HL Deb 07 March 1979 vol 399 cc266-84

7.20 p.m.

Lord BROCKWAY rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will inquire into the circumstances under which 76 persons travelling in coaches to present a petition to the Governor were arrested in Hong Kong on 7th January, 1979, and into the conditions of the boatmen and their families who for seven years have been denied houses at Yaumoti. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I am raising this issue in an Unstarred Question because I felt that on 12th February, when I put a Starred Question, the exchanges between a questioner and the Front Bench were inadequate to clarify these issues at depth. The only other Back-Bencher who intervened paid a tribute to the Governor of Hong Kong. I want wholeheartedly to endorse that tribute. In the unique circumstances of Hong Kong the endeavours which he has made for the rehousing of the people and his activities in public work construction should receive the recognition of all Members of the House. About that there is no difference at all.

These boatmen used to be fishermen from the mainland of Hong Kong. However, when the trawlers came they were no longer able to carry out their activities. For more than seven years now they and their families have lived in boats under shelters on the shores of the mainland. They have had to live there because, despite the fact that they have asked for housing accommodation, it has not been provided. With their wives and their children—and children are being born continually—the number of them now reaches 5,000. More than a half of them work on the mainland. Their children go to schools on the mainland; but they are still limited to living on their boats. The housing department of the Government of Hong Kong has stated that many of them are immigrants, illegal immigrants, living in these conditions because they wish to claim houses.

There was a survey by Social Action which interviewed the residents of 474 of the boats accommodating over 4,000 people. That survey showed that 70 per cent. of the residents of these boats had been there for seven years. That is a sufficient answer to the Housing Department so far as at least 60 per cent. of the residents are concerned. The conditions under which they live are appalling. Boats are becoming old and rotten. If they moved they would sink. There is no fresh water supply or artificial light. There is no sanitation. The water round the boats is filthy and stinks. In the past year alone 12 children from these boats have drowned. Over the years the boatmen have sent many petitions to Government departments. They recently decided that they would petition the Governor himself. I should remark that in Hong Kong petitions are the accepted method of bringing pressure from the population to the legislature and the Governor. There is no elected member of the legislature; all are appointees or nominees of the Government. It is the only method by which the people can express their differences.

I want to recognise at once that the first action of the boatmen was provocative. They held a Press conference and announced that 1,000 of them would march to the Governor's residence. Such a march without seven days' notice and without a licence from the Government would have been illegal. I think it very likely indeed that it was the announcement of that march which provoked the police—no doubt justifiably with the authority of the Governor—to take action. However, this project was cancelled. Undoubtedly there were consultations between the leaders of the community and with representatives of the boatmen. A decision was taken to cancel the proposed march and that instead there should be a deputation which would present a petition to the Governor. As a result of the discussions, the deputation was to represent community leaders and to present the human problems of the families living on these boats by representation of the women and children there. A deputation was selected of 76 persons including a Catholic priest, a doctor, two social workers, 48 women and 10 children.

When one considers whether that deputation was illegal or not one has to recognise this. Undoubtedly they were accompanied by a number of people to the pier where they entered two coaches. However, the significant fact in the issue which I am raising tonight is this. No charge was made against any illegal procession on the mainland before the deputation of 76 entered their coaches. They had to travel, as those who know Hong Kong will realise, by a tunnel which joins the mainland to the main island of Hong Kong and its harbour. When they reached the entrance to the island, they were arrested—the deputation of 76 travelling in these two coaches. They were arrested because they were said to have taken part in an illegal procession and an illegal assembly. I wonder how two coaches with occupants can be held to be "a procession". I wonder how 76 people in those two coaches can be held to be "an assembly".

