16 June 2019
An inquiry panel comprising a former judge and a British engineer is set to look into alleged shoddy work in sections of MTR's Shatin-Central Link project. Photo: HKEJ
An inquiry panel comprising a former judge and a British engineer is set to look into alleged shoddy work in sections of MTR's Shatin-Central Link project. Photo: HKEJ

Will the judge-led inquiry into MTR works make a difference?

The government recently named a second member for the independent inquiry panel to be led by Michael Hartmann, a former non-permanent judge of the Court of Final Appeal, to look into the works scandal pertaining to MTR Corporation’s Shatin-Central Link (SCL) rail project.

The new member, who is a foreign engineer, will carry out the investigation along with Justice Hartmann on the alleged work flaws at Hung Hom station.

It is believed that the Executive Council could decide on the official terms of reference of the inquiry at its meeting today, after which the inquiry will be up and running as soon as possible.

At first, when Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor appointed Justice Hartmann to lead the investigation, she insisted that the inquiry would only look into the alleged steel bar-cutting at the Hung Hom station platform works, and not the To Kwa Wan and Exhibition Center stations, which also saw some work flaws according to recent reports.

However, in order to dissuade pro-establishment lawmakers from supporting their colleague Michael Tien Puk-sun’s bid to invoke the Legislative Council (Powers and Privileges) Ordinance (P&P) to summon a special Legco meeting on the issue, Lam finally agreed to soften her stance over the terms of reference of the inquiry committee.

As she announced at the monthly Legco Q&A session last week, the judge-led inquiry would not only look into the scandals involving the Hung Hom station, but would also review, among other things, the overall management and oversight mechanism of both the MTR and the government itself over railway projects.

Nevertheless, as Tien has put it, the decision to slightly broaden the scope of the investigation was nothing more than a means to offer the chief executive a more pleasant and dignified way out.

Tien vowed that even though he was unable to summon a special Legco meeting on the issue using the Legco P&P Ordinance, a meeting of the Legco Subcommittee on Matters Relating to Railways is still going to be held this Friday regardless, in order to give representatives of the key sub-contractor in question, China Technology Corp, an opportunity to express its opinions on what really happened, and face lawmakers’ questioning.

However, Tien believed that Leighton (Asia), the main contractor of the SCL project, would refuse to send anyone to the meeting, in line with its approach since the onset of the scandal.

There is, however, a broader problem. One might remember that back in 2014, it was Justice Hartmann himself who led an independent inquiry into the delays and cost overruns of the Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong Express Rail Link project.

In his subsequent report to the government, he strongly criticized the Highways Department for its poor supervision of the MTR, and criticized the MTR for its misinformation and deliberate cover-ups.

Unfortunately, four years on, these problems still very much remain, which begs the question: is Justice Hartmann’s inquiry committee, despite its special powers to subpoena witnesses, really going to make any difference this time, so that the government and MTR would finally draw a lesson?

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on July 9

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Columnist of Hong Kong Economic Journal.

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