House of Commons
Tuesday 2 December 2014
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Foreign and Commonwealth Office
The Secretary of State was asked—
The UK is a prominent supporter of the peace process and we have regular discussions with the Colombian Government. Last month, the Deputy Prime Minister reaffirmed the UK’s commitment when President Santos visited London. We are considering now how the UK can best support the implementation of any peace agreement, drawing further on our experiences in Northern Ireland.
Following the Colombian army’s rampage in a village near Turnaco, in which nine bombs were dropped, machine guns were fired at civilians and two young men were shot dead, one of them later by the army as they took him away pleading for his life, with the army then dressing the men in FARC uniforms and claiming they were guerrillas—that incident does not get reported in the world press—is it not right that we have a bilateral ceasefire and not the unilateral ceasefire that keeps being offered by FARC?
The big prize remains the ceasefire with FARC, which will benefit all the people of Colombia. I have always been happy to discuss the peace process and human rights with Members of both Houses. In October, I met at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office Members from the Parliamentary Friends of Colombia, the all-party group on Latin America and the all-party group on human rights. I am happy to do that again to discuss these things, and I am also putting together a meeting, as I promised, with the Colombian ambassador. If the hon. Gentleman wants to come to the meeting with me, he is more than welcome.
Last December, I visited Colombia, with part of the talks being about reforming the Colombian intelligence services—the DAS. Does the Minister agree that for there to be public confidence in the peace process, the Colombian Government need to go further and faster in reforming their intelligence services?
I do not think it is for me to give a running commentary on the intelligence services of Colombia. We assist the Colombian Government in our mutual desire to stamp out the drugs trade—we co-operate closely with them on that. A lot of things need to be reformed in Colombia, not least the perception of impunity for the armed forces, but I say again that the big prize is, first, to secure the peace—then the dividend can be cashed in.
The unlawful killings of innocent people in Colombia continue, as they did even last week. I am delighted that the Minister is arranging a meeting with the ambassador, but may I ask him whether he would invite along the Justice for Colombia all-party group, because the people on it are working at the sharp end and can tell us exactly what is happening in Colombia?
Last week, I met Irrael Solano, indigenous governor of the Zenú community, who is on a death list of the so-called Caribbean coast commando. At least 60 members of his community have been assassinated, so he takes that threat very seriously. Will the Government urge the Colombian Government to do whatever they can to protect Señor Solano and other human rights defenders along the Caribbean coast?
Indeed, and I think the hon. Gentleman is a perfect candidate to come with me to raise these matters personally with the ambassador in January. We are concerned about human rights defenders, as I have made clear, including when I was in Bogota. I hope that the Colombian Government will realise how keen an interest this House takes in both the peace process and the wider case for justice for all in Colombia.
The Minister is aware that a number of Northern Ireland Members have engaged both with the Colombian Government and the FARC negotiators in Havana. Is he also aware that we are particularly concerned that the democratic opposition in Colombia, which is not represented at the negotiations, should have its position affirmed because it, along with civil society groups, has a key role to play in taking the peace process forward—a peace process for which it has fought so long?
All have a role to play in gaining peace in that country, which has been ruined by the civil war with FARC. When I was recently in Cuba, as the first British Minister to visit in 10 years, I raised this matter with Cuba, which is playing host to the peace process. I say again that these negotiations with FARC are quite a long way through and what we need to see is a final settlement with FARC—we have just seen the release of the brigadier general and the others who were taken by FARC within the last month or so. That remains the big prize and everybody should have a say in the peace that will ensue from that.
Land grabs have been a predominant feature of the conflict, and restitution of land is a key part of the peace discussions. With the Government promoting business opportunities in Colombia, will the Minister say what guidance they issue to UK companies on forced displacements and what safeguards they insist on to ensure that the UK is not supporting economic projects using illegally acquired land?
All British companies anywhere in the world are issued with guidelines on ethical investment, and those operating in Colombia are no exception. I am delighted that in 2013 we met our £1.75 billion bilateral trade and investment target for Colombia two years ahead of schedule. We have now set a revised target of £4 billion by 2020. Growth stood at 126% from 2009-12. Ethical investment is important, but so too are investment and bilateral trade. We are a Government who believe that increased trade is the sea on which all ships rise together. That benefits all in Colombia, even the poorest.
EU: UK Membership
I have already visited 10 member states over the past few months to discuss EU reform with my counterparts and others. More and more leaders across Europe agree that the EU needs to change. We have already made progress: the June European Council agreed that EU reform was necessary and that the UK’s concerns should be addressed.
I wish the Foreign Secretary well in his renegotiation. Does he share my view that we should be confident about achieving it? Some areas will require treaty change but others will not, particularly as there is common interest in benefits for migrant workers and in limiting the access shared by Germany, Denmark and other member states.
I agree that we should be optimistic about the scope for achieving change in the European Union because more and more of our EU partners agree with the agenda that we have set out. They agree that the European Union must reform to survive and prosper in the future. But it goes further than that. We have already had success: our Prime Minister is the first one ever to have negotiated a reduction in the EU budget; we have opted out of the eurozone bail-out fund; and we have secured vital protections for non-eurozone countries in the banking union. I am confident that we will secure the reforms that the EU so urgently needs to be more competitive and more democratically accountable and, crucially, to make it acceptable to the British people, who, under a Conservative Government, will be the ones who have the last say in 2017.
The British people should have the final say on the UK’s relationship with the EU, and I applaud the Prime Minister’s approach on an in/out referendum. The constituents who contact me support a trading partnership with Europe, but not a political union. Will the Secretary of State emphasise the vital importance of trade when discussing the future of the UK in the European Union? My constituents who work for major multinational companies headquartered in Basingstoke want to know that that is at the forefront of our negotiations.
I could not agree more with my right hon. Friend. Trade is at the heart of the European Union. Completing and deepening the single market and extending it into the digital, energy and services markets—areas on which we have scarcely scratched the surface—is the way to deliver economic growth in the European Union in the future, together with completing international trade treaties such as the transatlantic trade and investment partnership that will also hugely expand our opportunities.
We are not part of the eurozone and neither is Poland. Part of a reformed European Union will have to accommodate those countries that are not part of the eurozone. When did the Secretary of State last meet his Polish counterpart to discuss what that new architecture might look like?
I have had a couple of meetings with my new Polish counterpart and had more extensive meetings with the former Polish Foreign Minister Sikorski. I will be going to Brussels later on this afternoon and will have the opportunity to meet my Polish counterpart again. What the hon. Lady says is absolutely right. An essential emerging feature of the new EU architecture is the fact of the eurozone and the non-eurozone. If those countries in the eurozone wish to pursue closer political integration, they will be able to do so. Those countries that are outside the eurozone must be assured of the integrity of the single market, even though they will not take part in that process.
When the Secretary of State is meeting all his important European Union people, will he tell them that there are many people in this country and in this House who value the peace and prosperity that the European Union has brought to this country? Given the threatening world in which we live with President Putin and all the other things that are happening, we value that relationship and want to build on it.
Of course we value the benefits that being in the European Union brings us, principally through the single market but also with security, as we have seen in the confrontation with Russia over Ukraine. What we now need to do is address the bits of the European Union that are not working effectively, that are holding Europe back so that it is no longer competitive in the world and that represent a failure of democratic accountability so that we get a European Union that is acceptable to the British people. We as a Conservative Government will allow the British people to have the final say on that.
I caution my right hon. Friend that it is rarely wise to reveal too much detail of one’s negotiating objectives more than six months before the negotiations can possibly begin. In such circumstances, one’s negotiating partners tend to give a very hostile response even in areas where they might ultimately be willing to compromise.
My right hon. and learned Friend’s advice is very wise. I think the correct approach is probably to show a little ankle, but not too much. We need to be clear to our European Union partners that we are entering negotiations with a constructive agenda. We want to get a reformed European Union and a renegotiated relationship between Britain and the European Union that is acceptable to the British people, but the hurdle is high because it will be the British people, under a Conservative Government, who make the decision in a referendum in 2017.
In his first answer this morning, the Foreign Secretary was specific about the number of European countries he has visited as Foreign Secretary, so will he now be specific about at least some of the repatriations he is seeking from the European Union? Even a little ankle will do.
The right hon. Gentleman’s question was slightly unfortunately timed, given the question asked by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind). Of course we do not want to run around Europe at this stage in the negotiations with a list of specific repatriations. It is far more important to establish the principle and how we will deliver it—that is, the principle of subsidiarity and how it will be effectively overseen within the European Union.
I think that the whole House, including the Foreign Secretary’s Back Benchers, will have noted the unwillingness to name even a single repatriation, but one will do when he gets back to his feet. What is the Government’s estimate of the economic benefit of the UK’s membership of the European Union?
As I have said, we are clear that the UK benefits enormously from access to the single market in Europe. We want to remain part of the European Union and we are entering these negotiations on the basis of a clear intent to negotiate the very best deal we can for Britain, addressing the concerns clearly expressed by the British people. In the end, it will be the British people who decide whether that package is good enough.
We want trade and co-operation to flourish in the European Union and we do not subscribe to the view that ever-closer union is the answer for United Kingdom. I regard it as significant progress that in the conclusions of the June European Council this year we had for the first time an explicit recognition that not every country will pursue the same level of integration and closer union. That is progress.
Incitement to Hatred (Palestinian Media)
3. What assessment he has made of the effects of incitement to hatred in the Palestinian media on prospects for a peace settlement in that region. (906370)
I am aware of recent provocative material published in parts of the Palestinian press. We deplore incitement on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and we are clear that inflammatory language and images damage still further the already fragile prospect of a peace settlement.
Official Palestinian Authority TV has praised as martyrs the terrorists who mowed down civilians on the streets of Jerusalem and the terrorists who killed rabbis and others at prayer in a Jerusalem synagogue. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that this is about perpetuating hatred and violence rather than promoting peace?
Yes, and we do not hesitate to raise these instances of incitement with the Palestinian Authority. I spoke to President Abbas last night and raised these issues with him while at the same time thanking him for his personal robust condemnation of the synagogue attack in West Jerusalem. We have to raise these issues whenever they occur, but we should also praise robust responses by leaders of the Palestinian Authority when they make them.
None of us would condone the incitement of hatred, and there is no doubt that there are people on each side who make matters worse, but does the Foreign Secretary agree that illegal settlements, extra-judicial punishments and discriminatory laws also make the search for a peace settlement much harder?
Yes, we are clear that settlements in the occupied territories are illegal under international law and, perhaps even more importantly, deeply unhelpful to the prospects of a peace process. We urge the Israelis at every opportunity to cease the settlement programme. If we are to move forward into peace talks, which I fervently hope we can do in the coming weeks and months, there will have to be a cessation of settlement activity while that process is ongoing.
The Israeli Knesset will soon vote on the Jewish state Bill, which would deny national rights to Israel’s minorities, remove Arabic as a national language and assert that Israel’s identity as a Jewish state comes before its nature as a democracy. At a time when tensions between Jews and Arabs are running high, does the Foreign Secretary agree that it is wrong for the Government of Israel to press ahead with that discriminatory piece of legislation?
That is a piece of legislation before the Israeli Parliament, but I can tell the hon. Gentleman that we are always opposed to discriminatory legislation. Depriving people who are resident within a state of their citizenship and discriminating against them with regard to language will never be conducive to the peaceful co-existence that I think virtually everybody seeks for Israel and Palestine.
I am not sure that I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s characterisation of the reasons, but I agree that public opinion is moving against Israel in a country that has traditionally been understanding of the Israeli position. We have made the point strongly to Israeli Ministers and politicians that they are losing the argument and public opinion not only in Britain, but in Europe and, perhaps more importantly for them, in the United States.
What will be the effect on the Palestinian media of the renewed Israeli policy of demolishing the houses of offenders, thus making their families homeless and punishing the entire family for the crimes of one person? Is not that inhumane, and ought it not to be stopped?
We do not approve of the collective punishment strategy and make our views on that very well known on every possible occasion. I cannot give the right hon. Gentleman an analysis of the impact on the Palestinian media, but I can see exactly where he is coming from. We will continue robustly to oppose policies of collective punishment.
4. What assessment he has made of the implications for his policies of the vote by the House on 13 October 2014 on recognising Palestine as a state alongside Israel. (906371)
This weekend marks 67 years since the UN General Assembly adopted resolution 181, which recommended a two-state solution, and it has been 21 years since the Oslo peace accords, so it is no wonder that Parliaments and citizens around the world are calling for debates and for leadership in implementing plans that were devised and agreed decades ago. However, British recognition of Palestine must be not just symbolic but strategic and used in the wider context of securing that solution.
I think I half-thank the Minister for that answer, because really he has not done anything, and nor have this Government, to recognise what Parliament has said. By 274 votes to 12 we called for recognition. Some 40% of Labour Friends of Israel voted for that recognition, as did 40 Conservative Members of Parliament. What will it take to get this Government to stand up, do the right thing, get out from under the shadow of the USA and speak for the UK Parliament?
Well, I ask the hon. Gentleman what is the right thing. We can only use this card once, and we need to use it sensibly. We need to bring parties back to the table. This Government share Parliament’s commitment to recognising a Palestinian state but as a contribution to a negotiated two-state solution. We are in the process of getting people back around the table. That is what John Kerry is committed to, and that is what should happen next.
I accept what the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty) said about the Back-Bench debate, and I think it was unfortunate that the Government did not ask more Members to be here to express those views. I take the view myself that if we are going to get peace, the overall position is that a recognition of Palestine has to come at the same time as an overall peace agreement. Do the Government agree that that is the best way forward?
I pay tribute not only to the debate that took place in this Chamber but the debate that took place yesterday called by the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris) and prompted by an e-petition signed by over 100,000 constituents. We do pay attention to these issues. Bilateral recognition would not end the occupation. Without a negotiated settlement, the occupation and the problems that come with it would still continue. That is why, at the stage we are at now, we must invite people back to the table, and I hope this will happen very soon.
The Minister said that the Government can only play this card once. After the horrific events in Gaza over the summer and the recent violent clashes in the west bank and Jerusalem, will he tell this House how many more children have to die before the Government decide that it is the right time to play the card to give the Palestinian people an equal seat at the negotiating table, and recognise that recognition of the Palestinian state is a contribution to meaningful negotiations and not a consequence of them?
