Chinese Police Stations in the UK - Announcement

– in the House of Lords at 11:48 am on 20 April 2023.

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The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Wednesday 19 April.

“The latest reporting in the Times on the so-called overseas police stations is of course of great concern. As my right honourable friend the Minister for Security said in his previous Statement on the matter in November last year, investigations by the law enforcement community are ongoing, which limits what I can say in the House about a live investigation into a sensitive matter. As Members will appreciate, I do not want to say anything that would jeopardise any operational investigations or indeed any potential future prosecutions.

I will, however, take this opportunity to reassure the House of the Government’s resolve to protect every community in this country from transnational repression. Protecting the people of the United Kingdom is of the utmost importance. Any attempt to coerce, intimidate or illegally repatriate any individual will not be tolerated. That egregious activity is part of a wider train of authoritarian Governments—not just China, but others—perpetrating transnational repression in an effort to silence their critics overseas, undermine democracy and the rule of law, and further their own narrow geopolitical interests.

Through our police forces and the intelligence agencies that work with them, we take a proactive approach to protecting individuals and communities from threats. Where we identify individuals who may be at heightened risk, we are front-footed in deploying security measures and guidance where necessary.

The upcoming National Security Bill will strengthen our powers to deal with transnational repression and with agents of foreign states more generally. Coercion, harassment or intimidation linked to a foreign power will be criminalised under the new foreign interference offence in that Bill. Existing criminal offences against a person, such as assault, will in future command higher sentences where they are undertaken at the behest of a foreign power through the state threats aggravating factor in that Bill.

The National Security Bill will also introduce a new foreign influence registration scheme, and we will not hesitate to use those new powers to bear down on the activities of foreign entities of concern. The Bill will return to this House in early May and I call on all honourable Members to support it when it does.

It is clear, however, that we can and must do more. That is why the Prime Minister asked my right honourable friend the Minister for Security to lead a new defending democracy taskforce, a key priority of which is to enhance our response to transnational repression. That work is ongoing and he will provide an update to the House in due course. It builds on the work done by his ministerial predecessor, my right honourable friend the Member for East Hampshire, Damian Hinds, who I see is in his place. I am clear, as are the rest of the Government, that the repression of communities in the UK will not be tolerated and must be stopped.”

Photo of Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede Shadow Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 11:59, 20 April 2023

My Lords, yesterday in the Times newspaper there was a report into a Chinese businessman with links to an alleged Chinese secret police station in Croydon. This report raises serious questions about national security. This businessman, who has attended Chinese Communist Party political conferences, has also attended organised Conservative Party fundraising dinners and other events involving former Conservative Prime Ministers. Although we have raised this issue here before, after police stations were reportedly uncovered in Hendon, Glasgow and Croydon, we have received no update. Meanwhile, operations in New York and the Netherlands have taken action against Chinese police operations, and the Canadian and German Governments have expressed concern about operations in their countries.

Here, we have to contend with the additional dimension that one individual who has been linked to an operation here has links with the Conservative Party and has met Ministers. We know that the director-general of MI5 has warned that Chinese authorities are attempting to exert influence over our political system. Can the Minister tell us the extent of the contact this individual has had with Ministers? What action are the Government taking to look into this role within the Conservative Party and the involvement he has had with the Government? Have any other individuals connected with these operations been identified, and are their similar concerns about them seeking to influence British politics?

Photo of Lord Sharpe of Epsom Lord Sharpe of Epsom The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

My Lords, I share the noble Lord’s concern about this threat to our democracy, but as the Security Minister said in a previous Statement on this matter in November last year, investigations are still ongoing and it would be inappropriate for me to comment any further on operational matters, as to do so could obviously jeopardise future prosecutions.

However, I take this opportunity to reassure the House of the Government’s resolve to protect every community in this country from transnational repression. As regards the internal party aspects of this, it is my understanding—and if I am wrong, I will obviously come back to correct myself—that this individual was prominent in a particular Chinese organisation within the Cities of London and Westminster. Beyond that, I do not think he had any involvement or contact with Ministers, and, as all noble Lords around the House know, prominent politicians are featured in photographs with very many people, most of whom they will not know.

Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

My Lords, I recognise that it is difficult to comment on this immediate case. Therefore, I raise some slightly wider questions. China is not the only authoritarian state which attempts to catch up with and influence its nationals here. We all recall the occasion when a member of the royal family of one of the Gulf states was taken off the streets in Cambridge and taken back to the Gulf states. Can the Minister assure us that other states and their behaviour in Britain—including some with whom we are relatively closely allied, such as the Gulf states—are also in scope and that the Government are concerned about that?

