Orders of the Day — Hong Kong

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:10 am on 10th March 1988.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Dr John Marek Dr John Marek , Wrexham 1:10 am, 10th March 1988

I received the draft when I was in Hong Kong. I have no reason to believe that the draft is in any way secret. Perhaps the Minister can tell us about that when he replies. The title of the draft reads: Collection of draft articles of the various chapters prepared by the sub-groups of the Drafting Committee compiled by the secretariat of the Drafting Committee for the Basic Law, December 1987. Translated by the secretariat of the consultative committee for the Basic Law. 5 January 1988 draft. I suspect that the draft is available if hon. Members require it. However, we will have to wait and see what the Minister says. The Minister is shaking his head. If it is not available, it should be because the draft affects the future of the people of Hong Kong. It vitally affects how they will be governed for 50 years after 1997. I am not saying that there is anything underhand here or that we are trying to interfere in the Basic Law whose promulgation is the responsibility of the People's Republic of China. We want to help the process so that we achieve as good a Basic Law as possible and ensure that the Basic Law drafting committee has the best possible advice.

I make a helpful criticism: I am not sure that the Basic Law drafting committee has the best advice. Are the British Government in a position to provide advice, which can be considered and, if necessary, cast aside? One cannot ask for more. The Basic Law drafting committee would probably welcome the British Government's advice and experience on administration in general and on Hong Kong in particular.

Article 64 has three options for the election of the legislature of the Hong Kong special administrative region. Option one provides for 50 per cent. to be elected by functional constituencies, 25 per cent. to be directly elected by geographical constituencies and 25 per cent. to be elected by a grand electoral college. That option does not satisfy my interpretation of the draft declaration. In some ways, the draft declaration is vague, but it is clear that the Hong Kong legislature will be composed by election. That must mean that all the people of Hong Kong must have a not too unbalanced say in its composition.

I do not believe that it satisfies the joint declaration to have 25 per cent. directly elected. Fifty per cent. have to be elected by functional constituencies. Such constituencies exist at the moment in Hong Kong. One million or 2 million people may have one seat in a functional constituency and a few hundred accountants or doctors another seat. That would not be accepted by the British people or by the people in any democracy in the world. There is no logic in saying that the people of Hong Kong are different and that their idea of democracy is not the same as ours.

The second option is better—50 per cent. elected by general and direct elections, 25 per cent. by functional constituency elections and 25 per cent. to be selected by regional authority elections, such as elections by the district boards, the urban council and the regional council. Subjectively, that would just about satisfy the joint declaration.

The third option—a dismal one—is for 30 per cent. to be selected by an advisory board from non-advisors, of whom at least one-third shall be principal officials while the rest shall be members of the Executive Assembly or members of the public; 40 per cent. shall be elected by functional constituencies; and 30 per cent. shall be directly elected by geographical constituencies. I hope that the Basic Law drafting committee understands how other legislatures in democratic countries are elected. The joint declaration says that the Hong Kong special administrative region shall enjoy a high degree of autonomy. It can do that only if the people of Hong Kong have that autonomy and give it, through their democratic votes, to the legislature. Options one and three certainly do not do that and I have great reservations about whether option two is the best.

Article 69 refers to the powers of the president of the legislature of the HKSAR. The proposals are that the president shall either be elected by the legislature or shall be the chief executive. The chief executive will have a difficult job because he will have a duty to Beijing and to Hong Kong. Article 69, to which there is no option, gives to the president of the legislature, first, the power to preside over meetings of the legislature and, secondly, the power to decide and control the agendas of the meetings. What would hon. Members say if we gave you, Madam Deputy Speaker, the power to control and decide the agendas of our meetings? No hon. Member would accept that.

Thirdly, the president has the power to decide the times of suspension, adjournment and commencement of meetings. Many hon. Members will be flabbergasted to read this. Fourthly, he can call special meetings between sessions. There are no checks and balances. If the chief executive may also be the president of the legislature, the legislature will be unable to control the executive in any meaningful way.

