HL Deb 13 December 1993 vol 550 cc1204-20

8.51 p.m.

Lord Bonham-Carter

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

Your Lordships will remember that on 15th July this summer, by a majority of 60 to 48, your Lordships called upon Her Majesty's Government to give full British citizenship to members of the non-Chinese ethnic minorities who will be without a right of abode elsewhere after 1st July 1997.

Since the Government have taken no steps to implement the will of the House, it has been necessary to introduce a private Member's Bill to give legislative effect to that resolution.

I need not remind your Lordships of the roll-call of supporters of that resolution in July this year, but it included two former governors of Hong Kong and the noble Baroness, Lady Dunn, who flew here from Hong Kong especially to support the resolution. And support it most eloquently and effectively she did. She cannot be here today, to her regret, but she has written to me to express her support for the Bill.

Everyone who spoke on that occasion, with the exception of the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, spoke in favour of the resolution. I would not be surprised if the same were not the case tonight. I am delighted to see the noble Earl in a sufficient state, despite his walking wounded condition, to deal with the subject. It is gallant of him.

The Bill will give British citizenship to that small and unique group of people who, after 1997, will have to rely on what is known as BN(O), British National (Overseas) status. That is little more than a travel document. It provides no right of abode outside Hong Kong and those people will, as the noble Baroness, Lady Dunn, said, have no right to Chinese nationality. In the opinion of many eminent authorities—that is to say Justice, the International Commission of Jurists, the Commonwealth Human Rights Advisory Commission—that group of people will be rendered effectively stateless.

This is a unique case. What is taking place in Hong Kong and will take place in the next year or so until 1997 is absolutely without precedent. Hong Kong—unlike any other British colony—is not being granted independence. It and its sovereignty are being transferred to another state where British nationals will not have the right to become citizens. That is the heart of the matter: people who are British nationals are being transferred to the sovereignty of another state and under the nationality rules of that state they will not have the right to become citizens.

Finally, and perhaps most irrationally, Her Majesty's Government have undertaken, if the worst comes to the worst, to take those people in. There is no evidence, unless the worst comes to the worst, that they have any desire whatever to come to live in this country, though many of them would be a great asset to us if they did. But, that being the case, why not do one's duty and get the credit for so doing, instead of being forced, should the worst come to the worst, to accept the worst of every world? That is the position which Her Majesty's Government have adopted. They will not be, or have not to date been, prepared to give those people British citizenship. They have said that if they come under pressure—and that phrase was repeated by the noble Earl in the debate in July—those people will be taken into this country.

Perhaps I may now explain the Bill in somewhat greater detail. It is drafted to provide British citizenship for the non-Chinese ethnic minority groups after 1st July 1997. That small group of people are at present British Dependent Territories citizens, BDTCs. I am afraid that there are many initials to which we shall have to become accustomed in the course of this evening. After July 1997 they will become British Nationals (Overseas), BN(O)s.

The Bill is necessary because of the nature of Chinese nationality law, which is quite frankly and overtly racist. The BN(O) status provides nothing more than a British travel document, it provides neither the right of abode outside Hong Kong nor the right of consular protection within China, which is the one place where one would expect them to want to have consular protection. It is to that group of people that the Bill offers British citizenship. The only consequential provision is taken care of in Clause 2(2), to which I shall turn later.

Now perhaps I may say a word about the clauses. Clause 1 confines the scope of the Bill to those to whom have already referred, that is BDTCs, British Dependent Territories citizens, who are that by virtue only of a connection with Hong Kong. Subsections (1) (b) and 1(3) of Clause 1 make clear that the Bill applies to Hong Kong BDTCs, whether or not they have become BN(O)s. That is because quite a lot of people who are BDTCs do not know that they have become BN(O)s, or rather they do not know that they are still BDTCs. The application form, which is like that for a passport, is such that when the passport comes back it simply tells them that they are BN(O)s. There is no reference in the document to their being BDTCs so there may be a certain amount of confusion. To add to that, if I may put it more obscurely, as all BN(O)s are BDTCs because of the connection with Hong Kong but not vice versa—I am sure that noble Lords are quite clear as to exactly what I am saying—the Bill is phrased in terms of BDTCs. I am sure that that makes everything absolutely crystal clear.

Clause 1(4) and the schedule describe who is a BDTC by virtue of his connection only with Hong Kong. It is borrowed almost word for word—almost verbatim—from Article 2 of the 1986 order. I understand that the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, will not find that in any way contentious. I shall be shocked if he does.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, perhaps the noble Lord will forgive me for interrupting him. I fear that he is misinterpreting his Bill. He said, "by virtue of his connection only with Hong Kong". He means: by virtue only of a connection with Hong Kong". It makes a difference.

Lord Bonham-Carter

I meant "by virtue only of a connection with Hong Kong". I am most grateful to the noble Lord for correcting me.

