HL Deb 20 December 1989 vol 514 cc279-90

3.59 p.m.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made in another place on Hong Kong by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs. The Statement is as follows:

"With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement about our proposals to improve confidence in Hong Kong.

"The confidence of the people of Hong Kong is at a low ebb. My right honourable and learned friend the Lord President told the House on 6th June about the traumatic effect in Hong Kong of what happened in Peking in June, and reported to the House on 5th July after he had paid a visit to the territory. Many honourable and right honourable Members have themselves visited Hong Kong since June. The House Select Committee on Foreign Affairs gave a lucid account of the problem in Hong Kong in their report of 28th June.

"The Government must do all they can to build a secure future for Hong Kong on the basis of the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984. We have a continuing responsibility which will involve us in many difficult decisions over the next eight years. In particular we must provide for those whose services are necessary for the prosperity and effective administration of Hong Kong in the years up to 1997.

"The problem of confidence is shown by increasing emigration from the territory, and increasing numbers of people who contemplate leaving. Forty two thousand people have left Hong Kong this year. Fifty five thousand are expected to leave next year. A growing proportion of these people are those whom Hong Kong can least afford to lose. This haemorrhage of talent puts at risk the competitiveness of Hong Kong's economy, the efficiency of its public service, the effectiveness of its education system; in short, its future.

"Many of those who are leaving Hong Kong would not do so if they could obtain the assurance of right of abode in the UK. As honourable Members will be aware from statements by the Prime Minister and other right honourable friends, we have been working on a scheme to give such assurances to a limited number of key people and their dependants in the public and private sectors. The foreign affairs committee recommended such a scheme in its report in June, and my right honourable and learned friend the Lord President told the House on 5th July that we would provide one. I can now explain to the House the conclusions we have reached.

"We aim to give such people the confidence to remain in Hong Kong so that they can continue to make their contribution to the success and prosperity of the territory. We have to weigh in the balance our ability to accept the individuals concerned for settlement in this country, should that ever be necessary. We have had to set this reality against our desire to be as effective as possible in restoring confidence to Hong Kong.

"If, as has often been suggested, we gave the right of abode to all British Dependent Territories citizens in Hong Kong, we could if that right was exercised create unacceptable strains here. If, on the other hand, we kept the scheme too narrow, it would fail in its purpose and at the end of the day we might be faced with a much more servere problem.

"After careful and detailed consideration over several months, we have concluded that the assurance to be given should take the form of full British citizenship which would be awarded to recipients without their having to leave Hong Kong. The scheme will cover a maximum number of 50,000 households.

"Not all the assurances would be distributed initially; in order to spread the administrative load and to give opportunities for those who may move into key positions in Hong Kong in later years, we shall hold back a proportion of the allocations for later in the life of this scheme. The best current estimate of the total numbers of people, including dependants, who might receive British citizenship in this way is 225,000. The scheme would cease by 1997. It is thus strictly limited in scope and time.

"Beneficiaries will be selected on the basis of a points system. The scheme will embrace people from a wide range of walks of life in Hong Kong. It will cover professional and business people, people working in educational and health services and those with particular technical and managerial skills, as well as those in the public and disciplined services. The decisive criteria will be the value of the individuals' services to Hong Kong and the extent to which people in their category of employment are emigrating.

"Provision will also be made within the overall total for those who, by virtue of their position, may find themselves vulnerable in the years ahead. Long service with British institutions in Hong Kong will be taken into account. So will knowledge of the English language.

"In addition to this scheme, but again within the total numbers I have given, the Government propose to introduce a special measure designed to help companies and institutions in Hong Kong to retain their key personnel. We intend to reduce substantially the period of residence in this country which employees of such organisations would have to fulfil in order to achieve settled status and later citizenship. For those accepted on the scheme, employment or service in Hong Kong together with a period of residence in the UK would, after a total period of five years, result in citizenship. The companies and institutions concerned would arrange secondments of key personnel for work or training in the United Kingdom for relatively short periods of time, thereby minimising any disruption to their work in Hong Kong.

