HC Deb 05 December 1984 vol 69 cc445-72

Ordered, That, at this day's sitting, the Motion relating to the Hong Kong agreement may be proceeded with, though opposed, until Twelve o'clock.—[Mr. Major.]

Question again proposed.

Mr. Stanbrook

Nationality issues are rather more complex. We thought when we passed the British Nationality Act 1981 that it was substantive and definitive. I wrote a textbook on the strength of that proposition, but it looks as though I shall have to write a fresh edition fairly soon. As the right hon. Member for South Down (Mr. Powell) said, we have already made alterations to that legislation. It is clear from the British memorandum attached to the draft agreement that the Government are proposing to change the law of British nationality once again by creating a fresh category of citizenship. It apparently will not be British citizenship because the right of abode in the United Kingdom is specifically ruled out, so the people concerned will not become British citizens. Nor will it be British dependent territory citizenship, as that must end in Hong Kong on 30 June 1997 when sovereignty passes. It is inevitable that that species of citizenship should also end. According to the memorandum, they will get what is rather obscurely called "appropriate status".

It is suggested that that "appropriate status" might be that of British overseas citizens. That status carries few rights and few obligations except those on the United Kingdom Government. Those who now hold it are spread around the world. They already number well over 1 million. They have no right of abode in the United Kingdom and mostly live in independent countries which were formally part of the British Empire. They have retained this status because of faulty legislation of the past, in that it is a claim on future British Governments in regard to their citizenship rights. It is a species of British nationality and perhaps creates a moral obligation.

It is quite clear that, irrespective of whether "appropriate status", as described in the agreement, turns out to be British overseas citizenship, we will be adding to our existing embarrassment in having large numbers of people around the world who have this form of moral claim on the United Kingdom, and unnecessarily so. According to the official Foreign Office estimate, there are 3 million British dependent territory citizens in Hong Kong who, on 1 July 1997, will get the new citizenship. Their number will be added to the more than 1 million existing British overseas citizens. What rights will those 4 million people have? They will have the right to some kind of travel document or passport issued by the United Kingdom, entitling them to travel round the world under the diplomatic and consular protection of Her Britannic Majesty.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (Norfolk, North-West)

What is wrong with that?

Mr. Stanbrook

There is a great deal wrong with that. They will be hostages to immense trouble and problems arising from the fact that they do not have a proper citizenship, although they have rights against this country. In many cases, those rights eventually terminate with the presence here of such people who then become entitled to full British citizenship.

Many of us who were on the Standing Committee which considered the British Nationality Bill hoped that such a continuing obligation would end naturally with the absorption of the people in question into the citizenships of the countries in which they live. Apparently, we were wrong. Even worse, we are now adding to the number of people who will be able to travel around the world in that way. In this case, they will have the right to live in Hong Kong, to leave Hong Kong freely and, in theory, to return there with the right of abode there, but in the meantime they will be entitled to draw upon the protection of the United Kingdom Government.

The 3 million people concerned are mostly of Chinese ethnic origin. We understand from the Chinese memorandum that such people will automatically be entitled to Chinese nationality. A number, however, will not be defined as Chinese compatriots. The official Foreign Office figure for those people is about 6,000. They include people who have been naturalised as citizens of the United Kingdom and Colonies in Hong Kong and people born in Hong Kong. As my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Adley) said, many of them will be of Indian origin and, I dare say, will have some prospect of settling in India.

These people constitute a different group, likely to become "stateless" but having a continuing right to call upon Britain. Many of them have a genuine expectation of assistance from us. According to figures supplied to me by my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary, 188 of them were naturalised in Hong Kong. If such people become stateless and do not receive the status of British overseas citizens or British dependent territories citizens, or the "appropriate status", I believe that they should be considered separately from the rest of the 6,000 and that special arrangements should be made for them.

Provision of that kind is fraught with problems and likely to involve us in considerable difficulties with individual people, but I believe that special provision should be made because when those people became citizens of the United Kingdom and Colonies, albeit in the colony of Hong Kong, they swore allegiance to the Queen and no doubt believed and expected that their British passports made them British, with all the rights entailed by that. In 1997, however, their status will be terminated. I believe that in their case that would be unfair, considering the circumstances and the fact that they will not get Chinese nationality. We should make special provision for them and perhaps give them British citizenship. If we do not do so, we shall be storing up trouble for ourselves and at the same time depriving ourselves of the industry and talent of some very remarkable people who, out of all proportion to their numbers, have helped to make Hong Kong the remarkable place that it is.

10.9 pm

Mr. Ken Eastham (Manchester, Blackley)

I apologise to the House for having been absent when the two Front Bench spokesmen made their speeches. I was attending the Select Committee on Employment. I am sure that the House understands that hon. Members do other things besides attending the Chamber. I have explained that point because I may repeat some of the remarks that have already been made.

I was privileged to visit Hong Kong a few weeks ago. It is of great benefit for an hon. Member to see a country at first hand rather than seeing documents. I was surprised, even shocked, to see the great dimensions of success, drive and energy that Hong Kong is enjoying. There is obviously a spirit of co-operation, and I am glad to say that it prevails between the Government and the people as well. I pay special tribute to the Civil Service, which seems a most excellent and competent body.

Before I went to Hong Kong, the Green Paper making recommendations on the proposals for electoral reform had been issued. When I arrived, being accustomed to the democratic system in the United Kingdom, I thought that there would be great enthusiasm, and people would be pressing on the doors, demanding to have the recommendations implemented immediately. I was surprised to learn that many people in Hong Kong were satisfied and were taking their time to say what they wanted. There seemed to prevail among them the wish that there be a process of gradual change. I must confess that when I spoke to one or two of the Hong Kong people I felt rather impatient, but this was probably because of the traditions of the United Kingdom. I felt wiser after I had returned, and understood some of the traditions of the Chinese people. I still believe in the democratic system and in elected bodies. In 1997, we should leave the people of Hong Kong with a system of which they will approve and be proud.

Registration is important. In the past the number of people who registered was extremely low, but there was a genuine attempt by the civil servants to encourage Hong Kong citizens to take up registration so that they could participate in the coming elections. I am sure that all hon. Members who have been to Hong Kong and had meetings with various sectors in the community would still nail their colours to the mast and say that they believe in free speech, the freedom of religion and of travel, the right to strike and to organise. There should be a balanced and a caring society from that basis.

When I was in Hong Kong, the assessment office had just been opened, and the following week it went into operation. My hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Deakins) was there with me, and we closely questioned officers and asked how they would approach this problem. Both sides agreed that it would be rather difficult. There was a genuine attempt to get some true cross-section assessment as to what people felt. I was delighted to note that nearly three million copies of the White Paper had been printed and circulated. To distribute nearly three million copies of the White Paper to a population slightly larger than 5.3 million was no mean achievement. I should say that it was an honest endeavour to consult the people. I hope sincerely that there were no citizens who did not respond because of fear. I am sure that the assessment officers were anxious to ensure that their deliberations were fully representative. It seems that there was general approval. It seems also that a most excellent job was done. One recognises that there will always be qualifications, and some were included in the assessment summary. However, I feel confident that the agreement has the support of the Hong Kong people.

It pleases me to think that people in the United Kingdom are genuinely interested in the people of Hong Kong. I received a letter only the other day from the Greater Manchester county ecumenical council. The council addressed itself to Hong Kong and I took it as a sign that British people are genuinely interested in the important future of the people of Hong Kong. The council's letter is a fairly representative document. It includes the views of church leaders and representatives of the Anglican, Roman Catholic and free church of the area.

