§ 7.58 p.m.
§ Lord Willoughby de Broke
My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.
It gives me a great deal of satisfaction to be able to open a Second Reading debate on this Bill. The Bill follows the announcement of my right honourable friend the Prime Minister in Hong Kong on 4th March that the Government would support a Private Member's measure to give British citizenship to the wives and widows of men who fought in the defence of Hong Kong during the Second World War.
British citizenship is something about which the wives and widows and their supporters have been petitioning the Government for several years and it has been the subject of a long campaign in Hong Kong itself. That perseverance, and cross-party support both in your Lordships' House and in another place, not least from the Foreign Affairs Committee, has finally won the 1235 day, for until the announcement in Hong Kong by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister it seemed that the Government were not persuaded that anything could or should be done. So that was indeed a most welcome commitment.
Although this is not a government measure, I should like to express my gratitude to the Government for their help in drafting the Bill. I am sure that your Lordships will he aware of the fate of Hong Kong at the hands of the Japanese forces during the Second World War. When the Japanese attack came on 8th December 1941, British and other forces fought valiantly but were overwhelmed and forced to surrender on Christmas Day that year. Many were taken prisoner and endured terrible hardship, even execution, at the hands of their captors.
In 1986 the then Home Secretary used a discretion to grant British citizenship to those surviving ex-servicemen in Hong Kong who already held a form of British nationality but had not automatically become British citizens when the British Nationality Act 1981 came into force in 1983. His discretion did not, unfortunately, extend to the wives and widows of those men and citizenship could not be granted to them in the same way. The Government had some sympathy for the women's position. In 1990 those women were given an assurance by the then Home Secretary that they would be allowed to come to the UK for settlement if they were still resident in Hong Kong and had not remarried.
The present Home Secretary repeated that immigration assurance in 1994 when he wrote a personal letter to each of the 53 women believed to qualify. The letter promised them that they could come to the UK for settlement at any time and that that could be facilitated by the endorsement in their travel documents of an entry clearance of indefinite validity. Those letters were sent to the Hong Kong immigration department for onward transmission. They were delivered to 53 women, 40 of whom were resident in Hong Kong, two of whom have since died. The other 13 were no longer resident in Hong Kong. Since then the Government's attention has been drawn to a further three still living in Hong Kong, making a total of 54.
Clearly, in the light of those numbers, the Bill has no significant immigration potential for the United Kingdom. The women concerned are mostly British Nationals (Overseas), although some are of foreign nationality. In both cases they are subject to United Kingdom immigration controls. As the law stands, they can be granted British citizenship only if they come to settle here. If the wives and widows chose to take up the offer in the Home Secretary's letter they would be able to meet the residence requirement and obtain citizenship in the normal way. However, their preference is to go on living in Hong Kong and for that reason they have continued to press for British citizenship without having to fulfil the UK residence requirements. They and their supporters see the possession of British citizenship as essential to full recognition of their husbands' or late husbands' wartime service.
To give them British citizenship without UK residence requires the introduction of primary legislation, hence the need for this Bill. It is a simple 1236 one. It gives the Secretary of State a discretionary power to register as British citizens those women resident in Hong Kong who have received one of the immigration assurance letters written by him. Clause 1 would enable the Secretary of State to register as a British citizen any of the women who was the recipient or intended recipient of the immigration assurance letter and who, in line with the immigration assurance, is principally resident in Hong Kong and has not remarried. The power to register would be discretionary to allow for the possibility of British citizenship being refused in the extremely unlikely event of any of the applicants being found unacceptable on character grounds. It is not envisaged that qualified applicants will he refused for any other reason.
Clause 2(1) will provide for the British citizenship acquired under Clause 1 to be otherwise than by descent, which is the same as they would have obtained had they settled in the United Kingdom. Subsection (2) would extend to the Bill some of the provisions which already apply to applications for citizenship under the British Nationality Act 1981.
Clause 3 gives the Short Title and provides for the Bill to have the same extent as the 1981 Act provisions referred to in Clause 2(2). Applications for citizenship would, in practice, be made to the Governor of Hong Kong. He would first check that the applicant had had an immigration assurance letter from the Home Secretary, still had her home in Hong Kong and had not remarried, and then forward the application to the Home Secretary. I believe that the Bill will be welcomed by the wives and widows and by all those who have taken an interest in and supported them during their long-running campaign. I commend the Bill to the House.
§ Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Willoughby de Broke.)
§ 8.4 p.m.
