HL Deb 29 January 1997 vol 577 cc1211-21

7.57 p.m.

Read a third time.

Clause 1 [Acquisition of British citizenship]:

Lord Willoughby de Broke moved the amendment:

Page 1, line 11, at end insert ("and (c) who has not after 21st November 1996 renounced or otherwise ceased of his own volition to hold the status of a national or citizen of another country.").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, this simple amendment to Clause 1 tightens the effects of the Bill. It seeks to make it impossible for anyone who will be encompassed by the Bill to renounce any other nationality that they may have in order to benefit from the provisions of the Bill, thus, I believe, making it even better than when we first began. I beg to move.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Blatch)

My Lords, if the Government were supporting my noble friend's Bill then we would be happy to support this amendment. That said, the amendment does represent an improvement to the Bill because it would ensure that people did not abuse the legislation by deliberately putting themselves in a position to benefit from it. I shall not be opposing the amendment.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

An amendment (privilege) made.

7.59 p.m.

Lord Willoughby de Broke

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill do now pass.

At this stage of the Bill I do not propose to enter into a detailed debate about the flaws in the position of the Government. However, there is one point that is worth mentioning. If the resistance to this Bill is an issue of immigration, which I believe it is, surely the Government must revoke their current policy, which means that inevitably these people will come to this country. The Government should therefore support the Bill, which would have the effect of giving that community in Hong Kong the security and status that it needs to stay there. The basis on which the Government introduced the British Nationality (Hong Kong) Act 1990 was precisely to anchor people in Hong Kong. This Bill will have exactly the same effect. It is indeed an anti-immigration Bill.

If the Government believe that life will be roses all the way for this community, why have they introduced a separate policy towards them? The position of the Government is logically incoherent. Either these people have a problem or they do not. The Government have recognised that they have a problem. Surely, they must come up with something more convincing than the current half-baked asylum policy that is now on offer.

The cause of this Bill is supported by people with a deep knowledge of Hong Kong: two most distinguished former Governors of Hong Kong; the present Governor; the Hong Kong Legislative Council; my noble friend Lord Glenarthur, who is unable to be here this evening but who had ministerial responsibility for Hong Kong; and all parties in this House and in another place. Yet the Government do nothing but repeat woodenly the same discredited arguments.

The position of the Government reminds me of the story—I promise that I will deal with it briefly—of the proud parents who went to see their son at a passing out parade at his military academy. All the cadets marched past beautifully to the sound of a military band. The mother nudged the father and said, "Look, Dad, everybody's out of step except our Johnnie". The Government are out of step with what needs to be done—and, above all, what can be done so easily.

I understand that the Government of China would have no objection to what is proposed in the Bill. We do not have to seek permission from our partners in Europe or even the Commission. It is our responsibility alone. I know that my noble friend the Minister is having a torrid time at the moment, but I hope she accepts that the Bill will help the Government. This is unfinished business in Hong Kong. Britain can with justification be proud of her record there. Why tarnish that achievement by failing to act on a matter that can be so easily dealt with? I am not alone in believing that if the Government miss this opportunity we risk leaving behind a land mine that can easily blow up in our faces. Why when we have honour within our grasp do we risk dishonour? I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill do now pass.—(Lord Willoughby de Broke.)

Lord Thomson of Monifieth

My Lords, first I pay tribute to the persistence of the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke, in pursuing the Bill at this stage. I believe that he has behaved admirably and in the interests of the House and the country. Secondly, I should like to make one more plea to the Government to reconsider their position. It is not yet too late. This would be a small step to take but it would be of very great importance to our reputation. I make the appeal in sadness because I now have little hope of it being accepted. I also make the plea out of honour to my predecessor, the late Lord Bonham-Carter, who fought very hard for this cause. I am sorry that time is getting so short but still there is no success.

Lord Bramall

My Lords, even at this late stage I should like to add my strong support to that of many other noble Lords for the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke, which seeks to grant full UK citizenship to a small group of non-Chinese British nationals.

