Banks, lawyers exempt from tightened company searches

Banks, accountants, lawyers and more sectors are getting exemptions from the government’s plan to tighten public access to Hong Kong’s official business database, but officials are still refusing to give exemptions to journalists and labour unions.

The Secretary for Financial Services and the Treasury, Christopher Hui, revealed a change in the government’s original proposal on Saturday following backlash from various industries.

Critics said that a tightening in company registry searches would weaken accountability and transparency, and would also increase the likelihood of company fraud, corruption and money laundering.

This is because members of the public who are not on the exemption list would be unable to access the residential address and full identity card numbers of executives through such searches in future.

The minister said the exemption list would now be expanded to include securities and insurance companies, property agents and more.

“But the premise is that they have to be really doing relevant checks and work, because we need to strike a balance and protect privacy… For example, lawyers, accountants and banks have to be doing the searches for know-your-customer checks or work related to compliance and anti money-laundering,” Hui added.

Asked why journalists aren’t granted an exemption, the minister said the government is not trying to target any industry but to protect people’s privacy.

“I have to draw a line on who are getting the exemptions. And it’s going to be public servants and these professional practitioners, who really have the legal responsibility to do specific work. That’s why we are willing to give them exemptions,” he said.

Labour unions have also complained that the tighter measures would prevent them from using searches to help with wages recovery.

But Hui said unions can work with the Labour Department on such matters, as their officers can access the full information if necessary.

The proposal will be tabled at the Legislative Council later this month.