When counting out the dollars makes little sense

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 22 June, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 22 June, 2011, 12:00am


For the first time in our fiscal policy history, the government is offering cash handouts to adult citizens. But the proposed arrangements for distributing the cash are exceedingly cumbersome, causing a potential public nuisance.

It shows how out of touch some senior officials are, especially the privacy commissioner. Maybe they have simply chosen the safest and least politically sensitive way to handle the matter for fear of exposing themselves to criticism.

The arrangements will be rolled out in five stages, according to age. Registration for the first group will begin on August 28 through 21 retail banks; registration forms can be submitted to their 1,200 branches throughout Hong Kong. Registration can also be done through e-banking. The banks will charge the government HK$15 for every transaction, which means an extra HK$81.4 million in administrative costs. Those without a bank account can register with the post office.

The registration process will last until the end of next year. To encourage people to delay collecting the money, to ease banks' workload and avoid contributing to inflation due to a sudden surge of cash in circulation, there will be a bonus of HK$200 for those who register after April 1 next year. As it involves some six million permanent residents, the process is bound to be somewhat complex. But the proposals are extremely clumsy.

The government has bank details of some 160,000 civil servants, plus those who work in government-funded organisations such as universities, schools and the Hospital Authority. Then there are the people who receive welfare subsidies, including senior citizens and those on disability allowance.

The government could directly deposit the money into all their accounts. Further, it could work with companies that have more than 500 employees to hand out the cash to save time and money.

The government could have employed these simple, fast and convenient methods to distribute the money, but the privacy commissioner advised against it and came up with the ill-thought-out alternative.

The explanation is that giving out the money through those easier channels would breach the privacy ordinance because the bank account details were collected for different purposes. The privacy commissioner said during a recent radio interview that, unless the government had obtained approval from individuals to deposit the cash handout into their accounts, it could constitute a breach of the ordinance and lead to a flood of litigation. Thus, the government went down a different route.

Of course, all laws and regulations such as the privacy ordinance and equal opportunities legislation are meant to protect the people and their rights, and safeguard the public interest. But the laws must not hinder social stability or set up undue hurdles and extra red tape that may harm the overall interest of society.

More importantly, the government - as well as the privacy commissioner - should apply a reasonable amount of flexibility and not allow the laws to bind us to no one's benefit or cause undue inconvenience.

Our officials would do well to remember that there is no one-size-fits-all rule. The government should always put the interests of the people first because its ultimate goal is to serve the people.

Has it ever occurred to the privacy commissioner and officials how inconvenient it will be for frail elderly people and the disabled to register for the cash handout?

Finally, they should be reminded that registering the personal details of six million citizens will also pose privacy concerns about how the collected information is handled afterwards. It is essential to make sure the banks and post office branches involved dispose of this information properly. Any mishandling of such data would certainly be in breach of the privacy law.

The cash handout is supposed to help those in need, but unfortunately it might create more problems than it solves.

Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator. taipan@albertcheng.hk