HL Deb 30 October 1990 vol 522 cc1824-34

5.35 p.m.

Earl Ferrers rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 15th October be approved. [26th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Earl said: My Lords, the order sets out the scheme which the Governor of Hong Kong proposes to use in order to select up to 50,000 key people whom he will recommend to the Secretary of State for registration as British citizens under the British Nationality (Hong Kong) Act 1990. The order was approved without division by another place on 23rd October. Subject to approval by your Lordships, the order will come into force on 1st December.

When Parliament debated the British Nationality (Hong Kong) Bill, which has now been enacted, earlier this Session, it accepted that the confidence of the Hong Kong people needed to be restored, and that the granting of British citizenship to 50,000 of its best qualified key people, together with their spouses and minor children, was a means of achieving that aim.

When outline proposals for the Governor's scheme were placed before Parliament during the passage of the Bill, they were considered with great care. The Government made it clear that they would listen with an open mind to all views on the scheme and to suggestions for ways in which it might be improved. We have since reflected carefully with the Governor on the various points which were made.

I have written to those noble Lords who took an active part in the debates to explain how the scheme, which is now proposed by the Governor, differs from the one which was envisaged in the explanatory notes which we issued. For the benefit of those to whom I did not write, I should like to say something about the structure of the scheme and about the principal changes which have been made.

The broad structure remains as set out in the explanatory notes. Subject to your Lordships' approval there will be four classes, each of which will be given a share of the 50,000 places. There will be 36,200 places for the general occupational class to be allocated between the 20 occupational groups listed in Annex 1. Seven thousand places will go to the disciplined services class, for the nine services set out in Article 18 of the order; and 6,300 places will go to the sensitive service class—those who are in the public or private sectors and who are serving the interests of the Crown or who are involved in other activities of a sensitive nature. Five hundred places are reserved for the entrepreneurs class where the Governor will recommend those whom he considers to have made a special contribution to the economy of Hong Kong. The criteria which the Governor will take into account when considering whom to recommend in this class are set out in Article 24.

For the general occupational, disciplined and sensitive service classes, the available places will be distributed in tranches, the size of which will be set out in directions by the Home Secretary. All 500 places for the entrepreneurs class, where the intention is to give early assurance to widely known individuals whose departure would be particularly damaging to confidence, will be distributed in the first tranche. Applications for the first tranche will be invited from 1st December 1990 with a closing date of 28th February 1991. They will take some two years to process. We intend to make around 87 per cent. of the places available during this period. The rest—some 13 per cent.—will be awarded nearer to 1997.

A points system will be used to select applicants under the general occupational and disciplined services classes. The broad criteria for the award of points, and the maximum number of points which will be available for each criterion, remain as envisaged in the explanatory notes. But further details about their allocation have been added and, in some places, changes have been made.

One of the areas which caused concern in another place was the 150 points which will be available for "special circumstances," in particular the degree of discretion which will be exercised by the Governor in awarding up to 50 points for individual merit. We sought to meet that concern. The award of these 50 points has now been tied objectively to occupation-related merit or achievement—for example, those people who have received local or international awards, recognising outstanding achievement in their work; to unpaid service with specified voluntary agencies or institutions in the social, medical or educational fields; and to officially recognised and rewarded acts of bravery or gallantry.

The number of special circumstances points, which are available for recognising particularly high rates of emigration within occupational groups, has been increased from 50 to 75 in order to give the governor the greater flexibility which he considers is needed in this area. The 50 special circumstances points which are intended to modify the operation of the age, qualifications or experience points—in order to reflect the needs of particular occupations or groups— remain unchanged. The total number of points which can be awarded to any individual under the special circumstances heading will remain at 150. Rather a different framework will apply to the award of the 150 special circumstances points in the disciplined services class in order to reflect the varying needs of each service.

It has been suggested that the criteria for the award of age points should be adjusted to give more points to those aged over 40. I remember that the noble Lord, Lord Mischon—understandably not in his place this evening—expressed a little modest anxiety about this during the passage of the Bill. He suggested that reducing the age points after the age of 40, when an applicant's points under the experience heading were likely to increase, was a question, as he put it somewhat graphically, of swings and roundabouts going round rather giddily.