§ Lord Wilson of Tillyorn
My Lords, I warmly support the Bill. We are indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke, for bringing it forward and to the Prime Minister for making that possible. It appears to be a small measure, affecting no more than some 50 people, but it is nevertheless a measure of considerable significance. It rounds off our debt of honour to those who fought in the defence of Hong Kong more than 50 years ago.
There is an old Chinese custom that one should pay off one's debts before the lunar New Year. We missed this year's lunar New Year and we missed those of several previous years. However, the measure, late though it is, is extremely welcome and will be welcomed not only by the small number of war widows and wives but by a large number of people in Hong Kong who believe that it is right that at long last this move is being taken.
Although slightly at a tangent, it is fair to mention at this stage the fact that the measure will draw attention to one other issue in respect of which we have not moved. That is to deal adequately with the issue of the non-Chinese ethnic minorities—those who have a form 1237 of British nationality but no right of abode in Britain. It is a small number and there is no need to go into all the details which were rehearsed at great length when a Bill was passed by your Lordships' House more than two years ago but foundered in another place. The number is small and the concern of those people is great. It is one issue in respect of which something needs to be done.
It is also an issue in respect of which there has been some recent movement in terms of the assurances that those people have been given. The Prime Minister, when in Hong Kong, at the same time as making the commitment to the war wives and widows, which is now being realised, also made a commitment to this group to guarantee that if they came under pressure to leave Hong Kong they would be given a right of entry and settlement in the United Kingdom. More recently, at the beginning of last month, the Shadow Foreign Secretary, Mr. Robin Cook, gave an assurance that if there should be a Labour Government measures would be taken to allow those people into the United Kingdom for settlement without any need for special circumstances. The world has moved on, therefore, since the previous Bill was passed by your Lordships more than two years ago.
I suggest to the Government, not for immediate response because I imagine that it would be similar to responses made in the past, but for consideration, that when the Bill is passed, as I hope it will be, they will look again at the other unresolved issue.
However, none of that should be allowed to detract from the great importance of passing this small but important measure. It deserves a fair wind and a safe entry into port as soon as possible.
§ 8.8 p.m.
§ Lord Eden of Winton
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to speak in support of the Bill so ably introduced by my noble friend Lord Willoughby de Broke. He has worked hard to achieve it. It is also a great privilege to follow the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Wilson, a distinguished former Governor of Hong Kong. It is worth underlining that the genesis of the Bill owes much to the personal intervention of the Prime Minister and that it is supported by the presence in the House tonight of two former Governors of Hong Kong, the noble Lords, Lord Wilson and Lord MacLehose.
It is interesting that, even in a matter of apparently minor significance in the normal course of national events, those who have had such an important part to play in the affairs of Hong Kong are showing with their presence and support for the Bill how right they think it is that the Government should take the steps proposed.
I wish also to mention Mr. Jack Edwards. My noble friend pointed out that he has been the most tremendous campaigner. The fact that his campaign has achieved success and that he and others who support him have managed to achieve this legislation demonstrates what can be done when the cause is right by persistent, patient perseverance and by good, efficient lobbying and sound representation.
1238 There is a lesson here which is worth underlining. It shows that it is not always necessary—in fact, it may rarely be desirable—in order to achieve your aims to resort to more extreme measures of representation. I hope that that message goes beyond even the people of Hong Kong to others who may shortly take over responsibility to a greater degree in Hong Kong so that they come to recognise that much is to be gained from persistent, patient representation of causes which are in themselves sound and just.
I have a question for the Minister who is to reply to the debate. The procedures outlined for dealing with those who are eligible for citizenship under the Bill involve the receipt by them of a letter and the clearance or approval of that letter through the office of the Governor of Hong Kong before its transmission to the Secretary of State in this country. That sounds a rather cumbersome procedure. I am sure that it will receive the careful attention of the Governor of Hong Kong. Through his actions during his time there he has shown how much he has at heart the interests of those I describe as the ordinary people of Hong Kong. I hope that he will make clear that the procedures are to be carried through swiftly. In fact, it is part of the requirement of the legislation that they should be carried through in good time. Should it be necessary, I hope that all assistance will be given to the widows and wives concerned to ensure that no slippage is occasioned by inadvertence on their part. If my noble friend can give assurance on that point, I am sure the House will be grateful.
The noble Lord, Lord Wilson, referred to the fact that this is something that should have been done some time ago and probably could have been done some time ago and that similar causes are waiting in the wings to be treated, it is to be hoped, in a similar way. Nevertheless, the Bill is a small but, for those involved directly, a critically important step towards justice and honour. As such, we do well to support it.
