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LCQ3: Report of the Commission of Inquiry into Excess Lead Found in Drinking Water
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     Following is a question by Dr Hon Helena Wong and a reply by the Chief Secretary for Administration, Mrs Carrie Lam, in the Legislative Council today (July 6):

Question:

     The Report of the Commission of Inquiry into Excess Lead Found in Drinking Water released at the end of May this year has pointed out that "what we have seen is a collective failure on the part of all stakeholders to guard against the use of non-compliant solder in the plumbing system íK every party transferred the duty of supervision to the other(s), resulting in a classic case of buck-passing.  Trust was misplaced and in the end it was the residents who suffered the most". Subsequently at a press conference, the Secretary for Development, Secretary for Transport and Housing as well as Director of Water Supplies apologised to the affected residents for the incidents of excessive lead content in drinking water (the lead-tainted water incidents), but the Chief Secretary for Administration (CS) did not. CS remarked that "even though the inquiry of the Commission has revealed that there has been inadequate alertness among government departments and a flawed regulatory system, it does not necessarily mean that there is any individual public officer who has not abided by the law or has neglected his or her duties and should thus be held personally responsible". On the other hand, the aforesaid report recommended that "in order to put the minds of all public rental housing (PRH) residents at ease, the Government should undertake to test the drinking water of all PRH estates again using an appropriate sampling protocol that would include the testing of stagnant water as well". In this connection, will the Government inform this Council:

(1) given that when the accountability system for principal officials was launched in 2002, the authorities indicated that "principal officials under the accountability system íK will be accountable to the Chief Executive for the success or failure of matters falling within their respective portfolios. They will accept total responsibility and in an extreme case, they may have to step down for serious failures relating to their respective portfolios. These include serious failures in policy outcome and serious mishaps in the implementation of the relevant policies", if the authorities have assessed whether, in the lead-tainted water incidents, there is any serious failure in policy outcome and any serious mishap in the implementation of the relevant policies on the part of the principal officials concerned, and whether such officials should be held responsible and step down; if the authorities have assessed, of the outcome; if the assessment outcome is in the negative, of the justifications, and whether they have reviewed if the accountability system for principal officials has existed in name only and has been reduced to a "buck-passing system for high ranking officials";

(2) whether it will request CS to apologise to the public for the lead-tainted water incidents; if it will not, of the reasons for that; and

(3) whether the authorities will immediately conduct sample tests on the lead content of the "initial draw-off" taken from all PRH estates, and whether they will make public all the data obtained from the water tests and blood tests conducted in relation to the lead-tainted water incidents; if they will not, of the reasons for that?

Reply:

Acting President,

     Following the briefing by myself, relevant Directors of Bureaux and civil service colleagues for the Legislative Council (LegCo) House Committee on September 1 and October 8 last year on the situation of the lead in drinking water incident at public rental housing (PRH) estates, we will attend the special meeting of the House Committee again on July 11 to brief Members on how the Government will follow up on the recommendations of the Report of the Commission of Inquiry into Excess Lead Found in Drinking Water (the Report). Also, we have already submitted a detailed information paper and, therefore, I will reply concisely to the question raised by Dr Hon Helena Wong today.

     For the three parts of the question, my reply is as follows:

(1) As early as  October 16, 2015 at the LegCo motion debate on excess lead in drinking water incident at PRH estates, I have already taken the initiative to acknowledge that the incident has clearly reflected the inadequacies of the monitoring system of the Housing Department (HD) and the Water Supplies Department (WSD). At the press conference to make public the Report on  May 31 this year, we have accepted the criticisms of the Commission of Inquiry into Excess Lead Found in Drinking Water (the Commission), i.e. the checking system of the two departments, for ensuring that the drinking water in PRH estates does not contain excess lead, has failed to function in reality. The Director of Housing and the Director of Water Supplies have already apologised to the public and the affected residents for the systemic failure and imperfect implementation. The policy areas of housing and water supply are under the purview of the Secretary for Transport and Housing (STH) and the Secretary for Development (SDEV) respectively. As politically appointed principal officials, STH Professor Anthony Cheung and SDEV Paul Chan are responsible for supervising their executive departments to ensure the effective implementation of the policies and the provision of sound service to the public. The two Secretaries of Bureaux did not evade their political responsibility, and apologised for the lead in drinking water incident at PRH estates. Under the supervision of the Directors of Bureaux, the two departments have endeavoured to investigate comprehensively the drinking water situation, implement measures for affected residents and follow up on the various recommendations of the Commission. Hence, I do not agree with the suggestion that "the accountability system for principal officials has existed in name only and has been reduced to a buck-passing system for high ranking officials".

(2) Under the political appointment system, the Chief Secretary for Administration plays an important role in terms of policy coordination. For the lead in drinking water incident at PRH estates, I convened the first high-level inter-departmental meeting in the morning of July 11 last year (i.e. the next day after HD confirmed and made public the first sample with excess lead) to co-ordinate the follow-up actions of relevant bureaux and departments. So far 20 meetings have been held and a number of measures have been taken promptly. Following the release of the Commission's Report, I will continue to provide steer for the work of relevant bureaux and departments to ensure that the formulation and implementation of policies will be coordinated properly.

(3) As regards the Commission's recommendation that the Government should undertake to test the drinking water of all PRH estates again, WSD must first deal with the water sampling protocols. As the experts of the Commission also agreed, there was no universally accepted practice at the moment. The action levels for lead concentration in water tested also vary from place to place. Moreover, water testing is just a means to achieve our objective of ensuring the quality and safety of drinking water. As such, the issue and the follow-up work must be considered in a holistic manner in order to allay public concerns and minimise unnecessary nuisance caused to them.

     The Commission also supported our proposal to set up an international expert panel on water safety to provide expert advice to Hong Kong on matters related to water quality standards, regulatory and monitoring regime for water quality, water sampling protocols, etc. The international expert panel as set up by the Development Bureau will convene the first video conferencing meeting today, with a view to putting forward a proposal as soon as possible which is suitable for the actual situation in Hong Kong, and covers the water sampling protocols, appropriate lead content level, and the action levels for lead concentration in water tested. Based on the views of the international expert panel, WSD will follow up as appropriate, including the recommendation of the Commission that the Government should undertake to test the drinking water of all PRH estates again.

     As regards making public the results for water tests and blood tests, the Housing Authority (HA) and WSD conducted water sampling tests for all PRH estates concerned between July and November 2015. HA has disseminated to the public the test results for drinking water samples taken from the PRH estates through various channels, including press conferences, press releases and papers issued to LegCo and HA. The Government has also published the overall test results of the blood lead levels of residents in the affected PRH estates as well as the students/staff of the affected schools. The Department of Health and the Hospital Authority have also provided blood test reports and blood lead level data to individuals receiving these tests. As blood lead levels of individuals are personal data, it would not be appropriate to disclose them to the public.

     Thank you, Acting President.

Ends/Wednesday, July 6, 2016
Issued at HKT 17:28

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