Six months after the fatal ferry crash off Lamma Island, more than half the passenger vessels inspected by the South China Morning Post last week still kept children's life vests only on the main deck, and one even had them locked up.
Marine Department regulations require ferries to have all life-saving equipment located in easily accessible places and ready for immediate use.
But in a Post inspection of six ferries - running from Central to Cheung Chau, Peng Chau, Mui Wo, Yung Shue Wan, Sok Kwu Wan and Discovery Bay - four did not have life jackets for children on their upper decks. They were First Ferry VII, First Ferry XI, Sea Strike and Sea Supreme.
The children's life vests compartment on the Sea Supreme - which runs between Central and Peng Chau - was locked last Tuesday. The ferry, along with Sea Strike and Sea Spring, did not display their certificates of survey during the Post's inspection.
All three ships are operated by Hong Kong & Kowloon Ferry (HKKF), which also owned Sea Smooth, the ferry that collided with the Hongkong Electric-operated Lamma IV on October 1. Eight children were among the 39 dead, all of whom had been on board the Lamma IV, which carried no life jackets for children.
Lawmaker Gary Fan Kwok-wai, vice-chairman of the Legislative Council transport panel, said he was angry about the situation. "The government is neglecting its duty. The ferry operators are not fulfilling their responsibilities. It's really bad," he said.
Fan said children's life jackets should be on both decks for easy retrieval in an emergency.
An HKKF spokeswoman said its ferries typically did not keep children's life vests locked up, and the company would look into the matter. Their location complied with regulations, she added, and the three ships' certificates of survey were displayed in the wheelhouse.
The life jackets on board the First Ferry XI were placed in tied-up plastic bags, which were themselves inside cloth bags that had to be unclasped to open.
The vessel's operator New World First Ferry said the manner of storage met the relevant regulations and was endorsed by ship surveyors.
All the ferries inspected by the Post had at least one life vest for each passenger, and these were placed either underneath or behind passengers' seats.
Legislation passed in 2008 stipulated that the number of children's life jackets on any vessel should be 5 per cent of the adult ones. All the ferries that the Post inspected last week complied with the law.
But a retired seafarer said some shipping associations often pressured the Marine Department to go easy on inspections because operators did not want the extra financial burden that complying with safety rules involved. Sometimes captains also turned a blind eye, he said.
A Marine Department spokeswoman said it had carried out checks after the Post informed it of the findings and found no compartments containing life jackets to be locked.
Officers did, however, find children's life vests that were not appropriately distributed. Operators had said the situation was now rectified and a re-inspection would be conducted today.