HC Deb 10 February 1988 vol 127 cc355-64 3.31 pm
The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Sir Geoffrey Howe)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement about the White Paper on Hong Kong.

A Hong Kong Government White Paper, "The Development of Representative Government: The Way Forward" was published in Hong Kong earlier today. Copies of the White Paper have been placed in the Library of the House.

The publication of the White Paper marks the end of a wide-ranging review of developments in representative government. A Green Paper, published in May 1987, sought the views of the Hong Kong community. It set out a range of options for possible change; none was ruled out in advance. The Green Paper elicited a widespread public response. We were also able to benefit from a wide range of views expressed in the House during the debate on 20 January.

The White Paper discusses the full range of issues raised in the review. The main decisions which it announces are as follows:

  1. (a) ten directly elected members will be introduced into the Legislative Council in 1991;
  2. (b) in 1988 the number of appointed members in the council will be reduced from 22 to 20, and the number of members elected by functional constituencies will increase from 12 to 14. In 1991, the present system of election by members of District Boards will be abolished; but the urban and regional councils will each continue to elect one member to the council;
  3. (c) links between the urban district boards and the urban council will be strengthened;
  4. (d) the Governor will continue to be the President of the Legislative Council for the immediate future.
We are committed to the steady development of representative government in Hong Kong. We believe that the decisions set out in the White Paper mark an important step in that direction and that they represent a balanced and reasonable response to the views expressed by the people of Hong Kong and their representatives.

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton)

Since the Secretary of State a week ago poured cold water on our request for a statement, we are glad that our renewed request for a statement has met with a better response today.

This is a very timid White Paper. It has been long anticipated, with considerable expectation and hope, and now that it is available it will come to many as a considerable let-down. For the most part, it does little more than tinker with the status quo.

The proposals for direct elections to the Legislative Council are distinctly inadequate. It is not simply that those elections are not to take place until 1991, rather than 1988, as many in Hong Kong campaigned for. Although I advocated 1988, I can understand, if not agree with, the Government's decision to be cautious in the light of the divisions of opinion in Hong Kong about timing. It is even more regrettable that, when direct elections are introduced, they will apply to only 18 per cent. of the Legislative Council—10 Members—rather than 25 per cent., the figure that many of us expected this year.

I cannot understand why the whole electorate of Hong Kong, whose potential number is 3,300,000, is to be given only 10 Members to elect when, under the new arrangement, accountants in Hong Kong—who cannot be especially numerous—are to have a Member of the Legislative Council all to themselves.

Mr. James Lamond (Oldham, Central and Royton)

There are a lot of accountants there.

Mr. Kaufman

But not 330,000.

Even at this late stage, I hope that the Government will reconsider the number of directly elected Members of the Legislative Council, even if the date of the election is immutable. The Government should consider reallocating the places of the two new functional Members to the directly elected section and increasing that number to a minimum of 12. In the event of a change of Government in this country before 1991, we would discuss the feasibility and desirability of increasing the number of elected Members of the Legislative Council with the Government of the People's Republic of China.

Hong Kong can and must afford lively controversy, and no doubt there will be lively controversy there over the contents of the White Paper. However, having registered our criticism of the White Paper's contents, it is right that I should say to the people of Hong Kong that, whatever disappointment there may be, the colony is at a turning point in its history and it cannot afford deep and lasting divisions. It is essential that everyone in Hong Kong unites to ensure that the new arrangements work and are successful. I am confident that that is what they will do.

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his modest, but appropriate, thanks for our willingness to offer the statement this afternoon. I am also grateful to him for his expression of support for the need for steadiness and unity among the people of Hong Kong. They have always manifested that, to their great credit and to the greater success of the territory.

I do not accept the right hon. Gentleman's proposition that this represents a timid decision. It is an appropriate decision in response to the very careful and full consideration given to the matter in Hong Kong. Our key objective throughout has been to design a structure that will not be temporary or fallible, but one that will endure beyond 1997. I want to make it absolutely clear that the White Paper is entirely in line with the commitments given by the Government when the matter was last discussed. No commitment was made to introduce direct elections in 1988. It is nonsense to say—as some people said earlier today—that the White Paper means the postponement of direct election plans. The commitment in 1984 was to review in 1987. We have done that.

I note what the right hon. Gentleman has said about the number of directly elected Members. However, 14 elected Members from the functional constituencies will exist alongside the 10 directly elected Members. That is close to 50 per cent. of all the Members of the Legislative Council. We believe that they will represent a proper blend of continuity and change when the time comes. I am also grateful for the right hon. Gentleman's encouragement to the people of Hong Kong, after their mature reflection that has brought us this far, to continue to sustain the constitution in the way in which we would all wish.

