Provisional Legislative Council

PLC Paper No. CB(2)1037
(These minutes have been seen
by the Administration

Ref : CB2/PL/WS

Panel on Welfare Services

Minutes of meeting held on Wednesday, 14 January 1998 at 8:30 am in the Chamber of the Legislative Council Building

Members present :

Hon WONG Siu-yee (Chairman)
Hon CHAN Choi-hi (Deputy Chairman)
Hon David CHU Yu-lin
Hon HO Sai-chu, JP
Hon Eric LI Ka-cheung, JP
Hon LEE Kai-ming
Hon Mrs Elsie TU, GBM
Hon Mrs Peggy LAM, JP
Hon HUI Yin-fat, JP
Hon CHAN Yuen-han
Hon Frederick FUNG Kin-kee
Hon Howard YOUNG, JP
Hon LAU Kong-wah
Hon CHOY Kan-pui, JP
Hon LO Suk-ching
Hon TAM Yiu-chung, JP

Members absent :

Dr Hon LEONG Che-hung, JP
Hon Mrs Sophie LEUNG LAU Yau-fun, JP
Hon MOK Ying-fan
Hon YEUNG Yiu-chung
Hon CHOY So-yuk

Public officers attending :

Item III

Mr HO Wing-him
Deputy Secretary for Health and Welfare (2)

Ms Miranda CHIU
Principal Assistant Secretary for Health and Welfare (1)

Mrs Louise WONG, JP
Deputy Director of Social Welfare (Administration)

Assistant Director of Social Welfare (Social Security)

Mr LI Kok-ming
Chief Social Security Officer

Item IV

Mr HO Wing-him
Deputy Secretary for Health and Welfare (2)

Mr Paul WONG
Assistant Director of Social Welfare (Subventions)

Mr CHAN Siu-man
Senior Executive Officer (Planning)

Mr Francis LO
Principal Assistant Secretary, Home Affairs Bureau

Assistant Director, Home Affairs Department

Item V

Mrs Katherine FOK, JP
Secretary for Health and Welfare

Mr HO Wing-him
Deputy Secretary for Health and Welfare (2)

Mr Robin GILL
Deputy Secretary for Health and Welfare (3)

Senior Principal Executive Officer

Item VI

Mr HO Wing-him
Deputy Secretary for Health and Welfare (2)

Ms Miranda CHIU
Principal Assistant Secretary for Health and Welfare (1)

Assistant Director of Social Welfare (Social Security)

Mr Andrew LEUNG
Director of Social Welfare

Miss Lilian FUNG
Senior Statistician

Attendance by invitation :

Item III

Social Security Assistants?Branch, Hong Kong Chinese
Civil Servants?Association

Mr YEUNG Tak-hing

Mr CHAN Chun-wah

Clerk in attendance :

Ms Doris CHAN
Chief Assistant Secretary (2) 4

Staff in attendance :

Ms Joanne MAK
Senior Assistant Secretary (2) 4

I. Confirmation of minutes of meetings held on 9 October and 14 November 1997 and matters arising

(PLC Papers Nos. CB(2) 790 and 858)

1.The minutes of the meetings held on 9 October and 14 November 1997 were confirmed.

II. Date of the next meeting and items for discussion

2.To avoid clashing with a briefing to be given by the Secretary for the Treasury on the draft Estimates of Expenditure on 13 February 1998 at 10:45 am, members agreed to re-schedule the next meeting to 18 February 1998 at 10:45 am.

3.Members agreed to discuss the Neighbourhood Level Community Development Projects and to follow up the employment problem of the fresh social work graduates at the next meeting.

III. Shortage of Social Security Assistants and effect on the quality of social security service

(PLC Papers Nos. CB(2) 834 (01) and (02) )

4.A representative of the Social Security Assistants’ Branch (SSA Branch) of the Hong Kong Chinese Civil Servants’ Association said that the manpower shortage of the SSA grade was becoming acute with rapid increase in the number of applications for the Comprehensive Social Security Assistance (CSSA). As at 1 December 1997, staff shortages in the Senior SSA and the SSA ranks were about 28% and 13% respectively. As a result, there were delays in processing CSSA applications and decline in the quality of service. As at 30 November 1997, there was a backlog of some 3,000 CSSA applications.