I hear what the hon. Lady says, but if she had attended yesterday’s debate she would be aware that the whole world is concerned about this. Ban Ki-moon, the UN Secretary-General, has said, “Is this what we do—reconstruct and then it gets destroyed, reconstruct and then it gets destroyed?” We must bring people to the table to make sure that there is a long-term solution to the problems and so that we do not see another Operation Cast Lead, Operation Pillar of Defence or Operation Protective Edge. That requires both sides to come together, and there is much work to do before Britain is going to be ready to recognise Palestine as a state.
Will the Minister consider for a minute how it would sound to a Palestinian to hear him say that recognition of their right to self-determination is a card to be played, any more than how it would sound to an Israeli to say that recognition of Israel is a card to be played? What is he actually doing to talk to European partners to secure recognition and not to put the day off?
Forgive me if my comment sounded flippant—that was not my intention at all. Anybody who attended the debate yesterday, or indeed the debate that took place in this Chamber, will know of my personal commitment to working with people on both sides. I spent some time in Israel. I visited Gaza and saw the destruction with my own eyes. I should also underline the commitment that Britain is making to the reconstruction; that was outlined when I attended the conference in Cairo. I say again that it is important that given where we are in the process, with John Kerry about to embark on a new round of talks, that is what we should allow to take place at this very moment.
As I said only yesterday to representatives of the Falklands Islands Government who were in London for the Overseas Territories Joint Ministerial Council, this Government remain steadfastly committed to the defence and security of the Falklands. We will continue to speak up for the islanders’ right to self-determination and to provide them with support as they seek to develop and internationalise their economy.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer, particularly his reference to self-determination for the Falkland islanders. Does he agree that anything other than self-determination would be nothing other than an affront to the 255 British servicemen who gave their lives during the Falklands conflict?
Yes, I entirely agree. As a result of that conflict, we are still mine-clearing on the islands. I congratulate BACTEC, the company in my hon. Friend’s constituency that has just secured the contract to carry out the fourth phase of de-mining in the Falklands. The people of the Falkland Islands have spoken. I was there in February. There was a 92% turnout, and 99.8% voted yes. People in the region should respect their human rights and their rights to self-determination.
The Minister will know that there is going to be an election in Argentina soon and that rhetoric against the Falkland Islands usually increases considerably in such periods. What representations are the Government making to other countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, including some that are in receipt of British development assistance, to try to neutralise the rhetoric that will come out of Argentina?
We do not seek to neutralise anything; we just seek to tell it as it is and we encourage the Falkland islanders, who are by far the best advocates, to travel around the region to tell others about their life. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: we anticipate an increase in rhetoric, threats and intimidation as we approach the election, but we are hopeful that after it we might be able to have a more mature and sophisticated relationship with whoever will be the President of Argentina.
Britain is one of 60 countries participating in a coalition to defeat ISIL and we are making a significant contribution, including the air campaign and training Iraqi ground forces. The training of those local forces is critical in order for them to take and hold the ground, maintain security and begin the process of stabilisation and governance.
I thank the Minister for that answer. He will know that ISIL needs to be defeated in Iraq and Syria. Two years ago, I raised with the then Foreign Secretary the creation of safe havens on the border of Turkey and Syria. They could now be used by the Free Syrian Army as a launching pad to defeat ISIL in Iraq and Syria as well as the brutal Assad regime. I understand that some Arab countries have raised the issue with the United Kingdom. Will we support them?
I understand what my hon. Friend is saying. We have had discussions with our Turkish counterparts and others, and General John Allen is also looking at the issue. It needs to be considered in the wider context of the campaign and it is on the table at the moment, but that is as far as it goes.
18. Do the Government recognise that the failure of reconstruction after the last Iraq war shows that any military effort will be insufficient unless the UK does far more to engage with its partners and allies, to enable good governance in currently ungoverned spaces in Iraq and Syria to prevail? (906385)
The hon. Gentleman raises a critical point. The international community, especially Iraq’s neighbours and Iraq itself, must play a crucial role in providing assistance and technical support and governance and stabilisation once the fighting has happened. We are seeing successes: Iraqi forces have liberated the key town of Baiji, and the National Guard programme is formalising the militia structure, to improve security as well as command and control. They are stopping ISIL in its tracks and pushing it back, out of Iraq. This is a turning point.
I pay tribute to our superb efforts in Iraq, but I absolutely agree with the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) that we are not going to defeat ISIL—the question is about defeating ISIL, not containing it—by doing what we are doing at the moment. We will defeat ISIL only if we engage politically with the Government in Baghdad and find ways of engaging with the friendly Sunni forces in Iraq. What discussions are the Government having with Baghdad about how they can extend their political influence?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. It is the inclusivity of the al-Abadi Government, in contrast with the Malaki Government, that is making sure that Sunnis are included in Iraq and Baghdad. It is therefore important that they, not us, take the space, which is why the boots on the ground are Iraqi boots, not ours, so that they can move towards more inclusive governance and reconstruction capability.
Many Yazidi Kurdish women have been abducted by the so-called Islamic State. They have been held as slaves and raped. What are the Government doing to ensure that there is more publicity about the issue and that we do more to stop these crimes against humanity?
The hon. Lady raises an extremely important point that underlines exactly why ISIL and its ideology must be removed from Iraq and, indeed, Syria, and prevented from spreading elsewhere. We are working very closely with our Kurdish counterparts on this very issue. I shall visit the region soon and raise the matter.
One crucial part of the effort to defeat ISIL is surely to help those made even more vulnerable by its advance. Given that the World Food Programme has had to suspend assistance to almost 2 million Syrians, what action are Ministers taking to help to ensure that the World Food Programme can resume its efforts to ease the plight of Syrian refugees?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. While we discuss military matters and indeed governance, an entire generation is suffering in Syria itself. Britain is one of the largest donors to Syria. We have committed over £700 million in aid to provide support on the very issues he talked about, and we have also provided £23 million-worth of aid to Iraq. If I may, I shall look into the issues concerning the World Food Programme and get back to him.
The UK is fully supporting US-led efforts, working with the Egyptians, to bring Israeli and Palestinian leaders back to negotiations aimed at achieving a lasting peace. We are also working with European partners, especially France and Germany, to support that US-led process.
I thank the Minister for his answer. The point that I want to make was possibly covered earlier, but it is so serious that it is worthy of repetition. Illegal Israeli settlements are causing friction, to say the least, and they are a roadblock in the peace process. What is the Secretary of State doing with his EU counterparts to challenge this and to make sure that there are no roadblocks?
As I said earlier and have said on previous occasions in the House, the settlements are illegal. We condemn them, and every time a new one is proposed, we make that view known to the Israeli Government. But I have gone further than that, and I repeat today that we have to be clear that we will not allow the fact of illegal settlements to define the shape of an eventual settlement. We cannot allow one of the parties to this conflict to build themselves into a position to dictate the eventual peace. Settlements can be built and settlements can be removed, but every settlement that is built is illegal and it cannot be allowed to stand immovably in the way of the peace process.
The Secretary of State has talked about the preference for a successful peace process, but actions speak louder than words. The 1,000 acre land grab around Bethlehem in September surely indicates that Israel does not really have the serious intention of allowing a two-state solution. Given that, should we not be thinking about how we are going to recognise Palestine?
This is not an excuse, but a great deal of domestic politics is involved in this issue. The 1,000 acres that my hon. Friend mentioned have not, as I understand it, been developed in any way; it was simply a designation. It is unacceptable, but it is a political statement, and we have to make sure that it does not stand in the way of an eventual two-state solution.
EU Food Imports
We estimate that about £4.5 billion of EU food exports stand to be affected, of which the UK share amounts to £39 million. At the same time, import restrictions have led to price increases to Russian shoppers of about 15%.
Russia’s ban on EU food imports has contributed to the creation of an imbalance between market demand and supply in the dairy industry, particularly in Northern Ireland, where we rely greatly on exports. In view of that, will the Minister have immediate discussions with his ministerial colleagues in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs with a view to pursuing other global markets for the dairy industry?
I completely understand the hon. Lady’s point about producers in Northern Ireland. As she knows, some EU compensation arrangements are available, but she has put her finger on the really important point. My colleagues in DEFRA and UK Trade & Investment want to work with producers in Northern Ireland and elsewhere both to access the EU funds available for getting into alternative markets and to promote the excellent produce from Northern Ireland in third markets worldwide.
Given that Russia’s food import problems are due to the financial sanctions imposed on it by the EU because of Russia’s illegal behaviour in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, and given that yesterday the rouble had its worst day since the 1990s, does the Minister agree that financial sanctions will bring Russia to the negotiating table, and will he continue with them?
Russia has certainly suffered heavily as a result of the imposition of sanctions in the way that my right hon. Friend describes. We have seen a flight of capital out of Russia, as well as the precipitate fall in the value of the rouble. I hope that the Russian leadership will accept that it is in the interests of the Russian people to implement the Minsk agreement with Ukraine in full and, in particular, to return to Ukraine control of her sovereign borders.
Further to the question from the right hon. Member for Croydon South (Sir Richard Ottaway), world leaders rightly made their views known about the Russian actions in Ukraine at the recent G20 summit in Australia. Will the Minister say more about the effect that he thinks the sanctions and the recent fall in the oil price are having on Russia and, in particular, whether he believes that the combined effect is producing a change in Russian attitudes towards fostering nationalism in Ukraine and possibly in other countries with Russian-speaking minorities?
I agree with the right hon. Gentleman’s implicit point that we are concerned not just about Ukraine, but about the doctrine of a right to intervene in support of Russian speakers anywhere in the world. The answer to his question is that, sadly, we are not yet seeing a return to serious talks and the implementation of the Minsk peace agreement by the Russian leadership, but the impact of sanctions on the Russian economy, coupled with the decline in oil prices, is catastrophic. It is in the interests of the Russian people that we see a change.
The people of Russia—ordinary families—are bearing the brunt of the cost of the Kremlin’s adventurism in Ukraine through much higher inflation, a lack of access to high-quality, good-value imported produce, and a decline, every week, in the value of the rouble in their pockets.
10. When he next plans to visit Malaysia. (906377)
I plan to visit Malaysia early next year. My visit will coincide with the start of Malaysia’s chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and its elevation to a non-permanent seat at the UN Security Council. My discussions will focus on issues of mutual interest, including trade, security, the Commonwealth and human rights. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary looks forward to welcoming Malaysia’s Foreign Minister to London next week.
I am grateful to the Minister for his reply. He will be aware that last week, the Malaysian Government went back on their pledge to repeal the sedition law, and are instead entrenching and extending its characteristics. He will also be aware that there is growing international concern that the law is being used to imprison political opponents and religious minorities, particularly the Christian community. Will he and the Foreign Secretary undertake to ensure that those issues are raised with the Malaysian Government in their engagements over the next few weeks?
My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary reminds me that such issues always are raised. He will certainly raise them. We are aware of the recent comments by Prime Minister Najib regarding the Malaysian sedition laws. We will look at his comments about the proposed legislation closely. We are clear that the Malaysian Government should conform to international standards and norms.
11. What estimate he has made of the number of rockets in Hezbollah’s arsenal in southern Lebanon which could be deployed against Israel; and what diplomatic efforts his Department is making to seek a reduction in that number. (906378)
We are aware of continued reports of Hezbollah’s arsenal of weapons in southern Lebanon. Those weapons pose a threat to regional security and are in violation of UN Security Council resolutions.
Hezbollah’s extensive arsenal contravenes UN Security Council resolutions 1559 and 1701, which call on it to disarm, yet the UN peacekeeping force in Lebanon has not stopped the re-arming of Hezbollah and rarely inspects Hezbollah-controlled villages for illicit activity. Given that every Israeli city is now within range of the rockets, will the Minister use his good offices in the UN to ensure that the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon has the resources it needs to police southern Lebanon effectively?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. That matter was raised with me during my visit to Israel. We are committed to supporting peace and stability in Lebanon. Since 2012, the UK has been delivering a $31-million programme to train and equip the land border regiments to provide stability. More work needs to be done with the UN and we must ensure that Hezbollah agrees to the UN resolutions.
Lebanon’s position in the middle east is being destabilised by the fact that a quarter of the population is made up of Syrian refugees. The United Nations has called for countries throughout the world to resettle at least 130,000 of those refugees. Why have only 90 been allowed into the United Kingdom?
As has been made clear before, we feel that it is best that refugees are kept closer to the region so that they can return. The whole House should pay tribute to Lebanon for its work in taking 1.2 million refugees, which, as the hon. Gentleman says, is almost a quarter of its population. The UK Government have provided more than £273 million to help with stability in the area and to support refugees there.
Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership
13. What recent progress the Government have made on the transatlantic trade and investment partnership. (906380)
I can absolutely confirm that to my hon. Friend. In early October, both the United States and EU chief negotiators made it clear in public statements that there would be no provisions in the trade agreement that would limit the ability of Governments to regulate health provision or other public services.
At a meeting in my constituency last Friday, those very concerns about the privatisation of the health service were raised, as were concerns about the reduction in minimum standards such as the minimum wage and conditions at work, and about the ability of a UK Government to put conditions on suppliers to the UK. Can the Minister give my constituents some reassurances on those points?
I would like to think that the right hon. Gentleman made it clear that he was not going to add to the scaremongering rumours that he has just described, especially given that the Government in whom he served were an ardent champion of this trade deal with the United States. It is clear that the TTIP deal will not limit the ability of Governments to legislate for, or to regulate, public services. It will provide businesses large and small in this country with enormous opportunities to get access to a US market of 300 million customers, and the entire House should be united in supporting that.
EU (Freedom of Movement)
I have discussed EU migration extensively with my counterparts as part of a series of visits to EU capitals to discuss EU reform and renegotiation. We are not alone in seeing EU migration as a qualified right. We secured reference in the June European Council conclusions to the need to protect EU migration from misuse, and last week the Prime Minister set out his proposals for doing just that.
Will the Secretary of State confirm that we should use the Dano judgment, which confirmed that member states have significant leeway, to ensure that people who come to the UK come to work, not to claim? Will he also confirm that we can do that without threatening our position as a member of the EU?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The Dano judgment has once again shown that sometimes we in this country assume that the body of EU regulation requires us to do things that it actually does not. We sometimes find, as we did in that case, that there is more flexibility to work within the existing treaty powers than is assumed.
Since the last Foreign and Commonwealth Office questions, I and my team have been focused on the major foreign policy challenges facing the UK—ISIL in Iraq and Syria, Russian aggression in Ukraine, the middle east peace process, Libya and the Ebola outbreak. In addition, I have been continuing my programme of visits to EU capitals, exploring the common ground that exists on the need for EU reform, explaining Britain’s requirements for its future relationship with Europe and listening to the views of parliamentarians, academics, journalists, commentators, Ministers and Government officials across the continent.
