HL Deb 23 March 1989 vol 505 cc861-84

1.30 p.m.

Lord Wyatt of Weeford rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will reconsider their policy on the issue of British passports to Hong Kong citizens.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the agreements made over the future of Hong Kong are admirable on paper, but there is a growing danger that they may not work out as well in practice as we all hope. The continuing success of Hong Kong depends on enough of its most enterprising and able residents remaining there. They will do so if they have confidence in the Chinese Government honouring their promise to let Hong Kong conduct its internal affairs and its international trade in the way that it does today. That confidence will be much enhanced if those who are anxious to stay felt that they had some way to leave Hong Kong if a future Chinese Government looked as though they were intending to reverse the present benign intentions of Beijing.

Dramatic changes are not unknown in recent Chinese history. Everyone in Hong Kong is aware of what happened during the Cultural Revolution and they are a bit nervous about what is happening in Tibet today. After 1997 we shall be helpless to intervene. Hong Kong residents will have no means of preventing Beijing interpreting and modifying the agreement or the new basic law. It will be quite diffferent if a significant number of those essential to the administration and commerce of Hong Kong had a passport enabling them to live elsewhere if things went wrong.

Beijing receives one-third of its foreign currency through Hong Kong. Even the most extreme Chinese Government would hesitate to put that at risk through the departure of key figures from Hong Kong. To stop that happening would be as much in the interests of China as of Hong Kong residents. It will be a potent sanction against unilateral changes of the ground rules. With no such safeguard in sight, a disturbing brain drain has already begun. Thirty thousand residents left Hong Kong in 1987 going mainly to Canada, Australia and the USA. Forty-five thousand residents went in 1988. The emigrants are those with enough money, and also middle management and professionals who can easily obtain employment overseas.

The brain drain is mounting and a very substantial wastage in the civil administration is also occurring. By 1997 it could severely damage Hong Kong's prospects. These valuable people would much prefer to stay in Hong Kong. They will only do so if they have the key to what they fear, we hope irrationally, might become a Communist prison. The brain drain is our fault and we do not gain any benefit from it.

In Australia only two years' residence is required before an immigrant from Hong Kong can get a passport; in Canada it is three years. They welcome HongKong immigrants, but here we obstruct them. They cannot get a passport in under five years and that is only if they can jump many deliberately difficult hurdles with regard to financial status and other matters.

Our inflexibility over passports provokes rising hostility towards us in Hong Kong. It has contrasted with our willingness to take in Vietnamese refugees from Hong Kong as British citizens; it has contrasted with the willingness of the Portuguese authorities to give passports to ethnic Chinese born in Macao. Those passports are valid throughout the entire European Community. It is thought that anything between 35,000 and 100,000 such passports will be issued.

After the European Community transitional period all those people from Macao of Chinese ethnic origin will be able to live and work here immediately and receive permanent resident status after four years; but the Chinese Hong Kong and the citizens of Hong Kong will not be able to do so. By the year 1997, apart from the Portuguese Chinese, some 270 million people from other countries in the EC will have the right of abode here, but not the Hong Kong people.

There is a stock answer from the Foreign Office and the Home Office about the ethnic Chinese from Macao. I shall now quote from a letter that Sir Geoffrey Howe wrote to me on 8th March: Portuguese nationality law is different from ours. Portuguese nationals in Portuguese overseas territories have always had the right of abode in Portugal". That is somewhat misleading. Until we changed the law in 1962, the Hong Kong Chinese and Hong Kong citizens were British subjects with an absolute right to live and work here and become United Kingdom citizens. It is not their fault that alarm at the growth of coloured immigration from countries which had demanded, and achieved, independence from us made us remove those ancient rights from Hong Kong citizens.

Like the Falklanders and the Gibraltarians they had never wanted independence. The former have kept their full British passports but, with monstrous injustice, Hong Kong citizens have all lost theirs. In their place the Hong Kong citizens have at present a second class British dependent territories citizens' passport. It gives no right of abode here and will be invalid after 1st July 1997. There are believed to be some 2 million of those in existence. Before, but not after, 1st July 1997 Hong Kong residents can apply to have a new travel document called a British national overseas passport. It will be endorsed as follows: In accordance with the United Kingdom immigration rules the holder of this passport does not require an entry certificate or visa to visit the United Kingdom". The same rule is supposed to apply to the BDTC travel documents, but there are many cases of harassment to owners of these by immigration officials. They do not seem to believe the authorities in London that holders of such documents from Hong Kong are entitled to unharassed visits. They frequently try to stop them entering.

On 13th May 1986 in another place the Home Secretary said that this concession about passports has been welcomed by the unofficial members of the Hong Kong executive and legislative councils (at col. 656 Hansard). That does not square with a letter I received, dated 17th March of this year, from the much respected Mr. John Swaine, QC. He wrote: With the unanimous support of the non-Government members of the executive and legislative councils of Hong Kong— who must be taken to represent the feeling, as accurately as anyone can, in Hong Kong. Among other things he said: There is indeed very deep resentment in Hong Kong over British Government policy on nationality for Hong Kong citizens, which has been one of progressive erosion of those rights through the immigration legislation of 1962 and 1971 and the Nationality Act of 1981". The loss of the full passport and the erosion of the other Hong Kong citizen nationality rights occurred before negotiations with the Chinese Government. It has nothing to do with the draft agreement of 1984, except for merely being described in the associated exchange of memoranda tabled at the end of the agreement.

The Portuguese Government have almost identical agreements with the Chinese Government, to take effect in 1999. Beijing has not made the slightest protest over the issuing by the Portuguese authorities to ethnic Chinese of proper passports. There is no evidence that Beijing would make any objection to our doing something similar. The objection comes from the Foreign Office and the Home Office and not from Beijing.

Logically, and in fairness, all Hong Kong residents—whether Chinese or not—who were born in Hong Kong should be entitled to a British passport. It is thought that that could involve the issuing of 3.5 million fully operative British passports. If that were to happen, only a tiny number would be used to acquire permanent residence in Britain or the Common Market. The vast majority of Hong Kong residents want to stay in Hong Kong or, if they leave, to go to warmer climates without top rate income and capital gains tax of 40 per cent. That is not how the enormous commercial success and high standard of living of Hong Kong have been built. They have been built on low taxation.

I realise that the Government will not feel able to do the honourable thing and allow proper passports for those who depended upon our protection and who never wanted to lose it; but even if they all came, it would be a minute fraction of the 270 million who will shortly be able to come here from the rest of the EC. We have not yet added 52 million from Turkey. Doubtless the Government will go on saying that it is not them but Parliament who decided that point; but Parliament then had no knowledge of the negotiations over Hong Kong which had not even started. Many Members of both Houses, as did many Hong Kong Chinese, thought that the permanently ceded territories, which were ceded in 1842 and 1860, in and around Hong Kong Island and Kowloon, would never be handed back, and also that Britain might well continue to control, in agreement with the Chinese Government, over the territories where the lease expires in 1997.

