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Arrests of Chinese Protesters

Volume 601: debated on Monday 26 October 2015

(Urgent Question): To ask the Minister to make a statement on the arrests of three peaceful protesters during President Xi Jinping’s visit to London last week.

Last week, there was a very successful visit of the President of the People’s Republic of China to the United Kingdom, hosted by Her Majesty. As is the case for all state visits, careful plans were put in place to ensure the safety and security of the visit. The Home Secretary was personally briefed on the policing plans by the Metropolitan Police Commissioner. The right of peaceful protest is guaranteed under UK law, with respect to a protester’s rights to express their views peacefully, and the policing plans therefore sought to facilitate peaceful protest. However, as part of last week’s policing operation three individuals were arrested. I understand, and it is public knowledge, that the Metropolitan police arrested individuals for breach of the peace and, subsequently, on suspicion of conspiracy to commit threatening behaviour. I understand that all three individuals have now been bailed to return to a London police station at a later date, while further investigations continue.

The operational policing of protests and the use of police powers are entirely matters for chief constables in the United Kingdom, and therefore it would be inappropriate for me to comment on specific individual cases. The right to protest peacefully is guaranteed under UK law, but protesters’ rights need to be balanced with the right of others to go about their business without fear of intimidation or serious disruption to the community. Rights to peaceful protest do not extend to violent, threatening behaviour, and the police have the powers to deal with such acts. The Metropolitan police issued a statement on this issue last week; they reject any suggestion that they acted inappropriately. They made it clear that throughout the visit they had sought to facilitate peaceful protest and ensured that all those who wished to do so were allowed to express their views. That is the fundamental British value of freedom of expression and association, which I am sure this House would continue to support.

I also remind this House that the system of policing complaints in this country is an independent one; under the procedures laid down in part 2 of the Police Reform Act 2002 to ensure that officers and staff can be answerable to the public, that process is there. However, a police investigation is going on and, frankly, politicians should stay out of that.

I thank the Minister for his statement. Right hon. and hon. Members from across the House will, I am sure, however, share my deep concern at the way in which Dr Shao Jiang, a former Chinese dissident and veteran of the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, was arrested last Wednesday on the Mall and the fact that a short time later two Tibetan students, one of whom, Sonam Choden, was a British Citizen, were also arrested for attempting to display a Tibetan flag while the Chinese President’s cavalcade was passing the Mansion House. Dr Shao, who is now a British citizen, stepped out into the road while he was trying to display two A4-sized placards protesting against China’s human rights abuses when he was tackled to the ground by five Metropolitan police officers. This was shown on “Channel 4 News”. While the three protesters were being held in the cells in Bishopsgate, their homes were searched and their computers and iPads seized. Their mobile phones were also kept by the police. Does the Minister have any idea when their possessions will be returned? Will the confidentiality of the data on their computers be respected, as all three depend on their computers for work? Will he comment on why their homes were searched at night while they were in custody?

The three people arrested were told that any charges they may face will be decided on in early December. Does the Minister believe that that delay is justified? Is it acceptable to detain lawful protesters overnight in the cells? Finally, will the Minister comment on whether these arrests are related to last week’s visit of the Chinese President, Xi Jinping?

There is an ongoing police investigation. Three people are on bail while it continues, and I will not jeopardise the case or any investigations by commenting further.

Order. What the Minister chooses to say or not to say is a matter for him. Equally, other Members can raise these matters, with the agreement of the Chair and if appropriate, whenever and how often they wish. These matters will run and run, so colleagues must not worry about that.

This seems to be extraordinary. If only three people were arrested when a lot of people were wanting to protest, the police must have allowed protest. If there were a complaint about 300 people being arrested, I would understand the problem, but not when there were only three.

As I said in my statement, a lot of preparation work was done to ensure that people had the right to protest peaceably, as the law stipulates. But if the police made a decision to arrest—and they have made that decision—that is an operational matter and not a matter for the Police Minister to comment on.

China is a proud country of 1.4 billion people. It is the second largest economy in the world—soon to be the largest. The Anglo-Chinese relationship is very important. We have, for example, Chinese collaboration, Chinese investment and Chinese students. If it is right that we seek to strengthen that relationship, then that relationship should be underpinned by an integrity of approach. There are certain values of universal human rights that transcend any commercial or other relationship. That is why this country rightly believes that, domestically, our Bill of Rights is so important, rooted as it is in our great democratic traditions back to the Magna Carta. That is why, internationally, in a free society we both engage and speak out, as indeed you did last week, Mr Speaker—would that the Prime Minister had been quite as vigorous as you—as did the Leader of the Opposition and the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg in her interrogation of the Chinese President.

