Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) (by private notice) asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on the American activities in Panama and on the safety of British citizens.
The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Douglas Hurd) : We welcome the establishment of democratic governmenin Panama. We fully support the American action to remove General Noriega, which was undertaken with the agreement of the leaders who clearly won the elections held last May. Noriega's arbitrary rule was maintained by force. We and many others have repeatedly condemned Noriega and called for the election result in Panama to be respected. Every peaceful means of trying to see the results of the democratic elections respected had failed.
We have been in touch with the British charge d'affaires in Panama. So far as he has been able to establish, there have been no British casualties. The embassy has advised British residents to remain in their homes until the situation becomes clearer.
Mr. Kaufman : Will the Secretary of State be more forthcoming about the position of British subjects? Is the embassy in touch with them? Does it know where they are and can it guarantee their safety? Will they be given assistance to return home if that is what they want to do?
There is no doubt that General Noriega is a corrupt dictator and that Panama will be better off without him. Will the Secretary of State answer my following questions?
Under what provision of the canal treaty have United States forces intervened? If it is that relating to the smooth operation of the canal, can the Americans offer guarantees that the canal will continue to operate smoothly? Under what provision of the United Nations charter have the United States forces intervened? If the United States is citing section 51 of the charter, has it reported its action to the Security Council as a section 51 action? If the death of a United States service man triggered off the action, does the intervention qualify as self-defence under section 51? [Interruption.]
Mr. Kaufman : Does the United States regard General Noriega's statement that a state of war existed between the United States and Panama as a declaration of war? Is this an action of war, a police action, or an action of self-defence?
We ask these questions because any action of this kind, if it is to be justified internationally, must stand up to international scrutiny. Noriega's crimes are to be condemned, but any action that is taken against Noriega must thoroughly justify itself. So far, no such justification has been provided.
Mr. Hurd : The right hon. Gentleman asks first about the British community. There are about 450 of them. Of course, the position on the ground is still obscure. There are no plans for evacuating them at present, but, obviously, our charge d'affaires is keeping an eye on matters and will do his best to offer them such advice and protection as they may need.
In answer to the right hon. Gentleman's main point, the President of the United States has stated that he took action only as a last resort. He gave four reasons : to protect American lives ; to defend democracy ; to arrest an indicted drugs trafficker ; and to defend the integrity of the Panama canal treaty. That is the President's statement.
The right hon. Gentleman is right : no one can possibly accurately describe General Noriega as a romantic victim of oppression or as a symbol of legality. There was an election. There is no doubt of the result of that election. That result was overturned. There has been a clear threat to United States lives, including the recent death of an American officer and a statement from Noriega that Panama was in a state of war with the United States. Those seem to Her Majesty's Government to be strong and sufficient reasons.
Mr. David Ashby (Leicestershire, North-West) : Does my right hon. Friend understand that the people of Panama are very peace-loving and gentle and that, above everything else, they value their freedom? One thing that they have expressed to me time and again is their desire to be free from the military Government of their country. Above all, they look for freedom from American interference. The new Government will be yet another Government imposed upon the people of Panama by the American Government.
Will my right hon. Friend tell the Americans that the people of Panama, now that they have a Government who are free from the military dictatorship of General Noriega and the possibility of an election, also want freedom from American interference in Panama?
Mr. Hurd : I am not sure whether my hon. Friend has the background correct. President Endara and the two vice-presidents were not selected by the United States Administration ; they were elected by the people of Panama last May. Also, 279 independent observers from 21 countries, including at least one Member of this House, after observing the elections in Panama last May, formally declared that the election was overwhelmingly won by the Opposition alliance headed by President Endara. From what President Bush has been saying to the American people today, it is clear that the Americans have their rights under the treaty, but they have no desire to impose a Government on Panama, nor have they done so in this case.
Mr. Michael Foot (Blaenau, Gwent) : When the President of the United States spoke to the Prime Minister this morning about this matter, which item of the United Nations charter did he cite as the authority under which he acted? Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that for the United States President to act as judge and executioner in his own cause and in the cause of his country is a plain defiance of the United Nations charter? Do the British Government really intend that this shame should be repeated at the Security Council? Are we to stand up for the charter or to humiliate ourselves once again by supporting the United States' action?