It is not Parliament's wishes about which we are talking, but the Government's wishes. Realistically, I do not expect them to go as far as I should like, but they could be much more flexible, even within the laws upon which they rely to excuse them from doing anything.

The Home Office immigration rules (HC169) allow exceptions to the norm: persons of independent means with no less than £ 150,000, or £15,000 a year, can come here from any country on certain conditions. They have to be able to maintain and accommodate themselves and their dependants without help from other relatives or from government funds. They must show a close connection with the United Kingdom, through relatives or in other ways. They must show that their admission would be in the interests of this country. Permission to stay on that basis is renewable every 12 months. After five years, the restrictions are removed and applicants can apply for British citizenship and a proper passport. There is another category from any country with the same privileges but different conditions. One must have means of one's own of not less than £15,000, which one will put into a business in an amount proportional to one's interest in it. One must work full time at it and the Home Office must be convinced that there is a genuine need in this country for the business concerned.

The last two conditions would be fully met if up to, say, 50,000 energetic Hong Kong residents, selected for their ability and capacity, come to enrich our commerce and industry. The Home Office requires itself to be selective in this matter. It could easily be more selective, to the great benefit of the country, if it were not so wooden; 50,000 Hong Kong citizens, even supposing that they wanted to come here, would not open the floodgates from the new Commonwealth. Immigrants from there could not meet the financial qualifications. I should think us fortunate if 50,000 enterprising Hong Kong residents came here. That might make us as rich and enterprising as Hong Kong. The period of residence required before a passsport is issued to such selected entrants should be reduced to two years. That would bring us into line with Australia.

But there are other things which could and should be done. Immigration restrictions under Section 4(2)(c) of the British Nationality Act 1981 should be lifted during the fifth year of the applicant's stay in the United Kingdom. At the moment they have to wait the full five years. Periods of study in the United Kingdom should be sufficient for the purpose of satisfying the residential requirements. The passport issued to Hong Kong residents only should be endorsed with the right of readmission to the United Kingdom. That in itself would fall far short of the right of abode, but it would guarantee the international acceptability of the new Hong Kong passport, enabling the holder to travel freely.

I understand that about 10 countries only will allow entry for a visit with the rather feeble travel document, as it now stands. Mr. John Swaine, together with all his non-government colleagues on the executive and legislative councils, strongly urges that, if the holder wishes, the right of readmission could mature into the right of abode after five years' stay.

There is then the problem of holders of proper British passports whose wives or husbands do not have one. The latter cannot reside in this country with their spouses without going through an immensely complicated rigmarole: the spouse with the passport has to produce documents satisfying the authorities about his or her educational qualifications, financial standing and so on. Even if they surmount that demeaning process, and they both come to live in Britain, the spouse without the passport can be ejected if the financial circumstances of the spouse with the passport change. However, graciously the Government have said that children may be allowed to remain.

I have seen a number of heartbreaking letters and articles from those who reasonably fear that they will be split from their wife or husband. If the Government are to show humanity, they must change those rules immediately. All those with a proper British passport should be able to confer the same right on their spouses. I should have thought that that was only common decency, it will affect only a few people. Likewise, the Government ought to give passports automatically to those who are or have been in the civil administration or the military services, if they want them, and to their widows. That is being refused on a substantial scale.

The Government have been niggardly about those small categories, including the Indian community which will be in a kind of nationality limbo after 1997. They will be neither Chinese nor Hong Kong citizens nor anything else. The Government's reluctance to behave decently in these matters is a major cause of the rising resentment in Hong Kong.

In what I have said I have carefully tried not to raise the hopes of Hong Kong residents beyond what it is realistic to expect. I know that most of them think that the British national overseas passport which is the only one available for use after 1997 is hardly worth applying for. I urge them nevertheless to apply. At least the residents could use them, even in their present weak and feeble condition, as a passport to get out of Hong Kong in an impending emergency, to visit Britain, if only for a short while. Once here, it could be a different ball game, according to the nature of the situation which prompted the holder of the British national overseas passport to leave Hong Kong to visit Britain. That document might become extremely useful, although I hope that the emergency need for it will never arise.

The Government must not delude themselves that all is well in Hong Kong simply because they have made good agreements with Beijing. Business is certainly doing exceedingly well in Hong Kong and the British management of 40 per cent. of the £650 billion worth of companies on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange means that we are doing very well too out of Hong Kong.

However, as 1997 approaches, anxieties are mounting. Usually in Hong Kong strikes and disputes are unheard of. But during the last month there have been four: a strike of mini-bus drivers in protest against the police; a taxi drivers' strike; a dispute of doctors and nurses over pay and working conditions. That sounds familiar to us but it is extremely unusual in Hong Kong. Even court interpreters have started industrial action over their pay and promotion. Hong Kong is becoming harder to rule. Our duty to hand it over in good working order will be much easier to fulfil if we listen to and cease cavalierly to dismiss—as the Government do—the worries of the Hong Kong people. Worries may start with relatively small active groups; they can rapidly affect the whole population.

It must be in China's interests and in the interests of our huge British business investment in Hong Kong, which brings us in so much foreign exchange, to ensure the smooth working of Hong Kong after 1997. But much more flexibility is required from the British Government, particularly in the matter of passports—the potential key to freedom which could dissuade the Chinese Government from ever making Hong Kong a prison.

The Hong Kong people do not share the Government's rosy view of Chinese communism. It is for the Chinese Government to convince them that Her Majesty's Government are right. I believe that Beijing will be much assisted in doing this if our Government were to act along the lines I have suggested. The Hong Kong people would then feel that we had not abandoned them out of mistaken and misplaced deference to Beijing.

1.54 p.m.

Lord Fanshawe of Richmond

My Lords, I wish to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Wyatt of Weeford, on this Question today and as a result activating the debate. I think that all of us were most impressed by the skilful way in which he put his case. I support him wholeheartedly in the views he has expressed so well today to the House.

The matter of passports is not only important here in the United Kingdom but, as the noble Lord has stressed, it is crucial to Hong Kong. I have an interest in that for four years I had the honour to be Foreign Office Minister responsible for the supervision of the Government of Hong Kong. I did the job which my noble friend on the Front Bench who is to reply is doing today.

I have resisted the temptation over the past few months to speak about the Hon Kong situation, realising how very dificult and sensitive it is. However I feel now that as it is three years since the Hong Kong British Nationality Order was introduced in 1986, it is time that the British Government thought again on the passport and nationality issue. As was indicated by the noble Lord, Lord Wyatt, there seems to be a strange alliance between the Home Secretary and the Foreign Secretary to make no move at all on the matter. It is an alliance which gives great anxiety to all of us who are interested in Hong Kong. This afternoon I must request my noble friend to ask his right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs to sit down round the table with the right honourable gentleman, the Secretary of State for the Home Department, and try to see whether something can be done to meet the real fears which were expressed only yesterday in this Palace by the Governor of Hong Kong when giving evidence to the Select Committee in another place.