One paragraph states: people from Hong Kong who were once British subjects have been progressively stripped of a meaningful nationality and the rights that go with it, to be left after the recent British Nationality Act with a second-class British dependent territories citizenship. The letter continues: The British Government should recognise its responsibilities towards the Vietnamese refugees in closed camps in Hong Kong. I agree with those sentiments. I took the trouble to see for myself some of the conditions of the unfortunate Vietnamese refugees. I do not believe that the refugees are solely the responsibility of the British Government, and they are certainly not the responsibility of the Hong Kong Government. Unfortunately, we all seem to be casualties of the Vietnamese war. The warring factions withdrew and left the problem of the refugees to others. The refugees are floating around, landing in different countries and creating a serious problem. They should not receive inhuman treatment, but I wish that other countries, especially the United States, would take a greater part in facing some of the problems that have confronted the Hong Kong people as a result of the war.

The council's letter observes that: Hong Kong residents…will not become Chinese citizens on the eversion of the Colony to the People's Republic (i.e. those not born on Chinese/Hong Kong territory and without Chinese ancestry). There will be serious problems for those people and they should receive sympathetic consideration.

Furthermore, everybody appears to believe that it is a good agreement. I congratulate the Governor, who was very closely involved over many weeks and meetings in negotiating the deal. We must now encourage the people of Hong Kong to feel confident. Nevertheless, we have to recognise that the citizens of Hong Kong will always have reservations about the agreement, because 2.7 million of the inhabitants are refugees from the mainland on account of the tortuous period of the Chinese cultural revolution. It has led to a certain element of fear and distrust among those people. Therefore I hope that these 2.7 million citizens out of the 5.3 million citizens of Hong Kong will feel confident that the agreement includes them, that there will be no reprisals and that together with the remainder of the people of Hong Kong they will be able to look forward with confidence to the future.

Turning to industry, it is believed by many people that the industries of Hong Kong are based upon textiles and clothing. That is not the case. Hong Kong has made great strides in electronics. There may, therefore, be problems unless something is done about this problem. The United States, for example, has introduced an embargo upon electronics. Unless that kind of problem is resolved it will be very damaging to the electronics industry in Hong Kong. One has to stand still only for six months or for 12 months in the electronics industry and the company dies. The technology is changing all the time. Therefore, this aspect needs to be carefully considered.

When I left Hong Kong I made one comment about the proposed agreement. It may not meet with the approval of everybody. However, I believe that the agreement should be endorsed by the United Nations. I do not mean to insult the Chinese Government or the British Government. However, this will be an international agreement. Therefore I believe that the United Nations ought to be involved.

Whatever agreements are signed and whatever may happen in 1997, other fundamentally important matters will have to be considered. The most important of these is lasting friendship between the United Kingdom and the people of Hong Kong. We have fostered very good relationships for many years. There is no reason why we should not look forward confidently to good business relationships after 1997. We should not adopt the attitude that after 1997 the curtain will be rung down. There is no reason why arrangements should not be made through the Chinese Government for a conference to be held every year or every two years after 1997 in order to discuss issues which are of mutual interest to the people of Hong Kong. Nor is there any reason why specialist teams should not take an interest in Hong Kong and why the tourist industry should not continue. There is no reason why we cannot carry on promoting trade between Hong Kong and Britain. With those remarks I would like to extend the very best wishes to the people of Hong Kong.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Paul Dean)

Order. It might help the House to know that the wind-up speeches are expected to begin at about 11.10 pm. Five or six hon. Members have sat here for a long time hoping to speak. If hon. Members could restrict themselves to 10 minutes or less, it should be possible to allow every hon. Member to speak.

10.24 pm
Mr. Henry Bellingham (Norfolk, North-West)

I am pleased to follow the thought-provoking speech of the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley (Mr. Eastham), although I do not agree with every word that he said.

Last week I attended several constituency functions, both political and otherwise. Many points were raised on subjects such as student grants, the deduction of £1 from heating additions and sugar beet quotas, but Hong Kong was not mentioned. Had Norfolk farmers put Hong Kong before sugar beet quotas, something fairly dramatic would have had to have happened. It is a compliment to my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary that it was not mentioned; because it shows that he has got it right.

I join many right hon. and hon. Friends who congratulated both my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Shoreham (Mr. Luce), those people on the negotiating team from both sides and those many people from Hong Kong who were closely involved in the crucial negotiations. We have learnt today that they were painstaking, at many times frustrating and disheartening, but ultimately rewarding. They can certainly be proud of their achievement.

When UMELCO came here in May they issued a statement that laid down full criteria by which the acceptability of a Sino-British agreement to the Hong Kong people would be judged. I am sure that they would agree that those criteria have been met virtually in full. They have been met in a way that many people would not have dreamt possible three or four months ago.

When that statement was issued, it was as though UMELCO were saying that that was what they hoped would be achieved but that they had grave doubts. That was very much the mood three or four months ago. Things have changed a great deal and in their debate they made a strong recommendation to the people of Hong Kong to accept the draft agreement.

What about the people of Hong Kong themselves? There has been great mention of that today. The report of the assessment office covers not only the organisations and pressure groups but several important opinion polls and surveys. They will have got through to many ordinary people, and, again, the result was fairly overwhelming. In the most important opinion poll 71 per cent. said that the agreement was quite good and 14 per cent. said that it was good in some way.

There can be little surprise that, with such an overwhelming feeling of general acceptance, some basic anxieties come to the surface and will continue to do so in the months ahead. We have heard about the fear of conscription into the PLA. Will my hon. Friend the Minister look carefully at the suggestion made by one or two members of UMELCO about the volunteers being expanded and a regular battalion being attached to the existing territorial battalion. Perhaps they could take on a role that even the Chinese would accept and approve of. Will my hon. Friend look carefully at that?

At the same time, will he consider the future role of the Gurkhas? We are now entering a new era of relations with the People's Republic of China. I see no reason why, after 1997, we could not have the Gurkhas stationed in Hong Kong. We have troops stationed in the countries of many allies. I hope that will be considered carefully in the months ahead and that some definite arrangement will be arrived at with the Chinese.

There are bound to be anxieties about the development of representative government. There may be great pressure internationally but also in the House for direct elections. I would be one of those hon. Members who would urge caution on that point. The Hong Kong Government's White Paper strikes a balance. I agree with the hon. Member for Warley, East (Mr. Faulds) that at the moment there is no obvious demand in Hong Kong for direct elections. We must proceed with caution. Of course, we want direct elections eventually. I should like to see them everywhere in the world. But in this case we must be realistic and proceed with caution.

The nationality problem causes anxiety. That thorny subject is mentioned in the memorandum attached to the agreement, which shows what a difficult problem it is. We shall discuss that subject when we consider legislation in the near future. That is the time to go into more detail. I voice my concern about the 6,000 British dependent territories citizens who are of neither Chinese nor British origin. After 1997 their children could become stateless. My right hon. and learned Friend referred to that, but it still causes anxiety.

I take exception to some of the remarks by the right hon. Member for South Down (Mr. Powell) and by my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook). We are being shortsighted about the Hong Kong Chinese and the possibility of them coming here. The people have no great desire to come here, but it would be a safety net if they knew that we would be liberal in our interpretation of discretion under the 1981 Act. If 10,000, 20,000 or 30,000 Hong Kong Chinese came to Britain we would be fortunate. It would be an occasion for rejoicing rather than for throwing up our hands in horror.

The next 12 years will be crucial. If stability and prosperity are maintained, there is every chance that they will be guaranteed thereafter. However, we must have a determined and strong commitment from the Government. The transition must be smooth so that 1997 does not represent a sudden break with the past, but a continuation of the gradual process of evolution. I like the idea voiced by the right hon. Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Healey) of an annual report to the House. We must be kept in touch.

Confidence is of the utmost importance. Hong Kong's prosperity and stability depend on highly volatile financial and business markets. If confidence is eroded the markets could collapse. That has been said by many today, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South (Sir P. Blaker).

We have heard about Peking's great modernisation programme and how it is trying to quadruple its industrial and agricultural output by the year 2000. That will depend upon the maintenance of political stability in China and upon the development of the offshore oil reserves. Above all, it will depend upon the continuing prosperity of Hong Kong. That is why China has such a vested interest in maintaining the status quo in Hong Kong.

