I remind Members that Erskine May states:
“Reflections on the judge’s character or motives cannot be made except on a—
I hope Members will bear that in mind when making their contributions. I call Sir Iain Duncan Smith to move the motion.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the role of British and overseas judges in Hong Kong.
It is a pleasure and a privilege to serve under your stewardship, Ms Rees. Today’s debate was meant to be a demand from across parties that the Government should intervene and that British judges now serving in Hong Hong’s courts should withdraw. We have known for some time that the very presence of those judges has lent legitimacy to a brutal, totalitarian regime that has been prosecuting in Hong Kong against the Sino-British agreement terms and has been prosecuting people in Hong Kong whose only crime has been to cry out for freedom—the kind of freedom that we in this Chamber and in this country have taken for granted for years, and that we see the people in Ukraine fighting for. Meanwhile, in Hong Kong, British judges and lawyers have been serving in and around those courts and aiding them—not that they were setting out to do so, but their very presence has lent legitimacy.
However, just before I came in for this debate, I discovered that the Government have now agreed with us and wish the British judges to withdraw. Although that is not in the Government’s power, we have heard some interesting statements subsequently from the President of the Supreme Court. Will the Minister take this opportunity to intervene and make it clear what exactly the Government have said?
I thank my right hon. Friend for calling us all together on this very important issue and for inviting me to update colleagues by way of an intervention on the decision that has been made. It was laid in a written ministerial statement last night and published this morning. The statement is as follows:
“British judges have played an important role in supporting the judiciary in Hong Kong for many years. Since 1997 judges from other common law jurisdictions, including the UK, have sat on the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal as part of the continuing commitment to safeguarding the rule of law.
However, since Beijing’s imposition of the National Security Law in 2020, our assessment of the legal environment in Hong Kong has been increasingly finely balanced. China has continued to use the National Security Law and its related institutions to undermine the fundamental rights and freedoms promised in the Joint Declaration. As National Security Law cases proceed through the Courts, we are seeing the implications of this sweeping legislation, including the chilling effect on freedom of expression, the stifling of opposition voices, and the criminalising of dissent.
Given this concerning downward trajectory, the Foreign Secretary has agreed with the Deputy Prime Minister and Lord Chancellor and the President of the UK Supreme Court Lord Reed, that the political and legal situation in Hong Kong has reached the point at which it is no longer tenable for serving UK judges to participate on the Court of Final Appeal. As such Lord Reed and Lord Hodge submitted their resignations to the Hong Kong authorities today. We are grateful for their service, and that of their predecessors.
The UK remains committed to stand up for the people of Hong Kong, to call out the violation of their rights and freedoms, and to hold China to their international obligations.”
I am grateful to the Minister for intervening on my opening remarks to make it clear what the Government have said, and I welcome that. We set up an organisation, the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China, a few years ago. It takes parliamentarians around the world from the left and right. There are 22 or 23 countries involved, from Japan to America, and we have all—as one voice throughout, and from all sides and from different parties—cried out for this for some time, so I unreservedly welcome today’s statement. I understand that my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon (Sir Robert Buckland), who was himself Lord Chancellor, wants to intervene.
I am grateful for the work that my right hon. Friend has done. When I was Lord Chancellor, I worked with the then Foreign Secretary, who is now my successor, to agree a set of objective parameters that would be used in order to assess the situation in Hong Kong. That was done because we, unlike China, respect the independence of our judiciary. We respect judges’ right to sit in courts where they are not providing a veneer of respectability, but importantly, at the end of it all, the politics of the situation demanded that sort of objective test. It is a sad moment, but it is one that I am glad the Government have not flinched from, which is why I wholeheartedly support the decision made today. It is not just an important decision in legal terms; it is the United Kingdom sending a very clear message that we will not be party to giving regimes that are sliding into tyranny any shred of respectability whatever. That is why I welcome the statement today.
I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend. I know that he has privately been a big supporter of what we have been trying to do, so I appreciate his coming here now that he is no longer Lord Chancellor.
I simply say that this is a momentous decision, because right now in Ukraine—I referred to this earlier—we are seeing a totalitarian regime try to stamp out democracy and freedom in another country. In a funny sort of way, maybe we are seeing that the fight for freedom in Ukraine influences all of us to ensure that, whatever we do from the peaceful area that we live in, it does not allow other totalitarian regimes to have the legitimacy that would be given to them by our independent judiciary playing a part in Hong Kong and letting everybody believe that there is nothing wrong.
The right hon. Gentleman knows that I have argued for this move for some time now. I am particularly pleased to welcome it, not least because the Lord President of the Supreme Court, Lord Reed, is somebody whom I have known and respected for many years. I never felt comfortable being on the other side of the argument to him, and we seem to have resolved that.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that this now requires a response not just here, but from all those who have perhaps taken some comfort from the presence of the British judiciary in Hong Kong? I think it was the Hong Kong Bar Association that said the presence of British judges was a “canary in the mineshaft.” That canary has well and truly fallen off its perch today, and those in Hong Kong who care about the rule of law have a responsibility to respond.
