Commons Urgent Question
The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Thursday 15 December.
“As Members of the House will be aware, the Foreign Secretary laid a Written Ministerial Statement yesterday to update the House on actions taken following the incident that occurred outside the Chinese consulate in Manchester on 16 October. I was as shocked as all Members of the House to see the disturbing social media footage of violence there that day. The right of free expression—the right to protest peacefully, the right to speaks one’s mind free from the fear or threat of violence—is an absolutely fundamental part of our democratic life in the UK.
In our immediate response, the Foreign Secretary summoned China’s acting ambassador—the most senior Chinese diplomat who was in the UK that day—to the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office to demand an explanation for the incident. His Majesty’s ambassador in Beijing also sought a further explanation from the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Following the incident, Greater Manchester Police initiated an investigation. As part of that investigation, the police requested that the FCDO approach the Chinese Government to ask them to waive immunity of the Chinese consul general and five of his staff to enable interviews to take place. We informed the Chinese embassy of that request and set yesterday as the deadline, making it clear that we expected it to take action.
Indeed, we have been clear with China from the outset that we would take firm action should the police determine that there was a need to interview officials regarding their involvement in the incident. We rightly expect the highest standard of behaviour from all foreign diplomats and consular staff in the UK regardless of their privileges and immunities.
In response to our request, the Chinese embassy, acting on instruction from Beijing, notified His Majesty’s Government earlier this week that it had removed the consul general from the UK. The embassy also notified us that five other staff identified for interview from the incident by Greater Manchester Police have either now left or are about to leave the UK. I wish to put on record my thanks for the professionalism shown by Greater Manchester Police, particularly given the complexities of dealing with this case.
As the Foreign Secretary said yesterday, we are disappointed that these individuals will not be interviewed. It is therefore right that those identified by the police as involved in the disgraceful scenes in Manchester are no longer, or will shortly cease to be, consular staff accredited to the UK. Throughout this process, we have been clear that, in the UK, we adhere to the rule of law, follow due process and respect the operational independence of our police.
Our firm diplomacy and our actions demonstrate the seriousness with which we took this incident, and the correct outcome has now been reached. The UK will always use our diplomacy to demonstrate the importance of abiding by the rule of law, and we expect others to do the same.”
My Lords, the Answer reminds us of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, which allows states to withdraw members of a consular post at any point. Anne-Marie Trevelyan said that we were asking the Chinese either to waive immunity or to do that. Their withdrawal is a clear admission of guilt. To avoid those individuals being able to repeat such attacks on peaceful demonstrators in this country, MPs including the chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee asked the Government to say retrospectively that the diplomats concerned are personae non gratae.
The Minister in the other place seemed unwilling to respond directly to that question, so I hope the Minister here can give us a direct answer today. Can he also advise the House whether Ministers have directly engaged with their international counterparts to prevent similar incidents happening elsewhere?
My Lords, on one of the points that the noble Lord raised, at no time in our conversations with the Chinese embassy did we ask them to remove their diplomats. It was right that there was a police investigation and then, based on police advice, we asked for the immunities to be waived.
The noble Lord asked about the issue of persona non grata. He is indeed correct that it was raised in the other place. I can confirm that the consul-general and the five other staff who the police had identified have now left the UK and are no longer accredited consular staff in the UK. It is right that they are no longer here. We have been clear that the consul-general and the others would not be welcome to do any further posting here in the UK.
I take on board the strong sentiments that have been expressed in your Lordships’ House and the other place about the importance of ensuring that people who commit such actions are subject to police investigations and, if the Vienna convention is exercised, that we follow through on that and ensure that such people are not posted to the UK.
With regard to what the noble Lord said about other international partners, I myself have not directly engaged on that issue, but if there is more detail to share then I will share it with the noble Lord.
My Lords, the activities of the Chinese have undermined the entire concept of diplomatic activity. However, what they have done here is overt, and we are rightly rid of them; I think I took it from the Minister that they will effectively be personae non gratae, but he was careful with his language.
That is overt activity, but I am also concerned about covert activity by what remains of the Chinese missions. I asked the noble Lord, Lord Murray of Blidworth, who is sitting on the Bench next to the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, whether the Government intend in the National Security Bill to make covert activity by foreign intelligence services operating without the approval of the United Kingdom Government unlawful. The Minister said their activities would be prejudicial to the safety and interests of the United Kingdom but would remain lawful. Why is that the case? For such activities, those who are living in the UK should be liable to remedy under law. Why is the National Security Bill not going to clamp down on that?
