HC Deb 27 February 1967 vol 742 cc51-61

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Charles R. Morris.]

12.33 p.m.

Mr. James Johnson (Kingston upon Hull, West)

I understand that about 16 hon. Members visited Hong Kong last year. I was the last, overlapping the New Year. I was not satisfied with conditions there, nor yet were the 15 hon. Members who were there before me.

It is a wonderful experience to visit this Colony. It is exciting, fascinating and stimulating. There is plenty of movement. In fact, it is almost like a little Manhattan when one flies in. They have built a runway for jets about 9,000 yards long into the harbour bay. It is a dynamic society, with many Chinese busy building vast blocks of flats. Visiting the Colony is, indeed, a most stimulating and fascinating experience.

I was told that the former Secretary of State for the Colonies had been there before us. I gather that he was equally stimulated but that he came back with about 40 million dollars for the defence costs of the Colony. A number of people there thought that he might have come back with less and left a little behind for social services, but I shall come to this later.

I begin by giving the Minister a shock, although we have had two interviews on this matter since my return. The word "unique" is rather overworked in this House, but I think that it applies to two Colonies in their attitude towards Her Majesty's Government and Whitehall. One is Southern Rhodesia and the other is Hong Kong. Ian Smith has cocked a snook at Her Majesty's Government, and over the years it has been my impression that Hong Kong has been equally autonomous, despite not having self-government, like Rhodesia, since 1922. I say that because of the acts of her officials who believe that they can do all manner of things which I have not found happening in other Colonial Territories, particularly in Africa. I do not believe that these officials care very much about Whitehall.

There is here the classic situation of a small number of white people, officials in this case, not elected as perhaps they are in Southern Rhodesia, administering and legislating for about 4 million yellow people. The Legislative Council has not one elected member on it. The European heads of departments, defence, education, and so on, plus some nominated Chinese serve on it. The Chinese are invited to do so, being powerful and wealthy, and they are Hong Kong citizens, but, nevertheless, this is not democratic participation as I understand it in other Colonial Territories. Even twenty years ago in some of the smaller territories of Africa, such as Zanzibar and the Gambias, there was more participation by the local citizens than there is in Hong Kong.

There is a spider-work network of interlocking advisory committees. One does not know where they all get to, but this is not participation. It is not even consultation in a genuine sense, when, at the end of the day, a European head of department can do almost as he wishes, and appeals do not get very far.

I know the official explanation for this. I know that there is a mainland Chinese Communist party. I know that Peking could walk into the Colony tonight if it wished to do so, but it does not do so because of the financial and other benefits which it gets by maintaining the status quo.

I understand that there are about six or seven battalions stationed in Kowloon, but these would not stop the Chinese if they wished to come down to the Southern boundary of the New Territories, which they will obviously claim in 1997 when the present 99-year lease is up. We are concessionaries in Kowloon. We are the tenants and the Chinese Government are the landlords. For the time being they wish us to stay there because of the many benefits which we provide. Knowing these facts of life about the Communists on the mainland, let us have a few elected members on the council, even a small minority, so that we get at least a wind blowing through the committee. Let them serve alongside the white official and wealthy Chinese tycoons who, at the discretion of the Governor, are invited to serve.

During the meetings that I had in Kowloon I did not meet one shop steward who in any way wishes to take away from the Governor what he does on behalf of Her Majesty's Government by way of defence, external affairs, police, law and order, and so on, because these functions are essential to the stability and well-being of the Colony. Nor do we wish to antagonise the Communist State to the north.

I propose now to say a word about local government. At present there is a so-called urban council which, as far as I could find out, mainly issues licences for hawkers. Goodness knows how many there are—there may be 50,000 or 80,000 on the pavements. This council issues licences to the hawkers and also looks after amenities in only part of the Colony. As far as I could see, the amenities consisted of some cement steps down to bathing beaches and one or two small parks in the urban areas.

What I am saying is that these intelligent, able and educated people in Hong Kong feel that they are given no chance to participate in administering their own affairs. I do not wish to bore the House with the details, but I spoke to a number of political associations, Democratic Self-Government Party, Civic Association, Reform League and so on, where there are plenty of intelligent, able people who are seething with a desire to help.

