Pan-democrats call for pro-Beijingers’ help to vote down Hong Kong government’s budget, demanding reversal of age limit rise for elderly benefit

  • Chief Executive Carrie Lam drew legislators’ ire with move to raise eligibility age for the elderly CSSA scheme from 60 to 65
  • But one pro-establishment lawmaker says his camp will not join opposition to demand reversal
PUBLISHED : Friday, 11 January, 2019, 8:34pm
UPDATED : Friday, 11 January, 2019, 11:15pm

Pan-democrat lawmakers on Friday threatened to vote against next month’s budget and urged the pro-establishment camp to join them if the government does not pull its plan to raise the lower age limit on an elderly cash benefit.

This came as a heated row raged between the city leader and legislators across the political spectrum over the rise in the age limit for the elderly comprehensive social security assistance (CSSA) scheme from 60 to 65.

Earlier in the week Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, 61, angered the public when she said the adjustment was reasonable in view of the city’s improved life expectancy and the global trend of people working past 60, citing herself as an example.

But one recruitment insider said on Friday most of the city’s private companies had a retirement age of 60.

Coming into effect on February 1, the change will mean new applicants aged between 60 and 64 would get close to a third less in government payments than people of the same age who are currently on the scheme, which is intended to help meet basic needs.

“The pan-democrat camp sincerely invites pro-establishment lawmakers to request that Lam cancel the new age limit for the elderly CSSA,” lawmaker Claudia Mo Man-ching, convenor of the pro-democracy camp, said. “If not, we will vote against the upcoming budget.”

But Federation of Trade Unions legislator Wong Kwok-kin accused the pan-democrats of taking advantage of the situation to disrupt the political structure.

He said there was no reason to vote against the entire budget because of one matter, adding that his camp would not be so foolish as to vote down a budget and risk a government shutdown.

Under the new arrangement, people aged from 60 to 64 will only be able to get adult rates for CSSA payments. For example, a single, able-bodied person who is over 60 can currently get the elderly rate, which is HK$3,485 (US$445) a month. This compares with HK$2,455 a month for a single, able-bodied adult under 60.

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According to Roy Kwong Chun-yu, chairman of the Legislative Council’s panel on welfare services, about 25,000 people between 60 and 64 got the elderly CSSA. He added that it would only cost about HK$100 million a year to maintain the existing arrangement.

The government’s assertion that people were increasingly retiring at 65 also came into question. Alexa Chow Yee-ping, managing director of AMAC Human Resources Consultants, estimated that 70 to 80 per cent of private companies in Hong Kong had a retirement age of 60.

She noted that the government only raised the age of mandatory retirement for many civil servants – excluding the disciplined services – to 65 as recently as last year, adding that there was no real impetus for private companies to follow suit.

“It is more expensive to get insurance for employees over 60,” she said.

The government announced details of the unpopular move on Monday, drawing the ire of lawmakers, who spoke of the struggles of people in their 60s having to leave the workforce due to age and health problems. They added that other elderly welfare measures were for people 65 and above.

Expressing shock at the opposition, Lam on Thursday said Legco had approved the change in last year’s budget and it could not be halted.

But lawmakers hit back, saying the policy change took up only two short lines of a more than 900-page document provided by the government for scrutiny. Even if they had spotted the item, legislators said, it would have been impossible for them to amend the budget or object to the reduction of a particular spending item.

Lawmakers also said they had protested against the decision, including in a motion tabled by Labour Party lawmaker Dr Fernando Cheung Chiu-hung at a Legco welfare services panel meeting in November last year. The motion was endorsed by lawmakers from both camps.

The welfare services panel is scheduled to discuss the topic of the welfare of those between 60 and 64 years old on February 11.