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Chinese Police Stations in UK

Volume 731: debated on Wednesday 19 April 2023

(Urgent Question): To ask the Home Secretary if she will make a statement on secret police stations operated in the UK by the Chinese Communist party.

Ordinarily, the Minister for Security, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat) would have responded to this urgent question, because it sits within his portfolio. He is in Northern Ireland today, so I have been asked to respond in his place.

The latest reporting in The Times on the so-called overseas police stations are of course of great concern. As my right hon. Friend the Minister for Security said in his previous statement on the matter in November last year, investigations by the law enforcement community are ongoing, which limits what I can say in the House about a live investigation into a sensitive matter. As Members will appreciate, I do not want to say anything that would jeopardise any operational investigations or indeed any potential future prosecutions.

I will, however, take this opportunity to reassure the House of the Government’s resolve to protect every community in this country from transnational repression. Protecting the people of the United Kingdom is of the utmost importance. Any attempt to coerce, intimidate or illegally repatriate any individual will not be tolerated. That egregious activity is part of a wider train of authoritarian Governments—not just China, but others—perpetrating transnational repression in an effort to silence their critics overseas, undermine democracy and the rule of law, and further their own narrow geopolitical interests.

Through our police forces and the intelligence agencies that work with them, we take a proactive approach to protecting individuals and communities from threats. Where we identify individuals who may be at heightened risk we are front-footed in deploying security measures and guidance where necessary.

The upcoming National Security Bill will strengthen our powers to deal with transnational repression and with agents of foreign states more generally. Coercion, harassment or intimidation linked to a foreign power will be criminalised under the new foreign interference offence in that Bill. Existing criminal offences against a person, such as assault, will in future command higher sentences where they are undertaken at the behest of a foreign power through the state threats aggravating factor in that Bill.

The National Security Bill will also introduce a new foreign influence registration scheme, and we will not hesitate to use those new powers to bear down on the activities of foreign entities of concern. The Bill will return to this House in early May and I call on all hon. Members to support it when it does.

It is clear, however, that we can and must do more. That is why the Prime Minister asked my right hon. Friend the Minister for Security to lead a new defending democracy taskforce, a key priority of which is to enhance our response to transnational repression. That work is ongoing and he will provide an update to the House in due course. It builds on the work done by his ministerial predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds), who I see is in his place. I am clear, as is the rest of Government, that the repression of communities in the UK will not be tolerated and must be stopped.

It is reported in The Times this morning that a Chinese businessman linked to an alleged Chinese secret police station in London has attended Chinese Communist party political conferences, is linked to the united front work department and has organised Tory party fundraising dinners and attended events with Conservative Prime Ministers. Those very serious allegations raise vital national security questions, and I think the Home Secretary should be here to answer them.

The director general of MI5 has warned about the Chinese authorities both trying to influence our politics and running operations to monitor and intimidate the Chinese diaspora, including forcibly repatriating Chinese nationals. In November, we questioned the Minister for Security about possible secret police stations in Croydon, Hendon and Glasgow. He provided no information, but said he would come back with an update. He has not done so. Nor has he met with my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones), despite promising to do so.

Other countries have taken visible action. This week, two men were arrested by the FBI in New York for suspected operations, and in the Netherlands similar operations have been shut down. In the UK, however, we have heard nothing—no reports of arrests and no reassurance that these operations have been closed down. Instead, we are told that one key individual has been vice-chairman of the Chinese group fundraising for the Conservative Association in the City of London, and has attended party-organised events with two out of the last three Conservative Prime Ministers.

Can the Minister tell us the full extent of that individual’s involvement with the Conservative party and contact with any Ministers? What actions have Ministers and the party taken? What have the Government done about the alleged secret police stations in Croydon and elsewhere? Have their operations been closed down?