My Lords, I do not wish to speak to the specifics of the National Security Bill, but I will follow that up; I was not part of that exchange. I am very clear that, as we have done on this occasion, we must follow through specifically and work with police authorities. If individuals are identified then we must ensure that, as the police identify them, we ask for immunities to be waived. The Vienna Convention on Consular Relations was set up with good intent. We expect everyone who is appointed to the Court of St James and indeed diplomats up and down the country to adhere to the principle but also the spirit of that convention.
My Lords, how does the Minister think the Chinese Communist Party would have reacted if the British consul in Shanghai had physically assaulted a Chinese citizen? Will he undertake to ensure that his department will reply to the letter that I sent to the Foreign Secretary asking whether the diplomats, against whom we failed to take immediate action, will be banned from the UK and our overseas UK territories and whether we are seeking compensation from the CCP for the cost of the Manchester police inquiry?
Given the decision of Tower Hamlets Council to reject the planning application for the mega-embassy on the Royal Mint site, will the Minister undertake to answer the questions that I put to him during the debate on China and human rights that was initiated by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans, which remain unanswered, and review the CCP’s acquisition of that site?
My Lords, if the noble Lord has not yet received the letter from that debate, I shall of course follow that up. On the specific issue of the planning application, he will be aware that my right honourable colleague the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities has a direct quasi-judicial obligation. The noble Lord referred to a specific planning application. At some point, that may be referred to him, so I cannot comment on it.
On the noble Lord’s earlier point, I cannot speak for the Chinese Communist Party, but I can say that I am absolutely honoured to speak for His Majesty’s Government, because our moral compass is markedly different from that of the Chinese Communist Party.
The reprehensible actions in Manchester are part of a pattern of the Chinese Government testing the resolve of the UK and our allies through very deliberate transgressions of our legal system. Can the Minister give an update on the unofficial police stations that his colleague the Security Minister made an announcement on last month? What has been done to formally identify that they are acting in this way, and to shut them down?
My Lords, I will have to follow up on the specifics, but on the noble Lord’s more general point about these so-called unofficial police stations, they have no basis in the United Kingdom and where they and such actions are identified, we shall take appropriate action to shut them down, as he said.
My Lords, the last question certainly deserves an answer, because this is very strange. Does the Minister appreciate and agree—I think he does—that this incident is a small part of the gigantic dilemma of our relationship with the People’s Republic of China in the coming years? Does he agree that there is a need to clarify what part the Chinese system deeply embedded in our present infrastructure should play in the future, or how we will change it? How will we deal with the fact, mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, that our trade with China is still on an enormous scale and touches on important areas of security? Does the Minister not agree that the recent lead from the Foreign Affairs Committee of the other place—that we should make real efforts to clarify this very difficult relationship, without going to absurd lengths by trying to cancel China and so on—is a very necessary part of developing our new foreign policy in an utterly changed world?
My Lords, as we look at refreshing the integrated review, these aspects will of course be covered, but I agree with my noble friend that there are various elements of our policy on China that present an immense challenge. The actions of the consul general and other officials were, frankly, absolutely against any diplomatic action. It would ultimately have been for the police to investigate and decide, but we observed those actions and they were absolutely against any kind of sanction or action that should have been taken by any diplomat.
On the wider question of our relationship with China, my noble friend is of course right to point out that we have a trading relationship. On broader global challenges, including global health and climate change, China has an important role to play. But, as the Minister of State for Human Rights, among other things, I say that this has not prevented us from calling out China when we see an abuse, whether at home or abroad, or from leading the way in multilateral fora, including the Human Rights Council.
My Lords, as was said, this is part of a much larger testing of what we do in this country. This is also being lived out and spelled out in our university campuses, where meetings are sometimes being disrupted, people are being shouted down and freedom of speech is under threat. What advice and support are being given to our universities to ensure that these vital values are upheld in our country?
My Lords, the right reverend Prelate is of course right: such actions go totally against the traditions of our country and free debate within universities. Such situations have arisen, and we have given support to universities. I say to all noble Lords—I know that many are involved with educational institutions—that, where they identify such actions, we should be told in order to make sure that authorities take appropriate action.