HL Deb 20 October 1993 vol 549 cc566-9

2.56 p.m.

Lord Bonham-Carter asked Her Majesty's Government:

What action they propose to take in the light of the Resolution of this House of 15th July calling for the granting of full British citizenship to members of the non-Chinese ethnic minorities in Hong Kong who will be without right of abode elsewhere after 1997.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, my right honourable friend the Home Secretary has given very careful consideration to the views which were expressed by your Lordships on 15th July. While we recognise the particular circumstances of the non-Chinese ethnic minorities in Hong Kong, the Government have no plans to introduce legislation to provide them with British citizenship.

Lord Bonham-Carter

My Lords, I thank the noble Earl for that deeply unsatisfactory Answer. Will the fount of all wisdom give some slightly better reasons for neglecting the views of the two former governors of Hong Kong, the present governor of Hong Kong, LEGCO and, indeed, the resolution of your Lordships' House?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, this whole matter was considered when the British Nationality (Hong Kong) Act 1990 was proceeding through Parliament. It was considered that there should be a scheme for applicants for British citizenship. As the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, knows perfectly well, that scheme accounts for 50,000 places, for which the non-Chinese ethnic minorities can apply just the same as everyone else.

Lord Ennals

My Lords, has the Minister re-read the speech delivered by the noble Baroness, Lady Dunn, which I thought made the case absolutely convincingly that the Government had to make a change in their procedures? Does the Minister agree that the people whom we are discussing are the only people who would be denied either Chinese citizenship on the one hand or access to Britain on the other? Does he also agree that there are no other people who will have been denied statehood as a result of a positive decision by Her Majesty's Government? Is it not absolutely vital that this matter be reconsidered?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Ennals, that the speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Dunn, was most impressive, as indeed were a number of other speeches made by noble Lords. This is not a question of people being stateless. Those who hold British nationality before the transfer of sovereignty are guaranteed to retain or acquire British nationality in one form or another after 30th June 1997 and they will be assured full British consular protection. British dependent territory citizens are entitled to register as British nationals overseas and anyone who does not register and who would otherwise be stateless on 1st July automatically becomes a British overseas citizen.

Lord Chalfont:

My Lords, leaving aside for a moment the merits of the case, which were fully debated in your Lordships' House, can the Minister say what is the point of passing a resolution by a majority of the Upper House of Parliament if it can be summarily ignored by Ministers?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, it was not ignored by Ministers. If your Lordships pass a resolution, that is a matter of very great concern. My right honourable friend considered what your Lordships said but felt that it would not be prudent or proper for him' to introduce a Bill meeting the requirements of your Lordships' House when the principle of how British citizenship should be glinted had been considered and decided in 1990, and he did not believe that any new considerations now applied.

Baroness Seear

My Lords, does the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, agree that a number cannot be a principle? Earlier replies to this Question, and the Answer again today, have all turned on the figure of 50,000. That cannot be a principle. Surely it is possible to vary a number within the main principle of restricting immigration.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, it was a principle because clearly way back in 1990 there was difficulty in deciding what number should be arrived at. It was a very difficult matter. The noble Baroness will remember the arguments that went backwards and forwards. It was decided that 50,000 original applicants plus their families and friends should come. Of course there are always arguments for extending the number. However, the point is that the non-ethnic Chinese have as much right as anyone else to apply to be among those 50,000.

Lord Jenkin of Roding

My Lords, perhaps I may make a plea for one particular small group; namely, the widows of British servicemen, who are to be denied British citizenship unless they decide to abandon Hong Kong and come to this country. Is my noble friend aware that that is causing considerable disquiet among a group of elderly people who feel very vulnerable?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I am aware of the anxiety to which my noble friend Lord Jenkin refers. Those wives and widows can come to the United Kingdom now. A special arrangement has been made to allow them to stay indefinitely. That is a special concession. After they have remained here for five years they can apply to become British citizens. I believe that my noble friend wants these people to become British citizens even though they have no intention of coming to the United Kingdom. We have made that concession specially for those people.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, is the noble Earl aware that those of us who have visited and have some knowledge of Hong Kong know that the British there are very loyal to Hong Kong and to our country? Their grave doubts about being able to return to the land of their fathers should be removed. Can the noble Earl now give an assurance that those British people in Hong Kong need have no such worries about returning to this island?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, those who have British citizenship need have no worries at all. Those who have British nationality will comply according to the rules relating to their nationality status.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, in an earlier answer the Minister said that the non-ethnic Chinese could apply to be part of the 50,000 in the same way as anybody else. Does he not recognise that the non-ethnic Chinese are in a disadvantaged position compared with others who might apply, in the sense that Chinese citizenship, should they wish it, is not available to them? Has the Minister had talks with any noble Lords since the vote in this House on 15th July? I distinctly recall the noble Baroness, Lady Dunn, saying to me that she would be urgently seeking an interview with the Home Secretary. Has she had such a meeting and was she satisfied with the answers which were given?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, will have to ask the noble Baroness, Lady Dunn, whether she has had a meeting arid whether she was satisfied with the outcome. I cannot tell him whether she was satisfied.

Regarding the non-ethnic Chinese, I remind the noble Lord that there are 24,000 non-ethnic Chinese in total, of which some 7,000 have solely British nationality. They will receive British nationality after, or before, the requisite date. It is not a question of having Chinese nationality. They will get British nationality. However, what will happen to their children or grandchildren is a matter for the normal British nationality laws.

Lord Bonham-Carter

My Lords, the noble Earl must be aware that British nationality overseas does not give a person a right of abode in any country and does not give protection in China. That seems a strong reason for giving something better. Does the Minister recall the speech of his noble friend Lord Glenarthur, who pointed out that the position has changed since the British Nationality Act was passed? Is he aware that while at that time it was believed that to give these people British citizenship might lead to destabilisation within Hong Kong, now opinion in Hong Kong is universally behind the granting of British nationality to this small group of people? Is he not aware of that very strong argument?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I agree that there is a strong argument. I suggest to the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, that there is also a strong argument on the other side. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary chose the latter.