When I raised this question in this House on 12th February 1979, the noble Lord, Lord Goronwy-Roberts, said at col. 971 of Hansard: No charges were made against the ten juveniles, and the adults were released on bail pending trial". A word about bail: it was 200 dollars and the men arc earning 150 dollars. I think that is unreasonably high; but I want to draw particular attention to the statement that no charges were made against the 10 juveniles. I want to make it perfectly clear that I am making no suggestion that the Minister sought to mislead the House on this matter. There is no one in this House that I more regularly believe than the noble Lord, Lord Goronwy-Roberts. He always takes the utmost care in stating facts and explaining them to this House; but I do not think there is any doubt that he was misinformed on this matter. I have in my hand a letter from Councillor Elsie Elliott, and she says this: I personally bailed out 30 persons from the Central Police Station. I examined and signed the bail papers for three of the children, aged 7, 8 and 12. On the papers I signed it stated clearly in English that they were being charged with 'unlawful assembly', and each one bore the thumbprint of the child whose name appeared on it, indicating that the charge had been read to the child. I heard the police inform each child individually to attend the adult court at Causeway Bay next morning (8th January). When the 12-year-old boy said he could not go as he had to go to school, he was told he must attend court. At the time, I protested against such small children being charged with offences they did not understand, and against putting small children in an adult court. Mr. Holliday, who seemed to be in charge of the operation, said that children are responsible in law from the age of 7 and that the charges must stand. I think it was the Magistrate who objected to the charges next day; no credit is due to the police or the Government for having arrested children who did not even know what was going on".

My Lords, I do not think anyone will dispute that statement from Councillor Elliott—missionary, educationalist, the voice of the people, given a distinguished award in 1976 for her achievements in social welfare and awarded the CBE last year by Her Majesty the Queen. She is a responsible person, and no one who knows her can doubt that on this matter she has told the truth. The children were charged, and it was only through the intervention of the magistrate the following day that those charges were withdrawn. I pause to ask: Is it really tenable that in Hong Kong a child of seven should be held responsible in law?

It is often suggested that this is just an agitation by the boatmen concerned and a few others. I have had a letter from the Ecumenical Community Development Project, with members of the Anglican, Lutheran, Methodist and Roman Catholic Churches, of the Salvation Army and the Church of Christ in China, thanking me for having raised this matter in the House. They say: The issue is not only of great importance to the boat people themselves in their quest for resettlement but has grave implications for the civic rights of residents in this city".

I believe this event, distressing as it has been, will be important and will have three results. First, greater care in the future will be taken in the application of the law against processions and assemblies. Secondly, there must be a reconsideration of the age when a child becomes responsible in law, now seven years. Thirdly, because of the publicity which has been obtained, there will be a resettlement of the boat people by the provision of housing for them. I ask for an inquiry to be made into the circumstances of the arrest of the 76—and not only that but, more importantly, into the conditions under which the boatmen and their families live, in order to facilitate the three results I have mentioned.

7.39 p.m.


My Lords, I always approach the solution of distant problems with more diffidence than I do those close at hand. It is more difficult to come at the facts. However, I know Hong Kong and I have apprised myself of some of the facts. I always admire the motivation of the noble Lord, Lord Brockway. I am not entirely certain that I follow him through the whole of this argument this evening, but I would endorse his view of the work of the present Governor, as a preliminary to what I say.

It seems that we are looking at three questions. We are looking at the particular incident which resulted in the arrest to which the noble Lord has drawn the attention of the House; we are looking at the conditions which gave rise to it, not only in that flotilla of boats but in Hong Kong as a whole, and we are looking at a specific question of the responsibility of 7-year-old children in law. If I may take them in that order, as touches the arrest itself, as I understand it, the assembly, which was quite a large one, which preceded the setting off of 76 people in two buses, was illegal. It was in fact the latest in a series of such assemblies which, in a crowded and cramped community such as Hong Kong, which is much more like a rabbit warren than a city in the sense in which we mean it in this House, looking at London and Paris, is a serious matter in itself.

I understand that the first time any objection was made formally by the authorities, in the shape of the police, was on 24th December last year, and that that was merely a request to disperse which I do not think was fully met, and what happened on 7th January continued despite police requests. Then, the parties having been warned, I imagine, that if they went through the tunnel they would then have gone beyond the bounds of official patience; they proceeded to do so. The noble Lord suggested that it was important that large numbers of people had dispersed unarrested, and yet they had committed the offence of which the 76 were said to be guilty. I do not think that that crowd was made up of lawyers, and I think any normal group ofpeople would see that this was a gradation of response, which was not in any way extreme or brutal.

As to what happened after that, the noble Lord, Lord Goronwy-Roberts, will doubtless be in a position to enlighten us. As I understood it, charges were preferred against the adults. Convictions resulted, but the people who had been charged and convicted were bound over and thus incurred no penalty at all, although they were, I understand, members of an organisation which, quite properly, is trying to draw attention to the hardships of a particular group of people in Hong Kong. The causes of the demonstration arc the circumstances of the boatmen (who are not to be confused with the boat people, which is an emotive term relating to refugees from Vietnam). These people are living in the vessels in which they used to live, or in vessels similar to them, when they were working at their trade as fishermen.

