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House of Lords stands with Hong Kong’s young people and Government agrees to extend BNO scheme. Full

Feb 11, 2022

Amendment 179

Moved by Lord Alton of Liverpool

179: After Clause 78, insert the following new Clause—

“British National (Overseas) visas: eligibility

(1) Within two months of this Act being passed, the Secretary of State must amend the immigration rules to ensure that all persons meeting all the conditions set out in subsection (2) are eligible to apply for the British National (Overseas) visa.(2) The conditions in this subsection are that—(a) the person has at least one parent who is a British national (overseas);(b) the person was born in or after 1997; and(c) the person is currently resident in Hong Kong or the United Kingdom.” Lord Alton of Liverpool (CB)

My Lords, Amendment 179 stands in the names of the noble Lord, Lord Patten of Barnes, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans and myself. In some ways, it says everything which needs to be said. That a former governor of Hong Kong and a former Lord Chancellor are two of the signatories to this amendment shows that it is not just cross-party but has support across both Houses. I know that the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, has taken a personal interest in this and I really appreciate the time she took in organising a meeting and being willing to address the issues during a long discussion on the subject. I am indebted to her, and I know that she gets the message of this amendment. It stands after Clause 78 and concerns the visa eligibility of British nationals (overseas). The amendment would rationalise the UK’s policy by offering courageous young people in Hong Kong a lifeboat out of the city. I declare my interest as a patron of Hong Kong Watch and as the vice-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Hong Kong.

I warmly welcome the Government’s creation of the BNO visa, which was opened up just over a year ago, allowing those holding BNO status in Hong Kong to come to the UK to live the life of freedom that they were promised would continue after 1997. However, as the former Foreign Secretary and leader of the Conversative Party, the noble Lord, Lord Hague, noted last week in his column in the Times, the policy has immense benefits:

“Improvements to this scheme can still be made, in particular by creating equivalent rights for those born after 1997—there are many young people who want to leave Hong Kong even though their parents want to stay, and they should be welcome here.”

The Government’s commitment to the people of Hong Kong and the unanimous cross-party support that this has received shows that we are a country which does not turn its back on the persecuted. However, I have become increasingly concerned at the exclusion of young people born after 1997, who are unable to access this lifeline visa route, even though these are the very people who flooded the streets of Hong Kong and stood up for the freedoms throughout the protests in 2019. That was when I was part of the international team which monitored the last free elections in Hong Kong; it was an extraordinary thing to see at first hand.

Research published at the end of last year showed that 93% of the defendants in protest-related prosecutions in Hong Kong were under the age of 25. In happier times, I chaired a meeting here in your Lordships’ House at which two young Hong Kongers spoke. One was Joshua Wong, one of the most heroic young defenders of Hong Kong’s freedoms and, for this, he is now incarcerated in a Hong Kong prison. In 2019, I was able to take the Westminster Award for Human Rights, Human Life, and Human Dignity to Hong Kong and present it to him. That was after he was refused permission, even then, to travel to the United Kingdom. The other person at that meeting was Nathan Law, the youngest member of the Hong Kong Legislative Council. The noble Lord, Lord Patten, might remember that in my day I was briefly the youngest Member of the House of Commons, and I told Nathan that we babies of the House should stick together. Nathan is now in exile in the United Kingdom and last week we stood together at an open-air rally in London focusing on the destruction of Hong Kong’s freedoms and other aspects of the erosion of freedoms elsewhere in China.9.15pm

Amendment 179 is an act of solidarity with Joshua and Nathan. It would provide a way out for the people of Hong Kong who need it most. The amendment would at least make young people with a BNO-status parent eligible to apply for the visa and start rebuilding their lives in this country. A previous version of the amendment was tabled by the right honourable Damian Green in the House of Commons and received the backing on the amendment paper there of 30 senior Conservative Back-Benchers, including several former Cabinet Ministers, a former Foreign Secretary, the former leader of the Conservative Party and the chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, as well as support from across the opposition Front Benches. Charles Moore—the noble Lord, Lord Moore of Etchingham—writing in the Spectator in December, was equally supportive and called it “logical and just”. He correctly highlighted that such a move would not meaningfully alter the overall number of BNOs expected to arrive, because the children of BNO status holders had already been factored into the Government’s estimates to some extent at least.

