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British Hong Kong Servicemen

Volume 594: debated on Wednesday 11 March 2015

Good morning, Mrs Brooke. I am proud to be given the opportunity to address the House today in support of all those who served in Her Majesty’s armed forces in the former British Crown colony of Hong Kong, in particular the Hong Kong Military Service Corps and the Hong Kong Royal Naval Service.

Each and every one of us in the Chamber should salute with enormous pride the sacrifice made by all of Britain’s armed forces in defence of Queen and country over the past century, but none are more loyal servants to and truer guardians of the British Crown than the Hong Kong ex-servicemen. I am grateful that today we have the opportunity to bring into the spotlight a number of those who were prepared to uphold British rule in Hong Kong and to serve their country with bravery and dignity. In spite of that, they have faced grave injustice. They are servicemen who have been indiscriminately denied the right to claim citizenship of the nation to which they swore their allegiance, under the Crown that they served so gallantly.

In the final days of this Parliament I call upon Her Majesty’s Government to right that wrong and to recognise the ex-servicemen’s entitlement to full British citizenship. We should offer priority citizenship to all former Hong Kong soldiers of the British Hong Kong Military Service Corps and those who served in the Hong Kong Royal Naval Service.

Those proud people were born British, they lived as Britons, they fought to defend Britain and they paid into the British Treasury in the same way that we who live within the islands of the United Kingdom do. It was not the choice of those loyal people for the sovereignty of Hong Kong to move to the People’s Republic of China in June 1997—no self-determination for them, no referendum about their future. Indeed, Hong Kong was the only British colony where the inhabitants had no direct say over their own destiny. In such circumstances, it is only just for anyone who served in the forces of the Crown to be granted the British nationality that was always theirs.

As the Minister is aware, between 1990 and 1997, the British Government established a scheme that permitted a select number of British Hong Kong citizens to be granted full British citizenship. Only 50,000 persons were eligible, as per the recommendation of the Governor of Hong Kong at the time. What is regularly overlooked is the allocation of that 50,000 was more or less indiscriminate and the scheme did not pay the necessary or deserved attention to those who took the extra step to serve Queen and country.

Among the scheme categories, British Hong Kong soldiers were placed in the disciplined services class, or DSC, which was primarily based on a points system. Various factors were considered, such as the soldier’s army rank, qualifications, length of regular service and so on. In my firm view, that represents a remarkable error in the process. Beyond doubt, those servicemen should have been allocated their own armed forces class. They were serving in the conventional British armed forces and should have been treated as such, thus being afforded the privileges that they had fought for. All those who wished to do so should have been able to reside in the United Kingdom.

Moreover, it is totally unacceptable that only 500 passports were allocated to the some 2,000-strong Hong Kong Military Service Corps. Even more pertinently, repeated freedom of information requests have declined to state exactly how many of those 500 soldiers actually chose to reside in the UK and to become British citizens. It is wholly wrong that only 25% of the serving British Hong Kong soldiers in 1997 had access to UK citizenship and that so many men were forced to be left behind to suffer an uncertain future under the control of communist China.

The Home Office has stated in correspondence that the original citizenship policy was “fair and just”, but how could it be when only some 500 soldiers out of the 2,000 in the entire Hong Kong Military Service Corps could obtain UK citizenship, even had they all applied for citizenship? I understand and indeed acknowledge the reasons why the allocation for the entire Hong Kong population was capped at 50,000, but surely we must look after our armed forces first and foremost. We have a duty to those who have given their oath of allegiance to Her Majesty the Queen and who have performed their duty to Britain.

The Home Office has said that those men were only locally employed, with the status of locally enlisted personnel—since they were recruited locally, they would not have had the expectation of or automatic right to a British passport. If that is indeed the case, perhaps the Minister will explain why 500 passports were allocated at all? Why were any one of the Hong Kong ex-servicemen given British citizenship? Surely they should all have been treated the same. Those men were all born British, but some of them were denied the right to be British and to have the citizenship that they had every right to obtain.

Those veterans, whom I have had the honour to get to know in recent months, would tell you that they are British—they are more British than they would ever consider themselves to be Chinese. It was an appalling injustice to transfer their national status overnight from being British Hong Kong to Hong Kong Chinese, without even giving them the option to remain British subjects. The time has now surely arrived to correct that injustice and to grant those proud men the British citizenship that should rightly be theirs.