The objects of the demonstration were to get them rehoused on dry land and, presumably, to have this done in advance of the long queue of others who are waiting to be rehoused. I would just draw the noble Lord's attention to the very large number of people living in shanties on geologically unstable slopes, in which the danger is that with the torrential rains in Hong Kong you get a mud slide which results in instant burial and asphyxiation. If your boat starts to go down, on the other hand, you can step on to another one next door. I think that that is an important consideration, and I wonder whether the people in the shanties have a greater claim than the people in the boats.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord whether it is not the case that those on the waiting list have to wait seven or eight years before they get any hope of a house, and that this is the condition of these boatmen?


My Lords, I think that if the noble Lord were to extend his attention to the other people on the list, he might find that this was the case elsewhere. He has to look no further than Islington to find people waiting interminable years. I understand that the council there cannot say how long people will have to wait in order to be housed. This is a universal problem. It is increased in Hong Kong by the fact that in the 12 months up to 31st December, 1978 over 100,000 new residents came over the border from China. What authority of a conurbation in the United Kingdom could cope with that and still shorten the list? There were 70,000 who came illegally and 30,000 who came as fugitives, without papers. Therefore, if it is at the back of the minds of those reading the columns of Hansard after this debate that somehow Hong Kong has a repressive régime, I think that the figures speak for themselves. People do not fling themselves so willingly and in such large numbers into prison. That, I think, is, in itself, an endorsement of what Hong Kong is achieving.

I have, as it happens, been around many of the housing projects in Hong Kong. I have seen the emergency housing and the various grades, as well as the latest schemes that they have. It is difficult not to be fulsome in one's admiration of the organisation, energy and sheer achievement of what has been done. I do not wish to state the case in too flowery terms, because it will sound like propaganda and this is not a propagandist occasion. I merely think that, in extremely difficult circumstances, the local authorities there have done rather better than local authorities in this country have done with far more resources at their disposal. That is an important element in looking at what is going on in Hong Kong. Let us have a yardstick, and let us find what area in this country, with an equivalent population, could produce an equivalent solution.

I come now to the question of the responsibility of 7 year-old children. That is a matter which I would happily leave to lawyers. It is a matter of which I was not aware until the noble Lord raised it. My view is that I would need to know a very great deal more than the noble Lord has vouchsafed to us, before I knew what I was talking about. It seems to me that, with legal responsibility, there may go other considerations. I do not wish to draw illustrations out of my imagination. I agree that, on the face of it, it is a surprising provision, but it is possible that responsibility brings with it privilege. I simply do not know. I shall be fascinated to hear what the noble Lord, Lord Gorowny-Roberts, has to say in comment on the letter of Councillor Elsie Elliott who, I know, is profoundly interested in housing. It is impossible to look at this problem out there without being aware of the fact.

In conclusion, I would just say this. What I have said is simply a gloss on the discussion. The intention is to make it clear that, having looked fairly closely at what is going on in Hong Kong, in person, on the ground, twice in the last three or four years, I am convinced that a great deal of good is going on there, and that with the extraordinary, indeed the unique, stresses under which that Crown Colony exists, with the enormous neighbour with a titular right to resume ownership before the end of the century, with very considerable numbers of immigrants coming in from that neighbour, and others, I might say—after all, it is not only the 100,000 whom they have to house; I think that at the latest count there were 9,000 refugees from Vietnam who have been added to the list—one might expect riots, one might expect destitution, one might expect deprivation and one might expect epidemics. When we consider that the question at the moment is whether 76 people were wrongly required to appear before a magistrate and to be bound over, that puts the question in perspective. As to the other question of the responsibility of juveniles, I feel that one of my noble and learned friends on this Bench would be better equipped to comment on that than I am.

7.50 p.m.