In December, the Minister raised concerns about Damian Green’s amendment, saying that it did not contain certain safeguards, such as an age limit and residency. We have listened to that, and this amendment has inserted conditions that would give access only to those born after 1997 who are

“currently resident in Hong Kong or the United Kingdom.”

Both honourable Members from the other place and we here have consistently throughout this process underlined our desire that the Government adopt the proposal themselves. I have suggested to the noble Baroness, and I know that she is sympathetic, that a simple immigration rule would be able to achieve this purpose.

I appreciate and welcome the outreach and efforts that the Government have put into finding a way forward with us. I was pleased to hear that, in response to a Question that I tabled in January, the Government recognised there is a need. They said:

“We are sympathetic to the circumstances of children born on or after 1 July 1997 with BN(O) parents and are considering what more can be done to support this cohort where they wish to build a permanent life in the UK.”

The noble Baroness and the noble Lord will realise that in this amendment, as in the amendment from the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, we have put a timeline so this does not disappear into the future by too long a distance.

I am pleased that the Government have moved beyond the arguments that they made in the other place that the existing youth mobility scheme was a viable alternative for these young people. The youth mobility scheme in its current form is designed to give young people from a selection of countries an experience of life in our country for up to two years before taking that back to their own countries. It is not designed for those fleeing tyranny. The youth mobility scheme is a non-renewable visa. It does not count towards the five-year route to resettlement that those on the BNO route possess and, crucially, one must apply via a ballot from Hong Kong which typically opens in January and July each year, meaning that it is not appropriate for those needing to flee the city immediately.

With these young Hong Kongers, we need to provide a meaningful route to settlement. The BNO scheme, if it were opened up to them, would provide that but I am sure that there are a range of alternatives that the Government could explore, and I look forward to hearing what conclusions the Minister has reached on this matter.

Let me come an end. At the moment, many young Hong Kongers are left only with the option of applying for asylum. More than 200 who have unnecessarily applied for asylum have described how they left the city at very short notice and could not afford to wait until the youth mobility scheme ballot opened. One example, Steven—obviously not his real name for reasons the House will understand—is a 19 year-old who fled Hong Kong in November 2020 to claim asylum in the UK. He had a protest-related charge brought against him after his part in a protest and his subsequent arrest in 2019. He was released on bail and was awaiting a date for his court hearing when he fled to the UK—a decision he took suddenly after hearing of friends being arrested and a further charge brought against them.

Young people like Steven have been floundering in our asylum system for more than a year and have been unable therefore to work—an issue the Committee has addressed at earlier stages—living a life on the breadline and in limbo. There is no need for young, talented Hong Kong pro-democracy activists to be treated like this when they have the ready-made BNO scheme as an alternative.

As someone who once represented the great city of Liverpool, I note the debt that it owes to the Hong Kongers who have arrived there over the years, some fleeing the Cultural Revolution and some coming from as early as the 19th century. The talents and the gifts that they bring to our country are enormous.

What we are asking for here is a small and rational compromise that would help those young people who really need it. I look forward to continuing the conversations with the Government to achieve a solution to that end. I beg to move.Lord Patten of Barnes (Con)

I will be very brief in supporting that speech and this amendment, not because I do not feel passionately and strongly about it—I do—but, first, out of a late-evening act of charity to the crowds that are still with us this evening and, secondly, because the purpose of the amendment was explained so clearly by the noble Lord a moment ago.

I perhaps do not spend enough time praising the Government for things that they have done, but I praise without qualification the lifeboat that is the BNO passport scheme, which is imaginative and has been set out and pursued with considerable competence by the Government. One result is that, in the last three months, 90,000 Hong Kongers came to live in our country. Overwhelmingly, the heads of household were young professionals. The latest figures in Hong Kong suggest that, of those working for medical services, the number of doctors has decreased by 5% and the number of nurses has decreased by almost 8%, and there has been a huge drop in the number of teachers—1,000, I think, have left. Most of them have come here. It may be a matter of amazement to the Chancellor that fewer of the young entrepreneurs have come here than have gone to Australia, Canada and the United States, but nevertheless a number of people who will make a huge contribution to our society have come here.

