Following is the speech by the Secretary for Health and Welfare, Dr E K Yeoh, in the "Motion of Thanks" in the Legislative Council today (November 1):
Madam President, Honorable Members,
One of the main themes in the Policy Address and one which stimulated considerable debate amongst Honourable Members, was the subject of poverty. I am most grateful to Members for their insightful comments and suggestions. Honourable Members raised a number of specific points to which I would like to respond. But before doing so, I should like to make some general remarks about the poverty question. No one can contend that poverty is a simple issue with straight-forward solutions. It is an exceedingly complex and multi-dimensional subject which presents enormous and profound challenges to governments all over the world.
A number of Honourable Members have continued to call on the Government to establish a poverty line. We have examined the issue and would like to share the following insights. To begin with, no universally agreed definition of poverty exists. It can include -
- unacceptable deprivation
- low monetary income and consumption
- lack of basic needs
- low human development in terms of education, health and nutrition
- risk and vulnerability, voicelessness and powerlessness etc.
Whereas the first three definitions focus more on material and financial resources, the latter two are much broader and incorporate the more fundamental issues which need to be addressed in dealing with poverty.
In applying the narrower definition of poverty which relates only to monetary income and conception, three approaches are generally adopted -
- Abject poverty with its focus on minimum subsistence. The World Bank sets this at US$1-2 a day per person;
- Relative poverty which concentrates more on equitable distribution of income. One example is the percentage of the population below half of the median per capita household income. But this implies that even in the wealthiest of countries, there will always be a sector of the population in this category; and
Budget Standards which is based on a list of the goods and services which have the elements of meeting basic subsistence levels.
In Hong Kong, we have adopted the budget standards approach in our Comprehensive Social Security Allowance to determine the financial resources required by members of the community to meet basic needs.
As there are many definitions of poverty, there are also many causes of poverty which are complex and inter-related. The broader definitions of poverty in fact encapsulate not only the many causes of inadequacy of financial resources, such as ill-health, disability, illiteracy and unemployment, but also the inability and/or lack of opportunities for economic and social participation. The definition of poverty which each society adopts is based on the norms and values of that society and is subject to a number of variables including time, place and prevailing social conditions. But their general objective is to offer assistance to the disadvantaged in the society. We have not used a simple single income line to define poverty. Instead, we have defined the disadvantaged members of society to whom we should render greater support and assistance. The Chief Executive has also espoused in his policy address our social policies and our commitments to enable socially disadvantaged groups access opportunities for economic and social participation. In addition, we have income and asset criteria required for basic needs, which determine eligibility for social security assistance.
The Chief Executive highlighted in his Policy Address measures that were not only both long and short-term but were also both broad and targetted in nature. In the final analysis, policies and programmes which provide opportunities for human development and sustained and healthy growth in the economy provide the best environment for people to leave the poverty net. The importance of sustained economic growth in reducing poverty in a community is generally acknowledged. Our economic recovery has not only created jobs but has also increased opportunities for individuals to achieve upward social mobility. Integrated with our economic policies are the social policies which will ensure that members of the community have the qualifications, knowledge and skills to participate and derive the benefits of the new economy.
For many years, HK has been viewed as a city of opportunity : what we must do is to ensure that all members of our community, especially the socially disadvantaged, can access the opportunities arising from the longer term and broader strategies. In his Policy Address, the Chief Executive said that the plight of low-income families had aroused much concern. Moreover, early action was required to assist those in genuine need to alleviate the situation since it would inevitably take some time for the full impact of our economic recovery to be experienced by all in the community. More targetted and shorter term programmes are therefore required.
Whilst there is no intention to move away from our strict adherence to a market-based economy, we must not overlook the need for continuous social investment. This is especially needed for those who are unable to benefit in the short-term from the improving economy. But fundamentally, it should be remembered that economic growth funds this social investment, which ultimately benefits society as a whole. This approach in a society such as ours needs to reflect our belief in the importance of self-reliance and self-improvement. This must continue lest people lose the ability or drive to survive on their own, which can, as overseas experience has shown, trap them in permanent poverty.
At the micro-economic level, the programme of job creation is targetted to provide employment to vulnerable groups. This will be complemented by training and re-training opportunities so as to ensure that our people have the necessary skills and minimise the mismatch which may exist between the labour available and the requirements of the economy. We will also be expanding and extending our social services networks and outreach services to provide targetted services and support to the socially vulnerable, to enable them to access opportunities for self-improvement, economic and social participation.