When I commanded the British forces in Hong Kong in the 1970s I got to know this group very well. It provided a very large proportion of the security guards and attendants at the headquarters and installations of the British forces. Indeed, many of them had gone to Hong Kong in the first place precisely to serve in that capacity. In that capacity invariably they served the British Crown with the greatest loyalty, devotion to duty and reliability, whatever the alarms and excursions, of which there were quite a number. To those of us who have lived in Hong Kong it is quite clear that Britain owes them a great debt of gratitude and has a special responsibility for them. That is manifested by the unanimous and unequivocal support of the present Governor and past very distinguished Governors. For this country to allow a clearly identifiable group of Crown servants and their dependants to become stateless in terms of right of abode anywhere, and therefore without any security or protection for them to continue to live with full citizens' rights in Hong Kong itself, is a cruel and heartless way to repay these devoted servants.

I strongly urge the Government at this difficult time for Hong Kong, particularly when sovereignty passes, to show real understanding and compassion for this non-Chinese group and to honour their moral obligations to it.

Baroness Park of Monmouth

My Lords, I strongly reiterate the support that I have already expressed for my noble friend's Bill. At Second Reading my noble friend the Minister said that this group would continue to have a right of abode in Hong Kong because the Joint Declaration and Article 24(6) of the Basic Law guaranteed it for people who did not have a right of abode elsewhere. She went on to say that that had been reaffirmed in recent discussions with the Chinese Government.

However, there have not been a few recent examples where the Chinese interpretation of what has been agreed has differed from ours quite radically. This is likely to be another such case. What this small group asks for is status. The position was clearly and accurately stated by the Prime Minister, who said that this group did not wish to leave Hong Kong. They were settled there and their business and family ties were in Hong Kong, but they wished to be sure that if ever they came under pressure to leave they would have a country to go to. What possible reason can there be to continue to refuse to make one very simple gesture that will give these people the status to stay and avoid any likelihood or danger of pressure? It would demonstrate not only to them but to the Chinese, who will respect us for it, that we look after our own.

These people fought for us against the Japanese. They are our family and we owe them loyalty. This is a question of honour. To act now will remove a possible source of serious further embarrassment in our relations not only with the Chinese but with India and the Commonwealth. That would be another not inconsiderable advantage, especially when the Commonwealth Conference is due to be held here later this year. I am a simple soul. It seems to me that this gesture is small, easy to make and will earn us much goodwill. What government can afford not to make it?

Baroness O'Cathain

My Lords, I agree with the remarks of my noble friend Lady Park, my noble friend Lord Willoughby de Broke and all those who have spoken in support of this Bill. My noble friend Lord Willoughby de Broke has said that the Government of China do not object to this Bill. I make one other point. The Government of China have stated quite openly that ethnic minorities will not be able to exercise citizenship as fully as the Chinese majority and have recommended that they petition the British Government for passports. This information has emerged through the Ximhua News Agency, which de facto is the Chinese Embassy in Hong Kong. That does not fill me with a great deal of hope that come the 1st July these people will be treated properly.

On a human level, only today I hear that there are people in this group who are increasingly desperate. They feel abandoned and stateless. They can no longer call Hong Kong home. they are in a state of panic and feel quite scared. We are not dealing here with politics but a situation in which people just want to feel safe.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill

My Lords, I should like to add one or two points to the speeches that have been made so far. First, I express gratitude to the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke, for piloting the Bill this far through this House. He will realise from speeches that he has heard this evening and earlier, especially the speeches of the noble Baroness, Lady Park of Monmouth, both today and at Committee stage, that his Bill has overwhelming support from all sides of the House beyond party and faction. What concerns me very much when I ask myself what possible reason there is to be opposed to this Bill is how without it we can make this small, vulnerable ethnic minority feel safe. How can we give them real security? How can we give them legal certainty? How can we give them what the noble Baroness, Lady Park of Monmouth, referred to as status, full status as British citizens when they really need it?

What concerns me is that the Government's position in explaining the circumstances in which the guarantee will be honoured is still so obscure without the Bill as to leave members of this minority almost wholly in the dark as to when the guarantee can be honoured.

I asked some questions of the Government, and on 13th January the noble Baroness the Minister gave Written Answers to a series of Questions (Hansard, cols. WA 15-16), but I was really seeking some assurance without the passage of the Bill. The first Question I asked was whether the Government's guarantee to the ethnic minorities of Hong Kong of admission to the UK for settlement, if ever they come under pressure to leave Hong Kong", was based on clearly prescribed criteria; and, if so, what the criteria were; and, if not, whether the Government would publish them.

