HC Deb 09 July 1993 vol 228 cc645-50

Motion made and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Michael Brown.]

2.30 pm
Sir Teddy Taylor (Southend, East)

I am grateful for this opportunity to raise with the House and the Minister one relatively small issue relating to the transfer of Hong Kong to Chinese control. While it is a small problem in terms of the numbers of people involved, it is of great humanitarian and constitutional importance.

Like many people in the United Kingdom, I have felt somewhat guilty about the transfer of Hong Kong to Chinese control. Every other colony that has moved out of our control has been able to secure freedom, independence and national consciousness, but Hong Kong is the exception because we are transferring it to Chinese control on the basis of an outdated and irrelevant agreement made with the Manchu emperors.

The comparison with little Macau is unusual. Macau is only 20 miles from Hong Kong—less than half the distance from the House to Southend on Sea. The Portuguese, who control Macau, have agreed to transfer control to China by the end of the century, but everyone there is entitled to seek Portuguese citizenship. Some 100,000 passports have already been issued to the 400,000 people there—men, women and children—and another 100.000 passports are on the way.

Due to the iniquities of the Foreign Office and the EC, which appear to haunt us all the time now, a considerable number of those 400,000 delightful people will be entitled to come to settle in England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. Most of the Macau people have lived there for generations, or at least have proof of having done so. Most of them speak English as that makes commercial sense and most of them speak Portuguese of a sort because they are aware of the rules of admission once the colony is transferred. I am sure that if the Minister telephones the Foreign Office he will receive a Euro-assurance that the numbers involved are small. However, on the basis of the time that those people have spent living there and their ability to speak Portuguese—actively spoken in Macau—the numbers will become considerable.

I cannot hold our delightful Under-Secretary of State responsible for the sins of the Foreign Office or Brussels, but I can ask him to bear in mind that loophole when he considers my request on behalf of a tiny group of people, who have the ethnic background of Asians, White Russians and Eurasians, have lived in Hong Kong and had British nationality for generations, and who have paid their taxes and given their obligations to the British Administration. They now seem likely to become stateless people. Their numbers are tiny—they amount to 7,000. But the real number will probably be about 5,000 because the balance will have qualified for citizenship as part of the 50,000 passport scheme.

We must consider the facts. First, will those people actually become stateless? The Government have insisted that they are currently British dependent territorial citizens and will be able to seek classification as British nationals overseas. We are told that that will ensure that they have the protection of the British consuls. However, the status of BN(O) will be handed down for only two generations. The great-grandchild of any one of those BNOs will have no nationality, no homeland and no security unless we do something.

Am I right in my belief about statelessness? Everyone else seems to think so. The International Commission of Jurists has determined that the ethnic minorities will become effectively stateless in 1997". That is clear and precise.

Article 10 of the 1961 convention, to which I understand we are a party, obliges any state involved in the transfer of territory to secure that no person shall become stateless as a result". Will the Chinese sort things out for this small group of people when they take over? Sad to say, there is no sign of that. Chinese laws on nationality are essentially race based and the 5,000 have no right to Chinese citizenship even if they wanted to take it up. The Chinese Government have made their position clear. They have stated that the 5,000 will have to stay in Hong Kong as stateless persons or else seek some sort of special Chinese passports whose status has not been defined. The Chinese policy, stated openly and publicly, has been to advise the 5,000 to appeal to London to grant them United Kingdom passports.

What does the Legislative Council of Hong Kong think? Does it believe that the problem is insignificant? Far from it. It has passed a unanimous resolution appealing to the United Kingdom Government to make a concession. It took the trouble to send a delegation here a fortnight ago to seek help from the Foreign Office and from the friends of justice and humanity to get the problem solved.

Disregarding the democratic representations, what does the Governor think? Unprecedentedly—this says a great deal for him—he took the trouble to make a clear public statement as recently as Thursday 10 June. He stated unambiguously: I think that the case has been put not only by the delegation of legislative councillors, but also by me and others—and we will go on putting the case and I hope that we can get some movement on that. Clearly the Governor, as well as LegCo, believes that this is a just cause requiring action.

It seems that everyone at every level accepts that this is a real problem, a grave injustice and a genuine personal crisis for the 5,000 forgotten United Kingdom citizens of Hong Kong. I understand that the Government have made the concession of stating that, should things get rough in Hong Kong after the changeover—which they might—they will look sympathetically at the plight of the 5,000. If that is to be regarded as a guarantee, what on earth would we lose by making the nationality concession? The 5,000 appear to wish to stay in Hong Kong—there is not the slightest evidence that they do not want to. So what difference would it make if we gave them nationality?

As the House of Commons has unfortunately tended to become an area of interest promotion, I should like to emphasise that I have no connection, direct or indirect, by the back door or the front door, with Hong Kong or with any business operating there, or with the 5,000 or any of their industrial or commercial ventures. Indeed, I have been to Hong Kong only once, for a short holiday with my wife. My principal memory is of paying more for a cup of coffee—£2.80—than I have paid anywhere else in the world. I did not enjoy that, the more so since we were joined at breakfast by five of my fellow Members of Parliament who were staying in the same lavish and costly hotel as participants in one of those mass of useless delegations paid for by some taxpayer somewhere. I therefore have no interest in Hong Kong. My only possible interest lies in the fact that it owes me £2 for the coffee.

