Legislators slammed the Hong Kong government on Monday for not drawing up a timetable for delivering an adviser’s recommendation to boost childcare places amid an acute shortage.
A University of Hong Kong team led by Professor Paul Yip Siu-fai had advised the Labour and Welfare Bureau to formulate a planning ratio of 103 childcare places per 20,000 general population for children aged below three.
The figure would be reviewed continuously as household composition changed in the city.
The ratio was derived from a study the bureau commissioned in 2016 on the long-term development of childcare services.
The HKU report recommended 82 of the 103 places be for children aged under two, and the remainder for those aged two to three, given that the private sector showed relatively less interest in providing such services for the younger group.
That would mean 30,247 places for those under two, and 7,557 for the older group, across Hong Kong.
Based on 2016 by-census data, there were 111,240 children aged under two in Hong Kong, but only 1,831 places available for them.
While not all required childcare services, critics have long complained about the severe shortage of places.
Although the bureau accepted the recommendation last week, welfare minister Law Chi-kwong did not say when the government could deliver the near 38,000 recommended places.
At a Legislative Council welfare services panel meeting on Monday, the Labour Party’s Fernando Cheung Chiu-hung asked Law how the government would be able to meet the target given the large disparity with the current supply.
“The number of places in subsidised stand-alone childcare centres for those aged under two has dropped [over 20 years] to around 700,” Cheung said. “Besides just putting the figures out, do you have a specific plan on how you will implement the planning standard?”
Law said the ratio would be incorporated into the Hong Kong Planning Standards and Guidelines in 2019-20.
“In the future, any planning works, such as the building of public housing estates, can follow these standards but these will take more than 10 years,” he said.
Law said the bureau would fight for land to open childcare centres and engage NGOs to redevelop or extend some of their sites through a funding scheme.
These would take three to four years at the earliest, he said.
“We will try to fight for this, but it is not within our control,” Law said.
Cheung criticised Law for setting a target without a timeline.
The report also suggested improving the ratio of childcare workers to children for those under age two from 1:8 to at least 1:6, and for those aged two to three from 1:14 to 1:11.
Pro-establishment lawmaker Leung Che-cheung said the government should not set such a low target of just meeting 1:6 for the younger group, which was the standard back in 1976.
He also pointed to how South Korea and Finland had better ratios of 1:3 and 1:4 respectively.
But Law said it was not easy to hire people and that 1:6 was more feasible.
“Actually, I am not very confident that centres can really hire enough qualified childcare workers even after we provide them with the resources,” he admitted.