I also asked what the Government regarded as sufficient evidence of "pressure to leave Hong Kong" and of "discrimination" and "racial harassment". I asked how the ethnic minorities in Hong Kong could be "secure" in their knowledge of the Government's intentions in the absence of criteria. The Government's Answer was to refer me to the position set out during the Second Reading debate, which frankly clarified none of these points.

The noble Baroness—I realise compelled to do so—stated that the Government have no prescribed detailed criteria for operation of the guarantee, but did not explain why they had failed to give any criteria. Nor did the answers explain how the ethnic minorities in Hong Kong could possibly be secure in the absence of criteria. All that was said was that the Government had undertaken that the operation of the guarantee, will not be interpreted narrowly or restrictively". If I may say so with deep respect, it is a profoundly unsatisfactory position for the Government to remain unwilling to tell this House, and therefore to tell the members of the ethnic minorities in Hong Kong, what are the specific circumstances that would need to be met for their assurances to come into effect.

I also asked, finally, why the Government had said that they would admit members of the minorities only if, they had nowhere else to go". The answer given to that question was that, The guarantee applies only to those with nowhere else to go because members of the ethnic minorities in Hong Kong who are not solely British nationals, but hold the nationality of another country, will have the option of going there". I fully realise that, but that was not the point of the question.

What I would like to know, and I imagine the House would like to know, is why this tiny, vulnerable group are regarded as so unwelcome in this country that they are only to be admitted if they have nowhere else to go. Surely we should be giving the same generous treatment to them as was given, for example, by a previous Conservative Government to Ugandan Asians and that was given also to British Asians from East Africa and elsewhere who came as a result of the odious policy of Africanisation in the late 1960s. But, as has been said, the Government continue to oppose this very modest, very moderate, sensible Bill and leave the position quite uncertain. That seems to me to be the overwhelming reason to put the position clear on the statute book, unless the Government at this stage were willing to do it by an administrative announcement of proper, enforceable criteria. I am sorry to have taken so long, but I hope the position is clear.

8.15 p.m.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, I should like to join the congratulations that have been given to the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke, on the effort he has put into this Bill, on his great commitment and indeed on his success in achieving support on all sides of the House, with the exception of the Government Front Bench.

I regret very much that the Government do not see fit to support this Bill. It is probably not a secret but it is certainly widely believed that the Government are actually divided on this issue. Of course, they always formally speak with one voice, but many of us believe that the views inside the Government are divided and it is only the Home Secretary who is standing out against the Government supporting this Bill.

Listening to the arguments that have been put forward by the Government, I note that one of the points that has been made is that they are afraid that if they grant citizenship to this particular group of people, it will somehow open the doors to similar demands from other groups throughout the world. I would emphatically reject that. These people are in a unique position. We have never before handed a colony over to another country, least of all to a communist run country. In all other instances of decolonisation the countries concerned have been given independence. Therefore, people have been given a particular type of citizenship in the knowledge that they will continue to live in the same country, a country that is now independent and a country that has accepted the basis of the nationality of some of its people. I refer, for example, to some of the East African countries. But here we have an entirely different situation. We are leaving a small group of people in a very vulnerable position without the basic rights that ought to go with the handover of a territory like Hong Kong to China.

If this debate were taking place at a time such that a change of government could bring in new legislation before 1st July it might not be so serious. However, the Minister will know that both the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrat Party are committed to bringing such legislation in—certainly the Labour Party is, I believe with Liberal Democrat support—should there be a change of government after the election. But the difficulty is that the election is likely to be too late in the day for such legislation to be introduced by an incoming government in time to become law by 1st July. That is why the matter is so urgent and that is why it is important that this Bill goes to the House of Commons with the hope that the Government will have some change of mind and feel able to support it at the eleventh hour.

The numbers concerned are very small. We are talking about some 3, 000 individuals. The principle is fundamental and I hope that even at this late hour the Government will show a change of heart.

