HL Deb 05 July 1989 vol 509 cc1189-99
Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I now repeat a Statement made in another place by my right honourable and learned friend the Foreign Secretary. The Statement is as follows:

"With permission, Mr. Speaker, I shall make a Statement about Hong Kong, which I visited from 2nd to 4th July. I held extensive discussions with members of the Executive and Legislative Councils, with professional people, entrepreneurs, students and others.

"There can be no doubt that the appalling events in Peking have badly shaken confidence in Hong Kong. It is of the first importance that the Chinese Government take early, tangible and sustained action to begin restoring confidence in China's intentions towards Hong Kong. We shall be pressing them strongly on this.

"There has been understandable pressure on this country to grant a right of abode to all British passport holders in Hong Kong. I had to explain that this House would not support an indefinite and open-ended commitment of that kind. It would test our capacity in all kinds of areas—housing, employment, transport, inner city services—on an unprecedented scale. The Select Committee on Foreign Affairs reached a similar conclusion.

"I was, however, able to assure the people of Hong Kong that we can and will take action in a number of fields. First, on the question of nationality, we want to enhance people's confidence to remain. We are working urgently on a scheme which will make some provision for people in both the private and public sectors on the basis not simply of connections with Britain but also the value of service to Hong Kong.

"Secondly, at the European Council in Madrid we alerted our Community partners to Hong Kong's problems. I am also in direct touch with the other countries which will attend next week's Economic Summit in Paris. We shall continue there and elsewhere to mobilise the support of the international community.

"Thirdly, I was able to confirm as common ground that the joint declaration, with its prospect of the greatest possible autonomy, remains the best foundation for Hong Kong's future. We have identified a number of ways in which Hong Kong's traditions of freedom can be further protected. In particular there is scope for reviewing the rate of progress towards representative government. In this, the wishes of the people of Hong Kong will continue to be fundamental to our approach. We also favour a Bill of Rights entrenching essential freedoms. The Hong Kong Government are announcing today that they will introduce such a Bill as soon as possible. It will form part of the existing law and be able to continue after the transfer of sovereignty. We shall also take up with the Chinese Government two matters of special concern—Article 18 of the draft Basic Law, which could enable the central government in Peking to declare a state of emergency in Hong Kong after 1997, and, even more important, the question of the stationing in Hong Kong of Chinese military forces.

"Events in China have overshadowed Hong Kong's most immediate practical problem: how to cope with the 48,000 boat people who have found shelter there. I visited two of the camps housing boat people and saw the screening of new arrivals now being conducted under the auspices of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

"The Hong Kong Government and people have dealt magnificently with an appalling problem. But Hong Kong is being overwhelmed by the sheer weight of numbers. The vast majority of those reaching Hong Kong are not political refugees. They have no hope of being accepted for resettlement anywhere else in the world. Hong Kong cannot offer them a home or a livelihood.

"At the recent conference in Geneva, resettlement pledges were made for all those who qualify as refugees. The report of the Select Committee recognised that it is intolerable for those who do not qualify as refugees to have to spend years in camps. Their only future lies back home. I have discussed this problem with the Vietnamese Foreign Minister both in Geneva and in London. Official talks are continuing. I am hopeful that we shall be able to find a solution which enables boat people to return to Vietnam in safety and dignity.

"Hong Kong's predicament reflects the facts of its history and geography. These are inescapable. But, in approving the joint declaration, this House undertook to make the best possible provision for Hong Kong after 1997. We shall pursue the measures I have outlined with vigour as part of that wider and unchanged commitment".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

4.42 p.m.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, we are grateful to the noble Lord for repeating the Statement. When the Foreign Secretary decided to visit Hong Kong he knew, as we all did, that he would have a very critical reception; and so it turned out. Sir Geoffrey conducted himself with dignity and courage. It is also noteworthy that the members of the Hong Kong community, apprehensive and uncertain as they are, gave him a reasonable hearing.

As the Foreign Secretary said before he set out, he went to listen. The Statement contains his reactions. It does not go into detail on the main issues, and I do not complain about that at this point. However, I think that a clear, full and detailed note of government policy will be required fairly soon so that the people of Hong Kong know more precisely where they stand.

Regarding nationality, the renewal of confidence is of paramount importance, as the Statement says. We note that a scheme is being prepared, and we welcome that. Can the noble Lord, Lord Glenarthur, say when that is likely to be announced, and what options are being considered? For example, is one of those options a quota system operating over a period of years? Is he aware that a selective scheme based on wealth alone would not be acceptable to the people of this country?

