Hong Kong

Part of Prayers – in the House of Commons at 12:18 pm on 15th July 1988.

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Photo of Dr John Marek Dr John Marek , Wrexham 12:18 pm, 15th July 1988

The hon. Gentleman is right.

The hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr. Whitney) spoke of a consensus that crossed the House. There might be consensus on some issues, but there is no consensus on other important issues that have been pushed into the background. The Government have used their usual disinformation propaganda campaign to try to dismiss these matters from people's minds.

I accept that the Basic Law is a matter for China. Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman), I am not amazed, but I regard it as an act of statesmanship, an act that other countries would do well to follow, that the Basic Law is being drafted in as open a manner as possible. I do not believe that that would have been done in this country or in Hong Kong because the present Government would have made sure of that.

The question arises whether the present draft Basic Law is in conformity with the joint declaration. That is our sole locus standi for discussing the Basic Law in the Chamber. I hope that what we say will be read by the authorities in the People's Republic of China. It is meant to be helpful and not in any way to ursurp the sole right of the People's Republic eventually to define the Basic Law.

Hon. Members have mentioned articles 16, 17, 18, 169 and 172. I agree in large measure with what has been said, especially by the right hon. Member for Blackpool, South in that regard. There are problems about article 16 for example. The Standing Committee of the National People's Congress can revoke or return any law to the Hong Kong special administrative region. Suppose that a law was passed that was hotly debated in Hong Kong and mattered to many of the people there. Quite arbitrarily—for a reason that was not necessarily definable or explicable—the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress could decide to revoke or return that law. That could give rise to an unnecessary crisis. I hope that the Basic Law drafting committee will reconsider and will try to define the circumstances under which any such law can be returned and revoked, as well as the procedure that the National People's Congress would use in deciding whether to take such action.

It is important to try to define as closely as possible the laws that fall within the ambit of the Hong Kong special administrative region, in accord with the high degree of autonomy that it will have, and those laws which fall within the ambit of the People's Republic of China. Hon. Members have mentioned laws governing national unity and territorial integrity. We need to spell out those provisions as clearly as possible. If there are such laws, what are they? They may be about a national day for China or the definition of the flag; none of us would object to that. On the other hand, the provisions in article 17 might be there to deal with an unforeseen problem or with legislation enacted by the Hong Kong special administrative region that the People's Republic of China did not like. It is important for the People's Republic of China to define that more clearly and. also to define the procedures that it would follow in seeking to exercise its influence over Hong Kong. If the People's Republic of China wants to exercise influence over Hong Kong, it will do so and rightly so because Hong Kong will be part of China.

There are other problems of interpretation. In mainland China laws are promulgated and interpreted by the National People's Congress. In Hong Kong, laws are enacted by the legislature, but it is up to the courts to interpret them. The systems clash. I shall not go into the matter in more detail, but I believe that it has not been addressed adequately by the Basic Law drafting commit tee and I am sure that the committee will receive many representations on it.

In my view, it would be quite wrong for the courts in Hong Kong to seek the advice of the Chief Executive and for him to say, under article 18, that a given law infringed the rights of the People's Republic of China and that he therefore refused to allow that law to be passed. It is wrong that any judgment should be given by one person. The Chief Executive could be an extremely powerful person in Hong Kong after 1997, depending on which of the variations is eventually accepted for the formation of the legislature and the powers to be given to him.

An ideal solution might be for the Basic Law drafting committee to examine the American model and consider having some kind of supreme court to settle questions about what is in the ambit of one party and what is in the ambit of the other. Alternatively, the committee could consider the European experience and what happens in the European Court in which one party can go to an appellate body whose decision is final. If the People's Republic could consider those systems and perhaps reach some agreement in the Basic Law drafting committee that some changes have to be made, I believe that progress along those lines would be useful.

I am concerned about the powers of the Executive and the absence of any checks and balances in the present draft Basic Law. Articles 70 to 73 deal with the Legislative Council. Article 70 provides, as an alternative, that The Chief Executive shall concurrently be the president of the Legislative Council of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region". The equivalent here would be for the Prime Minister also to be Speaker of the House of Commons. If I am wrong, I hope that I will be challenged, but I do not believe that any hon. Member would agree with that. It cannot be right, and it should not be the case in Hong Kong after 1997.

Article 71 not as an alternative but as a firm provision in the present draft Basic Law, states: The President of the Legislative Council of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region shall exercise Ihe following powers and functions:

  1. (1) To preside over meetings;
  2. (2) To decide on and control the agenda".
Those are extremely sweeping powers. The House should consider what the situation would be if the President were also the Chief Executive. That is unacceptable to almost everyone in this country and I am sure that it is unacceptable to the people of Hong Kong. I hope that the Minister will deal with that when he winds up the debate. Experience in democracies throughout the world is such that the head of the Executive does not sit in the Speaker's chair controlling the agenda of the legislature. Whether there should be complete separation of powers is a question that we have not time to discuss today, but there must be sufficient separation.

