HL Deb 12 December 1996 vol 576 cc1211-34

4.54 p.m.

Lord Willoughby de Broke

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

The Bill offers us the opportunity to ensure that we do our duty to a small number of people in Hong Kong—probably no more than 4,000 to 5,000 people (non-Chinese British nationals)—who will otherwise be seriously disadvantaged. This is not a subject which is new to anyone who has participated in debates on Hong Kong in your Lordships' House. I am merely carrying on where the late Lord Bonham-Carter left off, because, in common with other noble Lords who have spoken in those debates, I recognise that Britain has a sovereign responsibility to that group of people, which it has not yet properly discharged.

Since 1993, when the late Lord Bonham-Carter moved his nationality Bill, things have moved on. We have a much clearer idea of the numbers involved and the difficulties that those people face are much more widely recognised as the date for the hand over approaches. Perhaps I may remind my noble friend the Minister that only a month ago the principle behind the Bill was widely supported in another place.

I should like to cover two key points this evening: the predicament faced by those people and the inadequacies of the Government's current policy. First, the great majority (the few thousand people about whom we are talking) were born in Hong Kong and in some cases are second or even third generation Hong Kong citizens. They and their parents had full—I repeat, full—British nationality with the right to enter and live in this country. That right was stripped from them by amendments made to the 1962 and subsequent immigration Acts. They will in a few months' time be left in the unenviable position of having no more than a British National (Overseas) passport.

That document does not give the holder right of abode anywhere, and although the Government maintain that a BNO passport will give the holder a proper nationality, the truth is that a BNO passport is only a travel document. I am supported in that belief by no less an authority than Fransmann's British Nationality Law, which on page 436 states: A person who is a BNO, like one who is a BOC, possesses not so much a nationality as a qualification for UK travel facilities". So those British nationals will not have a proper nationality with full citizenship in July 1997. Nor, on that date, when Hong Kong becomes part of China will they have the right to Chinese citizenship which is based on ethnicity. Non-Chinese need not apply, and the Chinese government have invited Britain to sort that out by giving full passports to that group.

In Hong Kong, the status of those individuals is widely recognised to be ambiguous, and there are already documented cases of discrimination at work. I can provide details for my noble friend the Minister if she would like me to do so. Their ethnic status also restricts their career prospects at the higher levels of the Civil Service to which they may legitimately aspire. Again, documentary evidence is available.

As to present government policy, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister stated in Hong Kong on 4th March this year: Her Majesty's Government will guarantee admission and settlement should they come under pressure to leave Hong Kong". That statement implicitly recognises that that group is a special case, but I fear that the guarantee is seen in Hong Kong as having little value. For what is that pressure? Who is to decide it? Will that be decided in Hong Kong or in the remote comfort of a Whitehall office? This looks like an administrative and moral swamp, employing objective criteria that the Government refuses to define, leaving 5,000 individuals uncertain of their eligibility. But, what is most important, that policy will result in the need for each person to put his or her case individually, exposing himself or herself to further discrimination if their specific circumstances do not fall into the, as yet, undetermined definition of "under pressure".

In addition, that policy completely misses the point. That community does not want to rush into the UK. All it is asking for is a full British passport so that its status in Hong Kong will not be an anomaly that exposes it to discrimination and a subjective interpretation of their status. Ministerial assurances, however well-intentioned, are in this case just not good enough.

I should like also to address some of the Government's arguments against making that important commitment to a loyal group of subjects. The Government are concerned that international precedents will be set by making a special case of that community. Then why have they themselves made a special case for that community by developing a specific policy related to that group? Why does that policy not address the real concerns and needs of a unique situation? Of course the Bill sets no precedents, as it deals with the unprecedented: all our former colonies were granted independence, while Hong Kong is to be transferred to China. The Government state that those people do not want to live in this country and therefore why give them passports. Passports will give them security in Hong Kong, a status that is transparent to them and to the authorities there; a status that offers them choices and, which as a result, will diminish the opportunity for discrimination.

Furthermore, a perhaps unexpected consequence of the Government's ambiguous policy is that those people will be able to exercise their rights under that policy only by coming to live in the United Kingdom. The Government are concerned that this Bill weakens, rather than strengthens, the position of ethnic minorities in Hong Kong. I have examined that carefully with legal experts in Hong Kong, with members of the Hong Kong Legislative Council and the Hong Kong Government, none of whom believe that this Bill will do anything but strengthen their position. More important, the Government should ask the ethnic minorities why they have never at any point given up their relentless campaign to gain passports. They obviously do not believe that their position will be weaker with a British passport.

I shall briefly go through the Bill which is before the House. The first part of Clause 1 outlines the purposes of the Bill and ensures that it is bound geographically by Hong Kong. That clause also establishes the uniqueness of the legislation and excludes all those who may hold other passports. It essentially sets out the qualifying criteria which restrict the Bill to genuine stateless members of the ethnic minority community.

The second part of the clause defines who may become a British dependent territory citizen by virtue only of a connection with Hong Kong after commencement but before 1st July 1997. The third part clarifies the issue of people who are British dependent territory citizens also holding British National (Overseas) passports.

The second clause explains the two types of British citizenship. The more favourable category is described as "otherwise than by descent". The lesser category is described as "by descent". British citizenship is divided into those two categories on the basis of a respective ability to transfer citizenship to one's children born outside the United Kingdom. That clause is intended to secure the most favourable status for those who qualify under the Bill.

Clause 3 dictates that one must fulfil different requirements as described in Schedule 2 to successfully achieve British citizenship as provided by this Act. To gain British citizenship under this Act, one must fulfil the requirements described. The key paragraph of Schedule 2 is paragraph 4 which determines that an applicant must prove that he is entitled to British citizenship under the Bill.

Clause 4 states that once a person gains British citizenship through the Bill, he is no longer a British dependent territory citizen or a British national overseas citizen and can apply for neither of those. That is simply a measure of good housekeeping.

Finally, I draw your Lordships' attention to a small typographical error. Clause 5(2) states: This Act has the same extent as the provisions of the principal Act mentioned in section 3(3) above". That should read Section 4(3).

Having had discussions with the Home Office and Hong Kong, I am aware that the Bill as it stands will need some further tightening. Therefore, I intend to bring forward the necessary amendments in Committee to ensure that any existing anomalies are resolved. I draw much comfort from the fact that this Bill is supported by noble Lords who have so much experience of Hong Kong and I am heartened by the presence of my noble friend Lady Thatcher whose abiding interest in Hong Kong is so important. I am heartened also by the concern for this particular group of people which was shown by the debate on Hong Kong in another place on 11th November, as well as by many independent commentators outside Westminster.