"We intend to introduce the necessary legislation at the earliest opportunity which will provide for the grant of citizenship to beneficiaries under the scheme in both the public and private sectors.

"Although this is a British responsibility, and one which we do not shirk, Hong Kong is an international centre, with huge international investment. Its major trading partners have a strong interest in Hong Kong's continuing stability and prosperity. Some countries have already found ways to give Hong Kong people assurances without their having to leave Hong Kong. It is clearly for us to take the lead, and If have set out our specific commitments. We shall now be asking our partners and allies to follow our lead.

"I emphasise two final points. First, our proposals will be restricted to Hong Kong and the unique problem which we face there. They will have no relevance to other people elsewhere, and the principles of the 1981 British Nationality Act will remain intact. Secondly, they are designed not to encourage immigration into this country but to persuade to remain in Hong Kong those whom we need to retain there if our last subslantial colony is to pass successfully through the final eight years of British Rule".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

4.5 p.m.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, while immediately thanking the Minister for his courtesy in repeating the Statement, perhaps I may make the position of those of us on these Benches completely clear. The security that could be given to the citizens of Hong Kong will come out of a proper Bill of Rights; it will come out of a proper Basic Law. What the Government have put forward today is, in our view, completely inept and completely unjust.

Any scheme —and we have made this perfectly clear —which is based on special favoured categories, status or affluence must be unjust. To adopt a points scheme in order to deal with life and death, as many may think it to be in Hong Kong —and all of us hope that that is not too dramatic a view—is to put this matter on the basis that I remember in my local authority days of a points scheme for housing. That was looked upon as being completely unfair. People then criticised the fact that if one had 20 points one could get a house; if one had 19.5 points, because one was interviewed by different people, one did not get a house. Is that the way to deal with people's lives?

In considering the questions raised by a points scheme I bear in mind the perfectly proper admonition of the Government Chief Whip that we should be concise; so if I rap out my questions rapidly I know he at least will forgive me. Who will be in charge of the drawing-up of the points scheme? Are we to see it? Is it to be published in Hong Kong? Is the points scheme to be administered by interview or by written application? Are people to be invited to apply for the points scheme? Will one get more points if one happens to be a husband and wife without any children? Will one get any fewer points because one happens to have children who might come here? Will one get more points for undertaking that one will not take advantage of the right to reside here until after 1997; or will one lose points if the undertaking is not given?

Upon what basis is all this? When it comes to vulnerability, who will judge that? Is it to be based on the ability of somebody to be thoroughly dramatic and to talk about what they fear in regard to 1997 and post-1997? Is it to be on the basis of the educated person who can possibly voice those fears better than the humble soul? Is that the way we deal with our responsibilities?

There is provision already under the British Nationality Act —if I remember correctly it is Section 4(5) —for dealing with those people who have served Hong Kong and the Crown. Special permission is granted in that Act. I believe that the home affairs Select Committee in another place has recommended that that be used. We have immigration rules that can be used with mercy and generosity when the time comes, as I hope they will be for all people who need to come to these shores. But to base entry on a lottery and a points scheme would be laughable if it were not so tragic.

Lord Bonham-Carter

My Lords, I wish to join with the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, in thanking the Minister for repeating the extremely important Statement on Hong Kong which we have just heard. For once I find myself in sharp disagreement with what the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, has said. I genuinely believe that in the circumstances we are facing today, some insurance policy has to be provided to the people of Hong Kong. That is the way in which we must deal with our responsibilities.

Let no one underestimate the intractable nature of the problem facing the Foreign Secretary. I can think of no situation which is more difficult to solve satisfactorily. I agree with the Statement in that it emphasises that the problem is one of confidence; that it is international in its implications and in addition —which it does not say —that it is crucial to our negotiations with the People's Republic of China.