I am grateful for that intervention, because I had a meeting with the Bar Council about this issue. To be fair, its members understood the dilemma that they had. Bear in mind that Essex Court Chambers have been sanctioned by the Chinese Government, as have I and others present. I do not understand how it is viable any longer for those at the Bar to argue that they are not somehow changing, influencing or moderating what may be going on in Hong Kong.
I have in front of me the statement from the Lord President. I will not read it out, as that is for others to do. Now that he has made that statement—he was one of those who actually did service in Hong Kong, so it is an extra-powerful statement on that point—I would call on the Bar Council, barristers and other lawyers who work in corporate law, and who now have all their offices in Hong Kong, to very carefully think about their position. If the judiciary are moving, and if the Bar does too, what price their ability to lend legitimacy to an area that is essentially no longer operating seriously under common law?
That is a finely tuned decision on the Government’s part. Labour’s position has been clear for more than a year, since my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock), made it clear that British judges were giving a sheen of legitimacy to what was going on in Hong Kong. I am an original member of Hong Kong Watch—like many other right hon. and hon. Members in this Chamber—and we have been worried for a number of years.
Despite being the shadow Minister, I do not intend to gloat over a U-turn or the Government caving in, but to put across a hint of sadness, because there is a sense that the withdrawal closes the door on a very civilised legal system that we consider to be the best in the world—it is shared by Australia, Canada and other places. It is sad to close the door on that level of standards and trust, and that will have a knock-on effect on the business community.
On balance, in the light of the Ukraine invasion in the last month, the judgment call is that this is no time to abstain, turn the other cheek or be neutral on things. We have to force partners and friends across the globe to make decisions. That may help to inch China towards making decisions on how it relates to Russia, and partners in the Indo-Pacific on how they approach this difficult time. The violence on our screens means that we cannot but make a decision; we cannot sit on the fence in these crucial days.
The hon. Lady is quite right. As I said earlier, the shockwaves from what is going on in Ukraine will wash around the world. Most of all, the important thing that that teaches us—and why I am doubly pleased that the Foreign Secretary has made the statement today—is that democracy, human rights and the rule of law are delicate. They do not exist by right; they exist only by human endeavour.
Underpinning those freedoms is our concept of independent judicial oversight. We may argue with judges, and we may get angry with them here in Parliament, but an independent judiciary is required to oversee the very workings of a democracy, as well as its freedoms, which will sometimes be taken away from people. That is why it is so important today that we send out the signal that when a Government dismisses those freedoms and natural rights, what is left is oppression and brutality. I believe that our judiciary has finally recognised that operating in isolation from the terrible new laws bearing down on people’s human rights in such countries is not feasible.
I had prepared a speech calling on the Government to do exactly what they did just before I began speaking. As a politician, that would not normally stop me making the speech for the sake of it, but I will restrain myself.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his tireless work on human rights throughout this period. Although I welcome the Government’s statement, I think it has come a little late; the Labour party has been calling for action for more than a year. The fact remains that the deterioration of Hong Kong’s legal system means that lending it a false veneer of respectability is just not acceptable. China shows no signs of slowing down its blatant attacks on human rights and freedoms, be it in Hong Kong or in its genocidal campaign in Xinjiang.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the Government should show more commitment by sanctioning the Chinese officials who are responsible for such human rights abuses, including Carrie Lam and Chen Quanguo? Will the Minister, when she speaks, confirm the precise amount of remuneration the UK Supreme Court has received in the last year for serving there?
In this very Chamber, I and others from the APPG on Magnitsky sanctions called on the Government to sanction more people. The hon. Gentleman has listed two people who are responsible for the abuses now in Xinjiang and what I believe to be a genocide. He will note that I have tabled an amendment, which has been signed by many Conservative Members, to today’s Health and Care Bill—the only reason I did so was to send a signal to the Government—saying that we want the NHS no longer to procure a single item that could possibly come from an area that uses forced or slave labour. The fact that we say we are doing that, and now know from reports that we are buying such equipment, is anathema, and we need to end that as well.
I agree with him that there is more to be done but steps by Government are welcome. This is one step in the right direction; the President of the Supreme Court has made a matching step. I hope to hear from the Bar Council and others that they will step up.
I thank the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) for all he has done. Today has been another step in the programme of how to combat Chinese aggression. As chair of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief, I concur with the right hon. Gentleman and understand, as we all do, the importance of freedom of religious views in China, for the Falun Gong, the Christians and the Uyghurs.
I noted that the right hon. Gentleman had tabled that amendment. I have asked questions on that matter before, because it is wrong that the NHS should buy any product of slave labour. We welcome the process, and I see what the Minister has said today as a proactive response. The Government have responded to the hard work. Let us be thankful for where we are going and that we are now on the same page working together. That is the message we should send, and the House should endorse that. I am sorry I was longer in my intervention than I wished to be. I just want to commend the right hon. Gentleman.
