LegCo Paper No. CB(2)2607/96-97
(These minutes have been seen
by the Administration)
Ref: CB2/PL/WS

LegCo Panel on Welfare Services

Minutes of Special Meeting held on Thursday, 20 March 1997 at 2:30 pm in the Legislative Council Chamber

Members present:

    Hon Fred LI Wah-ming (Chairman)
    Hon CHEUNG Man-kwong
    Hon Frederick FUNG Kin-kee
    Hon Eric LI Ka-cheung, OBE, JP
    Hon Zachary WONG Wai-yin
    Hon CHAN Yuen-han

Members absent:

    Hon David CHU Yu-lin (Deputy Chairman)
    Dr Hon YEUNG Sum
    Hon James TIEN Pei-chun, OBE, JP
    Hon LEE Cheuk-yan
    Dr Hon LAW Chi-kwong
    Hon LEE Kai-ming
    Hon MOK Ying-fan
    Dr Hon John TSE Wing-ling

Public officers attending:

    Defining a poverty line

    Miss Elley MAO
    Principal Economist (1)

    Mr CHENG Chok-man
    Assistant Director (Social Security) (Acting)
    Social Welfare Department

    Rent Assistance Scheme

    Mr Parrish NG
    Principal Assistant Secretary for Housing
    Housing Branch

    Mr Y C CHENG
    Assistant Director (Policy)
    Housing Department

    Samaritan Fund

    Dr K K LAI
    Senior Executive Manger
    (Professional Services) 2
    Hospital Authority

    Student Financial Assistance

    Mr Alfred WONG
    Student Financial Assistance Agency

Attendance by invitation: :

    Society for Community Organisation

    Mr NG Wai-tung
    Community Organiser

    Miss Teresa AU

    Mr Keith YIM

    Mrs CHEUNG MA Miu-yee
    Shun Tin Estate Resident Representative

    Mr NG Kin-chung
    Shun Tin Estate Resident Representative

Clerk in attendance :

    Mrs Mary TANG
    Chief Assistant Secretary (2)4

Staff in attendance:

    Miss Joanne MAK
    Senior Assistant Secretary (2)4

I.Discussion on poverty problem of low income tenants of public housing estates

(Paper Nos. CB(2)1577/96-97 (01), (02), (03) and (04))

Mr NG Wai-tung of the Society for Communication Organisation (SOCO) stated that the report under discussion was based on a survey conducted at the end of 1996 on the living conditions of low income tenants of public housing estates who were not receiving the Comprehensive Social Security Assistance (CSSA). A total of 45 such households had been surveyed. Mr NG highlighted that -

  1. 87% of the respondents had experienced negative salary increase in 1996 and their monthly incomes were consistently unstable;

  2. the monthly total expenditure of these non-CSSA low income households was on average equal to that of CSSA households. However, it was noted that these non-CSSA low income households had less money to spend on food than CSSA recipients in order to save money to meet other costs of living; and

  3. education expenses had been a heavy burden on these non-CSSA low income households, as these constituted 16.3% of their monthly expenditure.

The survey had found that the living standards of these low income tenants of public housing estates were no better, if not worse, than the CSSA recipients.

Housing subsidies

2.The representatives of Shun Tin Estate and SOCO pointed out that the existing public assistance rendered in respect of housing, education and medical services had been inadequate in many ways. Although the Housing Authority (HA) had estimated in 1996 that there were about 75,000 households in public housing estates who were eligible for the Rent Assistance Scheme (RAS), only 2,200 households were enjoying RAS. The majority were simply ignorant of the Scheme and therefore had not applied for it. This was evidenced in the surveys conducted by SOCO in 1995 and 1997, both of which had found that about 70% of these low income tenants of public housing estates were not aware of RAS. The representatives further suggested the following improvements to be made in respect of RAS -

  1. to relax the existing eligibility criteria;

  2. to give consideration to household size when assessing eligibility;

  3. to abolish the requirement of the household concerned to transfer to a cheaper flat after receiving RAS for two years; and

  4. to step up publicity for RAS.