Finally, on these points of agreement, I am delighted to learn that Her Majesty's Government are going to encourage our partners —which I take to mean the EC, the Commonwealth and the United States of America —to follow the lead which we have given. I have always believed that only by international action can we provide the 3.2 million British citizens of Hong Kong with the insurance that they require. I say that this is vital to our negotiations with the People's Republic of China because the prosperity of Hong Kong is our strongest, if not our only, bargaining card, and it depends on people staying. The more who stay the greater will be the strength of our position.

The issue that we have to consider is whether the number of 225,000 whom we are prepared to assure the right of abode in the worst possible case is enough to trigger a response among our partners which will extend that assurance to a far wider body of people within Hong Kong. Only if that is so will the prosperity of Hong Kong be maintained and our ability to bargain with the People's Republic of China be assured.

Finally, there is one specific question I wish to put to the noble Lord. It refers to the small body of people, the Indians in Hong Kong, all of whom, I understand, in the case of either the fathers or themselves, were brought there by this country to serve in the police or the Civil Service. The Chinese will not give them nationality after 1997. The Indians present a particular responsibility for this country. I should be most grateful if the noble Lord can tell us whether any special measures are to be taken to protect these people.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, I am grateful to both noble Lords for the reception of the Statement. As the House will no doubt understand, I cannot agree with the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, that what one proposes is a completely inept and unjust way of dealing with the situation. As the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, said, some insurance policy should be provided and that is what I have explained to the House this afternoon.

The noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, implied that the scheme was divisive and elitist. Our scheme is necessarily selective, but it does not focus exclusively or particularly on the rich and powerful. Selection will be on the basis of the value of service to Hong Kong and not on wealth or influence. The noble Lord asked for further details of the selection process. As I said in the Statement, a Bill will be put before Parliament which will set out the scope of the scheme and authorise the grant of citizenship. At the same time the details, including the selection process, will be laid before the House when the legislation is debated. It will be included in subsequent regulations.

The noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, asked why we could not rely on Section 4(5) of the British Nationality Act. That applies only to the public sector and it could not be used to give citizenship to people in the private sector. In any case, Section 4(5) does not provide for citizenship to be given to dependants of the principal beneficiaries. That is why we have to introduce our own scheme.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, for his general support for what I have said this afternoon. As I said in the Statement, I can confirm that we shall be discussing this with our partners, including the EC, the Commonwealth and the United States of America, in the hope that they can also provide a similar arrangement. I believe that Singapore has already announced a similar scheme. As the noble Lord said, the prosperity of Hong Kong is vital not only to us, but it is also very much in the interests of China that in 1997 it will inherit something worthwhile. Therefore China should heed what actions and statements they make in order not to encourage people to leave between now and then.

The noble Lord asked me a specific question on the position of the non-Chinese ethnic minorities, in particular the Indians. We have given careful consideration to the case for special treatment put forward by representatives of the Indian community in Hong Kong. These people will be eligible to apply under the scheme and their applications will be considered on their merits. On a number of occasions they have been given specific parliamentary assurances that if, against all expectations, they come under pressure to leave Hong Kong we would expect the government of the day to consider their case for admission here with considerable and particular sympathy. We stand by that undertaking.

4.15 p.m.

Lord Diamond

My Lords, I rise immediately to thank the noble Lord the Minister for having repeated the Statement and to welcome the Government's novelty in introducing proposals which, on first reading, give the impression of having been carefully thought through. That is indeed most welcome. But that it not beyond what all of us would expect who knew the right honourable gentlemen the Foreign Secretary while he was still in the Diplomatic Service.

Surely it is in everyone's interest, and it is our particular responsibility, to foster confidence in Hong Kong and to have regard to that in the various speeches and proposals that we make. Clearly, in fostering confidence and in satisfying everybody's interest in the continuing prosperity and manageability of Hong Kong, it is a minimum requirement that we should offer what has indeed been offered in the Statement; namely, full citizenship to those who are essential for running the Hong Kong community.

