Trial of Jimmy Lai - Commons Urgent Question

– in the House of Lords am 12:00 pm ar 19 Rhagfyr 2023.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Monday 18 December.

“The Foreign Secretary has called on the Hong Kong authorities to end their prosecution of Jimmy Lai and release him. He also urged the Chinese authorities to repeal the national security law and end the prosecution of all individuals charged under it. The Foreign Secretary and I welcomed the opportunity to meet Mr Lai’s son, Sebastien, again last week and to listen to his concerns as the trial approached.

As the Foreign Secretary has made clear, Mr Lai’s prosecution is politically motivated. He has faced multiple charges to discredit and silence him. As an outspoken journalist and publisher, he has been targeted in a clear attempt to stop the peaceful exercise of his rights to freedom of expression and association. The Foreign Secretary raised Mr Lai’s prosecution with Foreign Minister Wang Yi on 5 December, as his predecessor did in Beijing on 30 August. We will continue to press for Mr Lai’s release with the Hong Kong and Chinese authorities.

Diplomats from our consulate-general attended court today as a visible sign of the UK’s support, and they will continue to do so. We will continue to press for consular access to Mr Lai, which the Hong Kong prison authorities have repeatedly refused. China considers anyone of Chinese heritage born in China to be a Chinese national. It does not recognise other nationalities and therefore considers Mr Lai to be exclusively Chinese.

More broadly, we have made it clear that the national security law has damaged Hong Kong and its way of life. Rights and freedoms have been significantly eroded and arrests under the law have silenced opposition voices. It is a clear breach of the Sino-British joint declaration, the legally binding UN-registered treaty that China willingly entered into. Its continued existence and use is a demonstration of China breaking its international commitments. We will continue to stand up for the people of Hong Kong, to call out violations of their rights and freedoms, and to hold China to its international obligations.”

Photo of Lord Collins of Highbury Lord Collins of Highbury Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Equalities and Women's Issues), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and International Development), Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords 12:06, 19 Rhagfyr 2023

My Lords, I too, like Iain Duncan Smith, welcome the change of rhetoric by the Foreign Secretary, who said yesterday that

Jimmy Lai is a British citizen” and called on the Chinese Government to release him. As Catherine West said, hopefully the Foreign Secretary’s intervention will not be a one-off, and we will continue to stand up for Jimmy in a sustained way and to maintain what I hope will be regular and effective communication with his family.

I know the Minister will not mention specific designations, but does he agree that more use of the Magnitsky sanctions is really important? Also, is there not a clear need for a cross-departmental China strategy to ensure that we can be effective in challenging China on these horrendous human rights abuses?

Photo of Lord Benyon Lord Benyon The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

I thank the noble Lord for his words. On his first point about the Magnitsky measures that were included in the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act, I was involved in that process. They are robust and they stack up with similar measures that have been brought in by so many countries through the hard work of a great many people but particularly Bill Browder. They have applications right across the civilised world against acts of gross human rights abuse. We will continue to consider designations under the Global Human Rights Sanctions Regulations. We do not speculate about those, and is quite right that we do not. On 6 July 2020, the then Foreign Secretary announced the global human rights sanctions regime, allowing the UK to target human rights violators directly for the first time.

The noble Lord also asked about our China strategy. I refer him to the integrated review refresh, which has a very clearly set out approach to China—to protect, to align and to engage. Examples under protection are the National Security and Investment Act, removing surveillance equipment from sensitive government sites, and banning TikTok on government devices. Examples under alignment are deepening co-operation with core allies and a broader group of partners, G7 leaders and the like.

On engagement, we are strengthening contact with China. We invited China to the AI Safety Summit, we deliver messages on those occasions on human rights, and we press China not to support Russia. We will continue that kind of engagement, which we think is the right approach. It is all set out in the integrated review.

Photo of Baroness Smith of Newnham Baroness Smith of Newnham Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Defence), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Defence)

My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Collins, said, it is good to hear that the Foreign Secretary is supporting the rights of Jimmy Lai. Can the Minister tell the House what His Majesty’s Government are doing in practical terms to try to re-engage China on the Sino-British agreement? In the other place yesterday, the Minister of State, Anne-Marie Trevelyan, simply said that

“the breaching of the Sino-British joint declaration is a great tragedy”.—[Official Report, Commons, 18/12/23; col. 1126.]

That sounds a bit like hand-wringing. Is any more being done?

Photo of Lord Benyon Lord Benyon The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

The Sino-British declaration is a bilateral agreement registered with the United Nations. It is vital that we continue to raise it when we think it is being abused or when measures are being taken that are not in keeping with it or the values that underpin it, and we do that regularly. I have a list—I do not have time to relay it to the House now—of the times when we have raised these issues and examples of our continuing to raise them both bilaterally and multilaterally. I entirely agree with the noble Baroness that words are just that: words. The actions one can take when one side of a party is failing to sustain a bilateral agreement are very difficult to take, but we will continue to find all methods to raise the importance of this declaration.

