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8.44 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean): My Lords, I, too, should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, for providing this opportunity for debate. This House has always paid close and particular attention to developments in Hong Kong. The affection for, and understanding of, Hong Kong shown by all sides of the House this evening is testament, if one were needed, that Hong Kong will not be forgotten after 30th June.

I should like especially to welcome the contributions made by the former distinguished Governor of Hong Kong, the noble Lord, Lord MacLehose, and by the noble Baroness, Lady Dunn. If I may say so, the noble Baroness's elegant, persuasive and very wise advocacy is a reflection of her deep knowledge of Hong Kong and her continuing engagement in developments there.

There are 18 days until the transfer of sovereignty, which the Prime Minister announced yesterday he intends to witness personally. It is only a little over 40 days since this Government took office. One of our first actions was to confirm Chris Patten in his post as Governor until 30th June. He has done, and is doing, a tremendous job and he enjoys our full confidence.

As many noble Lords have noticed, events are moving at a tremendous pace. When I first spoke on Hong Kong in this House, I said that achieving a successful transition was among the heaviest and most immediate overseas responsibilities placed upon the Government. Since then, we have seen the 40th plenary meeting of the Sino-British Joint Liaison Group, the last before the handover, and numerous other contacts with China at all levels to ensure, as far as we can, that the transition agenda is completed.

That agenda is almost completed. I wish to pay tribute here, as many have done, to the officials of both sides and from the Hong Kong Government who, over the 13 years since the Joint Declaration was signed, have worked tenaciously and tirelessly to turn the high principles enshrined in the Joint Declaration into practical administrative measures; to convert the catch-phrases "one country, two systems" and "a high degree of autonomy" into real life.

The noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, was right. The rule of law has been central to Hong Kong's economic and social success. Not just rules; not just law; but the rule of law. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Denning, once said:

The rule of law means that the government and each individual is equal before the law. It protects individuals against arbitrary interference by the government; against improper influence by the rich and powerful; against corruption; and against abuses of power. It means impartial judges and an independent prosecution service.

The phrase, "One country, two systems" means that Hong Kong will continue to have its own legal system, entirely separate from that of mainland China. One, of course, cannot legislate for integrity. But Hong Kong has one of the finest legal systems in the world, served

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by some of the best judges and lawyers in the world, as many noble Lords have acknowledged. What we can do--and have done with the agreement of China at every stage--is to ensure that that system and those people can continue to provide the people of the Hong Kong special administrative region with the protection of the rule of law within the common law system. With China's agreement, Hong Kong will have its own Court of Final Appeal--in Hong Kong, not Beijing--replacing the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council.

The rule of law is the ultimate protection of the fundamental rights and freedoms of the individual. China agreed in the Joint Declaration that the mainland's "socialist system", would not be imposed on the people of Hong Kong. To make sure that there is no room for doubt, China listed in the Joint Declaration exactly what it meant by that general undertaking. It promised freedom of the person, of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, to join trade unions, of correspondence, of travel, of movement, of strike, of demonstration, of choice of occupation, of academic research, of belief, of the inviolability of the home, the freedom to marry and the right to raise a family freely. These are basic human rights to which many noble Lords have drawn our attention this evening.

China is itself party to neither the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights nor that on Economic Social and Cultural Rights, though it has indicated--and we would welcome this--that it may sign the second covenant this year. But it agreed in the Joint Declaration that the provisions of the two covenants as applied to Hong Kong will remain in force. We firmly believe that that includes reporting to the United Nations treaty monitoring bodies. We will continue to press the Chinese Government to explain how reports on the implementation of the covenants in the Hong Kong special administrative region will be made. We have made clear that, for our part, we would not object to the Hong Kong special administrative region submitting reports itself, and the UN treaty monitoring bodies have indicated that they are also willing to be flexible on this matter.

Many of those who have spoken this evening, including the noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, have placed our policy on Hong Kong in the wider context of our relations with China. China is a country of great and growing importance. We will speak up when we should in areas such as human rights, but that should be seen in the context of a much more wide-ranging and constructive relationship than has so far been achieved. We hope Hong Kong will be a bridge between Britain and China, not a barrier. But if it is to be a bridge of friendship and not a bridge of sorrows, the incoming sovereign power must fully honour the undertakings it has made in the Joint Declaration.