This Government should take the credit for the smooth handover of Hong Kong. Therefore, if only for political reasons, let us resolve this issue which could blight our record and reputation in Hong Kong and tarnish our colonial legacy. As we all agree on the need for safeguards, why can we not take this short step further for a mere 5,000 passports?

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Willoughby de Broke.)

5.4 p.m.

Lord Wilson of Tillyorn

My Lords, we owe a great debt of gratitude to the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke, for focusing our minds yet again on this issue.

Of course, we have been here before but that is no good reason for not being here again. Indeed, it is a very good reason for being here again. The fact is that despite the widespread support given in this House to the Bill introduced by the late Lord Bonham-Carter, the uncertain and unsatisfactory status of that small group of people—the non-Chinese ethnic minority in Hong Kong—still persists.

It is a small group, as the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke, pointed out. It is perhaps 5,000 people and probably fewer than that. But many of those people have been in Hong Kong for generations and have served their Hong Kong community in government, in the disciplined services and in commerce. The present arrangements are surely unsatisfactory. That group is neither one thing nor the other. Those people fall through the mesh of all the other multiple arrangements made in relation to nationality in Hong Kong.

Technically they may not be stateless. They may well have British nationality in the form of British national overseas passports. Their children and grandchildren, if they have no other passports, can have British overseas citizen passports. But there is no right of abode to go with that British national status. There is no right of abode in the United Kingdom. They can have a right of abode in Hong Kong if that has been their place of permanent residence for many years up to July next year. But because they are not ethnic Chinese, they have no automatic right to Chinese nationality, as ethnic Chinese in Hong Kong do. It is a classic case of falling between two stools. It cannot be considered satisfactory and it quite clearly is not satisfactory.

It would be churlish not to recognise what the Government have done already to try to deal with that situation. As the noble Lord has just mentioned, the Prime Minister gave a guarantee when he was in Hong Kong in March of this year that if those people came under pressure to leave Hong Kong after July 1997 then they would be admitted to the UK and allowed to stay. No doubt he thought that that would deal with the issue, but it has not. As the noble Lord pointed out, people remain uncertain as regards exactly what would constitute pressure to leave and what a future government would do. In any event, do people want that assurance for the future if their situation becomes intolerable in Hong Kong? The answer is that they do not. They want an assurance now which enables them to remain in Hong Kong and to continue to contribute their talents and energy to the success of Hong Kong.

The Opposition foreign affairs spokesman, Mr. Robin Cook, has also recognised that there is a real issue here. He has gone a step further and said that a Labour government would ensure that all people in that group would be given an unconditional right to enter and settle in Britain. But, inevitably, that is the future conditional tense and what is needed is action now.

There are many factors about which we in Britain cannot determine precisely what will happen in Hong Kong. But here is something which affects a small but real problem—the lives of a small group of people and their futures—for which we should feel a sense of responsibility, and the power to deal with that lies entirely in our own hands. Furthermore, fulfilling our responsibility on that would be widely supported in Hong Kong. It would in no way create difficulties in our relationship with Beijing.

I believe that on this issue we can do what is needed, and surely we should do what is needed along the lines set out in this Bill.

5.9 p.m.

Lord Rees

My Lords, I add my congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke, on introducing this Bill. It covers well tilled ground and many noble Lords will recall the Bill that was introduced in 1993 and regret with me that it foundered in another place. However, I hope that, against that background, my intervention can be brief. I am neither qualified nor concerned to be drawn into the niceties of international law, but it could just be that this case is covered by the United Nations convention of 1961, which relates to cases where there is a transfer of territory, and that both the countries concerned should accept some responsibility to ensure that there are no stateless persons as a result. Against that, it may be argued that the British overseas nationals in Hong Kong designed to be covered by this Bill will not be technically stateless because they will have some kind of travel document. However, what is important is the fact that they will have no right of abode in this country.

Equally, the Chinese authorities—and I regret that they should have done this—have disclaimed any particular responsibility for this category who are former subjects of Hong Kong because they claim that their nationality laws cannot be altered to take account of people who are not of ethnic Chinese descent. I am the last person to want to take up that issue, but, against that background, there clearly is a risk that the people for whom we are showing concern this evening might be in a very difficult and dangerous position after the transfer of power. Therefore, if the Chinese in their discretion were not to offer any people falling into that category a right of abode, I do not believe that this country could stand aside. So much was indeed conceded by the Minister who took part in the debate in 1993. I believe that the Bill is only doing what is right and honourable; is doing, indeed, what has been recognised by this Government to be the right and honourable course to take.

I have no doubt that my noble friend the Minister, who has the unenviable task of responding to today's debate, will tell us that dangerous precedents would be established and that questions of citizenship and immigration are of the utmost political sensitivity. Those of us who have had any experience of public life over the years will know that that is so, but we must get this particular case into perspective. It is rare for decisions of government—practically in any field, but certainly in this field—to be painless or without cost. However, I believe that this is such a case because, as my noble friend who introduced the Bill reminded us, probably no more than 5,000 people in Hong Kong at the maximum are likely to be affected.

We may be told that there are other residual dependencies, but I cannot believe that they involve as many as even 5,000 people. If people produced the case of St. Helena, my response would be that I had no awareness that this Government—or, indeed, any other government of this country—were contemplating the transfer of power there to another territory. Therefore, if we view the matter in its true perspective, I believe that it will be seen that this is a very small problem which should be handled with honour and charity.

I know that my noble friend the Minister has a warm heart and a fine sense of honour. We know that from her many appearances at the Dispatch Box. I hope that she will follow what I judge to be her instincts in this case and not the cautious departmental brief which has no doubt been pressed into her hands. I also hope that my noble friend will not attempt to block this small, very worthwhile Bill and that she may even go a little further and give it her support, however cautious.

5.13 p.m.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, I am sorry that the House has been deprived of a very much more eloquent speech than I can make. If I may say so, in this Chamber the repetition of points which have been made by previous speakers is frowned upon. So fond am I of your Lordships that I do not wish to earn any displeasure in that respect. Therefore, I shall try not to repeat points that have already been made so well, especially in the introductory speech to the Bill on its Second Reading.