Column 359Mr. Hurd : In his conversation with my right hon. Friend, the President expounded the action that is being taken on the same lines as he then made it public when speaking to the American people. The right hon. Gentleman is on the wrong side in this matter--he is on the wrong footing. It is not a question of the United States intervening to impose a Government. A Government were elected but that election was set aside-- [Interruption.] I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman is listening, but these are the facts. Independent observers, of a type of which the right hon. Gentleman is always much in favour, observed the election and upheld the result. However, it was then set aside.
Constant efforts have been made--not just by the United States, but by many others also--to have the democratic results restored, but all those efforts have failed. More recently, an American officer has been murdered, threats and attacks have been made on others and General Noriega has declared that his country must be regarded as in a state of war with the United States. Having added up those considerations, they appear to us to be strong and sufficient.
Mr. Steve Norris (Epping Forest) : Having led a delegation into the interior of Panama to supervise the recent election, may I ask whether my right hon. Friend will accept it from me that two statements are clear beyond peradventure? The first is that the opposition, led by Mr. Endara won an overwhelming victory, and the second is that, however much it may disappoint Opposition Members, far from sentiments of anti-Americanism, we received frequent expressions of sentiment that the United States must help the Panamanian people to secure the democracy that they so deeply wanted. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that we give Mr. Endara and his budding Government every support in the most difficult days that they are surely going to face?
Mr. Hurd : I had hoped that my hon. Friend would be in his place, because it was he who joined observers from other countries to observe the election. From his personal experience, he has corroborated the points that I was trying to make. Of course it is regrettable and tragic that there should be loss of life on such occasions, but many people have already died as a direct result of the brutal and arbitrary rule of General Noriega. I endorse what my hon. Friend has said. We wish President Endara and his democratically elected Government every success in steering Panama out of this tragic chapter in its history.
Dr. David Owen (Plymouth, Devonport) : We support the United States action, but do so under the terms of the United Nations charter that relate to self-defence. Whatever the provocation, is it not a vital principle, always worth upholding, that countries should invade others only under the terms of international law? Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that, having had a declaration by General Noriega of a state of war between the two countries and having had threats to the lives of American service men who had every right to be in Panama, it is under the terms of the charter that the Americans should now rest their case, not on the restoration of democracy, however desirable?
Column 360one cannot get away from the political context, and I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman would want us to do so. We are not talking about a military ruler being imposed by the United States ; we are talking about a military ruler being deposed and a democratically elected president being able to take up his position.
Mr. Jacques Arnold (Gravesham) : Does my right hon. Friend agree that the situation in Panama at present is an absolute tragedy? When the rest of Latin America is returning to democracy, is it right that Panama should be left under a jumped-up thug financed by drug money? Does my right hon. Friend further agree that the United States should be congratulated if it were to succeed, as it did in Grenada, in restoring democracy, removing tyranny and then withdrawing?
Mr. Hurd : It is certainly the United States' aim, which we entirely share, that democracy in Panama should be restored. Fortunately, there was an election with a clear result which was attested by international opinion, so it is not a matter of choosing somebody from a group of Panamanian politicians and having to ask, "Is he the right man, or is he not?" We are talking about a person who was elected along with his two vice presidents. It amazes me that it should be thought undemocratic to restore democracy.
Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West) : What attitude would Conservative Members have taken if that action had been taken by the Soviet Union in a sovereign country? However the right hon. Gentleman dresses it up, the American invasion of Panama City is an act of naked aggression against the sovereignty of that country. He knows that that is true. Whatever he might think of General Noriega, to describe the Noriega regime as a reign of terror is grotesque in the light of what is happening in Romania, what happened in Tianamen square and the death squad activities in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.
When will the Government insist that the United States of America begins to act like a civilised nation upholding the United Nations treaty? When will the Government stop acting as apologists for every act of aggression perpetrated by the United States?
Mr. Hurd : The hon. Gentleman is well astray. In the long-distant past, under policies now abandoned, the Soviet Union did intervene in eastern Europe--not to uphold a democratically elected Government but to suppress it. Our condemnation of that action was clear and absolute, under different Governments at the time. Now, fortunately, that policy has changed. There is no parallel with the position of the United States.
