LCQ15: Measures to encourage childbearing

     Following is a question by Dr Hon Elizabeth Quat and a written reply by the Chief Secretary for Administration, Mr Matthew Cheung Kin-chung, in the Legislative Council today (March 29):
     Statistics from the Census and Statistics Department indicate that in recent years, there has been a trend of delayed marriage and childbearing as well as low fertility rate for the female population of Hong Kong. The total fertility rate of Hong Kong in the past year ranked the fourth lowest among 224 countries and regions in the world. In respect of measures to encourage childbearing, will the Government inform this Council:
(1) given that the municipal government of Urayasu in Japan has introduced a subsidy scheme for freezing women’s eggs, whether the Government will allocate funds for setting up an oocyte bank to assist women with advanced maternal age in childbearing; if so, of the details; if not, the reasons for that;

(2) given that the current waiting time for public assisted-reproduction services is 5 to 18 months, and private services cost more than $100,000, whether the Government will increase the quota for such public services; if so, of the details; if not, the reasons for that;

(3) whether, to alleviate the financial burden of parents, the Government will:

(i) provide childcare allowances for middle-class and low-income families with children aged three or below;

(ii) increase the level of child tax allowance and introduce tax deduction for children’s educational expenses, as well as provide other tax concessions;

(iii) increase the subsidies for whole-day and long whole-day kindergartens so that such kindergartens will no longer need to collect tuition fees from parents; and

(iv) bring early childhood education into the coverage of the School Textbook Assistance Scheme;

if it will implement the aforesaid measures, of the details; if not, the reasons for that;

(4) whether it will provide government employees with paid maternity leave and paid paternity leave which are more favourable than the statutory requirements so as to take the lead;

(5) whether it will conduct a study on amending the Employment Ordinance (Cap. 57) to require employers to provide full-pay maternity leave and paternity leave for their employees, and raise the penalties for discrimination against pregnant female employees; if so, of the details; if not, the reasons for that;

(6) of the new measures for promoting organisations from the public and private sectors to more actively implement family-friendly employment initiatives, such as flexible working hours, five-day work week, parental leave and workplace childcare services; and

(7) of the latest progress made by the Government in implementing the initiative of providing additional childcare places mentioned in the 2017 Policy Agenda; whether it has any plan to enhance the home-based childcare service and after school care programmes, so that dual-income parents will not shelve their childbearing plans due to worries of not being able to deal with childcare issues; if so, of the details; if not, the reasons for that?
Reply :
     In 2013-14, the Steering Committee on Population Policy (SCPP) led by the Chief Secretary for Administration conducted a review of the population policy, including our low fertility rate. The SCPP took note that Hong Kong’s total fertility rate has been lower than the replacement level of 2.1 for more than three decades. It has remained between 0.9 and 1.3 since mid-1990s. As in other Asian developed economies such as Singapore, South Korea, etc., a decreasing marriage rate, as well as delayed marriage and childbearing are the main contributing factors of our low fertility rate. As these factors are essentially a matter of personal choice and lifestyle preference, the SCPP was of the view that government policy alone could hardly revert the low fertility trend. Childbearing after all is a major family decision. Excessive government intervention may not be appropriate.
     Nevertheless, the SCPP agreed that the Government, employers and the wider community should provide better support for couples who wish to have children. To this end, the SCPP formulated a number of measures. These measures together with other population policy initiatives were announced in the 2015 Policy Address. More elaborations were given in the government publication entitled “Population Policy – Strategies and Initiatives” released in January 2015 ( The measures cover the majority of issues in Dr Hon Quat’s question, including strengthening child care and after-school support services, encouraging employers to adopt family-friendly measures, implementing the free quality kindergarten (KG) education (in particular to increase the number of whole-day (WD) and long WD (LWD) places and provide subsidy for these places), raising the child allowance under the tax system, improving the assisted reproductive technology services in public hospitals, strengthening support for breastfeeding, providing parenting information for families with newborns, etc.. Apart from creating a favourable environment to assist citizens to realise the aspiration for childbearing, these measures can also help working parents balance family and work commitments. In the past two years or so, bureaux and departments have by and large implemented the measures.
     In response to Dr Hon Quat’s question, our specific replies are as follows:
(1) Oocyte cryopreservation is not risk free. Ovarian stimulation may result in ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome and egg retrieval is an invasive procedure which carries the risks of infection, bleeding and damage to other organs. On the other hand, with increasing age, the success rate for In-vitro Fertilization (IVF) decreases while pregnancy risks such as gestational hypertension, gestational diabetes, premature labour, stillbirth, etc. increase. As a matter of fact, current data on safety and efficacy are not sufficient to recommend oocyte cryopreservation for the sole purpose of deferring childbearing in healthy women. Making the technology available for this purpose may give women false hope and lead to their missing of best reproductive years, as well as bring about societal and family problems.This is not a sustainable population policy measure.