There will be great investment opportunities for British firms in China. Indeed, C. Y. Cheng, the economics professor at Indiana state university, estimated that to reach its goal China will have to spend $1 trillion. That is a huge sum and there will be rich pickings for British firms. They must not assume that because we are embarking on a new era of relations with China that orders will fall into their laps. They will have to go out there and capture the orders.

When I was in Shanghai recently it was impressed upon me that we are not being aggressive or competitive, and that we were not cutting the bureaucratic barriers like the Italians, French, Germans and Japanese. We have a long way to go.

The uncertainty is over. The Hong Kong people can face the future knowing where they are going, with growing confidence. I praise the Secretary of State for the work that he has done, but we are a long way from a diplomatic triumph.

Many Chinese people believe that it is a great tragedy that the British administration is coming to an end. Many are critical of the way in which we embarked upon the negotiations and raised so publicly the question of the treaty and convention. That meant that the Chinese had political face to save. Many are critical of the appalling human rights record in China.

Now is not the time to look back. Now is the time to be positive, because the Hong Kong people are realistic. Before we leap for joy we must remember, as the right hon. Member for Leeds, East said, that we are dealing with a post-dated cheque. We can be optimistic when we know that that cheque will be honoured. The future holds much potential, but it is also full of risks. If all three parties play a constructive part in minimising those risks, the future will have a great deal to hold for the people of Hong Kong.

10.35 pm
Mr. Paddy Ashdown (Yeovil)

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Norfolk, North-West (Mr. Bellingham). I agreed with some of his comments, particularly about British dependent territories citizen passport holders and citizenship.

I think it was Henrik Ibsen who had someone say in the play "An Enemy of the People" that in a democracy the minority is always right. From time to time that statement gives some comfort to the alliance. I may take comfort from it tonight, because I fear that I will introduce a jarring note into what has otherwise been a gentle and well-modulated debate.

I shall start on the easy side by joining other hon. Members in congratulating the Government on the general tenor of this agreement. There is a Chinese statement which, for the benefit of the World Service, goes, "tien xia de shih wu mei you shih chien shih mei de." I am sure that all the hon. Members who are present in the Chamber know precisely what that means but, for the benefit of those who will read those words in Hansard in the morning, it means, "There is nothing under heaven which is completely perfect". That is true about this agreement. It is, nevertheless, as near perfect as the Government could have got in the circumstances. The British Government are to be congratulated on that, as are the Chinese Government.

Such reservations as I have are not related to the Government, but rather to the way in which the House has handled the issue. A very old and wise Member said to me before I became a Member of Parliament, "The moment when you must be most suspicious is when there is common agreement on all sides of the House of Commons". Both this debate and the previous Hong Kong debate have been characterised by a tenor of common agreement on both sides. I am deeply suspicious about that. There are good reasons why the previous Hong Kong debate had to be carefully conducted and why we had to be statesmanlike. At that stage, the agreement had not been drawn up. On this occasion, it has.

I have not been in the Chamber for the entire debate, but I have discussed it with my colleagues. I apologise for the fact that I have not been present, but I had to be away for an hour or so. There has not been, in the tenor of the argument from both sides of the House, the real and genuine fear—I go further and say "anger"—which I noted in Hong Kong and which I found on discussing the matter with my Hong Kong friends and colleagues, felt about what the British Government have done and are doing in terms of the future and citizenship of the people of Hong Kong. Those who study the White Paper with a careful eye will see signs of that feeling. The Hong Kong people were asked to assess whether an agreement should be accepted. The only alternative was an agreement imposed unilaterally by the Chinese. It was an agreement based on whether the people would like it or lump it. It is not surprising to know that the population of Hong Kong has chosen essentially to like it.

Some aspects of the assessment should concern us. As the right hon. Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Healey) said, one third of the individuals who commented on the agreement said they were against the agreement and criticised it. Furthermore, nearly half of the organisations that put in statements on the agreement chose to remain anonymous. That is remarkable, in view of the general climate in which the assessment was conducted.

On page 80 of the White Paper, the monitors said, rightly, that the comments were made by people who were traditionally reserved in political matters. We must not expect from a population that has been anaesthetised from politics—largely at our request—for so long the type of fairly pungent comment that is heard in the House of Commons. There is concern about what is happening to the people of Hong Kong. I am depressed by and worried about the fact that that worry has not been expressed with the force that I observed in Hong Kong, which I believe characterises the views of many Hong Kong people. It is right to say that many in Hong Kong are angry about what is going on. Many are concerned, and some feel betrayed. Those words crop up in the assessment.

It may be that some hon. Members do not like the word "betrayal". Some may feel that it is inappropriate. I believe that it is inappropriate. But it is as well that we should recognise what people feel. It is as well that we should recognise that there needs to be a voice in this House which is capable of expressing their anger. I believe that the tenor of the debate will not be understood by many of those who hoped that their fears, their concerns and their sense of betrayal would be reflected here, albeit in terms of challenging the Government. I do not criticise the Government. I criticise in a sense the way that we in this House have reacted to our responsibility to express the views of the people of Hong Kong in a forthright fashion.

The hon. Member for Wrexham (Dr. Marek), who is not here, said that the Hong Kong agreement is the greatest issue in the Queen's Speech. I suggest that it may well be the greatest issue that this House has dealt with in the past 20 or 30 years. We are handing over the future and the rights of 5 million people to a Government from whom many of them have fled. They all remain deeply concerned about the future. We have never done such a thing before. We have never been faced with such a sense of concern. [Interruption.] The right hon. Member for Western Isles (Mr. Stewart) says that we had no option, but it is right that this House, carrying that responsibility and duty on its shoulders, should express the views of those people clearly and forthrightly.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

Like the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown), I have not been able to be here throughout the debate, but I believe that he is doing a great service to the House in reflecting the views of the vast majority of the people of Hong Kong who, because they are not part of the moneyed class, the moneyed mandarins, will not be able to leave Hong Kong. It is up to Back Benchers such as ourselves to reflect the views of those who cannot leave, and whose views have not been adequately monitored in the lead-up to the draft agreement. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that those who are at the grass roots in Hong Kong are deeply concerned about the agreement?

Mr. Ashdown

I confirm that that is my view, at all events. Those people believe that there is a moral duty on the British Government that has not been adequately fulfilled.

I recognise the imperatives under which the Government have had to operate, but I believe that we in this House have allowed our Government too easily to slough off that moral responsibility, without sufficient question.

We all understand that we are not now in a position to alter the agreement, or the nature of it. But this debate can start the process of setting the agenda for what will happen in the next 13 years. That is the significance of the debate. It is in that spirit that I agree with the right hon. Member for Leeds, East , who said that we should review the matter on a year-by-year basis. The House might choose not to debate the issue, but reports should be produced on how we fulfil our duties and responsibilities towards the people of Hong Kong. The House should have the right to debate the issue annually.

The area in which the anger, concern and sense of betrayal of the people of Hong Kong is most significantly expressed is that of citizenship. There are those who are holders of British dependent territories citizens' passports and who, in good conscience in Hong Kong, and with a deep sense of duty, actually took an oath of loyalty to the Queen. They find that no sense of reciprocal duty has been shown by the British Government. They are concerned about that.

The right hon. Member for Leeds, East introduced a significant, interesting, imaginative and daring concept when he talked about setting up an "Operation Haven". It may be too tall an order, but we should at least try to do something along those lines. If we could put such a scheme into operation, its very existence might act as a back pressure on the Chinese Government to operate strictly in terms of the agreement.

The Government of the People's Republic of China have operated an open door policy. They have committed themselves to open doors for Hong Kong for the next 50 years. But an open door is of use only when, having stepped through the door, one has somewhere to go. They have honoured their side of the open door policy. That must be in the best interests of the future of Hong Kong. There is a duty on us to see what, if anything, can be done at least to investigate the possibility of ensuring that something happens on the other side of that open door. If that can be done, it will give considerable reassurance in terms of confidence building over the next 10 to 15 years.