The question of allowing this very small group of faithful citizens—and I call them "citizens" deliberately—has been debated quite often in another place, but on the 14th November there was a very telling exchange in regard to the workability of the conditional offer which has been made on behalf of the Government. Mr. Robin Cook, who is the shadow Foreign Secretary in the other place, said: The Prime Minister's statement was certainly an advance on the Government's previous position. However, the Foreign Secretary will be aware that there is considerable confusion among the ethnic minority in Hong Kong as to what those exceptional circumstances might be. The Government have offered no definition in that regard. Will the Foreign Secretary tell the House in what circumstances the right of abode will he triggered?"—[official Report, Commons, 14/11/96; col. 518.] In reply (at col. 519 of Hansard) the Secretary of State said: We have said that if those people came under pressure—it is in their interests that we do not try to specify circumstances which must be hypothetical—if there was undue discrimination against such people and I emphasise the word "undue" if they could not carry on their normal lives without unacceptable pressure being placed on them and I stress the word "unacceptable" if there was activity which clearly demonstrated again, I emphasise the word "clearly" that they were being treated unreasonably and unacceptably, we would wish to honour the obligation that we announced. That is a source of additional security to the people concerned". I wonder what kind of sense of security was given to the Asian minority in Hong Kong on hearing that response.

If one is making a gift—and this is a seasonal time at which to comment on that—for heaven's sake, make it absolutely and with a good heart. The Minister has been described much more graciously by the previous speaker than I could, but I echo his sentiment; indeed, she has the very high regard of this House. Will the noble Baroness accept that it would be a rather miserable way of giving a Christmas present if one said to the donee, "You don't get it unless you prove to me that you won't celebrate Christmas without it and on condition, too, that no one else is giving you a similar gift". That would not be the kind of generosity of which the Minister is capable. I ask her to consider that and to reflect, if she will, on the following deficiencies in the offer that has been made.

The case for making an offer has been made by others. That is why I need not repeat it. But, first, is it not really quite absurd and illogical to say to someone who is seeking security in Hong Kong in very tempestuous historical times (which all of us hope will prove not to be so but to be quiet and tolerant) with China there—and I speak with respect to that great country but with disrespect to its record of human rights—"Well, despite the fact that you are leaving relatives and friends behind who will be known to the authorities as being your friends and relatives, it will be perfectly easy for you to apply on the basis that you are undergoing such pressure in Hong Kong that you have got to leave"? Will they not think that the risk is being passed on to members of their families? Quite apart from that, will not the Foreign Secretary and his colleagues have to consider carefully the diplomatic effect of giving permission? It will be an admission by the British Government that there is discrimination and that life for these people in Hong Kong is so pressurised that they have to leave. They have to prove "undue" discrimination. Are the Government aware of the difficulty they would face in granting permission in those circumstances? This cannot be right. Apart from anything else, I thought we were trying to preach a little sermon to China. With all the diplomatic activity that has been going on, we are trying obviously to say to them, "Imitate our democratic ways if you can in Hong Kong because our democracy has virtues attached to it".

If that is the lesson we are trying to prove, ought the Government, on the basis of the Bill being passed in your Lordships' House, as I am confident it will be, not to give it an easy wind—because the other place is the voice of democracy—to ensure that it becomes an Act before 30th June? In fact, that will mean it becoming an Act before 1st May. We shall lower the Union Jack on 30th June; please may it be done with honour.

5.21 p.m.

Lord Blaker

My Lords, I, too, make a point which I hope may be a new one in this much debated issue. The British nationality selection scheme, which was passed into law by Parliament in 1990, was intended—as noble Lords will remember—to give British citizenship to up to 50,000 heads of households and their dependants. It was estimated at that time that that would mean giving citizenship to a total of approximately 225,000 people in all. Up to the present time 49,000 heads of household have received British citizenship. The scheme ends on the date of the transfer of power but the total number of people who have received British citizenship is nowhere near 225,000; it is 135,000. There is therefore a shortfall of 90,000 people whom we expected to receive British citizenship but who will quite clearly not receive it, although a few more may receive it between now and 30th June.

The number affected by this Bill is 5,000—a trifling number compared with those whom only a few years ago we expected and accepted would receive British citizenship. My first question to the Minister is: does she accept the figures which I have mentioned, and does she agree that we shall have certainly many fewer British citizens granted citizenship in Hong Kong than we had expected? If my figures are correct, that seems to me to be a powerful argument in favour of this Bill.

Secondly, what sort of people are we talking about? They have been well described by the noble Lord, Lord Wilson of Tillyorn. They and their forebears have played a distinguished role in the life of Hong Kong from the beginning, as there were Indian soldiers or military people in the garrison from the first day of British ownership. They have been civil servants, members of the disciplined services and some of them were members of the Hong Kong volunteers, the Hong Kong reserve defence force which fought the Japanese in 1941 when some of them were killed and some became prisoners of war of the Japanese. They have been prominent in business, industry and in the professions. Even if they were to come here, they would not be a burden on this country's resources. They have an established position in Hong Kong and they would not be a burden on the state if they came here. But, of course, they do not want to leave Hong Kong, any more than the 49,000 heads of household and their dependants whom I referred to a moment ago. It is evident that few of them have come to this country since they were granted British citizenship. What they want is an insurance policy. I believe it is unlikely they will be forced to leave anyway because of the useful role they will be able to play in Hong Kong in future.

I believe that the Prime Minister's statement in March was a step forward. The Government have come under pressure to list the precise circumstances in which the guarantee would apply. I believe that the Government have been right to resist producing such a list because if it were produced it would tend to narrow the discretion which a future government would possess if the relevant circumstances arose. However, there are administrative difficulties. In what I thought was a powerful speech, the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, explained some of the reasons why the ethnic minorities might lack confidence in the Prime Minister's statement, as elaborated by the Foreign Secretary on 14th November. After all, we are talking about Government statements which are not law. I believe that what we need is something firmer than that. In any case there would be administrative difficulties in putting the Prime Minister's policy into effect. For example, would it apply only to individuals who came under pressure, or would it apply to the whole class? Does a judgment have to be made to the whole class which has come under pressure—all 5,000—or is it enough that one or two come under pressure? That is not clear.

Are different degrees of pressure relevant? Clearly they are according to the Foreign Secretary's Statement. The present Government cannot guarantee the interpretation of a future government. Whatever confidence we may have that a future government would honour the guairantee, that is not how it appears in Hong Kong. Would an applicant who wished to take advantage of the guarantee be able to keep secret the fact that he had made an application to do so? If it were not secret, would he come under further discrimination? Supposing his application was not accepted and he had to remain in Hong Kong, would the discrimination against him be even stronger than before? I do not regard it as at all surprising that the ethnic minorities in Hong Kong lack confidence in what has been said by the Government, although I welcome what has been said. That is not strange given the obvious fact that it has been, and will be, the policy of successive governments to limit immigration into this country as strictly as possible.

