HL Deb 25 October 1984 vol 456 cc296-304

4.26 p.m.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, with your Lordships' permission, I should like to repeat a Statement being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary about developments during the Recess in the negotiations between the British and Chinese Governments on the future of Hong Kong. The Statement is as follows:

"During my discussions in Peking with Chinese leaders in late July, I was able to resolve most of the major issues outstanding in the negotiations. I gave a progress report in a statement in Hong Kong on 1st August: copies of that statement were placed in the Library of the House on the same day.

"Negotiations continued on the remaining unresolved issues and were brought to a successful conclusion on 22nd September. As a result, a draft agreement, consisting of a joint declaration and three annexes, was initialled on 26th September by the British Ambassador in Peking and the Chinese Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Zhou Nan. It was published on the same day in a White Paper in London and Hong Kong and laid before the House.

"I should like to draw the attention of the House to the following important features of the draft agreement:

"It constitutes a formal international agreement, legally binding in all its parts. This is the highest form of commitment that can be given by one sovereign state to another;

"It deals in considerable detail with Chinese policies towards Hong Kong after 1997, and thus provides a framework in which the people of Hong Kong can plan and work for a secure and prosperous future;

"It thus provides for Hong Kong's distinctive economic and social systems, freedoms and lifestyle to continue unchanged;

"It makes clear that the policies which it spells out for Hong Kong will be stipulated in a Basic Law to be passed by the National People's Congress of the People's Republic of China, and will remain unchanged for 50 years after 1997.

"It is now for the people of Hong Kong to give their views on the draft agreement. The House has already been informed of the arrangements which have been made to enable them to do so. Over 2 million copies of the White Paper have been distributed in the territory.

"I am very glad to be able to tell the House that the Executive Council of Hong Kong has felt able to recommend the draft agreement to the people of Hong Kong—in the words of the senior unofficial member—'in good conscience'.

"The House will also wish to know that, at the conclusion of their debate last week, the Hong Kong Legislative Council gave the draft agreement their overwhelming support and similarly commended it to the people of Hong Kong.

"Beyond that, I have been encouraged by the favourable reactions which have come from many other public bodies and individuals in Hong Kong and by the wide international welcome it has received.

"The House will in due course wish to know the extent to which the draft agreement as a whole is acceptable to the people of Hong Kong. It was made quite clear in the White Paper that the draft agreement itself cannot be amended. But the views expressed in Hong Kong on all parts of it will be of value in our continuing discussions with the Chinese, particularly in the Joint Liaison Group. I am sure the House would wish me to urge everyone in Hong Kong to submit their views on all these aspects to the Assessment Office.

"The report of the Assessment Office, together with that of the monitoring team, will be published at about the end of November. The House will of course attach great importance to these reports when it debates the draft agreement, and I know that my right honourable friend will be seeking to give the House an early opportunity to debate the matter after the publication of these reports.

"It would not be right to anticipate that debate. But the Government have made quite clear their own view that the draft agreement provides the assurances which are necessary if the people of Hong Kong are to face the future with confidence. In the words of the White Paper: 'Her Majesty's Government believe that the Agreement is a good one. They strongly commend it to the people of Hong Kong and to Parliament.' "

My Lords, that is the Statement.

Lord Elwyn-Jones

My Lords, the House will be grateful to the noble Lord for repeating the Statement. Having studied the draft agreement and its annexes and heard the Statement, I should like at once on behalf of my noble friends to congratulate the Foreign Secretary, and all those who were concerned in the long, complicated and hard negotiations which have taken place, on bringing them to a successful conclusion.

It was clear from the start—was it not?—that after 1997, when the lease of most of the colony expires, the Chinese Government were not prepared to allow the status quo to continue and that the peaceful and successful future of the colony depended upon agreement being reached between China and ourselves. In the event, I believe that in the circumstances, provided the terms of the agreement and annexes are carried out, there are good prospects of achieving this.

