HL Deb 27 November 2002 vol 641 cc744-7

2.52 p.m.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What representations they have made to the People's Republic of China about the future implementation of powers under Article 23 of the Hong Kong Basic Law.

The Minister for Trade (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean)

My Lords, my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary raised the issue in July with Beijing and with the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Government (SARG). My noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor and my honourable friend Bill Rammell have discussed with senior members of the Special Administrative Region Government their proposals for legislation. We have made clear that any legislation must be compatible with the rights and freedoms set out in the Sino-British Joint Declaration on Hong Kong.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the United Kingdom is very much involved in the guarantees that were given to the citizens of Hong Kong with regard to their civil liberties and rights both in the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984 and in the Basic Law promulgated in July 1997? Is she aware that the consultative document put out by the Hong Kong Security Bureau contains a proposal that organisations banned, or whose financing is banned, on the mainland could be banned, and their financing stopped, in Hong Kong also, and that those organisations banned on the mainland include church organisations, Falun Gong, pro-democracy movements and, indeed, many newspapers and pamphlets? Does she agree with Amnesty International that the level of civil liberty detentions has increased sharply in China in the past year—that is also stated by Asia Human Rights Watch—and will the Government take any further steps to ensure that the liberties enjoyed by the people of Hong Kong, with great benefit to themselves, to us and to China, can be guaranteed effectively in the next few months?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I agree that the British Government have very special responsibilities in this respect. I reiterated the British Government's adherence to those responsibilities when I addressed the Hong Kong Trade Development Council yesterday evening. The noble Baroness raises a particular point among the matters of concern in possible impending legislation which the British Government addressed specifically in the statement we issued only last week—on 18th November—under the name of the Consular General in Hong Kong. We now hope that the SAR Government will provide full and detailed public consultation on draft legislation. It is very important that we now see this draft legislation so that more informed comments can be made on what may be proposed.

Lord Elton

My Lords, is it not the case that what is being published is a blue Bill, not a white Bill, and that consequently amendment of it will be very restricted once the Bill is published? There will not be the opportunity to remedy any defects once it is published. Can the noble Baroness therefore say what steps Her Majesty's Government are taking to ensure that those aspects of the Bill which are clearly outside the provisions of the Joint Declaration are removed before it is published?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, we hope that we shall have opportunities for further consultation whether that is through a white Bill or some other mechanism. As I indicated, we issued a statement last week that mentioned not only the point raised by the noble Baroness in relation to proscribed organisations but also other matters of concern including freedom of the press and extraterritorial legislation. We have already asked the Hong Kong SAR to think again about any possible proposals with regard to those issues. We have said that we think further consultation is important.

Lord Marsh

My Lords, does the Minister agree that Hong Kong and some of the demonstrations that take place there are a matter of considerable concern to China within whose territory Hong Kong now is? Whether it be right or wrong, these propositions are highly sensitive and it really does not help to try to treat one of the world's major powers as if Hong Kong were still a colonial offshoot.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, of course these are matters of major concern to China. Her Majesty's Government recognise the sensitivities in that respect. Her Majesty's Government also recognise that it would be quite wrong not to acknowledge the importance of the agreed handover arrangements that laid down specific rights and freedoms for the people of Hong Kong. This is a matter for the Hong Kong SAR to pursue but, as with any mature relationship, the British Government have felt it necessary to register some concerns. We acknowledge that the position of China is extraordinarily important in this respect.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, do we not have a continuing obligation under the Sino-British Joint Declaration to ensure that legislation passed in the Hong Kong SAR is compatible with the international covenants and thus with the Basic Law? Will the Government therefore suggest to the Hong Kong SAR that the draft legislation be submitted for an opinion to the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva before it is laid before the legislature?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, as I hope I made clear, as a co-signatory to the Sino-British Joint Declaration on Hong Kong we in this country have a responsibility to ensure that the rights and freedoms enshrined in the Joint Declaration are maintained. We take the Joint Declaration responsibilities very seriously. They include freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and freedom of speech among other issues. I reiterate that two senior Cabinet Ministers, my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor and my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary, have made our concerns clear. We hope that we shall be able to resolve this matter satisfactorily in the discussions that we hope to have.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that many people in Hong Kong will derive comfort from the representations that the British Government have made on this issue? I applaud that. Will she also ensure that we are kept informed of the outcome of further discussions with the authorities in Hong Kong and in Beijing?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I am of course aware that many people in Hong Kong take comfort from that. That is why I made a particular point of referring to these issues yesterday evening when I made a speech that was largely about commercial issues. I felt that it was important to focus on current matters of concern.

Lord Moynihan

My Lords, pursuant to the—

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, we must move on now.

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