The importance of Hong Kong to the future of the south-east Asian Pacific basin is now absolutely vital. Whether the free capitalist economies which now exist in some of those countries survive as the norm will, at least in some measure, depend on the survival of Hong Kong as a free institution under the terms of this agreement. That is important, because many nations—ourselves included — wish to see this emergent and powerful industrial force develop in line with our way of life, our freedoms and our industrial and economic system. I suggest that a certain international status is attached to Hong Kong. It is important that it be allowed to develop as a free institution because it will encourage that kind of institution elsewhere in this important area.

It would be appropriate for the British Government now to go along to their friends—NATO was mentioned—who are also interested in the survival of that kind of institution in that area, to see whether something can be pinned together to bring "Operation Haven" into reality. Perhaps that cannot be done, but we should at least try.

If at the very least, we can provide some international substance for the Hong Kong travel document post-1997, which assures freedom of movement if not right of settlement, that will be a recognition of the importance of Hong Kong's future trading capacity and the free institutions in the colony.

I very much hope that the Government will accept the moral duties that now rest upon them. I hope that they will use this period to see whether we can give some substance to concepts such as "Operation Haven" and to the document under which the Hong Kong people will live.

I was concerned and disappointed to hear the Foreign Secretary say that only officials in the Hong Kong Government would sit on the joint liaison group. The case that he made did not convince me, nor will it convince the people of Hong Kong. There is no reason whatever why membership of that group should be confined to members of the Hong Kong Government. However, if that must be, it should not be confined to expatriate members of the Hong Kong Government. It should at least encompass ethnic Hong Kong-Chinese members of that Government who have a commitment to the colony because they have lived there all their lives.

If the free democratic institutions of Hong Kong develop along the lines that the Government wish and we get directly elected representatives, are the Government saying that even in that instance those who represent the people of Hong Kong on the joint liaison group will still be the bureaucrats? It would be outrageous if those who were elected under such institutions were not allowed to serve on the joint liaison group. I hope that the Minister will clarify that point.

In conclusion, this is the greatest issue in human terms that the House has faced for a long time. A moral duty rests upon us. Many hon. Members believe that we should make every effort to honour that moral duty and ensure that the opinions and concerns of the people of Hong Kong are more adequately expressed in the House than they have been during the debate.

10.49 pm
Mr. Andrew Rowe (Mid-Kent)

I also had the good fortune this summer to be the guest of Hong Kong. I, like many of my colleagues, returned impressed by the energy, inventiveness, creativity and social sophistication of the colony. Few British people who had to live in the sort of houses in which the squatters have had to live for up to 10 years, would ever have achieved the degree of meekness and homeliness which they have achieved under those astonishing conditions.

I was struck, in my ignorance, by how remote Hong Kong has felt from us, despite our presence there. That has inspired a range of myths and legends. One might have expected a land of sweat shops instead of intensely sophisticated manufacturing units, the conditions of many of which are better than in many places in the world and, indeed, better than in some of our cities. The remoteness is a two-edged weapon. It has enabled Hong Kong to escape some British diseases, such as over-regulation, over-taxation, over-unionisation and, therefore, overpricing. However, it has also led to a realisation that it is not at the forefront of British thinking.

We owe a great debt especially to UMELCO. While we were in Hong Kong and during the visit of its members here, they gave us a model of what a good briefing should be. I pay tribute to S. Y. Chung and his team for a remarkable educational exercise.

I am distressed by the tenor of much of tonight's debate. The line between realism and pessimism is often too narrow. I have an edgy feeling that tonight we may be seeing the beginnings of a diminishing interest and our gradual move away from involvement. That may have been an inevitable part of disengaging ourselves from other parts of the former British Empire. If my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath) is right that Hong Kong may have difficulty in entering the next stage of its economic development in competition with the rest of south-east Asia, our commitment will become more valuable and not a glad excuse to distance ourselves because in 12 years' time we shall no longer have direct responsibility.

Hong Kong has a great deal to teach us. I was impressed, as was my wife, who is a specialist in these matters, to see the enormous skill with which it runs an integrated service for the handicapped. We were impressed by the way in which it runs a successful national preventive health campaign, which has many models for us.

It is indispensable to the future prosperity of the United Kingdom that we learn and create the mechanisms for sharing in Hong Kong's sophistication to understand China. It is entirely within the Government's power to accelerate and encourage the formation of joint endeavours with Hong Kong in that most important area — for example, British universities should be much more closely linked with the universities of Hong Kong. There it is possible to study the changing moods and understandings of China more easily than we can here.

I shall concentrate on one detail, which would seem to me to be of enormous importance, in the report of the Assessment Office. It was reported that there were anxieties about the accreditation of Hong Kong's academic courses and degrees. It is vital that a mechanism —I cannot say whether it should be the one suggested, of an independent council—should be provided whereby Hong Kong is assured of its ability to accredit its courses and to authorise its diplomas and degrees in a way that will make international recognition instantly possible.

Anyone who has taught in a university knows perfectly well that it is one thing to have a paper accreditation and another actually to see the students as they come to do post-graduate work, or whatever. Another way of ensuring that the standards are up to international standards—as they certainly are in the case of some of the courses put on in Hong Kong—is to make sure that we have much more common work together.

Britain is in a peculiarly privileged position to assist in the development of Hong Kong, and vice versa. If we or the Government can do anything to encourage, for example, the great British companies in Hong Kong—which seem to use their London offices much less than they might do to inform people about Hong Kong—to put their corporate weight behind helping fledgling British companies to make their mark in Hong Kong, and eventually in China, we shall have made a remarkable contribution.

Ultimately, it is not just an economic but a philosophical and political question. If Hong Kong's economy falters, it may become less attractive to China. If China's politics go wrong, Hong Kong will be in very serious danger and trouble. It is absolutely essential that, whatever we say about economics, we should remember that for 100 years Hong Kong has been our responsibility and, if the going gets tough because politics go wrong in China, to the greatest possible extent that we can contribute on the international stage to improving relations between Hong Kong and China, it will be our duty to do so.

10.57 pm
Mr. Ron Lewis (Carlisle)

I shall certainly take your advice, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and at this late hour my contribution to the debate will be very brief.

My interest in Hong Kong is that of an ordinary Back Bencher who has been following the fortunes or misfortunes of a colony known as Hong Kong, which at present comes under the British flag. When we were advised that the Foreign Secretary was setting off to meet the Chinese to seek an agreement over the future of Hong Kong, most of us—regardless of party—had certain doubts and misgivings as to whether our British Foreign Secretary and Government would not go to Hong Kong and have to acquiesce in everything that the Chinese had to say. But that has not been the case. If hon. Members are honest with themselves, they will all agree that the Foreign Secretary and his team came away from those talks with a far better agreement and understanding than any of us had envisaged.

One thing about the debate has been the great unanimity on the part of hon. Members. However, the exception was the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown), who has just left the Chamber. But I felt aggrieved when, long before any agreement had been reached, and almost before any meeting had begun, I read that Jardine Matheson was pulling out of Hong Kong. I believe that that move gave a very bad impression to other businesses concerned, and I hope that, even at this late stage, Jardine Matheson may have second thoughts and perhaps agree to retain an office in Hong Kong.

I have listened upstairs this week to the views of the members of the official delegation who are in this country on their mission. They were speaking and lobbying Members of Parliament. I formed the impression that even the majority of those who are here on an official visit find the agreement acceptable. although of course they would have liked it to go much further.

Yesterday, I also met an ordinary citizen from Hong Kong. I had quite a discussion with him. He posed a number of questions, of which I shall mention only two. First, he asked me what is likely to happen in the event of a change of Government in Hong Kong. None of us knows the answer to that, but I believe honestly that, whatever Government may hold power, Peking will honour the agreement arrived at with the British Government. I told that ordinary citizen that such was my belief and my faith.

The second question was a very important one—at least to me and to that ordinary citizen of Hong Kong, who is a deeply committed and very evangelical Christian. He asked me whether we can be assured that people in Hong Kong will have religious freedom, without any interference from the State.