I hope that the Government also have in mind not only the professional and managerial classes, as they said in the Statement, but all those who might be called key workers and who have special skills in their work. I regard that as the minimum that we can do. Many people are interested in what more can be done. The speech which noble Lords have heard on behalf of the Labour Party, which I fully understood and for which I have a great deal of sympathy, strikes me as being wholly premature. Matters move very very fast indeed in foreign politics.

There is no need for me to remind noble Lords of what has been going on in Europe. If someone had said three months ago that such changes would come about within a short time he would have been regarded as a lunatic. I remember the position in Hong Kong before June. Confidence has certainly ebbed away since June. I have every reason to hope that circumstances are capable of improving as fast as they have gone the other way. We have to keep in mind what our further responsibilities might be if circumstances worsened a good deal.

The present proposals should be sufficient to trigger off an increase in confidence among Hong Kong residents. They should also encourage a feeling among those responsible in China that in as much as they want to inherit a prosperous Hong Kong, they should deal much more understandingly with people who have the right to say, "If you don't treat us properly we are off, and here is our British citizenship". The Chinese Government would regard themselves as being compelled to treat more understandingly people who had that right than people who did not.

I am conscious of the fact that I am asking few questions. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, for asking so many questions. That saved the necessity for me to do so. I should like further clarification on one point. The Statement refers to our setting a lead and consulting with allies. That is right. Do the Government intend to go further than that? When I was last in Hong Kong I could not turn a corner without coming across some fresh evidence of large scale Japanese investment. I hope therefore that the Government will not limit their discussions to those who are members of the EC or allies in a more normal sense but will consider all those who have such interests in Hong Kong.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his endorsement of the Statement. As he said, he asked a few questions; but I am grateful for his observations. He is right to say that what China wants to inherit in 1997 is a prosperous Hong Kong. The best way to ensure that is to give some guarantees to the people who stay behind in Hong Kong.

The noble Lord asked about going further than consulting with those whom I Dave already mentioned. I would include Japan among our allies. I shall bear in mind the noble Lord's point, and I hope that we shall be able to consult with others as well.

Lord MacLehose of Beoch

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for repeating the Statement. I should like to start by saying what a notable decision this is. Though the numbers may not be as high as some in Hong Kong would have wished, people in Hong Kong are realists and they must understand the realities of the political situation there. The Government's decision is a major element in assisting Hong Kong in its present predicament. For my part, I congratulate the Government. I realise that there may be criticism along the lines set out by the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon. People will say that there are a favoured few. However, it is impractical to give British citizenship to all dependent territory citizens in Hong Kong. Both major parties are agreed on this point. Of course if anything is to be done it must be to some extent divisive. Solomon-like decisions will have to be taken in the light of what is proposed. I am heartily sorry for those who have to do this. I ask whether special procedures will be considered so that the proposals can be put into operation quickly. Until the results are known, there will inevitably be extreme personal worries in Hong Kong as to whether or not people are included.

I have a general point to make about the principle of elitism. The beneficiaries of the proposals will be an elite in the sense that the crew of a ship, from captain to deckhand, are an elite. They are an encouragement to everybody concerned with the ship. The passengers would be horrified if they were about to leave or were thinking of leaving. I realise that this will present extreme administrative difficulties. However, better to tackle them than leave them to drift. I congratulate the Government on what they propose.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord. The House will be well aware of his great knowledge of Hong Kong. He asked how soon the proposals could be put into effect. It could be done as soon as Parliament approved the arrangements and the mechanism was in place. As the noble Lord said, the arrangements need to be operatng quickly. We shall give the matter priority, but it is impossible at this stage to give a precise timetable. I take on board the noble Lord's point.

