Help for needy on the way, Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam says while defending under-fire budget
Chief executive will listen to opinions in coming two weeks to ensure comprehensive relief for the poor – but there will be no cash handouts
Hong Kong’s leader on Sunday defended the latest budget, which has been slammed for favouring the rich, pledging that an allowance “comprehensively covering” the city’s needy is on the way while again dismissing the possibility of offering cash handouts.
Measures announced during the budget address drew the ire of politicians from across the political divide, who accused Chan of “returning the wealth to the wealthy” by offering massive tax breaks and rent waivers to the middle class while turning a blind eye to the city’s needy.
In his budget, Chan dished out extra social security payments for low-income families and called on the Community Care Fund, a public-private fund, to study a plan offering relief measures for the “N-nothing” group – those who are not living in public subsidised housing and do not qualify for social assistance – which were left out in previous budgets.
“The help to be offered to the ‘N-nothing’ group does not necessarily need to follow the previous scheme,” Lam said, referring to a one-off allowance introduced in 2014. The scheme was scrapped in 2016.
“We hope to listen to more opinions from different parties and sectors in the coming two week so the coverage [of the relief measure] would be more comprehensive. I hope those who are not happy now because they are not covered by the [relief measures] rolled out in the budget would be more patient as we will formulate the plan as soon as possible.”
Speaking ahead of her Beijing trip for the annual parliamentary sessions, Lam on Sunday again ruled out the possibility of offering cash handouts to members of the public despite mounting pressure from politicians, as she said her administration opted for more targeted measures.
On a separate radio programme, Secretary for Labour and Welfare Law Chi-kwong said the concept of N-nothing could be redefined as he said the old definition was already “part of history”.
Retirees who had limited income and were not receiving any social security help, alongside young people who had just started work and paid little or no tax could also be considered as potential beneficiaries, he said.
Meanwhile, dozens of residents and members of welfare organisations marched from Southorn Playground in Wan Chai to Government House in Central to express dissatisfaction with the budget in terms of alleviating the housing problems of the poor and N-nothings.
The groups, which included the Concerning Grassroots’ Housing Rights Alliance and Platform Concerning Subdivided Flats in Hong Kong, called for rent controls and more land to be allocated for public housing, as well as more legal protection for tenants – especially for subdivided dwellers – when it came to overcharging for utilities.
A 2016 report revealed that 209,700 people were crammed into 92,700 rooms subdivided from 27,100 flats. Hong Kong’s current population is 7.34 million.
Several pan-democrat parties also staged a separate rally to government headquarters to protest at what they perceived to be an unevenly distributed budget which failed to help low-income groups and called on the government to “return the riches to the people”.
Chan on Sunday said the government was still looking into the feasibility of tax rebates for residential tenants paying rent.
“At this point, it is not appropriate to get anyone’s hopes up. We are still looking at the technical [feasibility],” he said in a television interview.
Chan said he had reservations on how much rebates would help residential tenants as taxes were already quite low. He also said it was impossible for every tenant to be eligible as different people were paying different levels of rent.
The measure was omitted from this year’s budget because there was no time to upgrade the government’s computer system, Chan had previously said.
Separately, Lam also took the chance to hit out at the slow progress of the Legislative Council in scrutinising funding applications lodged by the government, which she said had hampered the city’s development.
Since October, Legco’s Finance Committee had only scrutinised 16 out of more than 100 items that the government applied for as of last Friday, Lam said. She said she had turned down colleagues’ suggestions to give in and shelve some of the funding requests, adding she was very willing to reorganise the agenda and give way on less controversial items.