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Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Do you think that you could order an early investigation into the acoustics of the Chamber? I have been here since June 1983 and, until recently, I have never had any difficulty hearing the shrill tones of the Prime Minister during Prime Minister's questions, but I and my colleagues at the back of the Chamber are now finding it extremely difficult to hear her. It must be
Column 236something to do with the acoustics. I cannot believe that it is anything to do with the television cameras and the Prime Minister's new cuddly toy phase.
Mr. Barry Jones (Alyn and Deeside) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I want to ask about question 189 for written answer about the global budget of the National Health Service in next year's financial budget. The Secretary of State for Wales has not seen fit to make a statement about a matter involving a budget of£1.5 billion, 50,000 employees and every community in the Principality. The Secretary of State is giving us government by press release. Can you, Mr. Speaker, ensure that the Secretary of State for Wales will come to the House, make a statement and submit to questions so that we can tell him the problems that we see regarding waiting lists, the care of the elderly and the impact of inflation on the NHS budget?
Mr. Speaker : The hon. Gentleman knows that it is not within my power to require the Secretary of State to come here. I am sure that what he has said has been noted on the Government Front Bench. We must move on to the debate.
[Relevant Documents : second report from the Foreign Affairs Committee (House of Commons paper No. 281-I of Session 1988-89) on Hong Kong, the observations by the Government on the report (Cm. 927), and the minutes of evidence taken by the Foreign Affairs Committee on 13 December 1989 (House of Commons paper No. 58-ii).]
Vietnamese Boat People
Motion made, and Question proposed,
That a further supplementary sum not exceeding £1,000 be granted to Her Majesty out of the Consolidated Fund to defray the charges which will come in course of payment during the year ending on 31st March 1990 for expenditure by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on other external relations.-- [Mr. Maude.]
Mr. David Howell (Guildford) : The Select Committee on Foreign Affairs will be grateful for the opportunity for us to debate this afternoon the appallingly difficult question of the future of the Vietnamese boat people--although, in view of the subject's sensitive nature and the deep emotions which it arouses on all sides, I am not sure how grateful the Chairman and Committee will be for the chance to put their heads in this noose.
The debate technically arises from the Estimates, as you, Mr. Speaker, reminded us, although the House will wish to address the principle raised by the Government's policy and decisions on the boat people. I shall briefly allude to the Estimates, which are by no means chickenfeed. We are dealing with expenditures already made by the British Government of £30 million and by the Hong Kong Government of £200 million to cope with the accommodation and expenses arising from their present policy for dealing with the Vietnamese boat people in Hong Kong. We should note that substantial expenditure, but must turn our minds to the principle raised by the Government's policy. How to handle the Vietnamese boat people --the refugees and migrants--poses one of the most agonising decisions for my right hon. and hon. Friends. It is possibly one of the most difficult decisions which they or the Government have had to face for a long time. That agony and difficulty deserves understanding--perhaps a little more understanding than it has attracted from some quarters recently. The responsibility of these difficult issues bears down heavily on the shoulders of my right hon. and hon. Friends.
The Select Committee considered this issue when looking at the broader subject of Hong Kong's future last summer. The report issued by the Select Committee at the end of June, after the Tiananmen square horrors, mentioned this matter. The Committee's views were generally, unanimous. However, on the precise question of the Vietnamese boat people and how to deal with them, Committee members had various views. Some of the votes taken on the precise wording of those views reflect the agony and difficulty of any body of people, any hon.
Column 238Members, any liberal people wanting to reach the best solutions in public affairs--as I hope that the Committee felt it was--when facing such as awkward choice.
The following statement about the boat people was unanimously supported in the Committee. It stated :
"Faced with a declining level of acceptances by resettlement countries and a suddenly and massively increasing population of boat people, we believe that the Hong Kong Government had no alternative but to introduce a screening policy."
That policy began to differentiate between those deemed to be genuine political refugees, fleeing from persecution, and those designated economic migrants.
The Committee's report continued--the words were unanimously agreed :
"We accept that the logical consequence of a screening programme is the repatriation of those who have been screened out."