Several noble Lords have referred this evening to the plans to swear in the provisional legislature in the early hours of 1st July during the inaugural ceremony of the special administrative region. I do not wish this evening to rake over the past. Our views on this invention of China's are clear. Nothing China does can alter the fact that up to 30th June there can be only one constitutional legislature in Hong Kong--that elected by the people of

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Hong Kong in September 1995. We are committed to co-operating with it and we will do nothing to undermine it. There has never been any question of British Ministers attending the swearing-in of the provisional legislature. What is essential now is for China to ensure that the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Government hold free and fair elections as soon as possible after the handover.

I now turn to some of the specific issues raised by noble Lords this evening. The noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, referred to the International Court of Justice as regards the legality of the provisional legislature and its actions. The previous Government made clear that Britain would be willing to join China in seeking adjudication on the question of the future of the legislature from the International Court of Justice, but it needs the consent of both parties for it to go before the ICJ. China has not accepted our offer but I confirm that it remains on the table. However, a nation state cannot itself ask the ICJ for an advisory opinion.

The noble Lord also asked about bilingualism. Both the Joint Declaration and the Basic Law provide for English and Chinese to be used in Hong Kong. The government legislature and the courts use both languages and laws are published in both languages.

I thank my noble friend Lord Ponsonby for his kind remarks about the Foreign Office web site. He raised some important questions about Vietnamese refugees, as opposed to the other problems with economic migrants. The Government continue to support the efforts of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to find resettlement opportunities for the remaining refugees in Hong Kong.

The noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, asked about the transfer of defence responsibilities. We agreed some time ago through the Joint Liaison Group that the People's Liberation Army might station unarmed advance parties in Hong Kong to prepare for the orderly deployment of the main garrison on 1st July. There is no question of Britain agreeing to the deployment of the main PLA garrison in Hong Kong before 1st July. As sovereign, Britain is responsible for the defence of Hong Kong up to the last stroke of midnight on 30th June. At that point China will resume responsibility for the defence of Hong Kong.

The noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, asked about the style of government after the handover. The Government believe that the people will judge Mr. Tung and his government by what happens from 1st July on rather than what is said before he takes up office. If the concept of Hong Kong people running Hong Kong is to work, it will be important for all of Hong Kong's people to stand up for the territory's interests. I believe we would be sensible to listen to the wise words of the noble Baroness, Lady Dunn, on that point.

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The noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke, asked what was happening as regards some of our colleagues in Europe. It is for our colleagues in Europe to decide what they intend to do about the Chinese swearing in. We have made our views clear to them.

I, like the noble Baroness, Lady Dunn, and the noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, wish to thank the Hong Kong Civil Service. I pay tribute to those who have fought tirelessly in the cause of more representative government in Hong Kong, many of whom for no good reason will find themselves on the sidelines on 1st July. Hong Kong needs them. I hope their dedication will carry them through to the next round of elections so that they can give the people of Hong Kong the opportunity to vote for openness and for progress.

Britain's relationship with Hong Kong will change in 18 days' time, but it will not end. The promises China made to Britain and to the people of Hong Kong in the Joint Declaration will last for 50 years. The Joint Liaison Group will continue to meet to discuss the fulfilment of those promises until the year 2000. The Government will monitor developments closely. We will publish for Parliament every six months a report on the implementation of the Joint Declaration, with special reference to the protection of human rights in Hong Kong. We will continue to remind all countries with a stake in Hong Kong's future of the importance of their maintaining an active interest in Hong Kong.

As the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, told the House, Hong Kong is in great shape. We can be proud of what Hong Kong has achieved under British sovereignty. As many of us know, few, if any, places in the world are more vibrant, more energetic, more open and more prosperous than Hong Kong in 1997.

There can be no doubt about Britain's commitment to Hong Kong after the handover. Britain's commercial and consular interests speak for themselves: there are some 3½ million British passport-holders in the territory, 1,000 British firms operating there and tens of billions of pounds of investment in what is our second largest export market in Asia. We are proud that we shall have--as the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, said--one of our largest consulates-general at the heart of all this.

We have done our best to secure the best possible future for the people of Hong Kong. Very soon, Hong Kong people themselves will take on the responsibility for guiding their own future development, within the framework of the Joint Declaration, under the late Deng Xiaoping's concept of,

    "Hong Kong people running Hong Kong".
I am sure I speak for noble Lords in all parts of the House when I say that we wish them well.

Lloyds TSB Bill [H.L.]

Committed to a Select Committee.

        House adjourned at three minutes before nine o'clock.

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