(2) The Hospital Authority (HA) understands the strong demand for assisted reproductive technology service in the community.To build up the service capacity of IVF to cope with the increasing demand, Queen Mary Hospital (QMH) provides additional 100 IVF cycles in 2016-17.Furthermore, nurse infertility triage services will be set up in QMH, Prince of Wales Hospital and Kwong Wah Hospital to shorten the waiting time for infertility clinic referral in the HA Annual Plan 2017-18.The Government and HA will continue to monitor closely the demand for assisted reproductive technology service in order to review the service provision.
(3) (i) The Government has been implementing the Low-income Working Family Allowance (LIFA) Scheme since May 2016. Each eligible child in a LIFA family (including children aged three or below) may receive a monthly Child Allowance of $800 (full rate) or $400 (half rate). This can alleviate parents’ financial burden and ease inter-generational poverty.
(ii) The Government has kept the various existing tax allowances under review and made adjustments as appropriate. Over the past six years, the Government has increased the child allowance and additional allowance four times, so as to help relieve the financial burden of taxpayers in raising their children. The child allowance was last increased in the year of assessment 2015/16. The child allowance is presently $100,000 and in the assessment year the child is born, there is an additional allowance of $100,000.
     As regards proposed tax deduction for specific expenditure item, the Government must pay due regard to the overall financial commitments and the existing narrow tax base. To avoid complicating the tax regime, one-off tax reduction and increase in tax allowance can address these requests more directly.
(iii) and (iv) The KG sector in Hong Kong is characterised by a high level of flexibility, diversity and vibrancy. In light of the different development targets of individual school sponsoring bodies, it does not represent prudent use of public money for the Government to commit totally free KG education for all students or to subsidise every facet of the present and future KG education. 
     For WD and LWD services, existing evidence from researches and studies precludes drawing conclusions that WD programmes are more favourable to young children than half-day (HD) programmes. Studies show that family education plays a crucial and complementary role in shaping young children. A HD programme can achieve the requirements of the curriculum and would allow relatively more family time for young children to play and interact with their family in a less-structured and more relaxing setting to nurture their bonding and sense of security. Although many countries offer WD services for parents as an option, it is not a common practice internationally to provide free WD KG service for all children from three to six years of age.
     Having considered the developmental needs of children and overseas practices, we are of the view that the basic tenet of the new policy is that the Government’s subsidy to each eligible KG would be sufficient for it to provide quality HD services according to the standards prescribed by the Government. Notwithstanding that, to unleash the potential of the local labour force under the population policy, we will provide, on a co-payment basis with parents, an additional provision of 30per cent and 60 per cent for eligible KGs offering WD and LWD services respectively. The additional subsidy from Government should keep the school fees at a low level. According to the information submitted by KGs participating in the Free Quality KG Education Scheme by the end of November 2016, among the about 600 KGs providing offering WD or LWD services, about 50 per cent of the WD KGs initially estimate that they will charge a monthly school fee of $1,000 or below, representing a significant increase from about 5 per cent in the 2016/17 school year.
     Needy families may apply for fee remission under the Kindergarten and Child Care Centre Fee Remission Scheme (KCFRS) which has three subsidy levels of 100 per cent, 75 per cent or 50 per cent. Besides, starting from the 2017/18 school year, we will provide an additional grant for KG students from needy families to defray school-related expenses incurred from the students’ KG education. The families concerned have to pass the means test of the Student Finance Office of the Working Family and Student Financial Assistance Agency and meet the same eligibility criteria under the KCFRS. The grant rate will be pegged at the level of grant for school-related expenses (i.e. books, stationery, school uniforms, miscellaneous and minor one-off expenses) for KG students under the Comprehensive Social Security Assistance (CSSA). For the 2016/17 school year, the relevant CSSA grant is $3,770.
(4) Within the Government, female employees are entitled to full-pay maternity leave of 10 weeks and male employees are entitled to full-pay paternity leave of five working days starting from April 2012. Both leave entitlements are better than those provided under the Employment Ordinance (EO).
(5) The EO clearly stipulates that a pregnant employee is entitled to 10 weeks’ continuous maternity leave and maternity leave pay if she fulfills the eligibility criteria.The rate of maternity leave pay is set at four-fifths of the employee’s average daily wages under EO, which compares favourably with the no less than two-third maternity leave pay level stipulated by the relevant International Labour Convention.
     It is also provided under EO that an employer shall not dismiss an employee during her pregnancy or maternity leave, except for summary dismissal due to the employee’s serious misconduct. An employer who contravenes this provision is liable to a maximum fine of $100,000 if convicted upon prosecution. Moreover, the employer is required to make payment in lieu of notice, a further sum equivalent to one month’s wages as compensation, and 10 weeks’ maternity leave pay (if, but for the dismissal, the employee would have been entitled to such payment). The above provisions protect pregnant employees from dismissal during pregnancy and maternity leave, and ensure that their employment rights and benefits will not to be affected because of pregnancy and confinement.
     Comprehensive protection to pregnant employees is being provided by EO, and a reasonable balance has been struck between the interests of employers and employees. In considering any further improvement to the maternity benefits for pregnant employees, we have to duly take into account Hong Kong’s socio-economic situation and whether there is broad consensus in the community.
