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LCQ1: Assistance to unemployed middle-class

     Following is a question by the Hon Lee Cheuk-yan and an oral reply by the Secretary for Labour and Welfare, Mr Matthew Cheung Kin-chung, in the Legislative Council today (May 6):

     Under the impact of the financial tsunami, the unemployment situation of various sectors in Hong Kong is deteriorating rapidly.  Most middle-class people find it difficult to maintain their living once they lose their jobs.  However, they are not eligible to apply for Comprehensive Social Security Assistance (CSSA) because the values of their assets exceed the prescribed limit.  In this connection, will the Government inform this Council whether it will introduce interim measures, including temporarily relaxing the prescribed asset limit of the CSSA Scheme and setting up temporary loan schemes for the unemployed, so as to provide short-term financial assistance for the unemployed middle-class people; if it will; of the details; if not, the reasons for that?



     The Government has been highly concerned about the difficult economic environment and employment situation triggered by the financial tsunami, and has been responding to the challenges proactively through a multi-pronged strategy.

     In response to the economic recession and rising unemployment, the Government will give priority to various measures that could preserve jobs and support employment.  Among the 62,000 job and internship opportunities introduced in the Budget, some of them require personnel with higher academic attainment and professional knowledge.  Those positions will be suitable for the unemployed middle-class affected by the financial tsunami.

     The key to preserving jobs is to restore economic stability so as to enable the development of businesses.  Hence, the Government has also introduced measures with such effects.  For example, in December last year, we set up the Special Loan Guarantee Scheme with a guarantee commitment of $100 billion.  The Government will provide a guarantee of up to 70% for loans approved by participating lending institutions.  The Scheme has so far benefited 5,700 businesses which altogether employ more than 106,000 people.  The measure therefore has a positive effect on preserving jobs.

     As regards employment support, the Labour Department (LD) provides comprehensive employment services to all job seekers, including the middle class.  In the face of rising unemployment caused by the financial tsunami, LD will adopt a more proactive approach in providing employment assistance to employees who have lost their jobs in redundancy or closure exercises.  Furthermore, $400 million has been earmarked for LD to enhance and integrate its various employment and training programmes.

     On welfare services, we also aim to provide a series of comprehensive services ranging from family welfare to services for young people and the elderly so as to cater for the needs of different segments of the community.  People in need, be they middle-class or grassroots, could benefit from relevant services.  We realise that some people in the community, including the middle class, may encounter emotional or family problems as a result of the recent financial turmoil.  As such, we have taken prompt action to strengthen our support for them.  For example, the Social Welfare Department has in 2008-09 provided additional funding of $2.17 million to the Multi-purpose Crisis Intervention and Support Centre of the Tung Wah Group of Hospitals and the Family Crisis Support Centre of Caritas-Hong Kong to set up two 24-hour Financial Crisis Emotional Support Hotlines.  These hotlines provide 24-hour emotional support services.  More than 7,000 calls have been received since the launching of the hotlines.  About 22% of these calls, including those from the middle-class, require follow-up services.  

     Besides, to address the needs of people and their families affected by the financial tsunami, the Community Investment and Inclusion Fund Committee has adopted the theme of "power of resilience in times of adversity" for the next round of applications, with a view to encouraging interested organisations to put forward innovative proposals which can help middle-class people and their families cope with adversity and enhance their support network.

     The Honourable Lee Cheuk-yan has asked whether the asset test for Comprehensive Social Security Assistance (CSSA) could be temporarily relaxed so as to assist the unemployed middle-class.  I would like to point out that the CSSA serves as a safety net of last resort which aims to provide financial assistance to those in need, including the unemployed, to meet their basic needs.  To ensure that the CSSA is only provided to those in need, the applicants must pass the asset test.  Since the CSSA is a non-contributory social security scheme involving a very substantial amount of public funds, we must ensure that this safety net is sustainable.  That said, there is flexibility in the operation of the CSSA Scheme.  According to the prevailing requirements, the value of an owner-occupied residential property is disregarded in the asset test in cases where any member of an applicant's household is old, disabled or medically certified to be in ill-health.  As for other applicants, although the value of their owner-occupied residential property is not disregarded, there is a grace period of not more than 12 months before their property is taken into account in the asset test.

     As for the proposal of setting up temporary loan schemes for the unemployed, the Government does not have any plan for this at present.  In fact, the external economic environment keeps changing and requires close monitoring.  After assessing more accurately the latest overall economic situation in the middle of this year, the Government may introduce targeted measures commensurate with the prevailing needs.

Ends/Wednesday, May 6, 2009
Issued at HKT 14:36


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