We note and welcome the reference to the international community in the Statement. That is necessarily vague at this point, and in due course we shall expect a fuller report of the responses of the European Community and the other countries referred to.

We also welcome the steps proposed to protect the traditions of freedom, including a Bill of Rights. We note that some of those need further negotiations with the Chinese Government, for example Article 18 of the draft Basic Law, and the stationing of Chinese forces in Hong Kong. That has now become a matter of first importance, and we support the Government's proposal to discuss the matter further with the authorities in the Chinese Republic.

On democratic development generally, can the noble Lord say whether the Government propose to speed up elections to the legislative council and other bodies in Hong Kong? We shall obviously have to return to all those matters and to have a debate when the Government are able to furnish us with more clearly defined objectives and policies.

4.45 p.m.

Lord Bonham-Carter

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for repeating the Statement made by his right honourable and learned friend in another place. I too should like to pay tribute to the conduct of Sir Geoffrey Howe in the very difficult circumstances in which he found himself in Hong Kong. On the other hand, conduct is rather different from policy. The policies set forth in the Statement are hardly likely to achieve the purpose which is required, which is to allay the apprehensions of the people of Hong Kong faced with the alarming situation in which they find themselves.

The Statement which has just been read to us is rather more full of aspirations than actions. It says "It is of the first importance that the Chinese Government begin … restoring confidence in China's intentions". It is equally important that the British Government restore confidence in the British Government's intentions by taking action which is urgently required. Sir Geoffrey says "We want to enchance people's confidence to remain". "We alerted our Community partners to Hong Kong's problems". "There is scope for reviewing the rate of progress". "We favour a bill of right".

One feels like saying "Why don't you do something, or tell us when you are going to do something?" Above all, some guarantee to the people of Hong Kong is required that their lives and liberties will be assured. It is not enough at this stage to alert our partners in the European Community. It is generally agreed by the Select Committee, by both parties on these Benches, and by Mr. Martin Lee of Hong Kong, that if we are to assure the people of their liberties and their safety, we must mobilise the European Community, the Commonwealth and the United States to undertake to accept people from Hong Kong should the worst possible case occur. I should like to know what steps the Government are taking now to put that into practice.

The situation is serious because the prosperity of Hong Kong depends on keeping people working there; and on the prosperity of Hong Kong depends its future after 1997. I hope that we shall not have to depend on aspirations but that there will be decisions and action by Her Majesty's Government in the very near future.

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, perhaps I may first of all thank both noble Lords opposite for their kind tributes to my right honourable and learned friend. His was not an easy task to undertake; but I am grateful, as I am sure he will be, for the kind remarks which have been made about his visit.

Perhaps I may deal first of all with the more general point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, that the Statement is one rather more of aspiration than of action. I am sure he will appreciate that the Statement was made immediately upon the return of my right honourable and learned friend. He went to Hong Kong to glean at first hand the views of those that he described in the Statement. Obviously, it is aspiration; action will follow.

I have given some indication of the kind of action which will go part of the way—though not the whole way—towards meeting some of the anxieties that have been expressed to my right honourable and learned friend on his visit. More will follow in due course. The noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, asked me when that would be. I cannot give him a precise date, but I am sure he will understand that much is under active consideration at the moment; and as soon as the Government are in a position to make an announcement, it will be made.

So far as concerns the ideas that have been considered, I hope the noble Lord will forgive me if I do not go into absolute detail. He raised one particular topic with me, and referred to a quota system. All such matters will naturally be under consideration. I would rather go no further today than saying that we must try to look at all the options to meet the anxieties of all those people, whether they are on the private side or in the public sector. They are all under consideration at the moment. When my right honourable and learned friend is ready he will be able to make an announcement about it.

The noble Lords, Lord Cledwyn and Lord Bonham-Carter, asked about mobilising the international community. As the Statement makes clear, we have already spoken to our European Community partners. We have spoken to Commonwealth governments and to the United States. The matter will be raised at the Paris Summit. We shall continue to urge the wider international community to join us in doing everything possible to restore confidence in Hong Kong in the way that both noble Lords would have us do.

I have to say, however, that mobilisation of a view is a necessary precursor to the kind of detail about which the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, asked me the other day. We have some time to go. It is difficult, as the noble Lord will imagine, to get into the kind of detail which he urges me to do. I acknowledge that there is force in that argument but I hope he will understand that mobilisation and understanding of the problem are all important. That is what my right honourable and learned friend has already set about and I am sure will carry forward to great effect.

The noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, asked me about the pace of democratisation. I have made it clear that, as a result of the actions in Peking, the Government are already looking carefully at the programme for advancing and consolidating effective democracy in Hong Kong. During his visit my right honourable and learned friend discussed this with the governor and his advisers and with representatives of a wide range of opinion in Hong Kong. Recent events in China have inevitable caused people in Hong Kong to think very deeply about democracy. It is already clear that plans for 1991 will have to be looked at again. We must also consider what more should be done before 1997.

I would caution the noble Lord on one aspect. We should not try to rush a judgment while views in Hong Kong have not yet crystallised. Indeed, OMELCO has indicated that, following the events of 3rd and 4th June, it will have to look again at the position it reached in May. But I have said before, if Hong Kong can reach a clear consensus, that would be a significant development to which we would certainly want to respond. I hope that that is a fair answer to the noble Lord's point.

The noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, referred to the report of the Foreign Affairs Committee. He said that even the committee indicated that more should be done to alert the international community. The report is being studied at the moment. A response will come forward in the usual way in due course. I am grateful to both noble Lords for their reception of the Statement and for their tributes to my right honourable and learned friend.

Lord Walston

My Lords, on these Benches we should like to congratulate the Foreign Secretary on his courage and dignity. I wish that we could congratulate on more than that but it is quite clear from what has been said and from the Statement—and not surprising—that his visit was not what one would call a resounding success.

I have only two points to make in addition to those made by the noble Lords who have already spoken. One was touched on in the reply of the noble Lord, Lord Glenarthur. I refer to the potential role of the Commonwealth in dealing with this matter. While I am as ardent a supporter of the European Community as anybody in this Chamber, I am also an ardent believer in the Commonwealth. It saddens me that the Commonwealth has not been asked to take a more prominent role in solving this extremely difficult and very human problem. I urge the noble Lord and his colleagues to continue, as they say in the Statement, to raise the matter at this week's Economic Summit in Paris and elsewhere. I hope that that "elsewhere" will include a specific approach—perhaps through the Commonwealth Secretariat in London—to rallying the support of the Commonwealth, and in particular, of those members of the Commonwealth with large areas of land and relatively few people living in them. The Commonwealth could come to the help not only of the people of Hong Kong, should the need arise, but also of those unfortunate refugees from Vietnam—I deliberately call them "refugees" whether they are political or not—who are living in such appalling conditions in Hong Kong and are imposing such a burden on the people of Hong Kong and are themselves suffering in such hopeless squalor. I urge the noble Lord to take the lead in rallying support and co-operation of the whole of the Commonwealth to help to solve this problem.

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, I take the noble Lord's point that it is important to examine further the scope for the Commonwealth to play the role which he seeks. We are in a sense at the beginning of this operation. As my right honourable and learned friend made plain, the matter will be raised in Paris. Indeed it has already been raised. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister has already indicated that this will need to be discussed at the Commonwealth heads of government meeting in October.

Countries from within the European Community have already played a role in regard to the Vietnamese boat people and those who have been resettled from camps throughout South-East Asia.

Lord MacLehose of Beoch

My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Lord for repeating the Statement and I should like to be associated with the tributes to the Foreign Secretary. I regret that while he was there he was subjected to one small piece of studied discourtesy. I welcome much of the contents of the Statement. I welcome the part concerning the Vietnamese boat people. I welcome too the more flexible administration of the Nationality Act and of the immigration rules to allow more Hong Kong people to come to the United Kingdom fairly soon if they wish, and the working out of a more general plan later. I should like to know whether that interpretation of the Statement is correct.

Above all I welcome the fact that Hong Kong's future will continue to be built on the Joint Declaration and that the Government foresee the Basic Law being stiffened to implement it. The problem is that, to have confidence in their future under the Basic Law, the Hong Kong people are asking for right of abode in this country. They are backed in this by the governor, the Executive and Legislative Councils and a formidable number of people. On the other hand, the two major parties in this country will not have it. There is an impasse which is threatening the development of the future of Hong Kong and of British policy and interests there. I hope that there will be an opportunity to debate this at some future date.

Meanwhile, should we not bear in mind that this crisis is due not to a recent action of the British Government but to what the PLA did in Peking? Would it not be a help if the Chinese Government were to volunteer—and to volunteer soon—that they do not envisage the PLA being stationed in Hong Kong except in time of war?

5 p.m.

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord MacLehose, for welcoming what is contained in the Statement, what my right honourable and learned friend said about the Vietnamese boat people and what is being looked at in terms of flexibility. As I indicated to the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn—and I hope the noble Lord will forgive me if I do not go into detail—what I said when I repeated the Statement earlier and spoke from this Dispatch Box was that all this is being looked at and it is to be hoped that an announcement will be made before too long. I certainly agree with him that it is important to build on the magnificent achievement in the Joint Declaration and, as I have indicated, stiffen the Basic Law where it is practical to do so.

