HL Deb 28 March 1985 vol 461 cc1149-54

3.22 p.m.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Young)

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a third time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a third time.—(Baroness Young.)

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, I believe that the House appreciates the way in which the Government have been prepared to consider the amendments proposed in both Houses and also to make considerable concessions in the course of the passage of the Bill thus far. This co-operative attitude of the Government in responding to the suggestions of honourable Members in another place and of noble Lords in this House has in fact improved the Bill and has also increased the confidence of the people of Hong Kong.

All of us have from the start fully understood the apprehensions of the population of the territory and the special problems of the ethnic groupings which have been referred to by almost all the speakers in our debates thus far. The House has treated this Bill with the utmost gravity. We want to be certain that everything that is humanly possible is done to secure the future prosperity of the territory and the happiness of the people of Hong Kong.

The agreement with the Republic of China is a historic document and if its objectives are fulfilled between now and 1997 and thereafter, Hong Kong can look to the future with confidence. The reports of the assessment officer and the independent monitoring team, as well as the opinion polls which appeared in the Hong Kong newspapers, reassured us about the views of the people. There are bound to be doubts and fears, but the people of Hong Kong have shown a determination to tackle the future with hope and with realism. They are a remarkable people, as their history thus far has shown.

The noble Baroness referred to the changes made to the Bill when she spoke in our previous debates on Second Reading and during the Committee stage. These, as I have said, have been most helpful, and a most recent statement on statelessness made by the noble Baroness on 14th March has, I believe, been well received. I have received correspondence, as no doubt have other noble Lords, indicating that the concessions made on this point have increased even further the confidence of the people, particularly with regard to the position of non-Chinese British Dependent Territories citizens and their children, which was a matter of acute worry from the start. The fact that a second generation child descended from a Hong Kong BDTC who was a BDTC otherwise than by descent will be entitled to be registered as a BOC has relieved much anxiety, especially among those of Indian origin.

The other changes which have been made are equally welcome. The new title of British National (Overseas) has been found acceptable by all sections of the community. Furthermore, the decision to allow a full debate on draft orders in council on nationality legislation before they come to the formal stage which allows only an hour-and-a-half of debate is right and sensible. We are also glad that this new rule will apply in this House as well as in the other place. We shall be able to debate this preliminary draft legislation as well as the other place.

I feel sure that the people of Hong Kong will have been impressed by the number of noble Lords who have shown a great knowledge of their affairs and an affection for the territory. I am also greatly reassured—and I am sure noble Lords share my view—that this is not to be the last debate on Hong Kong in this House. We pressed for an annual report on Hong Kong and the right honourable and learned gentleman the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary agreed that such a report would now be published. As I have said, there are many noble Lords in the House who both know and feel deeply about Hong Kong and they will be able to initiate debates on progress if they feel that it is necessary.

There are so many essential developments to be monitored and scrutinised—for example, involvement in consultation about the Basic Law, especially as China has made it clear that she will wish to know the views of the people of Hong Kong; the work of the new Joint Liaison Group and its composition; Hong Kong's industrial and commercial progress; her relations with other countries and international organisations; and finally, but not least in importance, the development of education and of democratic procedures in the territory. All these matters and more will engage our active interest and attention over the years. I feel sure that noble Lords in all parts of the House will wish to ask for debates as matters evolve and develop in the territory.

The future of the territory of Hong Kong and its welfare will remain Parliament's deepest concern and it is in that spirit that we support this Bill with hope and with optimism.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley

My Lords, I do not wish to take up your Lordships' time this afternoon on this stage of the Bill, not because it is not seen by us as of the greatest importance—because it is—but because we are happy to be able to register the fact that so much of the necessary work has been done on it and has been done satisfactorily. I really should like to congratulate the Government on the spirit in which they have undertaken all the negotiations on this matter and the openmindedness they are showing towards arrangements for the future. The progress we have made on previous stages of the Bill, as the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos, said, has allayed the fears of a large number of people in Hong Kong.