Why is that so important? As the noble Lord, Lord Wyatt, said, the need is clear—to raise morale in Hong Kong. There is concern that the governments in Hong Kong and London are perceived to be inclined to dance to the Peking tune. This may not be true, but that perception is held widely in Hong Kong. Although Hong Kong feels that Peking will keep to the agreement, other outside events such as the recent developments in Tibet cause anxiety that Chinese attitudes may change for the worst in Peking over the course of the next few years, before the new agreement comes into effect.

The noble Lord, Lord Wyatt, has mentioned the Macao decision to issue European Community passports to 100,000 Macinese. This of course has raised eyebrows in Hong Kong becasue the people living there know perfectly well that in due course, as described by the noble Lord, Lord Wyatt, the Macao Chinese will be able to enter the United Kingdom as members of the European Community. It seems to me that British passports should first be granted as a matter of fairness to those who can contribute financially to the UK on the lines that were set out by the noble Lord, Lord Wyatt.

Many applicants during their working lives will not have made any contribution to the United Kingdom economy. Naturally, because they have lived outside the United Kindom, they have made no contribution in taxes to the United Kingdom or the superstructure, pensions, housing etc. But they have been British subjects in Hong Kong and therefore we have a duty to them. If they are prepared to make a financial contribution on the lines suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Wyatt, it seems to me that a gesture such as this could make a substantial contribution and give benefit to the UK economy. Those benefits, as has already been said, now go to the United States of America, Australia and Canada. About 97 per cent. of all Hong Kong immigrants at the moment go to the USA, Canada and Australia. We are talking about 45,000 emigrating in 1988. These are the leaders of the community, the trained technicians, the people who will be keeping Hong Kong on the road in the years ahead.

Most Hong Kong citizens wish to live and flourish in their own city. They have made a considerable success of that. They do not wish to leave; I do not believe that they will do so. But the gesture of passports can provide an immense boost to their morale. Again, this point was underlined by Sir David Wilson, the Governor, in his evidence yesterday to the Select Committee in another place.

There are elaborate safeguards in the international agreement which has been negotiated by the British Government with Peking. But that does not alter the need to be more flexible regarding access into the United Kingdom and into the European Community. That is both in the interests of the United Kingdom and of Hong Kong. It was interesting that Peking did not view the Macao decision of the Portuguese Government with concern, so I see no reason why it should view with any concern any change or alteration that Her Majesty's Government may make regarding passports for Hong Kong citizens.

My next point was, I believe, touched on by the noble Lord, Lord Wyatt. It concerns the need for more flexibility and the fact that so much unnecessary caution is shown by the Home Secretary regarding his ability in Section 4(5) of the British Nationality Act to make decisions on individual cases. The Home Secretary should surely use this power much more widely and to the benefit of the civil servants who have given their lives to the service of the British Government in Hong Kong. I wish to quote briefly from the leading article in The Times on this issue on 13th January 1989. The article states: If Chinese rule should prove oppressive after 1997, Britain's doors will be closed to most of Hong Kong's 3.5 million British nationals. Their passports do not give them the right to reside in the United Kingdom. But in recognition of their special vulnerability, ministers have discretion to issue passports to members of Hong Kong's administrative and security services. Yet of the modest 700 who have applied, all but 54 have been refused. If Britain is confident—as Sir Geoffrey Howe has claimed in The Times—that Hong Kong's people will 'wish to build their future in their own territory', there is no need for it to be so niggardly in granting them the right of residence. Britain's policy contrasts unhappily with Portugal's decision to give full passports to its 100,000 nationals in Macao … The size of Hong Kong's population is, of course, much greater. But that is no reason for not granting British passports at least to those with special claims. This would be just, and would confer needed credibility on ministers' assertions that they are not walking away from Hong Kong". Britain has political and moral obligations to Hong Kong. There is, rightly, a feeling in Hong Kong that we are not meeting them.

2.3 p.m.

Lord Bonham-Carter

My Lords, I too wish to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Wyatt of Weeford, on raising this important subject on this occasion. I also agree with him that we are discussing two things in particular. First, there is the question of the confidence which anyone can have in the undertakings given by the Chinese Government, and in particular the confidence which the people of Hong Kong and British passport holders in Hong Kong can have in the undertakings of that Government. Secondly, we are looking at the consequences of British immigration policy. That is never very defensible in any respect, and in respect of these citizens it is particularly indefensible.

The contrast between the policy of the British Government and that of the Portuguese Government is stark and wholly in favour of the latter. I do not intend to dwell on the issues which have been so fully and convincingly covered by the noble Lords, Lord Wyatt and Lord Fanshawe of Richmond. I simply wish to draw attention to a particular group of people who probably could not be favoured on account of their bank balances, but to whom we have a particular obligation. They should not pass unnoticed in this debate.

The group to which I refer consists largely of the Indian population which in 1985 consisted of about 6,000 people from India and 4,000 from Pakistan. It included also some Portuguese and other Europeans. That group of people, which amounted then to some 10,000, seems to me to be a group to which we have a particular obligation. Some of them came to Hong Kong in the 19th century as merchants at the same time as we took over the colony. Others came over to serve the British Government as public servants, as policemen and as junior civil servants. The children of those people, some of whom came in after partition in India, are unable to claim Chinese nationality. They can only become British nationals overseas.

As has already been said, this status does not provide them with a right of abode. They are therefore stateless de facto.It seems to me that these people, who came over to a British colony, who have served the British Government and who do not want to serve the Chinese Government, are a group to which we have a particular obligation. Moreover, they are a small group. We should ask the noble Lord when he replies to this Question to pay special attention to this group of people to which we have an undeniable obligation.

2.7 p.m.

Lord Geddes

My Lords, I too must, and indeed would like to, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Wyatt, on raising this Question today. The matter of British nationality for the citizens of Hong Kong has been debated at length over some years now. Some noble Lords may remember the amendment that I had the privilege of proposing on 13th October 1981 to the then British Nationality Bill. It read, somewhat appropriately for this afternoon's Question: Every person who under this Act is a British Citizen, a Citizen of the British Dependent Territories or a British Overseas Citizen shall have the status of a British National".—[Official Report, 13/10/81; col. 261.] I admit to a feeling of considerable disappointment that that amendment was defeated, albeit extremely narrowly in a very full vote, by 105 to 102. I think it worth emphasising that it was not designed only to encompass the Hong Kong situation; it was a much broader amendment. It is also worth pointing out that it followed the granting of British nationality to the citizens of Gibraltar. However, it preceded the granting of British nationality to the citizens of the Falklands, which was itself the subject of a separate amendment tabled by my noble friend Lady Vickers, which, if I recall correctly, resulted in a tied vote of 99 to 99 and under the rules of this House was therefore declared defeated.