My Lords, the process of dying slowly interests and in many ways fascinates me. One problem more than any other, perhaps, which has been worrying me is that once in my somewhat impertinent youth I asked a very distinguished Labour Minister of the highest repute whether or not, when he spoke about lessons of experience, he was speaking about the hardening of the arteries. That is perfectly true today. Having listened to a talk at about three o'clock in the morning on the new technology of the silicon chip and the marvels and miracles as well as the problems that are to come, and having had the privilege of listening to most of the very brilliant debate which took place this afternoon, I wondered whether there was a certain lack of perspective. I am quite sure that I was wrong.

I have listened to my very old, respected and valued friend putting his case with studied moderation. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, is an old and beloved friend, but the interjection, "I know the Governor and we can rely upon him" is to be deplored. First, it is not very kind to the Governor, who is known all over Asia and who has had tributes paid to him in almost every debate which has been held on Hong Kong. He has received the highest honours from Her Majesty. When I listen to my noble friend Lord Goronwy-Roberts speaking about the Governor, it is obvious that he holds a special place in the heart of my noble friend. That is a great distinction on its own. I shall not pursue the matter, but I do feel that, "One must trust the Governor" is the precise antithesis and the precise problem of democratic politics. If one must trust the Governor, there is no room for debate and argument. Tonight, nobody has said a word against the Governor.

We had a debate on Hong Kong in 1976, and many of the same points were made then. Tributes were paid to the Governor. I said then that Hong Kong had never had a better Governor. Nobody raised any criticisms because the Governor was facing problems of quite exceptional difficulty. He has obviously been facing such problems quite recently. What is one to do if refugees come, by purchase, over the seas from the devastated territories of Vietnam, which have borne more bombardment and more destruction and which have had more poison poured upon them than any other country? If those refugees jump the queue, what does one do about it? Whether they are rich or whether they are poor, in the end the answer is that they are refugees and that they have children. I do not quarrel with anything that has been done. The spectacle of things which are done by force, by good sense and with my complete approval is naturally likely to excite perturbation among people who have suffered very considerably because of their living conditions. When people read justifiably glowing accounts of the many achievements in Hong Kong, they must wonder whether they are the victims of discrimination.

We have heard a great deal about the housing programme. I have not seen it, but my information is that this excellent housing is being built on ground that is too costly to be used by the poorer inhabitants. Many other things are going on which are likely at least to exacerbate people's minds. The noble Lord, Lord Elton, said that if you are on a boat there is the advantage that you can step off it. There is, if you are awake and active at the time and know what is happening. I understand that the water there is so dirty and filthy that it is not easy for a boat to sink. What it does is to rot and fall to pieces. I understand that, as a perfectly proper safety precaution, inspectors go round month after month to examine these boats and see how long they will last. For all these years they have had no water or artificial light, and virtually no sanitation. And families are growing up on these boats.

I believe that it was the noble Lord, Lord Elton, who said that there are housing problems in England. Indeed there are. There are problems in Oldham. Oldham has seen its major industry pass to Hong Kong. I spent the best part of 30 years pointing out the problems of the cotton industry in England and the competition which it had to face from Hong Kong because of the subsidies that were paid from time to time to Hong Kong. The fact that Oldham machines were being exported second-hand to Hong Kong and also to Shanghai—a great deal more to Shanghai, let us be frank about it—and refurbished there also affected our home industry. This island community —partly a mainland community, it is true—with a somewhat uneasy tenure and with certain difficulties, was at one time costing our national Exchequer a very considerable sum of money.

In the year of that debate, I was privileged to receive a handsome book on Hong Kong which recounted its achievements. Frankly, I do not think that Texas could do it so well, or possibly so inexpensively. It may be that cheap labour helps. It is a remarkable book and a remarkable achievement; it is something of which they can be proud. The book is magnificently illustrated. It contains a picture of the Queen's visit and also a picture of the other Queen Elizabeth II departing from the harbour on another world tour. Illustrations are given of the immense advances which Hong Kong has made. It was the pioneer of the transistor industry, which brings it a little nearer to silicon chips. In a very fine harbour it has been carrying on a considerable amount of shipbuilding. It is also building—I call it hand-made to contrast it with the major form of shipbuilding—junks of considerable beauty, which are made with quite exceptional skill. If all that labour is being devoted to shipbuilding, it ought to be possible to provide houses on the riverside which contain adequate sanitation and so on. I suggest therefore that it is an unfortunate step to take, to say that you must not come to present a petition. I do not doubt for a moment that there have been faults on both sides in this matter. It is possible to get like that after seven or eight years of privation, particularly if people are reading about the new race course and all the other amenities that are being constructed for Hong Kong.

