The Office of the Ombudsman has said that the Marine Department’s “lax” approach to rectifying problems after maritime incidents could put safety at risk.

Its direct investigation report released on Tuesday came after the department’s former assistant director So Ping-chi was convicted of misconduct in public office over the 2012 fatal ferry collision near Lamma Island, which claimed 39 lives.

The watchdog criticised the department for its approach in the lead up to June 2013, saying that it relied on the voluntary actions of officials and vessel owners to rectify inadequacies mentioned in incident reports.

Lamma Island ferry collision
The Lamma Island ferry collision.

Between January 2005 and May 2013, the department concluded 114 marine incident investigations and made 308 recommendations in total.

“There was no established mechanism for monitoring whether those related agencies and parties were going to implement the recommendations or not,” the report said.

The report added that, in some ten cases, the Marine Department had failed to take any follow-up actions for up to eight years after completing an investigation, or had omitted some recommendations.

With regards to the Lamma Island collision, it was found that one of the vessels involved was not fitted with a watertight door, resulting in water ingress and the rapid sinking of the vessel after the collision. Local media later reported that the Marine Department should have examined the watertight bulkheads for all vessels of the same type after an incident in 2000, but had failed to.

Ombudsman Connie Lau
Ombudsman Connie Lau. Photo: GovHK

A new follow-up mechanism requires that – aside from informing the related agencies and parties of its incident report recommendations – the department should also enter those recommendations into its computer system. Then, progress can be monitored until all the recommendations are implemented.

But the report noted that the new mechanism was still inadequate, as it was not applicable to vessels not registered in Hong Kong.

‘Quite unacceptable’

The Ombudsman also criticised the Marine Department for failing to follow up rigorously on every case. It said that follow-up actions were only wrapped up in 13 out of 77 cases under the new mechanism.

The report suggested that the new mechanism should be applied to old cases as well. But the department refused, citing manpower and resources constraints.

“This is the way to learn lessons from past experiences. We find it quite unacceptable that MD has decided not to,” the report said.

Kris Cheng is a Hong Kong journalist with an interest in local politics. His work has been featured in Washington Post, Public Radio International, Hong Kong Economic Times and others. He has a BSSc in Sociology from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Kris is HKFP's Editorial Director.