The amendment before your Lordships repairs a hole in this lifeboat. It is very important to do so, for the reasons that the noble Lord has just made clear and that I will refer to again in a moment. But why is this lifeboat necessary at all? Shortly before he became Trade Minister, my noble friend Lord Grimstone referred to the “strong authoritarian guidance” that had been offered to Hong Kong by Xi Jinping, which he said was very good for banks. It might be good for banks—although that is questionable—but it is not very good for people. It has gone rather beyond “strong authoritarian guidance”.

We know what has happened: there has been a vengeful and comprehensive assault on all of the freedoms that we associate with an open society. Take freedom of speech: journalists have been locked up, proprietors have been incarcerated and newspapers’ funds have been frozen. Anyone who protests this is locked up. People are locked up for wanting to light a candle to mark the 4 June vigil of Tiananmen every year. The Pillar of Shame, as it was called, in the University of Hong Kong, reminding people of 4 June, was taken down in the dead of night. As my noble friend Lord Hague pointed out in a Times article earlier this week, to which the noble Lord has just referred, there has been an absolutely comprehensive assault on all of the freedoms that Hong Kong was promised it would continue to exercise for 50 years after 1997.

My main critic when I was the last colonial oppressor was a very distinguished diplomat, Percy Cradock, who used to say—and was happy to be quoted as such—of the leadership in Beijing that they may be “thuggish dictators” but they are “men of their word”. We know that at least one of those things is correct. It is a terrible example of the problem we face today that the Chinese Communist Party has behaved towards Hong Kong in a way that confirms that it cannot be trusted to keep its word in international affairs. That is something we have to think about when we are working out how to share this planet with China, almost 50 years to the day since President Nixon went to Beijing to see Mao.

This amendment is extremely important. The noble Lord pointed out that 93% of those who have been arrested for protest-related offences are aged between 18 and 24. They are young people whose lives will be blighted. With this amendment, which has been sensibly circumscribed to take account of criticisms in another place, as the noble Lord pointed out, we want to give those people who were born after 1997 the chance, like their parents, to live in and contribute to this country.

As the noble Lord said, the amendment was supported right across the other place and by both wings of the Conservative Party—I am not quite sure what flying object they support at the moment but, extraordinarily, both wings supported this amendment. Nobody else can manage that but this amendment has. I hope it will be accepted by this House in due course as well. It is a wonderful way for us to make absolutely clear what our commitment to Hong Kong and our last imperial responsibility has become.

I want to conclude by saying two related things. First, every one of my successors as chief executive in Hong Kong had either a foreign passport or members of their family with foreign passports. The present chief executive had a British passport, which she gave up to become chief executive, and her husband and her sons have British passports. I am not against that: I hope they enjoy the liberties and freedoms that come with being a British citizen with that passport. But it is an unhappy paradox that the people doing the persecuting—the quislings—including members of the police force, have British passports, and those who are being persecuted and locked up do not. I think we should address that rather unhappy imbalance in due course.

Lastly, today I went to the memorial service of somebody who many noble Lords will have read and some will have known: the very fine American scholar of China, and Observer and Guardianjournalist, Jonathan Mirsky. He wrote about China for years. A defining moment for him was being beaten up while he was trying to follow what was happening in Tiananmen Square in 1989. He was covered in the blood of a young student who was shot standing next to him. The great thing about Mirsky, who could be extraordinarily tiresome and very awkward, was that at the heart of his journalism was an understanding of the difference between what is right and what is wrong, wicked or evil. What we are seeing from President Putin at the moment is wrong. It is wicked. What we have seen in Xinjiang and in Tibet is wicked. What is happening in Hong Kong—the destruction of one of the great free cities in the world—is wrong and we should say that it is wrong. Whenever we have an opportunity to do anything about it, we should take it.9.30pm Baroness Smith of Newnham (LD)

My Lords, in moving this amendment the noble Lord, Lord Alton, pointed out that it was supported across all parts of your Lordships’ House. However, such is the nature of amendments that you can have only four names on the top of them, which on this occasion omits any Liberal Democrat name. So I rise, genuinely briefly, to support the amendment on behalf of these Benches because, as both noble Lords have made so clear, it really plugs the hole in the life raft, as the noble Lord, Lord Patten of Barnes, pointed out.

