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LCQ19: Guidelines on Avoiding or Reporting Conflict of Interest

Following is a question by the Hon Emily Lau and a written reply by the Secretary for the Civil Service, Mr Joseph W P Wong, in the Legislative Council today (February 25):

Question:

There are criticisms that the Secretary for Education and Manpower, being the top policy-making official for education matters, had a conflict of interest in accepting a degree of Doctor of Laws, honouris causa, conferred by a public-funded university in December last year.  In this connection, will the Executive Authorities inform this Council whether:

(a)  to avoid conflict of interest, policy secretaries and directorate officers are required to obtain approval before accepting honourary degrees conferred by public-funded tertiary institutions; if so, of the respective numbers of applications received and rejected in the past five years, as well as the reasons for rejecting the applications concerned; if not, the reasons for that; and

(b)  they have issued guidelines to policy secretaries and directorate officers on how to avoid conflict of interest arising from the acceptance of honourary degrees conferred by public-funded tertiary institutions; if so, of the details of such guidelines; if not, the reasons for that and whether they will consider drawing up such guidelines?

Reply:

Madam President:

The Administration's reply to parts (a) and (b) of the question is set out hereunder.

Principal Officials under the Accountability System are not required to obtain approval before accepting honourary degrees conferred by public-funded tertiary institutions.  There are no specific guidelines in this regard for Principal Officials under the Accountability System.  However, the Code for Principal Officials under the Accountability System (the Code) provides guidance for Principal Officials on matters of principle, and stipulates that Principal Officials are required:

(a)  to ensure that no actual or potential conflict arises between their public duties and their private interests [Clause 1.2(7) of the Code];

(b)  to avoid putting themselves in a position where they might arouse any suspicion of dishonesty, unfairness or conflict of interest [Clause 5.1 of the Code]; and

(c)  to refrain from handling cases with actual or potential conflict of interest [Clause 5.3 of the Code].

The Code does not specify every type of potential act or behaviour expected of Principal Officials.  Rather, it provides rules and principles for appropriate conduct under certain circumstances.  Where the circumstances are not prescribed, it is the responsibility of Principal Officials to judge in accordance with the principles set out in the Code, how best to act in order to uphold the highest standards.  In case of doubt, Principal Officials shall seek the advice of the Chief Executive [Clause 1.3 of the Code].

For civil servants, there is also no requirement for them to seek permission before accepting honourary degrees conferred by public-funded tertiary institutions.  However, civil servants are required to comply with the guidelines issued by the Administration on conflict of interest. In this regard, we have in place clear rules which require and remind all civil servants to be vigilant at all times against any actual or potential conflict of interest situation that may arise or has arisen between their official duties and their private interests.  Civil servants should take steps to avoid or declare conflict of interest situations as and when any such situation comes to light.  In case of doubt, an officer should seek the advice of his supervisor.  Failure to take appropriate action to avoid or declare a conflict of interest constitutes misconduct and renders them liable to disciplinary action.

The circular on conflict of interest also outlines some of the common areas in which a conflict of interest may arise between an officer's official duties and his private interests. In circumstances not specifically covered in the circular, officers are required to act with vigilance in accordance with the principles prescribed in the circular.  These principles include:

(a)  civil servants must be honest, impartial and objective in carrying out their duties and maintain a high standard of probity;

(b)  they must not subordinate their official duties to their private interests, nor put themselves in a position where their official duties and private interests conflict;

(c)  they must not allow the pursuit of their private interests to interfere with the proper discharge of their official duties, such as engaging in an occupation or undertaking which might conflict with the interests of the department he works in; and

(d)  they should refrain from taking part in the deliberation, decision-making, investigation or enforcement process in connection with any official dealings in which they have a private interest.

Apart from giving guidelines on avoiding or reporting conflict of interest, the circular also sets out the role of supervisors in managing conflict of interest and provides guidance in this respect.  Supervisors at all levels are required to watch out for any possibility of their staff being exposed to conflict of interest situations.  When a supervisor becomes aware of or receives a report of conflict of interest, he should examine the facts of the case to determine whether there is any conflict.  He should consider the relevant information and factors (e.g. the relationship between the officer and the person or persons with whom he has official dealings), and decide on the course of action to be taken, such as relieving the officer of his involvement in the task which may give rise to a conflict of interest.  The management actions and guidelines outlined above have been prescribed to maintain a high standard of integrity in the civil service.

Wednesday, February 25, 2004

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