Mr. Julian Amery (Brighton, Pavilion) : Does my right hon. Friend recall that our American allies were not exactly helpful when we faced a crisis over the Suez canal? May I say how glad I am that, with the future of a great international waterway at stake, we are better allies to them than they were to us?
Mr. Hurd : There is a great deal of history in a special relationship, and my right hon. Friend remembers most of it. We are faced now not with history or with reminding people of events long past, but simply with common-sense
Column 361practicalities and, I think, the morality of the present position. The considerations that we weighed up brought us to the conclusion that the American action was justified.
Mr. David Steel (Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale) : The Foreign Secretary is propounding a strange doctrine--that if the cause is good, the action must be right. Does he recall that, at the time of the invasion of South Georgia, the Government relied heavily and properly on the rule of international law? Where is the principle of the rule of international law in this affair?
Mr. Hurd : The right hon. Gentleman, not for the first time, is at odds with the right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen), who drew attention to the rules of article 51 of the United Nations charter ; reminded us that an American colonel had been murdered and that there had been threats against others ; and pointed out that a few days ago General Noriega declared that his country should be considered to be in a state of war with the United States.
Sir Eldon Griffiths (Bury St. Edmunds) : Does my right hon. Friend recall that during a recent speech, and while waving a machete, General Noriega declared war on the United States? Can my right hon. Friend explain how it could possibly be in the interests of this or any other country for Panama and its important waterway to remain in the hands of an utterly corrupt regime and a dictator who is a psychopath, a drug trafficker and a flouter of the democratic will of his own people?
How can the Labour party, in its hostility to the United States, find it possible to praise almost anybody, including Noriega, just to make its own point?
Mr. Hurd : The Labour party stance on these matters appears to become more and more eccentric. We are not concerned just with the strategic importance of Panama, although that is undoubted. For several years, efforts have
Column 362been made by the United States, by democracies in central and southern America and by the international community to deal with the problem. Those efforts were made in good faith but have not been successful.
The moment clearly came, in the judgment of the President of the United States, when other action was required. It was justified by the election results and by the declaration of General Noriega to which my hon. Friend referred. We believe the action to be justified.
Mr. Brian Wilson (Cunninghame, North) : Listening to the hyperbole of Conservative Members, one could be forgiven for believing that they had bitterly condemned Noriega's Government during the past decade. Does the Secretary of State recognise that, until 1986, the United States awarded prizes to Noriega for his work against drugs and that, as recently as 1986, Interpol held conferences in Panama in recognition of the work done there against drugs? Does he recognise that what has happened today has nothing to do with drugs, little to do with the personality of General Noriega and everything to do with an American determination to renege on the Panama canal treaty? Does he recognise that to support military action aimed at creating the circumstances in which the treaty democratically arrived at by Torrijos and Carter can be reneged upon is a dangerous precedent for this country?
Mr. Hurd : It is not a question of reneging : the hon. Gentleman gives a phoney account of what occurred. By his own admission, for several years the true nature, character and villainy of General Noriega's regime have been apparent to everyone. Elections in Panama this year were not cooked. Noriega lost them and overturned the result. I cannot understand why the hon. Gentleman makes excuses. Several Hon. Members rose --
Mr. Hurd : The confidence of the people of Hong Kong is at a low ebb. My right hon. and learned Friend the Lord President told the House on 6 June about the traumatic effect in Hong Kong of what happened in Peking in June, and reported to the House on 5 July after he had paid a visit to the territory. Many hon. and right hon. Members have themselves visited Hong Kong since June, and the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs gave a lucid account of the problem in Hong Kong in its report of 28 June.
We must do all that we can to build a secure future for Hong Kong on the basis of the Sino-British joint declaration of 1984. We have a continuing responsibility which will involve us in many difficult decisions over the next eight years. In particular, we must provide for those whose services are necessary for the prosperity and effective administration of Hong Kong in the years up to 1997.
