Provisional Legislative Council

PLC Paper No. CB(2)315
(These minutes have been seen
by the Administration)

Ref : CB2/PL/IP

Provisional Legislative Council
Panel on Information Policy

Minutes of Meeting held on Friday, 22 August 1997 at 8:30 am in Conference Room B of the Legislative Council Building

Members present :

Hon CHOY So-yuk (Chairman)
Hon WONG Siu-yee
Dr Hon Raymond HO Chung-tai, JP
Hon MA Fung-kwok
Hon TSANG Yok-sing
Hon Bruce LIU Sing-lee

Members Absent :

Hon David CHU Yu-lin
Dr Hon Charles YEUNG Chun-kam

Public Officers Attendance :

Item II

Mr NG Hon-wah
Acting Deputy Secretary for Home Affairs

Mr John DEAN
Principal Assistant Secretary for Home Affairs

Item III

Office of the Privacy Commissioner for Personal Data

Mr Stephen LAU
Privacy Commissioner for Personal Data

Mr Robin McLEISH
Deputy Privacy Commissioner for Personal Data

Mr Eric PUN
Legal Adviser

The Administration

Mr NG Hon-wah
Acting Deputy Secretary for Home Affairs

Clerk in Attendance :

Mr Colin CHUI
Acting Chief Assistant Secretary (2) 2

Staff in Attendance :

Mrs Justina LAM
Assistant Secretary General 2

Mrs Constance LI
Chief Assistant Secretary (2) 2 (Designate)

Mr Stanley MA
Senior Assistant Secretary (2) 7

1.The Chairman welcomed new member, Dr Hon Raymond HO, to the meeting. The Panel currently had eight members and the quorum remained to be three members including the Chairman.

I.Confirmation of minutes of meeting and matters arising
(PLC Paper No. CB(2)120)

2.The minutes of meeting held on 22 July 1997 were confirmed.

II.Briefing by the Administration on the information policy issues
(Paper No. CB(2)145(01) provided by the Home Affairs Bureau)

3.At the Chairman 's invitation, the Home Affairs Bureau (HAB) presented its paper on the Government 's information policy which was to -

  1. enhance public access to government information;

  2. foster a culture of open and accountable government;

  3. protect and enhance press freedom; and

  4. protect the privacy of personal data.

4.The discussion between members and HAB was summarised in the ensuing paragraphs.

Dissemination of government information

5.A member opined that, in addition to public consultation through other mass media, the Government should collect public views on the Legislative Council Bill through the Internet. Representatives of the Home Affairs Bureau said that the home page of the Constitutional Affairs Bureau (CAB), the bureau responsible for the Bill, was still under preparation. The member 's suggestion would be referred to CAB for consideration.HAB

6.A member raised the question of involvement of the Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) in disseminating government information. HAB said that RTHK which had editorial independence was willing to assist bureaux/departments in disseminating government information.

7.A member asked whether the Government would require a subscription television licensee to broadcast Announcement of Public Interest (APIs) to help disseminate government information to the public, similar to the arrangement for commercial television licensees. HAB advised that the matter fell outside the scope of the Bureau.

Access to information

8.In seeking clarification on the government guidelines on access to information, a member said that his request over the phone for the name of the subject officer responsible for a particular matter had been turned down by the staff of a department, on the ground that the request was in breach of the Personal Data (Privacy) Ordinance (the Ordinance). He asked whether this was consistent with the Ordinance or the Code on Access to Information (the Code). HAB replied that regardless of the Code, bureaux/departments had the responsibility to respond to phone calls on matters relating to their work. If their staff were uncertain as to who to refer the matter in question, they should record the message and respond after having identified the responsible officers. In this connection, the member suggested that more training should be provided to officers engaged in phone reception duties.

9.In response to a member, HAB said that staff of bureaux/departments had been briefed on the provisions under the Code. Persons who believed that a bureau/department had failed to comply with the Code could ask the department to review the situation. Alternatively, they could lodge a complaint to the Ombudsman. To help monitor implementation of the Code, HAB had asked participating agencies to provide statistics on the number of requests for information. HAB would also consider issuing circulars to participating agencies regularly to remind them of the principles of the Code.

10.On the question of the proportion of government information that public could have access, HAB replied that the Government did not have such statistics as it was difficult to define the quantitative basis (e.g. number of pages or number of documents) for calculating the proportion. Nevertheless, HAB collected statistics on the numbers of requests for information and responses to these requests. As at 16 August 1997, 75 out of about 3,000 requests for information had been rejected. The grounds on which participating agencies could refuse requests for information were set out in Part 2 of the Code. For the 75 refusal cases, the main grounds for refusal included privacy of the individual, third party information, and management and operation of the public service, etc. So far, five complaints had been referred to the Ombudsman. Regarding the Chairman 's request for more substantial information about some of the refusal cases, HAB undertook to provide information on the five cases referred to the Ombudsman. On the question of access to minutes of meetings of Government committees, HAB advised that the principles governing access to these minutes were the same as those for other government information as set out in the Code.

(Post-meeting note : HAB has provided further information on the five cases referred to the Ombudsman vide PLC Paper No. CB(2)200 circulated to members.)