That defeat of my amendment regarding British nationality by 105 to 102 was followed by a series of amendments which I proposed when this House considered amendments from another place to the British Nationality Bill. My noble friend the late and sadly missed Lord Drumalbyn said in the debate on 29th October: I have never seen an Order Paper such as the one we have today". I apologise if this seems somewhat egotistical, but it is relevant. He went on to say: It seems time that my noble friend Lord Geddes has set the Government 100 lines! It is practically a 100 repetitions of the same correction. The Government have delivered their task on time".—[Official Report, 29/10/81; col. 1138] I had hoped to have been able to congratulate my noble friend the Leader of the House because on that occasion he was sitting in the place where my noble friend Lord Glenarthur is sitting and had to respond to the comments of my noble friend Lord Drumalbyn.

The Government have made it abundantly clear that they consider that the future of the people of Hong Kong is safeguarded by the joint declaration and the basic law, together with the discretionary power to grant British citizenship under Section 4(5) of the British Nationality Act 1981. I do not think that this is the occasion to debate the merits and shortcomings of that document. What is clear, however, and has already been mentioned this afternoon, is that the people of Hong Kong do not appear to agree with the Government and they are voting with their feet.

Reports of the brain drain have already been mentioned this afternoon and continue to flood in. I shall quote just a few statistics. Last August it was reported that just under 68 per cent. of computer experts were planning to leave Hong Kong. In January this year a survey by the Institute of Personnel Management showed that the private sector lost just under 8 per cent. of its top staff last year. In the same month an opinion poll conducted by Survey Research Hong Kong revealed that in 29 per cent. of all households at least one member was planning to leave or had already gained a foreign passport. That figure rose to 46 per cent. when limited to professionals, business executives and the self-employed.

As has been mentioned this afternoon—and I make no apology for repeating the point—in order to retain for its banks and corporations key personnel who might otherwise emigrate, the French Government have decided to confer upon about 100 Hong Kong people full French national status without any need to meet residence requirements. They have been issued with French passports with the right of abode in France, and therefore right of abode in this country.

In addition, as my noble friend Lord Fanshawe has already mentioned, the Government's application of their powers to grant British citizenship to Hong Kong citizens is hardly encouraging. I think that it is worth repeating that out of 700 members of the administrative and security forces who have applied for citizenship, we are told that only 54 have been successful.

Leaving aside for the moment the question of Britain's moral responsibility towards the people of Hong Kong, to which I should like to return, there is an arguable and more general case for granting British nationality which might be called the sword of Damocles argument. The threat of a mass exodus from Hong Kong of all or the vast majority of professionals, at that stage armed with a British pasport, must at the very least be a strong inducement to the PRC to observe the spirit of the joint declaration without alteration.

I should also like to refer to yet another survey conducted by Emigration magazine last year, which has already been mentioned. It found that of the 45,000 people who left Hong Kong in 1988 the vast majority did not want to come to this country. Ninety-four per cent. quoted Canada, Australia or the USA as their first choice. However, even if one were to accept that the overall argument has been lost—and I do not consider that it has been—one must return to that statistic, that of 700 applications for British nationality only 54 have been granted.

My noble friend Lord Glenarthur, for whom I have a great deal of sympathy in this matter, justified the situation by saying, as he has said in the House in the past, that the granting of such citizenship would be given "only sparingly" and on a very limited basis. He said that in his letter to The Times of 17th January this year. I support the argument that that seems an inadequate reason, to say the very least, to explain why those numbers should be so small. Why have the Government not been more open about their reasons for that refusal?

I believe that this is more than an emotional issue even within this House. It is certainly a serious issue within Hong Kong. It has been an ongoing issue for a very long time and I am proud to have been involved in it for the last eight years. Sadly, I believe that there is little chance of Her Majesty's Government granting full nationality to the entire population of Hong Kong, but, having said that, one questions why not. We are talking of a population of 3.28 million in Hong Kong; that is less than 1½per cent. of the Common Market's population of more than 250 million. As has been said but cannot be proved, there is no way that anything like all those 3.28 million people will be able to come to this country even if they wanted to do so.

As His Excellency the Governor said yesterday—my noble friend Lord Fanshawe has already quoted him—Hong Kong feels that Britain has a moral obligation and a debt of honour towards its subjects there. For 140 years they have been encouraged to behave as British subjects and, as the noble Lord, Lord Wyatt, said, before 1962 they had the right of abode in this country. I hope that I am not a voice crying in the wilderness, but I urge the Government, and particularly my noble friend Lord Glenarthur, to think seriously about the issue. There is no longer a precedent being set. There are no others to whom such a granting of nationality, other than to the Chinese in Hong Kong, could be made. There is no precedent elswhere in the world. Let us look seriously at the matter again to see whether we can give real encouragement to the Chinese people of Hong Kong on a question about which they feel deeply and which they have a great deal of justification for asking.

2.17 p.m.

Lord MacLehose of Beoch

My Lords, this question of British nationality is exceedingly bitter for people in Hong Kong. It is the subject that arouses most passion and is at the heart of the disilllusionment with the United Kingdom which is so constantly and, I fear, correctly alleged in the media.

I entirely agree with what the Governor said to the Select Committee yesterday about the matter and I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Wyatt, for having raised the question today. I shall not take noble Lords through the sad history of this business from the Commonwealth Immigrants Act 1962 down to the last bitter pill of what happened in Macao, but we must surely view the situation with great sympathy. We must realise that it harms Britain's reputation, including among our best friends in Hong Kong. Moreover, the sense of a need for an alternative nationality is causing some or many people to emigrate. I do not think that many now expect that the restrictions imposed during the last 27 years can be legislated away as was done for the small numbers in Gibraltar and the Falklands, but I agree with the suggestions of the noble Lord, Lord Wyatt, about how the present situation could be mitigated. His suggestions very much cover the points raised by John Swaine and the Hong Kong officials of the executive and legislative council.

For my part, I want to concentrate on what harm could be mitigated by more flexible administration of the 1971 Act. It adds up to very much the same as the noble Lord, Lord Wyatt, has said, although I have had no previous contact with him about this subject. I should like to put the case in my own way.

The success of Hong Kong up to 1997 and of the SAR thereafter depends on many factors. High on the list of essentials is that most of the managerial core—the decision-makers—whether in government or in business should stay in place. The long-term answer to this requirement is exactly what the Government are trying to do. I entirely agree with the reply of the Minister to the noble Lord, Lord Wyatt, on 2nd February to the effect that one should make Hong Kong an attractive place in which people can live, work and plan their lives.

However, the certainty of those attractions will only be felt in time and as events unfold. Meanwhile, anxious people ponder what to do. For those who are in doubt about whether to stay or emigrate, registration as a British citizen would end their dilemma. I am sure that, given that assurance, they would not hasten to the United Kingdom but, on the contrary, would thankfully get on with their jobs and lives in Hong Kong.

I do not suggest that as yet there is a crisis. At this stage I simply propose a reconsideration of the administration of Section 4 of the 1981 Act in order to see whether, for example, "special circumstances" under subsection (4) or "Crown Service" referring to subsection (5) could not be used more widely to accommodate the people of whom I have been speaking.