The length of the intervention matches the exceptional nature of where we are. Normally, one would make a speech asking for the Government to do something, but they have done it before I asked for it. To that extent, I am sure the Chair will give leeway to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon).
I conclude by saying that I unreservedly welcome the statement from the Government and the action today. I unreservedly welcome the statement from the President of the Supreme Court. I hope that others involved in the oversight of law, such as the Bar Council and the Law Society, will respond in terms to what is happening, not stay as outliers, and recognise the important and vital position of independence of the courts and those who practise in them and ply their trade. I say that as someone with a son who is a criminal barrister. The job is to represent people in a free and liberal society that understands the human rights of those who may be prosecuted.
I end by saying that, in a way, this is an emotional moment, because we have campaigned for this for so long. We have taken testimony in the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China and Hong Kong Watch from so many who have fled Hong Kong and are now here, because they are unable to live in freedom in Hong Kong, under the rules of an international treaty signed by the British and Chinese Governments at the time. The trashing of that, the ending of those rights, the disabusing nature of the Government’s behaviour, prompts us to ask, how can common law exist in a country that does not believe in the rights and freedoms of individuals? What Ukraine shows us is that freedom has to be fought for, nurtured and protected. Today, I believe, is a step in that direction, and I congratulate the Government.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees. You must be finding this an interesting debate; it is veering in slightly different directions from the form that Westminster Hall debates normally take, but we can adapt. It is good that the Government are keeping us on our toes with statements; I think the U-turn was announced a full 15 minutes before the debate started. I will abandon my speech and instead make just one or two brief points, which probably means I will go on for longer than I would have otherwise done.
I would say a word on behalf of the judges—not that they need me to say a word on their behalf, but they have been put in a difficult position. Two statements were issued—on 17 July 2020 and 27 August 2021—by the President of the UK Supreme Court. The first ended by saying:
“Whether judges of the Supreme Court can continue to serve as judges in Hong Kong will depend on whether such service remains compatible with judicial independence and the rule of law.”
The 2021 statement made the judgment that:
“At this time, our shared assessment is that the judiciary in Hong Kong continues to act largely independently of government and their decisions continue to be consistent with the rule of law.”
Members may have disagreed with that assessment at that time, and I think we all disagree with it now—the actions of the Beijing Government have been something of a moving target—but the sitting Supreme Court judges have been placed in a difficult position. They have been waiting for a steer from the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office for some time. I say a steer; this is about the independence of the judiciary, and it is not for the Foreign Office to tell senior judges what to do. None the less, the opinion of the Government has been lacking for some time.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) said, the Labour party has made its position clear, not just in debates, but in the statement made by the then shadow Foreign Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy), and the shadow Attorney General, Lord Falconer. The Government could perhaps have not left the decision until the eleventh hour.
The hon. Gentleman is making an important point about the need for the Government not to direct judges, which would play entirely into the hands of China. We have an independent judiciary. Frankly, China does not respect the rule of law. That is why the Government’s position has been very carefully calibrated. Gently but firmly, I reject the contention that there was somehow benign neglect here. There was a very careful monitoring of the situation by me and the then Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Dominic Raab)—precisely calibrated on respect for the independence of the judiciary, but also making sure there was a very clear political hand on the tiller when it came to the overall evidence and assessment of the situation, month by month.
I entirely respect the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s opinion and his record as Lord Chancellor, but the issue could have been handled a little better. There were signals in those statements, at least on knowing the opinion. I entirely agree with him, obviously, that the last thing we want, either in relation to China or of itself, is for the Government to be banging the table and telling judges what to do, although they do seem to do that rather a lot—presumptions seem to be finding their way into legislation rather too often, in my view. Nevertheless, let us maintain today’s harmonious spirit. We will endeavour to do that.
I think it will be something of a relief to the Supreme Court that this statement has been made today. The question, as other hon. Members have already raised, is what the consequences will be. The Minister may want to clarify. As far as retired judges and practitioners are concerned, it will still be for them to make an individual decision. There may be views expressed by the Bar or other professional bodies, but I wonder whether the Government are going to go further and say what they would wish to see—there is no element of direction there; none is possible. Former Presidents of the Supreme Court and former judges of the Supreme Court sit. There are judges from other Commonwealth jurisdictions who are even more remote, but who I suspect would also take note of the decision that has been taken here. That will be an interesting point to look at.
I think that this situation is an exception and it is right that it is judged on the individual and particular facts as to the conduct of the Beijing Government. Generally speaking, however, the ability of senior UK judges to sit in other jurisdictions is something that we should be very proud of and, indeed, encourage. I suspect that the Government will wish to see more of that happening. It does happen in many circumstances that are controversial. I am thinking of judges sitting as the final court of appeal on capital cases from the Caribbean and other very controversial matters. No doubt some people would say that they should not do that and should not associate in that way, or that British judges have no locus in doing it. I think that, whether one looks at it in terms of soft power and the reputation of Britain abroad, or whether one looks at the experience that is gained by both sides, it is a positive thing, and the situation that we are discussing is, one hopes, the exception that proves that rule. There are particular circumstances in this situation that mean that it is right that certainly the President and Deputy President of the Supreme Court no longer sit in the court of final appeal.