Secondly, universities have a particularly sensitive role here—I speak as a former academic. Last year, one vice-chancellor told me that his biggest single problem in maintaining free speech in his university was keeping the peace between his Hong Kong students and his Chinese mainland students. I put that down as a marker for further discussion. The Defending Democracy Taskforce was mentioned several times in discussion in the other place yesterday. I tried to find out exactly what it is covering, how far it is intended to have some cross-party representation and what its plans are. It is very difficult to find out whether it really exists, how often it meets, what it is doing and what its strategy is. At a later stage, could the Minister’s department communicate to some of us what the Defending Democracy Taskforce’s intentions are?

Photo of Lord Sharpe of Epsom Lord Sharpe of Epsom The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

The noble Lord raises a couple of very good points. Obviously, any attempt to coerce, intimidate or illegally repatriate any individual will not be tolerated; it does not matter where they are from. The Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill and the National Security Bill both contain provisions to ensure that universities have the tools they need to deal with interference and threats to academic freedom. The noble Lord is quite right to draw the House’s attention to the Defending Democracy Taskforce, which my right honourable friend the Security Minister introduced in the other House in November last year. He has been asked for updates; I have not seen him since those were asked for, but I will make sure that the representations from this House, as well as the other place, are understood. I can also commit that higher education falls within the remit and scope of the Defending Democracy Taskforce, so there will be more to be said on that matter. Noble Lords will also appreciate that there are a number of other areas, including, as I said, the National Security Bill, where we will tighten up our ability to respond to some of these issues.

Photo of Lord Deben Lord Deben Conservative

Does my noble friend accept that in a democracy, it is very important that Ministers and Members of Parliament are available to the public as a whole, and it would be a great sadness if this kind of allegation, proven or unproven, becomes a way to ensure that people are unable to reach to the heart of government, as they ought? I hope the Government will continue to state that those who are malefactors should of course be prosecuted with great urgency; but it is very important that those who merely wish to get people in government to understand what is happening in the world—frankly, it is not always obvious that the Government know that—should have access.

Photo of Lord Sharpe of Epsom Lord Sharpe of Epsom The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I agree with my noble friend. As I said earlier, it is very difficult for any prominent politician of any party, within or outside government, to know precisely who is appearing in a selfie with them. We should be very cognisant of that fact. I also agree that if subsequent bad behaviour, illegal behaviour, is discovered, whatever it may be, the full force of the law should be brought to bear.

Photo of Lord Anderson of Swansea Lord Anderson of Swansea Labour

My Lords, I concede that the investigation is at an early stage, but is it the Government’s working assumption that this phenomenon is not confined to Croydon and there are other such so-called police stations around the country—looking particularly, I would guess, at Chinese students in the UK?

Photo of Lord Sharpe of Epsom Lord Sharpe of Epsom The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

My Lords, again, it is difficult for me to comment on ongoing matters, but the noble Lord on the Opposition Front Bench mentioned a couple of other police stations that have been aired in the public domain in the past, so yes, it is fair to say that there is more than just one.

Photo of Lord Hannan of Kingsclere Lord Hannan of Kingsclere Conservative

My Lords the advance of autocracy in China since 2012 has been vertiginous. We have seen the creation of a panopticon state where face recognition and location technology are fused to follow and monitor every citizen, and where big online platforms such as Alibaba, Weibo and Tencent both proselytise for the regime and spy on its behalf. Although we often talk of it as Orwellian, I think a better metaphor would come from Huxley, in the sense that even when Chinese students in western universities are put in a place where they do not have censors and firewalls to worry about, they still tend not to look at “dangerous” websites. Will my noble friend confirm that one thing we can do to promote democracy in China is to support the China where democracy and freedom have advanced, especially since the 1990s, namely, Taiwan: a China on the doorstep of red China which shares its language and culture but rejects its totalitarianism?

Photo of Lord Sharpe of Epsom Lord Sharpe of Epsom The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

My noble friend asks a very good question. The UK’s long-standing policy on Taiwan has not changed: we have no diplomatic relations with Taiwan but a strong unofficial relationship which is based, as my noble friend said, on deep and growing ties in a wide range of areas and is certainly underpinned by shared democratic values.

Photo of Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Labour

My Lords, can the Minister give more details about the situation in Glasgow? Scottish universities are taking in students from China to raise income because there are no fees from Scottish students, and some strange people from China may be getting in under the guise of being students. The Scottish Government have a very strange contract with a Chinese company that is causing grave concern among the public in Scotland. The Scottish Government have been trying to take a greater role in foreign affairs, without the kind of support that the Home Office and Foreign Office have from our intelligence agencies. Can the Minister give an undertaking that the UK Government will talk to the appropriate Scottish Ministers about this issue and make sure that they are dealing with it efficiently and safely?

Photo of Lord Sharpe of Epsom Lord Sharpe of Epsom The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

The noble Lord will appreciate, as I said before, that I am unable to comment on ongoing operational matters and investigations. I listened carefully to what he said, and rather than make that commitment regarding the devolved Administration myself, I will certainly ensure that my noble friend Lord Offord is aware of his concerns and suggest that he looks into them.