Even more important are the signs that the Government have shown and the assurances that they have given that, should anything go wrong in the future—which we hope it will not—their minds are open and they are committed to helping the people of Hong Kong as best they can. This is the most important thing, as well as the fact that we have the right and the duty in future years to discuss matters relating to Hong Kong as time goes on.

I do not imagine that even Members of the Government Front Bench think that they will be sitting in exactly the same places in 1997. We may see all sorts of changes between then and now; but everyone in this House, in all parties—not least bearing in mind the support we have had from the Bishops' Benches—is united in their determination to do the very best they can for the citizens of Hong Kong, and, so far we are able, to have a modest pride in what has been achieved.

Lord Kadoorie

My Lords, it was with great regret that I was unavoidably prevented from being present at the Second Reading of the Hong Kong Bill, or the discussion which took place at the Committee stage on the 14th of this month. Unfortunately, the noble Lord, Lord Rhodes, who intended to speak today, is ill, and he has asked me to convey his regrets that he is not able to be present.

In this transition period, when the Governments of the United Kingdom and of the People's Republic of China are considering how best to adapt the future policies of Hong Kong to maintaining prosperity, it is both relevant and important for this House to know of the very strong feelings which remain in Hong Kong and of the fear that the parent may abandon his child. The obligations of filial piety in the form of loyalty to Britain and the preference to buy British have worn very thin, and all that our forebears have created—those qualities which made England the leading trading nation—are at risk. With an emergent China committed to modernisation and economic reform, England must take pains to ensure her image is not tarnished, particularly now, when this country has need of friends to rebuild its fortunes.

I believe that the undertaking to extend the transmissibility of British nationality will go some way towards repairing the damage to the image of Britain in Hong Kong because of the highly controversial British Nationality Act 1981. However, while I appreciate the statement of the noble Baroness, Lady Young, that it would not be proper as a general rule to grant British nationality indefinitely and without restrictions to the descendants of British nationals resident in a foreign country, to the best of my knowledge as yet no one has pointed to the vast difference between those British subjects who have given up their nationality by choice and those future generations who will lose their national heritage through circumstances beyond their control.

It must not be forgotten that Hong Kong has been a part of the British Empire for 150 years, and that its people have fought and died for Britain. It is essential not to allow the British commitment to Hong Kong to be eroded during the next 12 years. Britain must preserve her relationship with Hong Kong, albeit a new relationship, and England must not lose honour in the eyes of those Hong Kong British subjects who will remain British and who have much to contribute to the prosperity and stability of Hong Kong; nor, for that matter, in the eyes of those who stand in witness to the actions of Britain.

Today, Britain has an opportunity which must not be missed. Therefore, I plead for continuing flexibility, understanding and co-operation with the people of Hong Kong. This will not only strengthen the commercial interest of the United Kingdom for the next decade: it will be for the benefit of all concerned.

3.35 p.m.

Lord Geddes

My Lords, may I say how much I appreciate—and I hope that other noble Lords will echo these sentiments—seeing the noble Lord, Lord Kadoorie, in his place this afternoon. We have sadly missed his counsel, through no fault of his, during the passage of this Bill, as we continue to miss the counsel of the noble Lords, Lord Rhodes and Lord MacLehose.

I shall be extremely brief. Interestingly, the Bill has not changed its shape at all as it has gone through your Lordships' House. However (and this may be of surprise to the people of Hong Kong) during its passage two very important points have been achieved—perhaps more than two, but I wish to mention only two, and, indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos, mentioned them. One is that we shall be having an annual debate and a chance to discuss the progress of the Anglo-Sino agreement and the future of Hong Kong. I hope that will demonstrate to the people of Hong Kong just how much this House, and I am sure another place, is concerned with the welfare of Hong Kong, and most particularly with its people.