I have had the opportunity to discuss this matter over the past few weeks with senior sitting and retired judges, but also with campaigners and human rights activists from Hong Kong, and I would like to say that their cogency, their bravery and their articulation of the view that, notwithstanding the arguments—there are arguments on both sides—it was wrong for UK judges to continue to sit there is something that we should respect. I have absolutely no doubt that, as far as they were possibly able to do so, the judges—whether sitting judges, retired judges or judges from other jurisdictions—were doing absolutely the best they could to uphold not just their independence but the rule of law when they were sitting in Hong Kong. But there is the issue of lending legitimacy to the Beijing regime and the way in which it has acted.
There is also the fact that we have moved on over the past two or three years, given not just the national security law but the intervention of the Executive. Frankly, the constant intervention by Beijing has now made the position untenable, so I am pleased that the UK Government have come to this conclusion. I am grateful, of course, for the 15 minutes’ notice before the start of this debate, and I will conclude my remarks there.
I, too, would like to express my appreciation to my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) for securing this important debate and for succeeding in his purposes before he even stood up to speak. I know that that success comes from considerable time spent campaigning on this and many other issues relating to human rights in Hong Kong and the concerning, deteriorating situation there. For that, I commend him and others in this Chamber, and of course I join them in welcoming the Government’s statement today.
I will make just a few comments. The UK legal community remains one of the most highly respected in the world. I am proud to declare an interest as a solicitor still on the roll. Nearly one third of the world’s population today lives in an English common-law jurisdiction or a jurisdiction with common-law features, and the fact that citizens from all over the world travel to our country to receive justice is a reflection of our leadership when it comes to protection of the rule of law. That is why today’s announcement of the Government’s decision is so important, because we have to retain that consistency in order to retain the respect that we have worldwide for our system of justice.
I see this day after day in my role as the Prime Minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief. I work on cases from around the world, so I know that for many of us it has been particularly—my notes say “difficult”, but I would say that it has been distressing to look on at the deteriorating human rights situation in Hong Kong over what has actually been a very few years. The speed and alacrity of that deterioration has indeed been distressing—the dismantling of rights previously protected under Hong Kong’s basic law and of not only the “one country, two systems” model, but the English common-law system.
I have curtailed most of my speech, but I will take this opportunity briefly to put on record some specific concerns and examples of why today’s decision is so important. There have been attempts to intimidate the Hong Kong legal community, such as the shameful targeting of the former head of the Hong Kong Bar Association, Paul Harris SC, who was forced to flee the city after being questioned under the national security law last month. We saw judges who offered what were perceived as lenient sentences targeted by the pro-Beijing media, as was the case with district judge Sham Siu-man, who also had to flee the city in October 2021 after being attacked by the pro-Beijing publication Wen Wei Po. Like others, I am a patron of Hong Kong Watch, a UK-based non-governmental organisation, which has been targeted even more recently under the national security law.
I recognise that some in the UK legal community endeavoured to make the case that our foreign judges could be a moderating influence on the Hong Kong Government while they remained, and could serve as a ballast against extreme sentencing and further deterioration of human rights. I am glad that the Government have wholly rejected that view today, because that moderating influence has been in severely short supply. Hong Kong Watch reports that in the past two years there were over 720 political prisoners in Hong Kong, and over 10,000 protesters have been arrested since 2019. Student activist Tony Chung received three and a half years in jail for social media posts advocating independence, and Tong Ying-kit was given six and a half years of his national security sentence for waving a flag with the protest slogan “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times”.
Clearly, we could not allow the Hong Kong Government to continue to use the credentials and credibility of UK judges and their counterparts in Canada, Australia and New Zealand—although this is obviously an issue that those counterparts will have to look at themselves—as a smokescreen to hide their attacks on the rule of law, democracy and basic human rights. Today, I am delighted that the Government have stood on the side of the oppressed, not with the oppressor, and withdrawn our judges from Hong Kong.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, Ms Rees—with a revised speech, like everybody else. It is not often that just before a debate starts the Minister announces the introduction of what we are asking for, so that is really quite good news. We all have to thank the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) for all that he does. I am a great believer, as I know he and the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) are, in the power of prayer. Our prayers for this conclusion and the Minister’s announcement have to be put on the record—we have prayed for those things every day, and this is an answer to prayer.
We all know the reasons behind the announcement. For some time there has been concern about Hong Kong and all the problems there. We know about the legislation that criminalises what it deems to be secession, subversion, terrorism—violence and intimidation—and collusion with foreign or external forces. It is a suppression of the rights of the people.
