Licensing rules 'fail to restrain niche operators'
The government yesterday unveiled its proposed system for licensing private columbariums but lawmakers complained that it left such operators too many loopholes.
Secretary for Food and Health Dr York Chow Yat-ngok told the Legislative Council that officials needed to adopt a pragmatic approach in handling private columbariums, some of which had been unlicensed for many years, amid a growing shortage of urn places.
'We have been reminded that we should respect the tradition of letting our ancestors rest in peace. Upsetting the arrangements ... should not be contemplated lightly,' Chow said.
At least 65 private columbarium operators have breached planning and land rules, according to the government.
Under yesterday's proposals, which will be put to a second round of public consultations until March, all operators of private urn facilities will have to obtain a five-year, renewable permit from a new statutory licensing board established under the Private Columbaria Ordinance. The ordinance, which will be submitted to Legco for approval by the end of 2013, will be enforced by the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department.
Operators will have to set up a maintenance fund and enter into standard business contracts with buyers.
Those who sell urns without a licence or exemption will face fines and imprisonment.
Private operators in breach of land and planning rules will be given an 18-month transition period to get it right after the licensing scheme comes into effect. They cannot sell new urns during this period.
Exemptions will be given to three kinds of columbarium - those within cemeteries run by religious bodies; temporary storage provided by undertakers, which are now regulated by the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department; and columbariums that have existed for a long time.
Describing the third category as 'historical legacy problems', Chow said he was open-minded about a proposal that the licensing body could exercise discretion for those operators even though they did not meet all legal requirements.
He did not say how long an urn facility had to exist to fall into this category and did not detail other criteria for exemptions.
Those premises that posed obvious or imminent danger in terms of building or fire safety standards would not be allowed.
Wong Sing-chi, a Democrat, said the third exemption category was too lax. 'If a columbarium breaches the land lease but poses no building and fire safety issues, should people buy their urns?' Wong said.
Tanya Chan, of the Civic Party, said another loophole allowed pre-existing operators to obtain a licence so long as they could rent the site for five years or more, as opposed to a new requirement for new operators to be the landowner.
'How can you ask the consumers to move their urns every five years?' she said.
Eddie Tse Sai-kit, convenor of the Alliance for Concern over Columbarium Policy, accused officials of backing down. Some companies that had acquired old temples and converted them into profitable urn businesses would be exempted from the new rules, he said.