5.The representative pointed out that the work easement measures adopted by the Social Welfare Department (SWD) had failed to take into account the practical needs of the the CSSA recipients and had led to increased numbers of fraud and overpayment cases. He considered that the Administration should urgently address the problem and not just rely on the staff working overtime, without granting of overtime allowance, to clear the backlog.

6.The Deputy Director of Social Welfare (Administration) (DD(A)) informed members that a review of manning standards had been conducted by the Management Services Agency (MSA) in 1995 which had recommended that SWD should streamline work procedures and improve manning levels of the Social Security Field Units (SSFUs). As a result, from April 1996 to September 1997, 237 additional posts were created representing an increase of 24% in the total establishment of SSFUs.

7.DD(A) said that the following work easement measures had been introduced which sought to alleviate the pressure brought on by staff shortfall -

  1. home visits to 90% of CSSA cases were suspended; and

  2. payments to 90% CSSA elderly cases were extended automatically for six months.

8.DD(A) explained that by means of item (a), the time spent by staff on travelling to and from offices to recipients’ homes was saved. However, home visits were still conducted for cases on which the SWD staff had doubts. As regards item (b), DD(A) said that it was adopted because the financial condition of elderly recipients was relatively stable. Moreover, as absence from Hong Kong or death of CSSA recipients could be detected with the help of the Immigration Department, chances of overpayment were minimized.

9.DD(A) disagreed that the quality of service of SSFUs had deteriorated. On the contrary, the processing time of CSSA applications had been reduced from some 20 days in the past to an average of 19 calendar days now. A monthly average of some 5,000 to some 8,000 CSSA applications had been received in the past few months. Thus, the number of some 3,000 CSSA pending cases at the end of November 1997 was acceptable as the number might have included applications newly received and/or cases to be closed.

10.DD(A) said that since only 44 fraud cases were found out of some 180,000 CSSA cases in the first half of 1997/98, the level of fraud cases was not serious. She considered that the mechanism of detecting fraud cases was working effectively.

11.In response, a representative of the SSA Branch pointed out that based on the internal guidelines of SWD, each CSSA application should be processed within 14 working days. The Department had apparently failed to meet the manning standards as recommended by MSA in its review. He also believed that the number of fraud cases was far more than 44 but owing to inadequate manpower to conduct home visits, they had not been discovered.

12.The representative stressed that home visits were very important as they served the following dual purposes -

  1. to detect any fraudulent claims for CSSA; and

  2. to see whether the recipients had any special needs and to provide assistance as appropriate.

He criticized that under the policy of auto-extension of payment to 90% of CSSA elderly recipients, SWD staff were not required to visit these elderly people. However, some of the elderly recipients actually required help but could not go to SWD due to their health conditions. There were also some elderly recipients who did not know that they could approach SWD when in need of assistance. The representative quoted instances that SWD staff had detected breakdown in relationship between an elderly recipient and his/her family members through home visits and had subsequently referred the elderly person to residential care service. He explained that SWD staff would understand more deeply the needs of the CSSA recipients by conducting home visits and then referring them to apply for the appropriate services and/or special allowances as necessary.

13.Mr LAU Kong-wah considered that abuse of the CSSA scheme was quite serious and referred to a recent press report that a CSSA recipient was found living in a luxury flat at Jardine Lookout. The representative of SSA Branch opined that it had to do with the current policy of suspension of home visits to 90% of CSSA applicants. He added that SWD staff had come across a case in which the recipient submitted a rental receipt showing an address which did not exist. He was also worried that the policy of auto-extension of payment to elderly CSSA recipients would also lead to abuses/overpayments, as SWD was very often not informed of changes in circumstances of the recipients.

14.At Mr LAU Kong-wah's enquiry, the representative said that the work easement measures were first introduced in 1995. They had been discontinued for some time before they were resumed. When these measures were in use, homes visits to CSSA applicants would be cut from 100% to only 10% of CSSA cases.

