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Government conducts consultation on licensing scheme for private columbaria

The Government today (December 13) issued a consultation document to solicit further views from the public on its proposed licensing scheme to strengthen the regulation of private columbaria. The consultation exercise will last for about three and a half months, closing on March 30, 2012.

The Secretary for Food and Health, Dr York Chow, introduced the Public Consultation on the Licensing Scheme for Private Columbaria to the Panel on Food Safety and Environmental Hygiene of the Legislative Council today.

"We have set out a number of detailed proposals relating to the regulatory framework of the licensing scheme. We welcome views from the public," he said.

The Public Consultation Document on Licensing Scheme for Private Columbaria covers a wide range of areas. The Government proposes to formulate a new piece of legislation titled the Private Columbaria Ordinance, under which all private columbaria, unless exempted, shall be subject to regulation under the licensing scheme. A statutory Private Columbaria Licensing Board will also be set up as the licensing authority.

In formulating the regulatory framework of the licensing scheme, the Government's main considerations are: (1) a robust but pragmatic way forward; (2) respect for arrangements already made under traditional customs; (3) due regard for the living; and (4) sustainable development of the trade.

The licensing scheme will impose appropriate regulation on private columbaria in various aspects, including the right of the columbarium operator to use the premises, compliance with all statutory requirements and land lease conditions, management of niches and consumer protection. A licence to operate a private columbarium shall be valid for five years, subject to renewal.

"The licensee will be required to comply with a list of licensing conditions, including entering into a contract with consumers, keeping a register of patrons, formulating a management plan, setting up a maintenance fund and submitting a maintenance report, as well as complying with a Code of Practice promulgated by the licensing authority," Dr Chow said.

"The legislation will also regulate how operators handle cremains upon business cessation. We consider that it will be the responsibility of the operator to exert all reasonable efforts to get in touch with the owners/descendents, and to sustain such efforts over a period of time while keeping the interred cremains intact. The operator's task would only be completed when satisfactory arrangements in respect of all the interred cremains have been made with the owners/descendents. Failure to do so would be an offence. We recommend that the maximum penalty for such an offence should be pitched at a relatively heavy level and include imprisonment."

The consultation document also covers arrangements for pre-existing private columbaria. At present, there are many private columbaria which have operated for many years in the market, providing a place for the storage of cremains of deceased family members for many members of the public. However, some of them do not meet all the statutory or Government requirements. Dr Chow considers that these columbaria should actively seek regularisation, so as to obtain a licence for legitimate operation under the future regulatory regime.

"We understand that it takes time to seek regularisation. To allow the operators of those private columbaria which cannot satisfy all the licensing requirements to maintain the operation of the columbaria, they will be given temporary suspension from liability under the licensing scheme. The purpose of giving such temporary suspension from liability is to allow the operator to continue maintaining the operation of the niches already sold while working to regularise its irregularities," he said.

"Any columbaria given temporary suspension from liability should strive to regularise its irregularities and freeze the sale of its remaining niches. The licensing authority may also attach conditions to such suspension."

Regarding views suggesting that the Government should handle the historical legacy of the pre-existing unauthorised private columbaria in a pragmatic manner during the first public consultation, Dr Chow said, "While being open-minded about the concept and conditions of exemption, we would like to gauge public views before proceeding to the formulation of the relevant policy and its details.

"However, we are of the view that under no circumstances should private columbaria that pose obvious or imminent danger in terms of building and fire safety be exempted from the licensing scheme. Exempted private columbaria would still be required to comply with the conditions imposed by the licensing authority, including cessation of sale of their remaining niches, reduction of noise and air pollution, etc."

Meanwhile, the Government also proposes that the private columbaria operating within private cemeteries listed under Schedule 5 to the Public Health and Municipal Services Ordinance, as well as undertakers of burials, be exempted from the licensing scheme. It is considered that the latter only provide temporary storage of cremains.

The Government aims to introduce the Bill into the Legislative Council in the last quarter of 2013 at the earliest. In the run-up to this, the Government will enhance consumer education in this regard.

Dr Chow again reminded those who intend to purchase private columbarium niches to obtain full and complete information from the operators, including how the operators would protect consumer rights should the columbaria concerned close down or be prohibited from operating. Where necessary, members of the public should seek independent legal advice.

He also urged private columbarium operators to comply strictly with the relevant statutory and Government requirements, adding that those private columbaria currently in breach of these requirements should strive to seek regularisation from the relevant authorities.

"The Government will deal with these issues according to law and the departments concerned will continue to follow up non-compliant cases under their respective mandate," he said.

While enhancing the regulation of private columbaria, the Government is also striving to increase the supply of public niches. The construction of a public columbarium with a garden of remembrance at Kiu Tau Road, Wo Hop Shek, will be completed in July 2012 to provide about 43 000 niches. Also, the idea of identifying appropriate sites in various districts to develop columbaria is supported by the general public. The Government has identified 24 potential sites in all 18 districts across the territory and has secured the support of the relevant District Councils for the Diamond Hill Columbarium extension project and Cheung Chau Cemetery extension project. Technical feasibility studies of the remaining sites are underway and the relevant District Councils will be consulted starting from 2012. Together with the supply of niches in Chinese Permanent Cemeteries, there will be about 120 000 new niches in the coming five years, and hundreds of thousands of new niches in the medium and long term.

Copies of the consultation document can be downloaded from the website of the Food and Health Bureau (www.fhb.gov.hk). Views and comments can be sent to the Food Branch of the Food and Health Bureau by post to 17/F, East Wing, Central Government Offices, 2 Tim Mei Avenue, Tamar, Hong Kong; by email to ccc@fhb.gov.hk; or by fax to 2136 3282, by March 30, 2012.

To enable the Government to learn more about the situation regarding private columbaria in Hong Kong, the Food and Health Bureau has designed a form for the public to provide the Government with more information about private columbaria. This information will help the Government to formulate a licensing scheme for private columbaria commensurate with the actual situation. The information form is attached to the consultation document or can be downloaded from the website of the Food and Health Bureau. Completed forms can be returned to the Food Branch of the Food and Health Bureau by the same means as above.

Ends/Tuesday, December 13, 2011
Issued at HKT 19:58