We considered this question very carefully with the governor—having regained our equilibrium, which I might say was never really lost—and your Lordships will notice from Article 11 that age points will now be awarded pro rata on a monthly basis but we have concluded that the scale itself should not be changed. Maximum points are justified for those who are aged between 30 and 40 because people in that group are emigrating at a particularly high rate and because they are expected to be in key positions in the run-up to 1997 and immediately thereafter.

In regard to the related question of experience points, many people in their thirties will have had 15 years' experience, the maximum for which points can be earned. Those in their forties and fifties will also have valuable experience but the chances of them emigrating are not so high. If Hong Kong is to derive maximum benefit from the scheme we must ensure that the assurances go to those who are otherwise most likely to leave.

I should like to refer to the number of points which can be awarded under Article 16 to those employed by British firms. There has been concern about this criterion in a number of quarters. It was argued in another place last week that since this citizenship scheme is being established in the interests of Hong Kong as a whole we should give no advantage at all to those who are working for British firms. We take the view, however, that if applicants are otherwise equally well qualified it is right to take account of the links which those who are working for British companies already have with the United Kingdom. The question is, how many points should be given for those links? Some, particularly the British business community in Hong Kong, have urged us to increase them.

We examined this issue with particular care and concluded that the maximum of 35 points, which should be available under this heading, required no adjustment. We want to give employees of British firms a measure of advantage over equally qualified counterparts working elsewhere; but it would, in our view, be quite wrong to weight the system in such a way that employees of British firms worn places at the expense of others who were significantly better qualified and, therefore, arguably more vital to Hong Kong as a whole.

Competition for places in the general occupational class will be fierce. There are bound to be groups of applicants who will be bunched around the qualifying mark. In these circumstances the points which will be available for those who are serving British firms will make a real difference to their chances of success. One change which we have agreed with the Governor is that these points will be awarded to current employees of British firms for any previous periods of service with a British firm or firms or with other British institutions. It had previously been envisaged that only unbroken service would qualify.

A number of your Lordships were concerned about how a "British firm" should be defined for the purpose of awarding these points. We recognised the force of the argument that a narrow definition—restricted, for example, to firms with headquarters which are registered in the United Kingdom—would have rendered ineligible some of the major arms in Hong Kong which are generally regarded as British and which have extensive trading links with this country going back over many years.

With the wider interests of Hong Kong in mind, we have therefore used the term "British undertaking" in the order and we have defined it, in Article 7 on page 4, as a company or a firm which the Governor is satisfied has a close connection with the UK. In reaching his decisions on what company constitutes a British undertaking the Governor will be helped by a special committee, in which our Senior British Trade Commissioner in Hong Kong is expected to play a significant role.

I think that the scheme which is before your Lordships for approval today will enable the governor to select 50,000 candidates for citizenship in the fairest and the most objective way possible. It is not, as some had earlier feared, an elitist scheme. It is based on merit and achievement. Any scope for bias or corruption has as far as is humanly possible, I hope, been eliminated.

In order to achieve the objective of rebuilding confidence as quickly as we can it is important that registration should be conducted promptly. This will be done on the Home Secretary's behalf by a team of officials who will be based in Hong Kong. Those who are selected under the scheme and other British citizens whose passports need renewing will be able to take advantage of arrangements which are being made to issue British citizen passports in Hong Kong. These will be new machine readable British passports in the European Community common format. I commend the order to the House.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 15th October be approved [26th Report from the Joint Committee].—(Earl Ferrers.)

5.45 p.m.

Baroness Ewart-Biggs

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his very clear explanation of this order. At the same time, I apologise for the absence of my noble friend Lord Mishcon, who, as the Minister knows, is fulfilling the joyous task of carrying out his duties as father of the bride. He is sorry to be absent.

We understand that the order now before us sets out the scheme that the Governor of Hong Kong proposes to use to select up to 50,000 key people whom he will then recommend to the Secretary of State for registration as British citizens. This will be done under the British Nationality (Hong Kong) Act 1990. Equally, we understand that the Government's principal aim behind the scheme is to rebuild confidence in Hong Kong. Of course, we wholeheartedly support that objective.

We are happy to learn from the Minister that the Government had discussions on the outline proposals set out in the Act and that they listened with an open mind to suggestions on the way in which the scheme might be improved. The results of those deliberations are contained in the order now before us. We realise that the order cannot be amended. Therefore, there is a limit to the value of the discussions and any criticisms in which we might wish to indulge. Nevertheless, I make one or two points.