Over the summer I led the Government’s cross-departmental response, involving a huge amount of resource from the Department for International Development, the mobilisation of our diplomatic networks by the Foreign Office, and a massive infusion of manpower and capability by the Ministry of Defence. The people of Britain can be immensely proud of the way that the UK has stepped up to the plate and, using a combination of military and civilian resources, delivered real effect on the ground in Sierra Leone.
The Foreign Secretary has just paid generous tribute to the Department for International Development, and I echo those sentiments. However, he is reported to have recently called the Government’s own commitment to enshrine in law a pledge to spend 0.7% of UK GDP on international aid as “bizarre” when he was thousands of miles away from Westminster—[Interruption.] Some Members seem to agree with that sentiment. Ahead of Friday’s discussions of this issue in the House, is he prepared to repeat that judgment at the Dispatch Box today or has he had his mind changed?
Unlike the Government in whom the right hon. Gentleman served, we have delivered the 0.7% target. We made a political commitment to do it and we have delivered on that political commitment. Talk about the need to legislate is yesterday’s discussion. We are doing it—something he never did.
T2. Stability in north Africa—in Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, where there has been remarkable progress by the Tunisian people—has been helped immeasurably by the United Kingdom’s Arab Partnership programme. Will my hon. Friend confirm that that programme will continue and that, just because there is some success in those areas, we will not take our eye off the ball or off the need to do more in north Africa? (906394)
My right hon. Friend can take part of the credit for some of the success stories that we have seen in Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco. He is right that we should not forget these countries. Bilateral trade continues to flourish and the Arab Partnership scheme is very important. I visited Algeria last week and we look forward to the Prime Minister’s visit when he comes here next week.
T4. In Uganda there appears to be renewed attempts to target and persecute the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. If the Ugandan Government proceed with new legislation in this area, what will be the impact on bilateral relations with the UK? (906396)
The FCO’s work to combat violence and discrimination on the basis of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights is an important part of our international work in Uganda and elsewhere. I have made representations to the Ugandan Government and will continue to do so, and I will continue to work with NGOs and parliamentarians interested in this issue. It is a high priority for the British Government and for me.
T3. The Foreign Secretary has made it clear that any renegotiation with the EU will have trade at its heart, which my constituents welcome ahead of the referendum, but does the Minister envisage concurrent discussions on bilateral free trade agreements with high-growth economies such as India, which will be needed in case the British people choose to leave the EU, or will any such discussions come after the referendum vote? (906395)
As my hon. Friend knows, the treaty provisions are that the EU has exclusive competence over international trade negotiations, which means that we benefit from the collective leverage of a market of about 500 million people in prising open access to third markets. As regards India, the Prime Minister raised with the Indian Prime Minister at Brisbane the need to reopen the EU-India talks on free trade which had been paused because of the Indian election. We hope very much that Mr Modi’s Government will want to take that forward now.
The UK Government have taken the view that because we expect Syria to be rebuilt with a new and democratic future, we want to support these people as close to their home as possible. Britain is proud to be the second largest international donor of humanitarian aid to Syria, supporting those communities so that they will eventually be able to return and rebuild their country.
T7. The Foreign Secretary knows that my constituent, Ollie Gobat, was brutally murdered in St Lucia in an apparent assassination. I am grateful that officials are discussing assurances on the death penalty to allow UK police to support the investigation, at St Lucia’s request, but we are seven months on from Ollie’s murder. The death penalty has not been applied in 19 years. Will the Minister pick up the phone to the St Lucian Prime Minister and help to resolve the outstanding issues so that we can get justice for Ollie and his family? (906400)
This is indeed a tragic and brutal murder, and my heart goes out to the Gobat family. I wrote to the St Lucian Prime Minister on 14 October to seek assurances that any person convicted of this crime will not receive the death penalty, and following my hon. Friend’s excellent work, yesterday I wrote to the St Lucian high commissioner to press him on this issue. I will take up the suggestion to phone the St Lucian Prime Minister if an answer is not forthcoming, and I will speak to my hon. Friend as soon as I have done so.
T6. The Secretary of State is a former Transport Secretary, so will he admit to motorists in my constituency and other rural areas that the Government’s bid for a rural fuel discount has completely failed because he has no friends in Europe? (906399)
The UK has many friends in Europe, and one of the most striking things of the past four and a half months has been that everywhere I have gone in Europe, it has been emphasised to me—again in Italy last week—how central Britain’s role is to the European Union. Indeed, my Italian counterpart said clearly that he cannot imagine a European Union without Britain at its heart.
T9. I previously raised the case of Asia Bibi with the Prime Minister, and authored a letter signed by 57 Members of Parliament from across the House calling for justice in this case. I understand that the Prime Minister raised the case with Prime Minister Sharif, but what was his response? Is Prime Minister Sharif prepared to reform these laws, because I have spoken to the senior leadership of the main opposition in Pakistan, the PPP, and it is prepared to work with him to do that? (906402)
Asia Bibi is a Christian woman who was sentenced to death for blasphemy in 2010. That sentence has obviously provoked international condemnation, and was the first death sentence handed to a woman under Pakistan’s new blasphemy laws. We are deeply concerned that the Pakistan court has upheld the imposition of the death penalty, and we hope the verdict will be overturned on appeal. The Prime Minister will be in the Chamber tomorrow, and I understand that he and the Foreign Secretary will try to raise this matter again.
T8. Aston academy secondary school in my constituency and Makunduchi school on the island of Zanzibar in Tanzania have had a link for more than 20 years, with regular visits of staff and pupils from both schools to one another, lifting the horizons of young people in both countries. How does the Minister’s Department support such twinning arrangements? (906401)
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that question, not least because I remember visiting Aston school in 2001 when I was a parliamentary candidate in Rother Valley. More recently, as Minister for Africa I have visited a number of schools, and twinning arrangements such as that in Zanzibar are a fantastic way to support schools and build understanding of what the British Government are doing by supporting the DFID budget and the foreign affairs team. I recommend that more colleagues encourage such schemes in their constituencies, just like the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas), who supports an excellent scheme in Lesotho.
In his answer to question 11, the Minister mentioned the welcome assistance given by this country to the Lebanese border regiment. Will he look again at that, particularly in Lebanon and Jordan, to see what further assistance we could give armed forces in those countries to prevent contagion from Syria and Iraq?
I pay tribute to the work done by my right hon. Friend when he covered this portfolio. He will be aware from his visit to the region of the start of a programme to build watchtowers, and the MOD is very much involved in that to prevent ISIL from running across the border and taking hostages. More funds are being provided for that successful programme, and I will be visiting Lebanon soon.
For nearly half a century, on and off, I have heard Ministers say that they are committed on behalf of the British Government to justice for Palestinians, yet the situation has deteriorated for Palestinians over that time—it is has certainly not improved in any way. Would recognising a Palestinian state not show a genuine commitment on behalf of the United Kingdom that we want justice for Palestinians, as well as ensuring that the state of Israel is secure?
The hon. Gentleman’s timeline merely serves to underscore how complex, difficult and intractable the problem is. Our commitment to a two-state solution is loudly expressed at every opportunity—no one can be in any doubt about it—but, as the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) has made clear, recognition is a tool to be used in trying to bring about the peace settlement all hon. Members ardently desire.
May I just say what a great school Aston academy is? Of course, it was Aston comprehensive when I went there, but I will not ask about that.
Does the Foreign Secretary agree that millions of people around the country will have taken the Prime Minister’s speech last week on immigration as setting out that the revision of the rules on benefit claimants would be a red line in the renegotiation?
I am happy to agree with my hon. Friend both on Aston academy and on the Prime Minister’s speech last Friday. The right hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mr Alexander) called for clarity on our agenda with the European Union. He got clarity from the Prime Minister on Friday, but I have not heard him acknowledge that.
In this Question Time, Members have mentioned official Palestinian media and TV, and the Palestinian Authority. Effectively, they are talking about the apparatus of a Palestinian state. Surely calls for peace should be heard with equal respect for both Israel and Palestine. Is it not time the UK Government followed this House of Commons and gave recognition to the Palestinian state, which would be the first stage of the two-state solution?
Will Her Majesty’s Government be supporting the resumption of World Bank loans to Argentina? If so, would it not be bizarre for the UK to underwrite loans to Argentina, which is awash with its own cash, and which is in the process of acquiring 24 advanced combat aircraft for its defence portfolio, which could present a risk to the Falkland Islands?
I am not sure that my hon. Friend has uttered a single word with which I would disagree.
Further to the earlier answer on Colombia, the Minister will be aware that paramilitaries continue to target members of the peace movement. In the past three years, 60 members of the Patriotic March have been assassinated. Will he take steps to put pressure on the Colombian Government to protect peace activists in Colombia?
Yes, we will do that, and already do so. When I was in Bogota, I met a lot of peace defenders and human rights activists, and a lot of Government officials. We continue to be extremely concerned about the situation, but I repeat what I have said: we are very keen to help to move forward the FARC peace negotiations, which will bring peace to the whole country. However, serious institutional issues in the country will then need to be addressed. The UK Government will provide every assistance we can in that respect.
I read that report with some incredulity. The Government are trying to put the “C” back into FCO, but it seems that the Labour Opposition are trying to put Marlborough house back on the market. That is the difference between us. We can accuse the Labour Government of many things, but we can never accuse them of being helpful to, supportive of or keen on the Commonwealth.
With reference to the forthcoming ministerial visit to Malaysia, will the Minister consider its sedition laws? They are constantly being used to gag the opposition, including important opposition leaders such as Anwar Ibrahim. We left those laws behind. Why do we not get rid of them?
I will be brief because I have already addressed this issue. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary is meeting the Malaysian Foreign Minister next week, I believe. He will raise that issue, as we always do. We are studying the implications of the Malaysian Prime Minister’s comments and will respond in due course.
We have decided to accept Austria’s invitation to attend the Vienna conference on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons on 8 and 9 December. We will be represented by Mrs Susan le Jeune, the UK ambassador to Austria and permanent representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency.
May I raise again the case of my constituent Ghoncheh Ghavami, who is still facing prison in Iran and is forbidden from leaving that country? I am grateful to the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) for meeting Ghoncheh’s family with me, but I found the Foreign Secretary’s view, that there is little he can do because Iran does not recognise dual citizenship, somewhat unhelpful. Ghoncheh is a British citizen and is entitled to the support of the Foreign Office. May I ask the Foreign Secretary again what he is doing to ensure that she can come back to her home in Shepherds Bush?
I was not intending to be unhelpful; I was simply pointing out one of the realities we have to deal with. She is a British citizen and we make representations on her behalf. One of the by-products of the nuclear talks with Iran is that we have far more contact with Iranian counterparts than we might otherwise have done. I take every opportunity to raise this with Minister Zarif, my opposite number, and will do so again when I see him at the Afghanistan conference in London this week. Iran’s position is that it does not recognise her British citizenship and will therefore not engage with us on this issue.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Since written answers began to be answered online, Hansard no longer publishes written questions and answers. I find this a deprivation because it has long been my practice to study the written questions and answers published in Hansard. I find it a deprivation for our constituents who no longer have the opportunity of seeing the written questions and answers. It means that Hansard is no longer a complete record of the proceedings of this House. I am therefore asking you, Mr Speaker, to give instructions that in future written questions and answers should be published in Hansard.
I am extremely grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his point of order. My response is as follows. First, my distinct recollection is that the House has already decided on this matter. There is a reassuring nod of the head from the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) sitting on the Opposition Front Bench, which suggests that my recollection is correct. I am not sure, therefore, that that can easily be revisited, and certainly not impromptu by me from the Chair.
However, my second point to the right hon. Gentleman is that if he wishes to obtain a hard copy of the questions and answers, in accordance with his usual practice, he can obtain that from the Vote Office. That facility, although of course it could be extended to the right hon. Gentleman alone on grounds of his seniority and distinction, is in fact also an opportunity afforded to other right hon. and hon. Members.
I accept that these are matters of interpretation and opinion, but my last point would be that as far as the public are concerned I think the material is readily accessible and, arguably, as a result of this approach more accessible. Now, to judge by the rather sceptical expression on the right hon. Gentleman’s face, I fear I may have some way to go before persuading him of the merit of our approach. But what I am seeking to do—[Interruption.] Somebody chunters, slightly irreverently, from a sedentary position, “analogue”. In many respects, the right hon. Gentleman is modernity itself, not least in his original approach to sartorial elegance, but on these matters he does tend to be rather trad. I am trying, in a utilitarian spirit, on a Benthamite basis, to give the greatest satisfaction to the greatest number and I hope that we can do that. However, if the right hon. Gentleman is dissatisfied, I have a feeling that he will be beating a path to my door.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I wonder whether you can give me some guidance. A young girl from my constituency has been tragically murdered in Cologne. There is no police investigation, although there is every evidence that her drink was spiked—she was poisoned. There has been no police investigation and no help for the family. There is not another Foreign Office Question Time for another month. Can you advise me on how I can raise this issue in the House?
The answer is twofold. First, the hon. Gentleman can write to a Foreign Office Minister, and he can be as confident of as speedy a reply these days, not least on the grounds of his seniority and persistence, as can his right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman). Secondly, as the hon. Gentleman knows, he has effectively raised his point, through the ruse of the use and—some would say—the rather gentle abuse of the point of order procedure. Foreign Office Ministers will have heard his utterance, and let it never be said that he and the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton are not heard in this House; I think we will all agree they are heard with appropriate regularity.
Overseas Voters (15 Year Rule)
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to allow British citizens resident overseas for more than 15 years to vote in UK Parliamentary elections and referendums; and for connected purposes.
It is estimated that there are 5.5 million UK citizens living abroad, of whom possibly 1 million are under 18 and a further 1 million are debarred by the 15-year rule and who maintain strong cultural, emotional, financial and historical links with this country. However, under current laws, British citizens who live abroad can only vote in UK parliamentary elections for a maximum of 15 years from the date they last lived in the UK. I believe this to be incredibly unfair and unjustified, given that many people who have lived abroad for more than 15 years decided to move to a different country only after having paid into this country’s system for the whole of their working lives, and still have strong connections to the UK. Why should they, after all that, be disfranchised by their country of origin?
