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LC: Translation of Speech by CS for Debate on Motion of Thanks to CE's Policy Address (Session 3)

     Following is the translation of the speech by the Chief Secretary for Administration, Mrs Carrie Lam, for the Debate on the Motion of Thanks (Debate Session 3: Poverty Alleviation, Welfare and Medical Services, Elderly Care, Public Health and Population Policy) in respect of the Chief Executive's Policy Address at the Legislative Council meeting today (February 18):

Mr President,

     This debate session covers the areas of population, poverty alleviation, welfare, medical services, elderly care and public health. I would like to thank the 24 Members for having spent a total of about five hours offering their views. In fact, the number of Members speaking and the speaking duration are less than those in 2013. In 2013, during the similar debate session on poverty alleviation, elderly care, support for the disadvantaged and population policy in the Debate on the Motion of Thanks in respect of the Chief Executive's first Policy Address taking place here, a total of 36 Members spent seven hours on the debate. The same happened in the previous debate session on land, housing, transportation, environment and conservation. There were only 15 Members spending a total of three hours on debate during the second session ended this morning. On the other hand, there were 43 Members speaking for nine hours in 2013. My immediate reaction to this phenomenon was that Members acknowledged the current-term Government's work in land, housing, poverty alleviation, elderly care and support for the disadvantaged and the outcome. But very quickly I told myself not to be happy so soon. This might only be my wishful thinking. Some pan-democratic Members would probably defend that they are saving their speaking time for the last session to criticise the governance by the SAR Government.

     Mr President, as the Chairperson of both the Commission on Poverty (CoP) and the Steering Committee on Population Policy, I will focus on the work in these two areas and issues relating to retirement protection. I note that the amendments moved by several Members touch upon the Chief Executive's pledges of improving livelihood and the outcome of the measures introduced. I will also respond to their views in this session. After that, the Secretary for Labour and Welfare and the Acting Secretary for Food and Health will provide more specific responses on their respective policy areas.

Current-term Government Committed to Improving Livelihood

     Fostering social harmony, supporting the underprivileged and promoting social development are the social welfare objectives set by the Chief Executive in his election manifesto. The Chief Executive also stressed the need to encourage able-bodied young people and adults to become self-reliant and help those in need by providing them with social security and welfare services. Based on the Chief Executive's vision, the Government has strived to provide support for the poor, the elderly and the disadvantaged in the past three years or so with unwavering commitment and efforts. The work of the current-term Government in poverty alleviation and support for the disadvantaged is not in the stage of "incessant deliberation", as described by the Hon Wu Chi-wai, but is done swiftly. However, some people tend to accuse others with no regard for the facts and make criticisms which are often unfounded and unjustified. Faced with this political reality, I think it is best to refer to the figures.

     The first set of figures is the Government's welfare expenditure. The recurrent expenditure on welfare was $42.8 billion in the financial year 2012-13. I wish to stress that this is a recurrent expenditure which was described by the Hon Wu Chi-wai as "easy to be spent but can't be removed". It became $59.7 billion in 2015-16. This is an increase of $16.9 billion or 40 per cent, far exceeding the 24 per cent increase in the total recurrent Government expenditure for the same period. The recurrent expenditure on welfare currently accounts for 18.4 per cent of the total recurrent Government expenditure, second only to the expenditure on education (22 per cent). Although the expenditure figures for the coming financial year will not be disclosed until next Wednesday when the Financial Secretary delivers his Budget Speech, it is certain that the growth of welfare expenditure will still be very substantial next year, as the Low-income Working Family Allowance (LIFA) Scheme which involves a recurrent expenditure of $3.1 billion will be open for application in May this year. As regards the non-recurrent welfare expenditure, in 2013, the Government injected $15 billion into the Community Care Fund (CCF) to launch more programmes for plugging gaps in the existing system, and $10 billion into the Lotteries Fund to implement the Special Scheme on Privately Owned Sites for Welfare Uses. In 2015, the Government also announced that $50 billion has been earmarked for improving retirement protection.

     The second set of figures presents the target groups and number of beneficiaries. In less than two weeks after assuming office, the current-term Government announced the introduction of the Old Age Living Allowance (OALA). Implemented for almost three years, the OALA now benefits 430 000 elderly persons aged 65 or above. LIFA will be open for application from May this year. We estimate that this will benefit 200 000 families, involving 700 000 people of whom 170 000 will be children and young students. As at end December 2015, the CCF launched 30 programmes in total, benefiting more than 1.22 million people, including about 280 000 "n have-nots" who are neither public housing tenants nor Comprehensive Social Security Assistance recipients. Moreover, the 2014 Policy Address announced a package of measures involving $200 million to support ethnic minorities' integration into the community. At present, about 16 800 non-Chinese speaking students are provided with additional support for learning Chinese in their schools.

