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Hong Kong British National (Overseas) Visa

Volume 805: debated on Wednesday 29 July 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the Written Ministerial Statement by Baroness Williams of Trafford on 22 July (HLWS415), what is their (1) upper, and (2) lower, estimate for the numbers of people who could participate in the new Hong Kong British National (Overseas) Visa; on what basis “there will be no skills tests or minimum income requirements, economic needs tests or caps on numbers”; and what assessment they have made of the impact of this decision on their wider immigration policies.

My Lords, the new Hong Kong BNO visa requirements reflect the unique and unprecedented circumstances in Hong Kong, and the UK’s historic and moral commitment to British national (overseas) citizens. There is no quota on numbers, and we are working closely with the FCO to forecast how many people are likely to apply. The visa will not set a precedent for our wider immigration policies.

I remind the Minister of Auguste Comte, who said that “demography is destiny”. We have had a population growth of 6.6 million in the last 20 years and are projected to grow by another 5.6 million in the next 20 years, making ours the fastest-growing population in Europe. The Migration Advisory Committee was consulted about the recent points system, limiting minimum salaries and the like. Has the MAC been consulted about the Hong Kong situation? Has it set down any guidance that should be followed and can we expect the 4 million to 5 million extra migrants that are predicted under this policy? Where does that leave the Conservative Party manifesto?

The BNO visa is a very generous offer indeed to BNO citizens, which is proportionate to the unique situation that has arisen. The new route will not set a precedent. In terms of the 4 million people who will possibly come over, we estimate that up to 2.9 million status holders are eligible for passports, and at the moment there are around 350,000 passport holders. In reality, a large number of those who are eligible will want to stay in Hong Kong or relocate to other countries in the region. It is not possible at this point to predict with accuracy the number of BNO citizens likely to choose to come to the UK.

My Lords, as captain of a ship based in Hong Kong in the early 1970s, I had a number of locally enlisted personnel in my ship’s company and during my career came across a large number of Hong Kong Chinese serving in the Royal Navy and the Royal Fleet Auxiliary around the world. They took part in a number of actions, including Korea and the Falklands, where some lost their lives. Indeed, after my ship had been sunk, I remember commiserating with my Hong Kong Chinese laundryman about the fact that he had probably lost all his money. He cheerfully said, “Don’t worry sir, my father sunk with Royal Navy in last war so if in water, in package on my person, all safe.” Does the Minister agree that these loyal veterans who served in Her Majesty’s Armed Forces deserve priority approval now? Has the wish of the 64 members of the Hong Kong Military Service Corps—which was raised by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley, at an earlier date—for a full British citizen’s passport, which other corps veterans received before 1997, at long last been agreed to?

I knew that the noble Lord would get a ship into his question somehow. I fear that he might have stolen the thunder of the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley, by asking that question although I am sure that the noble and gallant Lord will ask it again. The Government are giving careful consideration to the representations from those campaigning for that right of abode for former British Hong Kong servicemen. The new visa creates a pathway to citizenship, as he knows, and it will be available to those who elect to retain their ties to the UK through registering for BNO status. We expect that that will include the majority of Armed Forces veterans in Hong Kong.

Applicants for the new visa will have to prove that they are ordinarily resident in Hong Kong and be able to support themselves independently in the UK. Are the Government not concerned that, without the co-operation of the Hong Kong authorities and others in Hong Kong, providing documentary proof of residence and transferring assets are both likely to be extremely difficult, if not impossible for some people?

I agree with the noble Baroness that this is a difficult situation. The Foreign Secretary said that we need to be honest about the situation that we are in. We cannot force China to let BNO citizens come to the UK if China chooses to put up barriers. But as China is a leading member of the international community it must be sensitive to its international reputation and the free will of BNO citizens in Hong Kong. We will continue to honour that commitment to those holding BNO status.

What engagement has my noble friend had with the devolved Administrations regarding participation in any future scheme?

My Lords, I am dying to know what the other passengers on the noble Lord’s train are thinking. As the noble Lord will know, we consult and engage with the devolved Administrations through every part of our considerations on issues such as this.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that Article 3 of the nationality law states that China does not recognise dual nationality, a situation not dissimilar to that of Iran? This seems potentially to conflict with Article 9, whereby Chinese nationals who obtain naturalisation in a foreign country will automatically lose their Chinese citizenship. Is this the case and, if so, what will HMG do to safeguard the interests of those concerned? Is it anticipated that the Chinese will introduce measures to counter the benefits being offered by the UK?

The noble Lord is right: there are countries that do not recognise dual nationality. The individuals concerned will have choices to make. We are quite clear that we will continue to honour the commitment we made to people who have BNO status.

The Written Ministerial Statement does not make clear whether British national (overseas) citizens who enter the UK on the Hong Kong British national (overseas) visa will have recourse to public funds. It simply says:

“BN(O) citizens will need to support themselves independently while living in the UK.”

In some cases, the people of Hong Kong will not be able to bring money with them and could have their bank accounts frozen, so what recourse to public funds will be available to them?

The noble Lord is right that they will not have recourse to public funds. They will have to demonstrate that they can support themselves for the first six months. They can of course, from thereon in, apply for the visa when it comes into place in January.

My Lords, a week ago I suggested to the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, that the suspension of extradition arrangements with Hong Kong might cause Britain to become a safe haven for Hong Kong criminals. I am told that extradition requests currently under way involve money laundering and drug offences, but nothing political. What checks for obtaining a visa are envisaged on the criminal records of Hong Kong residents with BNO passports who wish to come to this country? Do the Government expect the Hong Kong authorities to co-operate in providing such a record? Would a criminal conviction arising out of the recent protests in Hong Kong bar a Hong Kong resident with a BNO passport from obtaining a visa?

I shall not guess at the answer to the last question because I simply do not know. The usual checks when obtaining a visa will be made. The noble Lord will know that, from our point of view, the UK’s extradition treaty with Hong Kong has been suspended indefinitely until the UK is sufficiently assured that the new NSA established by China in Hong Kong will not be able to initiate extradition requests to the UK and that extradition requests will not be sent in relation to the newly created offences under the national security law.

By what authority did the Government unilaterally take a decision that could, in extremis, increase the population of this country by in excess of 3%? Have we learned nothing about the treatment of large-scale immigration measures that have coloured the debate on this matter for so many years?

My Lords, I think I explained at the beginning that this offer reflects the unique and unprecedented circumstances in Hong Kong and the UK’s historic and moral commitment to BNO citizens. It is outside the normal immigration legislation that we have in place.

Sitting suspended.