The lack of answers will raise grave concerns that the Government are not addressing the scale of this threat and are not updating Parliament for fear of party political embarrassment because of the connections with the Conservative party. That is not good enough. Party political concerns must never—repeat: never—be put before our national security. The country deserves answers.

The shadow Home Secretary asks a number of a questions relating to the specific individual named in The Times today in connection with his activities in Croydon, which is, as she will appreciate, the borough that I represent in Parliament—this is of great concern to me as well as to the hon. Member for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones). I can tell the House that I have been briefed today, as one would expect—at short notice, as this is not ordinarily part of my ministerial portfolio—and there is a live investigation of this matter by the law enforcement community. As I said in my opening remarks, I cannot comment on the details of such an investigation while it is live for reasons that will be obvious to all Members of this House. As soon as my right hon. Friend the Minister for Security is in a position to provide an update on the results of that investigation, he will do so. I will also ask him to brief privately the hon. Member for Croydon Central as soon as possible.

It is worth mentioning that the Chinese activity in this area is not confined to the United Kingdom. We are aware of approximately 100 alleged stations of the kind we are discussing around the world—they are not unique to the United Kingdom—and, as the shadow Home Secretary said, earlier this week arrests were made in New York in connection to an investigation conducted by the FBI similar to the investigations that we are conducting.

On party politics, all political parties need to be alert to the danger of representatives of hostile states seeking to infiltrate or influence their activities. It is fair to say that other Members of this House have been similarly targeted—those we know about—so I ask all Members of Parliament and all political parties to be alert to that risk. We all owe that to democracy.

May I bring my right hon. Friend back to the real issue? Investigations into individual transgressions are absolutely fine, and they progress. The problem is that we in this House and the Government have known for a considerable time—it has been raised by many of my colleagues—about the activity of the three illegal Chinese police stations. We know that they are bringing Chinese dissidents in, confronting them with videos of their families, and threatening their families in front of them if they do not co-operate, leave and go back to China. We know that. The security services have warned the Government about it. The question today is this: why in heaven’s name have we not acted, alongside the Americans and even the Dutch, to shut those stations down and kick those people out of the country?

I thank my right hon. Friend for his question and for his long-standing campaigning on this issue and the activities of China more widely, which are rightly of great concern to this Government and to Members on both sides of the House. The activity that he describes—interference with Chinese nationals in this country—is something that we take incredibly seriously. We saw that terrible incident in Manchester not very long ago, where members of the Chinese consular staff dragged someone inside their compound. As a consequence of that, six Chinese officials have now left the United Kingdom.

The activity that my right hon. Friend describes is incredibly serious and unacceptable, and it must and will be stopped, but the three particular locations that he referred to are subject to a live investigation and work by the law enforcement community, so I am afraid that I cannot say any more from the Dispatch Box today. As soon as my right hon. Friend the Minister for Security can provide an update, he will do so.

The Scottish National party welcomes the inclusion of a stand-alone China section in the integrated review 2023. I agree with the Minister that we must take this threat seriously, and the Government should be giving as much, if not more, attention to the influence of Chinese state actors as they do to that of Putin’s oligarchs.

This is not the first time that this issue has been raised in this House, so can the Minister provide any update at all on the secret Chinese state police stations? Can he assure us that he is not just waiting for the National Security Bill to go through before taking action? Can he reassure me that he or, perhaps more appropriately, the Security Minister has had communications with counterparts in the Scottish Government and Police Scotland? Given that one of these alleged secret police stations is in my Glasgow Central constituency, may I have an update from Ministers on the situation? The Security Minister has in the past given me a verbal promise of an update, but I have not had one. He is not here today to address that, and I do not want to put the Minister for Crime, Policing and Fire on the spot, but I am very concerned about that.

What reassurance can the Minister provide to Scotland’s Chinese community, some of whom may have good reason to fear Chinese state interference and the secret police, who may be operating here? Can he reassure us that action is forthcoming, because it does not feel as though terribly much has been taken thus far?