Clause 2 must be read in connection with Section 14 of the British Nationality Act. I have it by me if any noble Lord wants me to read it. It gives an exhaustive list of British citizens who are citizens—here we have another nice distinction—"by descent" only as opposed to those who have British citizenship "otherwise than by descent". I point out to those who are not learned in these matters that, oddly enough, it is better to have British citizenship otherwise than by descent than it is to have British citizenship by descent. The importance of that is that, if you have British citizenship by descent, you cannot generally transmit that citizenship to a child born overseas.

Clause 2(1) states that those who have been BDTCs by descent will become British citizens by descent. Clause 2(2), which I find the most obscure clause in the Bill, must be read in connection with the British Nationality (Hong Kong) Act 1990 and keeps those who have become British citizens under the 1990 selection scheme in step with those who have become so under Clause 2(1). If any noble Lord wishes me to explain that point, I can do so; but I do not want to try your Lordships' patience.

Clause 3 brings the Bill into line with the 1981 Act. Clause 4 provides for a two-month delay before commencement for administrative reasons; i.e., for the preparation of passport applications and passports.

That is the end of my explanation of the Bill, except to say that the Bill is drafted in support of the measure that we discussed in July, which, as I said, had the support of every single person who spoke to it with the exception of the noble Earl. The purpose for which it is drafted has the support of two former governors of Hong Kong and the present governor of Hong Kong, as well as the unanimous support of LEGCO. It also has the support of the noble Lord, Lord Glenarthur, who was formerly Minister of State responsible for Hong Kong, of Justice, of the International Court of Jurists and the Commonwealth Human Rights Commission. There is only one group of people who appear to oppose it and that is the Home Office. I hope that the Home Office will think better of it. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Bonham-Carter.)

9.3 p.m.

Lord Geddes

My Lords, I am delighted to be able to support the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, today and the more so because I was unable to be in my place earlier this year on 15th July when this subject was debated in your Lordships' House. Perhaps I may also say what a pleasure it is to see my noble friend Lord Ferrers active in his place on the Front Bench. We much look forward to hearing from him at the Dispatch Box and—dare I say it?—on his foot.

The arguments in favour of the Bill have just been well rehearsed by the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter. As he said, they were also eloquently expressed on that occasion in July by both the noble Lord himself and every one of the other 14 noble Lords who spoke except, sadly, my noble friend Lord Ferrers for the Government. It will not be good enough if my noble friend states again tonight that the Government see the ethnic minorities in the same way as all other British nationals in Hong Kong. They are not the same.

As the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, said, the BN(O) passport, which is the only one to which that ethnic minorities group will be entitled, is little more than a travel document and will, anyway, disappear after three generations. It does not grant the right of abode anywhere except in Hong Kong and it grants no nationality whatsoever.

As for the argument that members of the Hong Kong ethnic community can apply for Chinese nationality, I remind your Lordships, as did the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, that Chinese nationality laws are based on race and that (so I am advised) there has been only one instance since 1949—that is, in 44 years—when Chinese nationality has been given to a non-ethnic Chinese. It does not bode terribly well for the prospects for the ethnic minorities in Hong Kong achieving Chinese nationality. Therefore, I most sincerely hope that the Government will acknowledge the will of the House, as expressed on 15th July and will support the Bill tonight.

Noble Lords will not be surprised if additionally I press the case for another, even smaller group of people, to whom I have referred on various occasions in recent months; namely, the locally employed personnel (known as the LEPs). There are approximately 300 Hong Kong LEPs in the British Navy and 1,000 in the Army. They are ethnic Chinese personnel who have loyally and directly served this country —that is to say, the British Crown, not the Hong Kong Government—for many years. They are now becoming only too well aware that their close association with the UK military will hardly endear them to the Chinese and they are deeply worried about their future. Their anxiety can only have been increased in recent weeks as they, along with the rest of the world, watched the negotiations with China break down. I made my views plain on that subject on numerous previous occasions, most recently last week. But I feel it is nonetheless relevant to reiterate that I am most concerned at Her Majesty's Government's stance; not least because I believe that it places the future of the people of Hong Kong, and in particular that of the LEPs, in such jeopardy.

Whenever the subject has been aired in the past the reply from the Government has always been that the LEPs, like other members of the discipline services, were entitled to apply for places under the British nationality Hong Kong selection scheme. That is true. But evidence of their extreme concern, if it were needed, is contained in the fact that in the case of the LEPs demand for places greatly exceeded supply while in other sectors demand was far more in line with supply and the consequent disappointment far less.

The actual numbers are so few and our obligations towards them so great that it seems to me to be astonishing that they should not be treated as a special case, similar to those who are the direct subject of the Bill. Were it not for my reluctance to jeopardise in any way the success of the Bill I should have been minded to table an amendment to it providing for identical treatment for the Hong Kong military LEPs. I have so far refrained from so doing for the reasons I have just given. However, that does not mean that I shall in any way desist from pressing their case; nor does it mean that the Government can fulfil their responsibilities unless they acknowledge that the Hong Kong military LEPs must also be granted full British passports. Indeed, should my noble friend the Minister fail to give me real encouragement in that context when he speaks, I may still table a suitable amendment to include such Hong Kong military LEPs.

