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British Overseas Passport Holders in Hong Kong

Volume 670: debated on Wednesday 29 January 2020

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the rights of British overseas passport holders in Hong Kong.

It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Sir George. I am motivated to raise this issue because, like many in the House and across the country, I have heard expressions of concern about the situation in Hong Kong and because of what we saw in the protests last year. Like many of my colleagues, I have been contacted by a number of constituents who have views on the subject but also have relatives in Hong Kong. We in this country believe that the right to peaceful protest is a fundamental political right, and it should be defended anywhere in the world. It is therefore not surprising that a number of colleagues and I have expressed shock about examples of aggression towards peaceful protesters.

I am pleased that the Foreign Secretary spoke in defence of the right to lawful and peaceful protest in Hong Kong and that that has been raised with both the Chinese and Hong Kong Governments. I am also pleased that the Government are intent on defending the principle of one country, two systems, as set out in the Sino-British declaration. That is a live international treaty, which is binding in international law; it is not a mere historic document, as some have tried to suggest. As a party to that treaty, it is a responsibility for Members of this House and for the Government to speak out when we see it at risk of being eroded. It is not just that treaty that binds the UK to Hong Kong; it is hundreds of years of shared history and ongoing cultural, economic and political links that make us stakeholders in its freedom and prosperity.

There are more than 300,000 full British citizens in Hong Kong. About 120 British companies have their regional headquarters there, and another 200 have regional offices. Hong Kong ranks consistently as one of our top export markets, helped by its ranking as one of the world’s freest economies in the index of economic freedom. Finally, many of our top judges sit or have sat on the Hong Kong court of final appeal, strengthening the rule of law.

It is not, and should not be, just about history. I was fortunate enough to lead a parliamentary visit to Hong Kong some two years ago, where we were all struck by the vibrancy and potential of the economy. In the context of global Britain, it is hugely important to ensure that Hong Kong remains one of the freest economies so we can have ongoing economic and cultural links.

We must speak up in this House when the rights and freedoms of people in Hong Kong are under threat. That duty is surely strongest towards the nearly 250,000 people who have British national overseas passports—BNO passports, as they are commonly known—as they chose to continue their links to our country after 1997. The status was created in the run-up to the handover of Hong Kong from British to Chinese rule. Individuals with that nationality are British nationals and Commonwealth citizens, but they are not British citizens, so they do not have the right of abode in the UK or the same rights accorded to UK citizens. They enjoy visa-free travel to the United Kingdom as a visitor, with a maximum of six months’ leave to enter. Should a BNO passport holder wish to live and work in the UK more permanently, they would be subject to the same immigration rules as any normal applicant.

The limited power of the BNO passport, coupled with the recent situation in Hong Kong, has led to vocal calls from some colleagues in the House, and in Hong Kong, for the rights of BNO passport holders to be strengthened and revisited.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. As he may be aware, in the last Parliament I presented a petition signed by several hundred BNO passport holders from Hong Kong calling for a review of their rights under the BNO scheme and for them to be granted consular access to gain the support they need in Hong Kong in the current situation. Does he agree that we should look again at the support we are providing through the consulate to BNO passport holders?

My hon. Friend makes two important points. First, he strengthens the point I was beginning to make: in the last Parliament a number of colleagues raised real concerns about the rights of BNO passport holders and called for those rights to be strengthened. He also talks about consular access, which I intend to raise later in my speech—the Minister will not be surprised about that.

As I was saying, there has been a call for BNO passport holders’ rights to be strengthened. There are two strands to that argument. First, as the Foreign Affairs Committee pointed out in November, there is a fear that BNO passport holders may become more vulnerable to arrest by authorities in the context of the well-documented arrests of pro-democracy demonstrators. Secondly, there are concerns about fairness. While I understand the unique nature of the colonial administration in Hong Kong and the handover to China, comparisons are drawn with the status of citizens of other former colonies. There are also concerns about those who have served in the British Army having no right to retain British citizenship or at least to reside in the United Kingdom.

I recognise, as do many people who have raised this issue with the Foreign Secretary, the Minister and indeed the Prime Minister, that this is an extremely delicate area where the rights of individuals, historical and cultural links, live protests and ongoing diplomacy must be balanced. Therefore, I wish to air with the Minister some of the concerns raised, which she should be familiar with, and to try to get from her a view on some of those issues and on how the Government see the way forward.

The Foreign Affairs Committee recommended that

“the Government extends the right of abode to Hong Kong residents who are British National (Overseas) passport holders as a means of reassurance that the UK cares about its nationals.”

Of course, that could be achieved through a change to the immigration rules, which could allow for factoring in and adjustment of the financial and work requirements. It could also lay down provisions for family members of primary applicants. If the Foreign Office and the Government believe that full residency rights are not appropriate, perhaps a more flexible means of consideration or category of immigration entry for BNO passport holders could be considered. That could mirror the provisions for EEA nationals or set out shorter residency periods before BNO holders can obtain indefinite leave to remain. I understand that the Government are concerned that that may breach obligations under the joint declaration, but, as the Minister will know, many take a different view, arguing that such amendments do not grant a full right of abode. I would welcome the Minister’s view on that.

Alternatively, the Government could seek a more humanitarian approach—a differing, graduated or nuanced humanitarian approach—to the issue. Professor Guild of Queen Mary University of London suggested that any BNO holders in the UK who might be at risk, be considered at risk or perceive themselves to be at risk on return to the territory could be granted an extension of stay by the Home Office. There is potential for the Home Office to use graduated definitions and criteria of asylum for BNO passport holders should the protests or aggression be seen to recommence.

