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Overseas Chinese Police Stations in UK: Legal Status

Volume 721: debated on Tuesday 1 November 2022

(Urgent Question): To ask the Home Secretary if she will make a statement on the legal status of overseas Chinese police stations operating in the UK.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. It is a great pleasure to be here on my first outing at the Dispatch Box to speak about something that, as the House will know, I take extremely seriously. Reports of undeclared police stations in the United Kingdom are, of course, extremely concerning and will be taken seriously. Any foreign country operating on United Kingdom soil must abide by UK law. I have discussed this matter with the police and I am assured that they are investigating allegations of unlawful activity. It would be inappropriate for me to comment further on operational matters.

I will take the opportunity, however, to reassure the House of the Government’s resolve to take the matter seriously. I will also shortly make a statement to the House on safeguarding our democracy. The protection of people in the United Kingdom is of the utmost importance. Any attempt to illegally repatriate any individual will not be tolerated. This egregious activity is part of a wider trend of authoritarian Governments perpetrating transnational repression in an effort to silence their critics overseas and undermine democracy and the rule of law. For example, we have been aware for some time of efforts to interfere in our academic freedoms and university sector, and we have been taking steps to protect our institutions.

This Government are committed to tackling the challenge of transnational repression wherever it originates. It would be unacceptable for any foreign Government to feel able to operate in that way in the United Kingdom, and it must be stopped. The Home Office works closely with Departments across Whitehall and with devolved Administrations to ensure that our national security is protected and that, in particular, those who have chosen to settle here are free to engage in our democratic society without fear of the regimes that they have tried to leave behind.

Through our excellent police forces and the agencies that work with them, we take a proactive approach to protecting individuals and communities from all manner of threats. Where we identify individuals who may be at heightened risk, we are front-footed in deploying protective security guidance and other measures where necessary. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) and particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns), who has taken over the best job in Parliament as Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee. They have worked tirelessly on this issue, including with our close international partners.

The upcoming National Security Bill will strengthen our legal powers to deal with transnational repression. Coercion, harassment or intimidation linked to a foreign power that interfere with the freedoms of individuals will be criminalised under the new foreign interference offence in the Bill. Existing criminal offences against a person, such as assault, may also have sentences increased using the state threats aggravating factor in the Bill where they are undertaken for, on behalf of or with the intention to benefit a foreign power. The Bill will introduce a new foreign influence registration scheme, for which many hon. Members have campaigned, including my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton. That will provide greater transparency around foreign interference in our society.

It is clear, however, that we can and must do more. I have therefore asked officials to step up the work to ensure that our approach to transnational repression is robust, and I have asked our Department to review our approach to transnational repression as a matter of urgency. I will provide an update on that work to the House in due course.

I thank Mr Speaker for granting this urgent question. I take this opportunity to welcome my right hon. Friend to his place and say how reassured I am to have someone of his expertise leading on this important area for our national security.

There are troubling reports of a widespread network of Chinese police stations operating worldwide, including three in our country in Croydon, Hendon and Glasgow. Publicly, those stations are harmless administrative centres for Chinese nationals, but reports suggest that they are actually used to hunt down dissidents and alleged Chinese criminals. The Chinese Government have admitted their existence, so I have some questions for the Minister. What is the legal basis for their operations on UK soil? Are Chinese officials involved in their administration? I welcome that the Minister has tasked an investigation, but will he commit to update the House on it in due course?

Finally, the British national overseas scheme was world leading, but we have a duty to protect those who come here and seek refuge on our soil. Does he agree that, following the Chinese consul general’s attack on a Hongkonger only a couple of weeks ago, we are playing a dangerous game in sacrificing our sovereignty and the safety of not just British nationals, but refugees at the altar of not wanting to upset an authoritarian state?

I again pay tribute to the work that my hon. Friend has done over recent weeks, in particular, and years in alerting this House and the country to the threats that we have faced from authoritarian regimes around the world. I pay particular tribute to her leadership of the China Research Group, on which I was honoured to work with her before.

The reports that my hon. Friend mentions are not exclusive to this country. Sadly, we have seen authoritarian states exercising repressive tendencies abroad and seeking to extradite, or indeed inveigle, citizens of their own country back to their homeland to extract punishment. That is simply unacceptable. The protections of the UK state need to apply to all those in the United Kingdom and it is absolutely essential that those protections are afforded to all. That is why I am working, and will work further, with the police and agencies to ensure that we are on top of this offence and that, should evidence be shown and proof be given, action will be taken.

