The government has come under fresh criticism over its failure to plug loopholes in a public transport subsidy scheme that is leading to the waste of millions of taxpayer dollars in Hong Kong every year.
Pro-Beijing lawmaker Wilson Or Chong-shing said on Thursday some passengers eligible for a flat HK$2 (25 US cents) fare on designated public transport took long-haul buses for short trips.
When beneficiaries travelled this way, the government’s reimbursement to the operators is more than the amount for short-haul buses, with the extra cost earlier estimated to run into tens of millions of dollars a year.
Do you have questions about the biggest topics and trends from around the world? Get the answers with SCMP Knowledge, our new platform of curated content with explainers, FAQs, analyses and infographics brought to you by our award-winning team.
“The most unideal part [of the official response] is the government has not addressed this problem,” Or said in a radio show. “Any policies will have their own discrepancies. When it has been rolled out, the government should review and respond to them in a timely manner.”
The scheme, which was introduced in 2012, is aimed at helping to foster a caring and inclusive society by encouraging the elderly and people with disabilities to be more active in the community.
Secretary for Labour and Welfare Law Chi-kwong announced on Wednesday that eligible elderly residents would have to use a new personalised Octopus stored-value card to avoid abuse of the scheme. The programme would also be expanded to cover residents aged 60 to 64 on February 27.
But Law admitted that the new Octopus card would not guarantee residents only used the system in an appropriate way.
“We can only appeal to these people to consider the use of public money. If you have a choice, you can take a short-haul trip,” he said.
In a Transport Department study released in 2019, researchers found most of the scheme participants who took short trips on long-haul routes did so because the services ran more frequently and so was more convenient for them. Others suggested there were no convenient alternatives.
Based on the findings, it is estimated the government is wasting between HK$21 million (US$2.7 million) and HK$27 million a year.
Ticky Chan Tik-yiu, an executive at Public Transport Think Tank of Hong Kong, said the government had failed to educate elderly people on the need to take short-haul buses when they wanted to go somewhere nearby.
“The minimal thing to do is the government should first encourage them to take short-haul buses. But if there are really no alternatives, then there is no choice,” he said.