Watchdog opens probe of flat owners' 'water torture'
The ombudsman has launched an investigation into how the government handles complaints about water seepage in private buildings.
The decision came after about 21,000 complaints were made in less than a year to a joint office set up to deal with such grievances.
It comprises officers from the Buildings and Food and Environmental Hygiene departments. In some cases, the Water Supplies Department can also step in.
Seepage, involving wastewater or tap water, is a common problem in ageing buildings. Although owners of private flats are responsible for the problem, the government has a duty to ensure the seepage does not create hygiene problems, waste drinking water and damage buildings.
In 2003 a report by Team Clean, formed after the Sars outbreak, recommended the joint office be set up to better co-ordinate departmental efforts to investigate seepage.
The first office was set up in Sham Shui Po in late 2004 and the network expanded to each of the 19 districts last year.
The ombudsman said complainants continued to suffer from 'rounds of referrals and counter-referrals' among departments and the office.
Departments sometimes failed to agree upon an accepted testing method, resulting in inaction.
The long processing time was also a matter of concern. A senior official has said it takes about 115 days to conclude an investigation.
More than 8,300 of the complaints have been fully investigated.
Ombudsman Alice Tai Yuen-ying said the system was 'indicative of a need for improvement and I will examine its arrangement to help resolve matters'.
The investigation will focus on the responsibilities of the three departments, practices and procedures for handling complaints and how effective they are.
A government spokeswoman welcomed the investigation and promised full co-operation with the ombudsman. She said the success rate in identifying the cause of seepage had risen from 14 per cent to 54 per cent since the joint office was formed.
'We already planned to conduct a comprehensive review of the operation of the joint office after this year, with a view to improving the office's efficiency and effectiveness.'
Winnie Poon Yam Wai-chun, a Kwun Tong district councillor who has handled numerous seepage cases, said the joint office was constrained because it lacked direct power unless, in rare cases, it obtained a court order to enter a flat suspected of causing water seepage.
She said in many cases flat owners refused to let officers in. Even when the problem was admitted, many people were reluctant to carry out repairs.
'Unless there is a penalty, it is ineffective to persuade people to co-operate as those who cause seepage do not feel it is an urgent matter, she said.