One gets to the point of protest; one reaches the point when pent-up indignation gets out of control. That is one of the difficulties in our world today, where there is so much violence, so much crime and so much demonstration. It is a wise law which permits the maximum possibility of ventilation of grievance. All my noble friend said was that there was a calling of attention to some rather regrettable points in procedures. In these circumstances, one wonders whether there should have been a conviction at all. The noble Lord, Lord Elton, said—and I am not suggesting that he is wrong—that in effect there was no punishment, but of course a conviction is a punishment and binding over is a conviction. It is a finding of guilt, it can remain on the record all the time and if fingerprints were being taken that adds a little more point of regret to what transpired. I have spoken for too long and I shall not pursue the matter. I have tried to be completely fair and I earnestly congratulate my noble friend on not thinking such a matter too insignificant for the attention of your Lordships' House and on having presented his case in full detail and with his customary fairness and force.


My Lords, I apologise for speaking without having put down my name but I should like to ask your Lordships' indulgence to put one question concerning the rehousing of the boatmen whose present conditions the noble Lord, Lord Brockway, has so clearly described. One understands the intense pressures on available housing which affect Hong Kong; some of them have been mentioned already. There is the natural increase of the existing population, there are refugees from China and more recently still there have been refugees from Vietnam. Taking all these things into consideration, the pressures on the housing authority are obviously very great indeed. My question is this: if the Government of Hong Kong were able to provide building sites and building materials on the mainland is it not possible that the boatmen would then be able to rehouse themselves in a co-operative way and by methods which one might describe as community self-help?

8.4 p.m.


My Lords, I should like first to thank my noble friend Lord Brockway for the way in which he has introduced this debate which, as my noble friend Lord Hale has reminded us, is indeed on a very important subject. I appreciate also the balanced way in which the official spokesman for the Conservative Party put forward his own views.

There is no question of anybody in need of housing in Hong Kong being denied a fair opportunity of achieving that. It is the policy of the Hong Kong Government to provide subsidised public housing for all who need it. The problem is to provide it fast enough to meet the demands of a population that has increased more than sevenfold in the past 35 years, and a population which is continuing to increase at a rate of over 150,000 a year. In such a situation and despite a housing pro- gramme of which the Hong Kong Government have every right to be proud, it is of course inevitable that there should have to be a waiting list, which in turn means that there have to be priorities. It was this situation which led indirectly to the incident referred to by my noble friend in his Question.

The aim of the Hong Kong Government is to rehouse everybody who lives in substandard accommodation. This includes not only boat dwellers but also large numbers of people living in unsatisfactory conditions on land. Within this general policy, priority is given to people made homeless as a result of fire or natural disaster, or whose homes become dangerous. Some people, too, have to be moved from land that is needed for development, usually for new industry and new housing, and when this happens they, too, are rehoused immediately. Otherwise, everybody takes his turn, as is the case in this country. At present, there is a waiting list of some six to seven years in Hong Kong—almost as bad as in some parts of our own country. If this sounds a long time, I would ask your Lordships to bear in mind both the scale of the problem, as shown by the population figures I have just quoted, and the very great efforts that are being made to cope with it. I should like to give a few details of those in a moment.

That is the general picture with regard to priorities for public housing in Hong Kong. The boat dwellers had recently claimed that they should be allowed to jump the queue. Who are the boat dwellers? Those of us who are fairly familiar with Hong Kong and its history will know that Hong Kong has always had a large floating population, most of whom are fishermen but including also a great many involved in other marine trades, such as cargo handling. They are part of a wider tradition extending all around the coast of China. For centuries people have lived their whole lives afloat, hardly ever going ashore. In Hong Kong the numbers have in fact declined steadily over recent years as people whose families have worked afloat for generations have taken jobs ashore. Ten years ago there were some 100,000 boat dwellers in Hong Kong; today the reckoning is about 60,000. New industry on land, and obviously new re-housing on land, has made an impact on these and other figures. Many of these people still make their living from fishing, but there are also a large number of squatters—that is, people who, unable to find accommodation ashore, live on boats moored in various typhoon shelters and anchorages around Hong Kong. They fall into three categories.

