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Government reminds public to be vigilant about risks of buying niches of private columbaria rashly
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     A spokesman for the Food and Health Bureau reiterates today (June 30) that private columbaria must obtain a licence, exemption or temporary suspension of liability before they can continue with their operation after the Private Columbaria Bill comes into effect.  Private columbaria failing to comply with the licensing requirements under the Bill will not be granted a licence.

     For a columbarium which was in operation before 8 am on June 18@(pre-Bill columbaria), its operator will be eligible to apply for exemption status, if it is a dated columbarium (i.e. its operation commenced before January 1, 1990) and it has frozen its scale of operation (i.e. he or she has ceased selling (including letting out) new or unoccupied niches since the announcement of the Bill), and can comply with other requirements under the Bill.  Other pre-Bill columbaria must obtain a licence.  To obtain a licence, they are required to comply with the various requirements in respect of land use (including land instruments), town planning, applicable building safety arrangements, right to use the premises, and submission of a management plan etc.

     The Food and Environmental Hygiene Department (FEHD) has launched a notification scheme requesting private columbaria to provide information on their operations to prove their status as pre-Bill columbaria. As at 6 pm today, the FEHD has received information from 125 private columbaria and is now actively following up on the verification of these cases.

     Among the 125 private columbaria participating in the notification scheme, 117 are listed on the latest Information on Private Columbaria announced by the Development Bureau on June 18 (representing about 97 per cent of the number of relevant private columbaria included on the list).  In due course, the FEHD will announce the list of private columbaria participating in the notification scheme on its webpage.

     Whether the existing private columbaria would be able to obtain a licence after the enactment of the Bill is uncertain.  Even if a licence could be granted to a private columbarium, the operator or consumers could not foretell at present the maximum ash interment capacity that would be allowed for the licence.

     The spokesman reminded the consumers wishing to buy or rent a niche from a private columbarium at this stage to be vigilant about the risk and refrain from making any rash decision, so as to avoid any loss in case of the columbarium failing to obtain a licence in future.

     "Some operators claimed before their private columbaria have yet to comply with the current legislation and requirements (such as requirements relating to town planning, land (including land instruments), building safety etc.) that they would definitely be granted a licence and the prices of their niches would rise, with a view to selling off their niches as soon as possible.  This way of selling off their niches is unacceptable."

     "The Government urges the trade not to provide consumers with any false or misleading information on their product description. The operators have the responsibility to provide consumers with accurate, true and relevant information on their product description which enables them to make informed decisions of their transactions backed up with facts.  This would thus avoid contravening the Trade Descriptions Ordinance (TDO). The Government also reminds members of the public wishing to buy or rent private niches to make thorough enquiries about whether the operation of the private columbarium concerned has complied with the relevant statutory requirements, and demand the operator to enter into a contract in which all related matters are clearly covered including arrangements of rescinding the contract, refund and compensation. All relevant contracts and receipts should also be retained for use in future. Given the uniqueness of each individual case, the enforcement department has to take into account the actual circumstances and relevant factors to determine if it has contravened the TDO. If members of the public suspect any violations of the TDO, they are urged to report such suspected violations through the Customs 24-hour hotline 2545 6182.  The Customs and Excise Department will look into and follow up on all the complaints they receive."

     "We note that some stakeholders suggest adopting a more flexible approach regarding the requirement of freezing the number of interred ashes in niches at the time when the Bill was announced for a dated private columbarium intending to apply for exemption status.  They propose to cover also ashes to be interred in niches after the Bill was announced, if the niches had been sold before the bill announcement time," the spokesman said.

     "Exemption on dated private columbaria involves special arrangements, under which the columbaria can continue their operations without meeting all statutory and Government requirements, without obtaining a licence (though no selling or letting out of new or unoccupied niches is allowed), and it might be possible to retain non-compliant structures (if any) which have been certified by qualified professionals as structurally safe."

     "As such, it is necessary for us to adopt a more stringent standard to prevent the mechanism from being abused, such as making false claims of transactions and reaping profits through subsequent under-the-table deals.  In fact, since the announcement of the Bill, quite a number of stakeholders have accepted the prudent approach taken by the Government for ensuring fairness and impartiality," the spokesman explained.

     "With the information collected through FEHD's notification scheme and the relevant verification work, the Government has a good grasp of the actual situation of the private columbaria, including the number of sold niches which are not yet occupied."

     "Under the pre-requisite of ensuring that the mechanism will not be abused, we keep an open mind on how to handle the niches which have been sold before the announcement of the Bill but have yet to be occupied.  After the data concerned have been verified, we will discuss with the Legislative Council's Bills Committee on the Private Columbaria Bill on the best way to handle such niches."

