Not to be sneezed at

PUBLISHED : Friday, 04 June, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 04 June, 1999, 12:00am

It seems the Urban Services Department may be finally learning the art of humility, after a series of heavy-handed actions by its anti-hawker patrols provoked such strong public concern.

Only recently it was still acting extremely arrogantly, as shown by its treatment of Lee Hop. Government lawyers insisted on dropping the charges against this elderly woman, who says she only went out to buy eggs yet ended up being arrested for illegal hawking.

But the department refused to apologise and insisted it had been right to prosecute. The case provoked widespread indignation and led to many other people coming forward with their own examples of mistreatment by the department's staff.

Yesterday equally ridiculous charges against Chan Tien-chan were dropped. He was charged with spitting on the evidence of anti-hawker officers, although a witness said he had only been sneezing.

This time the department showed signs of learning from its earlier mistakes. Instead of seeking to justify this arrest, it unveiled a 10-point programme to impose tighter controls on its staff. The situation is now so dire that hawker control officers will have to work in pairs. This, in effect, recognises their credibility has fallen so low that the evidence of only one officer is unlikely to carry much weight.

This demonstrates how more than contrition will be necessary if the department wants to rehabilitate its battered public image.

Magistrate Bill Siu Lai-chow yesterday called for the prosecution of any officers found to have falsified evidence or obstructed justice. That is only the first step. Officials must also make clear what action is being taken in response to a recent newspaper investigation. This uncovered cases where anti-hawker teams connived with those they arrested and other people who were paid to be prosecuted in their place.

No one denies that combatting illegal hawking can be difficult, sometimes even dangerous. But those charged with this duty have clearly gone too far in the past and have lost public confidence as a result.

That can only be regained by cleaning up their act in future.