Old age allowance

Old-age allowance debate continues

Marathon sessions discussing the issue may be missing the point completely

PUBLISHED : Monday, 19 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 19 November, 2012, 4:35am

For those who enjoy suspense or drama, there is no better performance than the current debate on the Old Age Living Allowance.

In the political arena, protagonists in the drama are officials of an executive-led government on the one hand, and opposition in the Legislative Council on the other.

Early in October, the Secretary for Labour and Welfare Matthew Cheung Kin-chung announced a means-tested old age allowance to help those over 65.

In the midst of prosperity, many old people still scavenge a living and scrounge for their next meal by doing odd jobs and collecting cardboard. They are poor, but not poor enough to qualify for the dole.

This new HK$2,200-a-month allowance, which would cost HK$6.2 billion a year, is designed to help them. But the allowance is subject to meeting eligibility criteria set at a declared income not exceeding HK$6,600 a month and assets not above HK$186,000 per person. There's the rub.

This requirement for means-testing old people, particularly those over 70, is a serious departure from the existing non-means-tested old age allowance - nicknamed "fruit money" - payable at HK$1,090 a month to people over 70. This has been for some 30 years a symbol of respect for elderly people who have paid their taxes and made Hong Kong what it is today.

Whatever the logic behind the new allowance, and however compassionate its intention, many who are opposed to the scheme consider it iniquitous as it stigmatises the poor by dividing the poor from the poorer - and the poorest.

They find holes in the proposed eligibility criteria and suspect that the means-testing measure might spell the end for a long-awaited superannuation for all.

In the finance committee's marathon debates, they ask that the eligibility criteria be relaxed or removed altogether. They also ask for more time to consider the proposal which, on approval, they say should be applied retrospectively.

Senior officials, led by the labour and welfare secretary, argue with good reason that to lift the means test will cost the public purse double and might turn Hong Kong into Greece - burdened with debt and insolvency.

They also dismiss the request for retrospective application on the grounds that they do not want to create any undesirable precedent, forgetting that the new allowance itself is unprecedented.

So far no definitive vote has been made on the policy, as many questions remain.

What is clear for all to see is that both the administration and legislators, particularly the finance committee chairman Tommy Cheung Yu-yan, deserve medals for stamina.

Many regard this new allowance as a gift horse. As the saying goes, "Never look a gift horse in the mouth."

Still, no matter how generous the allowance, merely throwing money at the poor will not necessarily make them feel good or rich. Those are states of mind, nourished by respect and cherished by love.

Elizabeth Wong was secretary for health and welfare from 1990 to 1994 and a legislative councillor from 1995 to 1997