑暴的宣傳機構(註2)。上述行為很可能觸犯《手冊》或可能具有刑事責任。

「民政署」於2019年12月發佈該《手冊》(註3),範圍涵蓋一般性基本原則與具體操守指引。首先,四項基本原則是非法定道德標準與對區議員們義務的展述。例如,區議員須確保其行為不會損害區議會聲譽(基本原則第一條)。顯然,違反第一條行為不構成刑事責任。

其次,八項具體操守指引對接受優惠、禮品、款待、利益衝突與使用機密資訊,制定了明確指導準則。操守指引第一點提醒區議員們須遵守《防止賄賂條例》。但《手冊》的缺陷在於它沒有提及有關紀律行動或後續措施等規定,將非法違規行為轉交執法機構。由於沒有紀律處分與後續轉介機制,《手冊》可操作性存疑。

「諾倫委員會」(Nolan Committee) 於1994年成立,為英國首相提供意見與建議,在1995年頒佈「公職生活的七項原則」(The Seven Principles of Public Life),為公職人員訂立個人品質要求,其中,七項原則都適用於非政府人員(註4)。這似乎就是《手冊》四項基本原則的基礎。但「諾倫委員會」無權調查個人不當行為個案。此英國原則與特區的《手冊》截然不同之處在於後者特別強調區議員有責任維護區議會的榮譽與尊嚴。

由於特區政府會在「完善區議會計劃」中引入「表現監察機制」,大家應有同感,有必要建立另一個規管框架,以監察違反《手冊》有關行為。「表現監察機制」有著它固有的局限性,原因在於KPI的一些基本目標不容易被量化。因此,筆者堅信,設立一個執行《手冊》的「紀律委員會」,可以為進一步強化選舉后的問責制度提供一個更有效的機制。

但是,如「民政署」被賦予額外的權力來懲戒已經涉嫌違反《手冊》守則的區議員,民主陣營可能不會太接受。賦予「民政署」新職責可能會為「民政署」工作已經很繁重的情況下雪上加霜。值得注意,「表現監察機制」的運作不但複雜且耗時。如果要求民政專員(DO)同時領導紀律委員會的調查與紀律工作,DO們可能會疲於奔命,無暇處理其他政事。例如,DO須負責區議會、關愛隊與領導三個委員會,既:地委會、地區消防安全委員會與地區滅罪委員會。

管理「紀律委員會」並非易事。在某些情況下,特定的不當行為可能同時屬違法行為。需要制定嚴格的轉介指引,以確定是否應將涉嫌違反《手冊》的行為轉介給警方或廉政公署進行刑事調查。「紀律委員會」的調查工作也同樣耗時。由於咱們擔心以「民政署」為主的紀律委員會處於尷尬的處境,「紀律委員會」成員應聲明與涉嫌犯錯區議員之間的關係,以避免利益衝突。「紀律委員會」可能需要一些篩查機制。

作為由「民政署」主導的「紀律委員會」可替代方案,區議會自我管理「監管委員會」可能更有能力處理與違反《手冊》相關事宜。自我管理「監管委員會」可由區議員組成,此委員會成員將通過選舉或協商選出。他(她)們應能發揮最充分的作用,規管全體區議員的行為。為提高「監管委員會」的公信力,筆者建議邀請非法律專業人士參與調查與紀律相關工作。

筆者同時建議「監管委員會」任命一名以上的法律顧問就轉介問題提供法律意見,可邀請各行各業賢士們擔任顧問。再來,應建立上訴制度,以確保紀律程式符合公平審訊的基本標準。應修訂《手冊》,為紀律處分與後續移交執法機構制定明確的準則。

最後,大家應對區議員不當行為再次表示「零」容忍。害群之馬不當行為不僅會影響特區所有區議會成員的公信力,還將損壞政府與全港居民之間的良好關係。區議會自我管理「監管委員會」建議能更好地規管區議員們的行為,這一點可能值得細心琢磨一下。

註 1: Local News 「Sham Shui Po councilors warned of breaching code of conduct
17.03.2020 available at: https://www.thestandard.com.hk/breaking-news/section/4/143923/Sham-Shui-Po-councilors-warned-of-breaching-code-of-conduct#:~:text=DAB%20lawmaker%20Vincent%20Cheng%20alleged,several%20arrests%20over%20the%20incident.

註 2: Eugene Chan「District Council reform: Woo debunks misunderstanding
in China Daily, 01.06/.2023 available at: https://www.chinadailyhk.com/article/333887#:~:text=Woo%20discussed%20and%20debunked%20certain,can%20better%20serve%20the%20community.

註 3: 民政事務總署《區議員手冊》available at: https://www.had.gov.hk/file_manager/tc/dc_term/Handbook_for_District_Council_Members_2020-2023.pdf

註 4: Wikipedia「Committee on Standards in Public Life
available at: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Committee_on_Standards_in_Public_Life#

相關資料(中文) available at: https://www.hkcgi.org.hk/media/publication/attachment/PUBLICATION_A_2383_HKICS%20Public%20Governance%20Guidance%20Note_(Chi).pdf

文:何澤群
事務律師
「中國夢智庫」中澳關係事務總監

文:丁煌
深圳大學基本法研究中心兼職研究員
經民聯港島支部主席,「中國夢智庫」主席
國際公益法律服務協會顧問委員會成員
全國港澳研究會會員

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