Hong Kong’s finance minister has defended his latest budget after a lawmaker accused him of allocating “zero cents” for alleviating poverty in the city.
Financial Secretary Paul Chan on Thursday rejected claims by social welfare sector legislator Tik Chi-yuen, who slammed the 2023 Budget released a day earlier as offering nothing to help residents living in poverty.
The Third Side politician, who identifies himself as the only non-establishment lawmaker, said there was “not a word” on poverty relief in Chan’s 83-page address read out at the Legislative Council on Wednesday.
While the finance chief announced a series of promotional initiatives including the “Happy Hong Kong” campaign in a bid to “bring more joy to the community” through large-scale food fairs and other activities, Tik was sceptical about how low-income families could share such joy.
The lawmaker made reference to the government’s strategy of targeted poverty alleviation, put forward by Chief Executive John Lee in his first policy address last October. He questioned how the authorities would carry out such a strategy without making specific financial appropriations.
“In this budget, the estimates for poverty alleviation work is zero cents. Do you expect our Commission on Poverty… to just hold meetings every now and then and our targeted poverty alleviation work can be achieved?” Tik asked Chan in a Finance Committee meeting.
The lawmaker, a registered social worker, added that the sector he represents “resolutely opposed” the one per cent cut in government spending on social welfare introduced in last year’s budget. If the government had no intention to abandon such a reduction, Tik warned it would be “very hard” for him to back the budget.
‘I will not be intimidated’
In response, Chan said the government “had no choice” but to cut its expenses on different bureaus and policy areas. Public expenditure on social welfare, estimated to stand at HK$129 billion, was the government’s largest item of spending in his latest estimates, he said.
The 2023 Budget mentioned elderly care and support for caretakers, Chan said, adding people should not judge the government’s level of concern for the underprivileged by only looking at poverty relief measures in the financial blueprint.
“As a SAR official, I will not be intimidated. [Lawmakers] cannot use their vote of support or opposition to force me into doing something which I think would be inappropriate,” Chan said.
Similar calls to withdraw the social welfare spending cuts were made by the Society for Community Organization (SoCO). The NGO called the budget “disappointing” and slammed the government as offering “extremely little support” to the grassroots.
The HK$5,000 spending vouchers will not help the poor cover their rent and it had been challenging for the elderly and some citizens to apply for the electronic coupons, the NGO said.
Other relief measures such as a one-off allowance for eligible social security recipients were also “very inadequate,” the group said, adding the authorities should rapidly increase the capacity of elderly care homes and increase childcare services.
The pandemic has worsened Hong Kong’s wealth gap, with homelessness and unemployment rising. The city’s poorest making 47 times less than its richest residents, Oxfam Hong Kong said last October. In the pre-Covid era, the highest earners made 34.3 times more. The NGO’s report analysed statistics from the Census and Statistics Department from 2019 to the first quarter of 2022.
The 2023 Budget in full:
- Hong Kong unveils HK$761 billion budget in bid to boost post-Covid recovery
- HK$5,000 consumption vouchers for all eligible residents
- Tax cuts scaled back, transport subsidy extended, other relief measures
- Jockey Club to pay HK$12 billion football betting tax over 5 years to increase gov’t income
- Cigarette packs rise by HK$12 in bid to disincentivise smoking
- Police equipment budget rises 59%, despite spending just 8.5% of 2022 allocation
- City expects to see HK$140 billion deficit, but ‘visible rebound’ in economy expected
- Gov’t to spend HK$50m on promotional work as city outlines new local ‘happy’ campaign
- Mixed reviews as critics slam gov’t for overlooking the poor
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