§ 8.15 p.m.
§ Lord St. John of Bletso
My Lords, I too support this Bill wholeheartedly. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke, on the enduring stamina that he has shown in bringing this Bill to your Lordships' House.
There is no doubt that it is well overdue. With so few beneficiaries it is more of symbolic significance. The noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke, elegantly outlined the background to the Bill. I am sure that many noble Lords feel that it is a pity that in 1986 the Home Secretary did not grant British citizenship to the wives and widows of ex-servicemen in Hong Kong.
I was rather amused by a recent cartoon in the South China Morning Post on 16th May which portrayed a war widow watching two politicians, or they may have been civil servants, battling it out on a Union Jack with the caption, "Promises, promises, promises". I am pleased that those promises have at last been fulfilled.
Like my noble friend Lord Wilson of Tillyorn, I hope that this Bill will pave the way for the granting of British citizenship to the non-Chinese ethnic minorities—those 1239 who have a right of abode in Hong Kong but no nationality, travel documents and no citizenship. There have been a number of estimates of the number of such non-Chinese ethnic minorities and they appear to range between 3,000 and 4,000.
Therefore, like so many other noble Lords, I welcome the recent concession made by the Prime Minister on his recent visit to Hong Kong in relation to admission to and settlement in the United Kingdom of non-Chinese ethnic minorities in Hong Kong who have—I believe the words are—"come under pressure to leave Hong Kong" after 1st July 1997. However, is it not the case that in all likelihood, if there were to be cases of that nature, there will be some difference of opinion as to the interpretation of the words "under pressure to leave Hong Kong". I hope that the Minister will be able to offer some enlightenment with a more definitive statement as to what conditions there will be for the granting of such citizenship.
In fact, I notice that the Bill states:The Bill will not result in any additional public expenditure… There will be no increase in public service manpower … The Bill has no cost implications for business".If British citizenship were to be granted for the non-Chinese ethnic minorities, I do not believe that that would have any of those implications.
I warmly welcome the Bill and wish it a hasty passage through both Houses. I hope that it will pave the way for a more definitive concession for those non-Chinese ethnic minorities in Hong Kong to gain, at long last, full British citizenship.
§ 8.19 p.m.
§ Lord Rennell
My Lords, I was delighted to be approached by my noble friend Lord Willougby to speak very briefly—I use his words—on this Bill. Like other noble Lords, I congratulate him on his tenacity in rescuing this debt of honour, which it really is, from the delays and demands and democratic democracy in another place.
As a young officer in the late 1950s, I served in the Royal Navy in the Far East in Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan and all over the place. As the youngest and most junior member of the wardroom I was given the greatest number of jobs. They consisted of looking after the forecastle and managing the office and the pay. I can still remember that the yen was 2,018 to the pound, or something like that. Of course, I was also in charge of the sports activities wherever we went.
Finally, of particular interest was the Chinese division which I was asked to look after. There were some 20 Hong Kong Chinese sailors on board out of a total crew of about 120, who were mainly cooks and stewards. We also had a tailor on board, So-so, a cobbler, Shu-shu, and two laundrymen—dhobi men. We also had two or three senior Chinese Hong Kong sailors who had served in the Second World War. I always remember one of them, who was probably about 35 or 38 at that time, known as Siu Lim Ying. He would be beavering away, cleaning up the tables and setting out our food. He was absolutely charming. I would say to him, "Siu, could I have some tosi cha, moi fried bread 1240 please?" I used to speak a bit of Chinese in those days. Siu would continue beavering away, cleaning up the tables and would take no notice of me. I would then remember that I did not have to say that, and that I should say, "Siu! Tosi Cha, moi fried bread please, Siu!".
The point was that Siu was rather deaf and could only hear high-pitched noises. In fact he had suffered from gunfire damage during the war. That was something that I too experienced when I was in the navy. I had stood rather too close to a 10-inch gun without wearing an ear protector and am also rather deaf. That is just one of my memories.
Another enduring memory of the Chinese division of which I was in charge—and this was no thanks to me—was the fact that they were never in the rattle; they never got into trouble and were never called in front of the captain or the first lieutenant for being late back on board or being drunk. There were plenty of "Gazza" incidents, but the Chinese division were never involved. Indeed, throughout the whole 18 months of my time on the ship not one Chinese Hong Kong sailor was up before the beaks, as it were. They were loyal, reliable, honest and dedicated to Her Majesty's Navy. Basically, they had three priorities in life: first, their families; secondly, their pay—they did not like to be paid too much or too little, they wanted it exactly right; and, thirdly, their service in the Royal Navy.