That was accepted. There was a further sentence, against which some Committee members felt they had to vote. Therefore, although the sentence was in the report because it reflected a majority view, it was not unanimously supported. That sentence stated :
"We believe that, in the absence of significant levels of voluntary repatriation, however regrettable it may be, there is no alternative to the mandatory repatriation of those who are screened out." Another set of views was supported by a different majority in the Committee. The pattern of different majorities forming shows how immensely difficult and complex the issue is. The different majority added :
"We note that these people are fleeing not from persecution but from extreme poverty and that over 50 per cent. of them are under the age of 20 years. This calls for special ways in dealing with these young people and if as a last resort, they must return to Vietnam, the authorities dealing with them must act in a humane way and ensure that they are adequately provided for. Assistance should also be given to allow them to settle down in Vietnam."
I have sought to represent as fairly as possible the Select Committee's position. My other Committee colleagues from both sides of the House will wish to give their interpretation of the report, but I have given the words used and the ways in which we reached our conclusions. The difficulties that we faced when debating the matter, even all those months ago, were a precursor of the immense difficulties that we would face when it came to making a decision. My right hon. and hon. Friends face the choice of two evils. This is not one of those wonderful times when there is good on one side and bad on the other and a simple choice can be made. This issue involves the awful complexity of a Government having to reach decisions and carry responsibility when no course is a good course. The lesser evil is that of taking the decisions which have now been made, versus the greater evil of doing nothing, not making the decisions and seeking to obtain other support to resolve the problem. We would then find that we had inflicted more cruelty, suffering and inhuman conditions on thousands of hapless people.
Having tried all other avenues, it is right to act in these few days in which we are debating the matter--for the simple reason that, if we do not act, thousands and thousands more Vietnamese boat people will float in on the early spring tides. They will come in their tens, perhaps even hundreds, of thousands. They will not only constitute a huge migration but cause chaos in Hong Kong which will lead to suffering on a far larger scale than anything we have yet seen. When balancing the choice between the
Column 239evils, those who argue that we should once more try to delay taking action must face up to the responsibility that they may, by their good intentions, create many more difficulties and much more suffering than we have seen so far.
Mr. Andrew Rowe (Mid-Kent) : Is it not also a very heavy factor in this most difficult choice that the Government who showed themselves to be so utterly ruthless in Tiananmen square have made it clear that they will feel no responsibility towards those hapless people if they are left in Hong Kong in 1997?
Mr. Howell : That is certainly the case. We tend to measure these matters against our own, we hope, high standards in this House. We forget the attitude towards the boat people and their activities that prevails in many parts of Asia. We forget at our peril that many of those boats are turned away from other countries and sent to sea again, where all the people in them--men, women and children--drown. We forget that a great deal of the current migration is organised not by people who, through good will, want to provide transport to a freer life and a better world--whether in Hong Kong, America or Canada--but by the most ruthless racketeers. They are ripping off those poor people, persuading them of all sorts of false objectives, removing from them their precious dollars and gold savings, and then cruelly sending them to sea in unseaworthy craft or putting them in buses and sending them up the coast. It is as much an evil trade as drugs or prostitution, and we are seeing its end product in the miserable camps in Hong Kong. The hapless people are bewildered, conned and misled. They have been driven to what they thought would be a better life, only to find that it is not.
That is the background against which the Government have had to make a decision. They have to carry the responsibility, and have little choice but to act now, as they are doing. My hon. Friend the Minister will make the Government's position clear when he speaks. I hope that the Opposition's position will also be made clear.
Mr. Ron Leighton (Newham, North-East) : The right hon. Gentleman rightly said that the Vietnamese people were fleeing from poverty. That poverty largely stems from the blockade of Vietnam by western powers. Did the Committee address that matter with a view to changing policy to help to eradicate poverty in Vietnam?
