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Editorial : Increase in age threshold for elderly CSSA

【明報專訊】DURING a Legco question-and-answer session, Chief Executive Carrie Lam went into a war of words with lawmakers over the "sudden increase" in the age threshold for the application for elderly comprehensive social security assistance (CSSA). Lawmakers demand the new arrangement be rescinded, but Carrie Lam hit back and said that the new arrangement had been approved by the Legislative Council.

The Social Welfare Department has recently announced that starting 1st February the age threshold for applying for elderly CSSA will be raised from 60 to 65 years old. The government will concurrently revise upwards the amount of subsidy for CSSA, Old Age Allowance and Old Age Living Allowance, which will translate into extra yearly spending of around $1.2 billion. The government explains that the upward revision was not intended to save money. The decision was made in view of the ageing population in Hong Kong, people's greater longevity and the trend towards postponing retirement until 65 years of age. The government also hopes that the age requirement for elderly CSSA will be in alignment with those of the Health Care Voucher and Old Age Living Allowance schemes so as to bring standardisation and conformity to the policies. But lawmakers from both the pan-democratic and pro-establishment camps were angered by the news. Some lawmakers demanded that the government rescind the arrangement, but Carrie Lam said that the arrangement had been approved as part of the budget, and as such could not be brought to a halt. She also said that the upward revision had been approved by the Legislative Council, and she was "very surprised" that lawmakers were now against it.

The international community does not have a standardised definition of "elderly people". Neither the United Nations nor the World Health Organisation has laid down a clear line differentiating between elderly people and non-elderly people. According to the WHO, most of the advanced countries draw the line at 65 years of age. The Japan Gerontological Society even suggests that the age at which one is defined as old should be revised upwards from 65 years currently to 75 years, and that people aged between 65 and 74 should only be regarded as "early elderly people" who can still be the driving force behind social development. As people live longer on average, there are indeed an increasing number of white-collar and "early elderly" people in their early 60s who intend to commit themselves to the employment market and avoid early retirement so that their lives will not become aimless. But there are also many people in the same age group who have developed diseases through years of hard work. If their finances permit, they would rather go into retirement.

Thick as a pillow, the Expenditure Analysis by Head of the budget for the Appropriation Bill has more than 900 pages. The section on raising the eligible age for elderly CSSA "lurks" on page 847 (English version) among "Matters Requiring Special Attention in 2018-19" concerning the Social Welfare Department. Judging from the reactions of pro-establishment and pan-democratic lawmakers, many of them clearly did not foresee that "the devil was in the pillow" and that the Bill contained such a passage. A pan-democratic lawmaker admits to have overlooked the passage, while some pro-establishment lawmakers claim that they voted for the whole Bill simply because they wanted to prevent the government from heading for a "fiscal cliff". They did not expect that the government would bundle the new arrangement with other expenditures and have them passed as a whole. The way the government has dealt with the matter is lacking in openness and straightforwardness. This controversy, however, has also raised questions as to whether lawmakers have discharged their responsibilities as the gatekeepers satisfactorily.

Having chosen not to go for an open discussion and consult the public and the Legislative Council formally, the government will have a price to pay. The distrust between the administrative and legislative branches of government will deepen, and society will be even more sceptical about the administration.

明報社評2019.01.11:政策靠魔鬼細節過關 政府贏心計卻輸格局

行政長官林鄭月娥出席立法會質詢環節,就長者綜援合資格申請年齡「忽然提高」,與議員舌劍唇槍。議員要求撤回安排,林鄭反駁新安排是立法會通過。

近日社署宣布,下月1日起,長者綜援的合資格申請年齡,將由60歲升至65歲,當局同時將上調綜援、生果金和長者生活津貼金額,預料每年額外投放約12億元。政府解釋,上調長者綜援申請年齡並非為了節流,而是考慮到本港人口老化,港人人均壽命延長,以及退休年齡延至65歲的趨勢,當局亦希望長者綜援可以跟醫療券、長者生活津貼的合資格申請年齡看齊,讓政策協調統一。消息一出,泛民建制議員均表不滿。有議員要求政府收回安排,然而林鄭表示,財政預算案已通過有關安排,無法煞停。林鄭還說,上調申領年齡是立法會批准,她對議員如今表示反對,感到「很驚訝」。

國際社會對「長者」並無劃一標準,聯合國和世衛均沒有就老人的定義劃下絕對年齡界線。世衛資料顯示,現時大部分發達國家以65歲為界,劃分長者和非長者,日本老人學會甚至建議政府將老人的定義,由現時的65歲,改為75歲,65歲至74歲只屬「少老」,仍是推動社會進步的支柱。隨着人均壽命延長,確有不少六旬出頭的白領和「少老」,希望繼續投身職場,不想太早退休,以免生活變得百無聊賴,可是同一年齡層亦有不少人打拼多年積勞成疾,若財政情况許可,寧願過退休生活。

《撥款草案》厚如枕頭,總目共有900多頁,提高長者綜援申請年齡的段落,「隱伏」於第797頁社會福利署2018/19年度「需要特別留意的事項」之中。觀乎建制泛民議員反應,很多議員顯然沒想過「魔鬼藏在枕頭中」,不知道草案內原來有着這樣的段落。有泛民議員承認當時可能「睇漏眼」,有建制議員則表示,當日為免政府出現財政懸崖,才投票支持通過整份草案,沒想到政府會將新安排與其他開支綑綁起來,一併通過。政府的處理手法,有欠光明磊落。不過,今次爭議也令人關注,議員們平日有否做好議事把關工夫。

當局放棄光明正大討論,未有正式諮詢公眾和立法會,代價將是加深行政和立法機關之間的不信任,加深社會對政府的猜疑。

■Glossary

longevity : the amount of time that someone or something lives

halt : an act of stopping the movement or progress of sb/sth

lurk : when sth unpleasant or dangerous lurks, it is present but not in an obvious way

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