My real interest stems from my belief that Britain is in danger of flouting its inescapable duty to a group of citizens whose rights are being ignored and whose future will be unstable and constitutionally deprived unless we do something. It would be terrible if we told these 5,000 people that they belong nowhere—that they are nationals of nowhere—especially as they have served Britain so well in the past.

I believe that nothing would be lost by saying yes to these people. If the Government really mean what they say—that if the 5,000 get into trouble, they will help them—what is lost by giving them passports? Home Office Ministers, including the Minister answering this debate, are people of sincerity and judgment. I appreciate that the last thing that I can hope for is that the Minister will suddenly announce in an Adjournment debate that that policy is to be overturned. However, I hope that he can at least give an assurance that, on the basis of what appear to be facts and the real problems of real people, he will think about what I and others, including the Hong Kong Legislative Council, the Governor and the representatives of the Chinese Government, have said. I hope that the Minister will at least say, "I shall look at this again and think about what has been said."

2.39 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Charles Wardle)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Sir T. Taylor) on selecting this subject for debate and I welcome the opportunity that it provides for me to set out the Government's position on the Hong Kong ethnic minorities. There has been some misunderstanding on the subject over the years and I hope that I can put matters right.

My hon. Friend spoke about Macau. Portugal is not granting Portuguese citizenship to all residents of Macau; nor can people travel there from Hong Kong and acquire Portuguese citizenship. I do not think that my hon. Friend suggested that, but he may be as aware as I am that in a debate on Monday in another place it was suggested that the Portuguese Government had said that they would give Portuguese nationality to all those from Hong Kong who apply in Macau.

It is not true to say that residence in Macau leads to the acquisition of Portuguese citizenship. The Portuguese Nationality Act 1981 provides that only children born in Macau to existing Portuguese citizens will get Portuguese citizenship. Portugal is not operating any kind of assurance package after the fashion of our selection scheme under the terms of the British Nationality (Hong Kong) Act 1990.

Sir Teddy Taylor

I accept everything that the Minister has said. Does he accept that 100,000 Portuguese passports have already been issued to adults? Therefore, we are not debating an insignificant problem. While I agree that what was said in the Lords was rubbish, there is a problem.

Mr. Wardle

My hon. Friend's estimate that 100,000 citizens of Macau have Portuguese citizenship is right as far as I know. That number may increase. As Portuguese citizens, those people who are not in Macau may travel to the EC and may visit this country. If they want to reside here they will have to make it clear that they are not dependent on social security. That applies to any EC national.

The issue raised by my hon. Friend is not new. Over the past six or seven years, it has been debated regularly in the House and, within the past six months; there have been two debates in the Hong Kong Legislative Council in which the Government's position has been explained. There is clearly a need for our position to be repeated because of questions asked in Hong Kong and in this country by my hon. Friend and by many others.

I should like to make plain which members of the Hong Kong community we are debating. We estimate that currently in Hong Kong about 28,000 people belong to the non-Chinese ethnic minorities. The great majority of them have another nationality besides British. For example, most of them hold citizenship of either India or Pakistan. Perhaps 7,000 of them have only British nationality in the form of British dependent territories citizenship—BDTC—or British nationality overseas.

The question at the heart of the debate is whether special measures should be taken for that section of the Hong Kong community, or whether they should compete, like everybody else, for the 50,000 British citizenship places that we have already made available under the British Nationality (Hong Kong) Act.

Representations have been made on behalf of that group for a number of years and Parliament carefully considered their position when formulating its citizenship scheme for Hong Kong in 1990. It concluded that there was no case for making special citizenship provision for them and that remains our position.

Let us look at the arguments that have been advanced in favour of special treatment. First, it is said that after 1997, the ethnic minorities will not have a proper nationality and passport. That refers to the status of British national (overseas)—BN(O)—or British overseas citizen—BOC—and their related passports. The British Government do not accept that those nationality statuses are in any way inferior to BDTC status. There are more than I million people in the world with BOC status and the BOC passport is well established. There are more than 500,000 people in Hong Kong now with BN(O) status and the BN(O) passport is accepted throughout the world. Holders do not need entry clearance for visits to the United Kingdom, although, like everyone else, they require entry clearance if they wish to come here on a more permanent basis.

BN(O) and BOC passports give the holders an entitlement to registration as British citizens provided that they have completed five years' residence in the United Kingdom and have achieved settled status. Those passports also confer British consular protection worldwide and will do so in the Hong Kong special administrative region, as it will be known after 1997, if the holders are not Chinese nationals as well. The ethnic minorities will, therefore, be in no different position in those respects after 1997.