We are talking about a relatively small amendment and a relatively small number of people. But the amendment would make the difference of giving these people the freedom and ability to express themselves, and the opportunity to come and live freely, which is given to their parents and grandparents, and some of those who are in government in Hong Kong—so it is very important.

Some months ago, the young people of Hong Kong were very vocal in writing, again and again, “Please support us because we don’t have the right to come out under any sort of visa scheme”. This is an important amendment and I very much hope the noble Lord, Lord Patten of Barnes, is right that it brings together both wings of the Conservative Party. The last time I remember something similar happening right across your Lordships’ House was on the rights of the 3 million EU nationals resident in the United Kingdom in the wake of the referendum, when all parts of your Lordships’ House and of the Conservative Party, apart from the Government Front Bench, agreed. I hope that on this occasion those on the Government Front Bench might be able to agree with the two wings of their own party, and with everybody else. Lord Rosser (Lab)

I will be brief. Not surprisingly, we wholeheartedly support this amendment, in the same way as we were among those who raised this issue during the Commons stages of the Bill. As has been said, this is not a party-political issue; there is huge cross-party support for the BNO scheme, and there is obviously the same strong cross-party support for this necessary extension to that scheme.

Currently, those born after 1997—24 year-olds or younger—cannot access the scheme, as has been said. I believe that is unless they are a dependant of a BNO passport holder, but I am not entirely sure whether that is the case. What has been said on more than one occasion during this debate is that 93% of those who face process charges in Hong Kong were born in or after 1997. We certainly do not believe that it was the Government’s intention to exclude a significant number of the people who are protesting against oppression and fighting for democracy. Our argument is that the scheme, in practice, is not working as the Government intended it to, and today is an opportunity for them to make it clear that they do intend that the scheme should work—as I am sure they did when they originally introduced it.

The Minister in the Commons raised drafting issues with the amendment that was considered there. As I understand it, those have been dealt with in the amendment before this House. The draft now includes an age limit and applies only to those who are resident in Hong Kong or the UK. On Report in the Commons, Damian Green MP, who led the cross-party amendment on this issue, said:

“I want to give Ministers more time to work out better details of a mobility scheme that is suitable for young people in Hong Kong.”—[Official Report, Commons, 7/12/21; col. 233.]

We hope, as do other Members who have taken part in this discussion, that the Government have taken that time and that, on their behalf, the Minister will be able to respond favourably to this amendment.

I conclude by saying that there was an article in the Times recently—a reference has already been made to it—which stated:

“One in five of those granted indefinite leave to remain as part of the bespoke visa scheme for Hong Kong citizens were under-25.”

So that is already the situation. The article also said:

“The Home Office expects about 300,000 people to apply in the first five years of the scheme.”

I do not know whether that figure, which was mentioned in the Times on 1 February, is accurate or not. It might be helpful, if the Minister was in a position to do so, if he would say by how many the Government think that figure of 300,000 would increase if, as they should, they accepted the terms of this amendment and extended the scheme so that those younger people who are the ones facing protest charges in Hong Kong—or have faced them—and who clearly have a desire, in many cases, to leave and to come here are able to do so.Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)

My Lords, again, I thank all noble Lords who have participated in this debate, and I thank all noble Lords who signed this amendment. I understand that their concerns centre around the accessibility of the route for those who are too young to obtain BNO status in their own right and who no longer reside with their BNO parents, or those whose BNO parents do not wish to apply to the route. Although perhaps unintended, the clause would also enable unaccompanied children under the age of 18 to apply independently of their parents—which obviously risks creating safeguarding and other concerns.