There is a lot of local agitation, but I am afraid it is regarded as a nuisance by the local oligarchy of white officials. There is a lady—Councillor Mrs. Elliott. I have a suspicion that she is being pushed about by the Hong Kong Colonial Secretary, Mr. Gass, and others because of what is on the record over the Star Ferry disturbances and the Kowloon rioting some months ago. I happen to know this lady shares in the headship of a school catering for over 4,000 Chinese pupils. She wishes to have new buildings and a new development site. She cannot get them, although I understand that the Education Departments is in favour and thinks that it is a good thing. Who is holding it up? I have a suspicion that certain people are opposed to this.

I do not want to misquote the Governor, for I found His Excellency a most liberal-minded man in discussing these local government matters. I understand that a blueprint is being prepared in respect of municipal reform, in the shape of a future municipal assembly. I have here a booklet, which I will not open, consisting of the report of a work- ing party which has been studying local administration in Hong Kong and has reported to the Governor. I hope that the Minister will say something about this later. I shall listen avidly to what she has to tell me.

I now turn to the question of the conditions of industrial workers and of factory legislation in the Colony. The South China Morning Post—that very reactionary local newspaper—has a leading article called "Target Hong Kong" referring to people like my colleagues and I who have gone out to the Colony. The article says that it is scarcely surprising that visitors from other, more advanced, countries should be shocked by what they see here … To this extent, therefore, Mr. James Johnson, a Labour M.P. … could be forgiven had he wondered if he had not strayed to another planet. This is what was said by a local pillar of the Press. I did wonder.

I visited many mills there, not least the East Asia Textile Mills, where there had been a lock-out and much disturbance early in December. I know that public servants and industrialists in the Colony cannot hit back at what I say in this Chamber. Nevertheless, I must state categorically that working conditions in Hong Kong are so fantastic that they just cannot be reconciled with the principles which brought the Labour Government—my Government—into power. For instance, women and young persons still work a maximum legal week of 60 hours—ten hours a day—with permitted overtime amounting to 100 hours per year. Even so, some firms are prosecuted for violating this legal maximum.

As far as I can gather, the only justification for the conditions existing in Hong Kong is that they are no worse than those that obtain in China, from where most Hong Kong workers came. In other words, our yardstick is Communist China. The conditions for women and juveniles who work in Hong Kong are worse than in other Asian territories—not Commonwealth territories and such places like Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, but alien places as Seoul, Manila and Tokyo. It is shocking that this description should apply to a Colony administered by a Governor and officials who are ultimately accountable to the House.

I have here a letter from the General Secretary to the International Textile and Garment Workers' Federation—Mr. Jack Greenhalgh—who says: All that we"— the Federation— are trying to achieve for the time being, is for Asiatic standards to be applied in Hong Kong. This might sound rather surprising, for no one can claim that Asiatic standards are satisfactory. We have to face the fact, however, that under British rule, working conditions are worse than they are in any other country of the free world. I hope that my hon. Friend will pay attention to this, because I gather that the former Colonial Minister was in Hong Kong during the summer and spoke of future labour legislation.

I have so little time left to talk about other social services. A wonderful job has been done in housing. Flats have been built to cope with the amazing influx of over 1 million refugees from the mainland in a short period in the early 1950s. Nevertheless, there are some very wealthy upper layers of people in Hong Kong. More could be done for the poor, especially in elementary education. Again I have no time to quote a speech made by Mr. Cheong-Leen, the young and able leader of the Civic Association, speaking in the urban council a short while ago; when he said that the Secretary of State had been there and had come away with some 40 million dollars for defence purposes. He hoped that more could be done inside the Colony in respect of social services, and not least in respect of elementary education. It must be remembered that poor parents—not only the rich—still have to pay fees for their sons and daughters to go to school.

