Following is a question by the Hon Abraham Shek and a written reply by the Secretary for the Environment, Transport and Works, Dr Sarah Liao, at the Legislative Council meeting today (March 14) :
It has been reported that the Water Supplies Department (WSD) mistakenly issued water bills of huge amounts to a number of domestic customers last year, which involved various errors made by the staff of WSD. In this connection, will the Government inform this Council:
(a) of the number of investigations conducted since January 2006 by WSD into cases involving incorrect taking of water meter readings by its staff, the total water charges involved and the disciplinary actions imposed on the staff who had made mistakes;
(b) of the criteria adopted by WSD for assessing the water charges payable by consumers during the period for which the readings of their water meters have not been taken, the number of complaints received since January 2006 about the assessed amount, and the results of the follow-up actions taken;
(c) given that in the event of disputes lodged by consumers about high water charges, WSD often asks the consumers concerned to hire plumbers themselves to conduct leakage inspections on the pipes inside their buildings, whether WSD has considered adopting more proactive measures (such as setting up a task force) to assist consumers in following up the relevant issues; and
(d) of the respective circumstances under which WSD will exercise discretion to reduce the water charges in dispute and allow water charges to be settled by instalments?
(a) The Water Supplies Department (WSD) has pledged to achieve 99.9% accuracy of meter reading. In 2006, the WSD took about 8.1 million routine meter readings and there were only 782 cases of incorrect taking of meter readings, accounting for 0.0097% of the total. The accuracy of meter reading exceeded 99.99%, outperforming the WSD's performance pledge.
During the period from January 2006 to end-February 2007, the number of complaints against suspected cases of incorrect meter reading that needed to be followed up was 890, of which 680 cases involved domestic accounts, and the total amount of water charges, sewage charges and trade effluent surcharges involved was about $7.5 million (about $2 million in total was related to domestic accounts).
The WSD will admonish Meter Readers involved in incorrect meter reading cases to improve service quality. Their faults will be recorded and serve as important reference for appraising their performance. If a Meter Reader's accuracy of meter reading keeps on deteriorating or falls short of the required standard, the WSD will take appropriate disciplinary actions against him/her.
(b) Common reasons for Meter Readers' failure to take meter readings include: the access to the water meters is blocked (by, for example, illegal structures, sundries or flooding), the meter rooms are locked up, and the street shops leading to the meter yards are closed. For consumers whose water meter readings cannot be taken, the WSD will make assessment based on their actual water consumption in the past. After the routine meter readings have been taken subsequently, the consumers will be informed of the accurate amount of water consumption for the whole period. The latest water charges based on the actual meter readings will also rectify the discrepancies between the actual and the assessed water charges during the whole period of water consumption.
Consumers who do not accept the WSD's assessment can provide information to prove that there have been changes in water consumption and the WSD will take follow-up action. If it is confirmed that there have been changes in water consumption for the relevant period, the WSD will adjust the water charges accordingly and re-issue the bills to the consumers concerned.
During the period from January 2006 to end-February 2007, the WSD issued a total of about 8.13 million water bills and there were about 3,800 cases involving consumers who did not accept the above assessment basis for water charge, accounting for only 0.047% of the total. The WSD has followed up and satisfactorily resolved all the cases.
(c) There are various reasons for an increase in water charges, including :
1) Increase in the number of the consumer's household members;
2) Changes in the habit of water consumption (e.g. using additional water consuming products, changes in lifestyle or in the weather);
3) Unlawful connection of fresh water for toilet flushing;
4) Leakage in pipes or taps; and
5) Forgetting to turn off taps.
According to the Waterworks Ordinance, all inside service (except water meters) within the boundary of a premises is privately owned and the relevant consumer is responsible for the repair and maintenance of the inside service pipes to avoid wastage of fresh water. Therefore, upon receipt of a consumer's enquiry about increase in water charges, the WSD will advise the consumer to inspect the pipes for possible leakage on his/her own or hire a registered plumber to do it. When the WSD detects an abnormal increase in a consumer's water charges, it will take the initiative to remind him/her to conduct an inspection. For an obviously doubtful case, the WSD will, upon the consumer's request, send staff to help the consumer inspect the meter and arrange for meter testing if necessary. In fact, most of the factors leading to the increase of water charges are beyond the control of the WSD. So far the current practise of the WSD has proved effective in striking the right balance between maintaining customer services and safeguarding government's revenue from water supply.
(d) Under Section 22 of the Waterworks Ordinance, the WSD may in any particular case reduce, waive or refund, in whole or in part, a charge. In general, subject to the following conditions, if a consumer's water charges increase drastically due to leakage of an inside service pipe, the WSD will consider applying this provision to adjust the water charges accordingly:
1) The leakage did not result from the consumer's negligence or wilful act;
2) the WSD has reason to believe that the consumer had no knowledge of the leakage or the position of the leakage; and
3) The consumer has promptly and properly repaired the leaking pipe within reasonable time.
With respect to consumers' applications for settling water charges by instalments, they are required to produce proof to the WSD to show that they have difficulties in settling water charges by a one-off payment. These applications will be considered on individual basis.
Ends/Wednesday, March 14, 2007