The first of the important features of the draft agreement to which the Statement drew attention was this. It constitutes a formal international agreement, legally binding in all its parts. This is the highest form of commitment that can be given by one sovereign state to another. I agree. Do the Chinese Government accept this, and is there not every reason for assuming that they do? At the end of the day, of course, much depends on the good faith and honour of the Chinese Government and ourselves, which will be at stake in the coming years.

We believe the agreement will, of course, provide benefits to China in many ways; not least by attracting the foreign trade and investments that China needs. We, too, may gain a great deal from the agreement; notably the Chinese commitment to retain the present social, economic and legal system in Hong Kong which has brought it prosperity and stability for so long, and to be largely unchanged for 50 years after 1997.

Can the noble Lord tell the House what will be the position of the 2½ million holders of British dependent territories passports? What will be the position of the children of those passport holders? Can he say a word or two about the joint liaison group which is to monitor the agreement? Is there any danger that this will have political consequences which could have effects upon the development of the agreement itself—for instance, by perhaps interfering in Hong Kong's international affairs?

Without going into the detail of the agreement and annexes may I particularly welcome certain parts of it, especially the assurances about freedom of religion and education and the right to handle external economic affairs. I conclude by wishing Hong Kong and its talented and industrious people, among whom many of us have many friends, a secure and happy future.

Lord Mayhew

My Lords, I, too, should like to thank the noble Minister for repeating the Statement. I think that Her Majesty's Government and the Chinese Government are entitled to considerable credit for the successful negotiation of this agreement. In its style and content the agreement shows admirable sensitiveness to the fears and hopes of the people of Hong Kong and also to the very different ideological standpoints of China and the United Kingdom.

I ask the noble Lord three specific questions. Obviously it is important that when the time of the changeover comes there should be a greater degree of self-government within the terms of the agreement than there is now. What proposals do Her Majesty's Government have for political development in the colony during the interim period? Second, can he give the assurance that representations made to the Assessment Office are completely confidential? When I was in Hong Kong earlier this month a number of people were worried that representations they made to the Assessment Office would be kept indefinitely and might even become known in the future to the Chinese Government and other authorities. Can the noble Lord give a complete assurance that representations made to the office will be completely confidential and that the papers will not be kept? I see no reason for keeping them beyond the end of November.

Finally, may we have the assurance that when the changeover takes place Her Majesty's Government will accept full responsibility for the admission to this country of at least certain special categories of Hong Kong citizens? I particularly have in mind those concerned with security and the police.

We must all hope that the agreement will be carried out in the same admirable spirit in which it has been negotiated. Hong Kong is a phenomenal success and we on these Benches wish it well in the future.

Lord Broxbourne

My Lords——

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I apologise for being a little slow to rise to my feet. I very much appreciate the reception which the noble and learned Lord and the noble Lord have given to this Statement. The Chinese Government have certainly accepted the position which I outlined in the Statement about the status of the agreement which we have reached.

The noble and learned Lord asked about the position of non-Chinese nationals born in Hong Kong to parents with the right of abode in the special administrative region, as it will come to be called. I can say that they will acquire the right of abode through their parents and will retain the right of abode after the age of 21 if they have lived for some time in Hong Kong, for a continuous period of seven years, and have taken Hong Kong as the place of permanent residence. I hope that answers the point raised by the noble and learned Lord.

The noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, asked what interim developments might be made in the governmental system in Hong Kong. I know that this is a matter which my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary is thinking about at present and I believe that some changes will be made; particularly there is the possibility of introducing in the colony some form of elected representation, which the noble Lord will be aware does not exist at present.

On the other point made by the noble Lord, I can say that our aim was to obtain arrangements which would provide a secure future for Hong Kong people in which to continue to live, work and raise their children. I am confident that we have achieved it. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary has the power, of course, to exercise his discretion in respect of applications for admission to the United Kingdom and certain other applications under the nationality legislation. Applications under these provisions will be considered on their merits in the future as in the past. Again, I am grateful to both the noble and learned Lord and the noble Lord for the reception that they have given to the Statement.