Lord Derwent

My Lords, as someone who is closely involved with the Hong Kong Chinese business community —in which I declare an interest —I welcome the Statement. No businessman, whether from Hong Kong or anywhere else, can possibly be expected to continue investing there or continue trying to create jobs if he sees the key people leaving. I refer to the engineers, the technicians, the executives, the clerical staff and those on whom education, medicine and law and order depend. The Government's proposals give the Hong Kong Chinese the confidence at least to try to keep Hong Kong prosperous.

Of course Hong Kong would have liked larger numbers of passports to be offered by the Government —I take the point of the noble Lord, Lord MacLehose, in this regard —but it recognises the difficulties in this country and its people are pragmatic. Is the noble Lord aware that he can rely on the Hong Kong business community to respond to the initiative? Once the key people have received their British passports, it is up to Hong Kong business to ensure, by providing the jobs and the opportunities, that the new passport holders stay in Hong Kong. I congratulate the Government, and I am confident that the Hong Kong community will respond to them.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend, who has knowledge of the Hong Kong business community. I am sure he is right to say that the business community will respond favourably to these proposals.

4.30 p.m.

Lord Prior

My Lords, I declare an interest in that my company, GEC, employs many people in Hong Kong. It also carries out many contracts which involve exports to Hong Kong and therefore employs many people in this country as a result of such business. I welcome the Government's Statement, and I recognise the sensitive and difficult issues involved in what they are seeking to do. They should have our wholehearted support in what they have put forward.

Will my noble friend seek to impress upon his colleagues in another place as well as in this House that the stability of Hong Kong depends on having key people prepared to say there, it is to be hoped, for all time; but that such people will at least have the chance to leave if things go the wrong way which we hope and pray will not happen?

However, in saying that, may I add that any other solution which may have been looked at does not seem to be practicable? I beg the Opposition not to get themselves into a situation where they create greater uncertainty in Hong Kong, which is something that we all need to avoid. Therefore, I once more say that I hope the Government will sustain their position. It may not be all that the people of Hong Kong would wish for; but, together with our partners in Europe and other nations, can we hope that this will now give the stability to people in Hong Kong that is essential if there is to be prosperity there up to 1997 and beyond?

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, I am again grateful to my noble friend. As my noble friend said, the issue of the numbers involved is a sensitive one. But I hope noble Lords will agree—at any rate, those on this side of the House —that we have achieved a reasonable balance. As my noble friend said, stability is vital in Hong Kong, and I shall impress upon my colleagues the words of my noble friend.

Lord Boardman

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that for some time now businesses from European Community countries operating within Hong Kong have been attracting key staff to their Hong Kong businesses by offering them passports in their European countries, the effect of which has been to deprive British and indigenous Hong Kong companies of key people, at the same time giving those people the right of access to the Community and the UK? For that reason, among many others, his Statement today is particularly timely and welcome.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, I merely say that I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Boardman.

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone

My Lords, I speak for no one but myself in commending the decision of the Government. But I should like to pay tribute to the extraordinarily responsible replies which came from the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, the noble Lord, Lord Diamond, and the noble Lord, Lord MacLehose, not of course to omit, but not to mention in detail, those which came from my side of the House.

I wish to say this with respect to the Front Opposition Bench. So far as I am concerned, the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, has only one fault and that is that he is too generous to me in almost everthing he says —a serious fault but one about which I am not the one to complain. But I think that on this occasion he really did strike a false note and I hope that this will be recognised. What he said was not only intemperately expressed, but entirely negative in content and I think that it was extremely irresponsible in view of the dangers to the people of Hong Kong which he may have excited. We owe responsibility to the people of Hong Kong as of now, and the danger against which we must protect them is not only want of confidence but something much worse.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble and learned friend. I hope that, when the people of Hong Kong read the Hansard report of the Statement that I have repeated this afternoon, they will realise that the voice of the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, was in a minority of one so far, as against everybody else who seems to be broadly in favour of the scheme.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, it may very well seem that a minority of one did sound a correct note, even if to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hailsham, it was a wrong one. I rise again only to say that the first thing that I want to express by way of priority this afternoon is a feeling of confidence in the people of Hong Kong that fairness is being exercised in regard to the grant of a British passport and a right of residence. It was because I saw that lack of fairness that I used language which the noble and learned Lord described as intemperate. If intemperate language is sometimes used because one feels that there is an injustice, it is something of which the noble and learned Lord has been guilty on many occasions in his past life.