I have spoken of the need for legislation in the cotton mills and elsewhere. When I visited the Labour Department I was told by the Labour Commissioner that it was difficult to enforce labour laws and that therefore they had not yet reached the stage of legislating. I can say only that if a former Minister of Education—George Tomlinson—had been told the same thing, as a young half-timer in the Lancashire mills at the turn of the century, he would have had something to say. The need for passing legislation is vital, even if it could be enforced only 50 per cent., because that might deter others whom one could not get at by official inspection and fining.

In the Colony I found literally thousands of people seething with a desire to take a larger part in administering their own affairs, but I also found a small oligarchy of civil servants, at the apex of society, with little desire to give up their powers and privileges. They could be compared—in a different context—with the white settlers in Africa who do not wish to yield up their powers.

My hon. Friend knows that only last week the hon. Member for Wanstead and Woodford (Mr. Patrick Jenkin) and I joined forces in referring to the widespread allegations of corruption of the police. These allegations have been made by too many people for my comfort—people in all levels of society, of all colours, and in all positions. I, and others, have discussed the matter with the Governor, who was most helpful. I am aware of his difficult position, and I know what he intends to do to curb some of the activities of the police and officials down the line; in dealing in narcotics, dope peddling and also simple bribes of policemen on the beat to obtain pitches for hawkers on the pavements. I know the difficulties, but I ask my hon. Friend seriously to consider setting up a commission of inquiry into the affairs of this most unusual Colony.

12.50 p.m.

Mr. John Tilney (Liverpool, Wavertree)

As I was in Hong Kong a year ago and hope to be there next Monday, I should like to thank the hon. Member for Kingston-upon-Hull, West (Mr. James Johnson) for raising the question of Hong Kong, although I do not agree with many of the things he said. I, too, have been around many of the industrial plants and have seen some of the housing developments, particularly the use of roofs, which we might copy. I saw the prison system and went to the Island of Lantau and was most impressed. Again, we might copy some of their ideas.

Of course, the standard of living is lower, but the hon. Member forgets the appalling refugee problem and the fact that Hong Kong had to turn itself from an entrepôt commerce-minded community into an industrial one. The partnership—I do not accept the phrase "white oligarchy"—between Britain and the Chinese race has achieved something which the mainland Chinese might well copy. It is remarkable what free enterprise and a capitalist system have done in Hong Kong. Many different parts of the world might well copy that.

Certainly the standard of living is immensely higher than what I saw in Red China a few years ago. I hope that the Minister of State will bear in mind that, if we try to force democracy on Hong Kong, Red China will object strongly—

Mr. John Rankin (Glasgow, Govan)

It is not true.

Mr. Tilney

Indeed, it is bad enough to have two Chinas—on Taiwan and the mainland—but Red China would certainly not accept a democratic Hong Kong—

Mr. Rankin

It is not true.

Mr. Tilney

Finally, would the Minister of State pay tribute to what Hong Kong has achieved, which I think is remarkable?

12.52 p.m.

The Minister of State, Commonwealth Affairs (Mrs. Judith Hart)

I welcome debates on any Colonial Territories, but particularly on Hong Kong. What this morning has shown is that we could well do with an occasion which allowed more hon. Members to participate in a debate on this subject. I hope that someone will find an opportunity to create such an occasion before very long.

It is quite clear that the problems of Hong Kong, with the sharp contrast between prosperity and poverty, which has been mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston-upon-Hull, West (Mr. James Johnson), both of which are very much on the surface, and the conditions in industry, give rise to the strongest feelings. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for having raised this subject. As he knows, I have not yet been able to visit Hong Kong, though I hope to go there as soon as I can. The House will know that the Commonwealth Secretary will be spending a little time there in his Commonwealth tour, and I am looking forward to hearing his impressions when he comes back.

I should like to turn to the question of labour conditions in industry. My hon. Friend knows that I have discussed this with him and with Mr. Greenhalgh and with other hon. Friends, and I know that this question has rightly exercised the minds of many hon. Members. In particular, my hon. Friend has, rightly and reasonably, shown concern over the conditions and hours of work of women and young children. I cannot say a great deal about this today, but I share his concern in the matter and hope that, in the near future, Hong Kong will take a further step forward to improve the hours of work of these two categories of people.

