Social security is a safety net but not a right, Director of Social Welfare Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor said yesterday as she defended controversial plans to restrict benefits to permanent residents. Only those who have resided in Hong Kong for seven years will be eligible for welfare payments and subsidised health services. However, the policy will not apply to current residents or those who become residents before the measures take effect. No welfare restrictions will be put on the under-18s. The government is also to consider whether Hong Kong permanent residents who leave for a long period will still be eligible for welfare. At present, immigrants who have stayed in Hong Kong for more than one year are eligible to apply for payments under the Comprehensive Social Security Assistance Scheme (CSSA). Two-way permit holders and other visitors are eligible for public medical services. But they will have to pay the full cost of such services from April 1. There are about 69,000 CSSA recipients who are new immigrants who have been here for less than seven years. Ms Lam said the government had to ensure that resources were used in a reasonable way. She emphasised that immigrants were assisted in other ways, such as education. The Director of Social Welfare will retain the discretionary power to grant CSSA subsidies to people who are not eligible. For example, there are 672 cases involving about 1,000 people who are receiving CSSA but have been staying in Hong Kong for less than one year. Nelson Chow Wing-sun, chair professor of the department of social work and social administration at the University of Hong Kong, said the proposals would affect the integration of new mainland immigrants into society. 'Tightening eligibility of social benefits can help ease the pressure on public funds but it may adversely affect the integration of new immigrants into society,' he said.