Lord Kennet

My Lords, in thanking the Minister, may I press him a little further on the assessment process which my noble friend Lord Mayhew raised but which was not answered? Not only is there worry in Hong Kong about the names being kept and published after thirty years—I hope this worry can be laid to rest here and now in this House—but cannot the Government even now consider allowing the Assessment Office to set about its task in a slightly more outgoing way by, for example, using public opinion polls—the Government of Hong Kong have a well-tried mechanism for public opinion polls which is not being used in this all-important case—by setting up district offices to which people may simply come and give their opinion verbally, rather than writing formally with a signature and everything; and, above all, simply by receiving telephone calls? Why are those things not being done? They would add greatly to the validity of the assessment if they were done.

My second question is this. What has this Parliament left to do in the matter? What stages still face us? Do we expect a Bill amending the nationality legislation to look after people who would otherwise be stateless? There are a lot of people: not 2½ million but 7,000 or 8,000. What steps must Parliament take to enshrine in legislation the transfer of sovereignty in 1997? When will those steps have to be taken to fit the schedule agreed with China?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, for not answering the point that he put to me about the assessment procedure and what may happen to the records that are prepared there. I can see no reason why the records need to be kept longer than is necessary for the Assessment Office to form its views. We hope that we shall get its report by the end of November. If I am wrong about that, perhaps I may be allowed to communicate with the noble Lord. But, as I say, I am not aware of any plans other than the ones to which I have referred.

As for the question of conducting opinion polls among the people of Hong Kong, speaking for myself I have a fairly narrow respect for opinion polls. I think the results depend very much on the questions asked and the people involved in conducting them. Although I do not for a moment doubt the good intentions of the Hong Kong Government in conducting any such poll, I am not necessarily convinced that it would be the best way to proceed. As the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, is aware, it is necessary to proceed with reasonable dispatch over producing the results of the assessment procedure. I believe that the arrangements that we have set out are the best that can be devised in the circumstances. The noble Lord may be aware that in addition to the Assessment Office there are two monitors at work in the colony at the present time. One of them is Sir Patrick Nairne, who is a former very distinguished civil servant in this country; the other is a Judge Lee, who is of course a judge of Hong Kong origin.

The noble Lord also asked about the possibility of anybody becoming stateless as a result of these arrangements. As he will be aware, there are international obligations upon us to ensure that we have regard to people who may, unfortunately, arrive in that circumstance. He is right to say that the numbers, if any, are likely to be very small indeed. The Government will certainly be bringing forward legislation to meet that case in due course and certainly in good time for 1997.

Lord Shepherd

My Lords, most generous congratulations have been given to Her Majesty's Government and to the Government of the PRC in regard to this agreement. I think that that includes the officials in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (I dare not mention names) and equally the officials within the PRC. I believe that very warm and generous appreciation should be expressed to the Governor, Sir Edward Youde, and especially to Sir S. Y. Chung, the senior member of the Non-Executive Council in Hong Kong, who have lived under considerable strain for some two years, with full knowledge and yet having to remain silent. I am delighted that they and the Legislative Council have been able, after full consideration, to give their support to this agreement. I hope that that will be seen as a very strong lead to the people of Hong Kong.

Does the Minister agree, however, that this is only the first hurdle in retaining the confidence of Hong Kong? What will count now is how we move forward within Hong Kong in the implementation of the agreement. I was delighted by his reaction to the question about those who are stateless. It is a very small number, but that situation adds to the uncertainty and anxiety. I think that the noble Lord's second contribution will help us in that respect.

There is a wider field in terms of right of abode or a place to go to, although I think that this is not the occasion to raise that. But I hope that the Minister will be open to see some of us. There is genuine anxiety and difficulty for some—again a very small number. I believe that it will facilitate the change (which will be very considerable) that is required under the agreement in a relatively short time. I hope that Ministers will be willing to see some of us to look at these particular cases.

