About 290,000 elderly residents in need may receive a new monthly allowance of HK$2,200 from April after the administration executed what critics said was a carefully devised tactic in Legco that cut short a filibuster.
The government's manoeuvre last night ended the Finance Committee's discussion, totalling 29 hours across seven meetings since October, on a planned old-age living allowance for people aged 65 and above who passed a means test.
The twist came when the government withdrew its HK$2.58 billion funding request for the allowance, which will now be included in the budget in February.
Traditionally, Legco approves the budget proposal as a whole instead of vetoing specific items.
Filibustering lawmaker "Long Hair" Leung Kwok-hung, of the League of Social Democrats, immediately vowed to launch another filibuster during scrutiny of the 2013-14 budget.
While the manoeuvre killed Leung's current filibuster, it raises concerns on whether the entire budget can be voted down, since the opposition camp objects to the means test.
At yesterday's meeting, the government withdrew its allowance funding request and proceeded only with a request for about HK$23.26 million to create 90 posts in the Social Welfare Department to prepare for the launch of the allowance as early as April. The committee endorsed that request by a vote of 24 to 3. Three Liberals abstained.
Secretary for Labour and Welfare Matthew Cheung Kin-chung said approval for those posts already meant eligible residents could receive the money as soon as April. Payments would be backdated to December 1.
Opposition legislators were riled by the sudden change of events, accusing the government of trying to create confusion by mixing up its funding requests for the scheme and the job creation.
A shocked Leung, who had filibustered for weeks, slammed a plate on his bench, injuring his hand. He railed at committee chairman Tommy Cheung Yu-yan: "Even pro-establishment legislators did not know which item was put to the vote."
Cheung said he had followed procedures by ruling that the allowance request had been amended by the government to such a large extent that it should be considered as a new proposal. The ruling effectively invalidated Leung's 302 pending motions due to be debated yesterday.
Leung blamed the Legco secretariat for not returning him the documents for those motions, which would have alerted him to the change of request so he could file fresh motions, on the job creation proposal. "The retribution is that I will filibuster in the scrutiny of the next budget," he said.
Matthew Cheung denied the government was playing tricks. He said: "We did not mount an ambush. We've been very transparent and have been following the necessary procedures."
Pan-democrats want to ease or scrap the means test requiring applicants to have an income of less than HK$6,660 a month and assets of below HK$186,000. Currently, only those aged 65 to 69 have to go through a means test to receive HK$1,090 a month.