The legislature must also include sufficient checks and balances to control or at least scrutinise the actions of the Executive. Article 72 provides for a certain amount of scrutiny. It states: The Legislative Council of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region shall exercise the following powers and functions …(2) To examine and approve budgets and final accounts submitted by the executive authorities;(3) To approve taxation and public expenditure". It does not say "to approve or otherwise". It may not be possible for a Back Bencher in this House to bring forward such measures, but we can scrutinise them and, if necessary, change them or vote them down. If that is possible in democracies throughout the world, it should be possible for the people of Hong Kong and the British Government must demand it.

I appreciate that there are problems and questions of diplomacy and that not everything can be openly stated from the Dispatch Box because discussions have to take place at diplomatic level between this country and the People's Republic of China. I therefore do not expect an immediate reply from the Minister agreeing with me on all these points. Nevertheless, the situation demands more evidence and assurance that the British Government are not in a cosy relationship with the People's Republic of

The powers of the legislature under article 72 include: (4) To hear and debate on the work reports of the Chief Executive:(5) To raise questions on the work of the executive authorities;(6) To hold debates on any issue concerning public interests". Again, that does not give the legislature after 1997 any powers to control the Chief Executive. It gives powers to ask questions, but whether those questions receive an answer, let alone an appropriate answer, is not provided for in the draft Basic Law.

The position could be even more difficult than that because article 73 states: However written consent of the Chief Executive is required before the following three kinds of bills are introduced:(1) Bills relating to revenue and expenditure,"— that is done in various legislatures— (2) Bills relating to government policies". That is a sweeping constraint on anybody elected to the legislature in the Hong Kong SAR after 1997. The Chief Executive would have only to say, "This is a matter of Government policy, so you, as an individual member of the legislature of Hong Kong, will not be entitled to introduce any Bill on that." If that matter is not put right, it will lead me to conclude that there is a cosy relationship between the United Kingdom Government and the People's Republic of China. The people of Hong Kong have not had democracy for various reasons, which I understand, and it is unacceptable that they will not get it after 1997. Will the Minister reassure me that what I have said is not the case?

Other hon. Members wish to speak, so I shall not be too long. The United Kingdom is morally bankrupt in allowing only 20 people a month for resettlement from the closed camps in Hong Kong. If we doubled that number, we would have a little more credibility internationally. I visited a camp earlier this year and I was sorry to see evidence of countries such as Canada and Australia treating the camps as a market place. People with skills could be resettled immediately, but those without were to remain incarcerated. People have been deprived of their liberty for five years and nothing has been done about it until now. I welcome the Government's intention to resettle all those refugees who came in under the previous set of rules as quickly as possible. Again, the Minister is furrowing his brow, so I hope that that is the case. If it is not, he will face heavy responsibility for depriving people of their liberty for five years or more in these closed camps.

I welcome the fact that the United Kingdom is now talking to Vietnam. That and the involvement of the international community is the only way towards a solution of the problem.

The people of Hong Kong require democracy after 1997, and I do not believe that the People's Republic of China will find it incompatible with the policies that it wishes to pursue after Hong Kong has become part of the PRC. A directly elected legislature is to some extent necessary. Hon. Members cannot get away from the principle that a 100 per cent. directly elected legislature would be ideal. I realise that ideals are not always achievable—that is what politics is about—but I insist on at least 50 per cent. of the legislature being directly elected so that the Basic Law complies with the joint declaration.

I agree with the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber (Sir R. Johnston) that a grand electoral college would be a sham because, somehow, somebody would have to select or elect that grand electoral college. At the end of the day there is no substitute for a reasonable number of directly elected members in the legislature. The present members of the Hong Kong legislature—I say this with respect—are not elected; or, rather, they are elected to represent functional interests. Therefore, they do not have the authority and the backing of the people. They are subject to all sorts of other constraints and influences. That is the problem, and we should recognise that, at this stage, what the Hong Kong legislature says is not necessarily in the interests of the people of Hong Kong. If it were a directly elected legislature, it would have that authority.

Some things in the draft Basic Law are in too much detail. The Foreign Secretary was right when he said that there was no mention of a balanced budget in the joint declaration—I was in error in thinking that there was. Article 105 mentions a balanced budget, but there is too much detail. The draft Basic Law should provide a skeleton of a constitutional framework. Sufficient thought should go into that draft Basic Law to ensure that, if there is a crisis within the next 50 years, the procedures of the draft Basic Law will take care of it. It should not have to say anything about the particular type of economic policy that should be followed, and it should not contain too much detail.

I hope that the People's Republic of China will understand that and will take that into account when it publishes its next draft.