Article 70 states that the Hong Kong special administrative region legislature shall examine and pass the budgets and final accounts as proposed by the executive authority. In most legislatures, it is not open to individual members to propose new legislation for increasing taxes. However, this House can alter and refuse to pass Budgets and final accounts as proposed by the Executive. But that is not what the draft Basic Law says. The legislature can approve taxation and public expenditure. It should say that the legislature should consider proposals for taxation and public expenditure and pass them if it agrees with them. It will receive the administrative reports of the executive authorities and debate them. It cannot ask for or require reports. It can simply receive them. What a toothless legislature so far.

The legislature can question the work of the executive authorities. That does not go far enough. Annex 1 of the joint declaration states clearly that the executive shall be accountable to the legislature, and I have yet to see any power that will give any accountability to the legislature. The sixth function is to debate any issue relating to the public interest—not to decide anything, but to debate. Anyone can debate, but in a democracy we must be able to decide at the end of the day. Finally, the legislature can assent to the appointment or removal of judges in the court of final appeal and the chief judge of the supreme court.

Article 71 deals with what the members of the Hong Kong special administrative region may do. It states that they may, in accordance with the provisions under this Law and legal procedures, separately or jointly present any bills, save for the following three areas which will require the prior written approval of the Chief Executive. The first is Bills relating to taxation and government expenditure. It is clear that the legislature will be toothless in relation to taxation and Government expenditure unless the chief executive has given written approval. The second category—this is a sweeping restraint on the legislature—is Bills relating to Government policies. After 1997, the legislature will be unable to debate anything that relates to Government policy unless the chief executive has given his written consent. The third category is Bills relating to the structure and operation of the executive authorities. I could mention many other matters, but I think that I have given the flavour of my serious worries, some of which I hope are shared by my hon. Friends and perhaps even by Conservative Members—although I know that there are not many Conservative Members on the Benches at the moment.

There is no doubt that in any democracy there must be an executive that is accountable, and at present the draft Basic Law does not allow for that. I hope that the Government will take on board and will talk to the People's Republic of China offering friendly criticism. Let me repeat this, as I do not wish it to be misunderstood in Hong Kong or in Beijing. Rather than being criticism and interference, I offer this as helpful comment upon the way in which democracies have worked in this country, which has been reflected in the way in which we have administered Hong Kong. Perhaps we have not administered Hong Kong in quite the most democratic way when we should have done so, but the principle has been in place. I believe that the present Government of Hong Kong pay much attention to what goes on in the Legislative Council. However, it is not codified and written down in standing orders, and that needs to be done.

One of the problems is that the Basic Law drafting committee, which by and large comes from the People's Republic of China and from Hong Kong, does not perhaps have the breadth of wisdom and the experience that its members could have. Certainly, from the Hong Kong side, I suspect that many members have the experience of the Legislative Council in Hong Kong, but not that much more experience. Again, that is not a slight or a criticism of those members, because I am sure that they are doing their best. However, as a result of the meetings to draft the Basic Law, there are many problems with it, and one cannot help feeling that it has been drafted by a committee of 50 people.

I wish the people of Hong Kong well in the traumatic journey that they must undertake in the next nine years. I know that even now in Hong Kong there is a brain drain because people there do not have confidence that everything will go well. They are wrong, because things can and should go well. With the help of the British Government and the Government of the People's Republic of China, I have every confidence that things will go well, especially if the executive authorities of both countries take the people of Hong Kong into their confidence and discuss with them openly what should be done. They should sample public opinion, and that action should anticipate how public opinion will develop in Hong Kong in the next nine years. Above all, it is most important that there should not be a feeling in Hong Kong that the British Government do not care about the territory and that they want 1997 to come as quickly as possible. The British Government must do their best to stop this feeling from gaining ground.

I have every hope that things will go well. In the next two years there will be much discussion about the Basic Law, which is the most important aspect to be considered in the next nine years. It will govern what goes on in Hong Kong during the next 50 years. The discussions should take place openly. I hope that this debate will arouse inquisitiveness among more people in Hong Kong and will lead them to ask, "What exactly is in this Basic Law, and how does it affect me? Is there anything that I can put into it, or are there representations that I can make to the British authorities or to the Basic Law drafting committee?" If that happens, this debate will have served some purpose.