Seniors' aid debate fruitless

Updated: 2012-10-31 06:31

By Kahon Chan(HK Edition)

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Committee to tentatively continue funding deliberations on Nov 16

The Legislative Council (LegCo) was unable to vote on a funding request to provide 480,000 elderly people in the city with an extra new old age allowance of HK$2,200 a month at a Tuesday meeting.

The government has scheduled tentatively to continue the debate on Nov 16. Tommy Cheung Yu-yan, chairman of the Finance Committee, said the government could bring forward the meeting day upon request, but it was unlikely to be earlier than Nov 9.

Matthew Cheung Kin-chung, secretary for labour and welfare, said he was disappointed with the lack of an outcome on Tuesday. He said the administration will determine later on when to re-table the proposal.

The administration has insisted on backdating the payment only to the month that the committee grants the funding as a compliance of fiscal discipline.

The seniors would thus lose a month of allowance payment when the LegCo passes the proposal next month.

In the light of a tight work schedule ahead - which involves computer upgrades, staff recruitment, tender processes and contractual issues - the government had also said the scheduled March 2013 launch of the new old age allowance would become unlikely with a belated LegCo approval.

The Finance Committee had spared only four hours for the Tuesday deliberation and Tommy Cheung had warned he was not optimistic that his fellow lawmakers will end their questioning before 11 pm, the time set to end the meeting.

After two hours into the meeting time, Cheung had acknowledged that it was "far from the climax" but had refused to curb lawmakers' speeches. "I could not see the ground for me to stop lawmakers from asking questions as long as they were not repetitive," he said.

Before the meeting, a last-minute support from the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress added 11 votes to the previous commitment from 20 lawmakers to vote for the funding proposal, reinforcing the government's footing.

DAB had demanded raising the asset limit for individual elders from HK$186,000 to HK$300,000 and though no compromise was offered, it decided to accept a "flawed" proposal because its opinion survey showed majority of respondents wanted the proposal passed.

Ip Kwok-him, vice chairman of the party, said it was unrealistic for union lawmakers to demand a premature promise from the government on retirement protection. He said "the people will make their own judgment" if the meeting was stalled "on purpose".

Ma Fung-kwok of the sports, performing arts, culture and publication constituency, who backs the proposal, said as the government had promised to review the allowance a year later, he could find no reason to delay the decision on an affordable policy that will benefit many thousand needy elders.

"We cannot help everyone, but at least we are helping a portion of them," Ma said.

Michael Tien Puk-chun from the New People Party, who criticized the opposition and unions for taking advantage of the scheme for "political bargaining", argued the demand to reset the backdate condition was merely an excuse to vote down the allowance.

"People who spoke on phone-in radio programs were in total support of the means test," Tien said. "That indicates a lot of people agree resources should concentrate on the most needy."

Many of Tien's counterparts agreed the new allowance was put forward with a good intention, but they also expressed reservations on the limited time frame given to deliberate the details, as well as the timing to air advertisements on TV.

The Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions was certain not to back the proposal, but it remained quiet on the choice between abstention and objection till the end of the Tuesday meeting.

A handful of lawmakers were still queuing up for questions when Cheung called the meeting to an end on Tuesday.

Fifteen motions were moved by lawmakers, including 13 amendments which would also be processed at the next meeting.

(HK Edition 10/31/2012 page1)