I also thank my hon. Friend enormously for her comments about the British national overseas scheme. She is right that that was not only world leading but essential for protecting British nationals in the face of an authoritarian dictatorship, and that those who come here under the scheme should be afforded the same protections, rights and dignity as all British nationals everywhere.

I, too, welcome the Minister to the Dispatch Box. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns) for securing the urgent question. As we have heard, the Safeguard Defenders report alleges that the Chinese Communist party has set up parallel policing mechanisms around the world. The report identifies three such stations in Hendon, Glasgow and Croydon that purport to offer services for Chinese nationals abroad. There have been multiple reports, however, that those stations are cracking down on Chinese political dissidents, including Hong Kong ex-pats and Uyghur refugees.

According to the Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong Foundation, people from Hong Kong relocating to the UK are being

“followed, harassed, attacked and intimidated”

by operatives based at the Glasgow station. The recent unacceptable conduct that we witnessed outside the Chinese consulate in Manchester makes it clear that we have to act to safeguard those in the UK from increasingly belligerent measures being undertaken by those acting on behalf of the Chinese state.

With the Minister’s predecessor, the right hon. Member for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland), we discussed in the National Security Bill Committee that the harassment of dissidents was becoming an increasing concern. What assessment have the Government made of these stations and what action have they taken to disrupt these damaging activities? The foreign influence registration scheme is long overdue, as he and others have said, so can he put on record exactly when it will be introduced?

The Government previously stated that the Home Office and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities have drawn up plans to protect those arriving from Hong Kong from surveillance and harassment. Can the Minister elaborate on what those provisions are? The rule of law and freedom of expression are fundamental principles in our democracy and we must act to make it clear to any overseas regime that only UK police forces undertake policing in this country—with absolutely no exceptions.

I thank the hon. Lady for the tone with which she has approached not just the urgent question but the National Security Bill Committee, and for the openness and frankness with which she has enabled us to work on a truly cross-party basis on what is fundamentally a national security question for our whole country. I am extremely grateful for the way she has addressed these questions.

The Safeguard Defenders report that the hon. Lady cites certainly raises some very serious concerns. Those are being looked into. Of course, it would not be the first time an authoritarian dictatorship had claimed powers that it does not have, so we are looking into the assessment and, as I say, we will come back to the House with a report when and if action needs to be taken.

On FIRS, the hon. Lady is absolutely right that this is a matter that many of us have raised on numerous occasions. As soon as the National Security Bill is through the House—as she is well aware, that will, I hope, be very soon—those powers will be able to be used to defend not just this country but Members of this House against the intimidation or influence of those who seek to lobby or influence, masking the fact that they are doing so for a foreign state.

On protections, the hon. Lady is, again, absolutely right. The reality is that there is no police force in this country that has jurisdiction except the police forces of the United Kingdom. She is absolutely right that no foreign force should have abilities to influence, detain, hold or pressurise citizens of our country, except those that are agreed to by law.

I welcome my right hon. Friend to his new post and congratulate him on it. Is he able to explain the criteria under which a so-called diplomat found guilty of a criminal assault would be declared persona non grata? On our concern about unofficial foreign police forces in our country, how safe should Hong Kong students feel in UK universities, given the amount of physical and especially financial penetration of those universities by communist Chinese entities?

May I thank the Chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee for his kind words and emphasise my keenness to work with his Committee and Members across the House to make sure that we address this subject together? His question about diplomats is, I am afraid, one for the Foreign Office, but he can be absolutely assured that information arising from any inquiry or assessment by the Home Office or by police forces or agencies will feed straight into the Foreign Office for its evaluation.

As for Hongkongers in UK universities, my right hon. Friend will know that, in a former incarnation, I may have been responsible for the publication of a Foreign Affairs Committee report in 2019 that highlighted the threat that some face in universities. He can be absolutely assured that that has not left my desk.

I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns) on securing this important urgent question, and I welcome the Minister to his place.

These are really alarming and incredibly serious allegations, which, as the Minister says, have to be properly investigated. Indeed, the suggested international scale of these activities across 30 countries on five continents is actually pretty shocking. Given the international perspective, what discussions are the Minister and his counterparts having with colleagues in the EU and beyond about how they can co-ordinate on this matter?

What steps can the Minister say have been taken to ensure that law enforcement and security services have the skills and resources to tackle the matter? This seems a recent and different challenge for them. Will he say a little more about the co-ordination with devolved Governments who have responsibility for policing?