The BNO route was designed bearing in mind the moral and historic obligations the UK has to those who elected to retain ties to the UK by obtaining BNO status and who wish to make the UK their home. The route already enables adult children born on or after 1 July 1997 to apply with their families where they are part of the BNO’s household—which I think answers the question of the noble Lord, Lord Rosser—ensuring that family units are not split up. This is a generous provision—being over 18, there adult children fall outside the UK immigration system’s usual definition of a dependent child. Nevertheless, the provision recognises that, although they are too young to have been eligible to obtain BNO status in their own right, they may still be able to form a household with their BNO parent.

I am going to make a brief digression into the numbers of people who have already applied, and so on. As of 30 September, over 88,000 people had applied—status holders and their family members—since 31 January, and 76,000 applications had been granted. The net-positive impact to the Treasury—in answer to the comment about the Chancellor and how he should be pleased about this—is estimated to be between £2.4 billion and £2.9 billion over five years. With that in mind, I would perhaps ask my noble friend Lord Patten why we did not grant BNO status to everybody back in 1997, which many of us in Hong Kong at the time thought would have been a very good idea. In answer to the subsequent question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, that number of 300,000 is accurate—I do not know, though, how many would apply under this particular amendment, but obviously we will do some work on that and come back to him.

Those who are not eligible for the BNO route do have a number of other UK immigration routes available to them, and that includes student visas which are up 5% compared with 2019—of course, there may be a pandemic effect in that as well. The skilled worker route enables individuals to come to the UK in a wider range of professions and at a lower general salary threshold than in the past—although, again, the information I have suggests the vast majority are very well educated indeed, as my noble friend pointed out. The graduate route is open to sponsored international students who have successfully completed a degree at undergraduate level or above. We believe that those existing routes provide avenues for many Hong Kong nationals to come to the UK, and we expect some new routes that will be created next year to open up another pathway to young Hong Kong nationals.

However, we have heard the concerns raised by noble Lords around the appropriateness of some of these other routes and are very sympathetic to the circumstances of children born on or after 1 July 1997 with BNO parents. We are, therefore, looking at whether more can be done to support this cohort wishing to build a permanent life in the UK. I can assure your Lordships that we are considering the matter carefully. I hope it will cheer your Lordships up—particularly when it comes to matters of precise timing—to hear that we hope to update the House by Report stage. In light of these assurances, I ask the noble Lord to withdraw the amendment.

Lord Alton of Liverpool

I was very struck by what the noble Lord said about the positive impact that people make, both in purely economic terms—those figures of £2.4 billion to £2.9 billion over five years to the Treasury are an amazing statement—and in human terms as well. I certainly know this from having volunteered as a student, a long time ago, to teach English to Hong Kong children who had come to United Kingdom and seeing what happened to them in the next generation: they produced a lawyer, a doctor, a teacher and an entrepreneur and, in the next generation, a goddaughter of mine. These people bring real gifts to our society. I know your Lordships’ House shares that view.

On the basis of everything we have heard, I thank all noble Lords who have participated in this debate, but I am sure the Committee will agree that hearing the noble Lord, Lord Patten, was deeply inspiring. Many people from outside this House will have heard this debate, as the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, said, and hopefully many people who still have access to such things as the internet in Hong Kong will have seen on our parliamentary channel what the noble Lord had to say, because I think it will give them a great deal of inspiration. On the basis of what the noble Lord, Lord Sharpe, said, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment—Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)

If I could correct one thing, I may have said “a benefit to the Treasury”—I meant to the economy, of course. I apologise. Baroness Ludford (LD)

I hope I am not being a bit of a cynic, but if the noble Lord intends that the Government respond to us on Report, that might make it a little difficult for us to prepare for the possibility of a vote. Can he secure a response? We were promised jam tomorrow—I think we wanted to hear some jam today. We should at least get the jam before Report, not on Report. Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)

I hate to sound pedantic, but I said “by Report”, which probably does not clarify things very much but is all I can say at the moment. Lord Alton of Liverpool (CB)

I know the Minister would expect us to be prepared to do whatever is necessary on Report. However, on the basis of the debate we have had, I thank him for the way he has responded and beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 179 withdrawn.


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