Committee--although not all members--that additional assistance should be mobilised in co-operation with and for Vietnam. The hon. Gentleman must accept that, although aid and assistance from outside can help a society and an economy, the basic conditions and the basic way in which a Government treat their citizens are matters for decision inside that society. We must face the fact that, in recent years, Vietnam has been an extremely nasty place to live for individuals and for liberal values. However, there may be a chink of light. The position may now be changing, and in that may lie our hope-- Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South) rose --
Mr. Mullin : Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that many of those people are fleeing not the Stalinist system of economics, which I probably deprecate as much as he does, but market forces? Many of them come from the coastal areas of North Vietnam such as Honggai and Haiphong. They are fleeing because the Government have adopted the World bank recommendations and cut off subsidy to the coal mines. Of course, the north of England is familiar with that. I shall leave aside the point that those towns were flattened by American B52s.
Mr. Jeremy Hanley (Richmond and Barnes) : I am dwelling not on the past, but on the present Vietnam. The report on the British refugee camps prepared by Alf Dubs and Lord Ennals specifically states : "returnees are in no danger when they are back in Vietnam ; that they can choose where to live and that they receive assistance to resume their lives."
They expressed the view that more people in Hong Kong should be aware of that truth.
I have heard some unkind people suggest that the Opposition's posture was opportunist. I do not think that it is ; I certainly would not lay that charge upon them. However, given the complexity of, and the obvious dilemma in dealing with, the problem, it is regrettable that those on the Opposition Front Bench have not appreciated the value of seeking a bipartisan approach on such an immensely difficult issue. It is their right so to choose, but it is a great pity for the aims of the policy and for the reputation of this country.
I suppose that those who are totally disinterested must ask why, if people find this forced repatriation not only appalling--as we all do--but so appalling that the even greater risks of doing nothing should be run, there are no feelings about the forced repatriation of people from Hong Kong to China, which happens every day on as big a scale as anything that we are contemplating. I understand that, last year, about 30,000 people were forcibly repatriated from Hong Kong to China, with the agreement of the Chinese Government.
We can all make comments about the state of affairs in different countries, but I do not think that since the summer anyone has argued that China is a home of happiness and liberalism and that those people have been returned to a wonderful, open and welcoming country. Indeed, I dread to think of what has happened to some of them. While I do not wish to make any party points, it must be recognised that if one takes a certain stance on the question of forced repatriation, the same stance and the same standards must be applied to the other forced repatriations that have been taking place for many years. I want to be brief, but I must say a word about the United States of America. I have always admired that country and, in many areas of human rights, it has been fine. However, in this matter I think that Washington's policy is pure humbug. The Select Committee report quoted the words of Sir David Wilson--who, as Governor of Hong Kong, is in an immensely difficult position that requires some understanding in the House. He said about the boat people : "they are not trying to go to Hong Kong but to go to places of resettlement. Above all, they are trying to go to
Column 241North America which has said that these people do not qualify for resettlement in the United States as ordinary refugees because they come from north Vietnam Hong Kong is caught between this upper and nether millstone."
The former Foreign Secretary, in evidence to the Committee, expressed his bewilderment that the United States seemed
"to support the prospect of indefinite accumulation of people in places like Hong Kong and that is clearly not a tenable position." The Committee unanimously concluded :
"We believe the American position fails totally to understand the seriousness of the problem or its damaging consequences both to the people of Hong Kong and the Vietnamese."
It is also damaging to the many other people involved. The United States policy-makers--those who are currently influential in Washington--just as they appear to be wrong about Europe, are wrong about Hong Kong and are probably wrong about their policy on China. This is a situation in which there is no choice but to take an ugly and difficult decision to avert an even greater injustice and conflict. Those who cry halt now--those who say that there must be some other way, even though every conceivable way has been sought--would themselves, I fear, carry the responsibility for the even more catastrophic consequences of inaction.
We are asked by leaders and guides in the world and by others among the public to search our consciences. Those who argue that this action should not now be pursued need to search their consciences just as minutely and carefully.
Several Hon. Members rose --
Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley) : We on the Opposition Benches welcome this debate, which is taking place not before time. We have been calling for a debate on this urgent matter for many months-- [Interruption.] It has been a matter of Government responsibility. The Government have been dodging this issue on the Floor of the House, while at the same time secretly hatching their plan for forced deportation. I assure the right hon. Member for Guildford (Mr. Howell) that that is not the best way to achieve a bipartisan approach on this issue.