The Minister expressed confidence that the powers in the National Security Bill, which we have debated at some length, will be sufficient to tackle this type of alleged activity. Will he express a willingness to use those powers if these allegations are made out?

Finally, does the Minister agree that, while our attention is rightly focused on the bad actors seeking to control and coerce Chinese residents, BNOs and others, it is all the more important that we remember and support the many other groups, businesses and individuals who do positive work in supporting their communities to contribute to our society?

I thank the hon. Member for the tone with which he has addressed these questions. This is truly a United Kingdom issue, and the way to address them is for the United Kingdom to work together.

The hon. Member is absolutely right that there are wider dimensions, which include our friends and allies around the world. The Government have already been working with Governments around the world to make sure that we deal with the repression and oppression that we are seeing in different places. He will remember well the way in which the United Kingdom stood so clearly with the Government of Canada to call out the illegal detention of Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig. I am delighted to say that that will continue.

The hon. Member is right that working with police forces across the United Kingdom—including Police Scotland, which does excellent work—is really important, but it is also important that they have access to the resources that we are able to bring as the United Kingdom. The agencies that do so much to support us all are essential.

I am grateful for the hon. Member’s kind words about the National Security Bill. His support on that Bill has been incredibly important and demonstrates that this truly is a cross-party, cross-nation effort to keep the whole of the United Kingdom safe. He can be absolutely assured that I will not hesitate to use the powers in the Bill should they be required.

The hon. Member’s question on the community is also really important. We need to make it absolutely clear that what we are resisting here is authoritarian Governments seeking to influence free people. We welcome people from across the world. We welcome people from communities that may be repressed at home but can be free here. It is essential that we champion those who can enjoy freedom here, and the Hongkongers are a clear demonstration that this Government and this country welcome those seeking freedom.

I am grateful to Mr Speaker for granting the urgent question and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns) on securing it.

I am pleased to see my right hon. Friend at the Dispatch Box; he should duck his shoulders, because he is responsible for none of what I am about to say. May I simply say that we are seeing a litany of general excuses from the Government, albeit not from him directly? A week ago, they had to be dragged to the House twice to talk about the punishment beating that was meted out in Manchester—no statement was offered—and now we have another UQ.

This business about these police stations has been well known and well documented for ages. Every other country that has them is now investigating with a view to getting rid of them—Canada, Chile, Germany, Ireland, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, the Netherlands and the USA are all about to kick them out—but we have still not undertaken a full investigation. Even in Scotland, the First Minister has decided to investigate the Glasgow site; we have done nothing about the two sites here in England.

I simply say to my right hon. Friend—with the best intentions, because he is sanctioned, like I am, by this brutal regime—that we have testimony from endless people, we have a Chinese Government who have set up these police stations, we have Confucius Institutes bullying Chinese students here, we have seen them beaten up on the streets in the UK, and we wonder very much whether they feel safe. Will he therefore take back to the Government, and to the Foreign Office, the message that it is high time they showed some strength and acted immediately to get rid of the diplomats responsible in Manchester, to investigate these police stations and kick them out, and to do the same with the Confucius Institutes? Otherwise, we look like we are dragging our feet compared with our neighbours.

I welcome the words of my fellow sanctionee. That is one of the few foreign accolades of which I think we are equally proud.

Let me make a few points. First, there is no delay in investigation in this country. I can assure my right hon. Friend that the assessment will be coming forward urgently. As he will well understand, I will be extremely keen to hear the result. May I also remind him of the Prime Minister’s pledge during the leadership race only a few months ago that Confucius Institutes pose a threat to civil liberties in many universities in the United Kingdom and he will be looking to close them?

I thank my right hon. Friend for his words about the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. I am sure that Ministers from that Department will seek to make a statement, but I am sure they will be waiting for the reports that will be provided to them. He is absolutely right that there is no place for those who abuse their diplomatic privilege or the liberties of this country in order to oppress citizens here.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns) on securing the urgent question. One of the alleged stations is in my constituency. I have to confess that when I first received emails about it from constituents I thought it was some kind of hoax. The address where the police station is supposed to be is that of a business that has written to me recently asking for a meeting, so, at first, I thought it could not possibly be true. It appears now that the reality is much more alarming.

I am grateful to the Minister for stating that he will come back to the House and tell us what his investigations have found, but I wonder whether he can give some reassurance to the people of Croydon—in particular the citizens from China and Hong Kong who live in my constituency—that they will be safe. Perhaps he might agree to meet me to talk about what may or may not be happening in the middle of my town.