In a free society, we defend the right to dissent and to protest. It would not be appropriate to comment in any detail on the circumstances of this case, because it is under investigation, but these are very serious allegations that should be properly investigated, including the raid on the homes of those engaged in dissent. My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton) is absolutely right to raise these concerns on the Floor of the House of Commons.

I am not certain whether there was a question there. If I have missed it, I will write to the hon. Gentleman. I think that I agree with everything that he said early on in his contribution about our relationship with China. Indeed, some very, very important business was done last week. The principle of protest is absolutely right. Three people are on bail while an investigation takes place. It would be wrong of me to comment, in any shape or form, on the legitimacy of the case at the moment.

I am glad that the Minister shares our pride in our tradition of peaceful protest. Does he share my shame at the purported harassment of a Tiananmen Square survivor, Dr Shao Jiang? What would the Minister do if peaceful protesters such as myself or other Members in this Chamber got a knock on the door in the middle of the night from the police? Would he help us?

I am not going to prejudge an investigation by the Metropolitan police, for whom I have great respect—as I do for the other 42 police authorities for which I am responsible. Let us wait and see, rather than prejudge the case. If we let the investigation continue, we will all know the facts.

The Chinese ambassador to the UK recently stated that nobody would be put behind bars simply for criticising the Chinese Government. I appreciate that the Government are keen to banish human rights protections in this country, but is the Minister really happy not even to be able to make the same civil liberties commitment as China claims to make? I appreciate that the Minister cannot comment on an individual case, so I will not ask him to do so. Will he tell me, however, whether he can think of any reason, hypothetically speaking, why somebody waving their country’s flag should lead to them being arrested, put behind bars and having their mobile phone and PC taken from them?

With all due respect, this might become slightly repetitive. The police made a decision operationally on the ground, which we should respect. We should wait for the investigation to finish and then we can all make our commentary on the facts. If people want to make a complaint, there is a certain way that that can be done and it certainly does not involve this House. It happens after the case is finished.

Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that these potential breaches of the peace will be subject to the same investigation and same due process as they would whether they had involved the Chinese President’s visit or anybody else’s visit? Will he also say whether the powers of the Independent Police Complaints Commission will be invoked wherever necessary?

If an individual wants to make a complaint pertaining to this case to the police complaints authority, that is for them to do. It does not matter whether this was a Chinese demonstration or any other sort of demonstration; if the police decided at the scene that an arrest was needed, I will back them for that. I think that the whole House would support that decision, too.

Does the Minister have any idea of the anger felt in this place and outside it over what occurred? It is unfortunate that he appears to be an apologist for that, as it seems to many people that what took place, as far as the police were concerned, could be described as British police action with Chinese characteristics.

I will treat some of those comments with contempt. Given the amount of experience the hon. Gentleman has in this House, I would have thought that he would have supported the police in this difficult situation. I was not there and I saw the TV coverage, too. The officers who were there made the decision to arrest. Ongoing litigations continue, so let us wait and see what happens.

Perhaps I can elicit more of a comment from the Minister if I talk in generalities. I am pleased that he mentioned freedom of expression as a centrepiece of our democracy. When I asked the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr Swire), the same question on Thursday, I appeared to receive an answer to a completely different question, so will the Minister tell me how freedom of expression was equitably allowed by police who corralled peaceful Tibetan demonstrators at the back of the Mall with a line of police officers in front of them while pro-Chinese demonstrators, wearing T-shirts issued by the Chinese embassy, were allowed prime position at the front?

How to police the protest and surrounding situation is an operational police decision. Politicians stay out of such decisions because we do not want to live in that sort of state.

One of the three individuals arrested, Sonam Choden, is a constituent of mine. She is a British citizen and was arrested on Wednesday for waving a Tibetan flag. I understand the Minister’s point about not getting involved in operational matters, but if it proves to be the case that there were no grounds for arrest, will he support me in looking into how the protests are policed and operationally overseen, as it seems that these three individuals were arrested without sufficient grounds?