     Statutory paternity leave has been provided since February 27, 2015.  Eligible male employees are entitled to three days’ paternity leave at the rate of four-fifths of the average daily wages. The Labour Department (LD) is reviewing the implementation of statutory paternity leave, which covers, among others, the rate of paternity leave pay. The Department will report the outcome of the review to the Labour Advisory Board and the Legislative Council Panel on Manpower within 2017.
(6) The Government has all along been supportive of family-friendly employment practices (FFEPs), and has been encouraging employers, having regard to the individual circumstances and affordability of their own enterprises as well as the unique business environment and operations of specific industries, to adopt measures of FFEPs that best serve the interests of their enterprises and employees.
     As one of the facilitators, LD is committed to promoting FFEPs to the community through a wide range of publicity channels and various promotional activities. Employers are encouraged to adopt “employee-oriented” good people management measures with a view to helping employees balance their work and family responsibilities. Employers are encouraged to provide their employees with more favourable employment benefits than the statutory requirements and provide them with flexible and varied work arrangements and support (e.g. flexible working hours, five-day work, work from home, parental leave, child care service, etc.) to meet individual employees’ special needs at their different stages of life. Other than LD, the Home Affairs Bureau (HAB) through the Family Council (the Council) also promotes FFEPs in the community.
     Since 2011, the HAB and the Council have been organising the “Family-Friendly Employers Award Scheme” (Award Scheme) on a biennial basis to recognise employers who attach importance to family-friendly spirit and encourage them to continue to implement FFEPs. The response to the recently completed 2015/16 Award Scheme was very positive with enrolment of 2 700 companies and organisations, representing an increase of some 50 per cent as compared with that in the previous Award Scheme. Among the 2 555 companies and organisations receiving Family-Friendly Employers awards, many have put in place diversified and flexible FFEPs, such as the introduction of flexible working locations, provision of child care facilities in the workplace and caring holidays for elderly family members, to facilitate employees in taking care of their families. In 2017, HAB and the Council will widely publicise some model FFEPs through showing short videos on different media and organising experience sharing sessions in the second quarter of the year for the outstanding awardees to present their good practices with a view to further disseminating the merits of adopting FFEPs at the community level.
     The Government has also been encouraging private enterprises and other non-governmental organisations, if their operational environment permits, to establish work-based child care centres (CCCs), and this has received some certain degree of support. A recent example is the provision of the “Airport Preschool” by the Hong Kong Airport Authority to provide child care service for staff working in the Airport with children aged three or below. The Government will continue to explore the feasibility of providing in the proposed Government Complex in Tseung Kwan O, on a pilot basis, 100 NGO-operated child care places for staff members.
     Lastly, as a good employer, the Government has endeavoured to provide a family-friendly working environment to its employees. Taking into account the actual operational needs, Heads of Department may arrange flexible attendance hours and approve no-pay leave for individual staff to meet the latter’s needs. The Government has implemented the Five-day Week (FDW) initiative since 2006 with a view to improving the work-life balance of its employees, subject to the basic principles of no reduction in the conditioned hours of work of individual staff, no additional staffing resources, no reduction in emergency services and continued provision of some essential counter services on Saturdays/Sundays. At present, over 70 per cent of government employees are working on a FDW work pattern. Departments will continue to promote this work model.
(7) The Government strives to provide more aided standalone CCCs.Apart from increasing 48 places in the existing seven aided standalone CCCs through in-situ expansion from 2014-15 to 2016-17, the Government also plans to provide about 100 additional aided long full-day child care places for children aged below three in 2018-19.The Government will continue monitoring the demand for various types of child care services.Since October 2014, the Government has enhanced the Neighbourhood Support Child Care Project, by extending the age limit of children receiving the service from aged under six to aged under nine, allocating additional resources to the operators to enhance social work support, and providing at least 234 additional home-based child care service places.The Government has commissioned The University of Hong Kong in December 2016 to conduct a consultancy study, so as to assist the Government in its planning for the long-term development of child care services.
     Schools and NGOs may participate in the School-based After-school Learning and Support Programmes implemented by the Education Bureau for funding to organise school-based and district-based after-school activities for disadvantaged students respectively. Apart from facilitating their whole-person development and personal growth, the Programmes can also alleviate the financial burden of working parents in raising children. Starting from the 2014/15 school year, the total annual provision for the Programmes has been increased to about $240 million, with the funding for school-based and district-based after-school activities each accounting for about half of the total provision. To further support parents who may need to work over weekends, or those with longer/unstable working hours, the Government has enhanced the After School Care Programme (ASCP) since December 2014, by allocating additional resources to some ASCP operators for providing more fee-waiving and fee-reduction quotas across the territory and extending the service hours on weekday evenings, Saturdays, Sundays and school holidays.

Ends/Wednesday, March 29, 2017
Issued at HKT 16:42