Meanwhile, I strongly support the Bill. When—and I sincerely hope that it is "when", rather than "if"—the Bill, amended or not, becomes law, it will demonstrate to Hong Kong and to the world that this country has not discarded its tradition for recognition of honour and moral obligation, as was so succinctly expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, during our debate on 15th July.

9.10 p.m.

Lord Wilson of Tillyorn

My Lords, the time is late and it would probably be a kindness to be brief. But that is not in any way to suggest that the subject is not an important one. As the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, said, when we last discussed it in July there was widespread support for doing something for this unique group of people. We owe him a debt of gratitude for persisting in pursuit of that solution.

The wording "non-Chinese ethnic minorities" has the drawback of rather dehumanising the group. It is perhaps not as bad as BOCs, BN(O)s and BDTCs; but it suggests a category rather than a group of people. They are real people with real problems, to whom we owe real obligations. Those real people are, above all, from the Indian sub-continent—between 5,000 to 7,000 of them, the number decreasing all the time. They have real problems, uniquely so. There are arrangements for them after 1997. They receive a specific form of travel document. If otherwise stateless, their children receive another form of travel document and so do their grandchildren. However, at the end of that time, there is nothing—unless they obtain Chinese citizenship. As the noble Lord, Lord Geddes, pointed out, that is no easy thing. It is rather like generation after generation climbing up a ladder, the rungs of which become weaker and weaker until eventually the ladder gives out. Perhaps at this time of year one should say it is a beanstalk and the beanstalk eventually gives out!

We have a real obligation to those people. They came to Hong Kong, many of them generations ago, because it was British territory. They served Hong Kong well, many of them in the government and in the disciplined services. Others contributed enormously to the prosperity of Hong Kong. Therefore there are real obligations.

At one time there were plausible reasons for not tackling the problem. It was argued, correctly I believe, that it would be divisive to do so. But, since the British nationality package, that is no longer so. We had clear evidence of that earlier this year when, in an excellent speech, my noble friend Lady Dunn said that doing something for those people now had the unanimous support of the Legislative Council. So far as I know, there has been no opposition in Hong Kong to such a move.

All nationality questions are enormously complicated. The noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, made that very clear. Because of that, I should like to see the Government take on the Bill themselves. I should like to see officials of the Home Office using all their ingenuity and skill to draft a measure which would hit precisely the problem we are all trying to aim at and nothing else rather than using their skill to block any proposals.

Apart from my noble friend Lady Dunn, another very eminent person who has great experience of Hong Kong is unable to be with us today. I refer to my noble friend Lord MacLehose of Beoch. He has asked me to say how sorry he is not to be present and that he supports what I have said about the need to do something for this group and my hope that the Government themselves will act.

I believe that the ball is now being kicked in the right direction. I should like to see the Government pick it up and run with it themselves. But above all I should like to see it get beyond the goal line.

9.15 p.m.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley

My Lords, about 25 years ago when, with the exception of the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, none of your Lordships present today was in your Lordships' House, we had a debate which went even later than the debate today. The House was considering a Bill. We had the Second Reading, the Committee stage, the Report stage and the Third Reading all between half-past two in the afternoon and eight o'clock in the morning, when we staggered out of the Chamber. On that occasion the Bill was about some Asians who had been domiciled in British colonies for some time—for generations—and had been promised that if they came under pressure from the successor governments in the colonies they would be given citizenship and right of entry to this country.

The pressure arose chiefly in Uganda under a dictatorship but in Kenya as well. The government of the time ratted on the agreement and, supported by the official opposition—the parties were then on opposite sides of the House to where they are now—passed a Bill which denied citizenship to those people. It was a very shameful episode in the history of this country's decolonisation. It was a complete going back on a pledge. Mr. Iain Macleod acknowledged that he had made the pledge on behalf of the Government of which he was a member and that we should stand by it. There was very little doubt that the pledge had been made.

With that memory of my blooding in your Lordships' House—I remember in Committee trying to move amendment after amendment at one o'clock, two o'clock and three o'clock in the morning, with the support of Lord Brockway and my noble friend Lord Foot—it is not surprising that I do not believe that we should take the Government's word for what they will do under pressure. They did not then and I see no reason why in the future they would do so. Let me put it like this. We ought to be safe rather than that those people should be sorry. It is very important that we not only get an undertaking but that we actually put the Bill on the statute book so that those people have rights on which they can rely.

9.20 p.m.

Lord Willoughby de Broke

My Lords, I strongly support the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter. This matter has been debated before as well as being the subject of a Starred Question earlier this year. I find it disappointing that Her Majesty's Government have not so far shown any sign of being willing to appreciate the case which has been so clearly made for the Government to look again at their stance on this matter.