Mr. Hurd : The problem of confidence is shown by increasing emigration from the territory, and increasing numbers of people who contemplate leaving--42,000 people have left Hong Kong this year, and 55,000 are expected to leave next year. [Interruption.] A growing proportion of these people are those whom Hong Kong can least afford to lose.
Many of those who are leaving Hong Kong would not do so if they could obtain the assurance of right of abode in the United Kingdom. As hon. Members know from statements by the Prime Minister and other right hon. Friends, we have been working on a scheme to give such assurances to a limited number of key people and their dependants in the public and private sectors. The Foreign Affairs Select Committee recommended such a scheme in its report in June, and my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord President told the House on 5 July that we would provide one. I can now explain to the House the conclusions we have reached.
We aim to give such people the confidence to remain in Hong Kong so that they can continue to make their contribution to the success and prosperity of the territory.
Column 364We have to weigh in the balance our ability to accept the individuals concerned for settlement in this country, should that ever be necessary. We have to set this reality against our desire to be as effective as possible in restoring confidence in Hong Kong. If, as has often been suggested, we gave the right of abode to all British dependent territories citizens in Hong Kong, we could, if that right was exercised, create unacceptable strains here. If, on the other hand, we kept the scheme too narrow, it would fail in its purpose and, at the end of the day, we might be faced with a much more severe problem.
After careful, detailed consideration over several months, we have concluded that the assurance to be given should take the form of full British citizenship, which would be awarded to recipients without their having to leave Hong Kong. The scheme will cover a maximum number of 50,000 households.
Not all the assurances would be distributed initially ; in order to spread the administrative load and to give opportunities for those who may move into key positions in Hong Kong in later years, we shall hold back a proportion of the allocations for later in the life of this scheme. The best current estimate of the total numbers of people, including dependants, who might receive British citizenship in this way is 225,000. The scheme would cease by 1997. It is thus strictly limited in scope and time.
Beneficiaries will be selected on the basis of a points system, which will embrace people from a wide range of walks of life in Hong Kong. It will cover professional and business people, people working in educational and health services, and those with particular technical and managerial skills, as well as those in the public and disciplined services. The decisive criteria will be the value of the individuals' service to Hong Kong and the extent to which people in that category of employment are emigrating.
Provision will also be made within the overall total for those who, by virtue of their position, may find themselves vulnerable in the years ahead. Long service with British institutions in Hong Kong will be taken into account, so will knowledge of the English language. In addition to this scheme, but again within the total numbers I have given, the Government propose to introduce a special measure designed to help companies and institutions in Hong Kong to retain their key personnel. We intend to reduce substantially the period of residence in this country which employees of such organisations would have to fulfil in order to achieve settled status and later citizenship. For those accepted on the scheme, employment or service in Hong Kong together with a period of residence in the United Kingdom would, after a total period of five years, result in citizenship. The companies and institutions concerned would arrange secondments of key personnel for work or training in the United Kingdom for relatively short periods of time, thereby minimising any disruption to their work in Hong Kong.
We intend to introduce the necessary legislation at the earliest opportunity which will provide for the grant of citizenship to beneficiaries under the scheme in both the public and private sectors.
Although this is a British responsibility, and one which we do not shirk, Hong Kong is an international centre, with huge international investment. Its major trading partners have a strong interest in Hong Kong's continuing
Column 365stability and prosperity. Some countries have already found ways to give Hong Kong people assurances without their having to leave Hong Kong. It is clearly for us to take the lead, and I have set out our specific commitments. We shall now be asking our partners and allies to follow this lead.
I emphasise two final points. First, our proposals will be restricted to Hong Kong and the unique problem which we face there. They will have no relevance to other people elsewhere, and the principles of the British Nationality Act 1981 will remain intact. Second, they are designed not to encourage immigration into this country, but to persuade to remain in Hong Kong those whom we need to retain there if our last substantial colony is to pass successfully through the final eight years of British rule.
Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) : Is the Foreign Secretary aware that on 5 July I made absolutely clear the view of Her Majesty's Opposition about the right of abode here? I said in this House :
"The Opposition believe that it would not be right to offer any commitment to Hong Kong British dependent territory passport holders on the right of entry into the United Kingdom or the right of abode here."