We commend the work that the hon. Member for Congleton does in her role as special envoy, because there is no doubt that she does it with passion and commitment each and every day of her life, and we appreciate that very much. Like her, and as the hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan) did in his intervention, as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief, I want to speak up for people in China, where human rights abuses are rife and the persecution of religious belief is instilled and enforced by the Chinese Government.
I am greatly aggrieved about this issue. As hon. Members will know, I speak about it quite often, due to the commitment and interest that I and others in this Chamber have. Christians are unable to worship; their churches are knocked down, or they are not even allowed to build them. People sit in the back of churches, monitoring those who attend and monitoring the sermons. It is impossible for anyone to move without the Chinese security forces knowing who and what they are. Off the back of that comes the suppression of education, job opportunities and ownership of houses and cars. It is all downright suppression, and it is suffered not only by Christians but by the Falun Gong. We have all spoken about the organ transplants that take place on a commercial scale. It grieves us greatly.
This debate is about overseas judges. The reason we are saying these things is that the situation grieves us greatly, and that is why the Government have now supported our stance. The hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton spoke of the Uyghurs; I have a burden in my heart for them, as much as all the other groups. I am very pleased that the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green brought this debate today, as I have asked many question on this subject. If it is pushed to a vote, we will certainly support it. We need to use every tool in our armoury against that suppression, and today the Government have given us that encouragement.
I am ever mindful that the situation in Ukraine has focused attention on where we currently are. It has brought NATO and the western world together. I was reading the newspaper before coming to this debate; I am not sure what credence these stories have, but the intelligence coming from the States seems to indicate that China has said it will not invade Taiwan for four years. It would be better if it did not invade Taiwan at all, or if it had no intention of doing so. However, my point is that the situation has hardened the west and the UK in leadership, with the leadership of our Government, our Prime Minister and the Minister present; it has galvanised the free west to stand firm. We have seen that today in what the Minister has said.
I will quote from the House of Commons Library briefing paper, which reinforces the Government’s statement today:
“Chief Executive Carrie Lam, now has the power to appoint judges to hear national security cases. Beijing will also have power over how the law should be interpreted, rather than any Hong Kong judicial or policy body. If the law conflicts with any Hong Kong law, the Beijing law takes priority.”
That is why the Government have made that statement today, and that is why we welcome it; it is what we want to see. The thrust of our debate was going to be just that.
I would like to gently say something to all hon. Members present. To be honest, the situation in Hong Kong seems a wee bit similar to what the EU has been doing with Northern Ireland. It is making us abide by its laws above our own, regardless of the Belfast agreement, which is not worth the paper it is written on. [Laughter.] I am just saying that for the record—I could not let it go without saying something. The Minister and I share many things, including the fact that we were born in the same town: Omagh, in County Tyrone, Northern Ireland. We share a fondness for that town and a fondness for Northern Ireland. I am very pleased to see the Minister in her place. I digress, Ms Rees.
I welcome the approach taken today. I am so pleased to hear it. I feel encouraged. There are other things we want to see—the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green outlined other steps that we want to take. In her reply, maybe the Minister could give us more encouragement. If she does, we will perhaps have had a debate where we got the conclusion we wanted before the debate even started.
Huge congratulations to the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) for all his leadership, time and commitment on this issue, and to all the other Members across the House who have made their views clear and put effort into encouraging the Government to take today’s decision.
I appreciate that it cannot have been easy. Any of us involved in human rights issues across the world are regularly frustrated with the response of the Foreign Office, because of the argument that staying there and arguing the case is better than walking away and standing up. I appreciate that the balance in that argument is a very fine one, but there must come a point at which carrying on in the hope of diplomacy is simply not the right answer.
I have a few simple points to put on the record today. We all know that the presence of overseas judges stretches back to a 1997 agreement, which aimed to maintain Hong Kong’s judiciary’s independence and credibility. However, the circumstances have changed.
The introduction of the Hong Kong national security law has undeniably restricted those rights and freedoms guaranteed to Hong Kong 25 years ago, and the legal system is unquestionably compromised. Now, the Hong Kong Secretary for Justice decides the charges in sensitive national security cases; there is a pre-vetted list of designated national security law judges; the Hong Kong Government decide on the judge; and everything is held closely to account by the pro-Beijing press.
Some people—with the best of intentions, I am sure—argue that overseas judges maintain influence, and that they have some kind of sway. However, in reality they are only able to preside over trials in the Court of Final Appeal, and given that they have no influence over the cases that come before that court, it is unlikely that they would ever have been chosen for a national security law case. In fact, we were still waiting for an overseas judge to participate in a case considered under the law, because the Hong Kong Chief Executive and National Security Commission were able to hand-pick them.
