HL Deb 08 June 1989 vol 508 cc941-4

3.20 p.m.

Lord Wyatt of Weeford asked Her Majesty's Government:

What are their reactions to recent events in China and the possible effect of those events on the handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997.

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, I made clear our shock and outrage at the recent events in China when I repeated my right honourable and learned friend's Statement to the House on 6th June. Our concern is all the greater because of our responsibility to Hong Kong. Our commitment to a secure, stable and prosperous future for the territory is as strong as ever. We look to China to stand by her obligations under the joint declaration in the same way.

Lord Wyatt of Weeford

My Lords, in view of the announcement of increased flexibility for issuing passports to Hong Kong subjects, will the Government bear in mind that it is not sufficient merely to give them to top civil servants but also to those who are the top of commerce and industry in the territory? If that is not done the whole of Hong Kong will collapse long before 1997.

Will the Minister further take on board the remarks made by the Governor of Hong Kong this morning on the BBC that the number of people who would take up passports if they were freely available has been greatly exaggerated by Her Majesty's Government? There would be very little danger of any large number coming to this country if there was an emergency right of abode, with passports issued for that purpose in good time. Will the Minister also confirm that there is to be full democracy in Hong Kong before it is handed over to China in 1997?

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, I am acutely aware of the concerns expressed both in Hong Kong and elsewhere about the matters relating to right of abode in the United Kingdom and to which the noble Lord has given voice on many occasions. Recently I expressed our deep understanding and sympathy for the people of Hong Kong at what for them must be a very worrying time indeed. None of the force of that is lost on me or any of my right honourable friends.

The fact is that we are considering carefully, and with the sympathy which the noble Lord would expect of us, what can be done to meet the sort of concerns he expresses and which are voiced by the people of Hong Kong. The Governor of Hong Kong is over here at the moment and talks are taking place. I do not think that the noble Lord would expect me to go further at the moment.

As regards democracy, over the past few months there have been differing views in Hong Kong about the rate of progress towards democracy. In the light of what has happened in the past few days in Peking, those arguments also are not lost on us.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, can the noble Lord be a little more specific? The Prime Minister herself has said that the Government intend—and I quote her words—to exercise more flexibility in applying the 1981 Act to Hong Kong residents. Can the noble Lord elaborate on that and say what categories the Government have in mind?

As regards democracy, to which the Minister just referred, is he aware that last month the Hong Kong Legislative Council voted unanimously that one-half of the members of that council should be subject to direct elections by 1997? Can the Minister say whether the Government regard that favourably?

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, I am afraid I cannot go further on the matter of categories other than to say that all categories will be considered in the light of the concerns expressed and the comments of my right honourable friend the Prime Minister to which the noble Lord referred. It is too early to say what the answer may be because discussions are going on even today.

In regard to representative government, I am of course aware of what was said in LegCO recently and we shall have to keep our eye on the situation which has resulted from the developments in China. Again, it is too early to say precisely what the decision will be but the force of the arguments is not lost on us.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, is it not true that the Government regard as having priority those classes with large capital assets?

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, as I said, all categories—that includes the entire range of people in Hong Kong—will have to be considered in this way. That is what is presently being done and is one of the reasons why the Governor is over here. However, I am not in a position to go further at the moment.

Lord Kennet

My Lords, can the Minister go further on the question of the introduction of democracy to Hong Kong? Do the Government remember that from these Benches for three or four years we have been saying that we believed that the speed decided upon by the Government would not be fast enough? In view of the fact that the noble Lord has said that the Government will not ignore recent evidence and will keep their eye on the situation, may we hope that the noble Lord will be able to come back to this House before the Summer Recess and inform us about an acceleration in the proposed introduction of democracy?

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, we have always sought to achieve continuity over 1997 and to ensure that what is established before that date will continue to flourish after the transfer of sovereignty; that is why we have worked for a basic law which carries forward the changes we plan to make before 1997. I am sure that the people of Hong Kong fully understand that. However, as I said recently, under the present circumstances we could not ignore a clear call from the community for a faster pace of development than that hitherto envisaged.

Lord MacLehose of Beoch

My Lords, what the Minister said about greater flexibility in administration of the British Nationality Act is extremely welcome. I understand that this will take some time to work out while consideration is going through. However, does the Minister know that many applications for British citizenship under Section 4(5) of the British Nationality Act by Crown servants in Hong Kong have been rejected? I am told that the figure is over 700. As these people are vital for the future of Hong Kong, does not the Minister agree that it would be an extremely good thing if these applications were now reconsidered? Will the Minister speak to his right honourable friend in that sense?

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, I am well aware of that view and I am grateful to the noble Lord for once more putting it forward. Yes, I am aware of the criticisms from Hong Kong and elsewhere about the very few civil servants who have been granted citizenship under Section 4(5). Again, that is something which falls into the generality of categories, though it has a particular significance of its own which will be considered, as I have described.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, so that there is no misunderstanding, will the Minister make clear in regard to the words of the noble Lord, Lord Wyatt, in his supplementary question, that it is hoped that the Government will extend flexibility not only to top civil servants but also to top industrialists and commercial people? Will the noble Lord make very clear that flexibility will extend to those who have shown loyalty to this country by their services and who also may have held their British citizenship for a very long time?

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, with respect to the noble Lord, I think that it is important not to dwell on any particular category of individual at the moment. The fact is that all aspects are being looked at. It is a particularly difficult time to make instant judgments. The matter must be looked at thoroughly for the benefit of all the people whom noble Lords and others are keen to see protected.

The Earl of Bessborough

My Lords, perhaps I may ask a fairly closely related question of which I gave my noble friend notice. Although perhaps not as momentous as the future of Hong Kong, nonetheless it has important Chinese overtones. What is the attitude of the Government towards Chinese students in this country who, in the normal course of events, are shortly due to return to China? In the circumstances, does my noble friend think it might be possible to give them the option of asking for an extension of their stay in this country until the situation in their own part of the People's Republic of China has settled down?

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for giving me notice of that question. I can assure him that we shall look sympathetically at any application by Chinese nationals to remain here until the situation in China becomes clearer. No Chinese nationals already living here will be required to leave the United Kingdom while the situation remains in its present uncertain state.

Lord Bonham-Carter

My Lords, I should like to ask the noble Lord to go a little further in interpreting the word "flexibility", by which the Prime Minister must have meant something. Would it not be fair to ask the Minister to convey to his right honourable friends the feelings in this House that it would be a travesty of justice, humanity and decency if "flexibility" were interpreted to mean only those who could pay, and if it did not include within its terms those who had earned inclusion by public service, intellectual distinction—by saintliness, even—and by industrial skills? Money itself should not be the sole criterion by which humanity can be served.

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, that is of course a very important consideration. I believe that it points up many of the difficulties in trying to reach a satisfactory answer to this problem. I shall convey the remarks that have been made this afternoon to my right honourable friend's attention.

Viscount St. Davids

My Lords, can the noble Lord tell the House what the Government intend to do as regards the many Portuguese passports which are now being sold in nearby Macau? Is the Minister aware that the Chinese in Hong Kong and Macau are very closely related by family and that these passports will enable them to come here, but will not enable them to move on to Canada and other places?

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, I am aware of that fact. I am also aware of the fact that the arrangements that have been made in this country and in Portugal as regards their nationals in Macau and ours in Hong Kong varied enormously and differently over the years. That is why we have reached the position that we are in now.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, perhaps I may ask the Minister whether other governments which also have nationals in Hong Kong have because of recent events in China sought discussions with Her Majesty's Government.

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, as regards other nationals, I am not aware of any discussions, but I shall certainly bear that in mind.

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