Sir Peter Blaker (Blackpool, South)

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that the decision to introduce an element of direct elections to the Legislative Council in 1991 will be welcomed by the majority of Conservative Members and, I believe on the evidence, by the majority of people of Hong Kong? Is he also aware that BBC radio news reported this morning that the Government of Hong Kong and this Government have gone back on an undertaking to introduce an element of direct elections in 1988? Will he make it perfectly clear that no such undertaking has ever been given?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his commendation of the decisions announced. I am grateful to him also for giving me the opportunity to set beyond doubt the fact that those reports had no foundation. As I said in my earlier answers, there was no commitment beyond that to undertake a review, and there is no foundation for the suggestion that we have gone back on any commitment. It is very important that that proposition should be nailed now and nailed firmly.

Dr. John Marek (Wrexham)

Is the Foreign Secretary aware that he has caused considerable disappointment and a sense of betrayal among a large section of the Hong Kong community? Is he aware that democracy demands tradition and roots and that that implies a move to direct elections this year and a majority of elected members by 1991? Is he aware that his lame statement and his sell-out will make the eventual transition of Hong Kong in 1997 harder rather than easier? Finally, is he aware that it is a very risky course that he wishes to pursue in the next few years?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

The intemperance of the language used by the hon. Gentleman, with phrases such as "sellout", puts the value of his judgment in the right perspective. There is no case for such emotional and inaccurate phraseology, nor is there any suggestion that the Government are proceeding with undue caution. We have proceeded, as we have always advertised here, along an evolutionary rather than a revolutionary line, on the basis that each step should be carefully considered and that changes should command wide support and confidence in the community. What we said in the last White Paper is what has been said in this White Paper: these changes, after full consideration of all the views expressed, are well judged to command wide support and confidence and to ensure continuity, which is the foundation of stability.

Mr. David Howell (Guildford)

Further to the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South (Sir P. Blaker) about the BBC, is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that the report this morning also stated as a bland fact that the decisions about elections had been made in deference to Beijing? Will my right hon. Friend take every step to see that that nonsense is flatly refuted? Will he stongly underline the commitment, in his own words, to the steady development of representative government in Hong Kong? Will he confirm beyond all doubt that there is no going back on the spirit and aim of the 1984 accord or on our very strong determination and commitment to see Hong Kong flourish as a free-enterprise society for many decades ahead?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for what he has said. He rightly drew attention to the importance of the joint declaration between the United Kingdom and the People's Republic of China. One of its provisions, designed to ensure the stability and prosperity of Hong Kong, was the proposition that the legislature of the Hong Kong special administrative region shall be constituted by election. That is the direction represented by the changes which I have announced today.

It is wrong to suggest that the decisions we have announced today are decisions of anyone other than ourselves. Clearly we have taken account of the wishes of the people of Hong Kong. Clearly some of those people themselves have wished to take account of the development that has taken place on the Basic Law which is being prepared by China. All these matters are important to the continuity which we want to achieve. That continuity is designed to secure the survival of Hong Kong as a prosperous, stable, free enterprise society in accordance with the joint declaration.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

Is the Foreign Secretary really suggesting that direct elections earlier than 1991, and of a larger proportion of the legislature, would be revolutionary? If it is not he who thinks that, is it Beijing that thinks so, and has he received representations to that effect? What chance does he see for establishing two systems in one country if the democratic system is not firmly established in Hong Kong before the changeover?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

The hon. Gentleman must come back to reflect on the pattern that prevailed in Hong Kong until the first steps were taken in the direction of representative government only a few years ago. What is now proposed is a substantial and important further step in that direction. The mood of the people of Hong Kong was rightly expressed in the last White Paper, when it was noted that there was considerable general public concern that too rapid progress towards direct elections could place the future stability and prosperity of Hong Kong in jeopardy.

In summary, there was strong public support for the idea of direct elections but little support for such elections in the immediate future. That was the position a couple of years ago. Against that background, we have announced today the introduction of direct elections in 1991 and made it clear that we think that that is the right pace at which to proceed.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I hope that the I-louse will think it fair if I now give preference to those who were not called in the debate on Wednesday 20 January.

Hon. Members

Hear, hear.