Therefore, my memories of them consist of great admiration and respect. So my plea to the Government is that we must no longer let them down. We must honour the wives and widows of those loyal and brave servicemen who fought on our behalf. The wives and widows want recognition now. For all the reasons that have been outlined in tonight's debate, they need and deserve the security of a British passport and British citizenship. Certainly, there seems to be general agreement in the House on that point. As other speakers have said, I am delighted that my right honourable friend the Prime Minister, who is a caring man, has given his commitment to the cause. I support the Bill wholeheartedly. Like other noble Lords, I hope that it will pass quickly through the House and become law before the end of this Session.
§ 8.24 p.m.
§ Lord Redesdale
My Lords, I rise briefly to express my support for the Bill. I too should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke, for presenting this Private Member's Bill. We on these Benches support the legislation wholeheartedly, as I believe do all noble Lords in the House.
The issue on war widows is so clear cut that I do not believe I need to dwell upon it at great length. However, I should like to mention the cause championed by Lord Bonham-Carter two years ago; namely, the position of the ethnic minorities in Hong Kong who, in the worst scenario, face the problem of becoming stateless persons under Chinese occupation. It is rather sad that so little has been committed to them.
I know that the Government have moved in some small way during the time since those debates two years ago when that Bill passed through this House. However, 1241 it would be most helpful if the Minister could once again give some assurances that the Government will not neglect the issue in the future. Much has been said about how worthy the Bill is and how it should perhaps have been undertaken some time hack. It would be unfortunate if the position of those ethnic minorities in Hong Kong were to be left to the last minute.
§ 8.26 p.m.
§ Lord McIntosh of Haringey
My Lords, as always, I shall preface my remarks when speaking to a Private Member's Bill by saying that I speak for myself and not for my party. However, I do not think that noble Lords will be surprised to learn that a number of my noble friends strongly support the Bill without qualification. Before I conclude my brief remarks I shall say a few words about the procedures for ensuring that the legislation is enacted.
I have only one qualification about the wording of the Bill which is resolutely sexist. From the way in which Clause 1 and the Explanatory and Financial Memorandum are drafted, I presume that the number of people who are recipients or intended recipients of a letter of settlement is finite. Clause 1 says that it applies to those who,before the passing of this Act",are recipients or intended recipients. But there must have been women serving in the forces in Hong Kong during the war. Surely their husbands or widowers are equally entitled, if they are still alive, to the same consideration. If the Minister tells me that of the 50 or so in that finite number there are no widowers or husbands of women service personnel, then I suppose that the wording of the Bill will have to go through as it stands. However, when we have a tradition in our legislation to use the word "he" for both sexes, it seems unfortunate for us to break it on this occasion in order to provide for a group of people whose numbers, and presumably names, we know.
My second observation is on the point raised by the noble Lords, Lord Wilson, Lord St. John and Lord Redesdale; namely, the wider issue of the non-Chinese ethnic minorities. I supported Lord Bonham-Carter two years ago when he proposed that those people should be given the right of admission into this country. As I recall, every speaker except the one on the Government Front Bench took the same view. It is a matter of sadness that two years have passed and nothing has been done to reassure those people that they will have a right of entry and will not be left stateless after the hand-over on 1st July next year. Along with other speakers, I hope that the Minister will be able to give us an assurance that suitable legislation will be passed before that time.
I conclude with a word about the timetable. I understand that it was because of an error by an Opposition Whip in another place that the Bill was quite unnecessarily committed to a Standing Committee rather than being considered by the whole House. Therefore it has been necessary to have this No. 2 Bill in order to make sure that the Bill goes through. I repeat the apologies 1242 which I believe have already been given to the sponsors of the Bill for that error. I give the assurance of the Opposition in another place that whatever is necessary to secure the passage of the Bill, even if it involves the suspension of standing orders, will be supported by the Opposition because we want to see this Bill go through.
§ 8.30 p.m.
§ The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Blatch)
My Lords, I have listened with great interest to what noble Lords have said about this Bill. I would like to thank my noble friend Lord Willoughby de Broke for agreeing to adopt the Bill and for his clear and persuasive explanation both of its provisions and its merits.
The British Nationality Act 1981 already contains provisions for people to be granted British citizenship if they are accepted for settlement in the United Kingdom, and the wives and widows had been promised that they could come here for settlement at any time. That seemed to the Government to be a perfectly satisfactory and logical response to the case that had been put on their behalf.
