Punish incompetent

''IF governments have to admit mistakes, then so be it,'' said the Governor, after ordering all details of last week's violent invasion of Whitehead detention centre to be released.

What he did not say, but should have said, is that if governments have to admit wilful or possibly criminal negligence, callous disregard for the safety of women and children in their care and perhaps also deliberate attempts to hide the true scale of their activities, then that too must be accepted without demur. Moreover, if accepting those faults leads to serious questions about the efficiency and competence of the departments involved, then those questions must be pursued and answered in full. If the conclusions justify it, public accountability demands that heads may have to roll. Unfortunately the remit of the independent inquiry into the incident set up yesterday is not wide enough.

Instead of concentrating on the Whitehead incident alone, the inquiry should be given the broader task of examining how the Correctional Services Department (CSD) rose to the responsibility of commanding a joint operation with the police. Beyond that, itshould be asked to look at how closely Security Branch civilian administrators should have been involved.

What faith can one have in an administration which claims not to know how many canisters of tear-gas were fired during an operation planned in advance with military precision? What trust can one place in a team which claims to be so ignorant of the effects of the gas it pumped into one small section of the camp - or of damage that could be caused by the exploding canisters themselves - that it did not bother to check how many victims had gone for treatment for burns? What credence can one give to a service which first plays down, then overstates the injuries sustained in its own operations because it fails to check with and then fails to listen to the medical teams working in its camps? Under the circumstances of last week's attack on Section 7 of the camp by 1,200 tear-gas-firing prison guards and policemen - backed as they were by armoured vehicles and a helicopter - few inmates would have been able to rush off to the camp clinic for immediate treatment.

Is it any wonder that the majority of those seeking treatment for all but the most severe and incapacitating injuries should have waited until after their transfer to High Island camp before turning to the Red Cross? But having first ignored the obvious,is there any justification for announcing a revised number of injured before the count is complete? How could the CSD and the police be permitted to announce only 250 canisters of tear-gas had been fired when the true number was 557? If the ''Disciplined Services'' are so ill-disciplined and disorganised that hours after the end of an operation they have not yet completed a check on how many canisters of smoke have been fired, they should not be making confident announcements as if they have the figures at their command. Better to make no announcement at all than to underestimate the true count by 55 per cent. One must also question why the same misleading figure was quoted over and over again in the subsequent week. Why was a check not carried out and the new figure released immediately after the transfer to High Island was completed? Why did it take press reports of a Government cover-up for a basic inventory check to be made? CSD Commissioner Eric McCosh seems to have misjudged the decision to state so baldly in his press conference that afternoon that only one person had been seriously injured. It was also wrong, in retrospect, to have said that other injuries had been minor and that the relatively few who had suffered had all recovered.

At that stage, however, perhaps Mr McCosh was genuinely guilty of no more than speaking prematurely and underestimating the effect of the gas-barrage. But that neither his staff, nor anyone else in the Security Branch hierarchy, should have bothered to check reports from the High Island camp clinic is a matter of far greater concern. It is not as though inmates of the camp were invisible to the CSD staff running it. Nor can the CSD expect to be taken at its word if it claims it did not notice a higher usual number of visits to the British Red Cross at the camp.

The only credible explanation is that the CSD cared so little for the welfare of their charges that they did not feel it necessary to pass the information on to their superiors. That neither the Security Branch nor the senior echelons of the CSD showed any greater concern, has already been admitted by Deputy Secretary for Security Ken Woodhouse.

Whatever the independent inquiry now launched into the incident concludes, one thing is already clear: the Security Branch and the disciplined services it controls have long since ceased to regard or treat its Vietnamese charges as human beings. The lesson for the Vietnamese is clear: the sooner they leave Hong Kong the better. But the Hong Kong authorities must also learn that for as long as the boat people remain in their care, they must be treated with humanity and respect.