I believe that many good Christian people, and many people who do not belong to any basic Christian faith, are wondering what is likely to happen after the Chinese takeover in 1997. I could say only that I believe that we must have a basic trust that the undertaking given will be fulfilled whatever happens.

I hope that my plea, uttered in this British Parliament, will echo not only through Hong Kong but throughout China. After 1997 I want to see complete religious freedom in Hong Kong, with no interference from the State whatsoever. I believe that that should be one of the main objectives of the joint liaison committee. In its meetings over the next few years, the committee should try to move further along that road.

I undertook to raise those points in the debate, and I have done so. It remains only for me to say to the Hong Kong people in general, in the words of the old hymn with which, as a Methodist preacher, I am very familiar: Ye fearful saints fresh courage take, The clouds ye so much dread Are big with mercy, and shall break In blessings on your head.

11.4 pm

Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells)

I have only five minutes so I shall put only a few thoughts on the record. First, I repeat the congratulations that have been given to my right hon. and learned Friend and his officials. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has taken its share of the blame for Britain's economic ills during the past 20 years, so let us recognise a success when we have one.

The agreement shows that differing political systems can be brought together in agreement when mutual interests can be identified. I strongly hope that the same mixture of firmness and patience, which my right hon. and learned Friend specialises in, can be brought to bear in the search for an agreement with Argentina over the Falklands and with the Soviet Union over arms control. I am glad that that skill has already yielded results in Gibraltar.

All the democratic institutions in the world will not save Hong Kong unless we preserve its economic prosperity and success. I should like to reinforce what the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Deakins) said about the future of Hong Kong's trading rights and quota allocations. I hope that Opposition Members were listening to him because some have little right to speak for Hong Kong when their protectionist policies for the United Kingdom would spell disaster for the employment prospects and prosperity of Hong Kong. I hope that when the protectionist tendency in the Labour party next raises its head it will remember this debate.

The People's Republic of China knows quite well that a Socialist Hong Kong is of no use to it. It is interesting that the agreement states not that Hong Kong may retain its capitalist lifestyle for the next 50 years but that it will do so. If some oriental Labour party were to take root in Hong Kong, it would find that its decrees were null and void if they conflicted with the basic law. It is fascinating that the world's largest Communist power is guaranteeing for 50 years the success of a capitalist offshoot.

How else is Hong Kong to be protected? How else is this delicate and vulnerable system to be preserved? Surely it is by building up Hong Kong's political confidence and ability. There will be many difficult times between now and 1997 and beyond. There will be ups and downs and moments of despair and gloom as well as of euphoria. That is the nature of any society that is founded on risk. As the moment of British withdrawal grows nearer, that security must be replaced by a home grown set of political institutions capable of taking the strain.

Right hon. and hon. Members have commented on the White Paper on representative government. I do not like the functional constituencies. I do not think that people should be represented according to whether or not they belong to some producer interest group. But the most important thing is not what form of election Hong Kong goes for but how the elected men and women are to control their Government. How are they to scrutinise the workings of the Civil Service and the Executive? Will there be a ministerial system? Is it right that officials should sit on those representative bodies? Not all of those decisions can be made now, or even soon, but time is short. We have only 12 years and the direction of the constitutional changes must be embarked on soon because Hong Kong cannot afford any mistakes. Other societies can afford one or two false starts, but not Hong Kong. Whatever system is chosen, it is vital that it should be supported by those twin pillars of democracy, a free press and the rule of law administered independently. Both now exist in Hong Kong and both are rare commodities in the world. Their preservation will be the real test of the agreement and of the sincerity of the People's Republic.

Personally, I am an optimist. I believe that developments in China towards greater personal and financial freedom are irreversible. There will, of course, be difficulties. China has problems, with its immense population pressures, rising expectations and a society and country far more diverse than we realise. Nevertheless, I believe that it is through its revolutionary stage and embarking on a long period of development, and it is important that this country should play a part in that economic development. There are 1 billion people in China, all with massive unfilled wants. I urge British business men to look to China rather than to the saturated markets of Europe for orders in the 1990s. China is not an easy market. It is not an easy country. Business men will have to get to know the provinces as well as Peking. They will have to invest both time and money. But if the future of the world is to revolve around the axis stretching from the United States to Japan and China, it is vital that this country plays a part.

I believe that the real achievement of this remarkable agreement will be if our extraordinary but fruitful relationship with Hong Kong can be translated into an equally exciting and peaceful relationship with the largest and most populous country in the world on the mainland.

11.11 pm
Mr. George Robertson (Hamilton)

This is a late hour in the House, but it is just dawn in Hong Kong. We understand that the debate is being taken live by the media there and that large numbers of people will have been listening through the night to our deliberations in the past five or six hours. Those who have listened here and elsewhere will recognise that it has been a wide-ranging and informed debate on a subject that the whole House has treated with appropriate seriousness. I still regret that the Government felt unable to allow two days for the debate. Despite the 10-minute rule, which ensured a reasonable number of contributions today, other Members on both sides who wished to express their views were no doubt deterred by the limited chance of being able to do so.

The gravity of the subject for the people of Hong Kong has been well recognised in the House, and very few of the fears, apprehensions and potentials have been left unexplored. That is right because, as has been stressed so many times today, this is an historic occasion for the House and for the people of Hong Kong. There are few examples in the world of such an amicable and equable transfer of sovereignty as this change will mean. For this nation, it is unique in that sovereignty is being passed not to an indigenous population but to another nation. Those facts emphasise the uniqueness both of Hong Kong's status since 1897 and of the new status promised from 1997. That status has been the root of Hong Kong's economic success so far and in it lies the basis for a future success based, as many hon. Members have said today, on the entry point to the massive Chinese market.

Some have characterised the debate as having a foregone conclusion. The hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) admitted that he introduced a jarring note into what has been a fairly unanimous debate. There was a weakness in his argument, however, in that he did not say how he would have achieved a better agreement or indeed what kind of better agreement could possibly have allayed the accusations of betrayal that inevitably come when such a traumatic change takes place.

Mr. Ashdown

I was rather careful to say that I think that the Government have done a good job. I was criticising the House and not the Government for not having a Member to express those fears in the way that they should have been expressed.

Mr. Robertson

The hon. Gentleman was frank enough to admit that he had not been here for the whole of the debate, but he underestimates many of the fears that have been expressed, both in the assessment report and by right hon. and hon. Members in this debate.

Those who have said that the debate is a foregone conclusion are right in fact, even if they are misguided in tone, because the foregone conclusion was already there, as with the year 1997. As that year was predetermined, most of what has followed from it can be said to have been predetermined as well. However, the draft agreement whose terms we are being asked to endorse tonight was never a foregone conclusion, and nor were the details in it, which will provide a protective framework for Hong Kong society to continue virtually unchanged for at least 62 years.

As in all good negotiations—I speak as one who was a negotiator for more than nine years—the ground was prepared in advance for the likely outcome. However, few would have dared to make a prediction about the likely final package, however sceptical or optimistic one started out. The official Opposition have already commended the success of the negotiators, especially the professionals in the team, in achieving this agreement, and have deliberately, both in the negotiations and the subsequent reception of the results, sought to make no political capital out of a highly sensitive subject. It is as well to underline the point made by the hon. Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) that, if the same realism was shown in other negotiations on other subjects, many hon. Members would be happier about foreign policy.

Given the provocation of the Government in almost every other subject, the generosity in this one will be difficult to achieve again. However, we believe that to attack, undermine or harass the Government at times of such delicacy and confidentiality would have impeded progress and would have brought benefits only at the expense of the interests of the people of Hong Kong. Therefore, we are happy to do what right hon. and hon. Members have done today and commend the amount of detail in the agreement, the reassurance it provides on central issues such as freedom before the law, and for the signal that it more than anything represents—that the People's Republic of China is determined to maintain the uniqueness of Hong Kong and to protect the prosperity that has provided such benefits to the People's Republic.