First, I will, on the Security Minister’s behalf, recommit him to meeting the hon. Lady, along with the hon. Member for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones). Given that one of these locations is in the constituency of the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss), it is important that the Security Minister meets her to discuss it. On his behalf, I make that commitment. I will talk to him later today and reiterate the importance of that meeting taking place, for all the reasons given by the hon. Lady.

I completely agree with the hon. Lady that this kind of activity—intimidation, or potential intimidation, of foreign nationals on our soil, whether by people acting for parts of the Chinese state or, indeed, other states, because we have seen this with other countries as well, with Iran being an obvious example—is completely unacceptable. We have zero tolerance for this kind of activity. It is under active investigation. It is not true to say that no action has been taken. In relation to these particular sites, action is currently being taken, but Members will understand why I cannot go into the details of that work at the moment.

I reassure the House that action can and will be taken under the law as it stands, but the National Security Bill updates and increases the powers available to us. For example, it requires registration and gives us more power to act against people who are acting on behalf of foreign states. I encourage all Members, including those in the other place, to support that Bill so that we can get it through Parliament and on to the statute book as fast as possible, because those extra powers will help us in this area.

I agree with my right hon. Friend that the National Security Bill will make this country safer against state threats and, indeed, make political dissidents in this country—North Korean, Russian and Chinese—safer as well. Does he agree that national security should not be a party political football and that, by definition, ongoing cases should not be discussed in this House, particularly when they have classified elements?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. Matters of national security should be tackled on a bipartisan, or tripartisan, basis across the House. All democratic political parties in the wider western world, including the United Kingdom, are at risk from inappropriate influence. All of us must work together to combat and exclude that risk, and we should approach these issues in that spirit of cross-party co-operation.

I am perplexed, and my constituents are very concerned. At the start of November, the Security Minister said in response to an urgent question that there was an investigation and that he would come back to the House as soon as possible to provide a report. He promised to meet me. I have emailed him multiple times and have even texted him, but I have had nothing in response, and now we read that the man in Croydon has links to both the Chinese Communist party and the Conservative party. Was the Security Minister’s failure to respond to me multiple times a discourtesy, or is there something else going on?

That insinuation of party political influence is frankly a disgraceful slur. The hon. Lady is not doing Croydon residents a service by attempting to ask the question in the way that she just did. I do know, because I have asked him, that the Security Minister has never met or encountered the gentleman concerned. He does, however, owe the hon. Lady an update, as I said in response to the shadow Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), and I will make sure that the Security Minister meets with both the hon. Lady and the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) extremely quickly to provide an update on this issue.

As a former Police Minister myself, I think it is very important that Parliament stays out of an ongoing investigation—that is absolutely vital—but what I am particularly worried about is that, if we just kick these people out of the country and do not prosecute them and put them in British prisons, when they get back to China they will be given a medal, not the criminal prosecution in this country that they deserve. Can we make sure that if a criminal act has taken place, these people are prosecuted in this country, not just kicked out? The Chinese will love that, and they will give them medals and God knows what else.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right in the point he made at the beginning of his question, as a former Police Minister, about the importance of not commenting in this House on particularly sensitive live investigations that are being undertaken. I completely agree with his second point about the importance of prosecuting people domestically in the UK and, if they have committed a criminal offence here in the UK, making sure they serve a sentence here prior to getting kicked out. There needs to be a very clear deterrent, making it clear to the people who are thinking about doing these things that it is unacceptable on our soil—we will not tolerate it.

I was pleased to hear the Minister say that these are matters that should be addressed on a cross-party basis. The Security Minister, whom I hold in the highest regard, said that the defending democracy taskforce would be cross-party, something that was welcomed by the director general of MI5. Can I ask the Minister to confirm that that is still the case? If it is, presumably either the Minister and his Department or the Security Minister will be reaching out to our Front Benchers in the very near future.

