【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 Lawmakers demand the new arrangement be rescinded, but Carrie Lam hit back and said that the new arrangement had been approved by the Legislative Council.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.
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