There is a gamble associated with living as a populated merchant bank for a Communist state, but it will be no more of a gamble for those who have already lived in the immediate shadow of the cultural revolution, which scythed its way through China but left vulnerable, invadeable and easily established Hong Kong unscathed and unaffected.

Therefore, it is difficult to accept that China would have entered into such a visible, verifiable, legally binding agreement if it had no intention to abide by it. The valuable and cherished international reputation of China, its respectability in the eyes of traders and competitors and even superpower equals is on the line. The Chinese Government know it, we know it, and the commitments have been given with their eyes fully open.

A framework now exists, and it is in high international profile, for Hong Kong's future for at least 62 years. That is longer than most of us have any such detailed framwork to work within. Faith will perhaps be needed to make it work, but also realism and a common continuing concern for shared interests and perceptions. Shared interests, or the lack of them, dominate relations throughout the world and the position of the people of Hong Kong will be little different from that of the rest of us over the next few decades.

Much has been mde of the suggestion that has come from Hong Kong, first from Miss Lydia Dunn, and then endorsed by the rest of her colleagues in UMELCO, about the possibility of a continuing interest in Parliament and in the United Kingdom generally on progress within Hong Kong. Many of the detailed matters that have been raised in the debate, by the UMELCO submissions and, most importantly, by the valuable report of the assessment office could not be raised fully in a debate such as this. They cannot even be debated while we discuss the legislation that will be introduced in the new year. They can be dealt with only over the years as events unfold.

The joint liaison group conducts its work and many of the issues which have been raised will be on its agenda. Now that the sensitive negotiations are over and the agreement has been made—it will probably be endorsed tonight—with the consent of the Hong Kong people, there is little need for secrecy and undue confidentiality. It has been said in the House and elsewhere that we have a duty to ensure that progress towards 1997 is open and accountable. That is why the idea of an annual report from the joint liaison group through the Government to Parliament and the possibility of a debate in the House on it are the minimum offers that we can make. Regular monitoring by the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs is also a means of open administration that we should be willing to put forward.

Progress towards more representative institutions is the clumsy title which the Government of Hong Kong have used to describe a movement towards more democratic institutions. The creation of democratic institutions in Hong Kong has been resisted over the years, partly and mainly because the very suggestion of independence or self-determination has been enough to set alarm bells ringing in Beijing, which have caused experiments to be kept to a minimum. That reason for caution has gone. With sovereignty acceded, with the agreement in existence and with China's declaration that the next 12 years are Britain's responsibility alone, that major inhibition has fallen. Perhaps the overriding objection has also gone.

It was interesting to hear earlier this evening from the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath), who I regret is not in his place for the Front Bench replies. The right hon. Gentleman made a remarkable contribution, as we have come to expect from him over the past few weeks. I have usually enjoyed them. The discomfiture of those on the Government Front Bench has warmed the hearts of most of my right hon. and hon. Friends. However, I did not derive much comfort from the right hon. Gentleman this evening. He sought to advance a number of arguments that will not offer great comfort to many in Hong Kong. He suggested that a lack of democracy in Hong Kong was something we should regret and be ashamed of. He said that the arguments advanced for the proposed system have come from those in appointed places who want to enjoy keeping them.

The right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup is not a humble Back Bencher. He is not in my position of being a relatively junior Member of the House who has enjoyed only a fragment of a moment of his party being in power. The right hon. Gentleman was Prime Minister from 1970 to 1974 and I would wager a considerable sum that the governor of Hong Kong during his period of office appointed many people. I would wager also that some of those who are in London this week representing UMELCO — nominated members of the Legislative Executive Council — were probably appointed under the Government who were headed by the right hon. Gentleman. It ill becomes him to start preaching democratic reforms at this stage in Hong Kong's development when he had it considerably in his power to do something substantial, constructive and fundamental to strengthen democracy in Hong Kong.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton

Will the hon. Gentleman give way on that point?

Mr. Robertson

No, I shall not give way.

Sir Paul Bryan

Why not?

Mr. Robertson

The hon. Gentleman, from a sedentary position, asks "Why not?" The hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) has allegedly preached a doctrine in favour of the ordinary people of Hong Kong, but in a debate which began at about five o'clock the hon. Member for Macclesfield appeared at a quarter to eleven. That is why I shall not give way.

Fear of Chinese over-reaction was not the only inhibition on institutional change. I address my remarks also to my hon. Friends the Members for Falkirk, West (Mr. Canavan) and Wrexham (Dr. Marek). There still remains in Hong Kong the traditional Chinese antipathy to confrontational elections which my right hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ashley) mentioned and, crucially, the problem of introducing elections into a society without any experience of them —in addition, a society with two substantial, externally motivated partisan electorates which we cannot ignore.

The progress towards the more elected and representative Government that is proposed in the White Paper is perhaps unduly cautious. The Government of Hong Kong must be ready in the 1987 review to consider holding direct elections and having a greater proportion of directly elected legislators and extra members than they seem willing to contemplate at the moment. The danger now is not of Chinese over-reaction to democratic reform but of insufficient time before 1997 in which to create a strong, viable, locally based system which will withstand the inevitable pressure and traumas as 1997 advances. The priority must remain that changes, reforms and improvements must proceed at a pace which does not threaten the all-precious stability and prosperity upon which Hong Kong's future security is based, but must be at a pace and of a nature moulded in Hong Kong by the people in Hong Kong whose future depends upon it.

Much has been made this evening of the institutions that exist in Hong Kong. As the hon. Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) said in his brief but relevant contribution, side by side with the reform of government through elections in Hong Kong must go administrative reform. The accountability of the newly reformed institutions is as important as the elections themselves. The transition from colonial rule to a self-governing administrative region must involve open, accountable government at all levels.

I turn to the fraught question of nationality. The assessment office report has found grave dissatisfaction among some sections of Hong Kong life with the provisions in the memorandum of agreement on nationality. This is hardly a surprise since the same sense of let-down, disappointment and even accusations of betrayal occurred after the passage of the British Nationality Act. The attitude displayed this evening and the views expressed by the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook) and the right hon. Member for South Down (Mr. Powell) perhaps underline the feelings which were expressed at that time. But whatever provisions had been adopted on nationality then and now, the very fact of changing the particular status at present enjoyed by Hong Kong residents would have led to protest.

Nobody who has enjoyed the right to the blue passport and the quasi imperial injunctions we have heard quoted this evening will ever lightly give it up. But some change was inevitable, given the magnitude of the new arrangements. However, some areas still need to be examined: first, those people who have been mentioned by a number of hon. Members who will be rendered stateless by the changeover. I welcome very much the Foreign Secretary's assurance that at the end of this process nobody will be left in that state.

Secondly, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Healey) said, we have to consider the circumstances of some people in Hong Kong for whom we have particular regard — those citizens who have, by virtue of their public work or background, reason to believe themselves vulnerable in the new circumstances. They will have to be given protection by Britain and they have a right to know it in advance. The Government must be prepared to give assurances on that soon.

Points have been raised this evening on the question of the basic law and the participation by the Hong Kong people in the drawing up of the Chinese basic law on the agreement. Nobody should, in considering that issue, under-estimate the problems of such a complex and unprecedented handover of power. That is why the implementation of this agreement is bound to throw up practical issues which can be dealt with only as they arise.

Some of those problems have been raised in this debate and they will be raised in the debates on the Bill that will come before Parliament in the new year. But the basic law is not within the power of this Parliament and it would be wise not to be transfixed by that issue at this time, especially as China has said that the process of drawing it up will take up to 10 years to complete.

Nevertheless, the demand from the Hong Kong people for a monitoring of the process must be taken note of and deserves attention. It is not for Britain to say yes or no to the request for Hong Kong's participation. That is up to China, and how persuaded it is of the merit of the idea. Our responsibility is and remains to ensure that the terms of the argeement are discharged and are eventually, before 1997, included in full in the basic law.