3.The representatives considered that the Long Term Housing Strategy Review Consultative Document (1997), which proposed to increase public housing rents so that the median rent would constitute 15% or 18.5% of median income by 2006, was unacceptable. They were also of the view that the Document had no concrete proposals in offering help to the low income groups.

4.In response, the Assistant Director of Housing (Policy) (AD(P)) indicated that HA had also been very concerned about the small number of applications received for RAS. Therefore, HA had stepped up publicity efforts for the Scheme and the number of applications had increased by 50% since September 1996.

5.As regards the requirement for tenants to transfer to cheaper accommodation after receiving RAS for two years, the Principal Assistant Secretary for Housing (PAS(H)) explained that the objective of RAS was only to provide assistance to those with short-term financial problems. Tenants in long-term financial hardship should apply for CSSA. He added that the household required to transfer to a cheaper flat would be granted a removal allowance and a one-month rent free period. It would also be relocated to another flat unit in the same district. Elderly households and households with disabled members were exempted from this requirement. He added that the period for rent assistance had been extended from one to two years only since September 1996, and so far only one household had been required to transfer to a cheaper flat unit.

6.At a member’s enquiry, AD(P) reported that the success rate of RAS applications was over 95%. He was concerned about a member’s allegation that some HA front-line workers were poor in manner in providing assistance to the needy tenants in applying for RAS, and requested the member to provide details of the relevant complaint cases for him to follow up. Miss CHAN Yuen-han


7.In response to another member’s enquiry, AD(P) stated that CSSA recipients would not be required to transfer to cheaper flat units. He undertook to look into cases which had allegedly breached the said policy if the member could provide him with details of the cases. Adm

8.The representatives of SOCO pointed out that applications for RAS were assessed based on income levels of tenants. Since HA fully knew the income levels of the households in public housing estates, it should reduce rent automatically for those households which had met the required income level. They explained that this policy would be of much assistance to those needy tenants (especially the elderly persons) who might not be aware of RAS. In response, AD(P) stressed that there would not be an automatic rent reduction since HA could not assume that any household had such a need. He explained that public housing subsidy had to be allocated on the basis of need and households had to apply for such subsidy and establish their eligibility against the prescribed criteria, if they were in need. He added that HA would enhance its publicity programme for RAS with particular attention to the elderly singletons. AD(P) explained that estate staff had been conducting regular visits to elderly singletons and would assist them in their application for RAS if necessary. At the requests of members, AD(P) agreed to consider providing, in the letters asking tenants to declare their incomes, information on RAS and a reminder that low income tenants could apply for RAS. Adm

9.A member pointed out that the Government had earlier made a commitment in the Long Term Housing Strategy 1987 that waitlistees for public housing would only need to wait for two years for allocation of public housing. However, this target had now been extended to six and a half years. He suggested that HA should consider subsidizing those eligible waitlistees who had been kept on the waiting list for two years. The subsidy should be in the amount of the difference between their current rent and the rent that they would have to pay if they had been allocated public housing. In reply, AD(P) referred to the earlier reply given by the Secretary for Housing who had indicated that the proposal was not acceptable. The Assistant Director ( Social Security) (AD(SS)) suggested that people with long-term financial difficulties should apply for CSSA. Short-term temporary assistance could only be considered on a case-by-case basis.

10.The representatives of SOCO criticised HA for using double standards in defining rich and poor households. They found that rich households had been defined only by measuring the households’ incomes against the Waiting List Income Limit without applying the rent-to-income ratio, which was, however, used as an additional criterion in defining poor households. They also queried the need to divide these low income tenants into households with long-term financial difficulties and households with short-term financial problems and that RAS only applied to the latter. They pointed out that such graded concept was not applied to the rich households in the assessment of rent. They further pointed out that the criteria imposed for RAS had been so stringent that some households who were eligible for CSSA were found ineligible for RAS.

Medical subsidies

11.The representatives of SOCO criticised that the medical subsidies offered by the Hospital Authority (HOA) through the Samaritan Fund had been ineffective in helping the needy as most of them remained unaware of such assistance. Based on the two surveys conducted in 1995 and 1997, about 90% of the respondents were not aware of the medical subsidies. The representatives also criticised that some of the eligibility criteria imposed were even more stringent than those of CSSA.