The noble Lord raised the matter of the right of abode. Of course, I realise the force of the argument in support of that and, indeed, the feeling with which it is put forward so regularly by people in Hong Kong. However, as my right honourable and learned friend made perfectly plain, granting automatic right of abode to the several million people there is simply not a realistic option; it would create the most immense practical difficulties, and I must say that I think that that is a view which is shared by the great majority of Members on all sides of your Lordships' House. Indeed, it has been confirmed by the report of the Foreign Affairs Committee in another place. Perhaps I may paraphrase what my right honourable and learned friend said in Hong Kong the other day: to hold out the promise of an insurance policy knowing that a future British Government could not possibly deliver would be a gross deception.

I turn now to the issue of the actions of the People's Liberation Army being largely responsible for what has occurred in damaging the confidence of Hong Kong. I certainly take the point that the noble Lord made. However, I think that, if he reflects upon what I repeated in the Statement, he will see that what he spoke of is just the sort of action that is under consideration.

Lord Eden of Winton

My Lords, listening closely to the Statement which my noble friend read to the House, it seemed to me that the British Government are engaged in discussions with the governments of other countries with a view to mobilising some sort of rescue operation should circumstances ever overtake Hong Kong which would make such action necessary. If that is the correct interpretation, then that is tantamount to saying that were such appalling disasters to overtake Hong Kong, the British Government would not let down the people of Hong Kong. Further, if that interpretation is correct, has that fact been made as clear as that to the people of Hong Kong?

While I am on my feet, perhaps I may trespass for a moment on a related aspect of the matter and ask my noble friend if he can comment—if not immediately, perhaps at some point—about something which I understand is shortly to take place; namely, a visit by a top level British industrial and commercial mission to China. It seems to me that if that is the case, then it is shamefully soon after the events in Tiananmen Square and ought not to take place.

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, my noble friend's interpretation of the mobilisation of international support is broadly correct. Of course, if matters were to go so horribly wrong as he envisages, there would also be a commitment upon us. Indeed, my right honourable and learned friend made that perfectly plain on one or two occasions when he spoke in Hong Kong. However, it is extremely important that the ground is prepared for the kind of detailed work which we all hoped it would not ultimately be necessary to bring into effect. That is why my right honourable and learned friend has taken the step so far of stimulating interest in this serious problem in the United States and in the European Community, and among Commonwealth countries. Therefore I very much take the point made by my noble friend.

So far as concerns the industrial mission—that is, the Sino-British Trade Council mission, which is being looked at—I can reassure my noble friend that it is currently under reconsideration.

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone

My Lords, it may or may not be that my noble friend will wish to comment upon this, but I should like to put forward a point of view from this Bench. It relates solely to the main issue and not to the Vietnamese boat people. I should like to say that, not only for his personal dignity but also for his extremely sensible, restrained and responsible attitude, the highest possible praise ought to be given to my right honourable and learned friend the Foreign Secretary.

I think that I should also express from these Benches, from which perhaps it comes better than anywhere else, the fact that I am extremely grateful personally—as I hope the House is—for the extremely responsible attitude of the official Opposition, both in another place and here through the person of the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn. It is a most difficult and dangerous situation and there is an immense temptation, in view of the revulsion which we all feel about certain matters and which the Hong Kong people probably feel even more deeply and acutely than we do, to take a populist attitude, which is the worst possible attitude we could take.

Our responsibility to the people of Hong Kong is not only what may or may not happen in 1997, when I shall probably not be alive; it is here and now, and in the immediate years which follow. We have seen one of the most appalling events of recent history. In my opinion the overriding duty of Her Majesty's Government, and their duty to Hong Kong, is to persuade the rulers of China during the coming eight years—and I start from now—that it is immensely to their advantage to make it wholly clear that they intend to abide by their agreement and retain the rights and privileges of the people of Hong Kong; and that it would be the most serious disadvantage to them if they were to frighten or bully those people or to create a situation in which they took over a wilderness instead of a going concern.

I am quite sure that my right honourable and learned friend has taken exactly the right line. Further, I hope that he will have the support of the whole country in so doing.