I certainly share the hon. Member’s sentiments about the cross-party nature of this issue. I will take that point back to my right hon. Friend the Security Minister and put it to him later today, as soon as he gets back from Northern Ireland.

I am exasperated that, six months after I secured an urgent question on this issue, it is still true that there are four illegal police stations operating in the country that we know of—the one in Belfast seems to be missing from much of the reporting. There is no question that when we are vulnerable at home to Chinese transnational repression, we are weaker on the world stage. [Interruption.] I hope the Minister is listening; does he wish to respond already? This is a transnational crisis, and I have just met with Vahid Beheshti, who is on day 56 of hunger strike outside the Foreign Office because of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps failing to be proscribed, despite the promise to do so. When will the Home Office close the IRGC cut-outs operating in Maida Vale, Willesden and Manchester, as well as the at least four Chinese police operating stations? Other countries have acted, so why have we not?

I assure my hon. Friend that I was listening extremely carefully to what she was saying. She asserted in her question that these locations are still operating. If I may say so, she is making an assumption in doing so—not an assumption that I am going to comment on, because it is a matter that is under live investigation, as she will appreciate. As soon as the Security Minister is able to comment on this matter, he will come to the House and do so.

As my hon. Friend will also appreciate, I cannot comment on the IRGC either, because as she knows, Ministers do not comment on matters around proscription that are being considered. What I can and will say is that this Government take interference with foreign nationals here—transnational intimidation—extremely seriously. It is completely unacceptable, and we will do whatever is necessary to stop it from happening.

Anybody who has the right to be here has the right to feel safe and secure in being here. In the past couple of years, to their credit, the Government have allowed in excess of 100,000 Hongkongers to move to this country, but we know that the intimidation and persecution has followed them. In universities up and down the country, they are shouted down, and they continue to be intimidated. These police stations are part of the infrastructure that enables that. To borrow a phrase from the Foreign Secretary, is it not time that we should be pulling down the shutters on them?

I completely agree with what the right hon. Gentleman has said, particularly in relation to the British national overseas Hong Kong citizens who have come here. We have extended a very warm welcome to those people, who are at risk of repression in Hong Kong now because of the Chinese Communist party’s brutal repression of democratic freedoms and other freedoms there, which this Government abhor in the strongest terms. That is why we have offered refuge here to those people.

The right hon. Gentleman is quite right to say that foreign nationals residing in this country, regardless of their immigration status, should enjoy all the rights and freedoms around free speech and freedom from intimidation that we would expect any citizen of this country to enjoy. I agree with him: it is the duty of Government and the law enforcement services and agencies to ensure that those freedoms and rights are protected, including on campuses. I think the Department for Education is doing some work in that area. Where Chinese nationals are students at universities, they should be free from harassment and intimidation—the same applies, of course, to other groups of people, Jewish students being another obvious example. It is vital that university authorities take robust action to protect their students, whether Chinese, Jewish or from any other group, from any sort of intimidation on campuses, which is totally unacceptable.

I thank the Minister for his robust line, and I thank Ministers for all the work they are trying to do. I think it is true to say that in the past 10, 15 or 20 years, collective Governments have been slow and naive in dealing with these more nuanced, politicised threats from Iran, Russia, China and so on.

I get the fact that the Government are making transnational repression illegal and that there is an ongoing police case, but the point has already been made: repression is already illegal in this country, and has been for centuries. People have the right to the freedoms of this nation, whether they are visitors or citizens. We know who these diplomats are, and we are not going to be imprisoning Chinese diplomats, so we do not have to wait for a court case before we start expelling diplomats who are engaged in these practices. I think that is the point that I and others are trying to make today.

There is no reluctance to ensure that diplomats engaged in inappropriate activity will leave: as I have mentioned already, six officials who were based in the Chinese consular office in Manchester have now left the United Kingdom. The gentleman in Croydon, the subject of the article in The Times today, is of course not a diplomat and is therefore susceptible to prosecution in the normal way, exactly as the former Police Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning), described earlier. That is exactly why there is an ongoing investigation that is taking place.