Many other matters have been raised in this debate. The international acceptability of the new status of Hong Kong is one obvious area that bothers hon. Members and will bother people in Hong Kong who know that their future prosperity will depend on its own international acceptability.

The question of conscription into the Chinese army and the location of elements of the Chinese army in or near Hong Kong has also been raised. There is the problem of the refugees, and, in particular, the Vietnamese boat people who are in Hong Kong in large numbers and whose status has still to be clarified. That will have to be taken up at a future date.

Those are matters of real and understandable apprehension, but not matters which we can raise in a debate of this nature. Those fears and apprehensions exist and must and will be pursued with the other subjects in the transition period until the handover.

The future of Hong Kong is not about institutions, be they social, economic or political. Nor is it about buildings or systems of concepts, however grand. It is about people who, over the past 88 years, came to live in Hong Kong in the knowledge that its incredible mixture of colony, free trade area, super-plan city and bastion of free expression had a finite life until 1997. They may have come to make money, for freedom, or to find cash or refuge. They may have come for a financial killing or for a way of life distant from arbitrary arrest or directed labour. Whatever they came for, they did so on time borrowed from the large neighbour next door.

Nevertheless, they are people who demand our attention and who deserve it, however great may be the historical accident which has placed their future in our hands. The next and crucial phase in Hong Kong's remarkable history is about to commence and we in this Parliament will play a pivotal part in making sure it promises all that those people, 8,000 miles away from us, really can expect. That will demand from us constant vigilance which we can readily pledge, but it will also demand a hard-headed realism on the part of the Hong Kong people, knowing that their future, perhaps for the first time, is completely in their own hands. How they choose to use it will determine the kind of society that they will inherit.

We shall discharge our obligations and our onerous responsibilities. We can offer no less. But we must do so conscious that our real obligation now is to provide the means, the machinery and the institutions which will put the momentous and personal decisions into the hands of Hong Kong's own people.

11.35 pm
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Richard Luce)

Ministers cannot often claim that a debate has been historic or moving, but without doubt I can claim that today's debate has been historic. It is a debate of great importance, and the range of contributions has been remarkable. I go further. The House has shown a tremendous sense of responsibility towards the 5.5 million people who live in Hong Kong, contrary to the contention of the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown), who implied that hon. Members were not particularly bothered about the anxieties of the Hong Kong people. The debate has shown that they are concerned. The Assessment Office report also reveals that concern.

The British Government's duty is to do their best for the people of Hong Kong. That is precisely what we are doing now. We have a draft agreement which attempts to achieve just that. It has been widely welcomed in the House. The agreement should give the people of Hong Kong a chance and a feeling of hope for the future. It enables them to maintain their economic system and their way of life after 1997 and, as the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) said, for at least 50 years thereafter. Whether he and I will still be around in 63 years' time I am not sure, but that is the agreement with the Chinese.

The agreement provides for continuity. It sets the framework for continuing continuity, stability and prosperity. It contains a large amount of detail to cover every facet of life among the Hong Kong people. It provides a high degree of autonomy and enables Hong Kong, after 1997, to administer itself and to run its own economic, financial and commercial affairs. It allows Hong Kong to continue to play a unique role in the world as a trading and financial centre. All that is placed in an international agreement between the United Kingdom and China. We are talking about a unique agreement for a unique set of circumstances.

The right hon. Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Healey), my hon. Friends the Members for Bromsgrove (Mr. Miller), for Leominster (Mr. Temple-Morris) and for Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe), and my right hon. Friends the Members for Guildford (Mr. Howell) and for Blackpool, South (Sir P. Blaker) talked about the Government's responsibility in the next 12½ years. It is important to make it clear once again that the Government will maintain full responsibility for administering Hong Kong until 1997 and will continue to work hard to build up Hong Kong's strength and prosperity.

Many hon. Members suggested an annual report to the House of Commons. We shall take such ideas seriously and some system of regular accountability to the House is of great importance to the people of Hong Kong, as is the interest that right hon. and hon. Members will maintain over the next 12½ years.

There has been much discussion about the implementation of the agreement. As my right hon. Friend said, one can never, in this world, have an absolute guarantee, but we have a legally binding international agreement. More important than anything else in this matter is the fact that the best prospect for success is the self-interest of all the parties to make the agreement a success.

The hon. Members for Warley, East (Mr. Faulds) and for Carlisle (Mr. Lewis) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South have all stressed the self-interest of China in making this agreement work. China's economic interest, general policy on reunification and reputation for sticking to international agreements are factors that we are entitled to take into account. There is certainly a strong British interest in ensuring that the agreement works. I believe that the United Kingdom and China will work effectively together to fulfil our joint interest and our determination to honour this agreement. That self-interest on both our parts has been more important than anything else to the people of Hong Kong.

We have been considering the White Paper and the draft agreement in the context of the report of the assessment office and its conclusion that most Hong Kong people find the draft agreement acceptable. That conclusion was endorsed by the independent team of monitors who believed that the assessment office carried out its task accurately, fairly and impartially. The assessment office's report highlighted a considerable number of reservations and anxieties in the minds of the Hong Kong people. Many of those anxieties have been clearly and fully evoked by hon. Members during this debate, and rightly so. I want to assure the House that those views will be carefully borne in mind by the Government in any future discussions with the Chinese Government on the implementation of the agreement.

I should like to answer every contribution, but that would be extremely difficult. I shall, however, make that attempt. I assure hon. Members that if I miss their contributions I shall write them a letter answering their points if I can. The right hon. Member for South Down (Mr. Powell), the hon. Members for Hamilton and for Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber (Mr. Johnston), my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook) and many other hon. Members raised the important subject of nationality. As my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary has emphasised, the Government will introduce legislation in the new year to give effect to the nationality provisions in the United Kingdom memorandum. That will involve the creation of a new form of British nationality for former Hong Kong British Dependent Territory citizens who obtained a passport before July 1997. In general, they will enjoy the same benefits as British Dependent Territories citizens, except for the transmissibility of their status to their children.

During the negotiation, we argued strongly for transmissibility. The Chinese side that it could not in any circumstances accept it, and in the end, we had to accept this measure. The House will have the opportunity to debate further the nationality questions connected with that legislation. Individual rights of abode in, the United Kingdom are not affected by the agreement. British Dependent Territory Citizens do not have this right of abode now, as the right hon. Member for South Down knows, nor will their future status carry that right. Rights of abode in Hong Kong are fully protected by the agreement.

The right hon. Member for South Down and I served together in Committee on the British Nationality Bill during the four months of its proceedings, and his speech did not come as a great surprise. The right hon. Gentleman is worried about the possible flow of immigrants into this country.

There are only an estimated 20,000 British citizens in Hong Kong. They have the right to enter and live in the United Kingdom, as the right hon. Gentleman knows. The 3 million or so British Dependent Territories citizens in Hong Kong do not have a right of abode in the United Kingdom and will not have it in 1997 if they acquire the new status for which they are eligible under the terms of the United Kingdom memorandum. Our efforts have been directed to achieving conditions under which people will not wish to leave Hong Kong. We believe that the agreement provides those conditions.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Guildford and my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel (Mr. Marshall) asked about travel documents and passports. According to section XIV of annex I of the Joint Declaration, residents of the SAR will be able to use travel documents issued by the SAR Government. They will record the holder's right to return to the SAR. The Chinese Government will assist or authorise the SAR Government to conclude visa abolition agreements with states or regions. Those who are on 30 June 1997 British Dependent Territories citizens by virtue of a connection with Hong Kong will be eligible to retain a status which will enable them to use British passports after that date. Those passports will make it clear that the holders have a right of abode in the SAR, and Her Majesty's Government will do all they can to secure for the holders of those passports the same access to other countries as that enjoyed at present by holders of British Dependent Territories citizens passports. There is no reason to believe that third countries will not recognise those passports.