I can understand the concern. I am a constituency MP and if I were on the Back Benches I would have the concerns that the hon. Gentleman expressed. However, I would also wait for the police investigation. There are a lot of assumptions about who, why and where. Let us wait. I have faith in the police in this country, as we all have. Let us wait and see as the investigation progresses.

Dr Shao Jiang is a constituent of mine. The world saw him arrested for waving two A4 placards calling for human rights in China. His home was searched when no one was there, and his and his wife Johanna’s computers have been confiscated. I spoke to Johanna this afternoon. It was a very traumatic experience for both of them, but particularly for Dr Jiang, given that he has already been held for 18 months in a Chinese jail for organising the Tiananmen Square demonstrations. Will the Minister advise me how I as Dr Jiang’s Member of Parliament can hold to account those who made the disgraceful decisions to arrest someone who was, on the face of it, behaving in a way that was entirely peaceful, who should not have been arrested and whose house should not have been searched?

Although I fully understand the hon. Lady’s feeling that she needs to support her constituents—I fully understand that—we must wait, because that is the sort of democracy we are in. It is an ongoing investigation. The gentleman she refers to is on bail. Let us wait and see what happens. After it is all over I will be more than happy to meet colleagues to discuss this, but we must wait.

I spent most of last week in Geneva chairing a committee of the Inter-Parliamentary Union on the human rights of parliamentarians. Many of the breaches of their rights involved freedom of expression and so on—many of the things that appear to have taken place here last week—and I feel rather embarrassed to be lecturing politicians from other countries about freedom of expression when what was, as I understand it, a peaceful demonstration was treated in such a way.

I met the right hon. Lady just before she went to Geneva so I know exactly why she was there, and I hope it was a very successful visit. Thousands of people did demonstrate peacefully. Three people were arrested. Let us wait and see what the investigation shows. [Interruption.] I trust the police to do an investigation. The hon. Member for Walsall North (Mr Winnick) does not, and he should be ashamed. [Interruption.]

Order. Not an appropriate observation from a sedentary position. The loyalist chirruping of the hon. Member for Northampton North (Michael Ellis)—[Interruption.] Order. No comment is required from the hon. Gentleman. His loyalist chirruping is unsurpassed by any Member of the House of Commons. I recognise that in the exercise of his important note-passing responsibilities as Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Home Secretary, he feels a duty to discharge his obligations with great commitment. [Interruption.] No, I am not interested in the hon. Gentleman’s views. His responsibility is to sit there and nod and shake his head in the appropriate places as a PPS, and to fetch and carry notes when required. It is always a joy to hear the hon. Gentleman on his feet, but I do not need to hear him when he is in his seat.

This may have been a lawful arrest; I do not want to prejudge the police, not knowing the evidence, but what we do know is that up and down the country, not only in the Metropolitan police area, but in other police forces in England and Wales, there are unlawful arrests every single day of the week, and for that the taxpayer has to pay out millions of pounds of compensation every year. What we do not know, because the Home Office has yet to publish those figures and is unprepared to do so thus far, is how much that costs taxpayers. Does the Minister agree that if those figures were published, it might incentivise the police to be a little bit more careful about what is lawful and unlawful?

I think my hon. Friend is trying to drag me into a discussion on whether the arrests were lawful or unlawful. I am not willing to get into that discussion while there is an ongoing police investigation.

The Minister is absolutely right: operational matters are and must be for the police, but when the execution of these operational matters is done in such a way as to risk a chilling effect on freedom of speech, that becomes a matter for this House. I do not see how it would prejudice any future prosecution for the Minister to interrogate those responsible for the policy behind these actions now. Indeed, I suggest to him that he has a duty to do so. Will he do that?

As I said in my opening remarks, before the state visit the Home Secretary was briefed by the Metropolitan Police Commissioner on how legitimate protests would be policed, and on the possibility of protests that were not legitimate or legal. Ultimately, what took place was still the result of operational decisions taken on the day, and of course those decisions will be reviewed. Today’s urgent question was about three people being arrested, and I cannot comment on that because doing so could jeopardise ongoing investigations. Of course, we must always learn from how policing is done, and I am sure that is exactly what we will do.

When the Minister looks back on these police actions and forms a judgment on whether they were appropriate, will he also look at the actions of Birmingham City Councillor Alex Yip—a Conservative councillor—who, as The Independent reports today, has been accused of helping pro-Chinese demonstrations? As far as I can see, that was deemed to be totally appropriate.