The 15-year limit we impose on voters is one of the strictest in the world. Indeed, from my research, the only countries with stricter rules on overseas voting are Ireland, Greece and Malta, where citizens who have left their country are not allowed to vote at all. However, countries as diverse as the US, France, Japan, South Africa, Belgium, the Czech Republic and Italy all have no limit on the ability of their citizens to vote from abroad. We must surely question why, as a country with a proud history of democracy and a wide franchise, we set some of the strictest rules in the world against our own citizens.
Much of the opposition to abolishing the 15-year rule is centred around the fact that relatively few of the 3.5 million citizens living overseas and currently eligible to register to vote actually do so. Only about 32,000 overseas citizens are registered, which is disappointingly few. I have been pressing the Electoral Commission for some time dramatically to step up its efforts to increase the number of eligible overseas voters, and I am pleased it has now accepted a target of 100,000 voters to be registered by May 2015—before the general election.
There are some possible reasons why overseas citizens do not register to vote. It might be that many are simply not aware of it, so we should do more, through passports, pensions and Government Departments, to make them aware of their rights. Until recently, it has been a long, drawn-out process, involving paper forms having to be sent across the world simply to register, but under changes made by this Government, I am pleased to say we have now made progress, and people living abroad can now register to vote online in just a few minutes at www.gov.uk/register-to-vote. A further deterrent was the time it took to return postal votes from around the world, but again the Government have recently introduced changes to the individual voter registration system increasing the period for returning postal votes from 17 to 25 days, which will be of considerable advantage to people living around the world.
Despite the low registration figures, however, we should not simply discount such a large number of British citizens and take away their right to vote. If that many people living in this country were disfranchised, there would be an outcry. I strongly believe that one reason registration numbers are so low is the deterrent effect of the 15-year rule. I have had people contacting me from all around the world, saying “What is the point in registering to vote now, when I will lose my vote after 15 years?” It is not that they do not want to vote, but that they do not want to have to register and then lose that right.
Contrary to the assertion by some that people living abroad do not care about participating in UK elections, people actually feel very passionately about it. I have had people contacting me from across the world, thanking me for raising this issue today. They want to vote; they want to engage and take part, but they are prevented from doing so by this 15-year rule. I strongly believe that the rule acts as a real disincentive for people to register and vote.
Throughout history, it has been the Conservative party that has championed the rights of overseas voters. Only under a Conservative Government have the rights of overseas voters been extended. Labour and Liberal Democrats have consistently tried to limit the voting rights of our citizens around the world. Indeed, in 1998, when there was a Home Affairs Select Committee inquiry into the issue, Labour and Liberal Democrat members urged that the length of time should be reduced—despite the Home Office saying that the vast amount of correspondence received on the subject was in favour of an extension of the limits.
The extent to which the Opposition parties have denied the right of overseas voters was clearly demonstrated here earlier in the year when I and a number of my hon. Friends tabled amendments to the Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013 to abolish the 15-year rule. However, these efforts were thwarted by a combination of Labour and Liberal Democrat Members, and the same thing happened in the other place when the noble Lord Lexden tabled the same amendments.
It is absolutely right that citizens living abroad should be able to participate in our democratic process. After all, more often than not, they are the people who have worked hard through their working lives and contributed to the system through taxes and national insurance, and they usually keep their UK bank accounts. They should therefore have the right to maintain a say in how that money is spent. Indeed, decisions of the UK Government continue to have effects on overseas citizens once they have left our shores.
Many hon. and right hon. Members will have received correspondence regarding overseas pensions. This is a classic example of an issue that continues to affect citizens after they have moved away from this country. They should be able to raise these issues with their votes, just as citizens living within the country are able to do. I would urge all those who feel strongly about this or any other issue to register for an overseas vote. If they do so in significant numbers, their voice will be heard.
It is clear from my conversations through our Conservatives Abroad network around the world that many people living abroad often pay closer attention to British politics and current affairs than many who live here. They are absolutely passionate about this country; they diligently read the British press and listen to our media; they often have families and friends in the UK whom they visit. As true democrats in this mother of Parliaments, we should encourage and facilitate all the millions of overseas voters to register, and we should abolish this 15-year rule. This would send a strong signal to those people that we are enormously grateful that they are the unofficial ambassadors, trade envoys and representatives for our country around the world. This is why I am pleased that the abolition of the 15-year rule is now official Conservative party policy, and will feature in our manifesto ahead of the general election in 2015. It has always been our party that has recognised the rights of overseas voters and understood their desire to remain linked to this country.
Today’s Bill is an important part of a long-running campaign by some very determined people for the unfettered right of all British citizens living abroad to have the vote—the universal franchise. Up until now, only the Conservative party has campaigned on this issue. Today, however, I issue a challenge to all other parties to join me in this campaign, to make this a cross-party issue and to ensure that it duly happens.
Question put and agreed to.
That Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, Miss Chloe Smith, Sir Roger Gale, Glyn Davies, Henry Smith, Mr Nigel Evans, Sir Peter Bottomley, Sarah Newton, Alistair Burt, Mr Dominic Grieve and Dr Liam Fox present the Bill.
Geoffrey Clifton-Brown accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 6 March 2015, and to be printed (Bill 129).
Foreign Affairs Committee (Hong Kong Visit)
Emergency debate (Standing Order No. 24)
Before I call the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee to move his motion, it may be for the convenience of the House to know that I intend to call the Front-Bench speakers to wind up the debate. The thrust of the debate is in the ownership of the House, and I think that we shall want to hear from Back-Bench Members, led by the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Sir Richard Ottaway.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the ban by China on the Foreign Affairs Committee visit to Hong Kong.
As one who travels more than most, I have become only too aware of the high regard that the world has for the United Kingdom—for what this iconic building stands for, what the Chamber stands for, and what those who sit in it stand for. It is, in a phrase, freedom and democracy: a respect for human rights around the world, and an abhorrence of tyranny. The decision by the Government of China to ban the Foreign Affairs Committee’s visit to Hong Kong is a mistake. It is an attack on the men and women of the free world.
It is nearly five years since the House did me the great honour of electing me Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee. During that time, I have been ably supported by my colleagues. We have visited some of the most troubled parts of the world—places where democracy is all but non-existent, or an illusion—but in none has anyone ever sought to deny us access, or accused us of
“meddling in the internal affairs of another country”,
as the Chinese ambassador did during a meeting with me on 15 August. That is an accusation unsupported by any evidence.
Between the end of the first opium war with China in 1842 and withdrawal in 1997, the Union flag flew over the island of Hong Kong. In 1898, the Chinese authorities granted a 99-year lease of the new territories on the mainland. The looming expiration of that lease began to exercise diplomats in the 1970s and 1980s. The Chinese made it clear that they wanted the return of the new territories, without which Hong Kong was not a viable entity. A course of action and a handover were carefully planned, and the Sino-British joint declaration was agreed. The declaration was signed in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on 19 December 1984 by Margaret Thatcher and the Chinese premier, Zhao Ziyang. It was deposited with the United Nations a few months later.
I am afraid to say that I am old enough to have been a member of the House of Commons at the time of the signing. The reaction then was that this was not a bad deal at all. It was as good as we were going to get, and it was either this or no deal at all. At its heart was a commitment to a “one country, two system” style of government, and a pledge that the socialist system of China would not be practised in Hong Kong, that Hong Kong would retain its status as an international finance centre, and that its previous capitalist system, its rights, its freedoms and its way of life would remain unchanged for 50 years. The joint declaration provides that those undertakings shall be set out in the Hong Kong Basic Law, and—critically—stipulates that the Chief Executive may be elected. Article 45 of the Basic Law states:
“The ultimate aim is the selection of the Chief Executive by universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures.”
The flashpoint for the current protests in Hong Kong was the publication in August of a decision by the standing committee of the National People’s Congress in Beijing on procedures for the election of the Chief Executive in 2017. Aware of the forthcoming decision, two key pro-democracy campaigners, Anson Chan and Martin Lee, told our Committee in July that their main concern was that the “broadly representative nominating committee”, which approves candidates for the post of Chief Executive, would be “dominated” by Beijing loyalists. Martin Lee said that anyone who was not trusted by Beijing would be
“screened out ...even though they were trusted by the Hong Kong people”.
That is the problem that has given rise to unrest, and to the peaceful protests that have received global attention.
Let me clarify for the record, and for those who are not familiar with the workings of the British constitution and the House, that a Select Committee is not part of the United Kingdom Government. On the contrary, the job of the Foreign Affairs Committee is to exercise oversight of the Foreign Office and its policies, and we operate totally independently.
Since the handover in 1997, the Foreign Office has published a report to Parliament on Hong Kong every six months. In its report of 12 July this year, it said of the growing constitutional arguments:
“the important thing is that the people of Hong Kong have a genuine choice and feel that they have a real stake in the outcome.”
“But it is clear that there is still some way to go for consensus to be reached.”
Given the hundreds of thousands of protesters who were on the streets, that was a wonderful British understatement by the then Foreign Secretary, who I am pleased to see is in the Chamber today.
In response to growing concern here and abroad, the Foreign Affairs Committee decided to conduct an inquiry into the strength, accuracy and veracity of the Foreign Office reports. Our terms of reference are simple: to investigate not just the six-monthly reports and the political and constitutional issues that are raised, but the bilateral relationship in terms of trade, business and culture, and the work of the British Council. The most important point is that we embarked upon our report with an open mind. We have no preconceived conclusions, and we invited all interested parties to give evidence, including the Hong Kong and Chinese Governments.
However, shortly after we announced our inquiry, the Chinese ambassador to London wrote to me on 14 July stating that
“The affairs of Hong Kong SAR”—
Special Administrative Region—
“are purely China's internal affairs”,
and that he was
“firmly opposed to any interference in Hong Kong…by any foreign country and by any means.”
He concluded with the advice that the Committee should not make its planned visit to Hong Kong in December. We rejected that advice, because we believed that it would be an abrogation of our responsibilities to the House if we accepted it.
In a letter to me dated 22 November, Mr Song Zhe, China's commissioner to Hong Kong—that is, its representative in Hong Kong—went further, saying that our visit would be viewed as
“support to ‘Occupy Central’ and other illegal activities”.
Occupy Central is the name of the protesters’ campaign on the streets of Hong Kong. In response to the letter, the Committee simply stated it was still our intention to visit. As a result, the deputy ambassador to the Chinese Embassy came to see me in the House on Friday afternoon, and informed me that the Committee would not be allowed entry into Hong Kong for the purposes of our inquiry. The meeting took place in a Committee Room on the Upper Committee Corridor. Fortunately, for the purpose of greater accuracy, I invited the editor of Hansard to attend to ensure that there would be a verbatim record of the conversation. I am grateful to her for her efforts.
At the heart of the Chinese argument, conveyed to me at the meeting, is that the joint declaration signed by China and the United Kingdom is now void and only covered the period from the signing in 1984 until the handover in 1997. Given that the Chinese Government gave an undertaking that the policies enshrined in the agreement would remain unchanged for 50 years, this is a manifestly irresponsible and incorrect position to take. It is a live agreement, which is why the Foreign Office rightly continues to produce its six-monthly reports on Hong Kong. Britain is a party to over 18,000 international treaties and agreements. To suggest that we have no right to assess the performance of our counter-parties to such agreements is ridiculous.
The second point made is the old Aunt Sally—which was made not once, but twice—that we are not a colonial power any more and must not behave like one. I only mention this to enable the House to assess the mindset inside the Chinese Government.
I believe that the decision to ban the Committee is wrong and will have a profound impact. First, decisions on entry to Hong Kong are devolved under the Basic Law and are clearly a matter for the Hong Kong Administration, not the Chinese Government. This sends a clear signal that the pledge that Hong Kong would
“enjoy a high degree of autonomy”,
as set out in paragraph 3(2) of the joint agreement, is now under threat. That the ban on the Committee clearly came from the Chinese Government brings into question whether the key principle of “one country, two systems” still has any meaning.
Secondly, we are China’s partners, not a distant third party. This decision will do nothing but damage Anglo-Chinese relations, something I regret. China is a fellow member of the G20. We have a free flow of parliamentarians, officials, businessmen and those involved in cultural exchanges. I say to China, “If you want to be a member of the G20, you have to behave like a member of the G20.” We have Chinese delegations here all the time. It should not be a one-way street. The Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr Swire), is, in fact, due to visit Hong Kong in a few weeks’ time; are they going to ban him, too?
I fully support what the right hon. Gentleman has said today. He has put his case in a very measured and eloquent way and I am sure the whole House supports the position taken by the Foreign Affairs Committee, which of course has implications for other Select Committees, should they wish to visit other countries.
Of course, Select Committees are separate from the Government, but were any representations made by the Government to the Chinese Government about the refusal to grant a visa and allow the FAC to go to China?
As a fellow Select Committee Chairman, I am very grateful for the right hon. Gentleman’s support and he will fully understand the position the Committee finds itself in. If he does not mind, I will leave it to the Minister to answer his question, perhaps when he winds up, but I would say that the Foreign Office has been nothing but supportive of the Committee throughout this unhappy episode.
Thirdly, and most importantly, this decision points to China’s direction of travel. If there is a commitment to democracy in Hong Kong, one first has to understand democracy. Democracy embraces criticism, and constructive criticism is the most valuable thing democracy can provide. If China blatantly blocks well-wishers like this Parliament, that raises big, unanswered questions which will alarm the people of Hong Kong and the region. This decision will not go unnoticed in Taiwan.
May I say that it is a pleasure to serve on the FAC under my right hon. Friend’s chairmanship? Does he agree that the Chinese Government have already concluded that they know what our report will say, which is unwise, and they have forfeited the opportunity to put their case to the Committee?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right and I value his support on the Committee. We have approached this inquiry with an open mind, and I think the Chinese Government and the Hong Kong authorities are missing a real opportunity by declining to give evidence to us. Indeed they do not even recognise the Committee as they continue to call this a “so-called inquiry.”
Finally, Hong Kong is the largest stock market in China and its main financial services hub, supporting a fifth of the world’s population. It currently has free flows of money, goods and services. What sort of message does this send to future investors? This arbitrary action can only harm China’s reputation and financial interests in an increasingly global world. In Asia, a stable Singapore looks a much better place to do business at the moment.
I have been listening with great interest to the right hon. Gentleman’s speech, which I think is absolutely spot-on. Does he agree that the Chinese are looking at this in the following way: “Well, there was all that fuss about Tibet and we just got on with it, and there was all that fuss about our appalling human rights record but we have just got on with it. So over time, this too, will all go away and we’ll continue to trade and be able to sell our goods around the world and nobody will take a blind bit of notice”?
