Public housing residents left in limbo by Hong Kong Social Welfare Department’s rigid rules
City’s governance watchdog admonishes social welfare officials for prioritising procedures over people
The city’s governance watchdog on Monday chided the Social Welfare Department for bungling a flat transfer application, leaving distressed public housing residents in limbo for more than three years.
The department adhered too rigidly to its internal administrative procedures and as a result, did not provide services needed by the residents in a timely fashion, the Office of the Ombudsman said. However, the department insisted it was following agreed-upon guidelines for cross-agency cooperation with the Housing Department, leading the Ombudsman to suggest that all parties involved review their agreement and work on improving their partnership.
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The case revolved around a household of four in a rented public flat. After a family member died in the unit in 2014, one of the members become “emotionally disturbed” and the family applied to the Housing Department for a transfer to another flat in the same estate.
Tenants can apply to the Housing Department for transfers on social or health grounds, but it would first refer these cases to the social welfare unit and their affiliated agencies for assessment.
The family’s application was referred to the social welfare unit’s integrated family service centre, which in turn, recommended to the Housing Department that the family be transferred to a flat with a different layout to give them a change of environment.
Two months later in April 2015, it confirmed with the family that they had no other service needs, and then closed the case.
Subsequently, the Housing Department offered two flat choices to the family over the course of 2015, both which were rejected because they were too similar to the layout of their existing flat.
Out of options, the Housing Department wrote to the Social Welfare Department in January 2016 and said it could not allocate a flat of different layout and size to the family unless there were special circumstances.
It suggested that a social worker accompany the family to one of the proposed units to see if it could meet their needs.
But the service centre, having closed the case, demanded that the Housing Department clarify the “purpose of the referral” and get the family’s consent before it would act.
The Housing Department did as told and said its staff “repeatedly telephoned” the social welfare unit and its service centre to get updates.
The other parties disputed this account and said the service centre realised that the Housing Department wanted it to assess if the family would qualify for a transfer to a different flat type.
But it had already recommended the Housing Department give the family a unit with a different layout, and considered itself to have handled the matter in line with the cooperation agreement between it, its agencies and the Housing Department.
With no progress made on their request, the family submitted a complaint to the Office of the Ombudsman in September 2016.
Set up in 1989, it carries out regular investigations into public administration and complaints against government departments and officers. Reports of its findings are available on its website.
In its review, the watchdog found that the complaint against the Social Welfare Department was “partially substantiated”. But there was no case against the Housing Department, which had not delayed handling the application.
“The Social Welfare Department should put the applicants’ well-being first and proactively follow up [on] their cases, rather than insisting each referral must rigidly follow all the procedural requirements,” the report said.
Ombudsman Connie Lau Yin-hing added: “We can’t see any reason the service centre had to repeatedly ask the Housing Department to provide referrals for the same case.”
“The service centre was … overly concerned about the terms of the cooperation. It did not consider the purpose behind the relevant procedures and ignored the current needs of the complainant.”
Lau said the breakdown in communication between the two departments was worrying.
She urged all agencies involved in this matter to “review this case with candour and rebuild their cooperative relations.”
Both the Housing Department and Social Welfare Department should also review their cooperation agreement and hold face-to-face discussions to clarify similar conflicts, should they arise in future, Lau said.