I noticed that both the noble Lords, Lord Fanshawe and Lord Geddes, referred to subsection (5). It is of particular interest to me because it provides for registration without residential qualification. In the present circumstances the last thing that is wanted is for these key people to spend several years outside Hong Kong qualifying for some nationality and perhaps deciding never to come back.

Perhaps I may say in anticipation of the Minister's reply that I know that it has always been claimed that this subsection would be applied sparingly. Indeed, I can almost hear the then Home Secretary, Mr. Whitelaw, warning me that that would be the case. I am seeking now reconsideration of what "sparingly" really need mean. My submission is that it ought to mean a great deal more than it does at present.

I believe that, other things being equal, the kinds of people I have in mind want to stay in Hong Kong. Such is their commitment that many would stay there in any case. It seems to me that putting at rest the minds of those people is something practical which the British Government could do and which would not involve large numbers. It would be very much in the interests of the Chinese Government. Indeed, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Wyatt, that probably there is no question of their objecting. It would in any case help to underpin the stability of Hong Kong at what may prove to be a critical point. It is very much in the joint interests of both governments.

In support of his excellent arguments the noble Lord, Lord Wyatt, warned that all was not well in Hong Kong. If I may say so, it would be surprising if it were. There is a situation—a unique situation—of very rapid change and of course there are worries. However, I hope that no one will underrate the achievements of the government in Hong Kong. One sees emerging the framework of a viable, prosperous future out of what was once total uncertainty. The details of the policies are under constant attack in uninhibited terms by some of the press and most of the politicians in Hong Kong. That is certainly healthy, for all I know helpful and, in any case, common form in a free society.

Let us remember that the economy is booming. The standard of life there is the highest in Asia, after Japan. Hong Kong is proving to be what one had always hoped that it would be; namely, the motor of the latent productive and commercial capacity of large areas of South China. These facts reflect a truer commentary on what the Government are achieving in Hong Kong, although, as the noble Lord, Lord Wyatt, stressed, there are still some very important things to be done.

2.25 p.m.

Viscount Torrington

My Lords, I too should like to join in the thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Wyatt, for giving us the opportunity to debate this subject today.

I visited Hong Kong in June last year. I received ample evidence of the dismay of Hong Kong citizens on this subject of nationality. Indeed, as was referred to earlier in the debate, I met Mr. John Swaine who talked to me on this subject. I see the problems of Hong Kong as being rather like the problem of exchange control. When a country has stringent exchange control, it seems that everybody wants to get their money out. When one abandons exchange control, as we did in this country a few years ago—surprise, surprise!—capital does not flood out left, right and centre. In fact it begins to flood in because the capital feels free to move.

Evidence in Africa and other places suggests to me that most of the countries which have the most stringent exchange control are those pursuing policies which make people want to vote with their financial feet. I do not believe that most of the residents of Hong Kong want to vote with their financial or physical feet. But they need the right. They need an insurance policy.

Should they have that right? As has been said on several occasions in this debate, up until 1962 they had that right: the right of free abode in the United Kingdom if they so choose it. That applied to many other Commonwealth citizens. However, most of those Commonwealth citizens received independence in their own countries under their own governments, and it was perfectly reasonable that their right of free abode in this country should cease. However, Hong Kong is not a democracy. It has not opted for independence. It never had any intention of doing so. The change that will happen is that a country—which has only in a sense a rudimentary democracy now—will be handed over to the control of a country with very little history of democractic process.

The passport problem is in a sense a symptom of the disease. That disease is fear—fear of China and what it will do after 1992. Therefore, as I said when we debated this subject in June last year in this House, it is China that holds the key. What it has to do is to make the Basic Law better for the people of HongKong than the Sino-British Agreement. It must not regard it as a matter of face to win back points conceded in that agreement; it must go further and prove to the people of Hong Kong that autonomy will mean what it says.

Equally, if the citizens of Hong Kong have the right to vote with their feet then China cannot use the stick to keep them there. It will have to use the carrot and that can only be beneficial.

The noble Lord, Lord Geddes, and others have made the point that it is perhaps too much to hope that the British Government will reverse their position and grant the full right of abode to British nationals in Hong Kong. However, as several noble Lord have said, the situation today is vastly different. First, we know that very few of them really want to come to the United Kingdom. We in the United Kingdom are not now threatened by vast hordes of potential immigrants. Indeed, it is to the EC that the Hong Kong citizen will be coming. Living in a somewhat warmer climate than Britain, I have no doubt that there are many other parts of Europe in which those who wished would ultimately settle.

I am in favour of the grant of more or less full UK citizenship to the residents of Hong Kong. I do not see, as has been said, that it creates any new precedents. I appreciate that there are practical difficulties. I ask my noble friend the Minister to confirm it, but I hope that the way may be open for a somewhat more pragmatic approach than is being applied now.

It has been said that we should perhaps survey the market and allow all British nationals in Hong Kong to apply for a passport which would allow them a right of abode in the United Kingdom. Perhaps subject to suitable financial self-sufficiency criteria, we might institute a quota which could be fulfilled by a ballot and thus create a mechanism which would not commit the Government to letting in a particular number in any one year, but which would create a sympathetic approach and a flexibility, which the noble Lord, Lord Wyatt of Weeford, requested.

Many small nations have changed hands in this century without being consulted about their fate. That is nothing new, but now in 1989, running up to 1997, we hope that we shall be entering a period of civilisation when glasnost is rife and possibly its Chinese equivalent.

We are in a civilised fashion discussing the problem of the reversion of a piece of freehold property. It is interesting that we should have been discussing a housing order before this debate started. But there is plenty of legislation in this country which requires a landlord to protect tenants' rights and, if necessary, to rehouse tenants should they so require it.

I should like to join other noble Lords in asking the Government to give a more sympathetic consideration to this issue.

2.32 p.m.

Lord Irvine of Lairg

My Lords, the House must be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Wyatt of Weeford, for bringing before it once again the legitimate concerns of the people of Hong Kong on the passport issue. The Government have deployed the argument that wrong signals would be sent if we were to give the people of Hong Kong a lifeline to Great Britain in the form of a full British passport. But because that security is not there, there are, as the House has heard, the beginnings of an enormous brain drain out of Hong Kong. The noble Lord, Lord Wyatt, has given the most recent figures: 30,000 in 1987 and 45,000 last year.

Security is the most legitimate of aspirations for every man and woman. Today it is those with the most exportable assets who are finding with their feet security away from Hong Kong. These are people whom Hong Kong can ill afford to loose. It would be idle to deny that what is already much more than a trickle may by 1997 become a flood. This accelerating damage to the future wellbeing of Hong Kong must be recognised by the Government, who should appreciate that it would be arrested by the security of a full British passport.