I have one last thought to put to the Minister and the House in regard to the Statement. I hope that proposals for change within Hong Kong—which will be required, and it will be very clear to the Government what they are—will not be put forward too dogmatically. I do not know whether in Hong Kong there is a Green Paper procedure, but I would commend that—putting forward proposals for discussion and consideration, as opposed to their being seen as a diktat from either Her Majesty's Government or the Governor. I think that we are in for a period of sensitivity in Hong Kong. I apologise for speaking for longer than I should. All the signs are that the agreement has been well received in Hong Kong. However, confidence is brittle, although, I am sure that we can retain confidence. This is an agreement that I should never have expected five or even three years ago. All parties and all others who have participated are to be congratulated.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I am much obliged to the noble Lord. I entirely agree with him that the way forward now is to secure the consent and confidence of the people of Hong Kong. I believe that that can be reflected through the machinery of the joint liaison group which is to be set up under the agreement. We shall certainly ensure that Hong Kong is appropriately represented on that.

Lord Broxbourne

My Lords, may I ask two brief questions arising out of the constitutional position in respect of the Basic Law to which my noble friend has referred? As a preliminary question, may I ask him whether he is aware that the felicitous tribute to the Foreign Secretary paid by the noble and learned Lord on the Front Bench opposite reflects and reinforces a similarly handsome tribute by the Opposition spokesman in the other place? As I am sure he is aware, all of us on all sides of this House are gratified to hear the tributes and share in the enthusiasm and gratitude that they express to the Ministers concerned.

The Basic Law provisions are set out in Annex I to the draft agreement. My first question is this. The Government of the People's Republic of China express the intention that: The National People's Congress of the People's Republic of China shall enact and promulgate a Basic Law, making Hong Kong a special administrative region. For those brought up in the traditions of this Parliament on the basis of the sovereignty of Parliament, is it not a curious concept that a government should be able to bind a legislature, especially at such a distant point of time? Do the Government here see any difficulties or hazards in the implementation of this undertaking?

The second question arises also on Annex I, where the Basic Law is to provide that the socialist system and social policies shall not be practised in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region and that Hong Kong's previous capitalist system and life style shall remain unchanged for 50 years. Does my noble friend the Minister agree that those are admirable sentiments but would be a challenge to draftsmanship of no mean order? Can we expect further and better particulars or more precise content of these praiseworthy provisions?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I hope that my noble friend will not ask me for a precise recitation of the parliamentary procedures which are followed in China. I am bound to say that I should need to pause and reflect a while before offering any such thing!

Lord Tordoff

My Lords, would it be wrong to suggest that those parliamentary procedures in the Republic of China are very brief and very short?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, brief and short they may be, but I suspect that they are effective as well! To provide my noble friend with a serious answer to his important question, the Government are satisfied that the Chinese Government will be in a position to deliver the Basic Law, as they have undertaken to do in this agreement. It is of course some years off, as my noble friend rightly says; but the principles which are to be set out in that Basic Law are enunciated in the draft agreement which the Chinese Government have initialled. It is for that reason that the Government have complete confidence in them.

The drafting of the law is for the Chinese Government themselves. However, as I say, the principles which they shall follow in that drafting are set out in the agreement. The Chinese have made it clear that the people of Hong Kong will be consulted.

As for the further point made by my noble friend about the maintenance of the existing capitalist system in Hong Kong, I think one ought not to lose sight of the fact that the existence of that system, which is very different from the system that applies in the rest of China, is of some benefit to the people of China. For example, the Chinese earn large sums of foreign currency through Hong Kong at the present time. I do not think that they would like lightly to turn aside the benefits to them of maintaining the present system in Hong Kong.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, may I put two brief points to the noble Lord? I preface what I have to say by adding my congratulations to the Government on this remarkable achievement; to our Foreign Secretary for his arduous work and massive contribution and of course also to the representives of the Chinese Government for their so generous, sincere and worthwhile response. May I please ask the noble Lord if he can give the House an assurance that the policy which the Government have already adopted of keeping as many of the ordinary people of Hong Kong as possible involved in these negotiations will continue? Secondly, can he say, with regard to the joint liaison group, to whom it will be reporting and how often? Also will there be discussions on the reports of the joint liaison group?