I am glad that the Government have agreed that the overseas judges’ presence on the grounds of influence was erroneous at best. The simple fact is that as long as overseas judges continued to serve in Hong Kong, they would have been providing unwitting support for the Chinese Government’s crushing of the city’s democracies, rights and freedoms. That is not just the view of the Members here today, or of the Government; Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, herself noted that foreign judges have helped
“maintain a high degree of confidence”
in Hong Kong’s legal system.
I am glad that the British Government share my concerns. After all, they have already introduced the new visa route for British nationals overseas, extended the arms embargo for exports to China to include Hong Kong, and suspended the UK’s extradition treaty with Hong Kong indefinitely. The concern was always apparent. However, when we consider the changes since those measures, the reality is that the situation in Hong Kong has not improved. The Chinese Government continue their clampdown on freedoms in the city, so the question had to be asked as to the difference made by continued support lent to the judicial system.
I recognise that there are difficult decisions to be made here. In theory, the question is whether it is better to be in the room or watching from outside. However, the longer we remained inside, the clearer it became that the ability to influence was close to redundant, and that our presence instead provided a veneer of legitimacy to a judicial system that had long since lost its democratic legitimacy.
I am glad that the Government have made their decision today. I hope that they will go further—that they listen to the amendment suggested by the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green on procuring items for the NHS, and extend the number of people to be sanctioned for their involvement in the genocide of the Uyghurs.
It is a pleasure to serve, Ms Rees. I always think, when I am considering my speeches, that nobody ever criticised a speech for being too short, but I think I can excel myself today.
I am a solicitor by trade. I trained with Clifford Chance, which has significant interests in Hong Kong, so I am aware that this is complicated; it is not a black-and-white issue. However, in the 9 June 2021 debate on this subject, I said:
“Speaking of dubious legality, UK judges should absolutely withdraw from the Hong Kong judicial system. They are lending a veneer of credibility and respectability to a system that simply does not merit it.—[Official Report, 9 June 2021; Vol. 696, c. 412WH.]
I did not say that lightly at the time.
I obviously welcome the UK Government's indication that the judges should withdraw, but I do so with much sadness because it is an admission that staying put and trying to be a mediating influence has failed. It sounds the death knell of “one country, two systems” and the failure of the Sino-British agreement, which is a terrible, humiliating failure of statecraft. We cannot abandon the people of Hong Kong; we remain a guarantor of their rights. So the withdrawal is welcome, in that we should not give a veneer of respectability to a system that does not merit it, but saddening in that it is an admission of defeat. This is not the end of the story.
I have been struck by hon. Members’ comments. I lend my congratulations to the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith), who has been at the forefront of this. This cannot be the end of the story. We remain bound to the people of Hong Kong; we remain bound to the people of China. There are grievous human rights abuses going on in Hong Kong and in China. This is not for a second the last time that we will be discussing human rights in Hong Kong and China, but I do welcome today’s decision.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees. Like other hon. Members, I will not speak for long. It is a pleasure for us all to enjoy the U-turn made 15 minutes before the start of the debate, which was inspired by the former Leader of the Opposition, the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith); he must feel that he is getting so much done these days.
I want to mention briefly the excellent speeches that have been made. My hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) thanked the judiciary for their continuing commitment to safeguarding the rule of law. We thank the members of the judiciary who have signalled that they will no longer serve in Hong Kong, and thank them for their role to date. My hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan) asked the Minister about further sanctions; I wonder whether she will comment.
My hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) spoke of how the freedom of the press has been compromised. I am very aware of that, having held this brief from 2015 to 2017 and again since December 2021. It has been clear for some time that the situation has significantly deteriorated. Those of us who were involved from the beginning with Hong Kong Watch thought we were a very small group, and that there was a minor problem. Sadly, the situation has become worse and worse.
The heavy-handed crackdown on democracy and civil liberties continues apace, with the shattering of independent media outlets, the suppression of trade unions and the continued arrest of democracy activists. In a recent meeting with trade union members from Hong Kong in the House of Commons, no photographs were taken because it simply was not safe enough for them to meet an Opposition Member here in the British Parliament and talk about workers’ rights in Hong Kong. That speaks volumes.
It has been a positive debate. It would be great to be able to run the Government like this—by consensus—would it not? I look forward to hearing the Minister cover the remaining loose ends that have come up during the debate, and to continuing our combined commitment to human rights and the rule of law going forward.
It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees. I thank the many colleagues who have taken part in this debate, which has been slightly unusual. I start by saying how grateful I am to my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) for securing the debate and for all the work he has done on this subject.
The Minister for Asia and the Middle East, my right hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Amanda Milling), would have been delighted to take part, but she is currently travelling in the region on ministerial duties. Therefore, it is my pleasure to respond on behalf of the Government. I will try to respond to a number of the points that have been raised. I apologise, but I will take some time to do so.