The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. After the spat over the Dalai Lama, Anglo-Chinese relations were on the right trajectory, and I think this is a very serious hiccup now, which will give a lot of people reason to pause and reflect.
We will continue with our inquiry, but this decision cannot go unchallenged. As Members of this House are well aware, as we enter this Chamber we pass under the archway which has been deliberately left with the damage inflicted by a bomb in the second world war. It is a reminder of the damage that can ultimately be caused by the enemies of freedom. The anchor in our world today is freedom. It gives us our sense of direction. It is how we decide between right and wrong. I invite the Government to condemn this action in the strongest possible terms.
I hope that China will, even at this late stage, change its mind. I say that because 26 years ago, as a Member of this House, I went with a delegation to Hong Kong. We stayed there for a week, and then at the end of the week we booked through a tourist organisation a visit to mainland China. We got as far as Macau and got on a tourist bus ready to cross the border into China, but at the border three of us—three British MPs—were asked to get off the bus. We questioned at the time why we were asked to get off the bus when we had tickets for a three-day visit to China. The tour operator said he could not answer the question, but we were welcome to stay at their expense in Macau for the weekend. That, of course, was not the idea. It was not until we got back to London and I visited the Chinese ambassador that I was told what the reason was: it was that one of our MP members had “journalist” written in his passport. Because it was 26 years ago and around the time of Tiananmen square, the ambassador said they were afraid that if they let us into China we would create some bother. However, he then apologised and said it had all been a bad mistake, and offered us a visit to China at the expense of the Chinese Government, which we took him up on, and there followed a very interesting visit to China. I hope that, if the Chinese Government are listening to these speeches, there is still time for them to admit they have made a mistake and that we should be allowed in.
I support the views of the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, the right hon. Member for Croydon South (Sir Richard Ottaway), who has eloquently presented the case.
While I have the opportunity, I want to talk about freedom of the press. The Chairman talked about the importance of freedom of speech and of the press. Under article 27 of the Basic Law, residents of Hong Kong
“shall have freedom of speech, of the press and publication; freedom of association, of assembly, of procession and demonstration”,
and the right to join trade unions and to strike.
In recent years, however, there has been an increasing number of complaints from Hong Kong that the freedom of the press, in particular, is being undermined in a number of different ways. For instance, this year, Hong Kong fell to a record low of 61st in the annual global ranking for press freedom complied by Reporters Without Borders. The 2014 annual report of the Hong Kong Journalists Association, entitled “Press Freedom Under Siege”, calls 2014
“the darkest year for press freedom for several decades, with the media coming under relentless assault from several directions.”
The report also argued that the suppression of press freedom was happening
“despite the existence of protection by law.”
Violence against journalists has also increased in Hong Kong as part of the growing intimidation of journalists. The most recent such incident was a knife attack carried out on 26 February against Kevin Lau, the former editor-in-chief of the popular daily, Ming Pao, which was often critical of Beijing. Mr Lau had been abruptly fired a month beforehand by the paper’s owner, a tycoon with major investments in China, and replaced by a new editor who was widely seen as more pro-Chinese. The attack drew widespread condemnation, including from the Hong Kong Government.
Attacks have also been carried out this year against senior figures in the Hong Kong Morning News Media Group and, in 2013, against the owner of the free newspaper am730, the publisher of iSun Affairs and the Next Media chairman Jimmy Lai. All the victims were connected with media outlets known for expressing critical views of Beijing.
Aside from the attacks, many of which have not been solved, other complaints about press freedom centre on issues such as self-censorship and personnel changes. Such complaints do not generally allege that the legal right to press freedom in Hong Kong is being challenged, but rather that journalists or media outlets that are known to criticise Beijing are increasingly facing problems such as the withdrawal of advertisers, the abrupt and unexplained sacking of outspoken management or editorial staff, and the denial of applications to renew broadcasting licences.
I am listening with great attention to my right hon. Friend’s speech, and we all deplore the events that she has described. Would it not, however, be naive to believe that a China controlled by the Communist party and determined to maintain its dictatorship is going to allow freedom of expression and the democratic rights in Hong Kong that we all wish to see?
The point that I was making earlier was that those rights are enshrined in law, and that the Chinese Government are therefore breaking the law if those rights are being violated.
These issues are creating a climate in which, although press freedom is respected according to the letter of the law, journalists are either being pressurised by advertisers and media owners to avoid criticising Beijing or being denied a platform from which to make such criticisms. The rise of the Chinese-owned media in Hong Kong, in tandem with China’s more general economic growth, also plays a role in debates over press freedom. Reporters Without Borders drew attention in its annual report to this fact, stating:
“China’s growing economic weight is allowing it to extend its influence over the media in Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan, which had largely been spared political censorship until recently. Media independence is now in jeopardy in these three territories, which are either ‘special administrative regions’ or claimed by Beijing.”
I would describe the situation for press and broadcasting freedom in Hong Kong as dire.
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s six-monthly report on Hong Kong covering July to December 2013 included a section on press freedom and freedom of expression. It noted that there were “some concerns” that these freedoms were “under threat”. I think that is rather too mild. The report concluded that those rights were “generally well respected”, but detailed a number of controversies particularly relating to press freedom. It its six-monthly report covering January to June 2014, the FCO listed several similar incidents of controversy or demonstrations relating to concerns in Hong Kong about perceived infringements of press freedom. It noted that people in Hong Kong appeared to be increasingly worried about self-censorship. It also noted, however, that in April, the Chief Executive had spoken in support of press freedom because it was
“a cornerstone of a free society”.
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office did not take a particular stand on the specific concerns it mentioned, stating:
“We believe that freedom of expression, including of the press, has played an important role in Hong Kong’s success. It is one of the fundamental freedoms protected by the Joint Declaration. As such, we take seriously concerns about press freedom, including fears about self-censorship. We welcome the Chief Executive’s clear statements on press freedom and we will continue to monitor the situation closely.”
As the Chairman of the Select Committee has said, our investigation is going to continue. I hope that the Chinese Government are listening to the points that are being made in this debate and that they will think again, as they did 26 years ago when they recognised that they had made a mistake by excluding three of us from China at that time.
I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Sir Richard Ottaway), the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee. Central to the concern that the House is expressing is the question of whether the United Kingdom can reasonably be accused of interfering in the internal affairs of China. I was privileged to serve as Foreign Secretary for the final two years of British sovereignty over Hong Kong and I was personally involved in the final stages of the negotiations. If the Committee had been trying to comment on matters that were irrelevant to either the joint declaration or the Basic Law, there could be a legitimate complaint that those were the internal affairs of China. However, the question of the franchise in Hong Kong goes to the very heart of the joint declaration and the Basic Law.
The Chairman of the Committee was entirely correct to say that it is patently absurd to suggest that the right—in fact, the obligation—of the United Kingdom Government to take an interest in the fulfilment of the commitments expired when sovereignty transferred to Hong Kong. Only 17 years have passed in the 50-year commitment by the Chinese Government to fulfil those obligations. That commitment was part of an international agreement reached with Her Majesty’s Government, and it is an obligation, not just an entitlement, for the British Government and the Committees of this House to monitor these matters and to express their views on them.
I genuinely believe that the Chinese Government have done themselves a disservice by taking this step. They have demonstrated not their strength but their weakness. The idea that vetoing the issue of visas would resolve the issue was simply wrong. I understand that the Committee is, quite rightly, going to continue its work, and all that has happened is that this action has created some very adverse publicity for the Chinese Government, which could easily have been avoided. They should have welcomed the Foreign Affairs Committee and used the visit as an opportunity to put forward their point of view. They could have explained that, under their own proposals, there would be a mass franchise. They could also have explained the justification for their belief that the selection of candidates should be under their control.
As to whether the Chinese Government would have persuaded the Committee, we cannot say one way or the other, but that is how they should have operated. They have done themselves a disservice in a much wider sense than simply the implications for Hong Kong, because part of the reason for the original commitment by Deng Xiaoping to two systems in one country was not just to find a solution to the issue of Hong Kong; infinitely more important to Chinese policy and Chinese national aspirations is whether Taiwan will one day agree to rejoin the motherland. Central to the Chinese Government’s position ever since Deng Xiaoping has been an attempt to reassure the people and the Government of Taiwan—now a democratic Government with a pluralist system and the rule of law—that their way of life would not be endangered by some agreement at some stage to peacefully join with China under the People’s Republic. The controversies that are convulsing Hong Kong at the moment do enormous damage to the credibility of the Chinese Government’s ability to put forward that argument. They should realise that, and it is astonishing that they still persist in the policy that we are debating.
Central to these issues is not just the question of democracy in Hong Kong, but the rule of law, which is not just about the number of political parties, the candidates or free elections. We all understand what the rule of law means. A fascinating speech was made by the current leader of China and a policy was implemented by the National People’s Congress just a few weeks ago, when the Chinese Government declared that the priority objective for the immediate future was the rule of law in China—but they described it in a specific way. They said that China would be utterly committed to the rule of law “with Chinese characteristics”. That is an interesting qualification. I recall the days of the Soviet Union, when people referred to “people’s democracies” and we knew that the addition of “people’s” was in practice a negation of the democracy itself. Once people start having to qualify democracy, it is an excuse to try to justify ignoring it. So when China is now committed to the rule of law “with Chinese characteristics”, it is worth asking what the characteristics are.
I have a reason to think I know what those characteristics mean and I wish to share it briefly with the House. When I was Foreign Secretary, one of my obligations was to have a series of negotiations with the then Chinese Foreign Minister, Qian Qichen, about the handover of Hong Kong to the People’s Republic. I vividly remember one meeting in Beijing when I said to him that what was important to the people of Hong Kong when they became part of China was not simply that they would have elections, a pluralist political system and so on, important though that was, but that they would also continue to enjoy the rule of law. I knew what I meant by that, as this House would, but I have never forgotten his response, which was, “Please don’t worry, Mr Rifkind. We in China also believe in the rule of law. In China, the people must obey the law.” I had to point out to him that when we and the people of Hong Kong talked about the rule of law, we were talking not just about the people obeying the law, but about the Government obeying the law—the Government had to be acting under the law and there had to be an independent legal and judicial system. Manifestly, the then Chinese Foreign Minister not only did not agree with me, but had not the faintest idea what I was saying; he could not understand that distinction, and we see that elsewhere; we see it in Putin’s Russia at the moment. The view is that Governments make laws and therefore, if they do not like them, they can either ignore them or change them with impunity, and that is a very serious matter.
It is now 17 years since the transition. I think we have to acknowledge that in many fundamental respects Hong Kong remains very different from China. Compared with the rest of the People’s Republic, it is an open and relatively free society, and we should commend the Chinese Government for the extent to which they have carried out not only much of the letter of the commitment, but a significant amount of its spirit. If they had not done so, Hong Kong would not be the open society that it still remains today. But this House, like the world as a whole, is conscious that these distinctions are being eroded, and in the short term the situation is rather grim if the Chinese Government are determined to nibble away wherever they can at the freedoms that the people of Hong Kong enjoy and are entitled to continue to enjoy.
In the medium to longer term, the difference between Hong Kong and the rest of China will erode, but not in the direction that the current Chinese Government would like; it will not be by Hong Kong becoming more like China, but in the longer term by China becoming more like Hong Kong. Already the pressures within China for a more open and more pluralist system, and for some choice in the election of its leaders, are becoming very significant. To be fair, the Chinese Government have already experimented in some local elections with allowing more than one candidate and a real element of choice, albeit in a very restricted way.
The final point I make is simply that the Chinese Government’s current assumption about pluralism, democracy and the rule of law is that they are western values, not Chinese ones. The evidence that discounts that, showing it to be worthless as an argument, is not what happens in the west; it is found by looking at the transformation of Taiwan, at Hong Kong and, to a significant degree, at Singapore—all Chinese communities that not only talk about democracy, but practise it. They practise pluralism and have independent judicial systems, and that clearly corresponds to the wishes of the people they govern. So we are talking about universal values, and the Chairman and members of the Foreign Affairs Committee have done a great service, not just to this House, but to Hong Kong and to China as a whole, by opening up this debate in the way that we are able to do today.
I hope the House will forgive me if I do not remain throughout this debate, as I have other commitments, although I very much wanted to be present for it.
I was in Hong Kong at the handover from the United Kingdom to the Chinese Government. I remember that Prince Charles gave a party aboard the royal yacht Britannia, but there was nothing to celebrate. I was there in an auditorium when Chinese troops goose-stepped along the stage, hauled down the Union flag and hoisted the Chinese flag, and I regarded it as a day of shame for Britain. There was never any obligation to hand over Hong Kong to China. Chris Patten, when he was governor of Hong Kong, belatedly tried to stop it, but by then it was too late because the then Government had decided that that was what should be done. I have no doubt that it was Foreign Office officials abiding by their usual custom of ingratiating themselves with a Foreign Government with whom we could have valuable trading relations, with democracy as the second consideration.
The right hon. Gentleman makes a point about trade. China is looking to deploy enormous amounts of capital in Europe and, clearly, a lot of investment is taking place in the UK, which I welcome. What more could be done to impress upon the Chinese Government that these incidents ultimately hit business confidence and that they need to get over this because we want to see more investment from China in Europe?
The problem is that the Foreign Office and other Departments such as the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills say, “In the end, human rights in China and in Hong Kong are secondary to the fact that China is now an immense economic power and a very important trading partner.” The problem is that the days when morality dictated foreign policy have diminished, and it is very important for us to understand what is going on there. I remember making a great mistake when I led a Labour party delegation to China as shadow Foreign Secretary. I said to the leaders of the Chinese Communist party that if they wanted China to be a capitalist country, which they clearly did, they would have to abandon autocracy and adopt democracy. I could not have been more wrong, because they have managed to create a capitalist economy without putting in place a democratic society.
This is a very important moment in our relationship with Hong Kong. I pay tribute to many of the things that were said at Foreign Office questions today, but the Government must take into account the fact that although trade and jobs are important, morality is also very important and we should stand up for it.
I have a painting in my house of the gate to Tiananmen square. When we look at what has happened in China, we should be more realistic about the situation. Okay, if we want to be brutal and say that trade matters more than anything else, we should understand that that is a point of view and a policy. But let us take into account the fact that China still has the death penalty, which it uses whenever it feels so inclined. It tortures and imprisons without trial—I saw a programme on television about an artist who was imprisoned for producing the wrong paintings. There is no genuine freedom of speech, and the state interferes with the social media whenever it feels so inclined. I am not saying that we can transform all of that; of course we cannot. I am just outlining what is happening.