Lord Wilson of Tillyorn

My Lords, I briefly reiterate my support for the Bill. Practically everything that could be said about the importance of this issue and the need to deal with it has now been said. With the amendment that has just been passed, the cap is put on measures which are practical and would be effective—and which, incidentally, would not, I believe, lead to the movement of significant numbers of people. Rather, it would give confidence to this group to remain in Hong Kong and continue to contribute to its success, as my noble and gallant friend Lord Bramall has said they have done for so long.

We have discussed this matter over a long period, but time is running out for us to be able to deal with it in a way which is practical, effective and honourable. May I at this late stage appeal to the Government that if this Bill is passed by your Lordships' House tonight, if and when it gets to another place they will be prepared to give it a fair wind?

Lord Geddes

My Lords, I have but four brief points to make at this stage. The first is to reiterate the congratulations and sincere thanks of the House to my noble friend Lord Willoughy de Broke for his perseverance and to the memory, as the Liberal Democrat Front Bench said, to the late Lord Bonham-Carter, who instigated the proposal. We owe them both a great debt.

My second point is to my noble friend the Minister. I say how curious I find it that the present Governor of Hong Kong should be so much at odds with a Conservative government on this issue—a government of a party of which he was chairman until the last election. I am sure that my noble friend will, as always, listen most attentively to what is said. I hope that she will pass on to her honourable and right honourable friends in another place that they should take seriously what not merely eminent past governors but the current Governor of Hong Kong have had to say on this subject.

My third point relates to a specific issue. I hope that I am not giving away any confidences, but in correspondence between my noble friend the Minister and my noble friend Lord Willoughby de Broke under the heading of "The status of British Nationals overseas" it reads: and as solely British nationals they"— BNOs, I assume— will also have British consular protection both in Hong Kong and when travelling overseas". I know that it was 1981, but I recall taking a fairly active part in the then British Nationality Bill as it went through this House. If my memory is correct, that status lasts for two generations only. What happens to the third generation in view of the previous paragraph in which she mentioned the important safeguard that they can come to the UK if they come under pressure to leave? At that stage they are stateless.

My final point is the same as that made by all noble Lords: this is a very, very small issue. It involves a very small number of people. The "damage" that the Home Office may see in giving the Bill a fair passage is as nothing, but nothing, to the message that the passing of the Bill would give to the people concerned, to Hong Kong in general. We must remember that the Government have said again and again that from 1 st July this Parliament, this Palace of Westminster, will not cease to pay close attention to Hong Kong. The message would go to the people of Hong Kong in general. It would go to the People's Republic of China. That is an important point. The message would go to the world at large that the British have not lost their—I know that this is a somewhat cliched comment—sense of justice and fair play. I again ask my noble friend the Minister to consider this seriously and so to recommend to her honourable and right honourable friends.

Lord MacLehose of Beoch

My Lords, I start by giving credit to the Government for what they have done about giving British citizenship to the reasonable demands of the people in Hong Kong. The one exception is the ethnic minority. That is causing resentment and, as the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke, said, it could blow up. In these last months of our administration, surely we want to avoid an emotional and raucous row about the passports and nationality of this small but highly influential and admirable group.

The Government should bear in mind that if there were such a row, the large international press corps of Hong Kong would make hay of it to our very great discredit; in other words, this is an issue which, if mishandled, could go seriously wrong. The Bill offers a compassionate and honourable way out. I therefore commend it to your Lordships.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I have listened with great care to the points which have been made both in this evening's and in the earlier debates on this Bill and I fully understand the case which has been made from all sides. I do not in any way underestimate the importance which is attached to this subject. It is abundantly clear that this is a matter on which all your Lordships who have spoken not just tonight but throughout the Bill's stages hold very strong views.

The Government are not insensitive to the concerns of the solely British Hong Kong ethnic minorities. It is precisely because we do understand the fears of this community that we have taken the steps we have to offer them the reassurance that, if they come under pressure to leave Hong Kong at any time from next July, they will be admitted to the United Kingdom for settlement. However, we believed, and continue to believe, that it is unnecessary.

I shall not repeat tonight all that has been said previously, other than that the ethnic minorities know that, should they encounter difficulties after the handover, their main concern would be their ability to come to this country, and that is already assured. As British nationals, they would be able to become British citizens after the normal period of residence.