I added :
"I state clearly that the Opposition are against the creation of special favoured categories based on status or affluence."--[ Official Report, 5 July 1989 ; Vol. 156, c. 312-13.]
For six months no one can have been in any doubt about our position. This afternoon the Foreign Secretary cited in his support the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs. However, that Committee did not recommend his scheme, but specifically stated, under the recommendation of its own scheme, that the British Nationality Act 1981 would not be amended. What is more, it recommended use of the Home Secretary's discretion under section 4(5) of the Act. In this House on 5 July I suggested that vulnerable Crown servants could be helped by the use of the Home Secretary's discretion under the Immigration Act 1971.
On the basis of the scheme which he has put forward today, the Foreign Secretary has come to the worst way of fulfilling what he regards as his commitment. He has not worked out what he believes are essential categories and then decided to legislate on them, but thought of a number, haggled about it with the Home Secretary and been beaten down. He now offers that number to the House and says that it will be filled on the basis of a points system.
Such a system is inherently unworkable, invidious and divisive. How are the points to be weighted? How are they to be allocated? Who will allocate them? Will all heads of households in Hong Kong be invited to be considered? If not, how are those to be considered to be selected? Are they to be interviewed individually? For the British language qualification, are there to be tests? Will they be written or oral? How will points be allocated on the basis of the value of an individual's service--a highly subjective criterion? How will points be allocated on the basis of propensity to emigrate and of vulnerability? How will points be allocated on length of service to British institutions--and which institutions?
All hon. Members whose local authorities operate a points system for the operation of dwellings know what bitterness and dissatisfaction such a system arouses. How
Column 366much more bitterness and envy will be aroused by a points system which decides who will receive the most prized possession of all--a British passport?
Does the Foreign Secretary believe that it is proper for a British passport to be allocated, not on clearly established criteria which everybody can understand, but on the basis of the accumulation of a number of points allocated on a subjective basis to the arbitrarily chosen number of 50,000 people placed in a queue? How will the 50, 001st person in that queue feel, and how will others feel? Far from improving confidence, as the Foreign Secretary claims that he wishes the system to do, it will arouse doubt and uncertainty because no one will be sure whether he or she qualifies until the laborious process has been completed.
If the scheme is embodied in an Act, a Labour Government, on coming to office, will examine how far it has gone and how it has worked-- [Interruption.]
Mr. Kaufman : A Labour Government will not be bound to continue it, but first we shall seek to prevent such a scheme from becoming law. We shall oppose legislation which is not only elitist and discriminatory but which, in our view, is wrong in principle.
Mr. Hurd : The right hon. Gentleman began by saying that we could be in no doubt about the position of the Opposition. It is perfectly true that we are in no doubt about what they are against. As he said, the Opposition have made it clear that they are against the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown), who argued wrongly that everyone who had a United Kingdom dependent territories passport should be given the right of abode.
The right hon. Gentleman has said that he is against categories, but I am not sure what he is in favour of. He must know, because he has visited Hong Kong, the overwhelming feeling not only in the public service but in the private sector that unless there is a scheme of this sort--of course they would like the numbers to be bigger--the lifeblood will gradually drain out of Hong Kong. People in key positions in Hong Kong--the right hon. Gentleman entirely neglected the private sector, which was absurd--are telling their employers that they want to stay. They say that their homes, positions and lives are in Hong Kong, but that they want some sense of assurance : if they belonged to a French company, the French would give them a French passport, but as they work for a British company they have no such assurance.
My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and I have not been bashing out this difficult matter. It has been worked out between the main Departments for many months and it has involved different people. Some newspapers today said that I had won the argument ; some said that I had lost it. The point is that we have eventually worked out what we believe to be the most sensible balance between our desire for good race relations and harmony in our cities--that leads us to reject the SLD proposal--and our strong feeling that the House and the Government have a continuing duty of responsibility to the people of Hong Kong.
The scheme involves a points system, and no one pretends that it will be easy to devise or administer it. The right hon. Gentleman will have plenty of opportunities as the Bill goes through the House to examine how the points system will operate, but basically assurances will be given
Column 367to no more than 50,000 heads of households. Some of those assurances will be held back, for the obvious reasons that I have explained.