     "However, the Government reminds members of the public that it is uncertain whether the proposals of the Bill will be passed by the Legislative Council.  Members of the public who have purchased a niche of a private columbarium and the ashes have yet to be interred should discuss with the operator of the columbarium about the transitional arrangements," the spokesman added.

     Some of the residents being affected are concerned about some unauthorised columbaria could on one hand continue their operation by seeking exemption, but on the other applying for a licence to expand their operation.

     The spokesman explained, "According to the Bill, when the Licensing Board grants exemption for a dated columbarium, it would state clearly in the relevant plan the area to be exempted.  Under the aforesaid special arrangements applicable to such columbaria, the exempted area will not be too extensive, and will be confined only to those premises with  ashes interred in their niches before the Bill was announced and a structure which is an essential ancillary facility supporting the operation of the columbarium. The Bill also requires the ash interment quantity and other non-compliant situation within the exempted area to be frozen at and should not exceed the scale at the time when the Bill was announced."

     "In theory, for places outside the exempted area in the columbarium, if the premises are in stand-alone and separated premises, their operators could submit an application for a licence. However, the operators must be able to prove to the satisfaction of the Licensing Board that such places can comply with the requirements for a licence."

     "For applying for a licence, the premises must comply with requirements in respect of land (including land instruments), town planning and applicable building safety arrangements, right to use the premises and submission of a management plan. In general, in submitting a planning or rezoning application in relation to submitting a licence application, the applicant must provide the necessary information on the columbarium concerned (including the exempted part and the part seeking a licence), in particular information relating to the traffic impact assessment on the cumulative traffic flow. Various departments will give their views on the project.  During the vetting process, the Town Planning Board will take into consideration the public's views.  The Licensing Board will also consider the public's views at the stage of processing the licence application. According to the past experience, it will not be easy for the relevant columbarium to meet the above requirements."

     "When granting the exemption and licence, the Licensing Board might take into consideration individual circumstances and impose conditions requiring the instrument holders to implement measures and take actions to minimise environmental nuisances caused by their operation to the residents in their neighbourhood.  Before commencement of the Bill, various Government departments will take enforcement actions against unauthorised columbaria according to the prevailing enforcement policies."

     Some members of the public might choose to carry with them or bring home the ashes of their deceased relatives in the form of synthetic diamonds, jewellery or ornaments, as a means of remembrance of the deceased.  As such act is personal and does not affect other people, it will not be regulated under the Bill. The definition of ashes under the Bill does not cover materials transformed from human ashes, including synthetic diamonds, jewellery or ornaments.

     The spokesman said, "However, we notice that some operators are publicising that they are selling private niches in such forms.  To ensure that the licensing system is effective, we will discuss with the relevant Bill Committee of the Legislative Council the best way to handle this situation, so as to eradicate any attempt by private columbaria to circumvent the licensing scheme through such means."

     Regarding the overall supply of niches, the third phase allocation of new public niches at Wo Hop Shek Cemetery and Diamond Hill Columbarium under the FEHD has commenced, providing about 24 000 new niches. The application deadline is 5 pm on July 24.

     The public may also apply to wait for re-allocated niches run by the FEHD, or consider using the FEHD's services for the scattering of ashes of the deceased at sea free of charge or in the 11 Gardens of Remembrance operated by the FEHD.

     To encourage the public to better utilise the existing resources, the FEHD has, with effect from January 2, relaxed the arrangement of placing additional sets of ashes into public niches, including (i) relaxation of the definition of "close relative"; and (ii) if the applicant prefers, each standard niche and large niche may deposit more than two and four sets of ashes respectively.

     Meanwhile, columbaria in private cemeteries could help meet part of the public demand.  The FEHD also provides temporary storage facility for ashes at a monthly charge of $80, but no paying of respect is allowed on-site. The public may call 2150 7502 / 2570 4318 / 2365 5321 for enquiries.
            
     After announcement of the Bill, the Government has updated the "Useful Advice for Consumers - Points to Note When Purchasing Private Columbarium Niches".  Members of the public can gain access to the updated consumer advice vide the following link on the webpage of the Food and Health Bureau (www.fhb.gov.hk/download/press_and_publications/otherinfo/140600_columbarium/c_purchasing_note.pdf).  The detailed legislative proposals under the Bill have been uploaded to the webpage of the Food and Health Bureau (www.fhb.gov.hk).  Members of the public may make enquiries by calling the government hotline (3142 2300) or email to the Food and Health Bureau (email address: enquiry@fhb.gov.hk).

Ends/Monday, June 30, 2014
Issued at HKT 23:44

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