My third question to my noble friend the Minister is: what are the objections to the passage of this Bill, or a Bill which embodies the main principle of the Bill? It is clear that it will not provoke China. It is supported by the Executive Council of Hong Kong and the Legislative Council of Hong Kong. It appears to be supported by the population of Hong Kong. I do not know of many objections from the average Chinese citizen of Hong Kong. It will not provoke other BNO passport holders. It is thought that the Government's reason for not accepting the Bill—if that is their position, I hope it will change—may be that it would set a difficult precedent. Can my noble friend the Minister give—if that is the case—examples of the kind of precedent that might be set? I find it difficult to see any difficult precedent.

The situation of the ethnic minorities in Hong Kong is unique. The situation of Hong Kong is unique. We shall not transfer other territories to the sovereignty of another power. There is no precedent this century for handing over a colonial territory to another power. When colonial territories have become independent, their citizens have had the option to obtain a passport of the newly independent state. The situation was entirely different. Can the Minister tell us what are the difficult precedents which might be established?

I welcome the Statement made by the Prime Minister in March. However, I hope that the Government will be able to go this step further.

5.30 p.m.

Lord MacLehose of Beoch

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke, for bringing forward the Bill on which I know he has spent so much time and trouble.

The issues involved have been well covered already by previous speakers. Taking account of the words of advice of the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, I shall not go over the same ground again. I am also conscious of the fact that my noble friend Lady Dunn will speak later with far more authority than I can do in present circumstances. However, I wish to emphasise one issue.

It may appear to the Home Office that there have been many Bills about Hong Kong nationality. There may be an element of impatience in perceiving this further Bill. It might be asked, "Does the issue matter that much that we should have so much legislation about it?" However, of all the issues that came to my desk in the course of 12 years in Hong Kong, nationality was the most difficult and most emotive. No issue seemed to stir people in Hong Kong so greatly. That is because it has been played around with (if I may use that term) so much in the past 40 years and there is great impatience on the part of those people about anything to do with nationality.

It seems to me a great pity that we should leave the colony with the issue of British nationality for the ethnic minorities unsolved. In Hong Kong the ethnic minorities may be comparatively small in number but they deserve our consideration. They are well thought of in Hong Kong. They are highly articulate. It would be a great pity to have this blot of meanness towards the ethnic minorities—for "Britannia" to sail away with the Governor and the Prince of Wales, with the British flag down and the Chinese flag up, just when we wanted to leave behind a clean page. I hope, therefore, that your Lordships will support the Bill and that it will be passed.

5.34 p.m.

Baroness O'Cathain

My Lords, I have never spoken in any of the debates on Hong Kong in your Lordships' House and probably would not have considered doing so today were I not conscious of the fact that this Bill seeks to address an issue of justice. The Bill proposes the removal of a blatant unfairness. The people affected are few in number but I believe that we have a responsibility towards them. I believe that we have a moral obligation to address the issue that has arisen, and speaking in this Chamber under the fresco depicting Justice, I feel compelled to involve myself in the debate.

We are talking about non-ethnic Chinese living in Hong Kong whose ancestors, let us recall, were taken to Hong Kong by the British founding fathers of the colony in the 1840s. About 2,000 Indian troops were there when the British flag was first raised in Hong Kong. They did not choose to go there; they were taken there by us. Since that time many of them have suffered as a result of their "British" nationality. They are regarded by the ethnic Chinese as British. During the Second World War some were taken to Japanese prisoner of war camps because they were perceived to be British. This House has great knowledge of the deprivation and the sheer horrors that occurred in those prisoner of war camps. We should remember that. They suffered alongside British prisoners. Their loyalty to the Crown was never in question. More of them served in Britain in the Armed Forces. Again, their loyalty was never in question. And more of them gave sterling service to this country in the voluntary support services.

Loyalty does count. We are not loyal just because we want to gain something. Loyalty is an inherent characteristic which has been shown time and again by these people. Surely we in turn should show loyalty to them.

Because of their situation, the 5,000 people we are discussing can hold BNO passports but not full British passports. I suspect that few noble Lords have ever been deemed to be stateless. As my noble friend Lord Rees said, these people need not be technically stateless, but they are as good as stateless if they do not have the right of abode. We do not know about being stateless because it is not within our experience. We cannot truly imagine how appalling it can be. Our full British passports are among our most treasured possessions—or they would be if we stopped to think about the alternative; namely, to be without a passport.

In preparation for the debate, my attention was drawn to the case of a lady aged over 80. She will become stateless next year. Her immediate family has received two MBEs and one OBE. Her brothers were both on active service during the Second World War; one was imprisoned in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. Other members of her family have been leading figures in the Hong Kong Government. Her future is now uncertain. She is highly unlikely to expose herself by applying for residency in the UK under the Government's as yet undefined criteria. In any case, she does not want to reside in the UK but is aware that if she stays in Hong Kong she will have no status with the new regime.

There are many similar cases involving people who have shown loyalty to us and towards whose plight and concern about the insecurity of their future we appear to be indifferent.

However, this is not a Bill about the past, about treatment meted out to those who are approaching the end of their lives. It is more importantly a Bill addressing the problems of the younger generations who will be affected significantly next year. The future of those younger people is blighted by the fact that neither they nor their children will have full citizenship of any country. There will be no country in the world where they can exercise political rights or hold high office. There is a statutory ceiling in Hong Kong that precludes them from offering their full potential to any community.

We are condemning those people and their offspring to a world in which they will never be able to exercise their full human rights—a legacy that might well come back to haunt us. We can and must show our loyalty to them. I do not need to remind your Lordships that both Houses of Parliament over the past 35 years have dealt sensitively with the issues surrounding our colonies. Let us not fall at the last hurdle on Hong Kong. Let us provide security for those 5,000 people and grant them passports.

5.39 p.m.

Baroness Dunn

My Lords, British sovereignty over Hong Kong will revert to China in six months' time. One of the world's most successful capitalist economies will become a special administrative region of the world's largest socialist country. What is to take place simply has no precedent in history.

The Government have pledged that the rights which Hong Kong people currently enjoy will be protected. The Government have done much to carry out that pledge. Yet they have obstinately refused to ease the plight of a small group of non-ethnic Chinese Hong Kong citizens who effectively, although perhaps not technically, face being rendered stateless when the British flag comes down.

Your Lordships are familiar with the unique circumstances of this group. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke, for bringing forward this Bill. I shall not repeat the facts. Numerous groups from Hong Kong have made representations on behalf of this group to the Prime Minister, the Home Secretary and Members of both Houses of Parliament. I have called on the Home Secretary twice, once in the company of the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, Mr. David Howell, and once with the late Lord Bonham-Carter, who so tirelessly championed their cause. The Foreign Affairs Select Committee supports their case for full British citizenship, as does the present Governor of Hong Kong.

