Hong Kong Budget 2018-2019

Government will look into helping those who missed out on Hong Kong budget perks and consider redefining ‘N-nothing’

Financial Secretary Paul Chan’s remarks are shot down by lawmakers, who raise a fresh round of concerns and criticism over using the Community Care Fund

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 03 March, 2018, 1:39pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 03 March, 2018, 11:21pm

Hong Kong’s finance chief said on Saturday that the government was looking into using a care fund to help those people who missed out on benefits in his budget address.

The remark by Financial Secretary Paul Chan Mo-po, which raised a new round of concerns and criticism, came a day after lawmakers from across the political spectrum called for cash handouts.

Chan said he asked the Community Care Fund to explore helping “N-nothing” households – those who earn too much to qualify for subsidised housing or welfare assistance but not enough to buy their own homes or benefit from tax breaks – and “plug gaps in the existing system”.

Grass roots got more this year, Hong Kong finance chief says in defence of budget

He also asked the fund – which targets those facing economic difficulties and in need of assistance – to consider expanding the definition of “N-nothing” to cover people who were public housing tenants.

Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung Kin-chung also weighed in, appealing to the public for “some room and time” for the government to work out plans.

Executive councillor Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee slammed the idea of plugging loopholes through the fund as “demeaning and inappropriate”. She earlier called on the government to give HK$3,000 (US$380) each to permanent residents aged 18 and above who “pay no tax and have no properties”.

Taking aim at Chan’s latest remarks, Ip said: “Why should people left out of the financial secretary’s largesse, through no fault of their own, be required to apply to the fund as though they are welfare applicants?” She also noted that tax and rates waivers did not require any applications.

Why should people left out ... through no fault of their own, be required to apply to the fund as though they are welfare applicants?
Regina Ip, executive councillor

“I am not asking him to dish out cash for all, regardless of need or income. We only ask him to plug a loophole.”

The city’s largest pro-establishment party, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong also expressed dissatisfaction. Its lawmakers, Ann Chiang Lai-wan and Elizabeth Quat, held a press conference on Saturday morning, alongside residents from the grass roots, urging the government to do more.

“Can the government waive one month’s rent for public housing tenants first? Then they may further help those who missed out through the Community Care Fund,” Quat said, raising concerns that the strict ceiling for one-off living allowances under the fund might not help many of those who received no budget perks.

Democratic Party lawmaker James To Kun-sun also said Chan had twisted the original purpose of the fund. “It is unacceptable. The purpose was to subsidise those from the grass roots facing economic difficulties, not those with lower-middle incomes of HK$10,000 to HK$20,000,” he said.

On Friday, lawmakers had demanded for more benefits from a record surplus of HK$138 billion, such as cash handouts and subsidies for electricity bills, after the budget was announced on Wednesday.

The financial secretary was accused of unevenly distributing sweeteners in his budget, with more than 80 per cent of the HK$50 billion goodies going to the middle class, who would benefit most from measures like salary tax and rates rebates.

But Chan held his ground on not giving out cash handouts despite calls from different political parties.

“My stance on handouts to all will not change,” Chan said on a Saturday radio programme. “The current government’s principle is public funds have to be spent properly and used on targeted groups.”

Takeaways from the Hong Kong 2018-19 budget

He also said he heard comments in the last few days about several groups of people missing out on budget benefits. They included those who were self-reliant but did not have to pay taxes because of low income, retirees not yet 65 years of age and not qualified for social assistance, and young people who just started work with low income and no tax.

“They may benefit little, or none at all, from the budget,” Chan conceded.

He said he had asked the fund to study relief measures in supporting “N-nothing” households, which are part of this group.

“I have talked to Secretary for Labour and Welfare Law Chi-kwong, and I hope the fund can plug gaps in the existing system,” Chan said. “The definition of ‘N-nothing’ households does not have to be that narrow as in the past and can be widened.”

He suggested expanding the scope to include certain public housing tenants.

Chan said Law, who also heads the Community Care Fund Task Force, had responded positively to the suggestion.

A government source said further meetings with the task force would be arranged to discuss any proposals. The target beneficiaries of the fund in principle are those facing economic difficulties, the source said, adding that initiatives had to fall under this framework.

The source added that one of the concerns was whether the measures would set a precedent and the public would then expect a similar move each time.