15.DD(A) said that despite the manpower shortage, SWD had managed to complete processing each CSSA application in 19 calendar days which were equivalent to 14 to 15 working days. She said that the following remedial measures had been used to maintain efficiency of work and to provide adequate support service to the elderly CSSA recipients -

  1. implementing the work easement measures which had reduced the overall staff shortfall in the SSA ranks to 17 posts;

  2. in the coming Estimates of Expenditure, SWD had proposed to increase over 100 posts, most of which would be filled in April/May 1998;

  3. implementing the networking Scheme Support for Vulnerable Elderly in which the elderly CSSA recipients had been identified as priority cases; and

  4. reviewing and streamlining work procedures in a bid to save manpower.

16.DD(A) explained that the Administration recognised the importance of home visits, but the number of home visits had to be cut because of staff shortage and the need to maintain high efficiency in rendering assistance to CSSA applicants. The Administration considered that it was acceptable to conduct home visits to only 10% of the applicants having regard to the level of fraud cases found and chances of applicants’ giving false information. Moreover, she believed that experienced staff would know which cases warranted home visits or further investigation.

17.DD(A) said that the following measures were in place to prevent abuses -

  1. SWD had set up a Special Investigation Team to conduct random checks on suspicious cases. An additional team would be set up in 1998/99;

  2. SWD had set up an Internal Committee on Fraud Cases in December 1996 to examine reports on fraud cases uncovered and recommend prosecution as and when required;

  3. applicants were required to declare that the information provided by them was genuine and were given to understand that they would be prosecuted if they provided false information with a view to obtaining assistance; and

  4. applicants’ claims were counter-checked through contacting their relatives, friends and employers and checking of bank accounts and other documents.

18.Mr TAM Yiu-chung agreed that the manpower shortfall in the SSA grade was very serious. He considered that the Administration should alleviate the pressure not just by increasing the manpower but also by streamlining the work procedures. For example, the Administration should consider relaxing the required residence period in Hong Kong for the Old Age Allowance (OAA) in order to save manpower for verifying the residence period of the applicants.

19.Mr LAU Kong-wah commented that the situation was a vicious circle : the Administration's failure to allocate adequate manpower to scrutinise applications through home visits would lead to rapid increase in applications and abuses. In turn, rapid increase in CSSA applications would strain both the manpower resource and the monitoring system for prevention of abuses. He urged the Administration to tighten up measures to scrutinise applications and prevent abuses.

20.Mrs Peggy LAM took the view that the Administration should resume the policy of conducting home visits to 100% of applicants and provide adequate manpower for the purpose. She doubted whether the Administration's proposal of creating 100 additional posts in 1998/99 was adequate. She was also concerned that there were a few thousands of CSSA applications pending at the end of each month from April to November 1997.

21.Mrs Elsie TU also considered that home visits were important through which the SWD staff could identify cases in need of compassionate housing. She also queried why the Administration had not bid for adequate posts in last year's budget and why it had not applied for supplementary provisions so far to ease the manpower shortage.

22.Mr CHAN Choi-hi criticized that the Administration had failed to deal with the root of the problem and procrastinated addressing the shortage problem which first appeared two years ago. He was worried that the manpower shortage had a serious impact on the staff morale.

23.In response, DD(A) reiterated that the level of fraud cases found was acceptable. Moreover, with the introduction of the work easement measures, the manpower saved was 110 posts. She reiterated that the Administration saw the importance of home visits, which however had been suspended by 90% due to resources constraints. She also pointed out there were many factors accounting for increases in CSSA cases -

  1. comprehensive coverage was provided by CSSA; and

  2. the economic downturn being experienced by Hong Kong and other social factors.

24.DD(A) explained that the Department had since 5 January 1998 required staff to work overtime to complete CSSA cases newly arisen in connection with the outbreak of the H5N1 virus in order that financial assistance could be granted before the Chinese New Year. She stressed that the Department had been able to maintain a high standard of service and it managed to complete processing each application in 19 calendar days. She also pointed out that the increase of 237 posts in SSFUs was quite substantial. The staff of the SSFUs now made up 25.7% of the establishment of SWD. She assured that SWD would continue to bid for additional resources to cope with the rapid increase in caseload.

