New Clause 52 - Effect of British National (Overseas) visas

Part of Nationality and Borders Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 4:15 pm ar 4 Tachwedd 2021.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

As we know, there are huge problems with the UK asylum system. We know that the average waiting time for an initial decision on an asylum case in the UK is between one and three years. Last week, some young Hongkongers told The Independent newspaper that they have been waiting for a year or more for a decision. Of course, the current inhumane rules of the Government’s hostile environment also mean that these same young people are banned from working, and often prevented from studying, while waiting for a decision. As Johnny Patterson, policy director of Hong Kong Watch, said, these Hongkongers in the asylum system are subjected to an “agonising wait”. Furthermore, the ban on them being able to work is undermining their chances of integrating in the UK.

The problem is only going to get worse unless it is tackled head on. Home Office figures show that there were 124 asylum claims from Hong Kong nationals in the year to June 2021, compared with 21 the year before and just nine in the 12 months to June 2019. It is even more concerning that 14 of those claims in the past year were unaccompanied minors, marking the first time on record that the UK has received asylum claims from children from Hong Kong.

We believe that the BNO visa scheme should be independently assessed to take account of the realities on the ground in Hong Kong. The truth is that it tends to be young people who were at the forefront of demonstrations to defend democracy and who are therefore likely to face the most repression. As well as that, people who are here under the BNO visa scheme have raised a number of concerns, such as their qualifications not being recognised, access to work, formal access to English language classes, and access to housing and banking services because they do not have a credit or renting history. There are also concerns about the lack of co-ordination between Government and local authority services. There are lots of reasons, therefore, why a review is needed.

It may well be the case that older parents wish to remain in Hong Kong while their children need to flee because they are in greater danger. Although the scheme allows applicants to bring relatives, including adult children, with them to the UK, the reality is that many young people will need to flee alone. They cannot rely on the parents coming to the UK who would have made their claim valid under the BNO scheme. We think it would be worth the Government exploring a revision of the scheme so that a child of a BNO Hong Kong citizen could make an application independently of their parents.

If such anomalies remain unaddressed, it will be deeply unfair on young Hongkongers. It is those young people who have often been on the frontline of the pro-democracy protests opposing the Chinese Government’s unlawful power grab. If they remain excluded from the BNO route for reasons entirely beyond their control, they will face an agonising wait in the UK asylum system, which we all know is beset with huge delays.

Given the UK’s deep connection to Hong Kong, should we not be offering a life raft to all Hongkongers who need one? The Opposition believe that the Government should accept independent scrutiny of the BNO scheme, with a view to exploring such steps as allowing children of BNO visa-eligible parents to make independent applications, provided there were evidence of their parents’ status, of course.

There are other reasons why we believe that an independent assessment of the BNO scheme will be necessary. The Select Committee on Home Affairs has raised concerns in connection with the operation of the BNO scheme in practice. For instance, it remains a possibility that visas could be refused to those who do not satisfy the suitability criteria in the immigration rules because of a criminal conviction, without the context of the conviction being taken into account. A conviction might relate to free speech or peaceful protest in Hong Kong, for example—actions that would not be considered offences under UK law. Although the Government have said that discretion will be given in respect of such applicants, we believe that an independent assessment of the effect of the BNO visa scheme would ensure that.

Possible mitigations for the current loopholes in the BNO visa scheme are evidently not sufficient on their own. For instance, the youth mobility visa for Hongkongers aged 18 to 30 does not provide any sort of substitute for the BNO scheme, because it is capped—it provides only for a two-year stay for work in the UK—and does not contribute to the residency requirement for settlement in the UK. Although it is a welcome scheme on its own terms, it does not address the issue that I have highlighted. That shows the need for an independent assessment.

In conclusion, we believe that the Government’s decision to offer the Hong Kong BNO scheme is a welcome expression of the UK’s historic relationship with the citizens of Hong Kong. We believe that individuals and families arriving from Hong Kong will enrich the cultural life of the UK and contribute to our economy, but unless the Government look at the existing loopholes in the BNO scheme and how it is being implemented, the scheme is in danger of being mainly warm words, rather than actually helping the people we have promised to help. An independent assessment of the scheme would allow the Government to improve it and offer help to those vulnerable young people most likely to be politically targeted by Beijing. In that way, the scheme could provide the genuine protection that we all believe people from Hong Kong deserve.