19 October 2019
Carrie Lam said the government wants to delay Legco debates on homebuyer stamp duty bill in order to focus on the co-location plan for the express rail link. Photo: Hong Kong China News Agency
Carrie Lam said the government wants to delay Legco debates on homebuyer stamp duty bill in order to focus on the co-location plan for the express rail link. Photo: Hong Kong China News Agency

Lam under fire for putting rail link plan above stamp duty bill

Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor has come under criticism from opposition lawmakers after she prioritized discussions on a controversial express rail link over a homebuyer stamp duty-related bill in the Legislative Council.

Lam announced on Tuesday that the government wants to postpone debates on the proposed Stamp Duty (Amendment) Bill in the Legco.

The stamp duty debate needs to be put off to a later date so that lawmakers can focus on a non-binding motion that the government is tabling with regard to joint checkpoint arrangements for the Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong Express Rail Link, she said. 

Referring to the co-location plan, which will see mainland immigration and customs officials operating in a designated zone at the West Kowloon Station, the Hong Kong end of the cross-border rail link, Lam said the matter is more urgent and that it should enjoy priority in Legco deliberations.

In line with Lam’s apparent directives, Secretary for Transport and Housing Frank Chan Fan moved a motion in Legco on Tuesday to adjourn discussions over the Stamp Duty (Amendment) Bill.

The move met with disapproval from pan-democrat lawmakers, as they accused Lam of not having her priorities right.

James To Kun-sun, a legislator from the Democratic Party, said he finds it difficult to understand why Lam is putting a highly controversial and politically-sensitive plan before a non-controversial proposal that can actually benefit the public.

His party reiterated objection to the co-location plan, with some of its members and community groups marching to the Office of the Chief Executive Tuesday noon and demanding that Lam retract it.

The government should focus on issues that affect people’s livelihood, rather than take up less-important matters, opposition lawmakers said, questioning the decision to postpone discussions on the stamp duty bill.

The Stamp Duty (Amendment) Bill, which was announced on Nov. 4, 2016, aims to introduce a new flat rate of 15 percent for all transactions for residential property acquired by individuals or companies, except for specified exemptions, to deter speculative activities in the housing market.

As lawmakers were preparing to discuss the bill to complete the second reading, Lam said the debate can wait because the co-location plan issue is more urgent.

The government announced in July that it will adopt three steps in relation to legislation of the joint checkpoints plan. The first step, namely reaching an agreement between Hong Kong and Beijing, has been completed, but there are two more to be undertaken — gaining approval from the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, and legislating the proposal in Hong Kong.

The NPC Standing Committee is expected to approve the plan in December before Legco puts it to vote in February next year.

However, to some people’s surprise, Lam said in early October that a non-binding motion on the plan will be submitted to Legco on Oct. 25. The motion is aimed at highlighting the benefits of the plan through debates by lawmakers so as to gain Legco’s support before the NPC endorses it.

Calling the timeframe for the plan “tight”, Lam doesn’t want any other bill to stand in the way.

The chief executive claimed that discussions over similar amendments of the stamp tax in 2012 and 2013 in Legco took 26 hours and 19 hours, respectively, the Hong Kong Economic Journal reports.

The current discussions, if not adjourned, are likely to last until next Wednesday and will affect the progress of the co-location plan as a result, she argued.

Deliberations on the stamp duty bill will resume after lawmakers finish debates on the co-location plan and her policy address that was delivered last week, Lam said.

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