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LCQ4: Assistance for people affected by the financial tsunami

     Following is a question by the Hon Starry Lee Wai-king and a reply by the Secretary for Labour and Welfare, Mr Matthew Cheung Kin-chung, in the Legislative Council today (May 13):


     According to the survey results recently published by a political party, 80% of the respondents indicated that they felt the stress in facing the impact of the financial tsunami, and the number of people who sought medical treatment due to emotional problems had tripled as compared to the number at the end of last year.  Moreover, the support hotline set up by the CEASE Crisis Centre of Tung Wah Group of Hospitals in view of the financial tsunami received a total of around 3 000 calls for assistance during the period between October last year and April this year and nearly 50% of the calls involved indebtedness, and the callers included owners of small and medium enterprises who were facing financial difficulty.  Furthermore, the number of bankruptcy petitions received by the Official Receiver's Office in the first quarter of this year saw a year-on-year increase of over 50%.  In this connection, will the Government inform this Council:  

(a) given that the longest median waiting time for new cases for psychiatric specialist out-patient service among all hospital clusters under the Hospital Authority was as long as 34 weeks in 2008-2009 (as at end of 2008), whether the Government has any plan to allocate additional resources, so as to shorten the waiting time for new cases for psychiatric specialist out-patient service; if it has, of the details; if not, the reasons for that;

(b) whether the Government has allocated additional fundings to non-governmental organisations (NGOs) after the onset of the financial tsunami for them to meet the increasing demand of the public for emotional support services; if it has, of the additional fundings received by various NGOs and the dates of appropriation, broken down by the name of NGOs; whether the Government will consider making further allocation of additional fundings to NGOs according to their actual needs; if it will, of the details; and

(c) whether it will arrange for professionals to provide assistance for people who have filed for bankruptcy and small and medium enterprises which are going through the liquidation procedure, including assisting them to negotiate with banks on extension of repayment schedules and restructuring of debts?


(a) At present, under the triage system for new appointment at specialist out-patient (SOP) clinics at the Hospital Authority (HA), new patients are classified into the following categories on the basis of the urgency of their clinical conditions: priority 1 (urgent), priority 2 (semi-urgent) and routine categories.

     In 2008-09, the median waiting time for first appointment of priority 1 and priority 2 cases at psychiatric SOP clinics were around one week and three weeks respectively.  As for new psychiatric SOP cases in the routine category, HA will arrange the date of medical appointment having regard to the clinical conditions of individual patients.

     To further enhance mental health services, HA has introduced new initiatives to provide people suspected of having mental problems with more channels to receive treatment.  In January 2009, HA launched the designated clinics for mental health in various clusters for a six-month period.  The designated clinics are provided with psychiatrists and psychiatric nurses to render specialist treatment and care for patients referred by general practitioners.

     On the other hand, HA plans to set up triage clinics at the psychiatric SOP clinics in Hong Kong East, Kowloon East, Kowloon West, New Territories East and New Territories West clusters in 2009-10.  The triage clinics will mainly provide services for new psychiatric SOP patients classified as routine cases so as to shorten the waiting time for these non-urgent new cases.  The Administration has earmarked additional recurrent funding of $6.8 million to HA starting in 2009-10 to recruit additional manpower to implement the initiative.  Meanwhile, to strengthen community mental health services and provide suitable psychiatric services, the Administration has also earmarked additional recurrent funding of $23.6 million and $8.26 million starting in 2009-10 to provide recovery support service for psychiatric patients in the community and to further enhance the psychogeriatric outreach service to private residential care homes for the elderly respectively.  

(b) The Administration is aware of the fact that some members of the community may have emotional and family problems as a result of the financial difficulties brought by the global financial tsunami, and has therefore taken prompt action to enhance the support for them.

     The Social Welfare Department (SWD) allocated a total of $2.17 million in October 2008 and January 2009 to two Non-governmental Organisations (NGOs), namely 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, for setting up two "Financial Crisis Emotional Support Hotlines" manned by registered social workers.  The hotlines provide 24-hour counselling service to persons in need.  Social workers manning the hotlines also provide face-to-face counselling services to persons seeking assistance and organise support groups for them with a view to strengthening their competencies to face adversity.  Where necessary, social workers will refer their cases to appropriate welfare and professional service units for follow-up.

     SWD will continue to closely monitor the provision of the above services and take appropriate measures in response to service demand.  

(c) On assisting debtors, who are responsible for repaying their debts in accordance with their loan agreements, at present if they are unable to meet their contractual obligations, they can seek assistance from various channels.  Apart from approaching creditors to renegotiate payment terms on their own, they could also retain the services of private sector advisors or firms with experience in debt or business restructuring to provide the necessary advice.  In addition, we understand that various voluntary or social welfare agencies and professional bodies offer free financial counselling services, for example, setting up counselling hotlines, organising seminars to provide personal finance advice during financial tsunami, arranging support groups for people in financial difficulties and providing personal debt counselling for those in need, etc.  The Administration does not provide debt restructuring advisory services and it would not be appropriate for the Administration to intervene in negotiations between debtors and creditors.

     As for banks' lending policies, they are in principle the commercial decisions of individual banks.  Nevertheless, having regard to the needs of borrowers in financial difficulties, the Hong Kong Monetary Authority (HKMA) has endorsed the "Hong Kong Approach to Consumer Debt Difficulties" (Approach) issued by the Hong Kong Association of Banks, the DTC Association, Finance Houses Association and HKSAR Licensed Money Lenders Association in 2002, requiring banks to comply with the guidelines set out in the Approach.  Under the Approach, when banks become aware that their customers are in financial difficulties, they should consider such cases sympathetically and discuss the matter with the customers concerned to find a solution which is mutually beneficial to both customers and banks.  Possible solutions may include extending the repayment schedule, rescheduling the debts or offering debt relief plans.

     In addition, the HKMA has taken a series of measures to help alleviate the difficulties faced by Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs), including issuing a circular to all banks in October 2008 urging them to continue to support their SME customers, be accommodating and flexible to the funding needs of SMEs, and refrain from hasty and indiscriminate withdrawal or reduction of credit lines.  In November 2008, the HKMA also issued a circular to remind banks of the need to follow the "Hong Kong Approach to Corporate Difficulties" in handling situation whereby a corporate customer, who has borrowed from more than one institution, runs into financial troubles.  The "Hong Kong Approach to Corporate Difficulties" has set out some basic principles, including the one specifying that banks should remain supportive to corporate customers in financial difficulties, and should not hastily withdraw their existing facilities, put the borrower into receivership or issue writs demanding repayment.  Instead, they should endeavour to help enterprises with reasonable prospect to continue operating.  The HKMA encourages banks to proactively consider customers' requests for temporary relief arrangements, and in the event that a debt restructuring is necessary, banks should follow the "Hong Kong Approach to Corporate Difficulties" and cooperate with other institutions involved in identifying a workout plan acceptable to all stakeholders, with a view to alleviating the difficulties faced by SMEs amid the global financial turmoil.

Ends/Wednesday, May 13, 2009
Issued at HKT 15:28


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