First, I reiterate what we said from these Benches during the passage of the Bill. We find it extremely difficult to accept the points system as a formula that is fair and just. It has little to do with fairness but a great deal to do with expediency. We believe that it is a particular solution which was decided upon to meet a current problem. As such, we accept it. However, we recognise the need for a scheme to be put in place with the minimum of delay in order to retain in Hong Kong many of the key people. Therefore, at the time the Bill was going through the House we did not oppose it but instead endeavoured to make certain changes so that the scheme would be more just and equitable.

We said at the time—I should like to repeat the assurance now—that a Labour government would honour all passports issued under the Act. In the same way as the present Government have said they will, we shall also review the way in which the scheme has been operating. Therefore, there need be no anxiety on that score.

I ask the Minister for clarification of one or two points. I have a particular aversion to the provision in the scheme which provides that pay levels shall be taken into account when awarding points. The Minister mentioned that. I believe that that underlines the least attractive aspect of the scheme whereby it appears that there is one law for the better off and another for the less well off. Moreover, it counters the Minister's claim that the scheme recognises merit and achievement. There are many in Hong Kong who have much merit and who have achieved a great deal, but they will never qualify under this scheme because they are not at the top of the wage structure and have not achieved some other pre-eminence. I wonder whether the Minister can say a few more words about the justification for bringing in the awarding of points from the point of view of pay levels.

The Minister will recall that during the passage of the Bill my noble friend Lord Mishcon was very concerned that the Government had decided to exclude judicial review from the scheme. The system still contains a high degree of discretion. I still find it very difficult to understand how the Governor will be able to choose between similarly qualified applicants and a similar number of points. Even at this late stage I wonder whether the Minister is still convinced that the Government have the right to exclude judicial review from the selection process.

My honourable friend in another place, Mr. Alastair Darling, stressed that Her Majesty's Government could be doing more to promote the involvement of British firms in Hong Kong as a means of demonstrating Britain's commitment to the colony. The Minister has mentioned that matter this evening. However, my honourable friend felt very strongly that this would enable these companies to use Hong Kong as a base and thereby take advantage of the tremendous commercial opportunities existing in China and in the Pacific Basin. He believed that it was something which the Foreign Office and the Department of Trade and Industry should be doing more to investigate. As I say, I accept what the Minister has said. Nevertheless, the concern shown by my honourable friend was well founded.

Even at this eleventh hour we still wonder whether the Government have further thoughts on how to help the minority in Hong Kong who have no effective nationality and also the wives of British citizens who have no automatic right to live in Britain. During the passage of the Bill noble Lords on all sides of the House asked for protection for this group. Concern still remained at the end.

I shall be grateful if the Minister can give the House an estimate of the total number of expected applicants and some indication of how long it will take to process each application. I shall also be grateful if the Minister can tell the House how this scheme has been perceived so far in Hong Kong. I understand that the governor, Sir David Wilson, had predicted that emigration this year will rise to the very alarming figure of 62,000. It seems so far, and rather worryingly, that the Government's objective of calming fears and stabilising the population has not been entirely successful. That can only lead one to believe (a point that I made at Third Reading) that the Act and this order have perhaps come rather late to establish the necessary confidence. That is why the emigration figures are looking so worryingly high this year.

Perhaps the Minister will be able to say how he sees this scheme contributing to the future of Hong Kong on the basis of the experience gained so far. Though, as I said at the start, we cannot admire a scheme which depends on such a very arbitrary and basically unjust points system, we nevertheless sincerely hope that it will provide the confidence to retain key people in Hong Kong and thereby assist the colony during a difficult and critical period in the next few years.

As has been said during the passage of the Bill, what is really going to influence the future of Hong Kong is not the Act or this order, but the honouring in spirit and in letter of the Joint Declaration by both China and Britain. We sincerely hope that that will happen. We of course wish for continued prosperity and stability for the people of Hong Kong. It is in that spirit that we hope that the scheme contained in this order will assist in that process.

Lord Holme of Cheltenham

My Lords, I join the noble Baroness in congratulating the noble Earl upon the clarity with which he introduced this order. Like the noble Baroness, I understand that it is not amendable and therefore my observations and, in one or two cases, my questions, will be brief. The Act, of which this order is the necessary consequence, was designed to reassure, stabilise and anchor valuable key residents in Hong Kong.