The day may come when China, like the Soviet powers, suddenly becomes a democracy. I hope that I will live to see it. But at this moment, it is very, very important for this House to register its anger at what has taken place and at the insult to the Foreign Affairs Committee and therefore to this House of Commons. I am grateful to you, Mr Speaker, for calling on me to speak, because I did not wish this incident to go by without stating my experience and my view.
I am glad to follow the excellent opening speech of my right hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Sir Richard Ottaway), the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, of which I have been a member since 1992.
When you, Mr Speaker, gave your most welcome consent to this debate yesterday, you were entirely correct in stating that the situation we face is entirely unprecedented. The Foreign Affairs Committee, during the long period in which I have been privileged to serve on it, has never before been refused entry to any country in the world. As the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee has already pointed out, this is a dangerous precedent for other Committees in the House and for the House as a whole.
In a previous visit to China in the last Parliament, we were subject to threats and a degree of intimidation, as the authorities tried to deter us from going to Tibet. I was privileged to lead the group that eventually went to Tibet, and we faced down those threats and attempts to intimidate us. At the end of the visit, we faced further intimidation and threats from the Chinese authorities when they found out that we were going from mainland China to Taiwan. That difficult situation was admirably handled by the then Chair of the Committee, the hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes). Again, we faced down the Chinese authorities and went to Taiwan as planned.
I am sure that all parts of the House would regard this unprecedented situation as wholly unacceptable. What the Chinese are seeking to achieve by barring the FAC from Hong Kong escapes me. As the Chairman of the Committee made clear, we will not be deflected from our inquiry. We shall continue to take evidence for our inquiry, including from people in Hong Kong—we are capable of doing that without actually going to Hong Kong—and we shall make our report to the House in due course.
In political terms, the Chinese authorities have scored a spectacular own goal. They could not have given more eloquent credence to the case being made by the pro-democracy demonstrators in Hong Kong that the joint declaration is under threat; they could not have made it clearer by the way in which they have dealt with the House of Commons’s Foreign Affairs Committee. Notwithstanding that, the issue of how the British Government respond is of key importance.
I must say to the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr Swire), and to my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary that I have, thus far, been very disappointed with what I have seen in the public domain from the Foreign Office in its response to the situation in which this House and the FAC have been placed. As far as I can see, all they have said is that the Chinese authorities’ response and ban on the Foreign Affairs Committee is “regrettable”. That is nothing like good enough. The House and democracy in this country have been treated with contempt. I hope that the Minister of State will give us a robust response when he ends this debate.
As always, it is a great pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) He will recall that I, as a newly elected Member of this House, joined him on the Foreign Affairs Committee in 1992. In my time as a member of the FAC, I made many visits to many different countries. We might have had some issues about who we were able to meet and the exact timings of visits, but we were never told—not even by Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Afghanistan or China—that we were not welcome to come and that the authorities would stop us getting off aircraft. It is not, as some Members have said, a matter of visas; UK citizens do not need visas to go to Hong Kong. The Hong Kong Government determine their own internal arrangements, yet the people in Beijing and their diplomatic representatives in London have told us that we are not welcome in Hong Kong, which is, as the Chair of the Committee so ably put it, a breach of the undertakings given by the Chinese to the people of Hong Kong and to our representatives in the negotiations that led to the joint declaration.
Members have asked why China is doing this. I suspect—and this really surprises me—that they are afraid that the presence of a handful of British parliamentarians is somehow going to change the internal dynamics in Hong Kong and China. They must be very nervous and worried. What is happening in Hong Kong is not being broadcast in the Chinese media. We can see it covered in the rest of the world and we can see it in Taiwan, but the Chinese authorities have rigorously censored communications about events in Hong Kong. That also happens when the people of Hong Kong protest on the anniversary of the massacre in Tiananmen square—not a word of it is broadcast by the Chinese state authorities. This is an indication that the Chinese regime is prepared to use a ruthless power because it is afraid. That augurs badly for what might happen in Hong Kong in the coming weeks and months.
I do not want to spend too long talking about that, but I did want to talk about the issues about Parliament and the Committee’s inquiry. Let me go back to the previous time we visited China. In May 2006, the previous Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, which I had the great honour of chairing, went to Hong Kong and from there to Beijing. The group then split into two. One went to Tibet, to Lhasa, and the other, which I led, went to Shanghai. We then met up again in Hong Kong and went to Taiwan. One of the interesting episodes, to which the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling just referred, was the meeting we had with Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing. He was very pleasant to begin with and asked me how my right hon. Friend the Member for Derby South (Margaret Beckett), the then Foreign Secretary, was doing as he had had amicable discussions with her in the United Nations Security Council meetings. After 10 minutes, he switched completely to tell us, “I understand that you intend to go to our 19th province”—that is, Taiwan. “We have no objection to your going, but only after the reunification of our country.”
He then said, “You are all diplomats.” We said, “No, we are parliamentarians. You don’t understand. We are not here representing the British Government but doing an inquiry and our presence and visit will not in any way change the British Government’s policy. We are doing this because we need to investigate Taiwan and its relationship with China.” He said, “If you do this, there will be serious consequences.” We wondered what those serious consequences were. As the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling said, the visit continued and we went to Tibet and to Shanghai, went back to Hong Kong and then to Taiwan. There were no serious consequences for the Foreign Affairs Committee.
Later on in the previous Parliament, when the Committee was considering human rights issues globally, we decided as a Committee to receive the Dalai Lama for a public evidence session, which I chaired. At that point, I received a very long and vitriolic letter from the National People’s Congress in Beijing and a visit from the then Chinese ambassador, who subsequently became a deputy Foreign Minister, bringing lots of different materials including piles of books about the CIA’s role in Tibet and other documentation. The Chinese are obviously very sensitive, as they always have been, about issues to do with their status and the respect others have for China in the world. We can have a robust exchange about such issues, but there has never been a ban on parliamentarians from this House as a result of those differences. That tells me that there is something happening internally in China that is worrying.
In our report after the inquiry in the previous Parliament, we commented on the situation in Hong Kong. In one of our conclusions, we recommended that
“the Government urge the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region to make significant, major steps towards representative democracy and to agree with Beijing a timetable by which direct election of the Chief Executive and LegCo by universal suffrage will be achieved.”
I hope that that is a position to which we all, including Members on the Government and Opposition Front Benches, could agree today. It is of course a matter for the people of Hong Kong and China to make proposals using the arrangements set out in the Basic Law, but the aspiration for representative democracy and universal suffrage should apply for all people as soon as possible, including in Hong Kong.
The Committee also commented on the internal situation in Hong Kong with civil liberties, humanitarian issues and the rule of law. Our conclusion in 2006 was that
“despite some concerns, overall Hong Kong remains a vibrant, dynamic, open and liberal society with a generally free press and an independent judiciary, subject to the rule of law.”
I hope that we can say the same about Hong Kong today. Obviously, our report will have to be published in due course when we have finished taking evidence, but I think that the behaviour of the Chinese authorities towards our Committee as well as other issues that have been raised with us so far in the evidence we have received prompt concern about whether those principles and values are under threat today.
Let me conclude with a more general point, which has been mentioned in passing. Some people believe that we should turn a blind eye to this and some people believe that the economic imperative should determine everything. Those of us who have been to Taiwan, however, or to other countries around the world with significant Chinese populations, know that there is nothing inherently authoritarian, Stalinist, Leninist or Maoist in the Chinese character. What is communist about China today? Only the name of the ruling party. It has a state capitalist economic system run by an elite that holds political power through a one-party system and suppresses and controls dissent. How sustainable is that in the future? I do not know. China’s economy is turning down and the rate of growth is slowing. China has a major demographic problem long term and its ability to meet the aspirations of its people, which it has done, taking hundreds of millions of people out of poverty in recent years, is not necessarily sustainable indefinitely under its current political model.
There are clearly big questions for the rest of the world about how we deal with a growing China. People have talked about China’s rise and Martin Jacques, an author who is very well informed although I do not agree with his rose-tinted conclusions, has written a book called, “When China Rules the World”. Frankly, if China were to become the most important country in the world politically that would raise serious questions about what kind of universal values it would have and what kind of rule of law and humanitarian law there would be.
It might be a small point for some people that a Committee of the House of Commons has been prevented from going to Hong Kong, but it raises fundamental questions.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the banning of the visit is symptomatic of China’s attitude to the rest of the world, particularly her near neighbours, considering the aggression over the Senkaku islands, the adventurism in the South China sea and the intransigence she has demonstrated in the Security Council?
I would be fairer to China, because it has played a positive role in some international matters, such as climate change, and certainly on international security, so I do not think that all its actions have been on the bad side. However, there are concerns about its attitude and, as the hon. Lady has highlighted, there are a number of territorial disputes around the coast and in east Asia, where a number of states are in contention for territories that have the potential for gas and oil exploration. I do not want to go down that track now and so will conclude by talking about democracy.
In our 2006 report, the Committee came to an important conclusion. We were commenting on the Chinese military build-up across the Taiwan straits and the possible threat to peace and stability in east Asia. Relations between Taiwan and China have since improved significantly: there are now far more direct flights, there is massive investment, and millions of mainland Chinese tourists visit Taiwan, as I saw last new year—the hotel I was staying in was full of mainland Chinese. Nevertheless, there is still great sensitivity in China about what is happening in Taiwan. The Taiwanese people, as they have shown in recent local elections, are very committed to democracy. They throw politicians out and reject incumbent parties and Governments regularly.
Our 2006 report—I think that this is still pertinent today—concluded:
“the growth and development of democracy in Taiwan is of the greatest importance, both for the island itself and for the population of greater China, since it demonstrates incontrovertibly that Chinese people can develop democratic institutions and thrive under them.”
That is also relevant to Hong Kong, which is why what is happening there matters and why our Committee is absolutely right to continue our inquiry and, in due course, produce a report. The Government will then have to respond to that report, hopefully before the next election, so that the House can have a further debate about developments in Hong Kong and China over the coming months.
The House debates today in unusual, if not unprecedented, circumstances. It is a matter of deep frustration, disappointment and regret to me not only that are we here to do that, but that I am here as an individual who has played a part in the events leading up to the debate. For it is not only the Foreign Affairs Committee that has been effectively prevented from visiting Hong Kong: a week ago my visa application to join the UK-China leadership forum in Shanghai was rejected, as a result of which the entire parliamentary delegation has pulled out of the forum.
We must ask ourselves why that has happened. The underlying answer, of course, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Sir Richard Ottaway) rightly said, is that we have a serious disagreement with China over our ability to discuss and debate issues in Hong Kong. As other Members have said, it is sad that even before the Committee’s report has been drafted, let alone completed, China has concluded that it must be negative in principle because of its existence, rather than its content, which is as yet unknown.
In the same way, I was clearly penalised for having the temerity to organise a debate on Hong Kong on 22 October. In my speech on that day, I congratulated Britain and China’s leaders in 1984 on finding
“a formula, and later the trust, that maintained confidence within Hong Kong and by the world in Hong Kong. Thirty years on, the architects can congratulate themselves. Broadly, Hong Kong has thrived and remains special and successful.”
I concluded my speech thus:
“For the people of Hong Kong and we”—
meaning all of us in Parliament—
“have no interest, no advantage or no conceivable selfish purpose in any form of car crash with Hong Kong’s sovereign master, China. Rather, it is in all our interests, but particularly those of Britain and China in fulfilling the joint declaration, that Hong Kong continues to thrive and prosper, in a different world from that of 1984 or even 1997.”—[Official Report, 22 October 2014; Vol. 586, c. 276-81WH.]
I do not believe that anyone in this House, or indeed anywhere, could take violent objection to the thoughts and beliefs behind that statement. However, I am afraid that there was an objection, which I received today in hard copy—it had insufficient postage and so arrived only today—from Ambassador Liu of the People’s Republic of China. He expressed severe displeasure and disappointment about a letter I had written to him some 10 days before the debate, outlining my reasons for holding it.
I will recap the crucial part of the reason. As chair of the all-party China group, I believe that I have two main responsibilities, as outlined on our writing paper and clearly laid out on our website: first, to provide a forum for debate on all matters of bilateral interest; and secondly, to help to inform parliamentarians through regular visits to China. I believe that by holding the debate on Hong Kong I was fulfilling the first objective.
Ambassador Liu wrote:
‘Matters related to Hong Kong are none but China’s internal affairs, where China is firmly opposed to intervention or interference of any kind by any country or any individual, including the House of Commons’ inquiry, debate and investigation involving Hong Kong. Your insistence on having the aforementioned debate in the House of Commons has in effect meddled in such internal matters of Hong Kong and sent out a wrong signal. Such moves, exploited by the opposition in Hong Kong, will only create an impression that Britain supports unlawful activities such as ‘occupy Central’.”
I have read out excerpts from my speech, and I do not believe that any objective reader could reach any of the conclusions reached by Ambassador Liu, least of all an impression that Britain supports unlawful activities such as those of Occupy Central, which did not feature in my speech at all.
Ambassador Liu’s letter went on to state that I, as chair of the all-party China group,
“charged with the responsibility and mission of advancing China-UK relations”—
that is not strictly my mission, as I have just explained—should
“refrain from interfering in the internal affairs of Hong Kong as well as China. I urge you to do more things to promote China-UK relationship, rather than disrupt or undermine its healthy development.”
It is true that relations between our two countries have improved considerably. My right hon. Friend the Minister and I were both part of the very successful delegation led by the Prime Minister to China a year ago, and earlier this summer we had a very successful visit by the Chinese premier, Li Keqiang, to the UK. All of us here want to see positive relations between Britain and China for precisely the reasons I have outlined. We have much that is to our mutual benefit, much in the way of mutual challenges and much that we are doing together to make the world a better place.
