Overhaul needed at Hong Kong’s Marine Department

Ombudsman’s report, and court convictions, show that officials have been dangerously slack in enforcing laws on maritime safety

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 21 June, 2016, 11:35pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 21 June, 2016, 11:35pm

When a department is criticised by a government-appointed watchdog in the harshest possible terms, there is every reason to take the matter seriously. In question is the Marine Department. The way it follows up on maritime accidents has been so poor that it is almost unimaginable, according to the Ombudsman.

The department’s operations have come under close scrutiny in the wake of the Lamma ferry collision in 2012. Subsequent investigations and legal proceedings showed that slack monitoring and enforcement on marine safety laws had contributed to the tragedy, in which 39 people were killed in one of the worst marine accidents in Hong Kong’s history.

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The Ombudsman is to be commended for looking into the way marine accidents are followed up by the department. Currently, every incident is to be investigated, with the relevant parties given recommendations to prevent any recurrence. But the watchdog found that the system had been dogged by delays and non-compliance. In one extreme case, the department took more than eight years upon completion of a report to take action. Officials were also merely forwarding advice to the parties concerned, much like a messenger would do. Whether the advice was acted upon was not followed up.

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The findings have added to the negative perception of the way the department discharges its official duties. Since 2012, various inquiries have identified a raft of systemic failures on the part of the department and the marine industry. Yesterday, a key official was sentenced to 16 months in jail for misconduct in public office. Another official and the captains of the two vessels in the 2012 tragedy were also convicted earlier. Yet, the pursuit of responsibility and compensation is still ongoing.

At stake is our marine safety. The Ombudsman’s report may not bring closure to victims’ families. But it puts the department’s slack governance into perspective and gives the government a greater push to put its house in order.