I happen to be a proud parent who watched her daughter pass out as an officer from a military academy. I am happy to say that at the time I was watching she was in step, but I understand the point that my noble friend was making. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Lester, that I spend a good part of every day answering his questions. He probably has the record in this House for asking questions. In fact I am doing some work on that at the moment. If he is not happy with my answers, and if I have not answered his questions, he should not be reticent in retabling the question or at least contacting me, because tonight is the first occasion on which I have heard that he was unhappy with my answers rather than not agreeing with them, or believed that I had been evasive when answering.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. I have difficulty about that. I gave detailed questions—too many, perhaps, because they were almost like a questionnaire—and to all of them, the answer was clear: "We will not publish criteria. What we have said is all that we will say." If that is not the position, and if the Government are willing now to publish the criteria, as they would in any other area of life relating to someone's status, so as to create what lawyers call a reasonable expectation that that would be the practice the Government would follow if that minority came under pressure, it would provide at least some real security and safety for that group.

I am sure that my questions made that perfectly clear. If I had thought that there was any hope of the Government doing so, I should have come back again. I am encouraged by the Minister's answer. If she is now saying that they will publish the criteria in more detail, then I am sure that the House would like to know that.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, the points I made were in response to two things that the noble Lord said. The first was that I did not answer the questions; and, secondly, that my answers were evasive. I merely said that it would have been courteous if I had heard that before this evening's debate because I should have gone back. Even if I receive a portmanteau of questions, I do not treat them as a portmanteau. Each question is looked at and is addressed in my answer.

I shall address the particular point. I understand what the noble Lord is saying. He is saying that he did not agree with my answers as opposed to saying that I did not answer. When my right honourable friend the Prime Minister made the concessions that he did make, and which he made in a genuine attempt to address the concerns of those people, he said also that he did not agree that we should set down criteria.

It is difficult to be precise in writing about the criteria, which may differ widely. Pressure comes in many ways from many people. He said that, in giving them rights of residence, and ultimately over a period of time, citizenship in this country if they came under pressure, any attempt that has been made to write down the criteria always leaves out the possibility that something has been left out. If the criteria are set out it is difficult for them to be anything other than a guide. It was felt by the Foreign Office and by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister that he should not do that. It may be that the noble Lord believes that approach to be wrong, but it was a proper explanation. It was mentioned in the Prime Minister's speech, which I repeated on the first occasion when we discussed the Bill. We have referred to it in different ways as we have gone through the Bill and I cannot elaborate on that answer. I am not being evasive; I am saying that the view was arrived at that it would not be wise to write the criteria—

Lord Lester of Herne Hill

My Lords, I want to make it absolutely clear that there is no suggestion whatever of any evasion or lack of clarity. The Government have simply said no, they will not publish criteria. That is the matter on which I ask my question and that is the matter which I find deplorable.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, the noble Lord said that I was not clear, that the answer lacked clarity and that in some cases I did not answer the question.

I too pay tribute to the assiduous efforts made by my noble friend Lord Willoughby de Broke in trying to right what he and other noble Lords see to be a wrong. He is not unaware of the Government's view about the need for the Bill. Nevertheless, as is customary, the Government will not seek to stand in the way of the Bill passing to another place.

Finally, I say to the noble Lord, Lord Wilson, the Bill passes to another place, which will not be unaware of the views of this House. As I leave the Dispatch Box on any issue I always report back to my right honourable friend the Home Secretary and I shall do so on this occasion.

Lord Willoughby de Broke

My Lords, as was said by the noble Lord, Lord Wilson, there is little more to say about the matter. We have gone around the course several times and I do not propose to do so again. I thank all noble Lords who have spoken so eloquently and movingly in support of the Bill. I pay tribute in particular to the noble Lord, Lord Wilson, who has been a tower of strength and has helped me a great deal. I join with the noble Lord, Lord Thomson, in his tribute to the late Lord Bonham-Carter, whose Bill this really is. We are merely picking up the baton where he unfortunately left it.

I thank my noble friend Lady Blatch, who has replied with great courtesy and clarity to all the points we have made. I am only disappointed that there is absolutely no sign of movement as regards the Government's position, which I find odd and disturbing. We have all said everything that there is to say and I ask the House to pass the Bill.

On Question, Bill passed, and sent to the Commons.