A motion urging the government to set up a committee against poverty was endorsed by lawmakers last night.
But a call to establish a poverty line to identify the poor was removed from the motion after the Democrats sided with the Liberals in favour of a watered-down amendment.
Moving the motion, Frederick Fung Kin-kee, chairman of the Association for Democracy and People's Livelihood, said a poverty line could help the government better identify and help those in need.
Liberal Party chairman James Tien Pei-chun, who moved the amendment, said the number of people living on Comprehensive Social Security Assistance rose from 370,000 in 1997 to 530,000 last year. He said some households made $80,000 a month, 26 times the income of those at the bottom, who lived on just $2,900 a month.
Social welfare representative Fernando Cheung Chiu-hung called for a committee comprising officials, academics and representatives from community groups.
'Poverty is not just the problem of a small group of people. If the problem is not addressed, the community as a whole will have to pay a heavy price,' he said.
Executive councillor Bernard Chan said he did not see how a poverty line would help the poor. 'It only gives politicians something new to argue about.'
Mr Tien agreed. 'Are we going to arbitrarily draw a line? Let's say we have 1 million poor people below the line. How are we going to help them all?'
The Democrats backed Mr Tien's amendment to drop the poverty line. They said they wanted to at least agree on a committee against poverty.
Secretary for Health, Welfare and Food York Chow Yat-ngok said Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa would introduce measures to tackle the problem soon.