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Hong Kong: Covid-19 - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:44 pm on 19th March 2020.

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Photo of Lord Craig of Radley Lord Craig of Radley Crossbench 1:44 pm, 19th March 2020

My Lords, I too welcome and thank the noble Lord, Lord Pendry, for giving us the opportunity to speak about problems facing the citizens of Hong Kong. Others have dealt with Covid-19. I will concentrate on a separate, much longer-standing issue. Responding on 8 January to the gracious Speech, I spoke about the unanswered request to Her Majesty’s Government from some veterans of the Hong Kong Military Service Corps. I will outline this issue.

Over five years ago, some 300 members of this group made requests for right of abode in the United Kingdom. The Home Office was initially dismissive, on the grounds that they were all locally enlisted and employed and so not even eligible for consideration. This assertion was inaccurate. These individuals were employed by the United Kingdom Government, serving full-time in Her Majesty’s Armed Forces and not employed by the Hong Kong Government. Their service took some of them to the United Kingdom or to jungle training in Borneo. Others served in UNFICYP in 1990-91 when they replaced UK servicemen required to take part in the first Gulf conflict. They are rightly categorised by the MoD as veterans of Her Majesty’s Armed Forces, so should benefit from the undertaking of fair treatment in the military covenant.

In January 2016, our Home Office Minister—then the noble Lord, Lord Bates—in answer to a Written Question agreed

“to undertake a thorough assessment of the request that this group are offered right of abode in the United Kingdom”.

Since that date over four years ago, in spite of a series of further written and oral requests from Members of both Houses, there has been no resolution or agreement by the Government, merely a depressing series of responses, some even just repeats in the cut-in-paste manner saying that the matter was being carefully considered and a decision would be made as soon as practicable.

In my speech on 8 January, I described this, after four years without resolution, as repetitive indecision syndrome. Since then I have tabled two Questions for Written Answer. The first, on 3 February, received yet another indecisive reply. The second, tabled on 2 March, specifically asked when the assessment—started over four years ago in January 2016—would be completed. Another non-answer, just received, said,

“we continue to actively consider representations made on behalf of those former Hong Kong Military Service Corps”.

It seems that the Home Office does not wish to say yes, but will not say no. Maybe it is fearful of a judicial review, but is such indecision really fit for purpose?

The original 300 possible applicants have now been reduced in number by deaths and by some deciding to emigrate to Canada, Australia or elsewhere. There are now just 64. I have received copies of their applications, with a request that I forward them to the Home Secretary for consideration and decision. I am happy to do so. Indeed, I have them here in this envelope, addressed to the Home Secretary. Tomorrow they should be on her desk.

It is instructive to look back to a debate in this House on 20 January 1986 on the nationality provisions of the Hong Kong Act 1985. The issue of nationality of veteran servicemen was raised by several speakers, in particular Lord MacLehose, who was Governor of Hong Kong for over 10 and a half years:

“This brings me to the case of the veterans … At the end of this long era of British rule inevitably there are some debts to be paid. The legislative councillors say that this is such a debt. I am sure that they are right. I think the question of precedent or of opening up claims from elsewhere can be greatly overstated. It is just a matter of definition, and I suspect that the numbers will be found to be small … we must bear in mind the very special arrangements that we made in this respect for Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands. If exceptions can be made for them, surely an exception can be made for these people. In this case it is the gesture and the recognition of our responsibility that is so important, and I hope the gesture can be made.” —[Official Report, 20/1/1986; col. 91.]

The Minister winding up then acknowledged the strength of feeling across the House on this issue. After outlining some perceived complexities, he said:

“We shall need to look into these in a great deal more detail before we can say whether it would be appropriate or possible to meet the ex-servicemen’s request. But … I can assure your Lordships that we shall give this the most careful consideration.”—[Official Report, 20/1/1986; col. 102.]

That similar self-serving, evasive wording is still used today, 34 years on. The Government might argue that by grouping this cohort with those employed in the Hong Kong Disciplined Services, with the chance for some to be granted British citizenship among the negotiated figure of 50,000, they discharged their obligations. Some veterans did benefit, but it was wrong to group them with Hong Kong government employees. They were uniquely members of Her Majesty’s Armed Forces. It is not fair that some benefited but others did not.

Under the military covenant, now is the time to correct this unfairness and allow the 64 members I mentioned earlier to be treated equally and fairly to right of abode. I have instanced the favourable treatment over nationality of Gurkhas who served in Her Majesty’s forces. That 1986 debate drew attention to a similar treatment of Gibraltarians and Falkland Islanders. Far from setting a precedent by granting these veterans’ requests, there seem to be several precedents already set, and the numbers are minimal. As Lord MacLehose so pointedly said, to act fairly in this would be a recognition of our national responsibility. So, will the Home Office and the Government now cure themselves of repetitive indecision syndrome, prove their fitness for purpose, and bring this decades-long issue to resolution?