New Territories villagers and social science academics say the woman tipped to be the next chief secretary will spark huge controversy with her ideas to end the small-house policy and reform the city's welfare system.
Lau Wong-fat, chairman of rural affairs body the Heung Yee Kuk, gave a guarded response when told of development minister Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor's latest remarks on the small-house policy. 'This is only her view and only what she told you. I have never heard about that. I don't want to comment,' Lau said.
Junius Ho Kwan-yiu, a lawyer and chairman of the Tuen Mun Rural Committee, was alarmed. 'I am curious to know how the government interprets Article 40 of the Basic Law, which protects our traditional rights and interests,' Ho said.
He argued that male indigenous villagers' traditional rights and interests include the privilege of building small houses, the right to burial (as opposed to cremation), the right to be free from paying government rent for land they own, and their interests in protecting the fung shui of villages.
'Does she want to limit it, or really cancel it? If she means the small- house policy should be improved, I can understand. If it is not, is it the right thing to do? I don't understand,' Ho said. Asked if he thought the kuk would launch a judicial challenge, the lawyer said one had to 'think twice [before doing] everything'.
Eric Cheung Tat-ming, an assistant law professor with the University of Hong Kong, said the government would need to conduct a thorough legal study if it wanted to end the small-house policy.
'Government lawyers must study the historical background, how the small-house policy evolved over the years. Only by a historical study can they deduce and define what exactly the traditional rights are - whether inheriting and selling a small house is part of these rights, for example - and be safe from a possible legal challenge,' Cheung said.
Malcolm Merry, a HKU law professor specialising in land disputes, earlier said the abolition of the small- house policy would be in accordance with the Basic Law, as the modern three-storey village house did not exist until 50 years ago and was not custom.
Democratic Party lawmaker Lee Wing-tat agreed the small-house policy should be terminated, but said the minister did not have to set a deadline as late as 2029. The government would have to conduct a public consultation, he added.
Lam already had a blueprint to reform the welfare system when she was director of social welfare, but failed to implement it because she had no power to control other departments, said Nelson Chow Wing-sun, professor of social work and social administration at HKU.
Chow said he suggested to Lam that she should allow only the elderly and the disabled to remain covered by the Comprehensive Social Security Assistance Scheme, and those who had the ability to work should be excluded.
He also proposed to her that the Labour Department help those excluded from the CSSA to find jobs. For single parents, a category of existing CSSA recipients, the department could help create suitable part-time jobs, so they would still have time to look after their children.'But then she told me that she met opposition and she had no power to control the work of other departments,' Chow said. 'The CSSA is only to maintain a basic living standard, but cannot cater to the needs of different people.'
Fernando Cheung Chiu-hung, a social science academic and Labour Party member, said he was 'scared' by Lam's hints on welfare reform.
'Given her track record of curbing welfare expenditure, it seems to me that what she has in mind is more like a cost containment exercise than widening the safety net,' Cheung said.
He said he agreed with Lam that the CSSA scheme should be abolished, 'but only provided that new social insurance systems [be implemented] to protect the unemployed, the sick, and the disabled, and subsidies for the low-income group, as in the US and the UK'.