The argument that displeasure from Beijing would result from a more liberal policy on the passport issue is thoroughly bogus. I hope that we do not hear any of that in the reply from the Minister. As the noble Lord, Lord Wyatt, rightly said, Beijing made no protest whatever when Portugal granted to the ethnic Chinese of Macao passports fully valid anywhere in the EC. The sense of security conferred by these passports will mean that there need be no disproportionate reactions on the part of their holders to concerns that could so easily be exaggerated in new and unusual circumstances if they had no lifeline elsewhere.

The fact is, as the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, has emphasised, that the conduct of the Government of Portugal is in sharp contrast to our own. We refuse to grant the right of abode to the 3.5 million British dependent territory citizens in Hong Kong, whereas Portugal is granting EC passports to its 100,000 nationals in Macao. As has been said, these passports will allow the Macao Chinese to live and work in all Common Market countries, including the United Kingdom, while the Hong Kong Chinese, who have every reason to regard themselves as British, have no such right.

It is far too easy to say that those who are able today, by moving, to acquire a Canadian passport after three years' residence, or an Australian passport after two years' residence, will duly return to Hong Kong with their families and with their new insurance policies in their back pockets. In some cases that may be. However, it is beyond doubt that Hong Kong is suffering and will continue to suffer a serious and permanent loss of human capital.

For my part, I give no weight at all to the argument that to grant the right of abode to the 3.5 million nationals in Hong Kong will signal a lack of confidence in the future of Hong Kong. On the contrary, it will give to those 3.5 million people, on whom the future success of Hong Kong depends, the confidence to make Hong Kong work.

As a number of noble Lords have reluctantly recognised, it may be that this argument has long been lost. But at least let us abstain, and may the Minister in reply abstain, from bogus arguments that the just solution—to grant the right of abode—will send the wrong puffs of smoke elsewhere. That is just no argument at all.

The fact is that it is fear for the future, which can so easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy, that is poisoning a new venture. The same rights for the Hong Kong Chinese as Portugal has conferred on the Macao Chinese would create that climate of confidence which alone can guarantee the success of the new Hong Kong.

I have one overriding question to put to the Minister. In reply, will he in good conscience tell us how the strongest reason for refusing the right of abode—that is, fear of mass immigration from Hong Kong into the United Kingdom—can live alongside the Government's continually expressed confidence that Hong Kong's way of life will continue for at least 50 years so that the people of Hong Kong have nothing to fear and no reason to want to leave? If the noble Lord knows the answer to that question, no doubt he will wish to give it to the House so that it can be heard in Hong Kong.

Before departing from that point, I should like to remind your Lordships of the words spoken by the noble Lord, Lord MacLehose of Beoch, not today but in this House on 16th May 1986. He said: It is difficult for us here to realise the feelings of someone who was born a British national with right of abode in the United Kingdom who through no fault of his own finds that that right has gone from him, in spite of the fact that all this time he has been called British and has been administered from Britain".—[0fficial Report, 16/5/86; col. 1422.] Let it be that I and other noble Lords who have spoken in the debate have been pushing at a door that was bolted years ago: so, no general right of abode in the United Kingdom for Hong Kong citizens. But I should at least add my voice from these Benches to the words of realism that have come from the noble Lord, Lord Wyatt of Weeford. Can the discretion to grant British passports not be exercised in a much less restrictive way for the benefit of many more Hong Kong citizens?

As the noble Lord, Lord Fanshawe of Richmond, pointed out, there it, for example, discretionary provision of full British citizenship for current and former servants of the Crown and their relatives. Why have only 54 out of 700 applications been successful? We are told that the Government's policy is to grant these applications on a very limited and sparing basis. Can we be told why that is the policy? This House will not be impressed by being told that it is wet because it is wet.

I should like to ask the Minister whether in all the respects listed by the noble Lord, Lord Wyatt, he can offer any assurance that there will be a more generous grant of United Kingdom passports to Hong Kong citizens. Has he anything tangible to say about the discretionary grant of full United Kingdom passports beyond the well-worn utterances about BNOC passports, in which Hong Kong citizens have so little faith?

Having said that, I join the noble Lord, Lord Wyatt, in urging Hong Kong citizens to take up the BNOC passports, even though they may think so little of them. In an emergency which no one anticipates, in which the expectations of the people of Hong Kong under the joint declaration and the basic law were defeated, I cannot see how our Parliament and the Government of the day, whoever they may be, could do other than consider it the obligation of our country to grant a right of abode to those who feel constrained to leave Hong Kong. I hope that the Minister will wish to say something on that possibility, which, however remote it seems, is a real source of current fear for so many.

Finally, before I sit down perhaps I may make this observation. I hope that in his reply the Minister will acknowledge that no Member of this House who has chosen to participate in this debate has spoken in support of the Government's policy and I hope that he will feel constrained to respond accordingly. Perhaps I may also add that we on these Benches do not doubt the commitment of the Government of the People's Republic of China to make a success of Hong Kong in accordance with the Joint Declaration. However, from the United Kingdom Government we seek a flexibility in the issuing of British Passports and in undertakings—and if not undertakings, encouraging indications—for the future which will make a tangible contribution to that climate of confidence which is necessary for the continuing success of Hong Kong between now and 1997, and beyond.

2.42 p.m.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Glenarthur)

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Wyatt of Weeford, has given us an opportunity to consider a subject which is of great importance and sensitivity to people in Hong Hong. It is a topic to which I have devoted much attention as the Minister with special responsibility for Hong Kong and I have listened with interest to the thoughtful and concerned views which your Lordships have put forward this afternoon.

The sensitivities go well beyond the immediate matter of nationality and passports. They involve important questions about Hong Kong's future and about the viability of the Sino-British Joint Declaration on which Hong Kong's future depends. But it has in particular been suggested that Her Majesty's Government's policy on the matter of passports for Hong Kong citizens reflects a lack of commitment on our part to the Joint Declaration and lack of confidence in Hong Kong's future.

It has also been argued that our policy on passports indicates that we have reneged on our responsibilities towards Hong Kong people. That may not have been addressed in quite those words this afternoon but it is, nevertheless, a theme which has developed over time and I tell your Lordships that those suggestions are far from the truth, as was the suggestion of my noble friend Lord Fanshawe that we were dancing to the Chinese tune, if I have his words right. All our efforts and success in negotiating the joint declaration, and now in securing its faithful implementation, would have been in vain if it were not now our intention to uphold our responsibilities towards Hong Kong.

The Joint Declaration is a binding international agreement. It contains detailed and comprehensive provisions for Hong Kong's continued stability and prosperity in the years up to 1997 and beyond. We are committed to making the agreement work and to ensuring that Hong Kong remains a thriving and dynamic society in which her people can look to the future with confidence.

In the four years since the signing of the Joint Declaration, Hong Kong has taken full advantage of the favourable conditions which the Joint Declaration helped to create. Hong Kong has enjoyed impressive and sustained economic growth. Her people have achieved an unprecedented level of prosperity. Hong Kong today is a remarkable success story. I have visited the territory four times in the past 18 months and I can personally testify to that. While the British Government remain fully committed to the maintenance of Hong Kong's success, I say to the noble Lord, Lord Wyatt, and to the noble Lord, Lord Irvine of Lairg, that I am as confident as they are that the commitment of the Chinese Government is every bit as firm.

