Hong Kong leader pledges US$1.2 billion in measures to benefit residents

SINGAPORE (The Straits Times/ANN) - Move comes as city's economy is battered by ongoing protests and US-China trade dispute.

Ahead of Hong Kong's annual budget on Feb 26, Chief Executive Carrie Lam, who is still struggling to deal with the biggest political crisis to hit the territory, has pledged to dole out HK$10 billion (S$1.73 billion) worth of relief measures to ease the burden of residents.

The package of 10 measures is focused on helping the vulnerable and is expected to benefit over a million people, she said yesterday.

For example, two existing schemes that provide financial assistance to the elderly - old age living allowance and higher old age living allowance - will be merged into one and the subsidy will be raised to HK$3,585 a month. The criteria for the subsidy will be relaxed, making tens of thousands more eligible for the scheme - a move that takes up half of the HK$10 billion.

Subsidised public transport at HK$2 per trip will be extended to those aged 60 and above, down from age 65.

The government will contribute to the mandatory provident fund savings of those who do not earn enough to do so on their own. The threshold now is set at HK$7,100 per month.

Mrs Lam also announced that the government will gradually increase the number of statutory holidays from 12 to 17 days, pending discussions with the business sector.

The 10 measures will be rolled out at different times, she said, adding: "Every proposed measure will require time for discussion before implementation."

Mrs Lam said the proposals are a continuation of her policy address in October last year. While the government had rejected some of the measures at that time, the change of mind stems from the government's "breakthrough in our thinking, that we should be listening more to the people", she said.

The planned relief measures will bring the total stimulus since last June to HK$35 billion.

Hong Kong's economy, hit by a double whammy of the United States and China trade war and seven months of protests now, sank into recession for the first time in a decade in the third quarter.

The Independent Police Complaints Council (IPCC) is also reviewing the Hong Kong police force's handling of anti-government protests on key dates, including June 9 and 12, July 1, Aug 1 and 31 - when major confrontations in and around the legislature, a citywide strike and clashes at Prince Edward MTR station took place. The police watchdog's review also covers the attack on passengers and protesters by white-clad men at Yuen Long MTR station on July 21.

Earlier in the day, Mrs Lam was asked by reporters before her weekly Executive Council meeting to confirm the IPCC's findings, which are said to highlight several police shortcomings, including events on June 12 when the police first fired tear gas to disperse the massive crowd at the government headquarters in Admiralty. It was reported by local media that the IPCC had found that the commander did not communicate clearly that day.

She said that she is not aware of the IPCC's findings, but once the findings are complete, the report will be handed to her directly and she will start work on it.

On setting up an independent inquiry as demanded by protesters, Mrs Lam stressed that the IPCC is an independent body that looks into complaints against the police.

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