Photo of Lord Alton of Liverpool Lord Alton of Liverpool Crossbench

My Lords, I draw attention to my non-financial interests as listed in the register. I know Jimmy Lai and his family personally, and the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of The Shaws, and I are sanctioned by the Chinese Communist Party. Is this Stalinesque show trail of Jimmy Lai not a moment of reckoning for all who claim that they value the rule of law, human rights, press freedom and democracy? Is it not a moment of reckoning for the duplicitous belief that you can deepen trade deals while United Kingdom citizens and 1,762 political prisoners are incarcerated in Hong Kong jails? In calling for Mr Lai’s immediate and unconditional release, can the Minister say what practical steps we are giving him and his family? Do we intend to respond robustly if other United Kingdom citizens are caught in this CCP spiders’ web? Why are we not sanctioning those responsible, as the noble Lord, Lord Collins, asked? What more will we do to expose this charade and travesty of a sham show trial that makes a mockery of justice and the rule of law?

Photo of Lord Benyon Lord Benyon The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

I thank the noble Lord for what he and others have done, and for their involvement with organisations such as Hong Kong Watch. The situation is exactly as he describes. He asked what the Government are doing to support Jimmy Lai and his family. We have met Sebastien Lai, as I know the noble Lord has; we are working with Doughty Street Chambers, which is running a very effective international campaign; and we have sought to provide consular access to Jimmy Lai, although it has been refused. The attempt by Jimmy Lai to have the legal support of his choice went to the highest court of appeal in Hong Kong, but that was rejected. At every stage, we have sought to represent the needs of a British citizen, and we will continue to do so. We will continue to seek consular access, which is currently being denied by the Hong Kong prison service, and to try to support his family here and around the world, while making sure that the campaign is as effective as it can be to get Jimmy Lai released.

Photo of Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws Llafur

My Lords, I echo what the noble Lord, Lord Alton, said about the fake nature of the charges concocted against Jimmy Lai. Many noble Lords will not know the details of this case, but it really is shocking. I am a member of Doughty Street Chambers, which is involved in the case. The charges are not only a way of dealing with one of the most eminent businesspeople in Hong Kong; their purpose is to threaten and silence others who are speaking about the erosion of democracy and the rule of law there. I am grateful to the new Foreign Secretary for what he has been doing, and I thank the team working with him on this. There are real threats to the legal team, so what advice and help with security is being given to them? The noble Lord, Lord Alton, and I have both experienced the business of being sanctioned. I am being attacked in cyber ways all the time, and I have the benefit of security advice from this House, so I wonder whether that is happening to the other lawyers involved. Is the trial conforming to due process and do we have observers in the court? Will those of us involved in following this case and campaigning be told what is happening during the trial?

Photo of Lord Benyon Lord Benyon The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

I pay enormous tribute to the noble Baroness for her work. The answer to her latter question is that we have consular staff attending the court daily and they are reporting back on the proceedings. She is right that it is a sham trial and that we need to make sure that we are raising this issue on every occasion possible. We are working with teams of expert lawyers, both nationally and internationally, and we are supporting Jimmy Lai in any way we can. The Foreign Secretary’s response was very robust and clear. This will continue to be raised at the highest level, as it has been recently, in bilateral meetings with the Chinese Government.

Photo of The Bishop of St Albans The Bishop of St Albans Convenor of the Lords Spiritual

My Lords, I too congratulate the Foreign Secretary on a much more robust approach. This is not happening only in Hong Kong; it is part of a much wider movement right across China, where not only human rights but religious rights are being denied. Churches are being knocked down, pastors are being arrested and, most notoriously of all, there is, many people would argue, a genocide of the Uighur people. What are we doing with our colleagues internationally to press China on these rights in a consistent, long-term way that is backed up by sanctions?

Photo of Lord Benyon Lord Benyon The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

I thank the right reverend Prelate. The Sino-British joint declaration is an internationally registered, legally binding treaty between the UK and China, under which China committed to uphold Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy and to protect the rights and freedoms of its people. This explicitly includes freedom of expression and freedom of religion or belief; that is why we need to make sure that this declaration is upheld.

Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green

My Lords, I declare my position as co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Hong Kong. Jonathan Price, one of the members of the international legal team—which, as the Minister said, was denied the right to represent Mr Lai—said that

“the rule of law is eroded” in Hong Kong. That is very evident to us all. Are the Government taking sufficient steps to warn British businesses engaged, or considering engaging, in Hong Kong that the rule of law does not exist there? Are they taking sufficient account of the fact that a number of British businesses—notably, banks—are cosying up to the Chinese regime in Hong Kong? Are the Government concerned about that and prepared to take action?

Photo of Lord Benyon Lord Benyon The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

The Foreign Office makes very clear the rules that should apply to all companies when they do business in different parts of the world, and to access and travel. We believe that the right kind of trade with China and Hong Kong is right; it is a good way of engaging with a country and of using those occasions to make sure that we are making the points about human rights. We have very strict rules in this country that require businesses to declare their supply chains in a whole variety of ways. There are rules covering some of the things the noble Baroness talked about. What is really important is that we focus on the case of Jimmy Lai and recognise that it concerns not only him but others. This is a human rights issue that the Government take very seriously and we want to see it resolved very soon.