The hon. Lady is absolutely right that a commitment to all citizens of the United Kingdom and all citizens in the United Kingdom is equally valid, wherever they come from and whichever community they are from. Of course I will make that commitment to meet her, and I will be delighted to hear more.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns) on securing this urgent question. I welcome my right hon. Friend the Minister to his position on the Front Bench and the fact that he says he takes this extremely seriously and that the police are investigating. I raised this issue in the House two weeks ago on behalf of a concerned constituent during a Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office statement. Unfortunately, the follow-up from the FCDO was transferred to the Home Office, which then communicated to me that it did not intend to respond. Can my right hon. Friend therefore reassure my constituent that there will be a co-ordinated response across Government to what is basically an assault on British sovereignty, and may I suggest that he leads on that response?

I congratulate the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns), on bringing the former Chair of the FAC, the Minister, to the Dispatch Box on this issue, and I greatly welcome his appointment to Government. Although the stations are what has grabbed the headlines and attention of many, the broader issue, as has been mentioned, is the Chinese Communist party using all the instruments of its international architecture, including the Confucius Institutes, to harass, intimidate and track down people. Do the Government now intend to review any and all co-operation agreements they have with law enforcement bodies in China; I am not calling for them to be scrapped at this stage, but will they at least be reviewed, if they do exist? As my hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) mentioned from the Front Bench, the devolved Administrations have responsibility for policing but also for education. They need to have a seat at the table and be part of a broader strategy in unpicking this reliance on Chinese cash—let us be honest, that is what it is down to. Lastly, given FBI expertise in this area and the success in the US of closing down these stations and closing off opportunities to harass and intimidate people, have the Government at least been in touch with their counterparts in the FBI to tap into their expertise?

It is like an FAC reunion hearing the hon. Gentleman, my former Committee friend, making his points. He is right that the way we engage with authoritarian dictatorships and powers around the world is constantly under review, and, as he will understand, that is going to be of particular interest to me in my new role. He is also right that the devolved Administrations and Governments need an absolute commitment that they will be part of this conversation, and he knows that I will always work with every part of the United Kingdom and make sure that voices are heard and support is offered. I am committed to the defence of the whole of the United Kingdom. I am also committed to co-operating with foreign partners, and the hon. Gentleman rightly mentioned the FBI. We also work closely with Canada and Australia on many of these issues, and indeed with many European countries, who have been extremely good partners and very firm friends.

I add to the FAC reunion. I congratulate the Minister on his new role and my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns) on securing the urgent question. Do any other states have similar ad hoc covert or overt police stations in the United Kingdom, and for how long have the Government known about these Chinese police stations in the UK? It is great that the Minister speaks tough on this, and I know he has talked about it at length as have many other members of the FAC, but to echo the words of my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) and my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker), we have had increasingly tough words for too long. What we have not had is a realistic and robust defence of our democratic values and democratic institutions, so can the Government now get real on this?

My hon. Friend is right that it has been alleged that other states have had connections in this regard, and that is being looked at. On the length of time question, I hope he will forgive me for not going into operational details, but he can be absolutely assured that that will prove part of the assessment. As to action, I merely urge him to wait a few moments as I will be making a statement very shortly that I hope will answer some of his questions.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns) on securing the urgent question and welcome the Minister to the Dispatch Box. I hope his appointment brings us into an era where Government actions match their rhetoric on this issue, because it simply is not good enough for us to rely on organisations like Safeguard Defenders to bring this to light. I hear what he says about the National Security Bill, and he knows he has support across the House on that, but what we have heard about is not something that requires new legislation; we could be tackling it now. We must look at Chinese influence of this sort in commerce and academia, because if the UK was doing this in China—if the boot was on the other foot—it would be a very different story.

The right hon. Gentleman makes a good point about reciprocal action. When the Prime Minister appointed me he was extremely clear on how he saw the role of security and what he saw as my responsibility, and the right hon. Gentleman can be assured that I take this extremely seriously. This is an issue that I have been vociferous about for a number of years, and I am very pleased to have the opportunity now to act.

I welcome my right hon. Friend to the Dispatch Box and congratulate the Chair of the FAC, my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns), on raising this important issue. I want to return to the question of intimidation and threats on university campuses and assessments of any foreign state involvement in that. What guidance has been or will be issued to university vice-chancellors about the threats of these transnational oppressive actions?

My hon. Friend kindly refers to the FAC report of 2019. While I am not going to comment on actions taken towards universities—that is a matter for the Department for Education—the reality is that the communication between my office and that Department will only grow, as, sadly, these incidents appear to.