I genuinely believe that the role of diplomats is to build bridges, not barriers; to solve problems, not to create them; to help bring our two countries closer together; and to strengthen the relationships between this Parliament and the National People’s Congress in Beijing. Let me, for the record, respond to Ambassador Liu’s comment that I should
“do more things to promote”
the China-UK relationship. For three years, I was this country’s British trade commissioner to China, and also our consul to Macau. Later, I opened the first merchant banking group office in China and listed the first Chinese company on the London stock exchange. In 1993, I was part of the Anglo-Chinese expedition to make the first ever crossing of the Taklamakan desert. During that expedition, I should, by rights, have died from amoebic dysentery. I was saved by some unbelievably strong antibiotics that meant I could not eat for five days while walking some 25 miles a day in the heat of that hitherto uncrossed desert, so every day since the winter of 1993 has, to some extent, been an extra day in my life. When I came out of the desert—so thin that my trousers fell down when I tried to pull them up—and went straight to Shanghai to open the office of my employers, I vowed that I would dedicate a chunk of my life to doing things that would continue to help relations between Britain and China.
Some two years later, my wife, Anthea, made me aware of what was happening in Chinese orphanages in Shanghai. She was, at the time, the person in charge of the welfare team of the Shanghai Expatriate Association. Many Members will know that, largely because of the one-child system, huge numbers of orphans, often predominantly female, were dumped on the doorsteps of orphanages and would spend the rest of their lives in an institution. This was a human tragedy. My wife’s dedication to helping two or three individual orphans led me to create a charitable company in Hong Kong called Children First and to get pledges of significant amounts of money from businesses in Hong Kong to support the creation of what would effectively become a foster care system in Shanghai.
At that time, talks with the Shanghai municipal government fell through, largely on the issue of trust about who would have control of the money. However, the relationship with the civil affairs bureau was so strong that when a British citizen, Robert Glover, arrived in Shanghai and was introduced to the bureau by my wife, he was able to take forward our original vision and create what is now Care For Children—the first ever joint venture Sino-British charity, now joint ventured with the central Government’s civil affairs bureau. To date, it has taken between 250,000 and 300,000 orphans out of orphanages and put them in foster homes. It is a remarkable success. I pay tribute to Rob Glover, who is in London this week, and all that the charity has achieved. I am proud to have been first its adviser and later a director.
That is one example of a personal commitment to improving things between Britain and China that I hope will show the House that far from doing things to disrupt and undermine the healthy development of the relationships between our two countries, I have consistently tried to enhance them.
In that context, I am deeply disappointed by what happened this summer when the Foreign Affairs Committee rightly decided, owing to the events in Hong Kong and to the six-monthly update report on Hong Kong by Her Majesty’s Government, that it was time for it to write a report on the state of the relations between the UK and Hong Kong. It is very disappointing that a China that is now in every way stronger, more confident and more robust than it was 35 years ago, when first I visited, has been unable to recognise that this should be seen as a positive and encouraging development that opens doors rather than closes them, and to welcome a report that, in many ways, may turn out to be a lot more positive than it expects.
Today’s debate is unfortunate in many ways. When my visa was rejected 10 days ago, I decided not to say anything about it because I did not want to contribute to a worsening situation. It was already, to me, a huge disappointment that a body like the UK-China leadership forum—which exists precisely to have the dialogue that two countries with different histories, cultures and systems of government and parliament must have in order to overcome their differences of opinion and views on the world at large—was having to be disrupted on the simple principle that China chooses its delegation and we choose ours.
This debate is essentially about the freedom that this House must have to fulfil our duties and obligations to our constituents. Our constituents are interested in a strong relationship with China. Of course, business and the economy are a vital part of that, but our constituents are deeply interested in other aspects of the relationship, many of which relate to human rights and animal rights. We must raise those issues and they must be debated and discussed. The all-party group cannot and should not avoid them; it must discuss them. We must recognise that there will be differences of opinion, but they should be aired in a sensible, responsible way that recognises the cultural differences. This debate is all about the ability of our House to discuss and debate—and ultimately to enhance, not disrupt—relations between these two great countries.
It is a pleasure to speak after the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham), who made a very moving and sombre speech about his experiences in China and how sad it is that China has chosen to reject his arrival. The Chairman of the Committee, the right hon. Member for Croydon South (Sir Richard Ottaway), gave a very full and effective explanation of what he called this unfortunate and unhappy episode—I am sure we all agree with that.
I am pleased that we have the opportunity in this emergency debate to highlight how unacceptable the actions of the Chinese Government have been in banning the entry to Hong Kong of democratically elected representatives and hampering our ability to scrutinise our own Government’s actions, as is our role as the Foreign Affairs Committee. It is very important to emphasise, as others have, that we are totally separate from Government. I think that is sometimes misunderstood by some foreign Governments, and certainly by the Chinese Government. We do not take orders from our own Government, so we are certainly not going to be deterred from carrying out our duties by any foreign Government, from whatever part of the globe.
I cannot honestly say that I am surprised about what has happened, because I was present when the Foreign Affairs Committee went to China during the last Parliament, as outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes). It was quite an experience. I recollect that we received a friendly welcome and had meetings with many representatives of the Chinese Government. However, as my hon. Friend said, when it became clear that we intended to visit Taiwan, we were told in no uncertain terms that this would lead to “serious consequences”. My recollection of the meeting that he described is that we were more or less thrown out; “asked to leave” would be a more polite way of putting it. As he said, the serious consequences did not arise for us, but it was an illustration of the kind of overreaction we can expect from a Government who do not understand the concept of transparency and democracy, not to mention scrutiny and accountability.
Taking the unprecedented step of refusing entry to a Select Committee takes the whole matter much further. I believe that this amounts to a diplomatic crisis. It is more than regrettable, as the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has publicly stated—it is totally unacceptable. I hope that the FCO will make the strongest representations on the matter and take it further with a view to seeking a change of position on the part of the Chinese Government forthwith. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say about what the Government intend to do.
We as a Committee have been working hard on this inquiry for some time and taken extensive evidence to date. However, there is no real substitute for finding the facts on the ground, as we have often found in some of the most dangerous places in the world, which often lack democracy. Under the chairmanship of the right hon. Member for Croydon South (Sir Richard Ottaway), we have sought to conduct the inquiry in a responsible manner and as inclusively as possible, preferably with the full co-operation of the Hong Kong authorities. Of course, our concern for human rights and democracy is part of that, but our inquiry is wide ranging and we believe it is timely to look at how the Sino-British joint declaration is being implemented 30 years after it was agreed by both parties.
Contrary to the views of the Chinese Government, Lord Patten told us that the terms of the 1984 joint declaration between the UK and China, agreeing the transfer of sovereignty to China and setting out “one country, two systems” principles of governance, explicitly gave the UK a legitimate interest in Hong Kong’s future. When China asserts that what is happening in Hong Kong is nothing to do with us, we should make it absolutely clear, publicly and privately, that that is not the case. We are not interfering in China’s internal affairs.
Notwithstanding all that, we have the right and the remit to scrutinise the work of the FCO throughout the world, which, of course, we do. This snub by the Chinese Government and the confrontational manner with which they have conducted themselves is an insult not only to the Committee, but to the whole House. We cannot accept it, especially from a Government with whom we have friendly and mutually beneficial relations. The FCO has pointed to the visit of the Chinese premier in June as an example of the positive trend in UK-China relations, but it is fundamental to our democratic system that we reserve the right to criticise our friends, and that should not have come as a surprise to the Chinese Government.
Mr Speaker, I hope you will be able to find it in your power to draw to the attention of the Chinese Government the role of Back-Bench MPs and the House’s disapproval of what has happened. If in refusing us entry to Hong Kong it was their intention to shut us up, they have achieved the exact opposite and shown to the whole world what their agenda is for Hong Kong in a way we will not be able to achieve in our report. However, we have postponed, not cancelled, our visit, so I look forward to the Committee engaging with all parties in Hong Kong in due course.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Sandra Osborne) and my parliamentary neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham), who made a typically well-informed and moving speech.
I will start on a slightly sober note with a touch of realism. We in this Parliament are obviously not in a very strong position to influence events in Hong Kong. Nevertheless, it is absolutely right that we should support human rights and democracy for the people of Hong Kong and support the right hon. Member for Croydon South (Sir Richard Ottaway) and his Committee in stating very clearly that the accusation of unjustified meddling in the internal affairs of China is not justified. Indeed, it is not justified either to try to inhibit the work of the all-party group on China, chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester.
My hon. Friend is being generous, both in what he says and in giving way, but I want to make a tiny point. He said that we may not have much influence over Hong Kong, but the whole point of this debate, of course, is that we are not trying to influence Hong Kong. We are trying to discuss the issues, but we are not trying to interfere, meddle, influence or anything else.
I understand my hon. Friend’s point and I will come back to it. There is an argument for us to comment on universal human rights and thereby try to influence their conduct throughout the world. To that extent, I think we are trying to influence events, but my hon. Friend is right to say that the focus of this debate is on, in a sense, the opposite situation, which is the Chinese Government’s unjustified attempt to curtail a parliamentary inquiry. It is true that we are not seeking in this debate to change anything in Hong Kong immediately.
The accusation of unjustified interference is wrong on two counts. First, as many hon. and right hon. Members have pointed out, we are party to an international agreement—the 1984 joint declaration—which refers in article 3(12) to the
“basic policies of the People’s Republic of China regarding Hong Kong”.
Article 3(4) states:
“The chief executive will be appointed by the Central People’s Government on the basis of the results of elections or consultations to be held locally.”
That is not the strongest wording in the world, but it is repeated in the Basic Law that was also implemented by the joint agreement. Article 3(12) goes on to state that those policies would
“remain unchanged for 50 years.”
We are clearly within that time scale, so the British Parliament has a perfectly legitimate right to look at how the Basic Law and joint agreement are being interpreted in practice in Hong Kong, particularly in the light of the Beijing Government’s announcements in August.
The second reason it is wrong to criticise the Foreign Affairs Committee is that we are all party to the United Nations universal declaration of human rights, which affirms that human rights—from Iran to Colombia and from China to Britain itself—are inalienable for all members of the human family. It is legitimate for any member of the United Nations to look at, comment on and take an interest in the conduct of human rights worldwide, and no Parliament or democratic assembly anywhere in the world should feel inhibited from doing so. It is common for this Parliament to comment on human rights in a variety of countries. Indeed, the Government publish an annual human rights report, in which they comment on human rights in many countries around the world.
As Lenin once said, what is to be done? First, we have to be clear that the Foreign Affairs Committee should continue to highlight the issues raised by events in Hong Kong, to investigate them thoroughly and to draw reasonable conclusions without fear of intimidation. We need to be clear that everyone in this Parliament supports its right to do that and encourages it to continue its inquiry.
Secondly, it is important that the British Government continue to raise concerns about China’s interpretation of the Basic Law and the joint declaration, and in doing so draw on the expertise of the Foreign Affairs Committee and its eventual report.
Thirdly, this country needs to adopt a deeper and more sophisticated policy towards China. Parliament and Government have tended to address China as if the only important thing we want it to do is buy and sell more widgets. The view has been that trade and capital investment are important, but almost to the exclusion of other considerations, and many hon. Members have reinforced the point that that is not the case. Trade and capital investment are important, but policies have to be wider and more sophisticated than that.
Part of that policy has to be an understanding from our side of China, its sensitivities and history, and the progress it has made. That means acknowledging that our shared history with China has not been particularly glorious on the British side on many occasions. We have to acknowledge that our role as a colonial power in events such as the opium wars was, in retrospect, disgraceful. We have undervalued contributions such as that of the 96,000 members of the Chinese Labour Corps during the first world war. They behaved with complete heroism and lost thousands of their number, but they were treated pretty disgracefully at the time and, equally disgracefully, their heroism and contribution to this country during the first world war have been neglected. A broad-based campaign is seeking to rectify that omission and obtain a memorial in this country to the Chinese Labour Corps. I hope that will attract Government support.
We have to acknowledge our own failure to deliver democracy in Hong Kong. We were the administrators and rulers of Hong Kong for many years, and we never delivered a Chief Executive who was elected by the people of Hong Kong without interference. We appointed colonial governors, and I am sure that some of them were very skilled, talented and caring, but in a sense it was a benign colonial dictatorship. It is difficult for us now to turn around and criticise China on how it behaves towards Hong Kong, and we have to be sensitive to that.
I completely accept that point, which the hon. Lady is right to emphasise. I am talking in a wider context about how we need a sophisticated approach to China. We should not constantly hector the Chinese for any failings we detect on their side, without acknowledging that over the long period of history—their approach is very much to look at the long picture—there have also been historical failings, injustices and omissions on our side. We have to be honest and acknowledge that.
A sophisticated policy towards China must include firmness in the face both of contraventions of human rights on Chinese territory, and of the militarisation and the sometimes unjustified indulgence of dictatorships in different parts of the world. That firmness should include the way in which the Chinese allow the perpetuation of wildlife crime in pursuit of markets for things such as ivory, which the International Fund for Animal Welfare has highlighted in the House of Commons only this week. In our pursuit of trade and investment, there is a risk that not only the UK but democracies all over the world will find ourselves divided and perhaps to some extent ruled by a Chinese foreign policy that seeks to intimidate smaller democracies and to influence our discussion of their affairs.
It just so happens that I had an opportunity to speak to a chief superintendent from the Hong Kong police this week. In our conversation, he confirmed that 6,500 demonstrations take place in Hong Kong. We are very fond of demonstrations in Northern Ireland, as the hon. Gentleman probably knows. Does he share my concern to ensure that demonstrations commemorating workers’ rights and other events should continue in the way they have until now, with no bother, actions or friction?
The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point, which underlines the fact that it is sometimes difficult to deal with the idea of free protest. It is fine in principle, but in practice even in our own country—even in Northern Ireland—it is sometimes a difficult challenge for policy makers and the authorities. The right of free protest is enormously important. It has been a hard-fought and hard-won right in countries all over the world, and we should certainly try to defend it in Hong Kong.
I was making the point that the free countries of the world risk being subject to a kind of divide-and-rule approach by the Chinese, with the Chinese Government using the rather intimidating tactics of trying to suppress inquiries and to inhibit activities, even those of all-party groups that are nothing to do with the British Government and are not part of this country’s Executive.
Part of the relationship building has to be to try to communicate to the Chinese Government what we understand not just by the rule of law, as has been mentioned, but by the separation of powers. In democracies such as ours, the Executive, the judiciary and the legislature are completely separate, and they have their own rights against each other, let alone in relation to other countries.
The democracies of the world must start to develop a more sophisticated approach to China, so that we can present a united front and say, “It is quite clear that you are the emerging new superpower of the world, an enormous economic force and probably a growing political force, and that you have an enormously rich and important history and a fabulous civilisation, but that does not give you the right to take smaller countries, democracies and economies and inhibit them from carrying out their proper business.”