The arguments for a change of heart have been strongly put outside this House by the Governor of Hong Kong; the Hong Kong Legislative. Council and the All-Party Foreign Affairs Committee. The case was put to your Lordships in the debate on 15th July by two distinguished former governors, the noble Lords, Lord MacLehose of Beoch and Lord Wilson of Tillyorn; by the senior member of the Executive Council of Hong Kong, and also by my noble friend Lord Glenarthur, with all his experience as past Minister of State with responsibility for Hong Kong.

Do Her Majesty's Government not think that this collective wisdom and judgment of so many people, with such a depth of knowledge of Hong Kong, suggest that a more generous attitude should be taken towards the concerns of the non-Chinese and the non-Chinese ethnic minorities of Hong Kong?

The Government have maintained that the BN(O) passport will give its holders a proper nationality. Exactly the opposite view is taken in Fransman's British Nationality Law (1989 edition). It states on page 436: a person who is a B.N.O., like one who is a B.O.C., possesses not so much a nationality as a qualification for U.K. travel facilities". So it comes down to a matter of opinion as to whether a BN(O) passport holder has a recognised nationality or not. This, of course, need not worry the Hong Kong Chinese holders of BN(O) passports because they will be able to take up full Chinese nationality and would be possessors of a special autonomous region passport after 1997. That is not the case for the non-Chinese minorities.

But even assuming that this minority, who for the most part are of Indian or Pakistani origin, wish to become Chinese, it is unlikely that they will be given the chance because, as we have heard, the Chinese nationality law is based largely on ethnicity or race. They will be left with a travel document and not a valid passport.

As regards the right of abode, certainly they have that right in Hong Kong after 1997 as long as one accepts that they will be at the mercy of any amendment to the Basic Law that may be carried out. That is a point which will not be lost on them, as it was amendments to our Immigration Act 1962 which stripped them of their right to assume full British citizenship in the first place. And, of course, right of abode does not confer nationality.

Concerning statelessness, the Minister, my noble friend Lord Ferrers, has admitted that even such attenuated nationality as that held by the non-Chinese BN(O) passport holders cannot be passed beyond the second generation and that subsequent generations will indeed be faced with the possibility of statelessness. Do Her Majesty's Government believe that this properly discharges their duty as the sovereign power?

The Government have justified their refusal to respond to suggestions made in this House and elsewhere by falling back on the assurances given on several occasions that, were this minority to, come under pressure to leave Hong Kong", as it is delicately phrased, the Government of the day, would be expected to consider with sympathy their admission to the United Kingdom". In his speech to this House on 15th July, my noble friend Lord Glenarthur referred noble Lords to his words of May 1986, when he stated, we should consider it an obligation upon any future government to treat with considerable and particular sympathy the case for admission to the UK".—[Official Report, 16/5/86; col. 1437.] But what do these phrases and words mean, above all to the 6,000 or 7,000 people whom we are talking about? Who is to decide what level of pressure triggers their admission to this country?

What are these expectations and obligations? I rather doubt whether they would be binding on successor governments; they would merely be something for them to consider. As the noble Baroness, Lady Dunn, pointed out in her speech in this House. on July 15th, it has been the case in the past that Ministerial assurances on Hong Kong have been watered down.

Those undertakings are no doubt well-intentioned but they are imprecise. As my noble friend Lord Glenarthur pointed out, they may not necessarily have stood the test of time. Perhaps my noble friend the Minister will clarify whether those obligation are a guarantee. If not, will he make that perfectly clear? If those words are a guarantee that non-Chinese minorities will be given British citizenship, I believe that we have nothing to lose and everything to gain by giving them that nationality now.

9.25 p.m.

Lord St. John of Bletso

My Lords, I am delighted that the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, has introduced this Bill following the resolution that was passed by your Lordships when the matter was extensively debated on 15th July. It is difficult to raise new arguments from those that were so convincingly explained in that debate, so I should like to reiterate a few of the arguments that I raised on that occasion.

We are all aware of the enormous contribution both socially and economically that the non-Chinese ethnic minorities have made to the development of Hong Kong and of the fact that many have lived in Hong Kong for generations and have few relations elsewhere in the world. As my noble friend Lord Wilson of Tillyorn has already mentioned, the numbers are between 5,000 and 7,000. I find it difficult to accept the Minister's statement in his closing speech on 15th July when he said: It would be difficult to make a special provision to give the ethnic minorities British citizenship".—[Official Report, 15/7/93; col. 414.] A central objective of Her Majesty's Government in their negotiations with China on Hong Kong has been the desire to protect the rights, freedoms and prosperity of all of the peoples they will hand over to Chinese rule in July 1997. Surely one of those basic rights must be the right of nationality. Despite the guarantees in the Joint Declaration and Article 24(6) of the Basic Law guaranteeing the ethnic minorities the right of abode in Hong Kong, there is a fear among many non-Chinese ethnic minorities that they will at best be granted second-class citizenship by the Chinese Government and could even be excluded from holding executive positions in business and the civil service. I speak with a little experience in this matter because I studied Chinese law at London University and spent a year living in mainland China in 1982–83.