First, there are the traditional Hong Kong people who, although they have now taken jobs ashore, continue to live on their boats for want of other accommodation. Secondly, there are Hong Kong land dwellers who have resorted to boats as a cheaper form of accommodation. Thirdly, there are recent illegal immigrants from China who arrive in their own boats and continue to live on them until they can be resettled. I shall have a word to say about refugees and the causes for the mass exodus into Hong Kong in recent weeks.

The policy of the Hong Kong Government towards boat squatters is exactly the same as towards land squatters—to allow them to remain where they are until they can be moved into suitable subsidised public housing. However, the boats on which they live are examined from time to time and if they are found to be in a dangerous condition the occupants are moved to temporary housing ashore. Since 1977 922 people from 111 boats which have been found to be dangerous have been rehoused for that reason. Apart from this, the Hong Kong Government believe there is no justification for giving the boat people priority over other applicants for government housing, and they must apply in the normal way; many of them do so, and over 80,000 boat dwellers have been rehoused by the Government since 1960.

I now turn to the incident on 7th January. We have received a full report from the Governor of Hong Kong. Since September last year there has been a series of demonstrations and petitions by a particular group of boat dwellers, those from the Yau Ma Tei typhoon shelter, who are seeking priority in the allocation of public housing. Although some of these demonstrations were not authorised—and I shall describe the arrangements for obtaining permits later—no action was taken against the organisers or those involved until 24th December. On that day 150 boat dwellers, with 50 other supporters, assembled to march to the Government's Central Offices. As no permit had been obtained for the march, the police warned the demonstrators that their action was unlawful and advised them to disperse. Most of them did so, but a few remained, to hold, as they said, a Press conference. The police took no further action on that occasion.

On 7th January, which is the occasion to which my noble friend has referred, a group of boat dwellers and sympathisers assembled to go to the Governor's residence to present a petition. They had not applied for a permit and were warned that their action was unlawful. This time they declined to disperse and instead set out in two coaches to present their petition. Along the way the coaches were stopped by the police and the occupants were again warned that their demonstration was illegal. They were told that, while two representatives could in fact proceed to present their petition, the rest of them should disperse. When they refused to do so, the police escorted the coaches to a police station and charged the occupants with unlawful assembly.


My Lords, if my noble friend will allow me to intervene, is it not the case that when they were asked to disperse they themselves suggested that the coaches should be allowed to go to the not distant Botanical Gardens and they they would disperse there; and they would be satisfied with three going in a deputation to the Governor?


My Lords, that may be so. I have no information of quite that nature. I am not for a moment doubting my noble friend's words. All I know is that after the first time there was this attempt to demonstrate, to process, without fulfilling the requirements of the ordinance which everybody else accepts; namely, applying for a permit. From that flows the incident we are discussing. If it were a momentary lack of attention to the needs of the ordinance in not applying for a permit for this particular purpose at that time, 7th January, I think we would take a rather dim view of this action concerning these people with whom we sympathise so much. But this was not the first time; they had been warned before and they persisted. The police, as I said, escorted the coaches to the police station and charged the occupants with unlawful assembly. The 76 people concerned appeared in court on 8th January. As regards the 10 children involved, I said in reply to the Question asked by my noble friend Lord Brockway on 12th February that no charges were made against the 10 children. What I should have said was that they were charged—my noble friend was quite right —on 7th January, but that no evidence was offered against them when they appeared in court on the following day. I apologise if unwittingly I misled him or the House or others in Hong Kong on this point. As to the legal and other reasons for putting the age of prosecution at whatever point it may be, I join with my noble friend in thinking that this is a matter we would need to go into separately and on what I would call a legal basis. Otherwise I would prolong my statement beyond the endurance of this crowded House!

The 66 adults were released on bail of about £21 each until their trial on 12th February, when they were all found guilty as charged. Of that 66, the 56 boat people among them were given absolute discharges with no conviction recorded. The others, including a priest, two social workers and four students, were hound over in the sum of about £32 each to be of good behaviour for a period of 18 months. I do not think that all in all the magistracy took an unduly harsh line in this case. This is a matter of opinion. As to the amount of the bail, and indeed the sums in which they were bound over to be of good behaviour, that again is a matter of opinion; one could go into the relativity of the sums involved and the average monthly income of Hong-Kongese.