The figures will be distributed by categories of employment in the private and public sectors, and then the points will be awarded and the passports allocated accordingly. The scheme will be operated through the governor, the legal responsibility being that of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary.
We are not amending the 1981 Act, which provides the correct basis for the nationality law of this country. We are faced with a temporary--but quite long-term--and unique problem in our last major colony. It is a problem that will not go away and that is most sensibly tackled on the lines that I have described.
Sir Peter Blaker (Blackpool, South) : Is my right hon. Friend aware that he has made a responsible and sensible decision which will help the prosperity and stability of Hong Kong? Is not one of the main problems about the existing schemes run by countries such as Canada, Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom the fact that they require a period of residence in those countries before the acquisition of nationality, thus obliging people to leave Hong Kong and accentuating the Hong Kong brain drain? Is not one of the main advantages of my right hon. Friend's proposal the fact that people who qualify under these arrangements will be able to remain in Hong Kong and contribute to its prosperity?
Mr. Hurd : I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, who knows Hong Kong well, but who also knows well this country and his constituents. He knows very well, but was too polite to say, that the scheme and the numbers will be regarded in Hong Kong as being considerably too small. However, I believe that they will also be accepted as being likely to bring about the result at which we are aiming--to enable the kind of people on whom the colony depends to remain making their contribution to that colony.
My right hon. Friend is perfectly right in thinking that we examined various options. We examined an option that, in purely parliamentary terms, would have been easier. No primary legislation guarantees, or declaration offers, a right of abode. My right hon. Friend pointed out the trouble about that. For the assurance to be turned into citizenship, which is what most of the people concerned want, would require those people actually to come here. Therefore, that would, as it were, maximise the incentive to come here. The point about the citizenship scheme requiring primary legislation is that it will not do that. It will enable the key people I am talking about to receive the assurance in the form of United Kingdom passports without leaving Hong Kong and the jobs that it is very important that they should continue to do.
Mr. David Steel (Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale) : Can the Foreign Secretary tell the House how many of the 42,000 people who, according to the statement, have left Hong Kong this year came to settle in Britain? If I am right in thinking that it was a very small percentage of the total, does not that give the lie to the fear that has been put about-- that 3.5 million people are sitting in Hong Kong desperate to come to Britain? Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that that is not the case and that it is the responsibility of the British Government to create the
Column 368conditions in which those 3.5 million people can continue to live in prosperity in Hong Kong itself--which is what they wish? By that standard, does the Foreign Secretary accept that, in our judgment, his scheme will fail to provide that assurance and, unhappily, will also involve so many arbitrary points where X will be chosen instead of Y--inevitably, by the nature of the scheme, which is also very unacceptable? There will be deep dismay in Hong Kong, deepened only by the statement of the official Opposition.
Mr. Hurd : The right hon. Gentleman is correct on his first point. I do not have the figures, but I believe that one would find from them that most of those who left Hong Kong went to countries such as Australia and Canada. That is not our purpose. Our purpose is that they should continue as headmasters, engineers or professional people in running the colony. Any selective scheme requires something like a points system. If the right hon. Gentleman is endorsing the proposition of the leader of his party for a total grant of the right of abode, he is being totally logical but perfectly unrealistic.
Mr. Norman Tebbit (Chingford) : Does my right hon. Friend understand how much I regret having to say that I disagreed with almost everything that he said and agreed with almost everything that was said by the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) from the Opposition Front Bench?
Can my right hon. Friend say whether or not the pledge that we have given for the last four general elections--that there will be no further large- scale immigration--still stands?
Mr. Hurd : My right hon. Friend knows that, over the past four years, as Home Secretary I spent a lot of time trying, with his full support, to plug loopholes and to keep our immigration control strict and fair. I earned a good deal of obloquy from Opposition Members for doing so. I do not need any education on the importance of strict immigration control for entry into this country.
The purpose of our scheme is to persuade those who are key to running Hong Kong to remain abiding by their professions in that country. I believe that our scheme is apt to succeed in that. Supposing that my right hon. Friend is right in his fear, and supposing that considerable numbers--