I welcome the Minister to his place. Can he confirm that the three premises referred to today have at no time been notified to the Government under the Vienna convention on diplomatic relations? If not, will his investigation include looking into how the people working out of these places came to be given visas by the Home Office?

I can tell from the question that the right hon. Gentleman has had many years of experience in these matters, and he can be assured that those questions are already part of the assessment I will be bringing and will form part of the report that I will conclude.

I also thank the Chair of the FAC, the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns), and welcome the Minister to his place. My constituency is home to the Chinese consulate in Scotland. It is also in a city with a number of universities and a large Hong Kong Chinese population. There are concerns about the activities that we now learn are going on in this country. Can the Minister assure us that the consulate and its activities will be part of this security monitoring exercise?

The commitment I have made is clear: actions that are incompatible with diplomatic status will be considered. This will be focused on the areas that have been raised, but I assure the hon. Lady that if it leads elsewhere, it will lead elsewhere. I pay tribute to the various universities in Edinburgh for their commitment to freedom and for the way in which they have handled many other issues similar to this one.

I also welcome the Minister and his statement. I have a good working relationship with the Chinese community in Swansea, who enjoy the peace and harmony afforded to them by the rights and protections that come from living in Britain. Will he assure me that, where Chinese nationals or others are detained in these police stations, their cases will be seen as akin to hostage taking, that the full force of British law will be focused on any breaches of our law—whether intimidation, harassment, bullying or illegal data collection and surveillance—and that we will continue to set examples to ensure that people are safe and known to be safe?

The rights of citizens in this country have been set out in law in various different ways for a little over 800 years. It is absolutely clear who has and who does not have the right to detain any citizen in this country. The law applies equally to all.

I welcome the Minister to his place. As shocking as it is to hear about these police stations, we are aware that China’s reach goes beyond that. Many Chinese citizens living in our communities are here not permanently but for a short time—I talk in particular about the Chinese student community—and will go back to China. Will he detail the steps that he plans to take to ensure that those Chinese students can enjoy the same freedoms as we do in this country without fear of interference from their own Government?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right to celebrate those Chinese citizens who come here temporarily for study or for other reasons and to highlight that one of the reasons why they come is that our universities across these islands have a long history of academic freedom that allows debate, innovation and challenge that sees ideas flourish and bad ideas fail. It is essential that all students have those rights. That is why the report and assessment will look into how we approach these situations and ensure that all students and citizens, wherever they are from and whatever they are doing, are afforded the same protections, as they should be.

I refer hon. Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests and congratulate the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns) on securing the urgent question. I also welcome the right hon. Gentleman to the Dispatch Box and the way in which he strongly reaffirmed that people on British soil will always be afforded the fullest protection of their rights and freedoms by the British state. We need to make it perfectly clear to China and others that only one law applies on these shores and it is the law of this land, which this Parliament and the devolved institutions have put in place. Does he think that the existence of these police stations is a breach of international law?

I entirely agree with the hon. Member about there being one law across this country. After all, that was the point of the common law and the reforms of hundreds of years ago that have seen liberty flourish and opportunity prosper in these islands. He will forgive me but, since I gave up the chairmanship of the Committee, I have forfeited the right to have personal opinions, but the Government have absolutely the commitment that he mentioned that all laws in this country will be voted for and allowed only by this House or the devolved Administrations, and that all citizens here and all those visiting will be under the same law.

I congratulate the right hon. Member on his long-awaited elevation to Minister. It is genuinely, truly well deserved. Further to my business question last Thursday on the despicable actions taking place in Chinese buildings in the UK, while we all recognise the right of an embassy never to have foreign influence, will he confirm that our underlying moral duty is to ensure that torture is not carried out on any inch of our soil? In accepting that, what diplomatic and legal steps can be taken to prevent torture?

I thank the hon. Member for his kind words. The House had to wait a little while longer for me to speak from the Dispatch Box than it normally has to wait for him to ask a question to whoever is at the Dispatch Box. I am grateful that he is in his place for my first event.

The hon. Gentleman’s point about torture is incredibly important as that is one of the few completely unconditional rights that every citizen in the country has been afforded for many years. He is absolutely right that any accusations of torture or violations of human rights on these islands or in any way under the jurisdiction of the United Kingdom would be taken extremely seriously.

That concludes proceedings on the urgent question. I would normally pause while people leave or come into the Chamber, but as I have before me the same dramatis personae for the next item of business, I will filibuster for a moment only to give the Minister a chance to pick up his bits of paper.