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Hong Kong: Local Enlisted Personnel

Volume 548: debated on Tuesday 20 July 1993

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What special steps they propose in order to retain the services of naval and military locally employed personnel in Hong Kong until 1997.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence
(Viscount Cranborne)

My Lords, the locally enlisted military personnel serving with the Army and the Royal Navy in Hong Kong are a key element of the British garrison, as indeed are the locally employed civilian staff. Recruitment and retention are satisfactory and at present we have no plans to take any additional steps to retain their services between now and 1997.

My Lords, as the noble Viscount visualises the locally employed personnel taking on some of the duties of the garrison, is he confident, although he has made no reference to it, that he will be able to retain these key locally employed personnel?

My Lords, if the present rates of retention deteriorate, there is flexibility available to the Governor to advise the Ministry of Defence to take alternative steps. At the moment this is not considered necessary.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the LEP outflow more than doubled in 1992 relative to 1991 from 5 per cent. to 10 per cent. for the Army and 7 per cent. to 14 per cent. for the Navy? Will my noble friend speak again to his colleague in the Home Office to obtain a significant increase in the LEP passport quota second tranche, which is understood to be a derisory 44 in total for the Army and 10 for the Navy, being just 4 per cent. and 3 per cent. respectively of their strengths as at 1st April?

My Lords, I can confirm the figures that my noble friend mentioned. He may feel that as a percentage of the total LEP numbers it is a derisory figure, but I would suggest to my noble friend that as a percentage of the original quota it is a substantial percentage.

My Lords, will the Minister tell the House what the alternative steps are that he mentioned? Is he aware that as 1997 draws towards us many of these people will be wondering about their future, and if their future is not guaranteed in some way or other by Her Majesty's Government they will feel badly let down?

My Lords, I would say to the noble Lord, Lord Williams, that this overall matter was roundly aired, if I may put it that way, last week in your Lordships' House. I regret to say that your Lordships expressed an opinion which was generally contrary to the position taken by Her Majesty's Government. I have already told the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, that if the situation should change there is flexibility available to the Governor. Indeed, locally employed personnel are considered crucial to the future stability of the garrison in the run-up to the Chinese takeover in 1997.

My Lords, the Minister mentioned alternative steps. What are those alternative steps?

My Lords, flexibility implies considerable latitude. We will cross that bridge when we come to it.

My Lords, the noble Viscount's conviction that a phrase such as the one he has just used will satisfy your Lordships is not correct. Will he now give an indication that in certain circumstances, if the prospects are bad, he will ask his colleague in the Home Office to increase the total number of people who may be granted passports?

My Lords, my noble friend—whom I am glad to see sitting on the Government Front Bench—answered questions of that very nature at some length last week. The noble Lord will be aware that if the overall quota of 50,000 is to be increased primary legislation will be required. I am sorry that my answers dissatisfied both the noble Lord and the noble Lord, Lord Williams. However, I can tell the noble Lords that flexibility is available to the Governor. We are well aware of the need to run down the garrison in an orderly manner and in such a way as to ensure that our obligations in Hong Kong are discharged. Indeed, your Lordships will be aware that a Question was answered in written form yesterday which addressed this very point.

My Lords, with respect to my noble friend's answer to my supplementary question, is he aware that in the passport quota first tranche the number of applications relative to the quota was 4:1 for the Army, 3:1 for the Navy, but 1:1 for the police and 0.6:1 for what are described as sensitive services? Does that not indicate unfair weighting against locally employed personnel in the military?

My Lords, in the first tranche the first of the four divisions of applicants under the quota was on the whole underweight. Therefore, greater weight could be placed in the other three categories, including the 7,000 in the category of the disciplined services. That accounts for the increased number available to LEPs.

My Lords, will the Minister acknowledge that the vote which took place last Thursday, which he so deplores, was formally about non-Chinese ethnic minorities but expressed the dissatisfaction in all quarters of the House at the rigidity of the Government's position on Hong Kong citizenship? Will he not indicate some further recognition of the need for that flexibility, if necessary within the 50,000 limit at this stage, for locally employed personnel and for the disciplined services as a whole?

My Lords, I was fortunate enough to be able to listen to the debate to which the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, referred from beginning to end. I noted that the Division which took place concerned the ethnic minorities. I was also aware as a result of listening to the debate, as the noble Lord will know, that other elements of dissatisfaction with the present arrangements were expressed by noble Lords in all parts of the House. All I would say to the noble Lord is that the opinions expressed here will, of course, be taken into account by Her Majesty's Government. On the other hand, I cannot give the noble Lord much hope since, as I understand it, the orders take effect. No vote was taken on the orders themselves, merely on the Motion in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter.

My Lords, is the noble Viscount saying merely that it appears that the Government can get away without any further consideration of the matter or concessions to these people who are employed locally?

No, my Lords. I hope that that is the reverse of what is the case. I have already expressed, I hope very clearly, the importance with which we regard the further employment of LEPs. They are essential. We shall certainly look at the position if the rate of resignation from the locally employed services increases to such an extent as to give us concern.

My Lords, does the noble Viscount recall the meeting which a number of us had with him on this issue on our return from Hong Kong? Does he recall that many senior officers in the British garrison expressed deep dissatisfaction about the way in which members of the British Armed Forces are being treated in terms of the allocation of passports?

My Lords, the details of that meeting are engraved deeply on my memory. The noble Lord's eloquence is equally engraved. I must say to the noble Lord that the judgment that we make must be entirely dependent on the arrangements and the algebraic formula so eloquently expressed and explained to your Lordships by my noble friend last week. The caveat which I would enter is the one that I have entered several times already in these exchanges; namely, that if we feel that alternative arrangements need to be made within the quota we will address ourselves to them.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that in view of the sensitivity of this particular problem most reasonable people will think it very wise of the Government to keep all of their options open and not to be manoeuvred into anticipating a situation which may never arise?

My Lords, as so often, I am grateful to my noble friend. I hope that your Lordships will not feel that I have been manoeuvred in any way during the course of this afternoon.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the fact that there was not a vote on this subject suggests that the Government are rather obsessed with the subject of voting? In the interests of the House my noble friend decided not to prolong the debate because the views expressed by noble Lords were so definite. I hope that the Minister will not use that as a serious argument.

My Lords, far be it for me to be obsessed with voting. I often feel during the course of July that your Lordships are perhaps more obsessed with voting than I am. In fact, I would greatly welcome it if Members of the Opposition Benches voted rather less than they have done in the past few months and concentrated more on the expression of their opinion. However, perhaps I may say to the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, that I am sure the strong views expressed by your Lordships have been heard and taken into account by my noble friend.

My Lords, does the Minister say that he regrets the fact that the Opposition Benches went into the Government Lobby on the referendum vote?

My Lords, the noble Lord always tempts with his questions. If I may say so, he would be craving the indulgence of the House a little far if we started to argue once again about referenda instead of Hong Kong.