As much as the Government argue that Article 6 of the Hong Kong (British Nationality) Order of 1986 satisfies those rendered stateless by granting them British National (Overseas) status, many notable jurists claim that that will not be the case. In our debate on 15th July, the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, said that the view of Justice is that non-Chinese ethnic minorities are rendered effectively stateless.

Almost all noble Lords who have spoken this evening have said that the status of being a BN(O) does not give a person the right of abode outside Hong Kong and does not give British consular protection in mainland China. Furthermore, it is regarded by most as purely a travel document.

Although the Minister argued on 15th July that there had been a 60 per cent. success rate for those applying for British citizenship under the new selection scheme, is it not the case that points are allocated on the criteria of age, experience, training, education and special circumstances? Surely that points system could favour the more affluent and successful applicants over those who are less privileged.

In reply to the Starred Question which was tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, on 20th October, the Minister said that, while there are strong arguments for granting British citizenship to non-Chinese ethnic minorities, there are equally strong arguments against. The point has already been made that there has been unanimous support from LEGCO, from the Foreign Affairs Select Committee of the other place, from Justice and from the International Commission of Jurists, so surely the not-contents are up against a formidable opposition which is in favour of the Government showing some flexibility in this case. It is with flexibility in mind that I hope they will consider the passage of the Bill.

As a Member of the Cross-Benches, I tend to be an observer of party politics in your Lordships' House. I am not surprised that such a humane approach has been made from the Liberal Democrat Benches. I should have been surprised and delighted if the Bill had been introduced from the Conservative Benches. Surely with the support of so many Conservative Members during the debate of 15th July., and following the excellent speeches of the noble Lords, Lord Geddes and Lord Willoughby de Broke, the Government should take the idea of a flexible approach more seriously. It is for those reasons that I support the Bill.

9.31 p.m.

Lord Marlesford

My Lords, I suppose that there are a number of us on this side of the House, and the other side as well, who believe that a strong and rigid immigration policy is desirable for this country. They believe it for the obvious reasons that immigration from other countries, especially countries where people are badly off, seldom helps those countries. They believe it also, because it does not always help us. It sometimes damages race relations in this country.

I start from the proposition that a strong immigration policy is desirable. It was first introduced some 30 years ago, I think, with much opposition from the then Opposition parties, but has subsequently in general become accepted by all parties in this country. Having said that, I believe that there are exceptions. So what are the circumstances in which there should be exceptions?

First, a need has to be shown. The debate in this House on 15th July, and elsewhere, has proved clearly that there is a need for these people to be given the right of sanctuary. We also have to be satisfied that we in this country have an obligation to these people. If we were in doubt this evening, we should have been persuaded by the words of the noble Lord, Lord Wilson of Tillyorn, who described the particular obligations which exist in respect of this group of people. Were we to abandon them when we leave Hong Kong, that would, without doubt, be an act of dishonour which I should have thought we would all be reluctant to see as one of the last acts of decolonisation for this country. I should have thought that we would do much to avoid such an action.

The third criterion for making an exception is that it should not create a difficult-to-fulfil precedent of obligation. There has been no suggestion that to do what is asked for in the Bill would create such a precedent.

Sadly, I feel that we all have a pretty shrewd idea as to what my noble friend the Minister is likely to say at the end of the debate. He is likely to say that the Home Secretary has considered carefully what was said in the debate on 15th July; that he recognises the strength of feeling in the House and elsewhere; but that he has concluded that no new considerations have been advanced which would lead him to take a view different from the view which was taken when the whole matter was considered in 1990. Indeed, he may say that he sees no grounds for changing the Government's long-standing policy on this issue and therefore will not support the introduction of legislation.

In a way the problem is illustrated by the fact that he will be referring to his right honourable friend the Home Secretary. It was interesting that when the batting order for the debate was published we were offered as the chief Opposition spokesman the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone. That is understandable because it is seen by many of us to be an issue relating to Hong Kong and to the relationship between Hong Kong and Britain. But of course it is a Home Office issue and that is why the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, will reply to the debate.

I believe that the issue should be decided by Ministers collectively. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary has many admirable qualities. I am not sure that flexibility is one of them. He is a personal friend of mine and I admire him for much of what he stands for. But he is by instinct and by trade an advocate; to him winning his case is a great deal, if not everything. He will take a bad brief and make the best case for it. The worse the case the heavier the blinkers with which he enters the court room. We saw that and the disastrous results that followed in respect of the poll tax, when he led for the Government in arguing the case for it. I believe that flexibility in the design of the poll tax could well have enabled it to work. Indeed, it might have enabled the Prime Minister of the day to survive. I do not ask for a unanimous view about whether that would have been the outcome; I merely give it as the view of one who in those days was not part of the political frame but was a mere observer of politics.