Finally, I hope that the Minister will provide some clarity about the point raised by my hon. Friend. While BNO passport holders are British nationals and Commonwealth citizens, as they are not British citizens the right of consular access is usually granted only in exceptional circumstances. I—and, I think, many colleagues—would like her view on what the Government’s policy might be on granting consular access to those with BNO passports.

In the aftermath of the immediate situation, some argue that there should be a conversion to full British citizenship. I am not sure that I regard that as a practical solution to the current situation, or in the long term. It would require a lengthy legislative process, raise some consequential questions for people holding British overseas territories citizenship and potentially breach the spirit of the UK’s obligations under the joint declaration. I recognise the problems with that route.

I hope that the Minister will set out her thoughts on the other issues I have raised, in the context of colleagues’ concerns that these are British nationals. While we speak up for the right to protest for anyone around the world, we have a special obligation towards these individuals.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir George, and I apologise for being 10 seconds late. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond) for securing this important debate. I am also grateful for the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double). I will try to respond to all the points raised.

Before I address the current situation in Hong Kong, and the implications for those with British national overseas status, it is important to set out the obligations of the UK Government towards Hong Kong citizens with British national overseas status, and where those obligations derive from. BNO status was created in 1985 for people in Hong Kong who would lose their British dependent territory citizenship in 1997, when sovereignty passed from Britain back to China. This status had to be acquired before 30 June 1997, so it is not possible to gain BNO status now. The BNO passport replaced the British dependent territories citizens’ passport. Provisions relating to the creation of BNO status were part of the package of agreements made at the same time as the joint declaration. The status entitled Hong Kong citizens to continue to use passports issued by the UK Government. BNO status does not pass to the holders’ children.

As of October 2019, there were just over 250,000 BNO passport holders, out of an estimated 2.9 million people with BNO status. Individuals with BNO status are entitled to British consular assistance in third countries, but not in Hong Kong, mainland China or Macau. BNO status holders are also entitled to visa-free access to the UK for up to six months as a visitor. However, they do not automatically have a right to remain in the UK beyond that period, and nor do they have access to public funds. Those with BNO status require entry clearance when coming to work, study or live in the UK.

Regarding former members of the Hong Kong armed services who have not received an offer of a British passport, the Government are extremely grateful to those who served in the Hong Kong military service corps. They carried out their duties with the same sense of pride and professionalism as any other British Army regular unit. They are rightly invited to take part in the Cenotaph parade for Remembrance Sunday every year. Under the British nationalities selection scheme, which was introduced in 1990 and ran until 1 July 1997, a limited number of Hong Kong military service core personnel who were settled in Hong Kong could apply to register as British citizens. The Home Office is listening to representations made on behalf of former Hong Kong military service core personnel who were unable to obtain citizenship through the selection scheme.

While BNO status is not contained within the joint declaration itself, it was established as part of the delicate balance in the negotiations that led to the Sino-British joint declaration. Full and continued respect for the provisions in the joint declaration are crucial to the future stability and prosperity of Hong Kong, and to the rights, freedoms and autonomy of its people. It is a legally binding treaty, registered at the UN. It remains in force. As a co-signatory, we have a legal interest in ensuring that China stands by its obligations. The UK Government will continue to monitor its implementation closely.

We want to see the joint declaration upheld in its entirety. We are not therefore seeking to change any one part of the package. We expect China to live up to its obligations under the joint declaration and, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, to its wider international human rights law obligations.

Hon. Members have discussed whether the rights of those with BNO status should be altered following the recent protests in Hong Kong. Our position is clear: we believe that the best outcome for people with BNO status is for them to be able to enjoy the high degree of autonomy, rights and freedoms enshrined for Hong Kong in the joint declaration. BNO status was part of the delicate balance and negotiations that were conducted, which were concluded at the time of the joint declaration. The delicate balance reflected in that package needs to be respected. That is why we believe it would not be right to change the legal status of those with BNO status at this time, but they will have our full support in exercising the rights they have as part of their status.

The UK Government continue to take their moral and political obligations towards Hong Kong very seriously. The political situation and protests in Hong Kong are a matter of serious concern to us all. We are absolutely clear that a political solution can only come from within Hong Kong. That requires two urgent steps to be taken: first, a full and credible independent inquiry into the events of the last several months; and secondly, a process of meaningful political dialogue in which all sides engage in good faith.

We have worked intensively over recent months to support a positive resolution to the protests, and to uphold the joint declaration. We continue to engage with the Chinese and Hong Kong authorities. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has raised these matters directly with the Chief Executive of Hong Kong, Carrie Lam, and with the Chinese Foreign Minister and State Councillor, Wang Yi. He also summoned the Chinese ambassador in November.

Senior officials have reiterated our messages during regular engagement with their counterparts in Hong Kong, Beijing and London. Ministers and officials also continue to raise our concerns internationally, including at the UN General Assembly and the Human Rights Council.

I understood the Minister’s point about the delicate balance and that this is not the time to change any aspect of the joint declaration. However, she said that the UK Government are determined to protect the rights of BNO status holders under the joint declaration. Could she set out now—or she could write to me—how exactly the Government intend to do that in a practical way?

I will get to the end of my speech and if the answer is not there I will write to my hon. Friend with pleasure.

The Government will continue to listen to the concerns of BNO status holders. It is crucial that their rights and freedoms, as well as those of other Hong Kong residents, are upheld. We remain seriously concerned about the situation in Hong Kong, and we remain committed to seeing the joint declaration upheld. It contains the commitment that Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy, rights and freedoms must remain unchanged for at least 50 years.

We will continue to work with international partners to ensure that China stands by these obligations. The undertakings made by China to uphold free speech and an independent judiciary are essential to Hong Kong’s prosperity and way of life. They are the best way of guaranteeing Hong Kong’s future success and stability, for all the people of Hong Kong, including BNO status holders, and that is something we all want to see.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.