Big turnout at Legco for welfare panel

Dozens of different groups attend panel meeting to voice support for universal pension scheme

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 20 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 20 February, 2013, 5:09am

Non-governmental organisations and other grass-roots bodies turned out in large numbers yesterday for a Legislative Council meeting to show their support for a universal pension plan.

At the Legco welfare panel meeting, 72 groups and individuals - representing a range of organisations and people of different age groups and backgrounds - voiced their opinions on welfare planning.

Their message was clear - a universal scheme needs to be established, and soon.

"It's no longer a question of whether or not there should be universal pensions but rather when and how," one representative for the Women Workers' Association said.

Another attendee, a grandmother who said she was representing the non-profit Chinese Grey Power, said universal pension planning needed to start this year. "Why should the government waste time on things like the Old Age Living Allowance scheme, which cannot solve the problem? We need to unite and push for universal pension," she said.

Some groups said the allowance scheme - a means-tested system slated to begin distributing HK$2,200 a month to eligible residents in April - was a quick and easy way for the government to skirt the challenges of a comprehensive pension scheme.

The Council of Social Service said that while plans must be drawn up to tackle the challenges looming in the next five years, immediate problems needed to be solved now.

That required a blueprint and a goal, together with feasible suggestions on how the objectives could be carried out, it said.

At the panel meeting, elderly groups were joined by women's and workers' rights groups, handicapped and disabled rights groups and civil society groups.

Some asked for the re-establishment of five-year plans and white papers, and reliable figures on the number of people living in poverty.

The government was also urged to better track the number of ethnic minority residents and immigrant families in the city.

"It is because we abolished long-term planning more than a decade ago, so we are reaping the problems now," said one representative from the Progressive Social Work Network, which is made up of students, academics, social workers and service end-users.

"The government needs to rethink how it sees welfare - maybe it's not just about reaping results and returns, but helping the downtrodden in society, even if it means not gaining anything materially out of it," said one man from the Blind Union.

Panel chairwoman Chan Yuen-han, of the Federation of Trade Unions, said Legco had not expected such an overwhelming response from society on the issue of long-term welfare planning.

The turnout demonstrated how important the issue was, she said. The meeting ran from 9am till 3.30pm.

Lawmakers on the panel also heard that the Social Welfare Department would be ending the services of 80 employees who had been on contract and were not considered civil servants. They had worked in the department for between six and 14 years.

The employees were hired to help unemployed welfare recipients look for jobs. The government said the work would be outsourced to NGOs, so it would terminate the employees' contracts next month.