The noble Lord, Lord Wyatt, clearly feels strongly about the matter, but with respect, however, he seemed in a sense to overlook a lot of all that. In his speech he seemed to condemn with faint praise the sound record of astonishing success which we have had so far in implementing the arrangements set out in the Joint Declaration, and the many manifestations of Hong Kong's growing prosperity.

So far as concerns the terms of Lord Wyatt's Question, it will come as no surprise to him to hear that the Government's view remains as I explained to the noble Lord when I answered his Starred Question on 2nd February. Let me explain why and begin by hitting one myth on the head straightaway; that is, the comparison that has been suggested between the Vietnamese boat people and letting some of them come here, and not the Hong Kong Chinese. I cannot stress too strongly that there is simply no connection between those two issues and it is quite wrong to draw such a connection. Those Vietnamese boat people who qualify as refugees are eligible for resettlement; those who are not refugees are detained as illegal immigrants pending repatriation to Vietnam. Clearly, there is no question that Hong Kong Chinese are, or should be treated as, refugees.

I believe also that there is a widespread misunderstanding that it was the British Nationality Act 1981 that deprived holders of Hong Kong British passports of the right of abode in this country. The noble Lord, Lord Wyatt of Weeford, went some way towards putting the case in a rather more accurate way and pointing out that there is a considerable history to this. The present nationality and immigration status of Hong Kong British Dependent Territory Citizens reflects the worldwide nationality and immigration policies of successive British Governments since the early 1960s. The British Nationality Act of 1981 merely confirmed the trend of previous legislation, in line with the wishes of Parliament and the British people.

I must emphasise that this legislation is of worldwide application. It is not, nor has it ever been, in any way restricted to, or directed at, Hong Kong. Nor is it the case, as some people in Hong Kong seem to believe, that the British Nationality Act of 1981 was designed with Hong Kong's future transition in mind so as to keep Hong Kong people out of Britain.

Hong Kong BDTCs are subject to United Kingdom immigration control and do not have right of abode here. But they do not require visas or entry certificates to enter the United Kingdom as visitors, and they are entitled to full British consular protection when travelling overseas.

Your Lordships will no doubt recall that when we discussed Hong Kong matters last June concern was expressed about entry refusals of Hong Kong British passport holders. The noble Lord, Lord Wyatt of Weeford, has raised this matter again today. I have personally looked into that problem with the Home Office, and visited Gatwick and Dover to see the situation for myself. Following this, we agreed a package of measures, including provision of a hot-line service to the Hong Kong Government office in London to assist and offer advice in cases of difficulty.

I am glad to say that the rate of entry refusals dropped significantly. Indeed, the hot-line has taken only two calls relating to Hong Kong travellers seeking advice because of difficulty at ports of entry since it was established in November. Having looked thoroughly at the issue I can give an absolute assurance that there is no doubt about the validity of BN(O) or BDTC passports, nor any question of discrimination against their holders at United Kingdom ports of entry. Holders of BDTC passports will continue to enjoy these same benefits after 1997 as British Nationals (Overseas), a status created under the British Nationality (Hong Kong) Order 1986 which was fully considered and endorsed by Parliament at the time.

The noble Lords, Lord Wyatt and Lord Fanshawe, have sought to draw comparisons between Hong Kong and Macao. Both noble Lords will not be surprised if I echo the remarks of my right honourable and learned friend the Foreign Secretary. I do not believe that any valid comparisons can be made. The nationality laws relating to the two territories have long been different. The nationality law of Portugal differs from our own, in that Portuguese nationals in Portuguese overseas territories have always had the right of abode in Portugal. That situation existed long before the signing of the Sino-Portuguese joint declaration on Macao. The fact that Portuguese nationals in Macao have recently begun to be issued with passports in the common EC format does not reflect any change in their nationality status.

When the noble Lord. Lord Wyatt of Weeford, referred to the Macao Portuguese, he seemed in effect to be proposing that Hong Kong BDTCs— some 3.25 million of them—should be given the right of abode in the United Kingdom. That would require an amendment to the law. It would also involve a substantial change in well established nationality and immigration policy. By far the most common basis for granting British citizenship is that the people concerned are already resident in Britain and have met the residence requirements set out by law.

The noble Lord might like to ponder the fact, as should the noble Lord, Lord Irvine of Lairg, that the grant of citizenship and the right of abode to 3.25 million Hong Kong British Dependent Territory citizens at one go would involve well over six times the total number of people granted full British citizenship in the 10-year period 1977–87. I cannot believe that the noble Lord seriously expects—he seemed to recognise the realities, as did other noble Lords—that there would be sufficient support in this country for a proposal which would entail the prospect, albeit a theoretical one, of large-scale immigration into this country from Hong Kong.

I have noted the argument put forward by several noble Lords, and in particular by the noble Lord, Lord Irvine, that, even were the right of abode to be provided for all Hong Kong British Dependent Territory citizens or those holding BN(O) passports, only a small percentage of them would wish to exercise that right. To legislate on that basis would in effect be little more than a shot in the dark. No one is in a position to predict with any accuracy or certainty what effect such a move would have on Hong Kong, whose population has always been a highly mobile one. To introduce new provisions on the basis that they will never be exercised seems to be a most curious starting point for any proposal for new legislation.

The noble Lord, Lord Wyatt, and other noble Lords suggested that the Chinese Government would have no objection to his proposal. I am not so sure. It would certainly not be right to attach any weight to the fact that the joint declaration does not explicitly rule out what the noble Lord has in mind. The Chinese memorandum on passport and nationality matters associated with the joint declaration states that under Chinese nationality law: All Hong Kong Chinese compatriots, whether or not they are British Dependent Territory citizens, are Chinese nationals". It would not be easy to reconcile that with the proposal that 3.25 million Hong Kong Chinese should also acquire full British citizenship.

The noble Lord, Lord Wyatt, and my noble friend Lord Fanshawe—and probably other noble Lords—expressed concern that Britain may be losing out in failing to attract investors or professionals from Hong Kong. We have also an important responsibility to ensure that Hong Kong does not lose out. But, from whatever premise one starts out, we are satisfied that our provisions for investors to gain entry for settlement in the United Kingdom are broadly as favourable as those of other countries which emigrants from Hong Kong traditionally choose to go to. Entry for settlement can be granted to people willing to invest £150,000 in a business in a way which creates two new jobs. Once such a person has obtained settled status, the way is open for him to apply for citizenship. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary of course has discretion in interpreting the established residence criteria for granting settled status, and I know that he is fully aware of the benefits that can be generated by exercising this discretion in cases where people wish to bring investment and entrepreneurial energy to the United Kingdom.