As regards job creation, Honourable Members will recall the Chief Executive's pledge to create an additional 15,000 jobs over the next 2 years not counting infrastructural-related jobs and jobs which will be created in our thriving economy by the market. 7,000 of these jobs will be created in areas where more social investment is required including health campaign work, support services in hospitals, enhanced social welfare services for women, new arrivals, single-parent families, the elderly and the disabled, urban cleansing and greening, and district improvement. We believe that this package of initiatives, which includes the new training initiatives will have a number of benefits -
the jobs to be created will create opportunities for participation, accelerate the pace of job placement and provide experiences which should assist individuals to sustain their employment;
- the various employment-related support services will enable the socially disadvantaged to re-enter the job market and adapt to new roles;
- the quality of life for many socially disadvantaged groups will be improved since social service provision particularly, in the health and welfare fields will be enhanced. Greater emphasis will be placed on outreaching to those who for one reason or another, do not come forward to receive the assistance they require; and
- the community will be better able to optimize its human resource potential and build up its social capital.
However, there will always be some in our community who require more direct assistance and in some cases, for a longer period of time. The Comprehensive Social Security Assistance Scheme is our basic safety net for those who lack financial means. In addition, our extensive housing, health care, rehabilitation, social welfare and education programmes also provide social wages to the economically disadvantaged members of society.
Old Age Allowance
As part of the package of measures to provide focused assistance to low income families, the Chief Executive has asked me to complete the review of the Old Age Allowance (OAA) within the next 12 months. The objective is to see if we can further improve the livelihood of a group of elders who, because of their meagre savings and lack of family support, have to depend largely on their Old Age Allowance for a living.
In the past few weeks there has been considerable discussion on the OAA. Irrespective of the original policy intent, the community tended to regard the OAA as a token of paying respect to elders in the population. Sentiments were also expressed on the need for means testing and concerns voiced, on possible cut backs on the amounts payable to older persons.
As a first step of our review, we have researched into the history of the OAA. In 1973, the then Hong Kong Government commenced payment of the Allowance to older persons aged 75 or above. Recognising that many older persons reaching such age would have special care needs, payment of the Allowance is to encourage families to continue to shoulder the care responsibility. The Allowance therefore was not payable then to older persons living in elderly homes. When first introduced, only 35,000 older persons were paid the Allowance at a rate of $60 a month. The total expenditure was only $25.2M in 1973/74. In 1979, we lowered the age limit to 70, and in 1991 we further lowered it to 65. However for applicants aged between 65 and 69, inclusive, they have to make a means declaration. In 1999/2000, 446,000 or some 60% of persons over the age of 65 were drawing the Allowance and total public expenditure amounted to $ 3.46 billion.
In the last 3 decades, Hong Kong has undergone fundamental transformations in its socio-economic structure. Our elders are more healthy. An increasing number continues to engage in active employment and some have regular incomes from assets and investment. The health and financial position of the next generation of the elderly is expected to improve further. Policies need to be reviewed in the context of socio-economic and political developments and changing social needs and values.
However, I would like to make it clear that the intention of the review is not to cut back on the benefit enjoyed by current recipients. In the 12 months ahead, I will listen carefully to the views of the community. I look forward to working with Members of this Council and other interested parties in coming up with practical proposals to provide additional assistance to that group of OAA recipients who are in greater financial need.
Some Members spoke about women's issues in last week's debate. The Government attaches great importance to the promotion and well-being of women as demonstrated by our commitment to establish a Women's Commission later this year.
In response to some specific comments made by Honorable Members, let me say a few words about the Commission. The Women's Commission will be a central mechanism tasked to identify all women's needs and specifically, to address all matters of concern to women. Given the importance of the Commission, we will need input from many in the community, and its membership will be drawn widely to represent the various interest groups. The Commission will develop a long-term vision and improved strategy for the development and advancement of women. Nevertheless, we believe that the initial focus of the Commission will be on the further improvement and extension of women's services. The Commission has the full support of the Government and will be adequately resourced to carry out its work. It will assume a similar role to that of other major commissions such as the Education and Elderly Commissions.
Thank you Madam President.
End/Wednesday, November 1, 2000