The Home Office has stated that, under existing legislation, individuals from Hong Kong may follow the immigration process and apply for UK citizenship. Such legislative provisions, however, by no means guarantee the outcome. They fail to acknowledge the seriousness of our failure of duty to those former servicemen and the debt that we owe them.

I was recently granted a debate and addressed the House in Westminster Hall about Commonwealth visas and immigration. Much of my frustration in that debate is echoed in the sentiments that I am expressing in the debate today. We continue to tolerate uncontrolled and indiscriminate immigration from the European Union while neglecting those to whom we owe true allegiance and with whom we enjoy a shared history and friendship going back sometimes many hundreds of years. In this instance, the former British soldiers and naval personnel from Hong Kong who were prepared to lay down their lives in service to our country appear now, frankly, to be held in lower esteem than a citizen from an EU member state. How can that be right?

I remind the House of our obligations under the armed forces covenant, which stipulates clearly that we have a duty to our veterans and their families. The ex-servicemen from Hong Kong were part of the British Regular Army, working side by side with British troops both in Hong Kong and elsewhere. These men are now our veterans. The covenant involves an obligation for life, and the commitment and sacrifices made by veterans in the past, as well as their continuing value to society, should be properly recognised in the support that they receive.

To many, however, it seems that these veterans of ours now form a forgotten part of British history. They are soldiers who fought in numerous wars, who were awarded high honours and medals for bravery and were distinguished for their gallant service and sacrifice. It is surely a sad day when we find ourselves putting together bureaucratic excuses to push a matter such as this one under the carpet. We have no reason other than sheer defiance for turning our backs on our own veterans.

As I said to the House in the emergency debate on Hong Kong in December last year, Britain has no interest in interfering in the internal affairs and politics of China. But Hong Kong is different. Britain has a duty to the people of Hong Kong and we must not abandon them. The United Kingdom owes an allegiance to the people of Hong Kong, but particularly those who served bravely in Her Majesty’s armed forces. They should not be left behind any longer.

On 6 November last year, along with a number of the Hong Kong veterans, I delivered a formal petition to the Prime Minister at No. 10 Downing street. The research team involved with the campaign for right of abode for Hong Kong ex-servicemen managed to locate 302 Hong Kong Military Service Corps veterans, 301 of whom signed the petition—a pretty high percentage—asking for equal rights for those soldiers and military personnel. We are not talking about thousands of people; we are talking about a relatively small number of people who are over there, but want to be here and to have the right to be British. Why should they not have that right? They have served our country and deserve to be treated equally. I urge the Minister to examine the issue more closely and to find a solution sooner rather than later.

It is clearly time to reflect on the injustice that has been carried out. The situation is unique and the British Government need to address it. It simply cannot be right to stand idly by while fellow Britons who served diligently in Her Majesty’s armed forces are forced to remain in a country where they do not feel truly at home and where, as they have explained to me first hand, they often feel persecuted and discriminated against for their allegiance to the Crown.

We must take the opportunity to undo the errors of the past and offer these men what is a small token when compared with what they really deserve. It is deeply sad to have to say that successive Governments have opted to turn their back on these soldiers. I believe it is high time for the policy on this matter to change. It is time for those who have proudly served Queen and country from Hong Kong to be given the recognition they so richly deserve—time, indeed, for Her Majesty’s Government to do the right thing.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) on securing this debate and on the passionate way in which he has advocated not only his case, but the interests of Hong Kong ex-servicemen who served with the Hong Kong Military Service Corps. He rightly underlined the service they gave to this country.

I am afraid that I will not be able to accede to the request my hon. Friend has made this morning, and I hope to explain some of the reasons for the approach that has been taken consistently by the Government. However, that should in no way be taken as undermining or casting any negative impression of the important service those people provided. I hope that I will be able to explain some of our thinking and some of the existing rights. I know that my hon. Friend will continue to make the points that he has in the way that he has. I honestly hope that he will be returned safely as the Member for Romford at the general election and so will be able to continue to make his case in the next Parliament as well, as the issue will no doubt be returned to then.