I am of course well aware that emigration is a matter of concern in Hong Kong, and my noble friend Lord Fanshawe certainly referred to it. It is certainly true that emigration from Hong Kong is increasing. Indeed, the accurate figures were given by the noble Lord, Lord Wyatt, and other noble Lords. Moreover, a proportion of those who are leaving are professional or well-qualified people. However, it would be quite wrong to suggest that all 45,000 who left in 1988are qualified. I must stress that it is only a proportion who are in that category. It is important to look at this trend in perspective. Hong Kong people have traditionally been very mobile, often spending some years abroad for study or training. There are now more opportunities for emigration to some countries such as Canada or Australia, which operate a world-wide quota system for people with skills that are in short supply in those countries.

The fact that many Hong Kong people go elsewhere seems to suggest that there must be other reasons why they choose to go principally to Canada, Australia and the United States. One reason is that there are well-established and prosperous Chinese communities there which have family ties to people in Hong Kong. Another is that these countries have attempted with some success to encourage immigration, while over the same post-war period we have been actively restricting it. Your Lordships will need no reminding of the many factors which have contributed to this difference of approach.

It has also been suggested that the United Kingdom should do more to attract professional people who are contemplating leaving Hong Kong. In fact, our immigration rules already do provide for talented and experienced people to come here as employees.

If we were to go beyond that and make special arrangements targeted on particular groups of people in Hong Kong, that would run counter to our responsibilities under the joint declaration. It would be seen in Hong Kong as divisive and discriminatory. Our action could be interpreted—rightly, I think—as an attempt to cream off the best in Hong Kong at the expense of the future prosperity of the territory.

The noble Lord, Lord Wyatt, my noble friends Lord Fanshawe and Lord Geddes and the noble Lord, Lord MacLehose, have also suggested that arrangements should be made for civil servants in Hong Kong to be granted British citizenship. They referred in particular to Section 4(5) of the British Nationality Act. Under that section, civil servants who are BDTCs or BN(O)s may apply for registration as British citizens.

I understand the concerns which have been voiced about this matter. But I must say to my noble friend Lord Geddes and the noble Lord, Lord MacLehose, that—as they themselves hinted—it was made perfectly clear when the Bill was going through Parliament that Crown servants in dependent territories could not expect British citizenship as an automatic reward for long and loyal service. Citizenship would be granted only where particularly deserving service had been rendered to the Crown; the applicant's connections with the United Kingdom would also be relevant, and, as both noble Lords would expect me to say, each application is considered on its merits.

The noble Lord, Lord Wyatt, has argued that the provisions of Section 4(2) of the British Nationality Act should be interpreted more flexibly to allow larger numbers of Hong Kong people to register as British citizens. The provisions of the law are quite specific in terms of what requirements must be met, in particular residence requirements, before BDTCs or BN(O)s can register as British citizens. Flexibility is set out in Section 4(4), but obviously it cannot be expected that that could be exercised to the extent of undermining the spirit of the Act.

It was also suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Wyatt, that immigration restrictions under Section 4(2)(c) should be more readily lifted during the fifth year of an applicant's stay in the United Kingdom. As I understand it, immigration restrictions are already normally lifted after four years if the person concerned is here in a capacity which leads to settlement; and so I do not believe that there is a problem there.

The noble Lords mentioned the matter of citizenship for the wives and widows of ex-service-men. There should be no problem for spouses of British citizens. If a British citizen chooses at any time to return to this country, his or her spouse would also be able to come and could apply for British citizenship after satisfying the residence requirements. The point about widows was raised with me in Hong Kong in January. In the past day or so I received a dossier which OMELCO promised me and I am looking into it. I am sure that my right honourable friend the Home Secretary would look sympathetically at individual requests for entry to this country. But under present law the question of citizenship cannot arise until after the person concerned has taken up residence here. I have undertaken to look at the matter, and now that I have the facts, it is possible to act upon them.

The noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, mentioned the ethnic minorities. I hope that he will look at a careful speech that I made in your Lordships' House on 16th May 1986 when I addressed that problem. The kernel of my remarks was that we should consider it an obligation upon any future government to treat with considerable and particular sympathy the case for admission to the United Kingdom of any individual British national who, against all our present expectations, came under pressure to leave Hong Kong. I hope that the noble Lord will study the debate in full.

My noble friend Lord Geddes talked about the French giving passports to professionals. I noted the report to which he referred. I understand that for a long time France has had a policy of naturalising selected individuals who have served French business or cultural interests overseas. That reflects a different approach to nationality policy. As it stands, our law would not permit us to adopt such a policy. I do not anticipate that the law will be changed in that direction.

It has been argued by the noble Lord, Lord Wyatt of Weeford, that a period of study in the United Kingdom should be sufficient to satisfy the residential requirement. Periods of time spent here as a student are of course not a bar to citizenship, but it is an established requirement that applicants for citizenship must be free of immigration conditions; that is, they must have achieved settled status. Students are not normally admitted on a basis leading to settlement, since by definition those seeking entry to study are seeking entry only for a temporary period.

As for the point suggesting that Hong Kong passports should contain an endorsement with the right of readmission to the United Kingdom, as I understand it the intention behind that proposal would be that holders of such endorsed passports would be free from immigration control. However, Hong Kong BDTCs and BN(O)s remain subject to immigration control until they have achieved settled status.

I think it is important, before I come to the end of my Answer, to refer to one point raised by my noble friend Lord Fanshawe when he drew a comparison between Hong Kong and Tibet. Again, I do not think that comparisons can be drawn between Hong Kong and Tibet. I recognise the sensitivities of the point at the moment but there are crucial historical, ethnic, economic and constitutional differences between Hong Kong and Tibet and between Chinese policies towards those two places. I am sure that my noble friend recognises the force of that.

I have listened with great care to the points which have been made in the debate. As with any other matters which have been raised, either in your Lordships' House or directly with me by people in Hong Kong, I and my right honourable friends will reflect upon them. To use the words of the noble Lord, Lord Wyatt of Weeford, cavalier dismissal of the worries of the people of Hong Kong is not something with which he can fairly charge Her Majesty's Government. Pragmatism as advocated by my noble friend Lord Torrington is another matter. But it seriously worries me that the course of action proposed today by the noble Lord, Lord Wyatt of Weeford, and others might have the opposite effect from that which they intend. It is essential that the principles enshrined in the joint declaration be upheld and that we should not be seen to lure away talent and capital from Hong Kong.

Therefore I cannot say that there will be amendment to the British Nationality Act in order to bring about the changes which the noble Lord advocates. Her Majesty's Government are committed to ensuring that the detailed and comprehensive provisions of the joint declaration are fully implemented. That is the way to secure a stable and prosperous future for our territory. Our aim is to make sure that Hong Kong remains a place where people will want to continue to make their lives. We are on course and are determined to stick to the task. That is how we can best discharge our important responsibilities towards the territory and its people.

House adjourned for the Easter Recess at eight minutes past three o'clock.