Secondly, the ethnic minorities have expressed fears that, unlike the ethnic Chinese, they will not have the right of abode in Hong Kong after 1997. In our view, those fears are quite groundless. The Joint Declaration and article 24(6) of the Basic Law guarantee the ethnic minorities the right of abode in Hong Kong if they do not have a right of abode elsewhere. The Peking authorities have said that people in Hong Kong who are not ethnically Chinese are welcome to remain and that it is open to them to apply for Chinese citizenship.

Thirdly, it is claimed that under existing arrangements, the ethnic minorities, their children or grandchildren will be left stateless. There is no question of that. Specific provision has been made in article 6 of the Hong Kong (British Nationality) Order 1986 to deal with that question. People with solely British nationality—that is, BDTC, BN(O) or BOC—before 1997 will retain British nationality after 1997, either as BN(O)s or BOCs. The children of those who become BOCs or BN(O)s under the 1986 order will automatically become BOCs if they would otherwise be stateless. Their grandchildren will have an entitlement to acquire BOC status by registration—again, if they would otherwise be stateless.

Fouthly, concern has been expressed on the limitations on the transmissibility of the ethnic minorities' British nationality status to future generations. They are, however, in no way unique in this. No form of British nationality will be transmissible indefinitely in Hong Kong. The British Government cannot give indefinite rights to transmit nationality from one generation to the next, expecially where the territory in question is not British. Those limitations in respect of future generations would apply even if they were to be given British citizenship, assuming that they remained in Hong Kong, as they have said they wish to do.

The Government therefore remain firmly of the view that it is neither necessary nor appropriate to introduce legislation to give the ethnic minorities British citizenship. They are, of course, free, along with all other BDTCs, to apply for British citizenship under the selection scheme that was set up under the British Nationality (Hong Kong) Act 1990.

Records for the selection scheme are not kept on the basis of ethnic origin, but a check made on the basis of surnames indicated that the ethnic minorities who have applied have been successful in about the same proportion as other applicants. About 60 per cent. of those who applied have been successful. The scheme could not, however, be arranged to give preference to the ethnic minorities. It is designed on an impartial and objective basis under which points are awarded according to set objective criteria.

The Government do not see any case for taking further action on the matter of citizenship. We have been prepared to give an assurance relating to the admissibility of the ethnic minorities to the United Kingdom in the event of their coming under pressure to leave Hong Kong. My hon. Friend alluded to that in his speech.

We do not expect that any members of the non-Chinese ethnic minority will be forced to leave Hong Kong after 1997. Their right of abode in the special administrative region of Hong Kong is explicitly protected in the Sino-British Joint Declaration and the Basic Law, and we have no reason to think that the Chinese will not honour their commitments in that respect.

Over the years, however, we have regularly assured the non-Chinese ethnic minority in Hong Kong that if, against all expectations, members of that group came under pressure to leave Hong Kong and had nowhere else to go, the Government of the day would be expected to consider with considerable and particular sympathy their case for admission to the United Kingdom. I am glad, in view of my hon. Friend's remarks, to repeat that assurance today.

I hope that my comments today show that the Government are perfectly happy to see members of the ethnic minorities being offered British citizenship if they qualify for it. There has been some misunderstanding on that point. We see the ethnic minorities in the same way as all other British nationals in Hong Kong. If they meet the selection criteria under the selection scheme and secure the requisite number of points, they are entitled to British citizenship.

The scheme awards points according to age, education, experience, ability with the English language, British connections and so on. It is, however, competitive and there are bound to be those who are unable to gain the appropriate number of points. Nevertheless, we recognise that the ethnic minorities have made a substantial contribution to Hong Kong's economic prosperity and we have no wish to deny any of them British citizenship if they qualify under the scheme.

It would be wrong to pretend that the scheme could accommodate all 2,000 to 2,500 families in the ethnic minorities with only BDTC citizenship in the second tranche, which is planned to start in January 1994. Only about 12,000 places will be available for all groups in the second tranche. Many thousands of people will be competing for those places and it is unrealistic to expect that the ethnic minorities will be able to obtain more than a proportion of them.

Nor is it possible to grant British citizenship to ethnic minorities in Hong Kong under the British Nationality Act 1981, under which eligibility for British citizenship is, in general, tied closely to past and future residence in the United Kingdom. If special treatment were to be accorded to that group, new primary legislation would be necessary—and we were not persuaded that there is any case for fresh legislation.

We took the action that we considered necessary for Hong Kong in 1990, when we passed the British Nationality (Hong Kong) Act. It was our view at the time that the immigration assurance that I have just repeated and the provision that we were making by means of the 1990 Act struck the right balance between maintaining confidence in Hong Kong and limiting potential immigration to the United Kingdom.

We believe that we got that balance right and that there are no new circumstances that would justify making different arrangements now. The ethnic minorities' ties are with Hong Kong rather than with the United Kingdom and our primary objective has been to ensure their security in Hong Kong. We believe that we have done that.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly, at eight minutes to Three o'clock.