The motion is a technical one on the Estimates. The Opposition view is represented by motion No. 46 in the notices of motions, which cannot be tabled because of a procedural technicality. But that motion effectively is what my hon. Friends and I support tonight. I also assure the right hon. Member for Guildford that Opposition Members appreciate the problems of the Governments of Hong Kong and the United Kingdom. The conditions in the camps are intolerable, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) and I saw when we visited them in June. The outbreak of cholera, the rioting, the absence of education for the children and many other matters testify to the abject misery of life there.
Column 242We also recognise that if all that we do every time the boats arrive from Vietnam is to arrange the resettlement in the West of every person, the flow will continue unabated, and the situation will be increasingly difficult for Hong Kong and damaging for Vietnam. That is why we must tackle the root cause of the problem with a viable, long-term, stable but, above all, humane solution. We disagree totally with forced deportation. Having said that time and again, our view should come as no surprise to Conservative Members. We have said it at Question Time and my right hon. Friend the Member for Gorton and I have said it in statements. We oppose it because it is heartless and inhumane. I predicted that it would have to be done by a moonlight flit, and so it was- -deliberately to escape the attention of the world's media.
Mr. Michael Grylls (Surrey, North-West) : My right hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Mr. Howell) mentioned the return of illegal immigrants from Hong Kong to China, a policy that has gone on for many years. How does the hon. Gentleman square his ridiculous attack on the British Government's Vietnamese policy with the fact that when Labour was in government between 1974 and 1979--the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) was a member of that Government--they returned from Hong Kong well over 100,000 illegal Chinese immigrants with very little screening? That shows the utter hypocrisy of Labour policy in this matter.
Mr. Foulkes : Chinese refugees are returned one by one at the border. We are here talking of people who have settled in camps and of families with children, some of whom were born in the camps. This is an entirely different issue.
Mr. Foulkes : The hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. Dicks) is well known for his statements to the media, although not for his statements in the House. I let them stand on their merit and I withdraw--
The Government have not explained why that moonlight flit was done at 3 o'clock in the morning, if not to try to dodge the attention of the media, or why, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Gorton said, nearly 200 riot police with riot helmets, shields and batons were needed-- [Interruption.] The facts appeared in every newspaper, including The Daily Telegraph, The Times and The Financial Times. That was done to remove 51 people, 43 of them women and children. Why was violence needed? [Interruption.] The Conservative lackeys of the Foreign Office might read what was said-- [Interruption.] If Conservative Members want to treat this issue seriously, they should stop barracking and listen carefully to what is
Column 243being said. They should also read The Daily Telegraph today--not a radical Left-wing newspaper--which reports that martial arts were applied in the deportations and that handcuffs were being used. It was described in an editorial in The Times as "a sordid action," and that is indeed what it was.
We have warned the Government repeatedly that there would be justifiable outrage when pictures of boat people being forcibly deported were seen on television sets in sitting rooms throughout the world.
Mr. Thomas Graham (Renfrew, West and Inverclyde) : My hon. Friend will be aware that the Pope in Vatican City is responsible for Catholics in Britain and throughout the world. The hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. Dicks) said that the Pope should put his hands in his pockets and fork out money from the rich coffers of the Catholic Church to assist the boat people. Indeed, he suggested that the Pope could authorise the sale of two or three Vatican paintings to help the economy of Vietnam and thereby show what a good Catholic he was.
Does my hon. Friend agree that that reveals the hypocrisy of people such as the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington? After all, if the British Government had to take such steps to deal with the problems of the elderly, disabled and other needy folk in this country, it would be utter nonsense.
Mr. Foulkes : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. Perhaps we expect the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. Dicks) to insult the Pope. It was even more despicable that an anonymous Downing street source should have done so.
