Budget delays could hit funds for the poor

Filibustering over passing the bill could jeopardise poverty-relief funds, treasury secretary says, as the stalling tactics continue

PUBLISHED : Friday, 03 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 03 May, 2013, 5:40am

Delaying passage of the budget bill could mean holding up one-off poverty-relief measures, the treasury minister warned yesterday.

Professor Chan Ka-keung, the financial services and treasury secretary, stepped up his rhetoric against filibustering attempts over the bill as the Legislative Council's meeting was adjourned in the morning, causing more delay and further piling pressure on Legco president Jasper Tsang Yok-sing to stop the filibustering.

Tsang will meet lawmakers today to discuss how to handle the remaining budget debates from May 8 onwards. He said he would not divulge his thoughts on stopping the filibustering ahead of the informal meeting.

"All factors, including the government's opinions, lawmakers' opinions, the council's constitutional function and my responsibility as the council president, will be considered [before a decision is made]," he said.

The budget, announced in February, proposed dishing out poverty-relief funds such as an extra month's allowance for recipients of social security and the old-age allowance, as well as an electricity subsidy of HK$1,800 per household.

However, four radical lawmakers filed more than 700 amendments to the bill in protest at its omission of a universal pension scheme. As the sixth day of Legco deliberation was adjourned, Chan warned that further delay could postpone the relief measures.

"It was saddening … and pitiful that the legislature could not scrutinise these popular measures because of the [filibustering]," Chan said. "We have to win support for the budget before we can [roll them out]." The relief funds were originally scheduled to be rolled out in July, he added.

A source said the cash stocks of most government departments would be used up by early next month if Legco failed to pass the budget bill by May 15.

"As the last resort, by the end of this month, the administration will need to consider applying for a second interim fund to maintain government operations," the source said.

An earlier interim fund will sustain government spending until the end of this month in the absence of the new budget, and pan-democrats suggested the administration could table another interim funding proposal.

But Chan snubbed that idea, saying that interim funding would not pay for one-off spending grants. However, he said government departments would be asked to provide an analysis of their cash flow so that the government could draw up contingency plans if the budget bill failed to win approval by May 15.

Under Legco rules, at least half of the 70 lawmakers must be present for a meeting to continue, and the session must stop if this quorum was not met within 15 minutes of a summons. Radical lawmakers forced an adjournment of the meeting yesterday by using the rule, as only 32 lawmakers made it to the chamber within the 15 minutes, including 21 pro-government lawmakers and 11 pan-democrats.

The 38 absent included all seven members of the Business and Professionals Alliance, who were in their own meetings or caught in traffic.

New People's Party lawmaker Michael Tien Puk-sun, himself late to the meeting, said: "I feel ashamed, and I apologise to the citizens of Hong Kong."

Inland Revenue commissioner Chu Yam-yuen said tax rebates proposed in the budget would not come into effect if the filibustering continued until August.