Mr. James Couchman (Gillingham)

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that the White Paper will be seen widely as an elegant compromise between the apprehensions of the traditionalists, who have viewed direct elections with considerable concern, and the more radical and adventurous section of the community that wanted direct elections much more swiftly and for a much greater proportion of seats? My right hon. and learned Friend will be aware that timetabling the introduction for 1991 shows a much greater grasp of the realities involved in trying to arrange direct elections in a hurry than those who wanted the introduction in 1988?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. We have striven to balance the two factors to which he has drawn attention. As a result, we will have contributed to the prospect of continuity, stability and prosperity.

Mr. Jack Ashley (Stoke-on-Trent, South)

Will the Foreign Secretary recognise that, if he does not think that the statement is timid, some talented and energetic people in Hong Kong will think it is, and that it will provide impetus to their wish to emigrate? To avoid that danger, will the Foreign Secretary accept and tell our friends in China that the higher the proportion of seats that become directly elected, the greater the prospect for stability and progress in Hong Kong?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I have no doubt that the right hon. Gentleman is correct to say that there are some talented and energetic people in Hong Kong who disagree with the conclusions I have announced. That was implicit in the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham (Mr. Couchman). We have striven to reach an answer that provides the best balance between all the opinions expressed and the anxieties felt in Hong Kong. I believe that that will prove to be the basis for continuity and stability of the system of government and continuity on the path towards and through 1997. believe that it will prove to be the best way of retaining in Hong Kong the largest quantity of talent of the sort the right hon. Gentleman has in mind. It is a matter of judgment. I respect those who argue in the opposite direction, but I think that we have struck the right balance for the future.

Mr. Roger Sims (Chislehurst)

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that many hon. Members consider themselves friends of Hong Kong and that many of us will feel that the proposals, although we understand the mixed views about them, are in the best interests of the people of Hong Kong and the territory's future? Is he aware that it was only a few years ago that a number of people from Hong Kong were seeking advice from us as to how they should move forward to representative government? Indeed, the first elections were held only two and a half years ago under the functional constituency system—an ingenious device that seemed particularly appropriate for Hong Kong and appears to have worked successfully. Can my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that the number of functional constituency seats is to be increased forthwith and that there will still be functional constituencies alongside directly elected Members after 1991?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his tribute to the balance of the conclusions we have reached. He is right to point out that it was only recently that moves were made in the direction of representative government against the historical background of Hong Kong. He is right to draw attention to the importance of the functional constituencies. The change that is taking place as a result of my statement today will take effect by the addition of 10 directly elected seats and a continuation of the functional constituencies in 1991.

Mr. Pat Wall (Bradford, North)

Does not the Secretary of State's statement mark only a further extension of the long process of denying the Chinese people of Hong Kong a say in the running of their lives, both in relation to the rightful reunification with China and to the social and economic conditions in the colony? Does that not show that the Government have more in common with one-party totalitarian Stalinism than they have with democracy throughout the world?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I dare say that, if I wanted advice about one-party Stalinism, I should turn to the hon. Gentleman. I can assure him that the pattern of development in Hong Kong, the security that has been provided for the people of Hong Kong and the framework within which there has been an explosion of prosperity on a massive and demonstrative scale are a tribute to the free enterprise system which has underlain it and to the framework of government that has brought it thus far. The changes that we are making now are, in themselves, a further extension of the novelty of representative government which the hon. Gentleman appears to commend. I cannot see why he should complain about our movement in the direction of an increasingly democratic, free-enterprise society.

Mr. James Hill (Southampton, Test)

My right hon. and learned Friend will be aware that we have heard a great deal about the lobby for 1988. I was recently on a private visit to Hong Kong, where I found that there were several other opinions, particularly in the business community. That community was looking forward to stability after the difficulties with the stock exchange and the devaluation of the Hong Kong dollar. It would have been a most inopportune time to bring forward a sweeping political change. My right hon. and learned Friend must have taken all that into account in the decision making that had to take place. I should have thought that today's decision was the right one, but I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend will say something about the timetable of the Basic Law; we cannot have democratic elections without a Basic Law. There must be tremendous cooperation with the Governor of Hong Kong and the Chinese authorities.

Sir Geoffrey Howe

My hon. Friend draws attention to another of the strands of opinion in Hong Kong, which emphasises the extent to which there are sharp divisions and variations in opinion there. That is one of the strong arguments for not making a major constitutional change in 1988, when opinion is divided in this way, but for proceeding along the timetable that he has commended.

My hon. Friend is also right to draw attention to the importance of the role of the Basic Law. As I have already said, the preparation of that is for the Government of the People's Republic of China, but it is being undertaken with the help of a Basic Law drafting committee on which Hong Kong people are well represented. I understand that the full text of the draft Basic Law will be formally published after refinement in May of this year and that Hong Kong people will then have four months to comment on it, before it is revised further. That other half of the equation is being carried forward quite sensibly.