What specific measures will higher education institutions be encouraged to take, or if necessary what legislation will be put in place, to protect BNO passport holders particularly, but also young Iranian, Russian and Ukrainian students who feel under surveillance, and others within the student body who are there under a surveillance pact? We know this has been happening for quite some time, and the Government’s response has been tardy. Will the Minister undertake today to meet with the Higher Education Minister, the right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), and to share immediate advice following today’s news, so that we can have a reassurance that all international students are safe?

I completely agree with the hon. Lady’s sentiment that international students—indeed, any students—at UK universities should be free from intimidation, a point I made in response to a previous question. Whether those are Chinese students, Iranian students, Jewish students or anyone else, they should not be getting intimidated. I will just repeat the point I made earlier: individual universities, first and foremost, should be ensuring the safety of students on their campuses in the first instance.

In relation to the hon. Lady’s question about action by the DFE, as Members will appreciate, I am already straying quite a long way beyond the limits of my ministerial responsibility by answering this question; going into DFE areas would take me even further beyond them. What I will say is that I will ask the Security Minister to come back to the hon. Lady specifically on that point and update her in writing on what work he is doing with the DFE to ensure the safety of students on campuses. It is a vital question, and it is appropriate that the Government get involved as well as leaving it to universities. I will ask the Security Minister to come back to her on that very important point, but I completely agree with the sentiment of her question.

These illegal police stations form part of a pattern, whereby China is an adversary of freedom the world over. We saw that recently over her intimidation of Taiwan, we see it in her treatment of Hongkongers, and we see it in her actions in Africa to try to act through debt bondage to secure advantage on that continent. When will the Government designate China, as we should, as a formal threat to the interests of the United Kingdom in our security architecture?

I agree with the thrust of my right hon. Friend’s thesis. Clearly, the Chinese Communist party is seeking to project its influence around the world, in a way that often undermines the interests of the recipients of that interest and often undermines the interests of those countries that believe in freedom and democracy. I believe we have a duty in this country, acting with our allies in the free world, to make sure that that influence is circumscribed.

Clearly, we are taking more powers domestically, for example through the National Security and Investment Act 2021, which came into force just over one year ago, to seek to limit influences in the investment and economic spheres. We are doing work with partners around the world, too. We are supporting countries where freedom is threatened, including Taiwan, which obviously we strongly support in its right to choose its own destiny. The question my right hon. Friend specifically raises is obviously a complicated one that is probably better dealt with by higher powers than me, but I have made clear in my answer my feelings on the topic of our relations with China.

On how many occasions have the Government or governmental officials discussed the use of these police stations with the Chinese embassy?

I am afraid that, not being a Foreign Office Minister or the Security Minister, I do not know. However, I am sure that the Security Minister will provide an update on that when he next comes to the House.

I thank the Minister for his answers today. This is a difficult area, and he is constrained because of the ongoing investigation, but can he reassure me that the authorities doing all these investigations have all the resources they need, because that will be reassuring to the people of South Derbyshire?

Yes, I can provide my hon. Friend with the assurance she requires. The Government take this issue incredibly seriously. We do not think the operation of these facilities is remotely acceptable, and neither is the intimidation of foreign nationals on our soil, so the relevant law enforcement bodies have the resources necessary to protect people on British soil, as she and this House rightly expect.

Last month, Coventry hosted a friendship festival to welcome Hong Kong nationals under the BNO scheme. I am proud of the city’s diversity, but the existence of Chinese police stations poses a direct threat to my constituents. The Government’s own Back Benchers have said that this Government are asleep at the wheel when it comes to the threats posed by China. Given that this is a matter of national security, what steps will the Minister take to ensure the safety of my constituents in Coventry North West?