On 15th July 1993, by a vote of 60 to 48, this House called upon the Government to give them full British citizenship. Those who supported the Motion spoke from all sides of the House and included two previous Governors of Hong Kong and a former Minister responsible for Hong Kong.

None of this has moved the Home Secretary. He has argued against granting full British citizenship on three main grounds: first, that this is not a special case; secondly, that giving them full citizenship would require legislation which it would be difficult to get through Parliament; and, thirdly, that existing arrangements give them sufficient protection.

None of these objections stands up to scrutiny. As to the first objection, that this is not a special case, I would ask the following question: where, in all the history of Britain, has sovereignty ever been transferred to another state where British nationals left behind will have no right to become citizens? If this is not a special case, what is?

As to the second objection, the difficulty with legislation, it is now clear that this objection has been overtaken by events. In a debate on Hong Kong in another place last month there was all-party support for legislation to be introduced. The Shadow Foreign Secretary assured the Government that the Labour Party, would co-operate in facilitating the passage of such legislation". As to the third objection, that existing assurances were good enough, the Prime Minister himself has now recognised that loose words of comfort are not good enough. As noble Lords have mentioned, during the Prime Minister's last visit to Hong Kong on 4th March this year, he announced that, if these people came under pressure to leave Hong Kong after 1997, Britain would "guarantee" the ethnic minorities admission and settlement. He said: The guarantee today is more specific and a good deal harder". He went on to concede that previous assurances had not gone far enough. But these are still only words. They do not meet the will of this House, expressed in its Motion three years ago, to grant them full citizenship; the Bill before us does.

Like all Hong Kong people, the ethnic minorities wish to continue to live in Hong Kong; but they are apprehensive that after 1997 there will be no sovereign obliged to protect them. Their number is small; they lack clout. Their plea is just. They have not yet despaired of their British sovereign.

I am deeply moved by the compassion, understanding and sense of justice shown by noble Lords who have spoken before me. I urge the Minister to support this Bill and to put an end to the anxieties of this small, unique and deserving group of individuals.

5.45 p.m.

Lord Geddes

My Lords, one of the great advantages of speaking at this stage of a Second Reading is that everything that should have been said has been said. I shall therefore make my remarks extremely brief.

Before coming on to the Bill itself, perhaps I may express my personal gratification at the election yesterday of Mr. C-H Tung as the first Chief Executive and even more so if, as reported in The Times today, that appointment is to be coupled with that of Mrs. Anson Chan, the present Chief Secretary, as the future Chief Secretary. I am delighted at Mr. Tung's appointment, which I think will be an extremely good one.

As to the Bill itself, I wish to emphasise one point only. To use the perhaps overused and abused word "unique", this is a completely unique situation. There has never been a situation like this before. The noble Lord, Lord MacLehose of Beoch, made a very telling comment when he said that in all his 12 years of governorship—outstanding years, if I may say so—the question of nationality was by far the most emotive that he came across. I can remember being in correspondence with the noble Lord during the passage of the British Nationality Act 1981. One of the biggest problems from the Government's point of view was the sheer weight of numbers. I do not think that that was said in as many words, but, reading between the lines, that is how we all interpreted it. During the passage of that Act the illustration was used of Macao and how the Portuguese, with a different nationality law from that of this country, were granting and would continue to grant—and still will grant, to the best of my knowledge—full Portuguese nationality to the Chinese citizens of Macao. The difference is, of course, that the numbers in that case were infinitely fewer than those of the population of Hong Kong.

It is water under the bridge as far as the Chinese ethnic population of Hong Kong is concerned and therefore there is no longer a question of numbers for Her Majesty's Government. But we still have this very small number of 4,000 to 5,000 who will become stateless. It is a unique situation. As my noble friend Lord Blaker said, it cannot set a precedent; there is no precedent to set.

I do not envy my noble friend her job in replying this evening to such a battery of one-sided comment. I urge her to persuade her right honourable friends that the Government, even at this late stage, should do something really decent—and perhaps even generous, if that is how the Foreign and Commonwealth Office wishes to look at it—by giving this Bill a fair passage.

5.49 p.m.

Lord Briggs

My Lords, the speeches which have been made during the course of this debate have been so moving that I do not intend to add anything of particular depth. People know Hong Kong so well and those who have spoken before me have played such a big part in its recent history that they have said everything there is to say.

Justice is at stake here. In addition, there is a case for regarding this as an historic moment. In fact, we are going through a particular change in the history of the world in which our record will be looked at very carefully in years to come.

These people about whom we are speaking have played an enormous part in the history of Hong Kong. As was said, many of them did not go there of their own free will. Through their work and their loyalty, as well as through their very special and individual talents, they have contributed much to the history of Hong Kong. I have talked to many of them in Hong Kong. They look to his House as a place where their views, ideas and interests can be heard. If, at this moment, we make our own gesture of an historic kind, we shall make relationships in that part of the world a great deal better in the future. We have the chance to do it.

During the course of this debate—I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke, on bringing it forward—many marvellous things have been said. Much of it has been said before. The ground has been tilled. But the timing is now crucial. We do not have any more time. Unless we act now, we shall miss an opportunity of getting right our own historic record in a part of the world where we shall need in the future to have our record right.

5.51 p.m.

Lord Marlesford

My Lords, I support the Bill. I have only two questions to ask my noble friend the Minister. If we are concerned, and feel some responsibility for how Peking may treat the people of Hong Kong after 1997—and that, I would suggest, is in part (some might say considerable part) what the negotiations over the past 14 years have been about—how would we stand if we now abandon the 5,000? The subsequent question is: What would be the moral force of any protest that we might have to make in the future if there were to be—I hope there would not be—any ill treatment of the Chinese people of Hong Kong?

5.52 p.m.

Lord Thomson of Monifieth

My Lords, from these Benches I strongly but briefly support the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke, in moving this Bill. From this Bench we particularly appreciate the references that he made to the late Lord Bonham-Carter, our colleague who was a leader in initiating this concern in your Lordships' House.

Everything has been said. I do not speak with the knowledge of Hong Kong shown by so many of those who have spoken, including two distinguished former governors. But what has emerged over the long period in which this case has been deployed is that there is a small but unique group for whom we in Britain have a responsibility. It is a situation without precedent. As one noble Lord pointed out, we do not see how conceding this matter would create future precedents which would make difficulty for the Government.

