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LCQ1: Prevention of fraud and abuse of Comprehensive Social Security Assistance
     Following is a question by Dr the Hon Junius Ho and a reply by the Secretary for Labour and Welfare, Mr Chris Sun, in the Legislative Council today (November 2):


     Some members of the public have pointed out that in the 2019-2020 financial year (as at the end of December 2019), there were 978 cases of suspected fraud relating to Comprehensive Social Security Assistance (CSSA) reported by members of the public, but there were only as few as 51 convicted cases. They query that the law enforcement by the Social Welfare Department (SWD) has been perfunctory and thus failing to have a deterrent effect on CSSA fraudsters and abusers. In this connection, will the Government inform this Council:

(1) of the respective numbers of cases of suspected CSSA fraud reported by members of the public and detected through investigations initiated by the SWD, in each of the past five years;

(2) of the details of the SWD's current manpower dedicated to the prevention and investigation of fraud and abuse relating to CSSA; and

(3) whether the SWD has taken the initiative to investigate if CSSA recipients own properties or other assets in places outside Hong Kong and if they own significant amounts of cash assets without making declaration in order to avoid the means test and obtain CSSA by fraud; if the SWD has, whether the SWD has reviewed the effectiveness of the current measures and introduced new measures to step up its efforts in combating CSSA fraud; if the SWD has not, of the reasons for that?



     The Comprehensive Social Security Assistance (CSSA) Scheme provides a safety net of last resort for those who cannot support themselves financially due to old age, ill-health, disability, single parenthood, unemployment, low-earnings or other reasons, and aims to help them meet their basic needs. The CSSA Scheme is means-tested to ensure that finite public resources are targeted towards catering for needy persons. Means tests under the CSSA Scheme are conducted on a household basis in upholding the concept of promoting mutual support amongst family members.

     To ensure proper use of public monies, the Social Welfare Department (SWD) has been sparing no effort in combatting CSSA fraud all along. In handling CSSA applications, the SWD staff will ask applicants and their family members to submit detailed proofs of their assets in and outside Hong Kong, such as bank statements, time deposit receipts, insurance policy statements, documentary proofs of stocks, land and property ownership, etc. Applicants and their family members also need to submit income proofs such as Mandatory Provident Fund pay-records, pay slips, employment contracts, documentary proofs of dividend and rental income, etc. In addition, for the purpose of verifying the various information provided by applicants and their family members, the SWD staff will interview all applicants as well as pay home visits and make inquiries to the relevant employers, previous employers and landlords where necessary.

     The SWD conducts regular reviews and spot-checks on approved cases to verify whether recipients remain eligible for CSSA through various means. The SWD also conducts data-matching with other government departments and relevant organisations periodically and on a need basis to verify the validity of information provided by recipients. These departments and organisations include the Immigration Department, the Land Registry, the Companies Registry, the Treasury, the Working Family and Student Financial Assistance Agency, the Hospital Authority, the HKMC Annuity Limited, etc. The scope of the data-matching includes recipients' travel records, hospitalisation conditions, whether they are in receipt of other government subsidies, income, records of land and property ownership, etc.

     Where the SWD receives reports or suspects during regular reviews and spot-checks that CSSA applicants/recipients have not honestly declared cash or other assets, or have even placed assets outside Hong Kong to circumvent the means test, the SWD will conduct proactive in-depth investigation and verification of these cases. Furthermore, serious cases will be referred to the Police for follow-up investigation. If necessary, the SWD will also take the initiative to reach out to and verify with government departments or organisations (such as banks) of the places where assets are allegedly hidden.

     All information provided by CSSA applicants/recipients must be true, correct and complete. Anyone who knowingly or wilfully provides false statements or withholds any information in order to obtain CSSA by deception commits an offence. Apart from being disqualified for CSSA, he/she may be liable to prosecution under the Theft Ordinance (Cap. 210). In addition, applicants/recipients must report to the SWD as soon as possible any changes in information previously provided which may affect their CSSA eligibility, or cause a reduction in the amount of CSSA payable. Applicants/recipients who do not report such changes on purpose may be liable to prosecution for breaching the Theft Ordinance. With respect to all suspected fraud cases substantiated upon the SWD's in-depth investigation, the SWD will recover overpayment from the relevant applicants/recipients. Generally speaking, the SWD will issue written warnings to those concerned or refer serious suspected fraud cases to the Police for investigation. Persons convicted of fraud by the court may be imprisoned, bound over, sentenced to community service order and fined.

     CSSA fraud is not common as a matter of fact. In 2021-22, the number of suspected CSSA fraud cases reported by members of the public and detected through investigations initiated by the SWD was 1 143 and 550 respectively. Thereof, only 323 suspected fraud cases were substantiated upon the SWD's in-depth investigation, which accounts for less than 0.2 per cent of the total number of CSSA cases of about 220 000. The numbers of suspected CSSA fraud cases reported by members of the public and detected through investigations initiated by the SWD, suspected fraud cases substantiated upon investigation and follow-up actions in the past five years are set out at Annex.

     At present, there are six special investigation teams within the SWD for investigating suspected CSSA fraud cases reported by members of the public or referred by frontline SWD staff and for recovering overpayment. These teams mainly comprise about 120 Social Security grade officers, and currently employ six retired disciplined services officers as investigation advisers to assist in handling more complex cases, so as to enhance the effectiveness of counteracting CSSA fraud.

     In addition to reminding CSSA applicants/recipients to report their circumstances honestly and drawing their attention to the serious consequences of defrauding CSSA payments through its departmental website, the SWD publicises the same messages by placing publicity materials such as display panels and leaflets at all social security field units to raise law-abiding awareness. Members of the public may report suspected CSSA fraud in person at social security field units, or may do so through the SWD's report fraud hotline, online form, email, fax or post.

     The SWD will continue to adopt a stringent approach in handling each application, implement initiatives in different areas and endeavour to prevent and counteract CSSA fraud, with a view to ensuring proper use of public monies.
Ends/Wednesday, November 2, 2022
Issued at HKT 13:24
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