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Trouble ahead over proposal to end small-house policy


Villagers and academics say Carrie Lam’s ideas on indigenous rights and welfare will cause controversy

Joyce Ng
Jun 14, 2012

New Territories villagers and social science academics say the woman tipped to be the next chief secretary will spark huge controversy with her ideas to end the small-house policy and reform the city’s welfare system.

Lau Wong-fat, chairman of rural affairs body the Heung Yee Kuk, gave a guarded response when told of development minister Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor’s latest remarks on the small-house policy. “This is only her view and only what she told you. I have never heard about that. I don’t want to comment,” Lau said.

Junius Ho Kwan-yiu, a lawyer and chairman of the Tuen Mun Rural Committee, was alarmed. “I am curious to know how the government interprets Article 40 of the Basic Law, which protects our traditional rights and interests,” Ho said.

He argued that male indigenous villagers’ traditional rights and interests include the privilege of building small houses, the right to burial (as opposed to cremation), the right to be free from paying government rent for land they own, and their interests in protecting the fung shui of villages.

“Does she want to limit it, or really cancel it? If she means the small- house policy should be improved, I can understand. If it is not, is it the right thing to do? I don’t understand,” Ho said. Asked if he thought the kuk would launch a judicial challenge, the lawyer said one had to “think twice [before doing] everything”.

Eric Cheung Tat-ming, an assistant law professor with the University of Hong Kong, said the government would need to conduct a thorough legal study if it wanted to end the small-house policy.

“Government lawyers must study the historical background, how the small-house policy evolved over the years. Only by a historical study can they deduce and define what exactly the traditional rights are – whether inheriting and selling a small house is part of these rights, for example – and be safe from a possible legal challenge,” Cheung said.

Malcolm Merry, a HKU law professor specialising in land disputes, earlier said the abolition of the small- house policy would be in accordance with the Basic Law, as the modern three-storey village house did not exist until 50 years ago and was not custom.

Democratic Party lawmaker Lee Wing-tat agreed the small-house policy should be terminated, but said the minister did not have to set a deadline as late as 2029. The government would have to conduct a public consultation, he added.

Lam already had a blueprint to reform the welfare system when she was director of social welfare, but failed to implement it because she had no power to control other departments, said Nelson Chow Wing-sun, professor of social work and social administration at HKU.

Chow said he suggested to Lam that she should allow only the elderly and the disabled to remain covered by the Comprehensive Social Security Assistance Scheme, and those who had the ability to work should be excluded.

He also proposed to her that the Labour Department help those excluded from the CSSA to find jobs. For single parents, a category of existing CSSA recipients, the department could help create suitable part-time jobs, so they would still have time to look after their children.”But then she told me that she met opposition and she had no power to control the work of other departments,” Chow said. “The CSSA is only to maintain a basic living standard, but cannot cater to the needs of different people.”

Fernando Cheung Chiu-hung, a social science academic and Labour Party member, said he was “scared” by Lam’s hints on welfare reform.

“Given her track record of curbing welfare expenditure, it seems to me that what she has in mind is more like a cost containment exercise than widening the safety net,” Cheung said.

He said he agreed with Lam that the CSSA scheme should be abolished, “but only provided that new social insurance systems [be implemented] to protect the unemployed, the sick, and the disabled, and subsidies for the low-income group, as in the US and the UK”.

End small-house policy, says Lam

The woman tipped to be chief secretary says this rural ‘right’ cannot be preserved forever as she discusses her hopes for a ‘big social experiment’ to overhaul welfare

Olga Wong and Joyce Ng
Jun 14, 2012

The candidate favoured to become the next chief secretary is calling for an end to what some see as the infinite demand from rural indigenous villagers for homes under the small-house policy.

In an interview with the South China Morning Post (SEHK: 0583announcementsnews)in which she outlined the challenges the next government must tackle, Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor also hinted at “a big social experiment” to overhaul the welfare system.

“Not long after my appointment, I talked to the Heung Yee Kuk and asked if they could draw a line,” she said, as she reviewed her term as the development minister since 2007.

“If life is unchanged for 50 years until 2047, as set out under the Basic Law, and only 18-year-old [or older] indigenous male villagers are eligible for a small house, how about ending it in 2029? I have asked them and offered different options. But they just didn’t come back,” she said.

Under her plan, the last generation to enjoy what the villagers regard as their right would be those born in 2029 and who would become 18 in 2047. The small-house policy gives male indigenous villagers in the New Territories the right to build a house close to their ancestral homes. It has drawn criticism because in some cases it is being abused for profit.

Lam said she now sees an opportunity to propose an end to the policy in the next five years. However, she admitted her relationship with some rural representatives had turned sour as a result of stepped-up actions on clearing illegal structures in village houses since April.

“They were agitated about my enforcement [on illegal structures],” she said. “Now that they realise the law has to be enforced, they would probably think about what to do with the remaining village zones that cannot accommodate all their [housing] demands. I do think the next administration should make a start.”

One of the challenges, Lam said, is to convince the public that the government may need to give something to villagers in return when the policy is ended. This could include providing more infrastructure to the villages and speeding up the application process with more efficient use of land.

On welfare, Lam, who was director of social welfare between 2000 and 2003, said she had in mind a “very big social experiment” to tackle poverty and narrow the wealth gap. One idea was to reform the Comprehensive Social Security Assistance scheme, calling it “a whole new paradigm shift to deal with poverty”.

“I have always felt that the CSSA is not the best scheme. If it is a good scheme, why are there so many ‘three-nothings’ and ‘four-nothings’ in Hong Kong,” she said, referring to the working poor who do not benefit from government relief measures because they are not welfare recipients, taxpayers or eligible for public housing.

Improvements to the safety net in the past five years included means-tested transport subsidies for workers, and vouchers for kindergarten education and for health checks for the elderly with private doctors.

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