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LCQ21: Columbaria
     Following is a question by the Hon Chan Hak-kan and a written reply by the Secretary for Food and Health, Dr Ko Wing-man, in the Legislative Council today (April 12):


     This Council will resume the Second Reading debate on the Private Columbaria Bill today. Upon passage of the Bill by this Council and its gazettal and commencement, only licensed columbaria are allowed to sell or newly let columbarium niches (niches). There are comments that as the licensing board will start accepting licence applications from columbaria only after the expiry of a six-month period from the date on which the ordinance is gazetted, there will be a six-month vacuum period in respect of the supply of private niches. In this connection, will the Government inform this Council:

(1) whether it has compiled statistics on the respective numbers of (i) private and public niches available for sale, and (ii) private and public vacant urn spaces available for temporary storage of ashes, during the vacuum period;

(2) of the estimated number of existing private columbaria that may fail to comply with the licensing requirements, and the estimated number of niches in which the interred ashes have to be displaced and handled as a result; the measures the Government has put in place to address the issues arising from such columbaria's closing down one after another;

(3) given that the operators of some private columbaria are required to apply for regularisation in respect of non-compliance of their columbaria with the land-related requirements and to pay for the relevant fees, whether the Government will exercise discretion to reduce or waive such fees for operators with difficulties so as to spare them from forced closure; if so, of the details;

(4) of the number of public niches that will be supplied in each of the coming five years, and the details of the locations of such niches;

(5) given that it was pointed out in the Director of Audit's Report No. 65 published in October 2015 that the three-phase allocation of new niches by computer balloting adopted by the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department had left many unallocated new niches vacant for a long time, and some members of the public having to wait for an indefinite period of time as they were unsuccessful in the ballot for several times, whether the Government has put in place measures to improve the allocation method of new niches; if so, of the details; and

(6) of the respective current total numbers of public and private niches, and the ratio between these two types of niches; given the short supply of public niches and the high prices of private niches at present, of the measures the Government has put in place to encourage operators of private columbaria to supply niches at prices affordable to the general public?



     The existing private columbaria vary considerably from one to another with diverse standards. Through the Private Columbaria Bill (the Bill), we seek to introduce for the first time in Hong Kong a regulatory regime for private columbaria, with a view to effectively achieving the following objectives:

(a) ensuring compliance of relevant statutory and Government requirements by columbaria brought under regulation;
(b) enhancing protection of consumer interests; and
(c) helping to bring the operation and development of the industry to a sustainable path.

     My reply to various parts of the question is as follows:

(1) and (4) to (6) According to the Bill, all operators of pre-cut-off columbaria are required to submit applications for specified instruments to the Private Columbaria Licensing Board (the Licensing Board) between the seventh month and the ninth month (i.e. within those three months) after the enactment of the Private Columbaria Ordinance (the Ordinance). Upon receipt of the applications, the Licensing Board will process such applications expeditiously. Private columbaria that have been issued with a licence could sell or newly let niches immediately thereafter. We will make every effort to support the work of the Legislative Council (LegCo) so as to facilitate the early passage of the Bill.

     As at December 31, 2016, according to the information provided by the 133 private columbaria under the Notification Scheme, there were altogether about 385 000 niches with interred ashes. As regards the prices of private niches, as in the case of other trades and industries, the operation of private columbaria has always been market-driven, and operators may offer various service and price options to consumers according to market conditions. On the other hand, the Government will continue its efforts to increase the supply of public niches so as to provide more choices for the public.

     As at December 31, 2016, there were a total of about 214 300 niches provided in the eight columbaria managed by the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department (FEHD), while about 365 200 niches were provided by columbaria in non-governmental private cemeteries, including non-profit making cemeteries managed by the Board of Management of the Chinese Permanent Cemeteries (BMCPC) and religious or ethnic bodies. The number of existing niches available for allocation in public columbaria and columbaria in non-governmental private cemeteries are 900 and 25 650 respectively.

     Regarding the district-based columbarium development scheme, we have so far obtained support from the District Councils for 14 identified sites, providing more than 590 000 new niches (which accounted for around two thirds of the overall planned number of new niches). It is estimated that about 190 000 new niches are available for allocation in public columbaria and columbaria in non-governmental private cemeteries in the next five years, with a breakdown as follows:
  2017 2018 2019 2020 2021 Total
Government (Note 1) 360 (Note 3) 2 105 20 000 42 000 67 000 131 465
Non-government (Note 2) 12 600 42 900 (Note 4) 6 300 - - 61 800
Total 12 960 45 005 26 300 42 000 67 000 193 265

     We will continue to consult District Councils on other columbarium projects progressively with a view to providing 310 000 additional new niches in the next 15 years. In addition, we are exploring with the Home Affairs Bureau and BMCPC the feasibility of constructing additional columbarium facilities in the Tseung Kwan O Chinese Permanent Cemetery.

