THE Government has rejected calls by legislators and welfare organisations to abolish all privately owned cage homes. Legislator Lee Wing-tat told yesterday's housing panel the bedspace apartments should gradually be eliminated as the remaining 2,000 living in the so-called cage homes got older and became eligible for rehousing. Hong Kong had been criticised by the United Nations for tolerating such inhumane living conditions even though it was so developed economically, he said. But acting deputy secretary for Home Affairs Francis Lo Chi-wai rejected the call to make bedspace apartments illegal. He said people rented out bed spaces for various reasons and it would be difficult to prevent privately owned caged homes from being rented out. Although 1,200 out of an estimated 3,200 cagemen and women have been deemed eligible for public housing and are gradually being placed, overall numbers are not diminishing because there is a continuous influx of new lodgers, the housing panel heard. Of the 40 residents made homeless after a recent arson attack at a Tsuen Wan cage home, 12 failed to qualify for compassionate rehousing. Out of the 26 who were eligible, 24 have accepted. The other two are still under consideration by the Housing Department. Mr Lo said cagemen and women would not be given priority for public housing because of their fire risk. But he pledged the Government would rehouse cagemen made homeless when their homes were upgraded to meet the new fire safety laws. Under the Bedspace Apartments Ordinance, operators will have until November next year to upgrade facilities, including the removal of bunk-beds to widen aisles and the installation of fire extinguishers. Hostels which cannot meet the requirements will have to close. Lodgers affected can apply to government-funded hostels, where a third of the 300 available places are already occupied. Their only other alternative is to apply for public housing. The Home Affairs Department has about 3,200 cagemen and women registered in 151 private hostels but cannot predict how many will need public housing. Welfare organisations fear cagemen unable to find space in government hostels could be forced on to the streets. Tough requirements and lengthy procedures had discouraged them from applying to the hostels, they said. Secretary for Housing Dominic Wong Shing-wah said the Government would ensure none of the displaced cagemen and women would be made homeless. But Tsang Ka-wai, of the Society of Community Organisations, described the plan as feeble and said the aim should be to get rid of the bedspace hostels. 'If the Government is sincere about solving the problem, it should register all cagemen and offer each of them decent accommodation,' Miss Tsang said. The government Housing Authority is to launch a survey of the number of cagemen likely to need public housing when dilapidated hostels are outlawed.