To put the matter in perspective, I should point out that night work for women is, of course, prohibited and factory regulations made in 1959 ensure that there is at least one rest day a week for women and young persons. There is, of course, a difficulty here, when one studies what the International Labour Organisation has done, in relation to the fact that we in Britain, because of our trade union preferences and conditions, have not ratified some of the I.L.O. Regulations which we might otherwise wish to apply to Hong Kong, for reasons which I think all hon. Members understand and support. This creates a particular difficulty. As I have said, I hope that there will be a step forward on this in the relatively near future.

I turn now to the constitutional position and the possibilities for reform which there might be. As my hon. Friend has said, Hong Kong is ruled through the Governor, the Executive Council and the Legislative Council. To put the facts on record, of the 13 members of the Executive Council, eight are nominated unofficials, four are Chinese, three are European and one is from the Portuguese community. The Legislative Council has 12 official and 13 unofficial members. They are all nominated members and, of the unofficial members, nine are Chinese, three are Europeans and one is Indian.

As most hon. Members realise, and as has been said on both sides today, Hong Kong is in a completely different position from any other of our Colonies. For international reasons alone, there are problems in planning for the usual orderly progress towards self-government. Because of Hong Kong's particular relationship with China, it would not be possible to think of the normal self-government and not possible, therefore, to consider an elected Legislative Council.

However, in local government, I agree that some progress can, should and will be made. My hon. Friend referred to the report which has just been published in Hong Kong. At present, of course, the Urban Council, which does contain elected members, has a statutory responsibility for operating certain limited services in the urban areas of Hong Kong and Kowloon in public health and is also responsible for the removal and resettlement of squatters in the urban area. The Council consists of five ex-officio members and 20 unofficial members, 10 of whom are elected and 10 appointed by the Governor.

To examine the possibilities of advance in this respect, the Governor set up an official working party in April last year, to undertake preliminary examination of the problems of local administration. The working party's report was released on 14th February. It represents the personal views of the working party only and it has been published in the hope that public comment can now be stimulated, public views ascertained and public opinion taken into account in deciding what should be the next move forward.

The report is based on a concept of local government which is operated in many countries, although it differs somewhat from the present system in Hong Kong. It suggests that a majority of members of all local authorities—it provides for local authorities covering the different areas of the Colony—should be elected by local residents. It envisages that there should be certain specified responsibilities, which are now discharged by the central government on a Colony-wide basis, undertaken by separate bodies, each of which would concern itself with one locality.

These new organisations or local authorities would be corporate bodies established by law and the functions to be conferred on them would be carefully selected, bearing in mind both the state of development of the authority and the fact that the small size of Hong Kong itself imposes a limit on the range of duties which can conceivably be performed for the whole Colony.

In the limited time left, I cannot go into greater details, but it should be said that an advance of this nature—the publication of the report and the consideration which will now be given to it—should give some satisfaction to those in Hong Kong who would like a greater say in the control of their domestic affairs. I believe that it is in this direction, giving more powers to local authorities, and in providing for a more democratic basis of representation on the local authorities that we should now consider moving in such a way that we do not disturb the top-level relationship between the existing Legislative Council and China and the rest of South-East Asia.

It is important that we should see the problems of Hong Kong in perspective. To this extent, I agree with the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Mr. Tilney). It was left poverty-stricken as the result of the war. It has had a tremendous growth of population, partly as a result of the refugee problem and partly as a result of natural growth. The natural increase alone is now 100,000 a year. This is a small area which is, in general, unsuitable for living in and the densities are, of course, very high.

Much has been done, and I think my hon. Friends will agree that there has been considerable progress—if not enough yet—in housing, social welfare, education and health. There is much further to go and I think that the suggestions of my hon. Friend, and, indeed, the interest which this House shows in the problems of Hong Kong will ensure that there is even more rapid progress in future—

The debate having been concluded, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER suspended the Sitting till half-past Two o'clock pursuant to Order.

Sitting resumed at 2.30 p.m.