The Minister who kicked the Hornets' Nest

It's hard to believe Stieg Larsson hasn't somehow been writing the script for Labour Secretary Matthew Cheung in recent weeks.

First a little background for those who may not have followed the saga closely.

In 2007, the Government introduced on a pilot basis a travel subsidy arrangement called Transport Support Scheme (TSS) to help low income individuals living in four districts deemed to be remote (Islands, North, Yuen Long, Tuen Mun) go to their place of employment. The idea was to encourage residents of those districts to look for jobs and stay in employment by giving them $600 per month to help cover the extra costs of travel.

Some minor improvements were introduced in 2008 but in January 2009, LegCo Members passed a resolution urging the Administration to introduce further improvements by cancelling the one-year limit, extending the scheme to all districts and including part -time workers.

The Government's response was that this would completely change the intended nature of the scheme as it would become in effect a permanent income supplement for the low paid.

After a review, the Government announced in December last year a proposal to replace the TSS with a Work Incentive Transport Subsidy scheme.

WITS includes all employed (including self employed) persons from low income families "irrespective of the travelling distance, mode of transport and actual travelling expenses". It covers all districts and there is no time limit. In effect then, WITS is permanent income support for the low paid.

Despite these improvements, some criticized the new scheme because part-time workers (those working less than 72 hours per month) are still excluded, and they thought imposing income limits on a household rather than individual basis would be unfair, the income limits were too low, and the proposed implementation arrangements were too slow.

Various counterproposals have been put forward to address these points. For example Oxfam proposed paying half the allowance to everyone working more than 32 hours.

Purists have attacked the scheme in principle as a subsidy, welfare groups have attacked it in practice as insufficient.

A minor brouhaha involving the Catholic Church broke out when it emerged that WITS might punish couples who got married, while those who just lived together would probably be OK.

Another distraction was the allegedly anomalous situation of homosexual couples.

Storms in tea cups all of them but taken together quite a stir.

With the revised scheme due to go before Finance Committee for approval on 18 February, Mr Cheung flatly rejected making any changes to the package when he spoke to the media on Valentine's Day.

But almost within hours, legislator Lee Cheuk Yan announced that he had assembled a coalition with enough votes to block the funding request. He even went a step further, saying that the group had almost reached a consensus on a package that it was prepared to support and that this would "help the Government".

The implications of Mr Lee's remark go way beyond the subject under discussion, important though it is. The Government is supposed to consult widely before it brings forward new policy proposals so what emerges should be pretty close to the final product. Some last minute fine-tuning to secure votes is permissible.

But to go further than this, to have groups of LegCo Members put together their own substantive proposals, might also constitute a move away from the executive led government prescribed by our Basic Law.

Faced with this offer of "help", by Wednesday Mr Cheung had done an abrupt about face, and was quickly back-tracking, scurrying around trying to seek a compromise by offering concessions on matters which barely 48 hours earlier he had claimed were untouchable. By Thursday two major changes were on the table.

Not a very dignified spectacle, but I think we should all have some sympathy for our Labour Minister. He set out with good intentions to help the poor, and both TSS and WITS go some way towards achieving that objective.

But in the process he stirred up a Hornets' Nest and induced Lee Cheuk Yan to Play with Fire.

He may be looking for a lucky talisman to change his luck and calm things down. Can I suggest a Dragon Tattoo?