This pattern of behaviour underlines the extent to which there is a fallacy in some people's thinking—that a choice must be made between the interests of Hong Kong and good relations between Britain and China. The truth is that we cannot have one without the other, and we are endeavouring to achieve both.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

Is it not clear that only when directly elected Members are in place will they have the authority to speak on the basis of democratic representation? Does it not ill become a Government who are supposed to be committed to democracy to say to other people, "You must wait for the system that we shall put in place and it will be only a short time before the final changeover takes place."?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

If life were that simple, what the hon. Lady says might be true. But life is not so simple. In making those changes from a system of government which has prevailed in Hong Kong, placed as it is historically and geographically, we are moving in the direction that she would wish, after the fullest possible consultation with the people concerned, on a time scale consistent with balance and continuity. We have done the best we can to take account of the diversity of opinion. With all humility, I believe that we have got the judgment about right.

Mr. Robert G. Hughes (Harrow, West)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that there will be a wide welcome in Hong Kong for the calm and considered way in which he presented his arguments today? Does he accept also that there will he some disappointment at the fact that there will be no direct elections in 1988? Does he agree that there will be some concern that what he has said today may not be the best way in which to ensure stability? Does he accept that there will be puzzlement about the fact that the small scale of what is proposed for 1991 falls short of the expectations not only of those who want direct elections this year but of those who are hostile to direct elections at any time?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I have no doubt that my hon. Friend articulates the opinions of some people on the matter — I emphasise: some opinions of some people. We have made the best judgment that we can on the basis of an extensive survey and on the basis of debates in every conceivable representative institution and authority in Hong Kong. In almost all of them, as in the House, opinion was pretty evenly divided between both ends of the argument. The judgment that we have struck is as near right as one could get.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Is the Foreign Secretary aware that it will not be lost on the British electorate that the Government who are handing over Hong Kong are the same Government who fought for the Falklands? They will be drawn to the irresistible conclusion that, whereas the Government were prepared to fight for the Falklands, they dare not do anything with Hong Kong because there are 1 million Chinese around the corner? [Interruption] Sorry-1 billion Chinese around the corner. There will be only 18 per cent. participation in the elections. The Government are demanding that trade unions, tied hand and foot, must ballot for everything. Eighteen per cent. would not do service to the Iowa caucus. Before long, the hon. and right hon. learned Gentleman, if he is still in the job, will make arrangements for a one-party state in Hong Kong.

Sir Geoffrey Howe

The people of this country will learn from the hon. Gentleman's intervention that, if they seek one of the longest possible interconnections of wholly unconnected topics, founded upon a wholly misleading over-simplification, they have no better champion of that type of behaviour than the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Tim Rathbone (Lewes)

Dos my right hon. and learned Friend accept that the mixture of direct representation and functional representation is an intriguing experiment in proportionality? Does he consider that it bears particular study by her Majesty's Government?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I am not quite sure in what respect that kind of sophisticated proportionality is to be commended. It might be commendable for the future tribulations of the parties that once constituted the alliance.

Mr. Alex Carlile (Montgomery)

Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman agree that the existence and popular expectation of representative government will do much to strengthen prospects for Hong Kong's institutions in 1997? Does he expect evolution to be speeded up a little between 1991 and 1997?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

The pattern of development that has so far been identified seems to commend itself to the people of Hong Kong. We shall look forward to their experience in operating it when we consider the prospect for any further changes.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Crawley)

I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend on achieving a judicious and skilful balance in his paper. Will he reassure the people of Hong Kong that it patently shows that we have absolutely no need to suck up to the People's Republic of China?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

The idea that Britain should be obliged to have a confrontation with the People's Republic of China or be obliged, in my hon. Friend's elegant phrase, to "suck up to" the People's Republic of China is an unusually uncharacteristic over-simplification, of which my hon. Friend is not often guilty.

Dr. Jeremy Bray (Motherwell, South)

Is the right hon. and learned Gentleman aware that he has weakened the authority of, and undermined confidence in, the Government of Hong Kong by so palpably bowing to pressures from the People's Republic of China in a matter in which that country has no legitimate interest and which relates entirely to a period long before the handover?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I am sorry to tell the hon. Gentleman that his view is dramatically over-simplified and foolish. As I said in the last debate on this matter, and again today, all the evidence shows that Hong Kong prospers when London and Beijing can work in harmony. The overriding need for Hong Kong is to secure a foundation for lasting future stability and prosperity. That cannot be founded on confrontation between Britain and China; it can be founded, as it sensibly has been, on a continued understanding and the implementation of the joint declaration, to which we are both committed.

