Staff carrying out difficult frontline duties

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 28 January, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 28 January, 1999, 12:00am

I refer to the letter headlined, 'Change bad hawker law' (South China Morning Post, January 25).

Rarely have I seen, in these columns, such offensive and misleading correspondence. Let me deal with the points raised in the letter.

Wong Tai-fuk is the only hawker to carry out self-immolation. To my knowledge, there have been no other circumstances where a hawker has actually attempted self-immolation. Of course, those found guilty of offences are often highly emotional and it is not unusual for threats of all kinds to be made.

It is not true that the law compels the courts to confiscate the goods of a convicted unlicensed hawker in all cases. The law allows the magistrate to take special circumstances into consideration in deciding whether to confiscate goods.

As regards excessive power being given to the Urban Services Department (USD), the USD is the executive arm of the Provisional Urban Council (PUC). The hawker policies implemented by the department and the current legislation requiring confiscation of goods were decided some years ago by the Urban Council, legislation subsequently approved by the Legislative Council.

As regards the claims that we chase, beat and detain hawkers, we do, of course, endeavour to detain hawkers. We must do so under the law if they are to be arrested and brought before the courts. I would, however, challenge the writers of the letter to give me specific examples where the USD has been found guilty of 'beating' hawkers.

In those cases where there is an altercation between hawkers and USD staff, generally the police take statements from both parties. Normal judicial procedures are then followed by the police to allow the courts to decide on the basis of the evidence before them whether the USD staff or the hawkers are guilty of any offence.

In recent times, no USD staff have been found guilty of using violence in their handling of hawker cases. Any member of staff found guilty would be subject to severe disciplinary action under civil service procedures.

On the other hand, when it comes to violence against USD staff working on hawker control duties, there have been a number of serious attacks on my staff within the past 12 months. For example, one of my market supervisory staff members who had been taking action against illegal hawkers in his market nearly lost his right hand and his life due to an attack with a beef knife. He remains partially disabled some months after the attack.

A week later, a hawker control officer, while on patrol, was slashed on the back again with a beef knife. Fortunately, because he was wearing heavy clothing at the time, he only suffered minor injuries to his back and neck. Under other circumstances, the attack could have been fatal.

On the question of USD staff being reminiscent of Nazi gauleiters, suffice it to say that I take particular exception to such insulting terms being applied to USD staff who are carrying out difficult frontline duties and obeying the PUC's instructions.

Regarding the contention that unlicensed hawkers bring colour to the streets, I would remind your correspondents that unlicensed hawkers cause food poisoning by selling unhygienic food.

They also create mountains of rubbish. They block main public thoroughfares, take away business from genuine retailers, often sell counterfeit goods which affects Hong Kong's international reputation and, we suspect, are themselves sometimes the unwilling victims of attempted triad control.

Change the law, say your correspondents. The PUC has, in fact, recently decided to ask Legco to amend the current legislation to provide for greater discretion for magistrates to decide on the confiscation of hawkers' goods. This proposed change has been publicised in news reports in the local media.

MICHAEL J. ARNOLD Deputy Director of Urban Services (Environmental Health)