The government appears to have won crucial support for its monthly HK$2,200 Old Age Living Allowance schemeafter the biggest pro-establishment party softened its stance yesterday, saying it would reconsider the welfare minister's latest proposal of an annual review.
The Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB), which holds 12 votes in Friday's Legco financial committee meeting, said last night it was "not opposing" the measure, as negotiations continued among political parties on whether to support the proposal.
On Wednesday, the party said it might abstain after Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying insisted the government would not raise the asset limits for beneficiaries.
DAB chairman Tam Yiu-chung said that the party had not made the final decision on its voting preference, and Matthew Cheung Kin-chung, the Secretary for Labour and Welfare, was still canvassing the DAB for votes. "He hoped we could take the proposal first and review it later," Tam said.
Cheung has used the latest South China Morning Post debate series to call on lawmakers to support the scheme.
Cheung said: "If the [scheme] is granted to all senior citizens, then the financial implications will be so great that it will crowd out other government spending, including on welfare."
He said the new subsidy would cost the government HK$13.6 billion if it did not implement a means test. It would cost HK$6.2 billion if a means test was in place. About 400,000 elderly people are expected to benefit.
Should the DAB support the scheme, the government is likely to secure enough votes, with the Business and Professionals Alliance, the New People's Party and at least four independent lawmakers backing it.
It is expected to meet oppositions from most of the pan-democrats, who want the old-age allowances scheme to be the starting point of a universal pension scheme.
Yesterday, 23 pan-democrats signed a petition urging the government to set up a committee to study the proposal.
Fernando Cheung Chiu-hung, of the Labour Party, said he would propose postponing the vote as the public needed more time to discuss the scheme.
Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah urged lawmakers to pass the government proposal first before studying further measures, as they could be more controversial.
Labour Party chairman and lawmaker Lee Cheuk-yan said: "The Labour Party opposes the means-tested [scheme] and will not bargain with the government to raise the asset limit. It is a matter of principle. We want a universal pension scheme."
The honorary president of the Federation of Trade Unions, Chan Yuen-han, said the government had a reserve of about HK$2 trillion and thus "all the capacity it needs" to introduce the subsidy without a means test.
Stephen Fisher, director general of Oxfam Hong Kong and the government's former director of social welfare, said he believed there should be a means test as resources should be directed to those in real financial need.