Before I address the specific questions about foreign judges, I want to set out the Government’s current assessments of rights and freedoms in Hong Kong. I share the deep concerns expressed across Westminster Hall today. The situation is worse now than at any time since the handover. In 1984, the Sino-British joint declaration made it clear that Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy, rights and freedoms would remain unchanged for 50 years from 1997. China undertook to uphold rights and freedoms, including freedom of speech, freedom of the press and freedom of assembly. It also agreed to keep in force the international covenant on civil and political rights, to maintain the independent judiciary and to maintain the rule of law. However, time and again it has reneged on that promise. The national security law imposed by Beijing in June 2020 is a clear and serious breach of the joint declaration. It has since been used to systematically restrict rights and freedoms—especially freedom of expression.
In March 2021, China further breached the joint declaration by introducing radical changes to Hong Kong’s electoral system, reducing the space for democracy. The UK believes China to be in an ongoing state of non-compliance with the joint declaration. Almost all of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy opposition are detained or arrested or have chosen to leave Hong Kong. As a result, the legislator has lost all meaningful opposition, as demonstrated by the outcome of the December 2021 legislative elections. That is part of a concerted campaign by the mainland Chinese and Hong Kong authorities to remove all dissent. They have conducted a targeted assault against civil society and against pro-democracy news outlets, such as Apple Daily and Stand News. Just this month, the authorities threatened the UK-based non-governmental organisation Hong Kong Watch in an apparent attempt to silence those who stand up for human rights. The Foreign Secretary made it clear at the time that attempts to silence democratic voices are unacceptable and will never succeed.
Turning to the role of judges, the chilling effect of the national security law is of deep concern, and the trajectory appears negative. It is against that increasingly worrying backdrop that the Foreign Secretary, the Deputy Prime Minister and Lord Reed, the President of the Supreme Court, have all decided that it is no longer tenable for serving UK judges to sit on the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal.
I thank the hon. Member for his intervention. It is for UK and foreign retired judges to make their own decisions about whether to remain sitting. However, it is important to remember that the national security law is not aligned with UK values. As cases under that law proceed through the courts, judges will increasingly be required to enforce Beijing’s laws—not laws aligned with the UK.
I thank Lord Reed and Lord Hodge for their work. They have submitted their resignations today and they are effective immediately. I agree with the Opposition spokesman, the spokesman for the SNP and so many others across this House that this is a sad reflection of how far the political and legal situation in Hong Kong has deteriorated.
I put it on the record that British judges have played an important role in supporting the judiciary in Hong Kong since the handover. There is no legal requirement for the UK Supreme Court or the UK Government to uphold the agreement that the UK would provide two serving judges, but they have since been provided. It was a part of the UK’s continuing commitment to safeguard the rule of law in Hong Kong. However, the UK Government have said for some time that our support for the presence of UK sitting judges in the Court of Final Appeal was finely balanced. Since it came into place, it has been very clear that the national security law violates Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy, which was provided for in the joint declaration.
I thank every single Member in this House—across the House—for their support for the decision that has been made by the Foreign Secretary, the Lord Chancellor and the judges. In particular, I thank the former Lord Chancellor, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon (Sir Robert Buckland), for coming here today, and for his wise words about the importance of the independence of the judiciary. However, the decision to withdraw sitting UK judges from the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal should not be misconstrued as a weakened UK commitment. We absolutely remain committed to the people of Hong Kong, and will continue to call out violations of their rights and freedoms and hold China to its international obligations.
As hon. Members will recall, the UK Government responded quickly and decisively to the enactment of the national security law. That included introducing a new immigration path for British nationals overseas, suspending our extradition treaty with Hong Kong and extending our arms embargo on mainland China to cover Hong Kong. The visa route for BNOs opened on 31 January 2021, and by the end of the year there were almost 104,000 applications. On 24 February, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary announced changes to the BNO route to enable individuals aged 18 or over but who were born after 1 July 1997 and have at least one BNO parent to apply to the route independently of their BNO parent.
We have also co-ordinated action with international partners to hold China to account, including through our presidency of the G7. In December, we released two critical joint statements with G7 partners and the Foreign Ministers of Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States, following Hong Kong’s Legislative Council elections. In February, we co-led a media freedom coalition statement, signed by 21 international partners, which called out attacks on media and press freedoms, including closure of Stand News and the associated arrests of journalists. Earlier this month, we used the latest session of the United Nations Human Rights Council to call out China’s systematic undermining of rights and freedoms in Hong Kong. We remain in regular contact with our international partners about Hong Kong and continue to work intensively on the world stage to hold China to its international obligations.
The hon. Members for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan), Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh), Strangford (Jim Shannon) and others mentioned the situation in Xinjiang. The evidence of the scale and severity of human rights violations being perpetrated in Xinjiang against the Uyghur Muslims is far-reaching and paints a truly harrowing picture. The UK Government have led international efforts to hold China to account for its human rights violations in Xinjiang, as well as in Hong Kong, and earlier this month the Foreign Secretary again reiterated our deep concerns about the situation in Xinjiang in her personal address to the UN Human Rights Council.
The hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green asked about sanctions. On 22 March, the former Foreign Secretary announced that under the UK’s global human rights sanctions agreement, the UK posed asset freezes and travel bans against four Chinese Government officials, as well as an asset freeze against one entity responsible for enforcing repressive security policies across many areas of Xinjiang.
Following on from what the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) said, however, while welcoming all those sanctions, the problem is that we have sanctioned fewer people than the United States and other countries. I urge the Minister to take back to the Department what we have already said in the all-party parliamentary group and what has been said elsewhere here today. We are behind the curve on this now. These people are abusive and are responsible for the literally deathly imposition of slave labour and genocide. Can she please now catch up with the United States?
I thank my right hon. Friend for that intervention. I will certainly take that away. I noted his point regarding the Health and Care Bill, and I know that no one in this House supports the use of forced labour, particularly in creating goods for the NHS. We are fully committed to ensuring that that does not happen and will set out this afternoon further measures that we are intending to take on that issue.
I thank the hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton for his intervention on the issue of Carrie Lam and Hong Kong officials, but I cannot make any statement on that at this point.
More broadly, I return to the actions that China is taking at this incredibly important time for sovereignty and democracy across the world. My right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green reminded us of the situation in Ukraine and the fact that 24 February was a turning point for the world—for those who believe in standing up for democracy and freedom. We in the UK will continue to support the Ukrainian Government in the face of this terrible assault on Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and we will continue to stand with members of the international community against aggression and for freedom, democracy and sovereignty.
The world is watching China’s words and actions very closely. We have urged China to use its relationship with Russia to press for an end to this terrible war and to prevent further humanitarian crises, rather than condoning or excusing Russia’s actions. We are therefore extremely disappointed that China was the only country on the UN Security Council to support Russia’s humanitarian resolution.
The UK condemns any military support to Russia, and expects China to stand up for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and to uphold its commitment to the UN charter. The world is watching to see whether China’s actions contribute to peace and stability, or whether it instead chooses to fuel Russian aggression and prolong this ruinous invasion, with all its civilian costs.
To conclude, the UK has very deep and long-standing ties with Hong Kong, and we want it to succeed and prosper. However, Hong Kong’s way of life relies on respect for fundamental rights and freedoms, and the rule of law. We are fully committed to supporting liberty and democracy, and to defending universal human rights; and we will continue to hold China to the commitments that it willingly undertook, and to stand up for the people of Hong Kong.
Normally, to get up with almost half an hour left in which to summarise a debate would be a sheer joy for a parliamentarian or politician. [Laughter.] However, I will not take the full time on this one.
I will simply conclude by saying that today is a remarkable day. It may not be a day that people will discuss in the bars and the pubs across the country, because many of them probably do not understand or have not heard much about the issue, but it is something that we, as democrats and politicians, know about. We should be celebrating the fact that the UK Government have acted, as a result of the continual campaigning by many of us in this area—from Hong Kong Watch to IPAC, and others—for an end to the superficial legitimacy that our judiciary had been lending to a regime that had been breaking, and is breaking, many of the rules regarding human rights, the rule of law and democracy, not just in Hong Kong but more widely across China.
In my last few remarks, I want to remind everybody what this matter is all about. It is not really just about judges agreeing not to serve in Hong Kong in a common law system that has become debauched, and it is not just that those judges have taken a self-denying ordinance. It is about something much more important—shedding light on the single fact that we are seeing, as I said earlier, literally being fought out in Ukraine. For too long, we have felt that we must accommodate totalitarian regimes that have no regard whatever for the basic things that we believe in and that make us who we are: that sense of human rights, the rule of law and democracy, without which this place could not exist, and this country and so many other countries in the west could not exist in the shape that we do.
The reality, writ large, is that we now have to end that accommodation with the Chinese Government. Our dependency on them allows and fuels them to continue to believe that their form of government and their concept of the ending of these rights is the right way to go and the natural order. Democracy, the rule of law, the independent judiciary and human rights are delicate flowers; they cannot be maintained unless we fight for them, talk about and believe in them, and unless, when people end them, we ostracise them and tell them they are wrong.
I thank the Government for moving on this issue, and the President of the Supreme Court for accepting independently that judges will not serve. Following many comments on the subject, it is important for others who ply their trade in the same courts to think again about what they do. I call on the Bar Council to recommend, as has the President of the Supreme Court, that its members think carefully about adding legitimacy to these courts in Hong Kong. I know it is complicated, but I also call on the Law Society to make a strong statement about the limits of action that lawyers in Hong Kong, representing companies, should take in the pursuit of commercial interests.
Today is not the end, and, as has been said before, it is not the beginning of the end, but it may just become the end of the beginning. The action that we take today may stave off future violent invasions that could come from a country that believes it has impunity. Today we have sent a signal that freedom matters and that people’s freedoms, above all else, are critical to the very way we live our lives. On that basis, I thank the Government for having moved on this matter.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the role of British and overseas judges in Hong Kong.