The Family Planning Association does so much to educate new immigrants on birth control, but its top priority should probably be the Housing Authority. Many new immigrants from the mainland have sizeable families. Agencies that work closely with the newly arrived mainlanders say the existing housing policy is in part to blame because it encourages new immigrants to have more children to become eligible for public housing. At issue is the majority rule stipulated in the regulations of the Housing Authority. The rule says that a family applying for public-rental housing will be eligible only if more than 50 per cent of its members have resided in Hong Kong for at least seven years. For applicants with a locally based family, the majority rule is not a problem because the adults will have lived in Hong Kong for more than seven years and children under the age of seven are not affected because all locally born children are exempt from the seven-year rule. It is a different story, however, for applicants whose spouses and some of their children were born on the mainland. According to the rule, a Hong Kong permanent resident on the waiting list for public housing is disqualified if mainland family members reuniting with him here make up more than half of his household. For instance, a Hong Kong resident applying for a singleton flat will be disqualified as soon as he is joined by either his mainland spouse or his spouse and children born on the mainland. Similarly, a man with a Hong Kong-born child will have his public-housing application withheld if his spouse and a child born on the mainland are included on the tenancy form because only half of the family will have met the seven-year rule when the application is being processed. Welfare workers say the policy is discriminatory and extremely unfair. In a recent case, a family waited about seven years for a flat allocation only to see its application put on hold because of the death of a Hong Kong family member. The family, with four Hong Kong members, were joined by the principal tenant's mainland wife and two children in 1994. In September, just a month before it was about to be allocated a flat, an elderly member of the household died, thus leaving the family with only three members meeting the seven-year rule. As the wife and the two mainland children had resided in Hong Kong for only three years, the whole family will have to wait until 2001 to be allocated a flat. Welfare workers said many new immigrant families have had the same experience. Housing Authority member Lee Wing-tat denounced the policy, saying it only encouraged new immigrants to produce more babies, thus exacerbating housing and other social problems. Mr Lee said new immigrants were likely to consider producing more locally born babies as the quickest and easiest way to get public housing while the rule exempted Hong Kong-born children from the seven-year residency requirement. Ho Hei-wah, director of the Society for Community Organisation, said that to qualify for public housing, some mothers had given birth to two children in the span of three years. Noting that under the Basic Law, Hong Kong permanent residents' mainland-born children are, like those born locally, automatically granted resident status, Mr Ho questioned why mainland children were not exempt from the seven-year rule. 'What is the basis for imposing such a requirement?' Mr Ho asked. 'And what is the justification for the rule when new immigrants can immediately enjoy other social benefits, such as education and medical services, as soon as they land in Hong Kong?' One worker asked: 'Why should children born of the same family and enjoying the same resident status be treated differently just because they happen to have been born in different places?' Mr Ho also questioned why the Government did not exercise discretionary powers in vetting the applications. He said even the comprehensive social security assistance scheme (CSSA) that imposed a one-year resident requirement on applicants had allowed officials to exercise discretion. But defending the policy, Secretary for Housing Dominic Wong Shing-wah recently told legislators that the tight housing supply had made it difficult for the authority to exercise discretion. Obviously, the Government is concerned that once discretion is more widely applied, it will make it increasingly difficult to uphold the rule. For the Government, the rule is important because there is continuous demand for public housing and demand outstrips supply. Officially, the Government justifies the rule by emphasising that scarce housing resources should first be allocated to meet the needs of longer-term residents and locally born children. Publicly, the Government is adamant that such a principle of priority is only fair and reasonable. But others say that it reflects a hidden prejudice against those coming from the mainland. Like it or not, in some quarters of the community, children born on the mainland are still considered as outsiders even though their parents are Hong Kong residents. And people's thinking is simple: Hong Kong taxpayers' money should be spent on locals first. Privately, officials have conceded the housing rule is discriminatory and some have even agreed that it should be scrapped. But the Government is in no doubt about the local community's intense opposition to scrapping the rule. Until now, officials have been able to brush aside the issue as the number of families affected by the policy has not been huge. Only recently, the housing secretary revealed that about 2,800 applicants on the waiting list had not been allocated public-rental flats because of the addition of mainland-born children to their applications. But the situation may change dramatically with the Government's plan to speed up the orderly arrival of a massive number of mainland-born children of Hong Kong permanent residents. If the mainland-born children are not excused from the seven-year resident requirement and if their inclusion in the applications affect their family's ability to meet the majority rule, it would mean that thousands of incumbent applicants may have their flat allocation deferred. On the other hand, if they are excused from the resident requirement, it will mean not only that families qualified now will not be affected by the addition of new mainland members to their applications but also that households that presently fail to meet the majority rule may become eligible. This is how more housing resources will be diverted to new immigrants' families and how locals will see their entitlement being affected. Perhaps it is this serious implication regarding housing allocation that prompted officials to try hard to convince the public that the seven-year rule has nothing to do with the permanent-resident status. The Government's effort is understandable. If a link between the seven-year rule and permanent-resident status is established, the Government has no case in arguing against granting exemption to mainland-born children. But hard as officials have tried to justify their claim of no linkage, they are still unable to explain clearly how exactly they have derived the figure of seven years. More embarrassing for the Government is that past internal government documents may have cross-referenced residency rule and permanent-resident status. About a dozen new immigrant families are already planning to seek judicial review over the majority rule on the grounds that it breaches both the Bill of Rights and the Basic Law. The logic is simple. Under the Basic Law, all mainland-born children of Hong Kong permanent residents are automatically entitled to permanent resident status, making them no different from those who are born in Hong Kong. Mr Ho said SOCO would assist these families in applying for legal aid in the next few weeks and at the same time would be seeking legal opinion on how to pursue the case. Although it is impossible to predict the result of the legal battle, it is quite clear that the authorities face a headache. If the Government wins, there may be a baby boom among new immigrants families, but if the Government loses, more new immigrant families will qualify for public housing, thus putting a bigger strain on the housing resources.