Over my long political lifetime, I have had a good deal to do with the process of spreading independence within the British Commonwealth. It is a process of which we can be properly proud. But never before have we been in a situation in which we face leaving people for whom we have a moral responsibility stateless. The Government ought to face up to that situation.

The Government's position was stated by the Foreign Secretary in another place in November. He took the view that those people already have a right of abode in Hong Kong. He went on to say that, if there were undue pressure, unacceptable pressure, they would be looked after by the Government. He gave an explicit assurance that they would have a right to enter the United Kingdom.

Let me say to the Minister who has the slightly thankless task of replying to this debate that, with reference to the statement that these people have a right of abode in Hong Kong, the fact is that the ethnic minority's security is not guaranteed by the Basic Law. They will not be full Hong Kong citizens. In individual cases, of which all of us could give examples, there are people who have already suffered in their careers because of the present situation.

The noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, dealt in an unanswerable way with the proposition that if there is pressure something will be done; namely, that there is no proper definition of "undue discrimination". What is the definition of "unacceptable pressure"? How does one define "normal lives"? What is the meaning of "unreasonable or unacceptable treatment"?

When it comes to an explicit assurance about looking after that tiny group of people, I feel that what is required is the very small step by Her Majesty's Government from giving those unenforceable assurances to giving the security of full United Kingdom citizenship, with the legal guarantees that go with it.

Time is now desperately short but it is not too short for the Government to take up the Bill, to amend it in whatever way is required, and make it an appropriate statute. The Government are assured of the co-operation of the Opposition parties on this matter. This is a small group of people for whom we have a responsibility and who are faced with being stateless. It is a group of people who are proud of their connection with Britain and who over generations in Hong Kong have given good service to our country. This is a debt of honour. Before it is too late, the Government ought to meet that debt of honour.

5.57 p.m.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, I too congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke, on having introduced this Bill, on his longstanding commitment to the cause of ethnic minorities in Hong Kong and on the enormous amount of effort that he has put into the Bill to make sure that it is the kind of Bill that will meet the need.

I am conscious that in this House today there are many persons who have enormous experience and knowledge of Hong Kong. My knowledge of Hong Kong is much less. But, given the weight of opinion in this House based upon such talent and experience of Hong Kong, I hope that the Government will listen hard to the arguments.

I am also conscious that every one of us, as 1st July next year dawns, will be apprehensive and concerned on behalf of all the people in Hong Kong. We shall also be concerned lest there be anything that we failed to do that we could have done to safeguard all the people. One of our failures might be that of not looking after the rights of the ethnic minorities. There is a chance today for us to demonstrate that, at least in that respect, we shall have done everything possible. I do not say that we shall not have done so in other respects as well, but here we are concerned with a very particular issue.

I have made three visits to Hong Kong. On each one I met representatives of the ethnic minorities there and been impressed by the force of their arguments. As has been said very clearly, they will not have the same status as other people in Hong Kong because China will not guarantee them citizenship as they are not technically ethnically Chinese. So they will be left without the rights to which they ought to be entitled. They will have a document but it will merely be a travel document. It will not be a document that will guarantee them the proper rights of citizenship and admission to any territory. Never before in our history of decolonisation have we left people in that position. We have looked after the interests of other people when we have decolonised many other parts of the world; we cannot make an exception with regard to this one small, but important, group of people.

My noble friend Lord Mishcon dealt capably with the Government's arguments that if people in Hong Kong came under pressure, the Government would look after their interests. But that may well be too late; it may well be invidious, and it is only a partial assurance—so partial, that we regard it as inadequate.

When I first went to Hong Kong and talked to the ethnic minorities I found that around 9,000 people were affected by this situation. A number have since then acquired British or other passports and the figure has fallen to between 4,000 and 5,000. Those are individuals, not heads of households. The number of households is of course much lower than that. As has already been said, many of those people came to Hong Kong originally at our invitation and instigation. Many are second or third generation Hong Kong residents. I understand that most of them came from the Indian sub-continent and many have served the Crown loyally over many years, if not generations.

In the past there has been concern by people opposed to the giving of passports that to do it on this occasion would set a precedent elsewhere in the world to other groups who demand British passports. But, as has been said this evening, no other group in the world has that claim. If they did, somebody would have mentioned them. We are talking about a unique group of people and in granting them passports, as the Bill suggests, we shall not in any way be setting a precedent for other groups elsewhere in the world.

I served in the other place on the standing committee dealing with the British Nationality Act and we spent a lot of time discussing Hong Kong—perhaps we were not all that prescient in regard to what is happening now, but we did spend a great deal of time on the issue. Though the argument about opening the door to other groups has existed since then, nobody has produced any examples to deal with it. It is a unique group.

If all goes well in Hong Kong, as we all pray and hope it will, the majority—indeed the totality—of those 4,000 to 5,000 people will prefer to stay in Hong Kong. We would be giving them an assurance and a safeguard. In fact, I believe that if they came to Britain they would be an asset to this country. They have demonstrated their entrepreneurial talents and skills and no doubt would immediately make their mark on this country and contribute to our economy and to our life. However, if all goes well in Hong Kong, they will not want to come here.

The proposition in the Bill is a simple one and it is difficult to see what opposition there could be. My understanding is that the Bill is widely supported in this House and in the other place; it is supported by the present Governor of Hong Kong and two previous governors; it is supported by the Chinese Government, LegCo and the bulk of public opinion itself. Who is against it? I know that the Government of this country speak with one voice. But if one looks behind that voice, there is reason to believe that there are many voices in government who would urge that this Bill be supported. I know the Minister cannot comment on that, but my understanding for some time has been that the only thing that stands in the way of the passage of this Bill is the Home Office. Perhaps tonight we shall hear something different and I shall be proved wrong.

The noble Baroness, Lady Dunn, went through what appeared to be the Government's arguments against the Bill and successfully demolished every one of them. I suppose there is one other argument—let us be frank—an election is coming. Is the Home Secretary nervous lest he be accused of being soft on immigration? I can say emphatically that that will not be an argument in the election. Every party has said that, if the Government give the Bill a passage, we shall give them our total and wholehearted support. It will not be an election issue therefore and the Government need not worry about that.

Over the years the ethnic minorities in Hong Kong have never failed to give Britain their support; let us make it clear to them tonight that Britain will not fail to give them our support when they need it.

6.5 p.m.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Blatch)

My Lords, it is clear from today's debate that this Bill deals with a subject about which not only my noble friend Lord Willoughby de Broke but many others in your Lordships' House feel very strongly.