     Mr President, at this juncture, I hope you'll forgive me for switching to English, because I need to refute the allegations made by the Hon Claudia Mo. She said that this Government's mentality in treating ethnic minority is as if they are official outcasts, and she also accused the Government of only paying lip service to supporting ethnic minority community in Hong Kong. This is totally unsubstantiated. As a matter of fact, the Chief Executive and this term of the Hong Kong SAR Government attach a lot of importance to integrating ethnic minority people in society, and as a result of that we have been according priority to helping ethnic minority people. As early as 2014, in the then annual Policy Address, we rolled out a full package of measures with an investment of $200 million to support ethnic minority people. I have with me a six-page note on all the measures that we have introduced to support the ethnic minority. If the Hon Claudia Mo is interested, I'll pass her a copy later on.

     She also suggested that I should sit down and listen to people from Unison. I want to let her know that I have spoken to the former Chairman of Unison, Miss Margaret Ng, as well as the current Chairman of Unison, Mr Stephen Fisher, who is of course a member of my Commission on Poverty. I have also received words of appreciation from organisations like Oxfam, the India Association and other ethnic minority associations in Hong Kong on the efforts made by this term of the Hong Kong SAR Government to support the ethnic minority community.

     Mr President, let me continue with the second set of figures. Through the pilot scheme announced in the 2015 Policy Address, some 2 900 pre-school children with special needs are receiving on-site rehabilitation services. It is announced in the 2016 Policy Address that $470 million in recurrent funding would be earmarked for regularisation of the scheme. The number of beneficiaries will be significantly increased to 7 000, and the waiting time for the services will be much reduced or even eliminated. This will be conducive to the healthy growth of children with special needs and relieving the pressure on parents.

     I noted that Professor Hon Joseph Lee has mentioned our pilot scheme for on-site rehabilitation services for pre-school children funded by the Lotteries Fund. However, it seems that he is not aware that we have earmarked $470 million of recurrent funding to regularise the services upon completion of the pilot scheme. He said the quota was not enough to cater for the 12 000 children waiting for the services. I believe that his figure is not very accurate. The figure we obtained from the Social Welfare Department is that there are some 6 000 children waiting for these services. Therefore, when the services are regularised with a quota of 7 000, as I said earlier, we are hopeful that the waiting time for the services will be much reduced or even eliminated.

     The third set of figures is about the efforts made by the CoP to promote poverty alleviation. Since its reinstatement in December 2012, the CoP chaired by me has worked tirelessly to fulfil the tasks assigned to us by the Chief Executive. The CoP comprises four ex-officio members and 20 non-official members, including the Hon Leung Che-cheung, the Hon Michael Tien, the Hon Cheung Kwok-che and the Hon Frederick Fung, who are from different political parties. We also have representatives of Hong Kong Council of Social Service, Oxfam Hong Kong and Society for Community Organization, who have long been committed to helping the disadvantaged, as well as representatives of trade unions and the business community. In the past three years or so, the CoP had 31 general meetings and 65 task force meetings; published the first official Poverty Line in September 2013 and the Hong Kong Poverty Situation Reports in 2012, 2013 and 2014; and held two Commission on Poverty Summits. We are glad to see that our poor population and poverty rate have dropped to 960 000 and 14.3 per cent respectively, which are record lows since 2009 when the relevant data were first available. Attaching great importance to public accountability, the CoP has issued more than 110 press releases, in addition to establishing a dedicated website, to account for its work.

     Mr President, I have provided the above three sets of figures to demonstrate the Government's commitment to alleviating poverty and supporting the disadvantaged. If such figures fail to convince Members, and some pan-democratic Members still maintain, as stated in their amendments, that the Chief Executive has not kept his election pledge to improve people's livelihood, or as described by the Hon Cyd Ho, "has reneged on all his promises" concerning people's livelihood, then there is nothing more we can do to convince them. Nevertheless, I believe that the facts speak for themselves and our people are able to reach an objective judgement.

     Mr President, I don't expect Members to be fair to the Government, but I find at this debate session that the pro-establishment Members are fairer than the pan-democratic Members. A pro-establishment Member, the Hon Wong Kwok-hing, expressed his thanks clearly to the Government for having improved the existing medical assessment arrangement for the Disability Allowance this year and he no longer needed to bring out his "prop leg". The Hon Tommy Cheung also praised the Chief Executive for accepting the proposals of the Liberal Party in increasing the number of lay members in the Medical Council of Hong Kong and admitting medical professionals.

     However, Dr Hon Fernando Cheung from the pan-democratic camp did not mention a single word on, what I have just mentioned, the Government's recurrent commitment of $470 million in thoroughly solving the problem of children with special needs waiting for pre-school rehabilitation services which is a matter close to his heart; the Hon Sin Chung-kai commented that our social welfare work was only political spin without concrete details; and the Hon Cheung Kwok-che said that the 2016 Policy Address carried "nothing in respect of social welfare measures". I am saddened by these unfair and unjustified comments from the pan-democratic Members. Though Members can be unfair, the Government must be fair. For constructive suggestions and even criticisms, whether from Members of the pan-democratic or the pro-establishment camp, we will take them seriously, and will consider and study them. That include comment from the Hon Leung Yiu-chung that the existing poverty line fails to reflect the effectiveness of public housing as a non-cash intervention policy and the Hon Leung Che-cheung's comment on the need for us to increase resources for strengthening "ageing in place".

