The Social Welfare Department has announced that the age threshold for applicants for monthly allowances under the Comprehensive Social Security Assistance (CSSA) scheme for the elderly will be raised from 60 to 65 starting from next month.
The new measure, which was embedded in the Appropriation Bill 2018, already passed the Legislative Council in May last year.
Just as everybody in the government thought the new rule would come into effect according to schedule, things took an unexpected turn following a remark by Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor on Thursday during the Chief Executive’s Question and Answer Session at the Legco.
During the session, lawmaker Eunice Yung Hoi-yan representing the New People’s Party asked the chief executive if she would withdraw the measure because many citizens are dismayed at raising the eligible age for the elderly CSSA allowances from 60 to 65, only to be told by Lam that she was surprised to hear lawmakers’ criticism of the measure, and stressed that while the measure was included in the Appropriation Bill 2018 proposed by the government, it was in fact approved by Legco.
Her reply immediately provoked a backlash not only from the pan-democrats but also members of the pro-establishment camp, both of whom expressed their discontent at Lam’s answer, and wasted no time in explaining themselves on the matter.
That the pan-dems and the pro-Beijing camp were on the same side on Thursday over the same issue was an extremely rare situation in Legco.
Lawmaker Elizabeth Quat of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB) said her support for the 2018 Budget last year doesn’t necessarily mean she endorsed each and every individual item in the bill.
Lawmaker Fernando Cheung Chiu-hung from the Labour Party even told reporters that he felt he had been “framed” by the chief executive.
According to the Legco voting record, 43 lawmakers voted in favor of the 2018 Appropriation Bill, including a number of pan-dems.
A source in the government later conceded that a number of pro-establishment and pan-democratic lawmakers did voice their objection to raising the age threshold for elderly CSSA applicants over the past two years.
But in order to secure the passage of some potentially unwelcome policy initiatives through Legco, it would usually mix these unpopular measures with other “sweeteners” such as those routinely proposed in the budget every year so as to make them more acceptable, and sending the entire package to Legco for scrutiny.
He said the chief executive made it appear that the lawmakers themselves had given the green light for the CSSA age threshold.
He also joked that Financial Secretary Paul Chan Mo-po may prove the biggest loser in Thursday’s brouhaha.
Chan, who is busy preparing the 2019/20 budget, could find himself in a very unfortunate situation if the pro-establishment camp and the pan-dems decide to come after him by demanding that every item in the Appropriation Bill be scrutinized separately.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Jan 11
Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting
[Chinese version 中文版]
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