There were several speeches in which the dangers of statelessness were raised. The hon. Member for Warley, East mentioned it, as did many other hon. Members. It is important that I should say something in addition to what my right hon. and learned Friend said. There are concerns which, understandably, are felt by members of the community in Hong Kong, that they might become stateless as a result of the agreement. We intend fully to comply with our obligations under the 1961 convention on the reduction of statelessness. It is possible that some British Dependent Territories citizens who may not be considered to be Chinese nationals will not acquire the new status in 1997. There is also the question of children born after 1997 to ex-British Dependent Territories citizens who are not considered to be Chinese nationals. I assure the House that we shall provide for such people to have a form of British nationality if they would otherwise be stateless. The House will have an opportunity to scrutinise the legislation in due course.

There were several questions about international help with resettlement. The question was raised by the right hon. Member for Leeds, East, by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mr. Parry), and by my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath) who is not here. Our aim all along in the agreement has been to provide security for the future of the people of Hong Kong in such a way that they would not wish to leave. We have a very good agreement which does just that, and I do not think this is the moment to be taking steps to ask other countries to assist with resettlement of the Hong Kong people. Other countries would find incomprehensible such a display of lack of faith in the agreement that we have just reached, and I cannot believe that they would find our arguments persuasive. Moreover, because it would display a lack of faith, it would inevitably be very unsettling for the very people in Hong Kong for whose security we are seeking to provide. Therefore, I suggest that that is not the best way of proceeding.

There have been speeches in the debate about the very important position of the Vietnamese refugees in Hong Kong. That does not affect the agreement immediately. I am sure that my hon. Friends will understand it if I do not go into too much detail save to say that the matter is of very great concern to the British Government. We are very conscious of the important problems that it raises, particularly for the Hong Kong Government, with their very heavy responsibilities there. We are making every effort, in co-operation with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, and with other countries, to seek permanent solutions to the problem of the Vietnamese refugees who are at present in Hong Kong.

A number of hon. Members have asked about consultation with the people of Hong Kong. In particular, I single out the Joint Liaison Group and the Basic Law, which were referred to by the hon. Member for Yeovil, the right hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ashley)—who gave me notice that he would not be present — and my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster among others.

There is not a great deal that I can add to what my right hon. and learned Friend said, except that we attach very great importanc to the Joint Liaison Group as a forum for consultation with the Chinese Government over the implementation of the agreement. The detailed procedures will be worked out at a later stage, although the framework for its activities are already set out in annex II to the Joint Declaration. I expect the United Kingdom side of the Joint Liaison Group to include appropriate Hong Kong Government officials. The group will be an organ of diplomatic discussion between the two Governments. Therefore, it is likely that we shall have to keep participation at official level. But I remind the House that the range and sophistication of consultation in Hong Kong is now very strong, and I am certain that we shall be able to find ways of ensuring that the views of the people of Hong Kong are taken fully into account during the discussions in this important group.

Mr. Ashdown

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Luce

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, but if I am to do justice to the House I must proceed. I understand his concern, but I should try to answer the debate.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hendon, South (Mr. Thomas), and my hon. Friends the Members for Boothferry (Sir P. Bryan) and for Christchurch (Mr. Adley) asked about the Basic Law. As the House knows, the drafting of the Law is a matter for the Chinese Government. However, the agreement states that the policies described in the Joint Declaration and annex I will be stipulated in the Basic Law. We therefore already have a good idea of what it will contain.

The Chinese Government have made it clear that the people of Hong Kong will be consulted on its drafting, although the exact form of this consultation has not yet been specified. In the period between now and 1997, there will be a need for close co-operation between the British and Chinese Governments. The Joint Liaison Group exists for this purpose, and we look forward to a close and constructive partnership in that connection.

In his short but moving speech, the hon. Member for Carlisle spoke of basic freedoms, including religious freedoms. That is a matter of profound importance to the people of Hong Kong, and, as he knows, all existing freedoms will be stipulated as a result of this agreement in the Basic Law.

The constitutional development of Hong Kong has caused great interest and a large number of hon. Members have expressed legitimate concerns. We all fully accept that we should build up a firmly-based, democratic administration in Hong Kong in the years between now and 1997. The White Paper sets out the proposals on elections to the Legislative Council in 1985, after taking account of public comments on the earlier Green Paper. For the first time in Hong Kong, some Legislative Council members will be indirectly elected, rather than being appointed by the Government. The White Paper envisages a step-by-step approach — that is the right way of proceeding—to more representative government which takes fully into account Hong Kong's special circumstances and traditions.

A review of possible developments will be held in 1987 before the 1988 elections. Public reaction to the Green Paper in Hong Kong was generally in favour of its aims and of the gradual and progressive nature of its proposals. The public recognised the need to ensure that the prosperity and stability of Hong Kong are not put at risk by introducing too many constitutional changes too quickly. However, the Hong Kong Government have responded to public feeling by increasing the number of Legislative Council members to be elected in 1985 from 12 to 24. That is the sensible basis on which we should proceed.

My hon. Friend the Member for Orpington asked about the position of Her Majesty's Overseas Civil Service. He was a distinguished member of it, as I was, so we have a joint interest in ensuring that its interests are safeguarded. We have its interests closely in mind. As my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary said, the draft agreement provides satisfactorily for continuity of service by serving officers in the public service in Hong Kong on terms and conditions, including pay and pensions, no less favourable than before, to 1 July 1997. The resumption of sovereignty over Hong Kong by the People's Republic of China raises similar issues in respect of Her Majesty's Overseas Civil Service as independence has in other dependent territories. I remind my hon. Friend that the public officers' agreement, to which he referred, has generally been negotiated at the last moment before independence in the case of other independent territories, and signed after independence. Constitutional change is still more than 12 years away in Hong Kong and the Government have, and will continue to have, closely in mind the interests of that particular group of civil servants as well as of contract officers, other expatriates and local civil servants.

Other important points were raised, including points about defence and the position of the People's Liberation Army. Under the agreement, China would remain responsible for foreign affairs and defence, but public order will be the responsibility of the Special Administrative Region. The House will wish to take that division of responsibility fully into account.

The hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Deakins) made an important point, which was backed up by my hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Guildford, on the question of Hong Kong's membership of international agreements. At present Hong Kong plays an important role in the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and the multifibre arrangement. The agreement allows its continued participation in GATT and any successor to the present MFA. It also provides that the Hong Kong SAR will have the status of a separate customs territory. A priority task of the joint liaison group will be to consider action to be taken by the British and Chinese Governments to enable the SAR to function as a separate customs territory and, in particular, to ensure the maintenance of its participation in GATT and other similar arrangements. We shall therefore work together to secure and protect Hong Kong's position. Given the widespread international good will expressed since the publication of the agreement, I have no doubt that our partners will show sympathy and support towards Hong Kong. We shall certainly work to that end.

The agreement has been widely praised as giving Hong Kong a strong chance of success. It was achieved under the supreme leadership of my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary with the fullest possible professional support of the Governor of Hong Kong and other professional advisers, and in close co-operation with members of the executive council and legislative council under the leadership of Sir S. Y. Chung. That has made an outstanding contribution to the progress that we have made.

The Government have done their best. We have given the people of Hong Kong a firm basis on which to build a prosperous future. We and China will work as strongly as we can to make the agreement a success. The political will is there. We believe that it can and will succeed. The Government will work in the closest possible co-operation with other countries, especially China, to ensure that it is a success. For the next 12 and a half years we maintain full responsibility for Hong Kong and its administration. We expect and believe that the international community will give its support to us in this. It is in the British interest that this agreement should succeed, and I am confident that the people of Hong Kong will work hard to make it a success. I therefore strongly commend the agreement to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That this House, having considered the views of the people of Hong Kong as set out in the reports of the Assessment Office and the Independent Monitoring Team published in White Paper, Cmnd. 9407, approves Her Majesty's Government's intention to sign the agreement on the future of Hong Kong negotiated with the Chinese Government, which was published in White Paper, Cmnd. 9352.