Relief measures scale down in this year’s budget that aims to create a “Happy Hong Kong”

Financial Secretary Paul Chan delivered his spending plans for the coming financial year on Wednesday, announcing another round of the electronic Consumption Voucher Scheme, although the amount has been reduced by half in comparison to last year.

Eligible residents will receive a total of HK$5,000, with an initial instalment of $3,000 in April based on the previous round of registration, and the remaining $2,000 during mid-year. For new eligible persons, upon registration, vouchers will be disbursed in two instalments around mid-year. Last year, there were six electronic platforms to choose from to collect the vouchers, including the Octopus Card, Tap and Go, Alipay HK, WeChat Pay HK, HSBC’s PayMe and Bank of China’s BoC Pay.

“HK$5,000 is the best we can do. Hong Kong is still in the initial stages of post-pandemic recovery,” Chan said in a press conference at the legislature after giving the budget speech.

He said the government this year will take a “moderately liberal” fiscal stance, expecting a HK$54.4 billion deficit and fiscal reserves at HK$762.9 billion, which equates to 12 months of government spending.

The Financial Secretary of Hong Kong, Paul Chan Mo-po, delivers the 2023-24 Budget in the Legislative Council on Wednesday, February 22 2023. (Photo Credit: HKSAR Government Press Releases)

The government has cut down the maximum salaries tax discount from last year’s $10,000 to $6,000, but has extended the Public Transport Fare Subsidy Scheme to October and will continue to provide electricity subsidy of a one-off $1,000 and $50 per month, as well as an extra half-month allowance to applicants of low income, old age and disability allowance schemes.

This marks the third time the government will be distributing electronic spending vouchers since 2021, despite demands from groups for cash handouts to pay bills. Allen Lai, the founder of Praxis, a social service ministry that provides support to more than 500 homeless people and elderly who are living alone in Yau Ma Tei, thinks these relief measures fail to address poverty in Hong Kong.

Allen Lai founded the social service ministry Praxis in 2019 to provide support for the homeless, elderly and those living in subdivided flats in Yau Ma Tei. (Photo Credit: Audrey Ng)

“Many elderly people don’t have the literacy to register for vouchers that are delivered only through electronic payment platforms. Some homeless people don’t even have Octopus cards; there is no way for them to recieve the money,” he said. He also shared that tenants of sub-divided flats can hardly benefit from the electricity subsidy scheme.

“With or without the subsidy, every month they are paying the flat owners the same amount that is even higher per square feet than the rent of private flats,” said Lai.

The inflation rate in Hong Kong continues to rise every year, recording a 2% increase last December. The public is weighed down by increasing costs of water, transport, basic food items, daily necessities, as well as energy, with CLP and HK Electric increasing electricity prices by 6.4% and 5.5% respectively due to the expensive fuel price intensified by the Russo-Ukrainian war.

Praxis visits homeless people every week to distribute food items and daily necessities. (Photo Credit: Audrey Ng)

Lai said handing out more subsidies to social service organizations would be an effective way to support underprivileged groups, as service providers are equipped with more resources to approach individuals and address personalized needs.

Lawmaker Tik Chi-yuen, from Third Side, criticized the government’s act of cutting down 1% spending in the social welfare sector at the press conference. He thinks it was unreasonable not to give more financial assistance and increase the workforce of care homes that provide services to the elderly and disabled people, where workers are currently facing tremendous pressure with a heavy workload.

The Budget of 2023-2024 has received mixed reactions from politicians and organizations with new plans including the “Happy Hong Kong” campaign consisting of gourmet festivals and a summer carnival, a higher tobacco levy and a range of schemes to attract overseas talents and initiate green technologies.

Featured image: Audrey Ng

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