I must admit that I am not aware of the actions that the right hon. Lady refers to, but I will look into the matter and perhaps drop her a line.

Does the Minister not appreciate the propaganda value of what has happened over the past few weeks? First it was all about China, human rights and Tiananmen Square—indeed, you, Mr Speaker, almost referred to that in your remarks in the Royal Gallery. Today, however, the Chinese can say, “Well, things are no different in Britain.”

I find that completely baffling. We went out of our way, during a state visit by a very senior member of a foreign Government, to ensure that people had an opportunity to protest, and at huge cost to the Metropolitan police. When people have been arrested and are on bail while investigations take place, it would not be right for a Policing Minister to judge how other countries will look on those arrests until those investigations have been concluded.

As someone who has worked very hard to build bridges between this country, this Parliament and China, and who thinks that the recent visit was, by and large, a great success—the balance was right, because they heard some things they did not want to hear, especially from you, Mr Speaker, but it was also a very positive visit—I have to say to the Minister, whom I have known a long time, that we would be much happier if he had started his remarks with the same tone that he has since used. Our right as Members of Parliament is to say that we are really concerned, so my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton) was right to ask this urgent question. At first the Minister sounded as if he was full of testosterone and ready to defend his patch, but he has ended up being much more conciliatory. He should have started that way, because we all quite like him when he is in that mode.

Mystic guidance has been provided from Huddersfield, and the Minister must make his own assessment of it, as will all colleagues.

To be fair, this is a massively serious issue, particularly for the three people who were arrested, but it is also a very important issue for the police, and perhaps for the Crown Prosecution Service, but we all need to wait, and perhaps we will all learn a little from that.

This is a serious matter, but is the Minister aware that a few days before the state visit by the President of China there was a visit to this country by the Chief Executive of Hong Kong, and outside the Dorchester hotel the umbrella movement were playing music and shouting into megaphones? Can he tell us whether any of those democracy protesters from Hong Kong were arrested, or is it a case of one country, two systems?

The hon. Gentleman’s question is better than the last one, but I do not think the soundbite quite worked. I do not know because I was not aware of that, so let me find out. If anyone was arrested, I will obviously let the hon. Gentleman and the House know.

During the visit of President Xi I met a Chinese dissident, Chen Guangcheng—a human rights lawyer who was granted asylum by the Americans. He talked about the pressures that human rights activists are facing in China with the persecution of journalists and of Christians. I appreciate that the Minister is not able to talk about police operations, but it is important that we recognise the sensitivity in countries like China at seeing how democracy operates in Britain and that freedom of speech is respected, as is the freedom to demonstrate. I hope he will make sure that the Metropolitan police are made aware of that.

I am sure that the Metropolitan police are listening to this discussion, but I will also make sure that I mention that in the discussions I have with them. The fact that peaceful demonstrations by thousands of people took place in this country is an example to the world that we can have demonstrations like that. I am not going to go into the issue of what happened with the arrests, but we are a democracy where peace-loving people can demonstrate, and thank goodness they can.

Does the Minister know whether formal complaints have been made to the Metropolitan police? If they have, does he think it is appropriate that rather than being dealt with through an internal investigative measure they should be referred automatically to the Independent Police Complaints Commission because of their sensitivity?

I am not aware of whether a formal complaint has been made. It is the normal procedure for the matter to go to the Metropolitan police and then the Met themselves can either refer it or it can be referred later on once it has gone through the due process of the complaints procedure. I will find out whether the Metropolitan police have done this and arrange for the commissioner to write to the hon. Lady.

The Minister may be embarrassed on behalf of the Government’s distinguished foreign guest, but does he understand that many in this House are embarrassed when Mrs Zhang, one of the arrested people, says “It feels like when I was in China”? The police pick up signals from Government, and this Government are in the process of repealing the Human Rights Act 1998 and our obligations under the European convention on human rights, including the article 11 rights to protest and freedom of association. When the operational decisions are over, will he properly investigate these circumstances to ensure that our feelings on these matters are not unsubstantiated?

Of course, once the investigation is over and decisions are made we will all look very carefully at what went on. It is, however, a stretch of the imagination to insinuate that the police would police a protest because of a feeling they get from a Government’s possible future legislation.

I am most grateful to the Minister and to participating colleagues. We come now to the urgent question from Chi Onwurah.