Raft of welfare measures introduced to aid Hong Kong’s ageing population
Financial Secretary Paul Chan Mo-po’s budget puts in place plan to offer employment and education opportunities for senior citizens
Subsidies for employers to hire retired seniors, extra allowances for lifelong learning and subsidised speech therapy services are among the incentives rolled out by Hong Kong’s finance chief in his latest budget blueprint to cope with the city’s ageing crisis.
In what was seen as a U-turn, the Hong Kong government has also planned to restore a one-off allowance for the city’s neediest group – those who are eligible for neither subsidised housing nor welfare assistance – which was controversially scrapped two years ago by Dr Law Chi-kwong, the chairman of a public-private fund who has now become the welfare chief.
“I have discussed the matter with Law and we both agree [to reinstate the relief measure for the group]. There is no disagreement or conflicts in this regard,” said Financial Secretary Paul Chan Mo-po on Wednesday.
In the face of what some referred to as a “silver tsunami” where almost one in three Hong Kong residents will be aged 65 or above by 2041, the administration has allocated a total recurrent provision of about HK$1.2 billion and non-recurrent expenditure of about HK$2.2 billion for various measures to improve elderly services.
Among them included a four-year pilot scheme to provide speech therapy services for elderly service providers that is expected to benefit some 22,000 seniors with swallowing difficulties or speech impairments.
An on-the-job training allowance of up to HK$4,000 per month for a period of six to 12 months would be introduced for employers to hire people aged 60 or above.
Bumper tax benefits for 1.88 million Hongkongers thanks to record HK$138 billion surplus, Paul Chan reveals in budget speech
The government has also doubled the subsidy ceiling of the Continuing Education Fund (CEF) from HK$10,000 to HK$20,000 – the first increment since the fund was launched in 2002 – and extended the upper age limit for applicants from 65 to 70 .
As of 2017, 771,000 Hongkongers have registered an account for the fund while more than 36 per cent of them – some 280,000 people – have used the subsidy.
Low-income families also received a red packet this year as Chan announced that extra social security payments costing HK$7 billion would be dished out – equivalent to two months of the Comprehensive Social Security Assistance (CSSA), Old Age Allowance or Disability Allowance.
But what raised eyebrows was Chan’s decision to ask the Community Care Fund to consider reoffering short-term relief for the so-called “N-nothing” households, which were left out in previous budgets.
A one-off living allowance was first introduced to them by the fund in 2014 as the budget that year waived public housing rents and offered extra social security payments.
But Dr Law, the chairman of the Fund Task Force and now the secretary for labour and welfare, announced two years later that the one-off sum would be suspended. This is because no waivers of pubic housing rents had been introduced that year and thus the original reason for establishing the subsidy had disappeared, he said.
“I don’t think it is really necessary to link the assistance to these [N-nothing] people to the public housing rental payment,” Chan said on Wednesday, adding he had come to an agreement with Law that such move should be taken in view of the significant fiscal surplus.
A government source added the fund would convene a meeting soon and the measure is expected to model the one-off allowance offered earlier.
Chan Kar-choi, a social work lecturer at Chinese University, said the city’s old age dependency ratio is expected to soar in the coming two decades but the new subsidy alone might not be sufficient to encourage employers to hire seniors.
“A more comprehensive plan is needed in achieving the goal, such as providing more flexible working hours or part-time jobs for the elderly,” he said.
Veteran social worker Ng Wai-tung said Chan’s budget scored below the passing mark as it merely addressed the short-term needs of the low-income group but failed to offer any long-term measures in alleviating property.
Lawmakers across spectrum also slammed the government of “returning wealth to the wealthy” through the massive tax cut and rate waivers but ignoring the plight of the poor.
Starry Lee Wai-king, chairwoman of the Beijing-friendly Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, said the government could have shared more of the record-breaking surplus to benefit the elderly, retirees and grassroots families, but a government source said a lot had already been done for the underprivileged on a regular basis.
Separately, in response to the recent spate of child abuse cases, HK$138 million has been set aside by the government to strengthen the social work and counselling services in public primary schools in eventually achieving the target of “one social worker for each school”.
A three-year pilot scheme, which cost some HK$504 million, would also be rolled out to provide social work services in all aided child care centres and kindergartens in phases.
Additional reporting by Sum Lok-kei, Kimmy Chung and Tony Cheung