11.A member raised the question of access to personal information kept by the Government or other organisations. HAB advised that, upon receipt of a request for such information, the department or organisation should advise the applicant whether information relating to the applicant was maintained. If such information was maintained, a copy of the information should be provided to the applicant unless exempted under the Ordinance. If the request was rejected, the applicant should be advised of the reasons of refusal. A complaint could be lodged with the Privacy Commissioner if the applicant considered that the department or organisation had failed to comply with the provisions of the Ordinance.

12.On the question of access to information on interception of communication, HAB said that the Code also applied to disclosure of such information. Bureaux/departments might refuse disclosure of such information on ground(s) set out in the Code.

Press freedom

13.A member raised the issue of press freedom in Hong Kong and suggested press associations be invited to discuss the issue at future meetings. He requested HAB to include questions on press freedom, e.g. whether press freedom had been fettered after the handover, in its regular public opinion survey. Another member considered it more appropriate for the press to answer these questions. In response, HAB advised that the Government was committed to maintaining an environment in Hong Kong in which a free and active press could operate under the minimum of regulation which did not fetter freedom of expression or editorial independence. As legislation relating to press freedom and law enforcement personnel remained unchanged after the handover, press freedom should not be fettered. Whilst accepting the importance of the press views on the issue, HAB considered that public perception was equally important and would consider including questions on press freedom in its public opinion survey. If there was public misperception that press freedom was fettered, the Government would take action to correct it.HAB

14.A member opined that public views on press freedom could be regarded as "indexes" or "indicators" for gauging press freedom. In this connection, he suggested a research study be conducted to ascertain whether there were in existence established/recognised "indexes" or "indicators" for such purpose. Members agreed that such a study should be conducted to facilitate them to consider how best the issue should be followed up.

(Post-meeting note : The Research and Library Service Division of the Provisional Legislative Council Secretariat would provide members with an information paper on press freedom indexes/indictors before the next meeting. Copies/extracts of relevant articles, if any, would also be made available to members.)

III.Briefing by the Privacy Commissioner for Personal Data on the work of his office
(Paper No. CB(2)145(02))

15.The Privacy Commissioner for Personal Data gave a presentation on the work of his office (PCO). The discussion between members and PCO was set out in the ensuing paragraphs.

Enquiry/complaint workload

16.Regarding the heavy workload in dealing with enquiries and complaints, the Privacy Commissioner said that PCO had re-deployed staff to assist in clearing some of the backlog. It would also bid for additional manpower resources in 1998-99 to cope with the existing and anticipated increase in workload.

Transfer of personal data to third party

17.In response to a member, PCO advised that an individual should be informed of the purposes for which his personal data were to be used and the classes of persons to whom the data might be transferred on or before the collection of the data. Unless the individual gave consent otherwise, personal data should be used only for the purposes for which they were collected or a directly related purpose, for example, personal data received by debt collection agencies from credit providers should only be used for collecting debt or internal reference.

Exemptions under the Ordinance

18.The member asked whether disclosure of public figures" personal data by the press was in breach of the provisions of the Ordinance. The Privacy Commissioner responded that if such disclosure was for the purpose of a news activity, the disclosure might be permitted under the exemption provision relating to the use of personal data for that purpose. If the public figures considered such disclosure an abuse of the exemption, they could lodge complaints to the PCO. The data users had to justify their claims for exemption if they were challenged. In dealing with such complaints, the PCO would take into account the particular circumstances of the cases and apply the provisions of the Ordinance to them before coming to a conclusion.

19.The member also asked whether investigations conducted by the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) were exempted from the Ordinance. The Privacy Commissioner pointed out that, like any other law enforcement agency, the ICAC might be able to rely on the exemption provided in the Ordinance from its use limitation and subject access requirements where their application was likely to prejudice the prevention or detection of crime.

Privacy Commissioner 's investigation power

20.Regarding the investigation powers of the Privacy Commissioner, HAB advised that he had extensive statutory investigation power. Nevertheless, section 57 of the Ordinance provided that the Chief Executive or the Chief Secretary could direct the Privacy Commissioner not to carry out an inspection or investigation in relation to personal data held by or on behalf of the Government for the purposes of safeguarding security, defence or international relations in respect of Hong Kong.

Appeal against Privacy Commissioner 's decision

21.In response to a member, the Privacy Commissioner said that a complainant could appeal to the Administrative Appeals Board against a decision of the Privacy Commissioner - (a) not to carry out an investigation into a complaint; or (b) not to serve an enforcement notice.

IV.Items for discussion at the next meeting

22.Members agreed that the following items would be discussed at the next meeting to be held on 26 September 1997 at 8:30 am in Conference Room B of the Legislative Council Building -

  1. Development of Information Superhighway and Internet in Hong Kong.

  2. Briefing by the Privacy Commissioner for Personal Data on the draft code of practice on personal identifiers.

23.A member was concerned that mobile communications were sometimes blocked in areas such as the Lion Rock Tunnel. There were spots at which mobile communications were not possible. The Chairman asked the Clerk to collect some preliminary information on the issue before deciding on how best it should be followed up.

(Post-meeting note : The Telecommunications Authority has been requested to provide information on the issue and a reply is awaited.)

24.On a member 's suggested discussion item on "broadcasting of Central Television Station 's programmes in Hong Kong", the Panel noted that the subject fell outside its terms of reference. Mr MA Fung-kwok, deputy chairman of the Broadcasting, Culture and Sport (BCS) Panel, said that he would consider referring the item for consideration by the BCS Panel.

25.The meeting ended at 11:00 am.

Provisional Legislative Council Secretariat
22 September 1997