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Hong Kong: Covid-19 - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:52 pm on 19th March 2020.

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Photo of Lord Collins of Highbury Lord Collins of Highbury Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (International Development) 1:52 pm, 19th March 2020

My Lords, I too thank my noble friend Lord Pendry for initiating this debate. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, emailed me quite late last night, as is his wont, and reminded me that these debates are important because, while communities may be remote, they do follow these debates, particularly through new media such as Facebook and Twitter. It is important that we have continued, despite all the constraints upon us, to raise these vital issues.

Events are changing very fast. From the time that the noble Lord initiated this debate, we have seen a lot of changes. Carrie Lam announced on Tuesday that Hong Kong will quarantine all people arriving from abroad for 14 days; those restrictions will start today, Thursday. All entrants from mainland China already have to self-isolate. She said that the majority of cases had been imported, adding that strict measures were needed. As we heard in the debate about the number of cases, of the 57 new infections over the past two weeks, only seven were local cases; there are only 155 confirmed cases in the territory, which detected its first case in January.

Although it is difficult to understand the exact success of the Hong Kong response, given the incomplete testing figures, most agree that it has been at least in part successful—a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Carrington. I agree with that assessment. Although the approach of the Hong Kong Government differs from that of the UK, it has included greater social distancing measures and the closure of schools which, as the noble Lord said, we are now facing ourselves.

It is right that the United Kingdom engages with our international partners to share information on best practice. Gordon Brown was absolutely right on Radio 4 this morning: this is a global problem that requires a global response. It is no good saying “America first”, or “India first”; it is something that we all have to respond and come up with proper responses to. There is a very good reason why we should work particularly well and closely with Hong Kong on this issue. Can the Minister detail how the Government have engaged with the Hong Kong authorities and the non-governmental organisations of Hong Kong to better understand their approach to response?

As we find ourselves entering further into this crisis, the WHO has made clear above all that the Government must “test, test, test” all suspected cases. This is not a pandemic that we can fight blindfolded. We must keep abreast of the spread of those who have been affected. Of course, there is a physical capacity issue and there will be a limit as to how many individuals can be tested, but the Prime Minister has announced further plans to increase testing and increase the capacity. Although it is not his brief, I hope that the Minister will be able to give us some indication about what those plans mean in practice in terms of who will be further tested. What is the impact of better understanding the spread of the virus and the disease?

Along with the success of the Hong Kong authorities in tackling the virus, we have heard that we have to recognise the concerns raised relating to misinformation, much of which has circulated online and led to instances of panic. Can the Minister explain what lessons have been learned by the UK Government as a result of this? Throughout the pandemic, the feeling of distrust in the Hong Kong Government has remained. While larger demonstrations have scaled down, the police continue to disperse small-scale demonstrations, with reports of disproportionate force. Here, I too pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, who has been absolutely committed to raising these abuses of human rights—however big or small they have been, he has been there and constantly pushing the Government to act. We have heard about the protesters who were pepper sprayed on 9 March. They had gathered to pay tribute to Alex Chow Tsz-lok, who died last November during the protest.

In the light of this continued crackdown, can the Minister confirm what steps the Government are taking to ensure that British national (overseas) passport holders can gain consular access in the British embassy should mistreatment of protesters continue? This is a really important point. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, mentioned up to 200,000 BNOs in Hong Kong. I have a figure of 170,000; irrespective of that, it is roughly in the same ballpark. Whatever we say their status is—the noble and gallant Lord made particular reference to this—this country has an obligation to those nationals. They are British nationals, even if they happen to be overseas. We have an absolute responsibility.

Previously, the Government claimed that the extension of the rights of BNO passport holders would contravene the joint declaration. As we have heard, they cited an immigration report by my noble and learned friend Lord Goldsmith, the former Attorney-General, as proof that it would be illegal. However, as my noble friend Lord Pendry and other noble Lords have referred to, in a recent letter to both the Home Secretary and the Foreign Secretary, my noble and learned friend Lord Goldsmith disputed the misrepresentation of this view and published fresh legal advice, stating that the UK Government would not

“be in breach of any obligation undertaken in the joint declaration were it to resolve to extend full right of abode to BN(O) passport holders while continuing to honour their side of the Sino-British Joint Declaration.”

I would like to hear from the Minister today whether the Government have given any consideration to extending the rights of BNO passport holders to include: working visas; or, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, said, the minor act of extending the length of time that Hong Kong students can stay in the United Kingdom after completing their studies; or, more importantly—because this is about the security of these people—offering them full right of abode in the United Kingdom.

I hope that the Minister will also respond to the long-outstanding issue raised by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, of servicemen who have served this country. We have a duty under the covenant to respond to them; I hope that he will do so today.

Of course, as noble Lords, including my noble friend Lady Kennedy of The Shaws, said, we must be concerned about what appear to be further politically motivated arrests, including of the newspaper owner Jimmy Lai and the legislators referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Alton: Lee Cheuk-yan and Yeung Sum. All of them were arrested last month by the Hong Kong police under archaic public ordinance laws. Like my noble friend Lady Kennedy, I hope that the Minister can confirm that we have made the strongest possible representations to the Hong Kong authorities regarding these arrests.

The noble Lord, Lord Alton, emailed me late last night about his Written Question—to which the Minister responded yesterday, I think—on the assessment of Amnesty International’s report, Missing Truth, Missing Justice. In that response, the Minister raised the fact that the Government made their position clear on 27 February at the United Nations Human Rights Council. He said:

“A robust, credible and independent investigation into events in Hong Kong would be an important step in healing divisions and rebuilding trust that will support the process of dialogue and resolution.”

We need to know what has resulted from that support and whether the Government will continue to back the people and the elected representatives of Hong Kong.