To a lesser degree we saw it when the present Home Secretary, who was responsible for taking the legislation for water privatisation through the House of Commons, was extremely reluctant to concede what was politically essential; that was the access to land owned by water undertakings which were to be privatised. Although the legislation came to this House before I became a Member, I believe that it was in this House that the Government were forced to change their minds on that issue too.

Of all the departments of state, the Home Office has the longest track record of putting forward bad cases for Ministers to argue. The Home Office, as I saw when I spent three-and-a-half years in Whitehall some 20 years ago, is a reactionary, indeed inward-looking—one might almost say constipated—department. There are few Home Secretaries who master it; for far more Ministers it is a political graveyard.

The issue which we are discussing tonight will not go away, nor should it. I support this Government;. I want this Government to succeed. That is why I believe that this issue should once again be reconsidered by Ministers collectively but not with the Home Secretary in the chair.

9.40 p.m.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I am sorry to disappoint the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, by not being my noble friend Lady Blackstone. Although my defects are so much greater than hers, I assure the noble Lord that my noble friend's views on this matter are the same as mine. To drag the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, into such an attack not just on the Government in general but on particular Ministers and Members of the Cabinet requires quite some skill by the Government as regards the way in which they have misunderstood the political and moral climate of this country.

The case for the Bill has been so convincingly made out that very little can be added to that. The noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, has rightly capitalised on the victory which he masterminded in July. He has given this House an opportunity to show the Government that a vote of 60 to 48 in which 13 Conservative Peers, most of whom are not normally rebels, voted against the Government needs to be confirmed. It needs the House to pass legislation because the Government and the Minister in October of this year conspicuously refused to recognise the strong and unanimous feeling expressed by the House on 15th July.

The facts are entirely clear. It is obviously the case—it has never been denied—that the non-ethnic Chinese living in Hong Kong were brought to Hong Kong by a deliberate decision and invitation of British governments of Hong Kong over a period of many years. Those non-ethnic Chinese have performed valuable service to the Government and the people of Hong Kong. They left their own communities many years ago and often have extremely limited connections with those communities.

When the change takes place in 1997, a range of alternatives appear to be open to those people: first, it is suggested that they should have rights along with the other 50,000 citizens of Hong Kong who will benefit from the 1990 and 1993 orders. In July it was suggested that a number of them have taken advantage of those facilities. But of course that can hardly apply to the majority of non-ethnic Chinese, any more than it can apply to the majority of any of the other citizens of Hong Kong. The 1993 orders, which were approved by your Lordships' House in July, make it more difficult, rather than easier, to apply by imposing a series of deadlines on applications in order, the Government say, to avoid there being a logjam at the end of the period in 1997.

Let us assume—we must do so—that most of those people will not fall into the 55,000 category. What happens then? We are told that they can remain protected by the Sino-British Declaration under the Basic Law. They cannot become Chinese citizens, because it must be said that Chinese citizenship law is racist. Nevertheless we were told in 1986 by the noble Lord, Lord Glenarthur, and again by the Minister in July, that, if there are difficulties, their applications to come to this country would be dealt with with considerable and particular sympathy.

But none of those is an adequate answer for a community of hardworking people who have served Hong Kong well. None of those answers solves the problem which was made clear by the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, when he introduced the Bill; namely, that those people will, effectively, become stateless and that their grandchildren will be totally stateless.

There are additional arguments. The noble Lord, Lord Geddes, who was not able to be with us in July, made a case for locally enlisted personnel of the discipline services very similar to that made by my noble friend Lord Shackleton and I in July. I agree with the noble Lord. I do not believe that it is worth risking the Bill by moving an amendment to it, but the case which the noble Lord made is nevertheless extremely sound.

As has been said, it is very difficult to find new arguments because the Government have not answered the arguments which have been advanced. Those points were made in July and achieved the agreement of your Lordships. This Bill, moved so ably by the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, should also achieve the agreement of your Lordships.

9.45 p.m.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Earl Ferrers)

My Lords, Hong Kong always strikes a note of concord and sympathy with people back here in this country, and quite properly so. Of course, it has done so this evening. The Bill introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, deals with a subject about which not only the noble Lord but also other noble Lords feel strongly. We saw that in July when we had a debate on Hong Kong Orders in Council. The noble Lords, Lord St. John of Bletso and Lord McIntosh of Haringey said that it is very difficult to find new arguments. I am bound to say that I rather agree with them.

The arguments previously put forward were deployed both forcefully, strongly and quite correctly at that time. The Government also had to put forward their view. It was an important debate and one which ended in a vote whereby the majority of your Lordships took the view that the ethnic minorities of Hong Kong who had no other form of citizenship ought to be granted British citizenship. The Government took very seriously the matters which your Lordships raised and took note of all that was said in the debate. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary reconsidered the whole position. However, despite your Lordships' views, the Government did not feel that it would be appropriate to bring forward legislation to Parliament which would change the existing arrangements.