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble and learned friend for his very wise words. I should say, however, that I fully expect him to be with us in 1997, contributing to our debates in the way that he always does. I am also grateful to him for his tributes to my right honourable and learned friend the Foreign Secretary. I too should like to be associated with his words as regards the attitude of the official Opposition and that of the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn. As he says, it is important to remember that this is a time for cool heads, both here and in Hong Kong. It is an extremely difficult issue and one which will not be solved overnight. That is precisely why my right honourable and learned friend undertook his visit to Hong Kong: he wished to hear opinion at first hand. I am also sure that we must consider the matter coolly and carefully and give it all consideration, as indeed is being done at present.

Baroness Ewart-Biggs

My Lords, perhaps I may ask the Minister for a little more information as regards two points which he made in the Statement. First, he spoke about the Basic Law. However, can he say whether work has resumed in that connection? I am sure that he will agree that everything should be done to maintain some movement and action in Hong Kong in order to fill the dangerous vacuum which is clearly visible.

Secondly, as regards the Vietnamese refugees, I should like to say how happy I was to see that the Secretary of State during his very short time in Hong Kong still managed to visit two of the camps. However, can the Minister give an assurance that there will be no question of forcible repatriation of any refugees? Does he agree also that negotiations with the Vietnamese Government should be more on the basis of aid programmes and trade? Surely the Minister will agree that boosting Vietnam's economic development is the long-term answer to the problem of increasing economic migration and that, at the worst, the isolation of Vietnam will in no way prevent those refugees going to Hong Kong, nor will it make it easy for them to return.

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, I said on a previous day that work on the Basic Law had been suspended. That position holds good at the moment, but of course we shall need to consider how to take forward the points that my right honourable and learned friend made in his Statement, when he said that we have to look at certain Articles of that Basic Law and will need to make representations to the Chinese authorities about it, in the way that we have played a part in this matter throughout. That is a matter which is under consideration at the moment. I cannot say when the work will restart. The noble Baroness will appreciate why it has been suspended in the meantime.

As regards the Vietnamese boat people and forcible repatriation, we have no interest in using force. Our aim is merely to follow up the principle which was clearly established and was part of the comprehensive plan of action that was endorsed at Geneva: that all those boat people who do not qualify as refugees must find their future in Vietnam.

We are working for arrangements to enable those people to return to their country of origin, safely, in dignity and without fear of punishment. On Vietnam's economic and trade position, while I take the point that the noble Baroness made, I am sure that she will understand that we still await the withdrawal of the Vietnamese army of occupation from Cambodia.

Baroness Phillips

My Lords, will the Minister assure us that the Government will emphasise the fact that the Hong Kong people do not wish to come here in great numbers; that they merely need some kind of insurance policy? Too much propaganda has been put around to the effect that 3.5 million people will descend suddenly on Great Britain. It is difficult for Hong Kong people to understand why they do not have such an assurance when they see the number of people from other countries who are living here. Each time that there is a demonstration, I am amazed at the thousands of people—Arabs, Iraqis, Iranians and so on—who are obviously living here. From the demonstrations outside the Chinese embassy, it appears that a number of Chinese people are living here. We must show the Hong Kong people that we are behind them if the necessity arises for them to come here. When I was there I gained the impression that they do not want to come to Britain, but that they want some assurance that we are behind them.

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, I appreciate the concern of people in Hong Kong who are looking for an assurance. The noble Baroness is suggesting that a sort of blank cheque be written for an unknown possibility of which we cannot foretell the outcome. That is why to hold out the idea that I described as an insurance policy, knowing that a future British Government could not possibly deliver on it for the immensely difficult practical reasons that I gave, would be nothing other than a great deception.

Lord Northfield

My Lords, the Minister has repeated again today that the Government accept responsibility for mobilising other countries in the event of some refuge being needed for Hong Kong people. I want to ask him again about the position of Taiwan. I fully understand tthe Government's difficulty. We have no diplomatic relations with Taiwan. I do not expect diplomatic relations to be resumed, and I do not press for that; but is it not a possible refuge for some of the people from Hong Kong? In the coming years do not we need to consider the possibility that if it were ever needed some of them could go there? It is Chinese. Its democracy is developing fast. Our trade relations with it are good. Can the Minister say at least that we hope that over the coming years our relations will improve, and that eventually we may be able to talk to Taiwan in some way about the possibility of it providing part of the insurance system that he has talked about?

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, the noble Lord will realise that it is impossible for me to look into the future in relation to Taiwan. As he is aware, we do not have diplomatic relations with Taiwan. I am equally aware that the people of Hong Kong and the international community as a whole will understand that Taiwan might have some role to play in the future, but that is not a point for me.

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, we have been 33 minutes on the Statement. It might be appropriate to return now the Report stage of the Electricity Bill.