Secondly, I should again like to thank my noble friend on the Front Bench and, through her, the Government, for the very important concession they made in regard to the extra generation of transmissibility of British Overseas Citizenship. As the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos, said, this goes a long way to alleviate the justifiable fears of those whom it might have affected. This is a good Bill. This is a good argreement; and the Bill supporting the agreement I warmly welcome.

Lord Gridley

My Lords, I have only one brief point to make in regard to the Third Reading of this Bill. When we were at our Committee stage, I tried to bring to the notice of the Government the great importance in any of the work necessary in Hong Kong of having expert advice from the colonial civil servants who we hope will remain and give their valuable services to the people of that territory. I was very grateful for the assurances which her Majesty's Government gave me in that connection regarding their pensions. I am sure there are loyal servants of that territory only too willing to give of their maximum knowledge and expertise.

I wish the Bill well. I think the agreement with China is a masterly achievement of Her Majesty's Government; and we wish everyone in Hong Kong all the best in the future.

3.40 p.m.

Baroness Young

My Lords, we have debated this important and historic Bill in great detail since its introduction into this House. The close interest your Lordships have taken in it has, I am sure, been welcomed by the people of Hong Kong as evidence of the concern in this House for their future wellbeing. Indeed, I have been most grateful for the support given to the Bill by the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, which has been expressed again this afternoon, and by the noble Lord. Lord Beaumont.

In their comments to the Assessment Office and since, the people of Hong Kong have expressed their support for the Sino-British agreement as a basis for the future prosperity and stability of the territory, and their determination to make the agreement work. They will have been reassured that the response to the agreement in this House and in another place has been no less positive and that the passage of this Bill, which will enable the Government to ratify the agreement, has had such constructive support from both sides of the House—indeed, from all parts of the House.

Since launching this Bill, the Government have taken a number of steps to meet the concerns expressed in this House and in another place. Indeed, those noble Lords who have spoken at this Third Reading have recognised that fact. We have agreed to the production of an annual report on developments in Hong Kong which will assist Parliament to continue to take an informed interest in the territory in the coming years. We have agreed that the order in council on nationality should be introduced in "green-edged" form so that it may be debated by Parliament as a draft before the final version is drawn up.

We have incorporated in the Bill the title of the new form of nationality which can be acquired before 1st July 1997 by those who are BDTCs by virtue of a connection with Hong Kong. Finally, the Government announced during the Committee stage in this House their decision to extend the entitlement to acquire British Overseas Citizenship to second generation descendants of former Hong Kong BDTCs if they would otherwise be stateless. I was glad that all noble Lords who have spoken have referred to this important amendment. I was, if I may say so, particularly pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Kadoorie, referred to this matter. We have indeed missed him during the course of our proceedings and we are glad that he was able to take part this afternoon.

As many noble Lords have noted, the passage of this Bill through Parliament marks not the end but rather a new beginning in our involvement with Hong Kong. The United Kingdom remains fully responsible for the administration of the territory until 30th June 1997. I hope that will reassure the noble Lord, Lord Kadoorie, in respect of the point he raised. Consultations with the Chinese Government about implementation of the agreement and matters relating to the transfer of government in 1997 will continue in the joint liaison group until the year 2000. But Britain's interest in Hong Kong, and her close links with the territory and its people, will of course continue after our formal responsibilities have ended. The Hong Kong agreement between Britain and China which this Bill will enable the Government to ratify has been welcomed in Parliament and in Hong Kong as an excellent framework of arrangements for Hong Kong's future.

I should like to thank all noble Lords who have taken part in our debate, and particularly the noble Lord, Lord Geddes, for his most valuable contributions; my noble friend Lord Gridley, for the points he has made in drawing our attention to the situation of civil servants in Hong Kong; and my noble friend Lady Vickers. A mood of confidence has returned to Hong Kong; a confidence shared by the Government, and I believe by this House. It is in this positive, forward-looking spirit that I warmly commend this Bill to the House.

On Question, Bill read a third time, and passed.