In wealthy Hong Kong, new children’s commission must address poverty

Grenville Cross says the upcoming children’s commission must be independent. It needs a broad portfolio to fulfil UN obligations, and to address the reason many children are held back: living conditions

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 December, 2017, 11:32am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 December, 2017, 11:32am

Although Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor says a children’s commission will be created in 2018, it is too early to celebrate. Some fear the commission will lack real clout. The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child has called on Hong Kong to establish “an independent mechanism specifically to monitor the implementation of government policy in relation to the rights of the child”, and independence is key.

Although the commission needs to work in partnership with the government, it must not be beholden to it. When a commission is too close to government, its members feel muzzled, and reluctant to hold authorities to account.

The new commission’s portfolio must be wide, encompassing our international commitments. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child applies to Hong Kong, and includes the right to a standard of living adequate for the child’s physical, mental, spiritual, moral and social development.

In November, Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung Kin-chung disclosed that after “recurrent cash policy intervention”, the poor population rose to 995,800 persons in 2016 – up 25,000 since 2015 – with an overall poverty rate of 14.7 per cent. The Hong Kong Poverty Situation Reports show that in 2015, approximately 180,000 children, or 18 per cent of the total child population, lived in poverty, although this declined slightly to 17.2 per cent in 2016.

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Children growing up in deprived circumstances can be handicapped for life. The Alliance for Children Development Rights’ survey of 206 families earning an average of HK$13,462 a month – the poverty line for a family of four being HK$16,400 – revealed that many low-income families lacked basic dietary, clothing and living necessities. Whereas 45 per cent of families said their children had only one school uniform, another 40 per cent relied on used clothing. There was also a general lack of toys, books and computers, hindering educational development.

Many low-income families have to live in subdivided flats, and 40 per cent reported there was no suitable place for their children to do homework. Research by the Society for Community Organisation indicates that cramped living conditions adversely affect children’s studies, with many not even having their own bed.

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When Oxfam Hong Kong recently examined 376 low-income households, it discovered that about one-fifth to one-fourth prevented their children, for financial reasons, from participating in extracurricular activities. They were unable to afford related expenses in school (26 per cent), outside school (25.8 per cent) and associated travel costs (20.8 per cent). Oxfam also found cash problems left many children short of learning materials.

Poverty, moreover, can result in higher levels of physical, sexual and psychological abuse against children. Against Child Abuse notes how domestic tensions are exacerbated by tiny claustrophobic flats, making children more vulnerable. Abuse complaints received by the Social Welfare Department have been directly linked to social deprivation, as well as to dislocated communities populated by recent immigrants.

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The new commission will have no magical solution, but can at least give children a voice and promote public awareness. By collecting data, monitoring public policy, lobbying government departments and promoting children’s rights, it can be an agent of change for the most vulnerable.

Existing levels of child poverty are intolerable, not least because the government, which recently boasted a HK$92 billion budget surplus, with projected fiscal reserves of HK$952 billion by March 2018, has ample means to tackle the problem.

A fully independent, properly resourced children’s commission can mobilise the community against child poverty and point the government in the right direction. The opportunity to create the right commission in 2018 must not be wasted.

Grenville Cross SC is honorary consultant to the Child Protection Institute