12.In response, the Senior Executive Manager (Professional Services)2 (SEM) of HOA reported that most of the applications for the Samaritan Fund were approved, and the number of successful applications had increased from 667 in 1995/96 to 1,423 in 1996/97 (up to 20 March 1997). It was estimated that there would be 1,500-plus successful applications before end of the current year.

13.SEM said that the Samaritan Fund had been extensively publicised through distribution of information leaflets and installation of hot-line service. He explained that should an applicant failed to meet income or savings requirements, HOA could still approve the application at discretion. At the Chairman’s request, SEM agreed to provide information on the numbers of applications received and approved in 1996/97 and the amount of grants involved. He would also indicate how many of the applications had been approved by HA at discretion. HOA

14.The representatives of SOCO pointed out that SEM’s explanation on the criteria for applying subsidised medical items contradicted the official information given by HOA in its publicised leaflets, which stated that applicants had to meet both the monthly median household income requirement and the specified level of household savings in order to be eligible. These requirements had rendered some households ineligible for the subsidies, even though they might qualify for CSSA.

Education subsidies

15.In response to the requests from SOCO and members, the Controller of the Student Financial Assistance Agency (the Controller) explained that the Textbook Assistance Scheme (TAS) could be considered for extension to provide assistance to needy students from Form four to Form seven subject to availability of funds. The extra cost incurred would be about $0.1 billion. Members considered the extra cost of $0.1 billion minimal as compared to the annual subsidies of $1.4 billion on university students. Since undergraduates had been given textbook assistance through the grant and loan scheme, members considered that the Government should extend TAS at least to senior secondary pupils of low income families who were eligible for the Fee Remission Scheme.

16.A member suggested that the Administration should subsidise school bus service for kindergarten pupils of low income households. He pointed out that the half-fare charging scheme for public transport could not benefit kindergarten pupils as they rarely travelled to school by public transport. In response, the Controller reported that the proposal had been discussed earlier by the LegCo Panel on Education and was being studied by the Education and Manpower Branch. Adm

Defining a poverty line

17.Responding to the Chairman’s request to define the concept of "poverty", the Principal Economist (PE) pointed out that there was no objective definition of "poverty". Neither could relative poverty line be accurately defined given that it would vary from economy to economy and would also tend to change over time in line with economic growth. The phenomenon of income disparity existed in every society. She pointed out that the rapid economic restructuring of Hong Kong had accounted for the widening income disparity. However, it was more important to see whether over a period of time the median household income had increased or not, and there were opportunities for people in all income groups to improve their living conditions. Similar experience was found in some foreign countries such as the United States, United Kingdom, Australia and Taiwan where the Gini Coefficients had been rising in the past years. In response to the Chairman’s enquiry about whether CSSA recipients could be regarded as "poor" people in Hong Kong, PE explained that CSSA recipients were those who had difficulties in satisfying their basic needs.

18.A member asked what opportunities had been given to help the low income people who had lost out in the economic transition to improve their living conditions. PE replied that the re-training service being provided would equip them with the skills to adapt to the economic re-structuring and to re-enter the job market. The member opined that people in the process of re-training would need more financial support since they would suffer from temporary loss in income and would incur extra expenses in the course of finding jobs. She referred to a recent survey conducted at the retailing sector showing that the employees concerned had suffered from continued negative salary increase and reduction in their median income. She criticised the Government for not doing enough to help the poor in the past ten years and that it was still avoiding the issue. In response, PE explained that CSSA and a number of other social welfare subsidies had been in place to provide assistance to the needy for any support they required.

19.Mr NG Wai-tung of SOCO stated that about 410,000 to 830,000 non-CSSA recipients were living in abject poverty. He urged the Government to draw a "poverty line" to see how many people failed to meet the threshold and review its policy on the poor.

20The Chairman concluded that the Administration should develop a comprehensive scheme in helping the low income groups to cope with the economic restructuring which had a great impact on these people’s livelihood.

21.The meeting ended at 4 pm.

Legislative Council Secretariat

11 June 1997

Last Updated on 22 August 1998