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Government makes every effort to deal with niche supply

     The Secretary for Food and Health, Dr Ko Wing-man, said at the meeting of the Legislative Council (LegCo) Panel on Food Safety and Environmental Hygiene today (November 19) that the Government is fully conscious of the public's concern over the supply of niches. In a bid to provide sufficient niches to meet the demand, the Government has adopted a multi-pronged approach to deal with the issue, including promoting "green burial", developing public columbaria, taking enforcement actions, enhancing consumer education and regulating private columbaria through legislation, he said.

     Dr Ko said the Government strives to promote "green burial" by encouraging the public to use more environmentally friendly and sustainable means of disposal of human ashes. Major initiatives include building more gardens of remembrance, providing free ferry service for scattering ashes at sea, launching a memorial website to encourage people to pay tribute online and enhancing public education. He added that the Government hoped that, with public support, "green burial" could in time become the mainstream burial format.

     On the supply of public niches, Dr Ko said that between 2012 and 2015, the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department's (FEHD) new public columbarium facilities at Wo Hop Shek Cemetery, Diamond Hill Columbarium and Cheung Chau Cemetery will provide about 46 250 new niches, while the Board of Management of the Chinese Permanent Cemeteries will provide 43 900 new niches. At present, there are around 28 400 unallocated niches in private cemeteries operated by religious groups including the Catholics, Christians and Buddhists. Furthermore, a total of about 50 260 new niches are expected to be available.

     "Studies on the 24 identified potential sites across the 18 districts for columbarium development are by and large either completed or at an advanced stage by now, and we have been consulting the relevant District Councils (DCs) since the second quarter of 2012."

     "Apart from the said expansion projects in Diamond Hill Columbarium and Cheung Chau Cemetery which are completed or about to complete, the Tsing Tsuen Road project is supported by the Kwai Tsing DC while the projects at Sandy Ridge and Phase 1 of Wo Hop Shek as well as the Tsang Tsui project have the in principle endorsement of the North DC and Tuen Mun DC respectively. Our preliminary plan is to consult nine other DCs next year."

     "Subject to the support of DCs and LegCo for the projects currently under planning, the supply of new niches will cumulatively increase to hundreds of thousands by 2031," he added.

     Dr Ko, however, pointed out that on the issue of increasing public niches, the Government must rise to a number of challenges in moving forward, including the task of addressing residents' worries and the scarcity of land resources in Hong Kong. The Government needs to consider bringing in new and unconventional measures to sustain the supply of niches, with a view to meeting demand in a manner that gives due regard to local traditions.

     "Measures such as setting limits on worship periods during the peak seasons of Ching Ming Festival and Chung Yeung Festival to control human flow, and the introduction of time-limited occupation of new niches would have to be explored and discussed," he said.

     On private columbaria, the Government reminds members of the public who are purchasing private niches to obtain full and complete information from the operators in order to check whether the respective columbarium is compliant with all the relevant statutory and Government requirements. They are also well advised to ascertain from the operators how they will look after the interests of their customers. Where necessary, consumers should seek independent legal advice on their rights.

     The Government has also enhanced consumer education by broadcasting announcements in the public interest on television and radio and distributing a consumer advice pamphlet through various channels including the Government's websites. If there is doubt or uncertainty when purchasing private niches, consumers should consider seeking advice from professionals and refrain from making any purchase rashly.

     "Departments concerned, including the Planning Department, the Lands Department and the Buildings Department, have been vigorously enforcing the law and the land leases, with a view to curbing the proliferation of unauthorised private columbaria particularly the newly-emerged ones. Coupled with the publication of the list published by the Development Bureau, their enforcement actions have caused some existing private columbaria to seek regularisation or cease operation. All relevant departments will continue to stay vigilant and persevere in taking enforcement actions."

     "The Government is working full steam on drafting the Private Columbaria Bill with a view to introducing the Bill into LegCo by the second quarter of 2014. Approval of the proposed bill by the Chief Executive in Council and LegCo would clear the way for the Government to take a big step forward in terms of enforcement actions. For cases which in future fail to obtain a licence or exemption and are not covered by temporary suspension of liability, enforcement actions, which would otherwise be subject to limitations under the status quo, would be possible under the Bill. Under the Bill, there will be sanctions of sufficient deterrence against those columbaria that are operating illegally. FEHD will be conferred with powers to enforce the provisions of the Bill," Dr Ko said.

     He, however, pointed out that a good measure of pragmatism is called for in handling the pre-existing columbaria. Whilst the Government will stamp out private operators who do not comply with the law after the licensing scheme has come into effect, some operators may well choose to close their businesses and walk away before commencement of the future ordinance so as to avoid the criminal liability to be imposed. Society as a whole may have to live with the displacement of a large number of interred niches.

     With a view to ensuring that the regulatory scheme under contemplation could satisfy the test of necessity, reasonableness and proportionality and strike a fine balance amongst competing interests of different stakeholders, Dr Ko said that the Government will take four key aspects fully into account when formulating the details of the bill:

(a) the wider community interest, including meeting society's needs for provision of columbaria;

(b) the sentiment of the descendants, in particular their wish not to upset the resting place of the deceased as far as practicable;

(c) minimising the nuisance caused by such columbaria to their neighbouring community; and

(d) ensuring a sustainable mode of operation in the long-run.

     "I would like to take this opportunity to appeal to operators of existing columbaria on Part B of the list published by the Development Bureau to start seeking regularisation for their breaches under the planning and lands regimes as soon as possible, so that they could carry on with their operation in compliance with the statutory and Government requirements. Only columbaria which have satisfied all statutory and Government requirements may be able to obtain a licence to continue their operation after the passage of the bill in future," Dr Ko stressed.

Ends/Tuesday, November 19, 2013
Issued at HKT 22:26


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