On a number of occasions--for example, at Foreign Office Question Time on 25 October, at Prime Minister's Question Time on 26 October and, as the Minister will confirm, when I met him on 7 September--my right hon. Friends and I urged the Government to abandon their plans for forcible repatriation. The Government have used the phrase "an orderly return programme" and recently a senior Hong Kong Government official told me that they would send home only those who acquiesced. That is euphemistic, semantic hypocrisy.
The Opposition have a number of serious concerns, not least about the screening of asylum seekers, who are told too little about the procedures. No legal advice or assistance is given to them and there are only six United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees monitors for 600 daily interviews, so they can attend only a fraction of the interviews. The whole system is biased in favour of rejection. Immigration officers have power only to reject. Acceptance must be referred up. How, in any case, do they differentiate in this instance between political and economic refugees? I hope that the Minister will give us some idea of the criteria used and whether they are the same criteria as were used when welcoming people from East Germany. On 12 December, the Foreign Secretary said that the British Refugee Council had approved the screening
Column 244procedures. I have read the report and spoken to the director of the British Refugee Council. He, like people from Amnesty International and other organisations, are critical of the screening procedures.
Mr. Andrew MacKay (Berkshire, East) : I am anxious to establish whether the hon. Gentleman is genuinely concerned about political refugees being turned back, particularly in boats. It takes us back some 40 years to another Labour Administration who turned away genuine Jewish political refugees who were trying to return to Palestine, sending them back to the Soviet Union and elsewhere in eastern Europe, almost certainly to their deaths. Is the hon. Gentleman part of that, or will he denounce it today?
Mr. Foulkes : The hon. Gentleman does not have his facts entirely right, but I am sure that in any event he would agree that two wrongs do not make a right. An action of which he is understandably and properly critical provides no justification for the subsequent action that we are discussing.
We are also concerned about the lack of effort, enthusiasm and commitment devoted to persuading refugees to return. That is because the Government decided on forced repatriation many months ago, and have maintained a blinkered attitude ever since. They tried to persuade other nations at Geneva in June, and failed ; their heart has not been in the voluntary scheme, because they wanted it to fail so that they could return to Geneva in November and persuade other countries to accept compulsion, but they did not succeed then either. Contrary to what has been implied by some Conservative Members, no agreement on compulsory repatriation was made at Geneva : the British Government are alone in that regard.
Mr. Maude : Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the international community is unanimous in its view that there is nowhere for these people to go other than back to Vietnam? Is he seriously suggesting that the Government deliberately chose their present policy when there was a better alternative?
Mr. Foulkes : Yes, and I am coming to that alternative. Only a programme of assistance for Vietnam to help to improve the lives of people there will help to encourage them to stay, and encourage those who have already left to return. Those who return will go back to an increasingly more tolerable life, and will send messages to those who remain, thus reinforcing the trend towards voluntary return. [ Hon. Members :--"It will take years."] That is a counsel of despair. Our approach is advocated in a letter to The Times last Friday by Chris Bale, Oxfam's Hong Kong director ; by Nicholas Hinton, director of the Save the Children Fund, in The Independent ; and by Mary Purcell, War on Want's Asia programme officer, also in The Independent. Those three people are committed, long- term officers who, unlike some Conservative Members, know the circumstances of refugees in Hong Kong.
The same course was advocated in the report of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs in 1986, when the refugee problem was much less acute than it is now. If it had been adopted then, it would--as the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Mr. Lester) rightly said--have given a sense of
Column 245hope to the people in Vietnam, and prevented the outflows of the past two years. Our view is also supported in an editorial in The Times on 13 December, which stated that
"the economic misery is at the root of the exodus", and by The Guardian, which said on 14 December that there was an urgent need to do something about the sorry state of Vietnam, which was not so much a tyranny as a devastated economy crying out for help.
If we in the United Kingdom can lead a shift of opinion to restore aid from the European Community and persuade the International Monetary Fund, the Asia Development bank and the World Bank to assist Vietnam again, hope--as the hon. Member for Broxtowe said--will begin to return.
Mr. Tim Devlin (Stockton, South) : The hon. Gentleman's remarks are very interesting, but as 30,000 to 40,000 people are leaving Vietnam for Hong Kong each year, the programme that he has outlined must be a long-term one, and may take two or three years to be effective. For how many years would he allow this rate of emigration to continue, and what would he do with those who are already in Hong Kong?