I rise only for this reason. I said that this was unfair, I said that this was a lottery and I put various questions. The noble Lord, Lord Diamond, was courteous enough to say that I had put questions and therefore he need not put so many. What he omitted to say, with his customary courtesy, was that I had not received one answer to any of the questions as to how the points system would be administered, whether it would be published, whether we had a right to say whether it was just or unjust and whether it was to be exercised by way of interview or in writing. How, in the name of heaven, is it to be administered fairly? To not one of those questions has there been a reply. Therefore if I continue to look intemperate will your Lordships forgive me?

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, I answered a good many of the questions that the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, asked me. Among the answers I gave was that the details, including the selection process, will be laid before the House when the legislation is debated. No doubt noble Lords, when the legislation is before the House, will have the opportunity to continue with these arguments. That is probably about all I can say on the subject this afternoon.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I hate to get up to suggest that in due course we might move on, but a cursory glance at the Companion to Standing Orders shows that discussion on a Statement should not exceed 20 minutes. We have spent 30 minutes on this Statement. It also shows that such Statements should not be made the occasion for an immediate debate. I think that we might be falling into that trap. I know that a number of noble Lords wish to speak or to ask questions, and if we were to allow two more that might be for the convenience of your Lordships.

Lord Fanshawe of Richmond

My Lords, perhaps I may congratulate my noble friend on his Statement, which has proved that the Government are prepared to take very courageous action which will be deeply and well received in Hong Kong. The noble Lord, Lord Diamond, mentioned the possibility of changes taking place in China. This may well happen and many of us hope that there will be changes in the right direction. If, unfortunately, the changes go the wrong way, will my noble friend give an assurance that the Government will look again at the numbers involved and perhaps reconsider the 50,000 limit, if in, say, 18 months' or two years' time it proves necessary to do so?

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, of course I agree with my noble friend that we hope that changes in China will go the right way. I think that all in your Lordships' House will agree to that. I really cannot add to what I have said so far. Obviously in a very serious situation we would have to look again. But I think it would be unwise at this stage to add to what we have put forward this afternoon.

Baroness Ewart-Biggs

My Lords, may I say that I really do not believe that what my noble friend Lord Mishcon has said will add to the anxieties of the people of Hong Kong? It is more the sparsity of this Statement that will add to their anxieties, because, as the noble Lord, Lord MacLehose, has said, there will now be an enormous worry about qualifications for points. We have no idea what the criteria will be for heads of households to acquire points. So what the noble Lord, Lord MacLehose, said about the urgency of information being put forward is of the greatest importance.

Perhaps I may also say to the noble Lord the Minister that it is surely very difficult to combine proposals which retain the key people in Hong Kong, and therefore keep the sense of confidence which every single one of us would like to retain in Hong Kong, at the same time as applying a system of justice. From that point of view I should like to support what the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, has said and inquire about that small minority who will be stateless in 1997, and ask the noble Lord whether he thinks that they will indeed have the qualifications, which I understand will mainly be held by key people, to acquire sufficient points to gain British nationality?

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, there is very little I can add in response to the points raised by the noble Baroness. I have already said in reply to the noble Lord, Lord MacLehose, that we regard this as a matter of some urgency and will therefore move as speedily as we are able. So far as concerns the point about the ethnic minorities, I can add nothing more to what I have already said in reply to the question of the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, on that matter.