The suspension of the levy on employers of domestic helpers removed an unpopular measure for two years. But, three months later, it continues to give the government grief. Lawmakers are proposing that the levy be abolished altogether, or suspended for five, 10 or 49 years.
Officials want to amend the law to give retrospective legal effect to the two-year suspension. This should be a simple process. But it is one that has now sparked talk of a constitutional crisis. The question is whether the lawmakers' proposed amendments would overstep the Legislative Council's powers under the Basic Law. The government has asked for a legal opinion from the Department of Justice. At a Legco subcommittee hearing yesterday, independent lawmaker and former security chief Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, who has proposed the abolition of the levy, raised newspaper reports that the government might seek a Basic Law interpretation from Beijing if her amendment were accepted.
The government has not publicly made any such suggestion. Secretary for Labour and Welfare Matthew Cheung Kin-chung declined to comment on the unsourced reports. It would have been better, though, if he had felt able to deny any intention on the part of the government to seek an interpretation.
While there is, potentially, a constitutional issue at stake, the dispute is one that Hong Kong can resolve without needing to trouble Beijing. Basic Law interpretations by the National People's Congress Standing Committee should only be sought in exceptional circumstances. The eventual fate of a HK$4,800-a-year levy on maids' employers is not an issue of such overriding importance.
The government and lawmakers should sort it out in accordance with existing procedures. Legco president Tsang Yok-sing can rule on the matter, as his predecessor did in similar cases. And if he accepts one of the lawmakers' amendments, the government can seek a judicial review in the courts. The maid levy has been controversial ever since it was introduced. The simplest way to end the controversy once and for all is for the government to take the initiative and scrap the levy altogether.