I do not accept the suggestion that the Government have been asleep at the wheel. A whole range of actions are being taken to counter foreign state threats. I have mentioned the National Security and Investment Act 2021; the National Security Bill; the integrated review, which puts national security at its heart; and the defending democracy taskforce, which is chaired by the Security Minister. Those are all designed to keep safe not just BNOs, but others.

On the topic of BNOs, I think that illustrates the United Kingdom at its best. We sometimes hear Opposition Members saying that we do not have safe and legal routes, and that we do not extend a warm welcome. However, we have welcomed more than 100,000 with BNO passports with open arms. We have welcomed 25,000 people from Afghanistan via safe and legal routes. There are the 25,000 who came from Syria under the UK resettlement scheme and other schemes, and the more than 200,000 people who have come from Ukraine. They all illustrate what an open and welcoming country this is and the approach that this Government take to genuine and legitimate refugees.

It is not just nefarious activity from the Chinese Communist party through the so-called police stations in this country and other parts of the world, but their commercial activities and activities in academia that are a threat to our national security. BGI is a company that is harvesting genomic information from people around the world, for example through prenatal tests. Can I have an assurance from the Government that the defending democracy taskforce will be looking not just at the so-called Chinese police stations operating in this country, but all those aggressive acts being carried out by the Communist Chinese state?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to draw attention to what the Chinese Government are doing in seeking to infiltrate academia and certain sensitive technologies. I saw that at first hand during my time as technology Minister, and I must say to the House that I was deeply concerned by what I saw. The machinery of government for dealing with that is the defending democracy taskforce, and there are various other arms of government dealing with that. The powers that exist under the National Security and Investment Act 2021 give the Government—in the first instance, I think it is through what used to be the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy—powers to take action. I can assure my hon. Friend that the Government are alive to that, and I saw that when I was tech Minister. I can assure him that the Government are vigilant and alert and that action is being taken.

I thank the Minister for his responses. What steps are being taken to secure the safety of Chinese expats who are frightened of the reach of the Chinese Government’s arms in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland? I have some constituents who are Chinese expats who have told me that they feel they have been followed. They are pretty sure that their phones have been tapped. What assurance can I give to my Chinese constituents about their privacy, security and safety?

I appreciate the hon. Member’s question. If he is aware of cases where constituents feel that they are being in any way targeted, I strongly urge him and his constituents to contact the police, which I guess would be the Police Service of Northern Ireland in the first instance. The PSNI can then escalate the matter if required. Please report that quickly, and I would say that to any Member of this House. I can assure him that those matters will be quickly investigated and action taken.

My constituency has become home to many people from Hong Kong. Can the Minister reassure my constituents that we take our moral duty to protect political dissidents seriously and that they should be free from harassment on any inch of UK soil? By that, I do not just mean Chinese police stations, but also IRGC cut-outs.

My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. It is a long-standing principle in this country that we will ensure the freedoms and rights of all those who reside on our soil. We will protect them from threats to their freedom by whoever might perpetrate them, including, and perhaps even especially, foreign states. He makes an important point, and he is right to make it.

I thank the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) for tabling this urgent question, although I doubt whether the Chinese community will be thanking her after she made her cheap political point, which rather spoiled the questions she was asking. My right hon. Friend the Minister will be aware that, with regard to foreign actors, it is not just China that is active in this country, but Iran. What does he think he can do to protect journalists who correctly seek to criticise not only the regime in China, but what is happening in Tehran and the rest of Iran?

First, I associate myself with the comment my hon. Friend made at the beginning of his question. In relation to press freedom, it is a long-standing, centuries-old principle in this country that the press is free and should be free from interference, including by foreign states, and that includes Iran. I suspect we are working closely with the Iranian media outlet that was shockingly, shamefully and disgracefully targeted by the Iranian regime, to ensure that it can and will continue to operate from UK soil, as it is perfectly entitled to do.