As the House will recall, from these Benches we argued that the Bill, and therefore this statutory instrument which supports it, was the second best way of achieving these aims. It is inferior to anchoring everyone by giving everyone a safety net. However, even in its own more modest terms, the Act does not yet seem psychologically to be having the desired effect. It will be known to Members of this House that there is a serious law and order problem in Hong Kong and that emigration, as the noble Baroness has said, is continuing to rise. It will be interesting to know from the Minister whether the estimate given by the Governor of Hong Kong of 62,000 emigrants this year is correct and whether the current rate is continuing to increase. Inflation is rising in Hong Kong and it has nearly reached 10 per cent. That is regrettably close to the level of inflation that we have in the United Kingdom.

I have one or two specific questions for the Minister. Is he satisfied that the points deduction of minus—200 for people who have citizenship of another country is large enough to stop any applicant with another passport also getting a United Kingdom passport; namely, double banking? The noble Earl referred to the fact that 35 points are being given to employees of British firms or undertakings. The Minister was eloquent on this point, but I did not find what he said wholly convincing. We have a particular responsibility towards British firms in Hong Kong. It must be questionable whether the points given are enough to encourage British firms and their key employees in Hong Kong.

Is the Minister really satisfied that in trying to anchor the 30 to 40 year-olds, who are in the prime of life, in Hong Kong, that we are being fair to older people who in some cases have a long record of service to the colony and Britain? No doubt statutory instruments are technical documents, but this one must be unusual in featuring in its pages an algebraic formula with an ingenuity for which the Home Office can only be congratulated. Page 10, Article 21, shows a formula of A over B times C. I looked at that formula as a non-mathematician and I puzzled over it. I am not sure that I can work out what it means. I believe it is half an equation which lacks an equals sign. Let us say that A over B times C equals D. In that case, the D might mean discrimination though I am sure that the noble Earl will assure us that the points system is not intended to be discriminatory. It is difficult to imagine that putting a quart into a pint pot can be achieved without some measure of discrimination. What I am sure D would mean is disappointment. I should like to echo the question asked by the noble Baroness. Can the noble Earl give any sense of what in Hong Kong we are expecting in terms of numbers of applicants for the 50,000 vacancies? There is a great human element to this which in the complicated formulas of the Home Office we are likely to forget. From these Benches we shall support the order as it is pointless to will the ends of the Act without willing the means of the order. But that should not blind us to the human consequences of what we have undertaken.

6 p.m.

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, I had not intended to speak, but having heard what has been said I shall do so briefly. I was involved until just over a year ago with much of what is now contained in the order and with the ideas that led to it. In view of the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Ewart-Biggs, that this was done more for expediency than for other reasons and in view of her drawing attention to what she believed to be the arbitrary nature of the points system, I have to say that in the time that has been available the Governor of Hong Kong and those who have been devising the scheme are to be congratulated on working out something that has been extremely complex and has had to take account of a very great number of variables.

It is almost impossible to prepare a scheme which will meet every conceivable criticism. It is one which has to be workable in the round and furthermore has to be workable in a fairly short space of time. Both the noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Holme, referred to the large exodus, which has grown and is growing, of those whose talents we need to retain in Hong Kong. To have allowed argument to continue and to have buried ourselves in books and tried to work out even fairer ways of conducting the exercise would have been more or less impossible.

I congratulate the Government on bringing it forward and I congratulate those in Hong Kong who have worked on it. Now that the Act is on the statute book and the order is shortly to be passed, I sincerely hope that the necessary practical mechanisms of setting about the selection process can be achieved smoothly and swiftly so that the real abilities of the people in Hong Kong can be used to full effect to restore any confidence that has been lost and to build on that confidence which still remains.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I am grateful to those noble Lords who have taken part in this short debate on the order. I am especially grateful to my noble friend Lord Glenarthur for giving his blessing to the order. He played a substantial part in this matter when he was a member of the Government and attached to the Foreign Office. It came under his responsibility, and to think that it has his blessing is encouraging.

I am always sorry not to see the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, in his place but I have never been more happy than today, not because he would be speaking on the order for the Opposition but simply because of the reason which the noble Baroness, Lady Ewart-Biggs, gave. I did not realise that it was the happy occasion of his daughter's marriage. I am quite certain that he is far better being there than discussing matters of Hong Kong, which he would have done admirably had he been here but which has been done admirably by the noble Baroness in his stead.

