New Clause 52 - Effect of British National (Overseas) visas

Nationality and Borders Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:15 pm on 4th November 2021.

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‘(1) Within six months of this Act being passed, the Secretary of State must commission and lay before Parliament an independent assessment of the effect of British National (Overseas) visas and the Government’s implementation.

(2) The Secretary of State must appoint an Independent Chair to conduct the assessment.

(3) The assessment must consider such matters as are deemed appropriate by the said Independent Chair.’—

This new clause would require the Government to publish an independent assessment of the effect of the British National (Overseas) visa scheme.

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Bambos Charalambous Bambos Charalambous Shadow Minister (Home Office)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

We believe that the new clause is needed because there is clear evidence that the British national overseas scheme may not end up working as it was intended. That is particularly the case for young Hong Kong nationals. As everyone on the Committee knows, the BNO scheme has, in theory, been designed to offer a path to citizenship for Hongkongers. This was particularly designed in the wake of Beijing’s national security law being imposed last year, which has led to Hongkongers facing police brutality and severe repression. Although we in the Opposition therefore very much welcome attempts to support all those facing repression in Hong Kong, we believe that there is a need to examine how the BNO visa scheme is operating in practice and whether it is having the desired effect.

As the Home Affairs Committee pointed out in July, there are reasons for concern about individuals and groups who may be missing out on offers of support. There remain worrying gaps in the offer of support, and loopholes in the way that the BNO scheme may be implemented. That is particularly the case for younger pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong. It is evident that people under the age of 24 cannot benefit from the BNO visa scheme because of how it has been defined. That is because younger people do not hold BNO passports, which were issued in 1997. The BNO scheme requires that applicants hold a BNO passport. Those documents were issued to citizens following the handover of Hong Kong from the UK to China in 1997. Obviously, that means that a lot of people will be excluded from the scheme even if their parents or older siblings would qualify for it.

As a result of that, some people who have fled police brutality are now battling with the sclerotic and inefficient UK asylum system. That is simply because they are arbitrarily excluded from the Home Office settlement route due to their age. It has nothing to do with the validity of their claims, the severity of the oppression that they have experienced or the danger that they face in Hong Kong. All of those would have qualified them for a BNO visa had they been lucky enough to have been born a little earlier.

As we know, there are huge problems with the UK asylum system. We know that the average waiting time for an initial decision on an asylum case in the UK is between one and three years. Last week, some young Hongkongers told The Independent newspaper that they have been waiting for a year or more for a decision. Of course, the current inhumane rules of the Government’s hostile environment also mean that these same young people are banned from working, and often prevented from studying, while waiting for a decision. As Johnny Patterson, policy director of Hong Kong Watch, said, these Hongkongers in the asylum system are subjected to an “agonising wait”. Furthermore, the ban on them being able to work is undermining their chances of integrating in the UK.

The problem is only going to get worse unless it is tackled head on. Home Office figures show that there were 124 asylum claims from Hong Kong nationals in the year to June 2021, compared with 21 the year before and just nine in the 12 months to June 2019. It is even more concerning that 14 of those claims in the past year were unaccompanied minors, marking the first time on record that the UK has received asylum claims from children from Hong Kong.

We believe that the BNO visa scheme should be independently assessed to take account of the realities on the ground in Hong Kong. The truth is that it tends to be young people who were at the forefront of demonstrations to defend democracy and who are therefore likely to face the most repression. As well as that, people who are here under the BNO visa scheme have raised a number of concerns, such as their qualifications not being recognised, access to work, formal access to English language classes, and access to housing and banking services because they do not have a credit or renting history. There are also concerns about the lack of co-ordination between Government and local authority services. There are lots of reasons, therefore, why a review is needed.

It may well be the case that older parents wish to remain in Hong Kong while their children need to flee because they are in greater danger. Although the scheme allows applicants to bring relatives, including adult children, with them to the UK, the reality is that many young people will need to flee alone. They cannot rely on the parents coming to the UK who would have made their claim valid under the BNO scheme. We think it would be worth the Government exploring a revision of the scheme so that a child of a BNO Hong Kong citizen could make an application independently of their parents.

If such anomalies remain unaddressed, it will be deeply unfair on young Hongkongers. It is those young people who have often been on the frontline of the pro-democracy protests opposing the Chinese Government’s unlawful power grab. If they remain excluded from the BNO route for reasons entirely beyond their control, they will face an agonising wait in the UK asylum system, which we all know is beset with huge delays.

Given the UK’s deep connection to Hong Kong, should we not be offering a life raft to all Hongkongers who need one? The Opposition believe that the Government should accept independent scrutiny of the BNO scheme, with a view to exploring such steps as allowing children of BNO visa-eligible parents to make independent applications, provided there were evidence of their parents’ status, of course.

There are other reasons why we believe that an independent assessment of the BNO scheme will be necessary. The Select Committee on Home Affairs has raised concerns in connection with the operation of the BNO scheme in practice. For instance, it remains a possibility that visas could be refused to those who do not satisfy the suitability criteria in the immigration rules because of a criminal conviction, without the context of the conviction being taken into account. A conviction might relate to free speech or peaceful protest in Hong Kong, for example—actions that would not be considered offences under UK law. Although the Government have said that discretion will be given in respect of such applicants, we believe that an independent assessment of the effect of the BNO visa scheme would ensure that.

Possible mitigations for the current loopholes in the BNO visa scheme are evidently not sufficient on their own. For instance, the youth mobility visa for Hongkongers aged 18 to 30 does not provide any sort of substitute for the BNO scheme, because it is capped—it provides only for a two-year stay for work in the UK—and does not contribute to the residency requirement for settlement in the UK. Although it is a welcome scheme on its own terms, it does not address the issue that I have highlighted. That shows the need for an independent assessment.

In conclusion, we believe that the Government’s decision to offer the Hong Kong BNO scheme is a welcome expression of the UK’s historic relationship with the citizens of Hong Kong. We believe that individuals and families arriving from Hong Kong will enrich the cultural life of the UK and contribute to our economy, but unless the Government look at the existing loopholes in the BNO scheme and how it is being implemented, the scheme is in danger of being mainly warm words, rather than actually helping the people we have promised to help. An independent assessment of the scheme would allow the Government to improve it and offer help to those vulnerable young people most likely to be politically targeted by Beijing. In that way, the scheme could provide the genuine protection that we all believe people from Hong Kong deserve.

Photo of Tom Pursglove Tom Pursglove Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Ministry of Justice and Home Office) 4:30 pm, 4th November 2021

The Hong Kong British national overseas route was launched on 31 January 2021, and the route has already been a success. As of 30 June, approximately 64,900 applications to the route have been made by BNO status holders and their family members who have chosen to make the UK their home. An impact assessment was published on 22 October 2020, setting out the projected impacts of the BNO route on the UK. As well as the direct impacts for the Government of operating the route, the impact assessment sets out the expected net benefit to the UK of between £2.4 billion and £2.9 billion over five years.

We believe that a review is not necessary. The policy is generous and barriers have been minimised. As the shadow Minister said, the Home Affairs Committee recently published a report on the route, and we have responded in full. I encourage him to withdraw the new clause.

Photo of Bambos Charalambous Bambos Charalambous Shadow Minister (Home Office)

I will not press new clause 52 to a vote, but I do hope that the Government will keep monitoring the system and provide the protection for young Hongkongers that I outlined. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.