Mr. Michael Marshall (Arundel)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that the whole future of Hong Kong—like its past—is based on its economic viability, which in turn is based on confidence? Is not the greatest threat to confidence in Hong Kong ill-considered statements urging on it a Westminster model, as some hon. Members have done, and as has been heard in some of the extreme statements of the Members of LegCo?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I am sure my hon. Friend is right to remind the House of the importance of confidence as a foundation for stability — above all else — in Hong Kong. One of the remarkable things is the extent to which the people of Hong Kong and their representatives have, to a large degree, appreciated that, as is shown by the moderation and wisdom of what they say. That is a proposition that should be borne firmly in mind by Members of LegCo, this House and all others NA ho are concerned to uphold prosperity, stability and continuity in Hong Kong.

Mr. Andrew Faulds (Warley, East)

Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman accept my reassurance that I think that he has got it just about right — which can only mean that the Prime Minister's uninformed intervention has not been allowed to play upon this particular matter? Is not the blunt fact that the major considerations up to 1997 must be both the maintenance and success of Hong Kong's economy and the realisation that we must go along with the Chinese Government's acceptance of the scale and speed of change?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I am always glad to accept a compliment from the hon. Gentleman, however much it may be accompanied by the thorns that he sometimes feels obliged to offer at the same time. He puts his finger on it precisely when he says that the future must be built on exchanges and understandings of the mutual interest of the United Kingdom, China and the people of Hong Kong. If what we are building now is to be stable and survivable, it needs to be built in that way.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I will call the four hon. Members who have been standing, to put their questions briefly.

Mr. Ivan Lawrence (Burton)

As any lingering doubt that my right hon. and learned Friend may have had about the good sense of his policy will have been confirmed by the support of the hon. Member for Warley, East (Mr. Faulds), and as everyone — including the People's Republic of China—is agreed that Hong Kong should have direct elections, why should they not be held as widely and as soon as possible if the tender seed of democracy is not planted until 1991? It may not be strong enough to withstand any of the winds by 1997.

Sir Geoffrey Howe

The tender seed of democracy was first planted in the form of indirect elections as recently as 1985, and the judgment that we have formed is that to make a further change with the addition of direct elections only three years after that will be to hasten the process of maturation too quickly. I recognise that it is a matter of judgment. I do not think it would be easily possible to produce a conclusion that commended itself to the enthusiastic support of my hon. and learned Friend and, simultaneously, of the hon. Member for Warley, East (Mr. Faulds)—but I have to try my best.

Mr. Bowen Wells (Hertford and Stortford)

Will my right hon. and learned Friend accept that the selection of a six-year period for partially elected representational government, instead of the nine-year period that was available to him, brings into question whether there is enough time to establish and experience representative government on a firm basis through direct elections, in addition to the ministerial system which must still come? Will he carefully consider his fine judgment of today and reflect on whether he ought not to speed up that process?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

The arguments advanced by my hon. Friend are perfectly legitimate. I do not want to let him think, however, that we are likely to embark on a reconsideration of this matter. The important thing is to proceed with this next step, to get the process under way on a settled basis.

Mr. Alastair Goodlad (Eddisbury)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that his statement today will be broadly welcomed in Hong Kong and that it reflects the vast majority of the voices that spoke in the recent debate about the need for continuity and a measure of caution in these arrangements? As the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) said, the people of Hong Kong will make the new arrangements work, and they will have the full support of this House in so doing.

Sir Geoffrey Howe

My hon. Friend's experience of the people and colony of Hong Kong lends great authority to his observations. I am glad to endorse and accept them.

Mr. Robert Adley (Christchurch)

Thank you, Mr. Speaker, for giving me the last word.

Is it not a fact that, for more than a century, stability and autocracy have gone hand in hand in Hong Kong? Is there not a degree of illogicality in the words of those who say that the best way to maintain stability is fundamentally to change the system as a matter of urgency? Is there not also a certain illogicality in the proposition advanced by the Opposition Front Bench that, on the one hand, the document and the future discussions up to 1997 should be based purely on decisions taken in this House, as though the People's Republic of China did not exist and, on the other, to say, as did the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman), that if there is to be a change of Government before 1991, the first thing that he will do is to consult Beijing? Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that most people think that he has got it right?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I thank my hon. Friend very much for that closing tribute. The least likely problem to affect the future of the people of Hong Kong is the prospect of the election of a Labour Government in the United Kingdom.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

I shall take the application under Standing Order No. 20 first.