25.Miss CHAN Yuen-han was dissatisfied with the Administration's reply and considered that the number of fraud cases could be far more than 44. She was worried that the lax monitoring system would lead to abuses. Mr LAU Kong-wah also considered that the 44 fraud cases could be only the tip of the iceburg. He said that the Administration must step on the brake now and tighten up measures to scrutinise applications and prevent abuses.

26.Mr Eric LI said that from the management's point of view, it was hard to eliminate abuses completely in any system. Rather, the Administration should ensure that the monitoring mechanism was working effectively. For example, it could conduct random check on CSSA cases and strengthen prosecutions as and when necessary.

27.Referring to DD(A)'s reply in para. 24, a representative of SSA Branch clarified that only some 190 additional staff were provided to SSFUs last year; and these posts could not offset the manpower requirement arising from the increase in caseload this year and the projected increase next year. Furthermore, as the proposal to create 100 additional posts next year included posts of other grades, the representative wanted to know how many posts would be added to SSFUs. On conclusion, he considered that the Administration should re-consider whether the work easement measures should be continued and make accurate projections of manpower for the SSA grade.

28.Summing up the discussion, the Chairman said that the issue under discussion should be followed up at the next meeting. In the interim, he requested the Administration to conduct a manpower assessment and provide results of the assessment to the Panel. Information on the processing procedures for CSSA applications should be also provided.

IV. Review of community centres and sites for development of such centres to make available premises/land for welfare services

(PLC Paper No. CB(2) 834 (03))

29.The Principal Assistant Secretary for Home Affairs (PAS(HA)) briefed members that after conducting a review of the planning standards of community centres (CCs) and halls (CHs) in February 1996, the Administration had concluded that -

  1. the concept of a fixed welfare block would be dropped;

  2. development of CHs would be considered on a district by district basis with regard to the needs and demographic characteristics of respective districts; and

  3. CHs would be provided as far as possible as part of integrated developments.

30.PAS(HA) said that subsequent to the review, the Home Affairs Department (HAD) had examined 67 sites reserved for CHs and found that about half of them could be released for other uses. The other half would be pursued with compatible joint-users in the welfare, housing and educational sectors.

31.In addition, HAD was reviewing the existing stock of CHs to ascertain whether improvement or redevelopment was required. Proposals for redevelopment would be forwarded to the Government Property Agency or the Property Strategy Group as appropriate. One of the proposals made was redeveloping the Chai Wan Community Centre into a modernized integrated youth centre.

32.In response to Miss CHAN Yuen-han's enquiry as to why it had taken eight years to complete the review of the community centres and halls, PAS(HA) said that the Administration had conducted the review as well as other related work such as a review of the management and planning standards of community centres and halls. A decision to suspend the development of community centres and halls in the interim was also made. He said that the review of community centres and halls was a complicated one as the Administration had to assess the needs of each district for welfare and CC/CH facilities. Following the review, the Administration had conducted wide consultations with District Boards and the Hong Kong Council of Social Service.

33.Miss CHAN Yuen-han was dissatisfied with the Administration's reply. She considered that the Administration should not have taken such a long time to conduct the review and thus delayed the release of the relevant sites for other welfare purposes. She expressed regret at the way that the Administration had handled the matter. The Chairman concurred and said that probably the sites had been reserved long before 1989. Mr Frederick FUNG was also dissatisfied and considered that some officers should be held responsible for the delay.

34.Mrs Peggy LAM commented that low utilization of some CHs was due to poor management of the halls. She urged the Administration to find out what had caused the low utilization rate and to make improvements. In response, PAS(HA) said that following a reduction in the establishment of HAD in 1990/91, the management staff of the community centres and halls had been cut. In a bid to improve the management standard of the facilities, HAD would create additional posts in the next financial year to provide better service. He pointed out that the utilization rate had risen in recent years with the concerted efforts of HAD and the District Boards. Based on a survey conducted last year, the median utilization rate of the community centres and halls was above 60%. At night time, the utilization rate of many of them was as high as 90%.