One issue on which I can agree with the right hon. Member for Guildford is the appalling hypocrisy of the United States. While rightly opposing forcible repatriation, the United States is unwilling to accept the corollary--the need to bring Vietnam back into the international community. It must cease its vendetta against Vietnam simply because it lost the Vietnam war : it must lift the trade and economic embargo. If the right hon. Member for Guildford thinks that the United States' attitude is humbug --I agree with him--why do not he and his Government lift their embargo? If they do not, they, too, can be accused of humbug.
Ms. Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington) : My hon. Friend will have heard Conservative Members jeering about "taxpayers' money" when he suggested a programme of aid for Vietnam. Does he agree that a House of Commons that can vote £150 million to help victims of the Barlow Clowes affair should consider providing some sort of aid for the people of Vietnam?
The United States Government and the French Government have a special responsibility to help in the reconstruction of Vietnam. The West as a whole, led by the United States, has constantly given a clear signal to the people of Vietnam : "Escape from Vietnam, and you will be resettled quickly in the West." That signal has been given for many years now, since the end of the Vietnam war, and to change the light from green to red so suddenly is unfair and inhumane. It is entirely incorrect to say, as Conservative Members have on previous occasions, that other countries have refused to take Vietnamese refugees. Between 1975 and 1988 the United States took more than 700,000, Canada 121,000, Australia 117,000 and the United Kingdom fewer than 18,000. It is wrong for us to criticise other countries for not taking their fair share.
Mr. George Walden (Buckingham) : I am genuinely unable to understand the hon. Gentleman's answer to the point about returning refugees from Hong Kong to China. If he is to carry conviction inside and outside the House, it is essential for the hon. Gentleman to have a clear and consistent policy in relation to the two very similar cases. I still do not see how he can justify turning back refugees : I watched it happen in China when I worked there, and it is not a pretty sight. They do not want to go ; they struggle, and women and children are pushed back over the bridge. What is the hon. Gentleman's solution? Will he suggest a programme of economic assistance for the 1 billion Chinese to salve our consciences?
Mr. Foulkes : Before Tiananmen square we were rightly trading and investing in China, but we are not trading and investing in Vietnam ; that is one difference. The hon. Gentleman might also make a comparison with East Germany, and ask himself whether he is being consistent. There is, of course, a distinction between individual crossings and the position of families who have been living in the camps for some time, including children who were born there. Assistance for Vietnam is needed to develop schemes for irrigation, reafforestation, transport and agricultural production. Trade liberalisation will help to make life there more tolerable. Our third anxiety concerns guarantees and the monitoring of returned refugees. I know that the right hon. Member for Guildford and his Committee are rightly concerned about that. We are informed that those who have returned voluntarily have not been ill-treated or persecuted and are beginning to re-integrate. They are sending positive messages back to Hong Kong and that is encouraging more people to volunteer. However, Mr. Thach, the Vietnamese Foreign Minister, reiterated his Government's opposition to forced repatriation in an interview in The Sunday Correspondent last week.
There are no guarantees and as all the agencies that might monitor the return of refugees have refused to monitor the return of those who are forced back, there will be no independent monitoring. The Foreign Secretary said in a letter to hon. Members :
"Independent observers will monitor the treatment of those repatriated."
When the Minister replies to the debate, he must tell us who will be responsible for monitoring. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has refused, as has the Save the Children Fund. None of the other voluntary organisations will monitor forced repatriation. Surely the Minister will not suggest the embassy, which consists of only three men who are very good but are certainly not equipped for the job and are certainly not independent. They could not monitor the return of thousands of refugees. The Minister must tell us today who will carry out the monitoring.
The Government's programme is flawed. It is misdirected, heartless, likely to be ineffective and widely opposed. It is opposed by President Bush and the American Congress, Amnesty International and all the other voluntary organisations, the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury. But we know that Conservative Members can dismiss the views of those eminent people.