Lastly, the question of nationality is going to be very important. Can the noble Lord give some indication as to how it might be tackled in the years to come?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, the noble Lord asked how the people of Hong Kong could be involved in this matter. I think I can principally point to the assessment process on which we have embarked. No less than two million copies of the White Paper have been distributed in Hong Kong, most of them I believe in Chinese. Happily, this one is not! Therefore the people of Hong Kong, most of whom speak Chinese, will be able to determine what is proposed and express their views upon it.

As for the joint liaison group, that will report to both Governments from time to time. I am not quite sure with what frequency it is proposed that that group should report. However, if I can find any more information about that, I shall certainly let the noble Lord know.

Lord Fanshawe of Richmond

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that I fully support the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, regarding the result of this very excellent agreement over the future of Hong Kong?—although perhaps I do not share in total the euphoria expressed in some quarters.

I want to ask the Minister two brief questions, one of which he may be able to answer and the other which he may not. What is going to be the situation regarding the judiciary in Brunei, which at the moment comes under the judiciary in Hong Kong? Will they continue to be administered from Hong Kong up to the time of the treaty taking effect in 1997, or will there be special arrangements made?

The second point relates to the position of the Brigade of Gurkhas. The battalion of Gurkhas which is stationed in Brunei is administered and run from Hong Kong. What will be their position in the future? I ask this question because my noble friend is a Minister in the Ministry of Defence and I thought that this might be an appropriate time to raise the subject of the Brigade of Gurkhas.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, it is clear from the agreement that the question of the defence of Hong Kong will pass to the Chinese Government in 1997. So there will be no question of the Gurkhas remaining in Hong Kong after that time.

As regards the judiciary, I am aware that there have also been some changes in Brunei recently. I therefore suspect that the arrangements after 1997 will be different from what they are now. However, I fear I was caught slightly on the hop with that question. If my noble friend will allow me, I will see what additional information I can find and convey it to him.

The Earl of Bessborough

My Lords, having been in the People's Republic of China during the final stages of these negotiations, and indeed at Shanghai at the time of the initialling of the text, is my noble friend aware how remarkably well this joint declaration was received, not only by the mainland Chinese but also—as I have found in Hong Kong—by many of our friends there who had perhaps been doubtful and anxious at the outset? I do not know whether the noble Lord is aware of this, but it was very striking that in the course of the protracted negotiations with Chinese corporations they were constantly referring to the entrepreneurial ability of the British in Hong Kong and the British in this country. I hope the Minister is aware of that. It struck me very forcibly that both sides to this agreement seemed to receive it remarkably well.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend. I think his remarks underline what I said earlier, that there are some advantages to both sides in the agreement that has been reached.

Lord Caccia

My Lords, as an old China hand, having served there over 50 years ago, may I from these Benches, add my words of congratulation upon the agreement that has been reached and to the people who have been engaged in it? It is a remarkable agreement. I cannot speak for those on these Benches but I should not want them to remain silent on such an occasion.

Lord Soames

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that this is a great achievement for the diplomacy both of Her Majesty's Government and of the Government of the People's Republic? As to the longer term future, this must surely depend upon the awareness of the People's Republic of China of Hong Kong's importance for them as well as for the people of Hong Kong. Her Majesty's Government will have a considerable part to play in the next 10 or 15 years in assuring that awareness.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for that observation. It is indeed a great achievement for British diplomacy. I fancy it is almost as great an achievement as the one four years ago in which my noble friend played such a distinguished part.

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