The noble Baroness found it difficult to accept the points system as being fair and she said that it was only a method of expediency. That was slightly harsh. It is terribly difficult when limiting the number of people to whom we can give British citizenship to have a system which is fair. We knew that a lot of people would come forward, and unless one used some empirical formula which itself was unfair we thought the best way to do it was to devise these various categories of people and to devise the points scheme.

In so far as no scheme is ever perfect, in a difficult and complicated area such as this the points scheme ought to produce as fair a result as possible. It helps to put into categories those who are the most likely to be of value to Hong Kong. The noble Baroness said that she felt that there was one law for the rich and one law for the poor because earnings will be taken into account. Earnings will be taken into account in only one of the 20 occupational groups—managers and businessmen. There are many businessmen in Hong Kong. We have to select the key ones who contribute most. We have agreed with the Hong Kong Government that earnings are the most straightforward way of measuring success in these groups. In other occupations, earnings will play no part at all.

The noble Baroness referred to the fact that there is no judicial review. In this matter the granting of British nationality is not a right. It is a gift. Therefore, one could not have judicial review over something that is not a right. It will not be possible to have judicial review over the number of points a person has, because that is how the scheme operates, but judicial review will be obtainable over whether the Act has itself been properly used. If a person feels that the implementation of the Act is wrong, judicial review will apply.

The noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Holme, referred to the number of people who are expected to apply. The Hong Kong Government expect around 300,000 applicants for the first tranche. There may be more or less than that. It is expected that the first tranche will take about two years to process, which is a long time, but the questionnaire will be fairly substantial and all these individual applications will have to be processed. The noble Baroness asked how the scheme will contribute to Hong Kong. By assuring those who are in the most prominent positions that they will be able to have British nationality, that in itself will enable them to stay in Hong Kong and not to seek nationality elsewhere by leaving. We very much hope that that will occur.

Baroness Ewart-Biggs

My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt the noble Earl. I understand the contribution the scheme will make but I want to know how it is perceived in Hong Kong as contributing to the future. I should be most grateful if he could give me an idea about that.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, the reaction of the Hong Kong people to the passage of the Act has been positive. Representatives of the Hong Kong Government, business and other leading members of society have warmly welcomed the Act. They have confirmed that it should make a significant contribution to the restoration of confidence. I hope that that will be so.

The noble Baroness asked how the governor would choose between equally qualified persons. In the event of people being equally qualified, the governor will use his discretion to decide which of those who have scored an equal number of points should be given priority. That will be done by deciding who is likely to be of more value to Hong Kong's future prosperity and stability.

The noble Lord, Lord Holme, referred to the points system as regards those working for British firms. The number of points to be awarded to such employees has been considered very carefully. The Hong Kong Government and this Government are satisfied that a maximum of 35 points will do the job.

As regards emigration rates, the noble Lord asked about the figure of 62,000. I have no reason to doubt the governor's estimate of 62,000 people leaving Hong Kong. The citizenship scheme is not yet up and running and therefore it is too soon to look for an effect. We want the scheme to start quickly so that its effect and impact on confidence can be felt as soon as possible.

The noble Lord also referred to the points deductions. The deduction of 200 points is considered sufficient to ensure that those with a right of abode in other countries will not qualify for places under this scheme. He was concerned that such people might be double banking. We hope that that will not be the case.

The noble Lord also cast a quizzical eye over the algebraic formula as contained in the order. He was concerned that there appeared to be only one side to the equation. I was also fascinated by the formula. All I can tell him is that I was speaking only yesterday to a professor of engineering who was trying to explain a point to me. The algebraic formula he used to do so was by far and away more complicated than that in the order and included such things as omega. I am bound to say that I was lost at that point. However, if the noble Lord looks with care at Article 10(5) he will see that it states: Within the quota determined under paragraph 4 in relation to the occupational group…the number of managers and administrators in service with the Government of Hong Kong to be recommended shall be determined by the following formula"— in other words, equals. That is the other side to the algebraic formula which so puzzled the noble Lord.

I am most grateful to your Lordships for having taken part in the debate and for being prepared—it is to be hoped—to give this order a fair wind. We very much hope that this will be a major move in the endeavour to keep confidence in Hong. Kong. It is a unique place, with a unique history, and one which has a great future; and part of that future depends upon confidence in Hong Kong being maintained.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House adjourned at thirteen minutes past six o'clock.