Our links with China should be emphasised. Historically, the first ambassador to Beijing hailed from Ballymoney—his name was Macartney—but today that link between my constituency and Hong Kong continues through the Kowloon Motor Bus Company, with Wrightbus manufacturing buses not only for London but for Hong Kong. Such economic links should be used as influence, saying, “Look, we have an economic driver that brings us closer together. Let us not be separated by this division that is currently preventing Members of Parliament from entering Hong Kong.”
I am happy that the hon. Gentleman has intervened on that point, which emphasises our strong cultural and human links with Hong Kong and with China as a whole.
Countries such as the UK must support democracies in the region, such as Taiwan. The example of Hong Kong is very important to Taiwan’s security and confidence. The language that Beijing is using about Taiwan has changed subtly in the past year or so. It is talking about the problem of Taiwan not being handed down from generation to generation, as though there ought to be some conclusion to the perpetual debate about Taiwan’s possible independence, its reintegration into the Republic of China or its continuation with its current status. That is potentially threatening to the democracy of Taiwan, as we must acknowledge. We must understand that how the one country, two systems approach has worked in Hong Kong is vital, and that that example is being watched very carefully in Taiwan.
The underlying message of this debate must be that we have to understand and respect China, but that we equally want China to understand and respect how our democracy works, including how we separate powers between parliamentary inquiries and the Executive, and how a Select Committee’s right to look into a legitimate area of concern—in terms not only of British foreign policy but of universal human rights—is something that we can and must defend.
May I first thank you, Mr Speaker, for allowing this important—not just important but, quite frankly, unprecedented—debate to take place? The question that has been asked is: why should Parliament allow another nation to determine the way in which we work on behalf of the people we represent? The answer is that we should not just allow that to happen without a proper debate and without making sure that our views are known.
Our Committee agreed on 22 July to hold an inquiry into the United Kingdom’s relations with Hong Kong 30 years after the signing of the joint declaration in 1984. The inquiry’s terms of reference were wide-ranging, with four pillars. The Committee planned to assess, first, the FCO’s monitoring of the joint declaration via its six-monthly reports; secondly, the Government’s relationship with the Government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region; thirdly, business, trade and cultural links; and fourthly, the work of the British Council.
The Committee received letters from the Chinese ambassador, the Chinese Parliament and Hong Kong Government representation in London urging us to cancel our inquiry. They argued that the inquiry would constitute interference in their internal affairs and provide a platform for “unlawful propositions” on democratic reform. Indeed, the ambassador warned that our inquiry would
“ultimately harm the interests of Britain.”
As our Chairman, the right hon. Member for Croydon South (Sir Richard Ottaway), so ably said, he informed the Chinese that we understood the sensitivities involved in our inquiry, but intended to continue with it and with the visit that we planned to make to Hong Kong at the end of the month.
The visit would have been an important opportunity to meet a range of people in Hong Kong—not just politicians or those at the top of the tree, but business people, ordinary working people and, yes, probably student protesters. The students have a point of view, and they deserve to have it heard. We would also have spoken to the people in our hotel and the people we met in the street. We were not hoping to have some high-level, closed-door discussion.
The Chinese Government have all but accused us of providing support and a platform for the protesters. That is not what the inquiry is about and it is not what our visit would have been about. Unfortunately, that is where it is beginning to head. We had never mentioned Occupy Central. We announced that we were holding the inquiry in July. The announcement about the elections in Hong Kong was not made until 31 August. That is when the demonstrations started.
At every point along the way, we have made it clear that we want the inquiry to be balanced, objective and, most importantly, evidence-based. We want to hear a range of views and perspectives from all sides, including the Chinese and Hong Kong authorities—I repeat, including the Chinese and Hong Kong authorities. We have made it clear that we have no intention of meddling in China’s internal affairs. That is not why we were elected as parliamentarians. However, we are focused on doing our job, which is to scrutinise our Foreign and Commonwealth Office—to scrutinise the work of the men and women of the FCO and the job that they do for the United Kingdom.
The hon. Gentleman is referring to the reasons why the Chinese authorities were not happy about the visit of the Select Committee. They said that it
“may send the wrong signals to the figures of ‘Occupy Central’”.
Can he allay the fears of the Hong Kong authorities by saying that in visiting and talking to people who are demonstrating, we are not necessarily indicating that we support them?
That is exactly what we had hoped to do. We had hoped to speak to as many people as possible and hear as many views as possible. We wanted to ensure that no matter what our inquiry said at the end, it was evidence-based. We were not going there to be a cheerleader for Occupy Central, but we were not going there to ignore it either.
Unfortunately, on Friday last week, we were told directly that the Chinese Government would not allow us to enter the territory of Hong Kong. As I said earlier, that is unprecedented. During this Parliament alone, the Foreign Affairs Committee has visited countries such as Saudi Arabia and Russia, which have had internal problems and which would not have been too happy about the Committee doing an inquiry. Regardless of their opinions, we were allowed to visit, to meet people and to publish our reports. In previous Parliaments, as we have heard, the Committee has visited China, including Tibet. We have never been denied entry to any country. In fact, no Committee of this House has ever been denied entry to any country.
The hon. Gentleman says that the Select Committee has been denied entry into Hong Kong. Has the Committee considered going ahead with its proposed visit and being turned away by the Chinese authorities to show the significance of what has taken place? That would clearly show the international community the contempt with which the Foreign Affairs Committee is being treated. What hope can the demonstrators have of how they will be treated by those same authorities?
Absolutely. Think of the uproar there would be if we suddenly said to Chinese parliamentarians, “You are not coming to this country. You are not coming into this building.” It does not take a huge brain to work out the uproar that would result from such a ban if it were the other way around.
If they are coming this week, I am sure that I speak on behalf of the whole House in saying that they are most welcome to attend Parliament and to have a full and frank discussion on any subject they wish to raise with any politician.
I was talking about areas that we have visited where one would imagine that there could have been problems. Several Members recently returned from the Kurdistan region of Iraq, which we visited in connection with our current inquiry into Kurdistan. Like Hong Kong, it is a sub-region within a sovereign country. Kurdistan is constitutionally very sensitive for the Iraqi Government, but the Iraqis were welcoming and helpful. They understood that we were travelling there not to build on discord or to start a row, but to do a job on behalf of the people we represent and ultimately, we hope, to make more people understand the problems that there are in Iraq and Kurdistan.
The Prime Minister’s spokesperson said yesterday that the Prime Minister believed that the decision was mistaken. He said that it served only to
“amplify concerns about the situation in Hong Kong, rather than diminish them.”
As the Chairman of the Select Committee said so eloquently, China’s decision to deny us entry sends a worrying signal about its direction of travel regarding Hong Kong. It is also a worrying signal for the people of Taiwan and the Government of Taipei. We must be under no illusion: the people of Taiwan and the Government of Taipei will be watching this situation and asking, “Is this where we could go? Is this what could happen to us?” Who could blame them if they did?
I will be grateful if the Minister answers five questions when he sums up. First, how do the Government intend to respond to this unprecedented ban? Secondly, what meetings and conversations have Ministers sought or held with their counterparts in China in the past five days to discuss this issue? Thirdly, has the FCO called in the ambassador? Fourthly, has the United Kingdom’s embassy in China protested formally to the Chinese Government about the ban, and if not, why not? Lastly, what does the Minister think the ban says about China’s approach to the United Kingdom and the work of democratically elected parliamentarians?
The decision to ban our Select Committee is wrong and totally undemocratic. It must not go unchallenged.
I commend my right hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Sir Richard Ottaway) for his robust defence of the right of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Parliament of the United Kingdom to carry out an inquiry into a subject that it has every reason and right to examine.
The shameful action by the Government of the People’s Republic of China to deny the Select Committee the ability to visit Hong Kong in order to conduct our legitimate business is a demonstration to the entire world that China has little respect for freedom, free speech and democracy. It is a sad state of affairs, which will have grave implications for British-Chinese relations for a long time to come.
I first visited Hong Kong in 1996, when Lord Patten of Barnes was the Governor of the Crown colony. It was indeed then one of Her Majesty’s Crown colonies. The people of Hong Kong did not choose to have that status taken from them, of course; that was imposed upon them without their consent. Two years earlier, in 1982, the people of the Falkland Islands had their right to freedom and self-determination upheld by Her Majesty’s Government. Although the circumstances were very different, it cannot be denied that the people of Hong Kong were not accorded the same rights.
Today, 30 years later, the streets of Hong Kong are filled with young people who, understandably, demand freedom and democracy—basic rights that the People’s Republic of China continues to deny them. The Sino-British joint declaration made clear the expectations between the United Kingdom and the People’s Republic of China regarding the sovereignty of Hong Kong and how it should be governed. I am deeply saddened that over recent weeks and months, the assurances given to Her Majesty’s Government at that time have been forced into question by Beijing’s actions.
Over the past three decades, Britain and China have enjoyed a growing partnership, in which trade and bilateral relations have been strengthened. China’s behaviour this week is wholly inconsistent with the positive diplomatic trend that our two nations have observed since 1984. It is nothing short of an outrage that the Foreign Affairs Committee of this democratic House of Commons, the mother of Parliaments, should be treated in such a way by an undemocratic Chinese Government. I am gravely concerned about the aggressive and confrontational position that China has taken on a matter of such importance. In the 21st century, there is no place for such an attitude. It is an unjustified attack not only on elected British parliamentarians but on transparency and on democracy itself.
What exactly is China trying to hide from us? It is the right of the Committee to carry out an inquiry into relations with Hong Kong and to formulate its report. It is beyond question that it is within the gift of the British Foreign Affairs Committee to examine not only British-Hong Kong relations but adherence to the joint declaration. As a joint signatory, we must of course have the right to look at whether that agreement is being upheld, both in the letter and the spirit of the accord.
Denying the Committee the right to visit Hong Kong does not close the door on the issue at all, as China may have hoped. In fact, it has brought it to the world’s attention. The Foreign Affairs Committee will not back down. We still intend to visit Hong Kong, and our inquiry continues. By its actions, what China has actually achieved is to raise many serious questions in the eyes of this House and the British people—questions that must now be answered. The British Government must show no hesitation in demanding an immediate response. Will the Minister insist that the Chinese ambassador be called to the Foreign Office to explain his Government’s actions. I certainly hope that he will.
As many of my colleagues have stated, Britain has no interest in interfering in the internal politics of China. However, Hong Kong is different. Britain has a duty to the people of Hong Kong, and we must not abandon them. The United Kingdom owes them an allegiance—many of them served bravely in Her Majesty’s armed forces, and it is imperative that we do not back down from such an important commitment to them.
Today, there are still many former Hong Kong servicemen living in the territory, and they are seeking British citizenship. They are people who fought, and were prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice, for this country, and we should care deeply for their well-being and status. They are servicemen from the Hong Kong Military Service Corps and the Hong Kong Royal Naval Service who did not receive a UK passport following the handover of Hong Kong to China. Those men and their ancestors served British commitments in south-east Asia greatly. They stood shoulder to shoulder with Britain through two world wars, and in France, Burma, Korea, Malaya, Singapore, Hong Kong and China, and they served the United Kingdom—King, Queen, empire, Commonwealth and country—for all those years. The British Government must surely now recognise that the decision not to give all those servicemen a right to British nationality was unjust and an error of judgment that should be rectified.
I had hoped that the Foreign Affairs Committee would be able to meet some of those loyal ex-servicemen while we were in Hong Kong, but alas, that will now not happen. The actions of the Chinese Government have highlighted why Her Majesty’s Government should now be prepared to offer all those Hong Kong ex-servicemen the right to a British passport. I ask the Minister directly whether Her Majesty’s Government will urgently review their policy on that issue.
Moreover, I believe that we are at a crossroads. We are in a position where serious decisions must be taken. Britain has to decide whether we tolerate and simply accept China’s behaviour or whether we demonstrate that we are prepared fundamentally to reconsider what until now has been a positive bilateral relationship that we share with China.
The Home Secretary recently announced that 25,000 visas would be given free to Chinese nationals. Of course we must strengthen and embolden links between Britain and China, but it is now clear that China has the ability to behave in an irrational and confrontational manner, so such special arrangements must surely be brought into question.
Alternatively, China could, even at this stage, draw back from the brink, accept that Hong Kong is different and allow the people of that territory the right to make their own choices about their own future. It must be made clear that China cannot take British co-operation for granted. Britain is a strong nation—we have the sixth-largest economy in the world, and our trade with China is largely one-sided. So we must not be afraid to stand firm for our national interests and the interests of people who were part of our British family, whom we have pledged to support, simply in fear of potential trade repercussions.
Britain cannot and will not be bullied. If China is not prepared to honour the spirit of the 1984 joint declaration, Britain will have no choice but to conclude that the hand of friendship and trust that Margaret Thatcher held out to China 30 years ago has been betrayed.
It is a pleasure to follow the passionate and robust speech of the hon. Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell), which showed the concern among Members of all parties, and all Select Committees, about how the Foreign Affairs Committee has been treated. All but two members of that Committee have spoken in today’s debate, and I am sure that others will want to catch your eye, Mr Speaker. I wanted to speak after they had had the opportunity to express their views, and I am grateful to you for calling me.
I am also grateful to you, Mr Speaker, for granting this Standing Order No. 24 debate to allow the House to discuss this matter. I have been in the House for 27 years, and I know that the standard response of most occupants of the Chair when right hon. and hon. Members ask for such a debate is to say no. You said yes, which must have come as a surprise to the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee. It is the only time this year that an emergency debate has been granted, and although I had originally planned to come to the Chamber and speak on the Second Reading of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill, I can well understand your desire to allow the House to debate the Hong Kong issue, which is urgent and important and should take precedence over all other activities and debates in the House. Thank you for allowing the debate.
I pay tribute to the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, who is normally a quiet, modest individual. It is rare for him to use the House as a platform to prosecute a case on behalf of his Committee. The last time he did so, as I recall, was over the attempts to close the World Service. He led the debate on that and there was a successful outcome. I hope he will have similar success, having asked for the present debate. We wait with bated breath to see what the Chinese Government decide to do.
This is an important debate not just for the Foreign Affairs Committee, but for every Committee of the House. I hope the Foreign Office will take note of it. I do not think the House understands the huge amount of time and effort invested by the Clerks and the Chairs of Committees when we decide to travel abroad. I chair the Home Affairs Committee. By its nature it does not do much travelling, although we will be going as far as Calais on Friday; I hope very much that we will be allowed to enter Calais when we get there.