My noble friend Lord Marlesford said that he had a pretty shrewd idea of what I would say tonight. I congratulate him on his prescience. I do not think that that is very difficult. I also congratulate him on his versatility in being able to mention such matters as the poll tax and the privatisation of water in a Second Reading debate on a Bill about Hong Kong.

I am bound to tell your Lordships—and I shall disappoint not only my noble friend Lord Marlesford but also my noble friend Lord Geddes—that the Government's view remains the same as it was when we last debated the matter. I should also tell my noble friend Lord Marlesford that I have always admired his knowledge of Whitehall. However, if he thinks that the Home Office (of which I have had the privilege of being an ornament for some six years now) is reactionary, inward-looking—and I think he also used the very unparliamentary word "constipated"—I am bound to tell him that, whatever he knows about Whitehall, that shows he does not know very much about the Home Office. It has always impressed me as being avant-garde, forward looking, exhilarating and an organisation which, in many respects, has to have a little bit of a rein put on it from time to time as regards its enthusiasm to move very abruptly in certain directions.

I do not blame the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, for taking the cudgel into his own hands and for introducing such a Bill to try to effect that which the Government do not feel disposed to effect. The noble Lord is quite good at riding hobby-horses until he and the horse—and everyone else—gets totally exhausted by the process. He rode his hobby-horse tonight. The noble Lord will not be surprised to realise that, despite all his blandishments and persuasive oratory—and, indeed, that of other noble Lords —the Government are unable to support the Bill.

The noble Lord, Lord Wilson of Tillyorn, whose knowledge of Hong Kong is, of course, remarkable and well respected, said that he wished the Government would pick up the Bill and run with it. I can understand him taking that view; indeed, if I had been in his position I believe that I would also have taken that view. However, I am bound to tell the noble Lord that I must disappoint him because we cannot do so.

The Bill before us is a Private Member's Bill and, despite the Government's views, we do not propose to vote against it. That would be quite inappropriate and against the tradition of your Lordships' House. However, I am hound to tell your Lordships what is the Government's view. The Bill is really concerned with statelessness. The noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, explained that the Bill is concerned primarily with those Hong Kong British dependent territories citizens or British Nationals (Overseas) who have no other nationality and who, therefore, without one of those forms of British nationality, would be stateless. Most of the ethnic minority population in Hong Kong besides having British nationality have citizenship elsewhere—usually of India or of Pakistan. Those who are the subject of the Bill are those who have no second citizenship.

It has been argued strongly—the noble Lord, Lord St. John of Bletso, argued this—both today and in July that because of their unique position the 7,000 members of the ethnic minorities with whom the Bill is concerned should be given the security of full British citizenship. It has also been argued in the past that special arrangements should be made on the basis that the ethnic minorities concerned would otherwise be stateless after 1997. As I have explained on previous occasions, that is not the case. The Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, acknowledges that the ethnic minorities do and will continue to have a national status and it is only if they did not have a national status that they would be stateless.

Specific provision was made in Article 6 of the Hong Kong (British Nationality) Order 1986 to deal with the possibility of statelessness. Under that order people who only had British nationality before 1997—that is, those who had British dependent territories citizenship or who were British nationals (overseas)—would retain British nationality after 1997. They would not therefore be stateless. The ethnic minorities will also continue to have a right of abode in Hong Kong. The Joint Declaration and Article 24(6) of the Basic Law guarantee that the ethnic minorities will have the right of abode in Hong Kong if they do not have a right of abode elsewhere. The Beijing authorities have said that ethnic minorities are welcome to remain in Hong Kong and that they can apply, if they so wish, for Chinese citizenship.

The ethnic minorities do not at present of course, have a right of abode anywhere else other than in Hong Kong. This position will be no different after 1997. In the Government's view there is no reason to suggest that the change of sovereignty should threaten this particular group and that they should, therefore, he given special treatment in the form of a right of abode not in Hong Kong but in the United Kingdom. My noble friend Lord Willoughby de Broke was worried about what would happen to these people in the future. If problems do arise, and if the ethnic minorities were to come under pressure to leave Hong Kong and had nowhere else to go, we have said many times—the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, referred to this this evening—that the government of the day would be expected to consider with considerable and particular sympathy their case for admission to the United Kingdom.

The noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, said he remembered the case of the Asians in Uganda. I also remember that. The noble Lord said he did not trust the Government. Perhaps he did not, or does not do so, but of course the government at that time was a different one to the present Government. However, I realise he was talking about governments in general, irrespective of political parties, and I can sympathise with the general scepticism that automatically flows from all people as regards governments.

Of course one cannot ever tie any government into the future because one does not know what situation will emerge. But I can only repeat the assurance that, if the ethnic minorities were to come under pressure to leave Hong Kong and if they had nowhere else to go, the government of the day would be expected to consider with considerable sympathy their case for admission to the United Kingdom. However, these people do not want to come to the United Kingdom. They want to remain in Hong Kong. There would, therefore, be no long-term benefit in their becoming British citizens.

