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Government submits to LegCo draft Committee Stage Amendments to Private Columbaria Bill
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The Government submitted to the Legislative Council (LegCo)'s Bills Committee on Private Columbaria Bill today (March 31) draft Committee Stage Amendments (CSAs) which propose to amend some of the provisions in the Bill under scrutiny. The CSAs, which include the ash interment arrangements for niches in dated columbaria that were sold before the announcement time of the Bill but yet to be filled, serve to address the concerns and suggestions raised by the public and various stakeholders.

According to the Bill announced in June 2014, after the new legislation comes into operation, for those pre-Bill columbaria that intend to apply for exemption in lieu of having to obtain a licence for continuing their operation, not only would they have to meet the eligibility criterion of having commenced operation before January 1, 1990 (dated columbaria) and other requirements, they must cease selling (including letting out) new or unoccupied niches as from the announcement time of the Bill (i.e. 8am on June 18, 2014). In other words, the ash interment quantity will be frozen at the level prevailing at the Bill announcement time.

“Regarding the requirement of freezing the number of sets of ashes interred in niches at the time when the Bill was announced for a dated private columbarium intending to apply for exemption status, some members of the public and stakeholders have expressed concerns about this arrangement, and consider that the Government should adopt a more flexible approach, so that the frozen ash interment quantity in these dated columbaria could cover those niches that were sold before the Bill announcement time but the use of which is called for after that time," a spokesman for the Food and Health Bureau said.

"Having considered the actual situation, we have decided to introduce draft CSAs whereby a dated columbarium would still be eligible to apply for exemption if it inters ashes before the enactment of the Bill in niches that were sold before the Bill announcement time but yet to be filled. However, in order to prevent abuse, any such columbarium must properly keep the relevant contracts and records of interment for future examination by the Licensing Board and the enforcement authority. If the relevant dated columbarium is granted the exemption status in future, it may continue to inter ashes during the validity period of the exemption in niches sold before the Bill announcement time but yet to be filled.

"Allowing bona fide consumers and operators to inter ashes into niches that were sold before the Bill announcement time but yet to be filled is considered a reasonable and empathetic arrangement. After all, to qualify for exemption, a columbarium must cease the selling of any niches after the Bill announcement time. Hence, its scale of operation will still be frozen at the level prevailing at the time when the Bill was announced and subject to control through the regulatory regime," the spokesman explained.

If any columbarium operator or intermediary or consumer falsely claims that the niche in which ashes are being interred is sold before the Bill announcement time, with intent to deceive the Government, thus resulting in prejudice to the Government, that person commits the offence of fraud under the Theft Ordinance (Cap 210), the maximum penalty of which is imprisonment for 14 years. And if any operator or intermediary or consumer conspires to deceive the Government, that person commits the offence of conspiracy to defraud. Such an act is contrary to Common Law and punishable under the Crimes Ordinance (Cap 200), the maximum penalty of which is also imprisonment for 14 years.

The spokesman reminds members of the public again that after the enactment of the Bill, only private columbaria that have obtained a licence may sell niches. Whether the existing private columbaria would be able to obtain a licence after the enactment of the Bill is uncertain. Even if a private columbarium obtains a licence, the operator or consumers could not foretell at present the maximum ash interment capacity that would be allowed for the licence.

As such, members of the public must be cautious and stay vigilant when purchasing or renting private columbaria niches. They are well advised to refrain from making any rash decision. Since the purchase of niches is a matter of private contracts, consumers are advised to ascertain if terms giving due protection to their interests are included, and to seek independent legal opinion if they have any queries, with a view to forestalling losses.

Should members of the public need to use niches before the enactment of the Bill, they may wish to consider options including temporary storage of ashes; making use of niches already allocated by the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department or the Board of Management of the Chinese Permanent Cemeteries for placing additional sets of ashes; scattering the ashes in Garden of Remembrance or at sea; or keeping the ashes at home.

For details of the CSAs, members of the public may visit the webpage of the Legislative Council: www.legco.gov.hk/index.html.

Ends/Thursday, March 31, 2016
Issued at HKT 21:00

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