Dole cuts when rents waived ruled wrong

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 14 September, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 14 September, 2010, 12:00am

The Social Welfare Department faces paying welfare recipients hundreds of millions of dollars after a judge ruled it had unfairly denied them the benefits of rent and rates concessions.

In a Court of First Instance decision that delighted but shocked one social worker, Mr Justice David Yam Yee-kwan said stopping recipients' allowances for rent and rates in the months when these were waived went against the intention of the government's welfare policy, which he said was to alleviate hardship. The judge said the case could have 'far-reaching implications' involving 'a tremendous sum of money'.

Yam awarded Tang Yee-yu HK$2,397, equal to a rates rebate for all of 2002 and a rent rebate in February 2007. Tang, a resident of Shau Kei Wan's Hing Tung Estate, went to court after the Small Claims Tribunal rejected the matter three times, saying it was outside its scope. But Yam said the tribunal could have handled it.

The government pays rent and rates directly for tenants on Comprehensive Social Security Assistance. When the charges were waived, it stopped paying them, meaning that while people paying from their own pockets had more money to spend, dole recipients did not.

'This case only involves the three small claims sought by Madam Tang, but if the government accepts my judgment, it will have a far-reaching effect,' Yam said. 'The government should release the money back to CSSA claimants.'

Since about a fifth of the 650,000 public rental households are on the dole and the government waived rent for seven months between 1997 and 2010, the department could have to repay HK$807 million for rent alone.

Yam reserved the reasons for his judgment. The department said it would consider whether to appeal after seeing a written judgment.

Ho Hei-wah, director of the Society for Community Organisation and a former Housing Authority member, said the ruling was beyond his expectations.

'I have to say I am a bit shocked and I have not dreamed of it,' the veteran welfare worker said. He hailed the ruling and urged the department not to appeal.

But Federation of Public Housing Estates chairman Wong Kwun, also a former Housing Authority member, said the judge was wrong. 'The rent concession was aimed at offering relief to people living in public housing,' he said. 'But then CSSA recipients are taken care of by the system already and those living in public housing don't have to pay rent no matter if there is any concession.'

Lawyer Matthew Leung Man-liang, for the department, said it did not release the money to dole recipients because it adhered to the rule of reimbursement. If the welfare recipient did not pay the rent, the department would not reimburse it. Recipients could apply for additional allowances if they needed extra money.

But Yam said the practice stripped the welfare claimants of their right to enjoy the relief measures and offset the intention of the measures.

The judge said the department mistook its practice of reimbursing dole recipients' actual expenses for an internal policy and a 'seemingly superior guideline'.

He said it meant only public housing tenants who paid rent from their own pockets would receive giveaways, not those on welfare, which was unfair. 'As the rich-poor gap is widening, the government wanted to improve the situation but there were other policies that obstructed enforcement of the relief,' he said.

The judge also ordered the department to pay interest on Tang's award and HK$100 for each day she appeared in court, as well as HK$3,000 in legal costs.

The department said it had also offered a number of relief measures to CSSA recipients over the years, including an extra allowance and an education allowance.

Ho said that while welfare recipients did not pay their rent directly, the rent waiver was part of the government's relief measures for needy people. 'With such a spirit in mind, the department should give the money to the welfare recipients if there is a rent concession,' he said. 'It may cost the government some money but it has an abundant budget.'

Saying the judge was wrong, Wong said the payment would be a double concession.