I always think there is something mildly incongruous in saying that in order that these people should stay in Hong Kong, where they want to stay, we should give them citizenship of the United Kingdom, which would enable them to come to the United Kingdom where they do not wish to come. What they want to do is to stay in Hong Kong. At present those who hold British dependent territories citizenship passports are free to come to the United Kingdom without a visa, but they do not have any superior rights of stay or employment over those who come from other countries and who are subject to normal immigration controls. After 1997 the position of these people will be exactly the same as it is now.

I do not wish to get into all the technicalities of Clause 2 of the Bill and the legal and citizenship minefield which that encapsulates. I would only say this. I noted that the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, was wise to steer clear of that issue, although he referred to BDTCs and BN(O)s and British citizens by descent and British citizens otherwise than by descent. He nearly got himself confused, as well as the rest of your Lordships, and I do not propose to add to that confusion. However, if the proposals of the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, in Clause 2 were to be put into effect, they would in fact give citizenship benefits both to the ethnic minorities and to the spouse and child beneficiaries of the selection scheme which are not enjoyed by other British citizens who are born abroad. Clause 2 would enable those people to pass British citizenship to their children and, to a limited extent, to a further generation. That would be a privilege which is not enjoyed by other British citizens who are born abroad. In schoolboy language, "That's not fair".

These are complicated matters. We took the action which we considered was necessary for Hong Kong in 1990 when we passed the British Nationality (Hong Kong) Act. It was our view at the time, and it was also Parliament's view, that the selection scheme arrangements, together with the immigration assurance, struck the right balance between maintaining confidence in Hong Kong and limiting potential immigration to the United Kingdom. That has been achieved and there are no new special circumstances which would justify our making different arrangements for the ethnic minorities now. Their ties are with Hong Kong rather than with the United Kingdom, and our primary objective has been to ensure their security in Hong Kong.

My noble friend Lord Geddes referred to the LEPs. That is an extension of the arrangements which is not mentioned in the Bill. The LEPs, like all others in the disciplined services class, have been given places in proportion to their total numbers, which are relatively small. Making more provision for them would undoubtedly result in pressure from other occupational groups where the number of places has been insufficient to meet demand. Parliament decided on a 50,000 limit on places.

For all those reasons the Government cannot support the Bill moved by the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, even though I admire his pertinacity, his perseverance and one might almost say, but I will not say, his obduracy in pursuing the issue. He likes to push his boat through the water as far as he can. I admire him for having done so, but I am afraid that the Government cannot be rowers in the boat as well.

9.57 p.m.

Lord Bonham-Carter

My Lords, I shall not keep your Lordships long. I must confess that I am disappointed, though not surprised, by the nature of the noble Earl's reply to the debate. I do not propose to engage in a conversation with him and the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, about the precise nature of the Home Office, with which I worked for 11 years between 1966 and 1977. I have a fairly clear view of the degree of its adventurous and romantic disposition and its ability to plough forward in a progressive direction.

I should like to take this opportunity to thank all those who have spoken in the debate and for their support for the Bill. I would simply say this about the reply of the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers. The fundamental difference between the two sides in this controversy can be summed up in his statement that the Government took the view that there was no reason to suppose a change of government threatened this group. I would say in response that the figures given by the noble Lord, Lord Geddes, concerning the number of applications under the selection scheme indicate that this group do not take that view. All that the Bill tries to achieve is to provide them with a safety net.

The noble Earl said that it was odd that we should advocate giving a right to come to this country to people who do not want to do so. It is not odd at all. They do not want to come to this country unless they are forced to. They fear that they may be forced to and they feel that they should have a safety net. That is what we provide in the Bill, and that is what the Government refuse to provide. That seems to me very sad.

A number of noble Lords in the course of today's debate set forth the reasons of practice and of principle as to why the Bill should be supported. One reason was the need for reassurance, to which I have referred. Another was the need, to which my noble friend Lord Beaumont referred, to be safe rather than sorry. Another reason was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Glenarthur, in the debate in July—and was repeated tonight—that the situation had changed since the decision was taken and that the fear that to make a special case for this group of people was divisive no longer existed. That point was made by the noble Baroness, Lady Dunn, and the noble Lord, Lord St. John of Bletso.

The noble Lord, Lord Wilson of Tillyorn, and other noble Lords made the point that such a measure is an obligation of honour. We owe it to these people. It is rather shocking that the issue should simply be brushed aside as an inconvenience.

I am glad that the Government do not propose to put the Second Reading of the Bill to a vote. We should carefully consider the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Geddes, about the LEPs. They are a special case. They deserve consideration and are particularly vulnerable.

I wish to thank all those who have participated in the debate and to ask that the Bill be given a Second Reading.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.