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Following is a question by Dr Hon Priscilla Leung and a written reply by the Secretary for Labour and Welfare, Mr Matthew Cheung Kin-chung, in the Legislative Council on January 22:
The Court of Final Appeal (CFA) has earlier handed down its judgment on an appeal case, declaring that the requirement of seven-year residence in Hong Kong (residence requirement) stipulated by the Government for the Comprehensive Social Security Assistance (CSSA) Scheme was unconstitutional. As a result, the residence requirement must be restored to one year, i.e. the requirement before January 1, 2004. The judgment has aroused extensive discussions in the community and quite a number of members of the public have expressed concern that the shortened residence requirement will attract a large number of Mainland people applying for settlement in Hong Kong who may apply for CSSA after one year, thus placing a heavy burden on the welfare expenditure of Hong Kong. In this connection, will the Government inform this Council:
(1) whether it has assessed the number of Mainland people who will be attracted by the shortened residence requirement for the CSSA Scheme to apply for settlement in Hong Kong, and whether it will introduce measures to deter Mainland people from obtaining approval for settlement in Hong Kong through engaging in bogus marriages; if so, of the details; if not, the reasons for that;
(2) given that the authorities have indicated that there will be an increase in the expenditure on the CSSA Scheme as a result of the shortening of the residence requirement, whether the authorities have plans to introduce targeted measures to ensure the continued stability and healthiness of the public finances of Hong Kong; if they have, of the details; if not, the reasons for that; and
(3) given that quite a number of members of the public have pointed out that before formulation, public policies of significant public interests such as welfare and population planning have all been thoroughly considered and examined by the Legislative Council and the executive authorities from various aspects such as the long-term interests of Hong Kong, fiscal sustainability, policy objectives and legal principles, etc., and extensive public consultation has often been conducted on them, but once such policies are ruled unconstitutional by CFA, they will become invalid or must be amended, which is a situation these members of the public consider as unsatisfactory, whether the Government has any improvement measures to ensure the stability and predictability of public administration?
My reply to Dr Hon Priscilla Leung’s question is set out below:
(1) The policy objective of the One-way Permit (OWP) Scheme is to allow Mainland residents to come to Hong Kong for family reunion in an orderly manner. The current OWP quota is 150 per day. Whether or not new arrivals would apply for the Comprehensive Social Security Assistance (CSSA) mainly depends on the financial situation of their families and their interest in applying for CSSA.
In fact, the education level and family income of new arrivals have been on a rising trend. For instance, the proportion of persons from the Mainland residing in Hong Kong for less than seven years aged 15 and above who have attained secondary education level or above increased from 68% in 2001 to 85% in 2011; while the proportion with post-secondary education level rose from 6% to 16%. Meanwhile, the median monthly domestic household income of households with member(s) from the Mainland residing in Hong Kong for less than seven years increased by nearly 20%, from $12,050 to $14,070, over the same period.
To combat cases involving non-Hong Kong residents obtaining permission to stay in Hong Kong through bogus marriages, the Immigration Department’s special task force has been gathering intelligence through various avenues and conducting thorough investigation into suspicious cases. Persons involved will be arrested and prosecuted. The Marriage Registries under the Department have also been paying special attention to suspicious cases.
(2) Fiscal prudence has been the guiding principle of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) Government on the management of public finances. Article 107 of the Basic Law stipulates that the HKSAR shall follow three principles in drawing up its budget: first, keeping the expenditure within the limits of revenues; second, striving to achieve a fiscal balance and avoid deficits; and third, keeping the budget commensurate with the growth rate of its gross domestic product. We must observe fiscal prudence. Meanwhile, we also adhere to the principles of pragmatism, commitment to society and sustainability in managing public finances.
The Government has put in place a number of measures to enhance work incentive and alleviate poverty in recent years, e.g. the Statutory Minimum Wage, Work Incentive Transport Subsidy and programmes under the Community Care Fund. These measures, coupled with a robust economy, a keen demand for labour and an increase in employment opportunities, have helped prevent our citizens from falling into the CSSA net.
Meanwhile, the Social Welfare Department has made every effort to guard against fraud and abuse of CSSA to ensure the effective use of public funds. Measures include establishing the fraud reporting mechanism, conducting in-depth investigations into suspected fraud cases as well as regular case reviews, and data matching with other Government departments and relevant organisations to verify the authenticity of case information.
As at the end of December 2013, there were about 261 000 CSSA cases. The total number of recipients fell below 400 000, which was about 395 000. The caseload was the lowest since September 2002 and had been dropping for 33 months. This, to a certain extent, reflects that most Hong Kong people wish to be self-reliant.
(3) In the process of formulating major welfare policies and initiatives, the Government will conduct in-depth analysis and suitably consult the public in order to holistically consider all relevant factors, including policy and financial considerations, etc., and strike the right balance. The Government will continue to formulate policies and initiatives in accordance with this guiding principle.