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Hong Kong: Political Prisoners

Volume 819: debated on Tuesday 22 February 2022


Tabled by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what representations they have made to the Government of Hong Kong about the (1) human rights, and (2) release, of pro- democracy political prisoners remanded in custody under that Government’s national security law.

My Lords, on behalf of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans, and with his permission, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in his name on the Order Paper. In so doing, I declare my interests both as a patron of Hong Kong Watch and as vice-chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Hong Kong.

My Lords, the mainland Chinese and Hong Kong authorities have used the national security law to target pro-democracy figures, curtail freedoms and shrink the space for opposition, a free press and civil society. The UK continues to raise its concerns directly with Hong Kong and Chinese authorities. We continue to urge Beijing to uphold its international obligations, including the rights and freedoms protected in the joint declaration.

In thanking the noble Lord, I will put to him a question put to me by a courageous Hong Kong activist, Chung Ching Kwong, about young pro-democracy activists most at risk of arrest. Can we be told, she asked, when the Home Office will introduce the promised and welcome new regulations to include within the BNO scheme young people with a parent who is a BNO passport holder and born after 1997? What are we doing to work with other Commonwealth countries to provide an international lifeboat for young Hong Kongers who do not qualify for the BNO, and what estimate have the Government made of their number?

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, for his question. We are sympathetic to the circumstances of children of BNO parents born on or after 1 July 1997 and are considering what more can be done to support this cohort where they wish to build a permanent life in the United Kingdom. We will continue to bring together our international partners to stand up for the people of Hong Kong, to call out the violation of their freedoms and to hold China to its international obligations.

My Lords, is it not time for us to reconsider British judges giving a veneer of respectability to an appallingly repressive regime?

The national security law poses real questions for the rule of law in Hong Kong and the protection of fundamental rights and freedoms promised by China in the joint declaration. Our assessment of Hong Kong’s judicial independence is increasingly finely balanced. It is, therefore, right that it is kept under review.

My Lords, I know that there have been recent discussions between the Lord Chancellor, the Foreign Secretary and British judges who continue to serve on the Court of Final Appeal. That fine court declared recently that these new laws under the national security law trump rights guaranteed by the Basic Law. What were those talks about and what was their result?

My Lords, I was not privy to those conversations, but the noble Lord is quite right about the situation in Hong Kong relating to breaches of the joint declaration that have continued over time.

My Lords, I recall that, before the transfer of sovereignty in 1997, judges and anti-corruption police officers were routinely seconded to Hong Kong to assist with the administration of justice under the then colonial constitution. Can the noble Earl say how many of the individuals concerned remained in post at the changeover, whether British judges still served the new Hong Kong Administration after the transfer of sovereignty and what the position is now?

My Lords, in relation to judges in Hong Kong, I answered the question on the first supplementary, but we are aware that a number of UK nationals are members of the Hong Kong police, having joined prior to the handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997. The Government have no jurisdiction over this matter; the national security law poses real questions for the rule of law and the protection of fundamental rights and freedoms promised by China in the joint declaration.

My Lords, while Hong Kong has been an open and free economy, it has brought great help to China. Are we making sure to point out to the Chinese Government that, if they turn it into a quasi-police state, they will lose the huge economic advantages of its success?

My Lords, the consequences of Beijing’s actions in relation to Hong Kong have been made very clear on many occasions. As the noble Lord will be aware, since 2021 we have launched a bespoke immigration route for BNOs, suspended the Hong Kong-UK extradition agreement and extended the arms embargo to cover Hong Kong.

My Lords, can the Minister tell us whether any representation has been made by Her Majesty’s Government on care for the families of those pro-democracy activists imprisoned under the national security law, particularly in the light of the withdrawal of so many human rights organisations from Hong Kong, leaving them with no recourse?

My Lords, the noble Baroness makes a very good point about those who have been arrested under the NSL. There are difficulties here, as she will be aware, around consular assistance for BNOs and dual nationals; it is available only in third countries, but not in China, Macau and Hong Kong. However, where we have legitimate humanitarian or human rights concerns, we can and will lobby the relevant authorities and demonstrate our political support.

My Lords, following up on previous answers from the Minister, given the level of interference in the Hong Kong judicial system, does he agree that the context in which there was thought to be a continuing role for British and Commonwealth judges has fundamentally shifted? Is it not now time for those judges to be withdrawn from the judicial system? Will the Minister work with Commonwealth partners to get this done?

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that question. As I said, our assessment of Hong Kong’s judicial independence is increasingly finely balanced. It is therefore right that it is being kept under review. It is essential that both the Hong Kong judiciary and Hong Kong’s legal institutions can operate independently and free from political interference. Whether to withdraw judges from Hong Kong is decided by the Supreme Court, in conjunction and consultation with Her Majesty’s Government.

My Lords, when leaving Hong Kong and entering the UK, what passport do our friends actually travel on? China does not recognise dual citizenship, so which takes precedence in this instance? When will the amendment of the noble Lords, Lord Alton and Lord Patten, to the Nationality and Borders Bill come before us? Will it come back on Report and be properly addressed?

My Lords, I cannot predict what will happen in legislation in the future, but I am sure the noble Lord will be made aware in due course. The noble Lord also asked about people travelling from Hong Kong. They are able to travel under the Hong Kong SAR passport.

My Lords, given that it is now palpably clear that human rights are under severe attack in Hong Kong, how much longer does the review of UK judges’ position have to take before they are firmly advised to play no further part in the Hong Kong judicial system?

My Lords, the noble Lord makes a fair point, but these are issues relating to whether there are judges from the United Kingdom serving in Hong Kong. This is under review continually. I do not have any more information on that, but if there is any more, I will write to the noble Lord.

My Lords, I declare my position on the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Hong Kong. I will understand if the Minister does not know that the Hong Kong Baptist University student newspaper was suppressed in January, but its staff and students suffered. The HKBU said that it could not promise to guarantee student safety if they chose to attribute their resignation to the way they had been treated. In answering the noble Lord, Lord Alton, the Minister said that he sympathised with the situation of young Hong Kongers. Is sympathy really enough for people such as those brave students, who are taking action to try to defend human rights?

I could not agree more with what the noble Baroness said on the importance of those who have been protesting. It is very clear to all who watch the newsfeed. The Government hope to be in a position to say more this issue in the forth- coming days on, ahead of Report on the Nationality and Borders Bill.