My hon. Friend has suggested that former Hong Kong servicemen should be given a right of abode in the United Kingdom. Under current legislation, the only people who have the right of abode here are British citizens and some Commonwealth citizens who had secured that right before the law changed in 1983. It has been a long-established practice in British nationality law for British nationality to be lost when a country ceases to be a UK territory. That has been the case since 1949, when countries such as Australia and Canada ceased to be colonies, and was so through the 1950s and 1960s, when countries such as Uganda and Jamaica became independent.

The normal practice is that those who acquired British nationality only through a connection with the newly independent country ceased to be such a national on independence. The only people who retained British nationality were those with a continuing connection with the UK—for example, through birth here or descent from someone born here. It was not the practice for nationality to be retained as a reward for service within the former territory.

We accept that the position with Hong Kong was unique. Before Hong Kong was returned to China on 1 July 1997, it was a British dependent territory. Therefore, persons acquiring nationality only through a connection with Hong Kong were British dependent territories citizens: they would not have held British citizenship, and thus had no right of abode in the UK.

The position with Hong Kong was also unique in that British dependent territories citizens with a connection with Hong Kong were given the right to acquire the status of British nationals overseas and to retain that new status for life. Therefore, when someone ceased to be a British dependent territories citizen in 1997, they could still hold a form of British nationality. The issuing of passports to people with the status of British nationals overseas began on 1 July 1987. British nationals overseas are eligible for British consular protection and services when travelling or residing abroad and are exempt under the immigration rules from any requirement to hold an entry certificate or visa to visit the UK. However, they do not have the right of abode in the UK.

It was not, of course, obligatory for British dependent territories citizens in Hong Kong to apply for British national overseas status, but they could apply even if they held another nationality. If they did not choose to apply and on 1 July 1997 had another nationality, they automatically lost British nationality. If on 1 July 1997 they did not have another nationality and would otherwise have become stateless, they automatically became British overseas citizens. Those arrangements ensured that no one was left stateless as a result of the handover to China. A large number of people in Hong Kong chose to apply for British national overseas status. We estimate that there are approximately 3.4 million holders of BNO passports in Hong Kong, the majority of whom are also Chinese citizens.

My hon. Friend has already referred to the British nationality selection scheme, which was introduced in 1990. That scheme was set up in recognition of the fact that the confidence of the Hong Kong people needed to be restored leading up to the handover in 1997. It was felt that granting British citizenship to 50,000 of Hong Kong’s best-qualified key people, together with their spouses and minor children, was a means of achieving that aim. Under the scheme, 7,000 places were allocated to the disciplined services class. Places were given to each service in proportion to their staff numbers. For individuals within the services, a points system was used to select applicants. There was also a framework to award additional special circumstances points in the disciplined services class to reflect the varying needs of each service. Registration under the scheme was optional. Those applying had to submit an application and fee before a specified date. We remain of the view that the route to gaining a British passport under the scheme was fair and that the criteria were clear. As such, it would not be appropriate to revisit the terms of the scheme, which was established in 1990, and to introduce additional measures for those who were not selected.

Members of the Hong Kong Military Service Corps played an important role in the British garrison in Hong Kong—a point my hon. Friend made clearly, effectively and passionately—but they were locally recruited, and the majority remained in Hong Kong for most of their careers, so there was a distinction, in that their service was conducted in Hong Kong, rather than in other places where British forces were deployed on active service.

We recognise the contribution of those who served in Hong Kong, and we are grateful for their dedicated service. However, it is not appropriate to single them out by granting them citizenship exceptionally. We recognise their service, but other groups who served under the dependent territory Government and who may also have demonstrated commitment in their line of work may equally have failed to be selected. Similarly, others may have served while their territory was a colony, but they may not have gained British citizenship—for example, Australian Anzacs in the second world war and those who served in colonial police forces.

Those who hold British national overseas status or British overseas citizenship through a connection with Hong Kong already have a route to British citizenship if they do not have another citizenship or nationality.

The Minister rightly mentioned Australia, but will he acknowledge that many former colonies have an ancestry visa that allows people to come to live in the UK if they choose to? Furthermore, all the other former colonies he may be thinking about are members of the Commonwealth. Uniquely, Hong Kong is denied the opportunity to be a member, because it has been taken into the People’s Republic of China. The people of Hong Kong are therefore hugely disadvantaged, compared with those of any other former British colony he may care to mention.

I hear my hon. Friend’s point. Hong Kong certainly has a unique status, but I underline the fact that we had the selection scheme from 1990 to 1997. Those who hold British national overseas status or British overseas citizenship through a connection with Hong Kong have a route to British citizenship if they do not have another citizenship or nationality.