     The Government is conducting a review of its established practice of allocating new niches by computer ballot, including analysing the information, data and comments regarding previous allocation exercises. During the review, the Government will consider the views of relevant bureaux and departments, the Independent Commission Against Corruption and stakeholders with a view to formulating an allocation mechanism which is fair, equitable, efficient and in public interests. The review is expected to be completed before the next round of large-scale allocation of new niches (anticipated to be the project at Tsang Tsui, Tuen Mun).

     FEHD has since January 2014 removed the cap on the number of sets of ashes that may be placed in a public niche by (i) relaxing the definition of "close relative"; and (ii) allowing the public to place more than two sets of ashes in a standard niche and more than four sets in a large niche. According to the estimation by FEHD, if this measure could be fully optimised, as many as 182 000 more urns can be placed. The Chinese Permanent Cemeteries (Amendment) Bill 2015 was passed by the LegCo in May 2016. Thereafter, similar measures have been adopted by BMCPC (including broadening the definition of "relatives" for placing additional sets of ashes in its facilities, allowing subsequent interment of ashes into exhumable lots and ossuary niches, and removing the cap on the number of sets of ashes that can be placed in a niche). There are about 300 000 spaces in standard and family niches at the columbaria of BMCPC that could be used for placing additional urns. Together with BMCPC, we will continue to conduct promotional and publicity activities to encourage the public to place additional urns in niches.

     To address the needs of the public for temporary storage of ashes, the Government has actively identified venues for use as facilities for temporary storage of ashes. In the coming two years, the capacity of FEHD's facilities for temporary storage of ashes would be increased to at least 65 000 urn spaces. However, it must be pointed out that such temporary storage facilities should not be taken as proper niches. Such storage is only a transitional arrangement, and no paying of tribute will be allowed. Besides, there are 81 licensed undertakers who may store ashes temporarily on the premises specified in their licences. That said, such holders of undertakers' licences must not use premises not specified in their licences as their places of business. Generally speaking, they may not store ashes on a long-term basis in their places of business.

     There are various alternatives for members of the public to handle ashes, including keeping ashes at home and adopting green burial, etc.

(2) Whether or not an individual columbarium can obtain a licence, exemption or temporary suspension of liability after the enactment of the Ordinance will be subject to the columbarium's fulfilment of the requirements of relevant specified instrument. Since the Licensing Board will consider each application on its own merits, we cannot give categorical assessment at present. Given that there is uncertainty at the present stage over whether a private columbarium can obtain a specified instrument or not in the future, and that the actual situation will also be dependent on the operator's subjective preference, it is difficult to estimate precisely how many columbaria will close down.

     On the other hand, after the enactment of the Ordinance, if a columbarium ceases operation for any reasons (e.g. by reason of the enforcement actions taken by the Government against non-compliance or the operator's decision to cease business), the operator concerned has the responsibility to and must handle the ashes affected according to the prescribed ash disposal procedures under the legislation, including exerting all reasonable efforts to get in touch with the descendants for the proper return of the ashes. If there are still unclaimed ashes after the completion of the prescribed ash disposal procedures by the operator, the ashes can be delivered to FEHD for disposal in accordance with the relevant legislation.

(3) Under the current policy, any application for land grant/lease modification/land exchange/short term tenancy (STT)/waiver, etc. in respect of a proposed use will be processed in accordance with the established procedures. Approval of any such application is subject to payment of full market value premia, waiver fees or STT rentals as well as administrative fees as appropriate by the applicant, unless policy directive is provided to charge nominal or concessionary premia/rentals/waiver fees. Under the current policy, the same procedures will apply to a private columbarium (be it a pre-cut-off columbarium or not) seeking a licence under the Ordinance.

     For pre-cut-off columbaria confirmed to be eligible for exemption status in all other respects, the Director of Lands may, upon receiving an application for regularisation, consider administratively regularising the breach of lease conditions and/or unlawful occupation of unleased land in respect of ash interment rights sold before the cut-off time in the proposed exempted area, by way of a waiver and/or a STT, with the relevant waiver fees, STT rentals and administrative fees before and during the exemption period waived, depending on the circumstances and specific merits of each application.

Note 1: From 2018 to 2021, the Government supply will come from projects at Cheung Chau Cemetery Extension site, Wong Nai Chung Road in Wan Chai, Tsang Tsui in Tuen Mun, Wo Hop Shek Cemetery (Phase 1 Development) and Cape Collinson in Chai Wan.

Note 2: The supply from columbaria in non-governmental private cemeteries from 2017 to 2019 will come from the Chai Wan Chinese Permanent Cemetery and Aberdeen Chinese Permanent Cemetery of the BMCPC as well as the Chinese Christian Cemetery.

Note 3: Apart from the 24 sites, the construction of another 360 new niches at the Peng Chau Columbarium will be completed in 2017.

Note 4: Of which 36 900 will be allocated in phases in subsequent years.
Ends/Wednesday, April 12, 2017
Issued at HKT 18:15
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