A policy of dishonour

THERE was a certain bitter irony in reports that appeared in London newspapers yesterday. Caribbean immigrants, fed up with unemployment and racial harassment, are queueing up, it seems, to go home.

It was the influx of these people in the '50s and '60s, tempted from former colonies at a time when the British economy was booming, that bolstered the arguments of those opposed to offering passports to the people of Hongkong.

And while the Britain of the '90s is a very different and far less desirable destination today, the arrival of so many immigrants is still often trotted out as one reason for refusing British citizenship to the territory's non-Chinese ethnic minorities.

Last week, the House of Lords - not the natural home of rebellion - recommended that Britain should reverse its stance on the 7,000 who make up this group. Their lordships were so moved by pleas from the likes of Lord Bonham-Carter and our own Baroness Dunn that they inflicted a resounding 60 votes to 48 defeat on the government.

Former Governor Lord Wilson and Lord Glenarthur, Foreign Office minister responsible for Hongkong when the original nationality deal was struck in 1986, voted against the policy. Baroness Thatcher abstained, though she nodded in agreement as speakers called for change. Friends said later that, having voted against the government earlier in the week over Maastricht, she simply couldn't bring herself to do it again.

The House of Lords is certainly not the only body to feel a sense of guilt and shame at the shabby way in which Britain is discharging its responsibilities to a small group of people who have served Hongkong well but who now fear they may be left stateless in 1997.

In the House of Commons, too, opposition to the government's position is growing. Both Conservative and Labour MPs are keen to see the stance reversed.

Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd maintained concessions had already been granted to this group with an assurance that they would be given the right to enter Britain ''as a last resort''.

He told the House of Commons: ''If, against all expectations, they came under pressure to leave Hongkong and had nowhere else to go, the government of the day would consider with considerable and particular sympathy their case for admission to this country.'' Fine words. But ''considerable and particular sympathy'' has hardly been the hallmark of Britain's position on this issue in the last decade.

And while his statement might have been well meant, it is hardly likely to be reassuring to those, thousands of miles away, who came to Hongkong generations ago on the understanding that the ruling colonial power would take care of them and their futuregenerations.

Following the Lords defeat, the British Home Office pledged it would look again at its policy. But, as we report today, when a statement is made on the subject in the Legislative Council this week, it is likely to disclose that London is as implacable asever.

Indeed, to rub salt in the wound, there may even be an announcement of changes to the points system for the passport scheme for Hongkong Chinese because, in the words of Junior Home Office Minister Charles Wardle ''there is likely to be some slack.'' Governor Chris Patten met Home Office officials in London on his last visit. As a former member of the government which has maintained this policy, it must have been an uncomfortable meeting. Little seems to have been achieved.

There is no doubt, however, that many British politicians feel the weasel words must stop. Hongkong's ethnic minorities should be given the certainty of British citizenship.

It is more a matter of reassurance than a wish to rush for a plane to Heathrow. Like those now-departing immigrants from the Caribbean, the territory's people have long ago decided there may be better places to make their homes.