35.Mr TAM Yiu-chung enquired whether the Health and Welfare Bureau (HWB) had explored the possibility of using the sites to be released for construction of residential care institutions for the elderly. In reply, the Deputy Secretary for Health and Welfare (2) (DS(HW)2) said that the Bureau had initiated discussions last year with the Home Affairs Bureau, HAD and the Housing Authority on full utilization of the relevant sites. The Housing Department had now undertaken to develop three sites for public housing in the next three years, and the lower storeys of the housing blocks would be built as elderly homes, social centres for the elderly and so on. He said that SWD would closely liaise with HAD to explore full utilization of the available sites for construction of welfare facilities.

36.In response to the Chairman's enquiry as to when the Administration could reach a decision on the use of the 67 sites, the Assistant Director for Home Affairs (AD(HA)) said that the Administration was proceeding as quickly as possible. He revealed that about one-third of the sites had been released to the Government Property Administrator for development. For the remainder, HAD had plans for some of the sites and was seeking funds to proceed with the plans in the next 18 months. For the rest of the sites, he could not give a concrete time table of their development but added that they should be dealt with in three to four years.

37.In response to Mr CHOY Kan-pui's enquiry, AD(HA) said that the 67 sites were widely distributed in Hong Kong. In deciding on the use of the 67 sites, the District Officers in each case had conducted consultations locally on district needs. In some cases, there were disagreements, but HAD had come to a view on the best way forward for the district.

38.Responding to Mr LO Suk-ching's comments on the poor management of some community centres and halls, AD(HA) said that HAD had made a bid for additional resources in the next financial year to improve the management of the community centres and halls and HAD would work closely with the District Officers to provide better management for these facilities.

39.Mr Frederick FUNG asked whether the Administration had set a minimum average utilization rate for CHs and, if failing to get that rate, whether the relevant CH would be demolished and the land would be released for construction of public housing and any required welfare facilities. In response, PAS(HA) said that the utilization rate of some CHs was as low as 30%. The low utilization was due to factors such as clearance, demographic changes in the areas concerned, lack of management staff and so on. He added that CHs were open seven days a week to facilitate usage.

40.In response to Mr FUNG's enquiry on the schedule of the review of the existing stock of CHs, AD(HA) said that it had just been completed and HAD already had redevelopment proposals for a small number of CHs. At the Chairman's request, AD(HA) undertook to provide a paper on how far HAD was proceeding with the reviews of the existing CHs and the 67 sites. The paper would also provide information on any conclusions reached on the use of the 67 sites.

41.Mr HUI Yin-fat commented that the low utilization rate of CHs was due to their poor management. He pointed out that the utilization rate of CHs operated by voluntary organizations was by far more satisfactory. He also urged HWB to examine the 67 sites to see which of them could be explored for welfare purposes before they were returned to the Government. In response, the Assistant Director of Social Welfare (Subventions) (AD(SW)) said that three sites in North Point, Tseung Kwan O and Shatin had already been identified for construction of integrated welfare services centres and offices for voluntary organizations.

42.Mr Eric LI revealed that the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) of the Provisional Legislative Council was also concerned about the use of the 67 sites and it would follow up the issue. He suggested that the Administration should take into account the needs of the public in the design of a modern CH. He was also interested to know the results of the review conducted regarding the management and planning standards of community centres and halls. In reply, PAS(HA) explained that in the past, development of CHs in a district was justified mainly on the basis of the population size of the district concerned. On revision of the planning standards, consideration was now given to other factors such as the needs of the district concerned, its existing level of community facilities and the views of the local community.

43.Mr CHAN Choi-hi considered that the Administration should be able to provide a concrete proposal on the way forward regarding the development of the 67 sites. He also criticized that the Administration had not responded promptly to the requests of some districts for community facilities, such as the demand for a CH to be provided in Western District. He considered that the Administration should speed up processing these requests and improve the co-ordination between departments.

The Chairman directed that the subject be followed up at the next meeting.