An earlier Bill closely resembling this one was introduced in 1993 by the late Lord Bonham-Carter, and my noble friend Lord Willoughby de Broke spoke in support of that Bill. The present Bill is primarily concerned, as was the Bill introduced by Lord Bonham-Carter, with the 8,000—there is a difference between us of around 3,000, but I make no issue of that—or so Hong Kong British dependent territories citizens or British nationals (overseas) who hold no other nationality. I recognise that the Bill is not therefore aimed at the other 22,000 or so members of Hong Kong's ethnic minority population who also have some other nationality besides British.

It has been argued very strongly today that because of their unique position those members of the ethnic minorities with whom the Bill is concerned should be given British citizenship as a form of insurance against what might happen to them after June next year. Parliament concluded, when the British Nationality (Hong Kong) Bill was debated in 1990, that no special citizenship arrangements were needed or appropriate.

One of the arguments for special citizenship measures has been that the ethnic minorities concerned will become stateless on 1st July 1997. The Government do not accept that argument. Specific provision was made in Article 6 of the Hong Kong (British Nationality) Order 1986 to deal with the possibility of statelessness. Under the terms of the order people who have only British nationality—in the form of Hong Kong British dependent territories citizenship or British nationality (overseas)—before 1997 will keep British nationality, primarily as British nationals (overseas) but, alternatively, as British overseas citizens if they fail to register as British nationals (overseas) and would otherwise be stateless. The children of these people will automatically become British overseas citizens if they would otherwise be stateless. The anti-statelessness provisions even extend to their grandchildren who will have an entitlement to acquire British overseas citizenship by registration if they would otherwise be stateless.

It is thus clear from Article 6 of the 1986 order that the ethnic minorities will not be stateless. I cannot stress that enough. Another issue is the often-repeated claim that the ethnic minorities will have no right of abode after 1997. The solely British ethnic minorities have a right of abode only in Hong Kong at the moment. They will continue to have a right of abode there because the Joint Declaration and Article 24(6) of the Basic Law guarantee it for people who do not have a right of abode elsewhere. That has been reaffirmed in recent discussions with the Chinese Government.

Most of the Hong Kong population will be in the same position as the ethnic minorities in that they will have the same rights of abode after the change of sovereignty as before, with the vast majority not having the right of abode in the United Kingdom. The Government's view is that the change of sovereignty will not impact upon the ethnic minorities in any way which justifies their being given special treatment in the form of a right of abode in the United Kingdom.

Considerable doubt has been voiced tonight about the value of British nationality (overseas) and British overseas citizenship, one or other of which the ethnic minorities will have after June next year. Those nationality statuses are in no way inferior to the British dependent territories citizenship which the ethnic minorities now have. There are tens of thousands of people in the world at large with British overseas citizen status, and the British overseas citizen passport is well established. I would point out that a large number of the British overseas citizens, scattered throughout the world, have this as their only citizenship. As to British nationality (overseas) status, there are likely to be around 3.5 million people in Hong Kong by next year with this status and the British Nationality (Overseas) passport is accepted throughout the world.

Holders of the British Nationality (Overseas) and the British overseas citizen's passports do not need entry clearance for visits to the United Kingdom. The holders of such passports can also call upon British consular assistance worldwide. These passports are much more than just travel documents. Their holders, if resident here for the required period, have an entitlement to registration as British citizens as opposed to having to apply for naturalisation, which is discretionary.

Your Lordships will see therefore that there is no difference between the position of the ethnic minorities now and what it will be after next June in terms of ability to travel, consular protection and entitlement to British citizenship after fulfilling the UK residence requirements.

I want to emphasise that it is not appropriate to consider this problem purely in the context of Hong Kong, although I know that that has been the strength underlying many of the points which have been made. If the argument were to be accepted that having a form of British nationality that is not British citizenship, and having right of abode somewhere else besides the UK, is a totally unsatisfactory situation and one that has to be brought to an end forthwith, that would undermine the whole basis of British nationality law. The British Nationality Act 1981 provides for different forms of British nationality to be acquired according to the circumstances of the particular case. Each form of British nationality is perfectly acceptable and valid. It is absolutely legitimate for someone to have, say, British dependent territories citizenship and no other nationality, and right of abode only in the relevant territory. There are many thousands of people in the world who have one of these other forms of British nationality and who have right of abode only in a particular territory. The ethnic minorities are not unique in having a form of British nationality which is not British citizenship and in not having a right of abode in the United Kingdom. This global situation has to be taken into account.

The ethnic minorities have, for many years, been secure in the knowledge that if, against expectations, they came under pressure to leave Hong Kong and had nowhere else to go, the British Government of the day would consider their case for admission to the United Kingdom sympathetically. That assurance was given because the ethnic minorities feared that as non-Chinese residents of Hong Kong they might be discriminated against and their lives made intolerable.

In March this year the Prime Minister made it absolutely clear that we were giving the ethnic minorities a firm guarantee of admission to the United Kingdom for settlement if they ever came under pressure to leave Hong Kong. The Government have accepted that evidence of discrimination in a particular case could be a relevant factor in deciding whether any individual had come under pressure to leave. That is a partial answer to a point raised by my noble friend Lord Blaker. We would most certainly take into account any form of racial harassment.

The Government have been pleased to note that several hundred members of the ethnic minorities have been successful in their applications for British citizenship under the British nationality selection scheme, which provided for British citizenship for 50,000 key personnel and their families, because we recognise that the ethnic minorities have made, and continue to make, a substantial contribution to Hong Kong's prosperity and stability.

Our primary objective has been to ensure the ethnic minorities' security in Hong Kong, which is where their ties are and their future lies. We believe that we have adequately protected their position. There are, in the Government's view, no new circumstances which would justify our now making additional citizenship arrangements for the ethnic minorities.

To summarise, the Government have set in place the selection scheme which has given British citizenship so far to more than 130,000 people in Hong Kong, among them members of the ethnic minorities. I will come back to the specific point made by my noble friend in a moment, if I may. It has safeguarded through the Joint Declaration the Hong Kong residence rights of all the ethnic minorities who currently have right of abode in Hong Kong, including the residence rights of those ethnic minorities who are the subject of the Bill before us today. We have guarded against their statelessness by means of the Hong Kong British Nationality Order 1986 and have provided for their British nationality to continue. Of great significance also is the promise made in March by the Prime Minister. I repeat his words today. If the House will bear with me today I shall give the full statement. The Prime Minister said: There are two other immigration and nationality matters which have been raised many times by Hong Kong people: the position of the wives and widows of ex-servicemen who fought for Britain in the War and that of the non-Chinese ethnic minorities in Hong Kong after 1997. Let me address first the question of the non-Chinese ethnic minorities with no nationality other than British. This is a limited group; their right of abode in Hong Kong after 1997 is guaranteed by the Joint Declaration; the British Government have made clear that any member of this group who would otherwise be stateless will be entitled to British Overseas Citizenship as will their children and grandchildren. We have also said repeatedly that if against all expectations any solely British nationals come under pressure to leave Hong Kong, the British government of the day would consider with considerable and particular sympathy their case for admission to the United Kingdom. Let me make clear today to this group that we are prepared to guarantee-1 repeat to guarantee—admission and settlement if at any time after 1 July 1997 they were to come under pressure to leave Hong Kong. It is the position, of course, that this group do not wish to leave Hong Kong, they are settled here, their business is here, their families ties are here but they wish to be sure that if they come under pressure to leave that they will have a country to go to. Mr. Chairman, from today, they have that assurance.". The Prime Minister also made it clear that he was not convinced of the merit of setting down in detail the specific circumstances which would need to be met for that assurance to come into effect. The Government have also said that discrimination or racial harassment would be taken into account when deciding whether any individual had come under pressure to leave. I cannot add to that statement.