I have described these events in some detail in order to make it clear that the authorities did not act hastily. The people involved were given clear warning that they were breaking the law and had ample opportunity to change their minds. There can be no doubt that the organisers of the demonstration on 7th January knew that their action was illegal. Well established arrangements exist in Hong Kong for obtaining permits to hold public demonstrations. The police require one week's notice, but normally issue permits provided they are satisfied that the demonstration is not to be held for illegal or immoral purposes and will not represent a threat to public order. We are dealing with Hong Kong, a crowded city colony, where the population is growing at an alarming rate, for external reasons which the local government is doing its utmost to control, often without success. The strain on public services, including housing, should be apparent to us all, and so equally should the great success of the Hong Kong Government in coping with that strain to the extent it has. Also it must he absolutely clear to us that it would be an ill service to a crowded city State of this kind if there were not provision for the orderly organisation and supervision of demonstrations.

There is no reason to suppose that if a permit had been asked for on this occasion it would not have been granted. It is not necessary to obtain permission to present a petition to the Governor, provided it is not done as part of a public demonstration. All residents of Hong Kong have an unqualified right to make petitions to the Governor on any matters of public or private concern. In this instance, the Governor could only have acceded to the petitioners' request at the expense of other equally deserving people.

I mentioned earlier that the Hong Kong Government have an outstanding housing programme. Under this programme, over two million people—no fewer than 46 per cent. of the population—have already been provided with subsidised public housing. I would repeat that that total includes 80,000 former boat people. New houses are now being added at a rate which will reach 35,000 houses a year in 1979. By 1985 it is the intention to provide accommodation for 65 per cent. of the population. Here is a country where two-thirds of the people will be housed in accommodation none of which is older than 35 years, and that subsidised. This programme is impressive by any standard, and it is the more impressive when one considers that it is being carried out in an overcrowded territory which suffers from an acute land shortage. I note the constructive suggestion made by the noble Lord, and I am quite sure that the Governor and the Government of Hong Kong, if they have not considered such a possibility, will most certainly give their attention to it. Many of the new houses are being built on land created by flattening hills and filling in the sea. I should like to stress the added dimension that is brought to this problem by the relentless rise in immigration into Hong Kong, from both China and Vietnam. We have heard descriptions of the circumstances and the conditions of life in Hong Kong which, as my noble friend said, are indeed in too many cases appalling. But people are fleeing something even worse in order to get into Hong Kong, and the proportions of the problem of illegal immigration into Hong Kong despite those conditions is something that is commanding international concern and attention.

Last year, some 70,000 people entered Hong Kong legally from China. Another 30,000 entered illegally. The impact of immigration on such a scale must be clear to all of us, particularly when it is borne in mind that the equivalent for a country the size of the United Kingdom would be an influx of about one and a quarter million immigrants in one year, and going on at that rate year by year. The Government have made repeated representations to the Chinese Government about this. We believe that the Chinese Government understand the difficulties which the arrival of people from China in such large numbers is creating for Hong Kong, and are making genuine efforts to reduce the numbers.

I wish that I could say the same about the Vietnamese Government and the flood of refugees from Vietnam. Noble Lords will be well aware of the much publicised cases involving the "Huey Fong" and the "Sky Luck", which between them brought nearly 6,000 refugees from Vietnam and dumped them on Hong Kong with its limited resources. What they may not realise is that since the beginning of this year almost as many refugees have arrived in Hong Kong in their own boats —the two figures together approximate to those which we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Elton—and they keep on coming.

I am sorry to say that there is every reason to believe that most of these people leave Vietnam with the connivance—indeed, the active connivance and assistance—of Vietnamese officials. The British Government have made their views on this despicable trade in human misery very clear to the Vietnamese Government and will continue to do so until the traffic is stopped.

Of course, there is a problem in Hong Kong. There is also a problem of the influx into Hong Kong, both illegally from China and inhumanly from Vietnam. In addressing ourselves to whatever is happening in Hong Kong and to what has happened in Hong Kong in regard to this incident and its causes, let us not forget the appalling problem which faces Hong Kong and the rest of South-East Asia as a result of the actions, not of individuals but of governments, which are driving whole communities out of their own countries into leaking boats, and creating conditions in Vietnam which impel thousands of people to take every possible means of escaping and to fetch up even among the boat dwellers of Hong Kong.