V. Creation of two directorate posts in HWB

(PLC Paper No. CB(2) 834 (04) )

44.The Secretary for Health and Welfare (SHW) briefed members on the Administration's proposal to create one Administrative Officer Staff Grade B post and one Senior Principal Executive Officer post in HWB. She said that the two proposed posts were to provide the necessary support to the Elderly Commission (EC) and to co-ordinate various policy bureaux / departments and service units to provide a full range of services for the elderly. She explained that to meet the wide spectrum of the elderly's needs, the Administration needed to formulate, co-ordinate and implement policies and programme involving a number of policy bureaux and departments; and HWB would co-ordinate the efforts of the various departments and bureaux in the process. SHW said that the proposed additional staff were also required to provide support to EC which would undertake a number of new initiatives. She explained that as HWB would also expand its work in many other areas of social welfare, the existing staff had no spare capacity to undertake the new initiatives arising from the establishment of EC and the new policy commitment on "care for the elderly" made by the Government.

45.Mr TAM Yiu-chung declared interest as he was the Chairman of EC. He said that EC had encountered a lack of staffing support for its work. He expressed support for the creation of the two directorate posts. He had noted that the manpower of HWB was very tight and considered it justified to create the proposed new posts. The Panel also expressed support for the proposal.

46.In response to Mr CHAN Choi-hi's enquiry, SHW said that to expedite work, EC members had chosen nine subjects for initial study by themselves, and HWB had to provide support to EC members in these studies. She said that the activities of EC required a high level of co-ordination within the Government, and with external parties such as the Hospital Authority and non-governmental organizations. Additional staff were therefore required to provide support in these aspects.

VI. Comprehensive Social Security Assistance and Social Security Allowance Schemes : Supplementary Provision

(PLC Paper No. CB(2) 834 (05) )

47.The Director of Social Welfare (DSW) proposed that supplementary provisions of $1,766.5 million and $288.8 million were required for the CSSA and Social Security Allowance (SSA) Schemes respectively to meet increased expenditure in 1997/98.

48.DSW explained that the supplementary provision for the CSSA Scheme was required due to -

  1. an across-the-board increase of 6.5% in the rates of standard payments with effect from 1 April 1997 to take into account of inflation;

  2. the general price increase in non-standard payments (i.e. special grants);

  3. a greater than anticipated increase in the number of CSSA recipients (such as in the categories of single-parent families and the unemployed); and

  4. a higher than anticipated average payment per case due to continued increase in the number of cases involving larger households and an increase in payments for special grants.

49.As regards the SSA Scheme, the supplementary provision was required mainly due to an across-the-board increase of 6.5% in the rates of payment with effect from 1 April 1997 to take into account of inflation which amounted to $266 million and a slightly higher than estimated increase in the number of OAA recipients which amounted to $23 million.

50.In response to Mrs Peggy LAM's enquiry, DSW said that the number of CSSA cases under the category of new arrivals had been increased by 2,000. CSSA cases under the category of new arrivals amounted to about 1% of the total. DSW said that there had been more families involving larger households applying for CSSA.

51.Mr Eric LI said that PAC had noted that there had been a large gap in the provision for CSSA set out in the Estimated Budget for 1996/97 and the actual expenditure on CSSA for the same year. Now, the supplementary provisions under discussion also involved large sums of money. He considered that the Administration should review the track records of CSSA and make more accurate projections of expenditure on CSSA. He also commented that the Administration's paper should have provided more up-to-date information for members’ reference on "Expenditure under CSSA and SSA Schemes".

52.In response, DSW explained that there were many unforseeable factors affecting the accuracy of projections of CSSA cases, such as the financial turmoil and downturn in economy of Hong Kong. However, he agreed that the Administration would make reference to the track records of CSSA and make better projections of CSSA cases as far as possible.

53.Mr Eric LI expressed doubt as to the adequacy of the amount of "Estimated expenditure from 1 December 1997 to 31 March 1998". He requested the Administration to review the basis of this projection.

54.The Chairman said that the Administration should provide more justifications for the supplementary provisions sought. In particular, he considered that the Administration should elaborate on the reasons for the large increase in CSSA cases for 1997/98. As this item would be further discussed at the next Finance Committee (FC) meeting, the Chairman requested and DSW agreed to provide further information for FC members’ consideration.

55.The meeting ended at 10:30 am.

Provisional Legislative Council Secretariat
17 February 1998