Lord Thomson of Monifieth

My Lords, I am much obliged to the Minister. Will she say, in connection with all these assurances, whether the ethnic minority will enjoy British consular protection after July of next year?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, yes I can. I have already made that point, but the answer is, yes, they would have consular protection.

My noble friend Lord Blaker referred to the shortfall in the number of people who came in under the special scheme. Parliament decided, of course, that the scheme should cover a maximum of 50,000 households, and that is the figure specified in the British Nationality (Hong Kong) Act 1990. The figure of 225,000 was only ever an estimate of the total number of people, including family members and children born after 1997, who might ultimately receive British citizenship as the result of that Act. Therefore, it was an illustrative figure—not definitive—and only an estimate of the total commitment. Therefore, the figure quoted by my noble friend was right. It was 130,000, but the 220,000 has no formal status at all.

My noble friend Lady O'Cathain referred to a particular case in Hong Kong and clearly set out the case for that family. I hope my noble friend will accept that I cannot enter into individual cases. What I can say, referring to the point illustrated by the case, is that the Joint Declaration and the Basic Law make clear that foreign nationals serving in public service in Hong Kong have the right to serve as public servants in government and in government departments at all levels, except, of course, for a handful of principal official posts, considered to be of particular sensitivity. That is no different from many countries, including this country. There are a number of posts in this country of such sensitivity that it has to be British nationals and citizens of this country who hold those posts.

The Joint Declaration also makes clear that appointments and promotion of public servants shall be on the basis of qualifications, experience and ability, and giving British citizenship would not improve the position of those people in principal posts.

My noble friend Lord Geddes referred to the Macau and Portuguese issue. Portugal makes no distinction between Portuguese nationals in Portugal and Macau, as I think my noble friend knows. The United Kingdom has had to make citizenship distinctions enshrined in the British Nationality Act 1981 restricting right of abode in the United Kingdom to British citizens. Therefore, we do not believe it is sensible to draw that analogy. Different historical and constitutional factors are reflected in long-standing differences between the two countries' policies on legislation.

The noble Baroness, Lady Dunn, asked a direct question about the uniqueness argument. She is absolutely right. There has been no such set of circumstances before. Other colonies have become independent. There was no transfer of sovereignty. Hong Kong is therefore no different from other territories where solely British nationals live who have a right of abode only in those territories. To do something for Hong Kong would set a precedent in respect of other territories. The scenario set out by the noble Baroness was right.

My noble friend Lord Marlesford intervened with a question about ethnic minorities and the possibility of abandoning them. I hope I have said enough to assure my noble friend that that is not the case. We have set in place a number of measures to ensure that those people are not abandoned. They have British nationality; they have a right of abode; and they have a guarantee of admission here. Therefore, in the circumstances described by my noble friend, I should like to think that that would trigger in the guarantee that we have given that ill treatment of people in Hong Kong, particularly this group of people, simply on the grounds of their nationality would be a possible reason, although, as I say, we have set our face against specifically setting down particular circumstances. I repeat the point I made earlier. They would have full British consular protection in Hong Kong.

The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, referred in passing to the attitude of the Chinese Government to the minorities acquiring citizenship. This is a confusing picture because there have been reports, mainly in the press, claiming that the Chinese are not favourable towards awarding Chinese citizenship and other reports suggesting that the Chinese might be favourably inclined to granting Chinese citizenship to ethnic minorities. We have no confirmation either way. A number of questions on nationality are outstanding. They remain part of the negotiations and detailed discussions with the Chinese, especially on right of abode matters, and we shall continue to press for answers to those questions.

This is a Private Member's Bill and therefore I shall not oppose the Question that it be given a Second Reading. However, I thought it was right to set out for the House the Government's view of the matter.

6.23 p.m.

Lord Willoughby de Broke

My Lords, before dealing with some of the points raised by my noble friend on the Front Bench, I should like to say how much I appreciated the wide support given to the Bill from all sides of the House. The speeches in the debate were outstanding not only for their expression of feeling but for the depth of experience behind them. From our Benches we had some outstanding speeches. I thank those who made them. From the Cross-Benches we had a concentrated amount of experience of Hong Kong which is unmatched anywhere else in the House. I was also pleased to hear such good speeches from noble Lords on the Labour Benches and on the Liberal Democrat Benches, who spoke about the late Lord Bonham-Carter. As usual, Hong Kong has brought out the best in your Lordships' House.

When I listened to my noble friend on the Front Bench I felt that if I closed my eyes it would be like listening to the speech of my noble friend Lord Ferrers from three years ago. I am a little disappointed that no progress has been made since then despite the broad experience and wisdom that has been brought to bear on this subject. My noble friend disagreed that these people would be stateless. That flies in the face not only of everything we have heard today from many experienced speakers but of Fransmann, the International Commission of Jurists and Justice, all of which have been previously quoted. They have said firmly that these people will be stateless. They may not be technically stateless but, effectively, they will be stateless; and I find it hard to accept that passing this modest Bill will undermine the fundamental concept of the British nationality law. That cannot be quite right.

I know that my noble friend has had a difficult time opposing all the arguments, but I believe the Government's arguments were comprehensibly demolished one by one. I certainly do not want to embarrass anyone by going over them again. I believe that hope makes a good breakfast but a poor dinner. The day is still yet young so far as the Bill is concerned and I remain optimistic and full of hope. I thank everyone who participated in the debate for giving their time and advice. The people in Hong Kong, if they are listening—it is early in the morning there—will be very encouraged by what has been said in all the speeches except the closing speech of my noble friend Lady Blatch. I ask your Lordships to give the Bill a Second Reading.

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