Continuing to Build Consensus and Forge Ahead

     Mr President, I have mentioned in a media interview that the current-term Government had achieved more than expected in implementing the Chief Executive's poverty alleviation proposals in his election manifesto. I have clarified many times that the Chief Executive had never pledged to implement universal retirement protection because he had clearly stated that social security should help those in need. However, I admit that the Government has yet to address two important livelihood issues stated in the manifesto, namely the study on the legislative proposals for standard working hours and the scope of application, and measures to progressively reduce the proportion of accrued benefits attributed to employer's contribution in the Mandatory Provident Fund account that can be applied by the employer to offset long service or severance payments. These two issues, both pertaining to employee benefits, involve highly complex issues such as labour relations and implications for our business environment, especially for small and medium-sized enterprises, the operators of which make up over 90 per cent of the employers in Hong Kong. I believe that the Hon Jeffrey Lam's concern expressed a moment ago is out of the perspective of of the burden of small and medium-sized enterprises. Simplifying these labour issues to a question of whether the Government is willing to commit itself is not going to lead us to a proper solution. Rather, the solution hinges on our willingness to foster mutual understanding in the community, especially between employers and employees, and between the business sector and the labour sector, in identifying an option acceptable to all parties. The Government will continue to build consensus through the work of the Standard Working Hours Committee chaired by Dr Leong Che-hung and the public consultation exercise which has been launched to gauge public views on the consultation document entitled "Retirement Protection, Forging Ahead".

     Mr President, population ageing is an irreversible trend. Neither should we evade the issue of providing the elderly with more secure retirement protection. Although the remaining term of office is less than one and a half years, the current-term Government did not choose to put this complex issue aside. Instead, the CoP launched a six-month public engagement exercise on retirement protection last December. As there are still some months before the consultation closes, I think that both the Government and Members representing the public should make good use of the opportunity to listen to more views and initiate rational discussions. Jumping to premature conclusions during the debate on this Policy Address is the last thing we want.

     Some Members said that the Government has already voiced objection to universal retirement protection, or the option of paying all elderly people a uniform pension regardless of their financial status as actively proposed by some members of the community. It is true that in the consultation document of the CoP, the Government has expressed reservations about the "regardless of rich or poor" principle and option. As a responsible government, we have to explain in no ambiguous terms the far-reaching implications of such an option. As pointed out in the consultation document, if the Government decided to provide a universal monthly pension of $3,230 for all elderly people aged 65 or above regardless of their financial status, an additional expenditure of $22.6 billion would be incurred in the first year, and the additional expenditure in total would amount to $2,395 billion in the 50-year projection period. As such, the injection of $100 billion proposed by the Hon Cheung Kwok-che is only a very tiny portion. What does it mean by a recurrent expenditure of $22.6 billion? It is equivalent to 90 per cent of the recurrent expenditure of $25.8 billion now spent on healthcare services for the elderly, or more than triple the current expenditure of $6.8 billion on welfare services for the elderly. Public resources are not unlimited and the allocation of more resources to one area means less for the others. Providing a monthly pension for elderly people without financial needs will mean less robust financial support for those in need, or no timely provision of healthcare or residential services for those who need such care. Is this what we want? Likewise, tax hikes or new taxes to support the "regardless of rich or poor" option will cause immediate increased burden on employers and employees, and reduce Hong Kong's economic competitiveness. Is this acceptable to our community?

     I wish to stress that the SAR Government has the responsibility to provide retired elderly people with comprehensive protection, including cash supplement, public housing, medical and home care, and community and residential care services. The Government is happy to examine ways to help elderly persons who own some assets increase their retirement income to better deal with longevity risk and investment risk. We are also willing to explore further how we can facilitate family support for the elderly through public policy measures. I earnestly ask all sectors of the community to express more views on the wide range of issues relating to retirement protection in the coming months.


     Mr President, there are views that this year's poverty alleviation measures are just small benefits and favours. As I pointed out in the earlier parts of my speech, over the past three years or so, poverty alleviation, elderly care and support for the disadvantaged have all along been the top agenda of the current-term Government, and priority has been accorded to these areas in resource allocation. In the past few years, a number of policies and measures were introduced to benefit different groups of people. To evaluate the current-term Government's performance in improving people's livelihood, one should consider the results of the work done in the past three years or so in an objective manner. It is neither fair nor comprehensive to focus only on the new measures introduced in this year's Policy Address.

     With these remarks, Mr President, I urge Members to support this year's Policy Address. Thank you.

Ends/Thursday, February 18, 2016
Issued at HKT 23:16


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