Under the British Nationality (Hong Kong) Act 1997, a person who is ordinarily resident in Hong Kong on the date of application and who was resident there on 3 February 1997 as a British overseas territories citizen can apply to register as a British citizen if he or she has no other nationality. Similarly, section 4B of the British Nationality Act 1981 allows for the registration of British nationals if they do not hold any other citizenship or nationality and would otherwise be stateless and if they have not voluntarily renounced or relinquished another nationality. I accept that those provisions are available only to British nationals who would otherwise be stateless and that many former Hong Kong service personnel will have Chinese nationality. However, they can rely on that Chinese citizenship for travel, and they have a right of residence in Hong Kong.

The Government are committed to creating a fair immigration system and to righting the wrongs of history where it is appropriate to do so. In the Immigration Act 2014, we therefore created a registration route for people who would have become British citizens but for the fact that their British father was not married to their mother. I am pleased to say that that provision will be commenced on 6 April, and applications can be made on or after that date.

I want to come back to my hon. Friend on the Government’s commitment to supporting our armed forces. The armed forces covenant was published in May 2011, and it is based on the principles of removing disadvantage for serving personnel in accessing public and commercial services and of allowing special provision in some circumstances, such as for the injured or bereaved. Through the Armed Forces Act 2006, as amended by the Armed Forces Act 2011, we have enshrined in law the need to have regard to those two key principles and an obligation to produce an annual report on the covenant’s operation in a number of areas, including health, education, welfare and inquests. The covenant is an obligation on the whole of society. It includes voluntary and charitable bodies, private organisations and individuals, all of whom are asked to recognise our armed forces and to offer respect, support and fair treatment.

We have a positive record on providing for the armed forces in immigration and nationality matters. Nationality legislation was amended last year to give the Secretary of State discretion to overlook, in armed forces cases, the requirement to be physically in the UK on day one of the five-year qualifying residency period for naturalisation. Therefore, members or former members of Her Majesty’s forces on overseas postings at the relevant time will not have to wait longer to become British citizens. We have introduced processes to enable foreign or Commonwealth members of Her Majesty’s forces to apply for settlement in advance of discharge, thus smoothing the transition to civilian life. Both those measures were priority commitments under the armed forces covenant.

In addition, changes to the immigration rules in 2013 provided, for the first time, a single set of rules for the dependants of members of Her Majesty’s forces, regardless of the nationality of their sponsor. Those rules mirror those for dependants of British and settled civilians, but they contain some flexibility to ensure that the armed forces community is not disadvantaged through service life. For example, partners of members of Her Majesty’s forces can serve their probationary period outside the UK if they are accompanying their sponsor on an overseas posting, and they are granted a longer period of initial leave to prevent the financial disadvantage of renewing leave from overseas.

Let me return to the right of abode for former Hong Kong servicemen. It would not be right to grant citizenship to this group of locally recruited staff who were engaged by the UK Government, who remained in Hong Kong for most of their careers and who would not, at the time of their service, have had an expectation or automatic right of British citizenship.

This is a continuing concern to my hon. Friend and other Members of the House. Indeed, the Foreign Affairs Committee made recommendations about British nationals overseas in the report that it published last week— my hon. Friend is a member of the Committee—and the Foreign Office is giving due consideration to those recommendations.

We recognise the service provided by former Hong Kong military personnel, but I underline the fact that it is not appropriate to revisit decisions made as part of the selection scheme introduced under the British Nationality (Hong Kong) Act 1990 and to create another category of people entitled to become British citizens and to have the right of abode in the UK. My hon. Friend will continue to press the point—

I will briefly give way one final time because I know how passionately my hon. Friend believes in the issue, which I am sure he will continue to campaign on.

The Minister has clearly taken on board all the points I made, and he clearly senses that there is an injustice, which could be looked at. Is he willing to meet me and representatives of the Hong Kong ex-servicemen to see whether there is a way forward and to find a long-term solution?

As my hon. Friend will appreciate, we have little time left in this Parliament to consider further representations, although I know the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr Swire), has written to my hon. Friend about this issue. What I can say is that I note my hon. Friend’s representations, and I am sure we will return to the issue in the next Parliament to hear further representations.

Sitting suspended.