The man 300,000 needy old people have to thank for overcoming a block by lawmakers on a new HK$2,200-a-month allowance is Secretary for Labour and Welfare Matthew Cheung Kin-chung, says a government source.
It was Cheung who came up with the idea of withdrawing a request to the Legislative Council's finance committee for funding for the allowance, and to include the funds in next year's budget.
Because Legco traditionally approves government budgets as a whole, rather than seeking to veto individual budget measures, the funding is likely to be approved. At least 290,000 people, 65 and over, who pass a means test would then receive the allowance from April, with payments backdated to December.
The means test was the stumbling block to approval of funding in the finance committee for the old age living allowance. Critics wanted it scrapped or the asset and income caps raised so that more would qualify for the allowance.
On Friday, the administration withdrew its request for HK$2.58 billion to fund the allowance for the rest of this financial year. Its remaining request was for HK$23.26 million to create 90 posts to prepare for the launch of the allowance.
But, as the source noted, when the committee voted on that measure it "approved the allowance in its entirety". That's because the only thing the government withdrew was its request for money; its wording still included the rationale for the allowance, financial commitment needed and scheme details.
Opposition legislators have accused the government of trying to create confusion by mixing up its funding requests for the allowance and the jobs.
"The government was mischievous," pan-democratic lawmaker Frederick Fung Kin-kee said in a radio interview.
Cheung said there was no question of a conspiracy. "The administration continues to attach great importance to fostering relations between the executive authorities and the legislature," he said.
Michael Tien Puk-sun, a legislator from the Beijing-loyalist New People's Party, said pan-democrats were well aware of what was happening but played dumb because they did not want to encourage radical lawmaker "Long Hair" Leung Kwok-hung to continue filibustering the proposal.
On television yesterday, Leung apologised to those elderly people who would not pass a means test to qualify for the allowance. He said he had not decided whether to try a filibuster during scrutiny of the budget.