Don't discard good sense in pursuit of litterbugs

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 15 January, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 15 January, 2005, 12:00am

Litterbugs have long been targeted by the government in its efforts to keep Hong Kong clean and tidy.

Public awareness campaigns date back to the 1950s. But in recent years more emphasis has been placed on punishing offenders - and rightly so. Fines have been increased and enforcement action stepped up. Inspectors have been encouraged to be dedicated to the cause.

But this important public duty can be taken too far. The case of the dropped key, reported in this newspaper, is - on the evidence available - an extraordinary (and extraordinarily silly) example of the power being abused.

The culprit is Lau Shiu-fun, a 55-year-old housewife who was out on a shopping expedition near her home. The litter? Her own door key. We only have Mrs Lau's side of the story. The Food and Environmental Hygiene Department is looking into her complaint and has not yet commented on the case, other than to say its inspectors carried out their duties without fear or bias.

Mrs Lau says that within seconds of accidentally dropping the key, she was ambushed by four FEHD inspectors. They issued her with a $1,500 fixed-penalty notice for littering. The inspectors were deaf to her protests of innocence. Instead, they called for reinforcements - and four more inspectors arrived.

It is good to see anti-littering officials exercising vigilance. It is also reassuring to know extra manpower is made available when problems arise. What a pity that they chose to home in on someone who dropped her key - not litter. If Mrs Lau's version is correct, the inspectors lacked sensitivity and common sense.

The sad irony is that while these eight inspectors were troubling themselves with the dropped key, there were probably real litterbugs in the vicinity who were going unnoticed and unpunished. It looks as though Mrs Lau provided them with an easy - but apparently wrong - target.

With inspectors as sharp-eyed as this, we should expect Hong Kong to be virtually litter-free. Unfortunately this is not the case (although things have improved since the post-Sars crackdown last year).

Litterbugs dropped 159 tonnes of rubbish during last year's Mid-Autumn Festival. We could have done with a few more enthusiastic inspectors then.

This is not the only recent example of FEHD inspectors taking their duties to an extreme. The prosecution of non-smoking pub Dublin Jack for obstruction in a public place also smacks of bureaucracy gone mad. Officials insisted on the removal of two barrels placed outside the pub for use by customers who smoked. Given the size of the street, they were surely not causing an obstruction. After all, the department has replaced them with two litter bins of about the same size.

The law must be enforced. Litterbugs must be punished. But these powers should be exercised with care, restraint - and a good dose of common sense.