However, over time it has become clear that support for the case for these ladies being given British citizenship without having to uproot themselves from Hong Kong has grown in all quarters. My right honourable friends took note of the strength of feeling on the matter and were persuaded that the time was right to offer the Government's support to a Private Member's Bill, as the Prime Minister did during his visit to Hong Kong in March.
During the debate on Hong Kong in this House on 24th April some noble Lords expressed concern at the apparent lack of progress on the Bill. I hope their fears have been put to rest today. I can assure the House that there has been no dragging of feet and that ever since the Prime Minister's announcement officials and Ministers have been working hard behind the scenes to ensure that the Bill will do what the Prime Minister promised in the most effective way.
There have been those who were disappointed that the Bill was not a government Bill, but we considered the Private Member's Bill route the easiest and quickest way of getting the legislation on to the statute book. We are looking to have the Bill on the statute book by the end of July and to bring the legislation into effect immediately so that the wives and widows have their citizenship before the end of the year. As my noble friend Lord Willoughby de Broke has said, the Bill is a simple one. It would give British citizenship to the same wives and widows who have received a personal letter from the Home Secretary confirming their eligibility for settlement in the United Kingdom.
I would say in response to a point raised by the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, my understanding is that the surviving partners of those who fought in defence of Hong Kong in World War II are all women. That explains why Clause 1 is couched in the way that it is. The procedure for applying for registration as a British citizen under the Bill will be made as quick and easy as possible. Each of the wives and widows would be asked 1243 by the Hong Kong Immigration Department to complete a short application form and, after checking and initial processing, these would be passed to the Home Office which would issue the certificates of registration. I can give my noble friend Lord Eden of Winton the assurance that he seeks. It is our understanding that this will he carried forward as speedily and effectively as possible and that all assistance will be given to the wives and widows to help them through that process.
Several noble Lords have raised the question of British citizenship for the non-Chinese ethnic minority British nationals in the territory. Members of this community have received repeated Government assurances over the years about their position in terms of admissibility to the United Kingdom. When he was in Hong Kong in March the Prime Minister gave the clearest commitment yet. He said that the Government are now prepared to guarantee admission and settlement to the non-Chinese ethnic minorities with no nationality other than British if at any time they came under pressure to leave the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. The Government are satisfied that this guarantee fully safeguards the position of the ethnic minorities and believe that there is a quite insufficient case for introducing new legislation to give them British citizenship. I cannot emphasise enough the fact that the Prime Minister gave a guarantee on 4th March to the ethnic minorities in Hong Kong. The Prime Minister also undertook in Hong Kong to consider whether we should seek to identify specific circumstances—
§ Lord McIntosh of Haringey
My Lords, before the Minister leaves that point, I hope she will say a little more about what is meant by being under pressure. Is it not possible that one of the pressures which might exist would not be their being told to leave by the Chinese authorities but that, not having any other passport, they could not travel away from Hong Kong and return?
1244 Would that be considered pressure which would qualify them under the guarantee which the Prime Minister gave?
§ Baroness Blatch
My Lords, I think that I shall come to that matter. At the same time the Prime Minister undertook to consider whether we should seek to identify specific circumstances that should be met. He also made clear his view that setting down in advance a specific set of circumstances would not necessarily give better protection than broad guarantees already in place. I am sure that Ministers of the day would not interpret Britain's commitment narrowly. We have accepted that evidence of discrimination could indeed be a relevant factor. I think that goes some way to assure the noble Lord that simply pressure to leave would not be the only factor taken into account. I thank my noble friend for introducing the Bill. I support the Motion that this Bill be given a Second Reading.
§ 8.36 p.m.
§ Lord Willoughby de Broke
My Lords, I am most grateful to everyone who has spoken so eloquently on this sensitive subject. I hope that the people in Hong Kong who are affected by this measure and their supporters—Mr. Jack Edwards has been mentioned—and the war wives and widows will draw great comfort from what has been said tonight by noble Lords on all sides of the House. Several noble Lords mentioned the non-Chinese ethnic minorities. I share the concerns, but it is, I believe, another battle for another day which I look forward to joining.
I am also grateful to the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, for his generous apologies concerning the unfortunate events in another place. I welcome most warmly his assurance of support on this occasion and as regards the detailed way in which we hope to proceed. There is little more I can say other than to commend the Bill most warmly to your Lordships. I ask that it now be given a Second Reading.
§ On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.
§ House adjourned at twenty-three minutes before nine o'clock.