Call USD to account

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 01 May, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 01 May, 1999, 12:00am

It seems that hardly a day goes by without another controversy surrounding the Urban Services Department. Yesterday, watchman Chen Tien-chin pleaded not guilty to spitting in public, insisting that he was only sneezing at the time. If the charge is not dropped before the case comes to trial, it is likely to become even more of a cause celebre than that of Lee Hop, the elderly woman who claimed that she went out to buy some eggs but ended up arrested by anti-hawker officers.

After the Department of Justice dropped that case, USD chiefs insisted none of the organisation's staff had ever made a wrongful arrest. This assertion was put in doubt this week when a newspaper investigation uncovered several cases in which hawker control teams connived at those they arrested paying elderly people to be prosecuted in their place.

This is now being investigated by the ICAC. The Ombudsman has also taken up the issue of over-zealous anti-hawker officers. Numerous other complaints have emerged following the publicity given to the Lee Hop case.

Only a few days ago, the USD had to say it was 'extremely sorry' after a jade seller was hit by a bus while trying to escape arrest by a hawker control team.

Whatever the actual facts in individual cases, it all adds up to a department which is perceived by the public to be seriously out of control. This impression is exacerbated by the arrogant behaviour of some of its senior staff.

Deputy Director Michael Arnold provoked widespread indignation when he refused to apologise to Ms Lee and insisted that the USD had been right to bring charges.

Urban Councillors have also called him arrogant and demanded his replacement. This followed a separate controversy in which he allegedly attempted to ban a worker from giving statements at a hearing into lazy staff.

Initially it appeared as if the Lee Hop case was only an isolated incident. But, given all the other incidents which have emerged since then, it now seems more likely that it was just the tip of the iceberg.

The Government urgently needs to get a grip on the USD. Civil servants who behave in this way do not deserve to retain their posts. The department is long overdue for a shake-up that would remove some of its senior staff involved in the recent controversies.