Opinion | UK Parliament acts to protect itself from systemic abuse by political fanatics and paid lobbyists
By Grenville Cross
Although the United Kingdom's legislature is often described as the "Mother of Parliaments", it is by no means immune from abuse.
Whereas it has sustained some shocking scandals, they have invariably been addressed. After, for example, it was discovered that the then-prime minister, David Lloyd George, had been selling titles for party funds after World War I, the Honours (Prevention of Abuses) Act was enacted in 1925, to criminalize such activities. In 2009, when the parliamentary expenses scandal erupted, there was found to have been widespread misuse of parliamentary allowances by members of both the House of Commons and the House of Lords, some of whom were then prosecuted or otherwise excluded from public life.
On Jan 26, 2023, fresh concerns were highlighted when it was reported that the Speakers of the two houses of parliament, Sir Lindsay Hoyle (House of Commons) and Lord (John) McFall (House of Lords) had called for a crackdown on the over-700 All-Party Parliamentary Groups (APPGs), which are unofficial groupings randomly created by individual parliamentarians without any oversight. They do not receive taxpayers' money, lack independent scrutiny, and often have shady connections. Although they often pretend otherwise, the APPGs have no formal status, and are funded by lobbyists, ideologues, private firms or even foreign states, which regard them as a covert means of influencing the work of government.
In a joint letter to Sir Chris Bryant, who chairs the House of Commons Committee on Standards and Privileges, which is investigating the APPGs, Hoyle and McFall said that the current arrangements have "not prevented reputational risks to Parliament or the proliferation of APPGs". There have, moreover, been reports of APPGs offering foreign "freebies", leading to what the Daily Mail has described as "marathon drinking sessions and excursions to brothels", and the two speakers told Bryant that "the barrier to constituting an APPG is too low".
These concerns are clearly legitimate, as the APPG on Hong Kong (APPG/HK), a farce if ever there was one, has repeatedly demonstrated. Although virulently anti-China, it conducts, without shame, allegedly independent inquiries into Hong Kong, the results of which are preordained. Whereas its chairman, Alistair Carmichael, is a patron of the anti-China propaganda outfit, Hong Kong Watch (operated by the serial fantasist Benedict Rogers), so also is one of its senior vice-chairmen, Lord (David) Alton, who was sanctioned by China in 2021 for what was described as the malicious spreading of "lies and disinformation" about the country (and whose Sinophobia has led him to call for China to be denied official representation at the forthcoming coronation of King Charles III).
After the APPG/HK was launched on Nov 6, 2019, it announced it would conduct a "limited official inquiry" into the handling of medical workers and activists by the Hong Kong Police Force during the social disorder of 2019, with its report being submitted to the British government. What, however, astonished observers was the news that the inquiry would be chaired by the co-chairman, Baroness (Natalie) Bennett, a partisan figure who, like Alton (also an inquiry member), had made no secret of her animosity toward the Hong Kong Police Force.
Indeed, on March 19, 2020, prior to the inquiry even starting, Bennett made her views clear, and, in a letter to the South China Morning Post, she denounced "the excessive force used by the Hong Kong Police" against medical and humanitarian workers who were "risking life and liberty defending Hong Kong". What this meant, therefore, was that Bennett had prejudged the very issues the APPG/HK was supposed to be investigating, and the inquiry was inevitably a travesty of justice (of which Bryant is hopefully aware). As the inquiry progressed, it became apparent that the Police Force had already been "convicted", and, to nobody's surprise, its report accused the force of having "indisputably" violated international human rights law. This, however, was only part of the story, and the rot went far deeper than anybody could have imagined.
Shortly after the APPG/HK's inquiry was announced, an intrepid researcher, while examining a parliamentary register, made a remarkable discovery. Its secretariat turned out to be the Whitehouse Consultancy (Whitehouse), a communications agency, which, on its face, seemed fair enough, save for one thing. Whitehouse was being funded by "Stand with Hong Kong" (SWHK), a subversive, anti-police grouping, with close ties to anti-China forces in both Hong Kong and the US, and heavily reliant on crowdfunding.
As of Nov 5, 2019, SWHK had pumped 34,501 pounds ($41,530) into Whitehouse, and it has been calling the shots ever since. Indeed, Whitehouse has disclosed that SWHK "approached Whitehouse to help them raise the profile of the Hong Kong crisis in parliament", and that they (Whitehouse) then "established the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Hong Kong", the purpose being to "spearhead parliamentary activity in support of Hong Kong". In consequence, it claimed, "we have helped to successfully lobby for the expansion of BN(O) rights and the introduction of the UK's Magnitsky-style sanctions regime." In other words, the APPG/HK, with Whitehouse's connivance, was not only created by SWHK but is now also its tool.
When, as expected, the APPG/HK published a defamatory report, SWHK had the cheek to "welcome the release of the report, which reaffirms the violations of international humanitarian principles by the HKPF". And, although Whitehouse was simply SWHK's enabler, Alton claimed the APPG/HK had been "extremely fortunate in having the professional services of Whitehouse Consulting as its secretariat", by which he meant it was lucky to have accessed SWHK's tainted funds. Indeed, Alton himself had also previously been a beneficiary of those same funds, having visited Hong Kong as an "election monitor", from Nov 23-25, 2019, with all his "travel and accommodation" covered by SWHK. He, therefore, also belongs in SWHK's pocket, and it is fortunate for Bryant's committee that, courtesy of the same researcher, he has been unable to completely cover his tracks.
On Aug 10, 2020, moreover, four days after the APPG/HK's report was issued, more light was shed on the hitherto shadowy SWHK. After the media magnate Jimmy Lai Chee-ying and nine other suspects, were arrested for collusion with foreign forces, it was widely reported that they had been plotting with SWHK to secure the imposition of international sanctions upon China. Thereafter, on Aug 19, 2021, two of Lai's co-defendants, Andy Li Yu-hin and Chan Tsz-wah, pleaded guilty in the High Court to conspiring to collude with foreign forces, Lai and his aide Mark Simon to endanger national security. Although their admissions are not presently evidence against the other suspects, they acknowledged that they had, between July 2020 and February 2021, colluded with Lai, Simon and others to organize international promotions to encourage foreign governments to sanction Hong Kong and Chinese mainland officials.
The lead prosecutor, Anthony Chau Tin-hang, said Lai and Simon were the "masterminds and financial supporters behind the scenes and at the highest levels of command of the syndicate", and they controlled SWHK. Simon, said Chau, reported directly to Lai, executed his instructions and vetted requests for financial support, and the pair of them assisted Li to forge SWHK's overseas contacts, notably in the US. Indeed, Li, with Lai's approval, reportedly sent a sanctions list targeting 144 politicians and officials to the then-managing director of the US-based Hong Kong Democracy Council, Samuel Chu Muk-man, the son of "Occupy Central" co-founder Chu Yiu-ming. Having received the list, Chu, in respect of whom a national security arrest warrant is now in force, passed it not only to US senators Ted Cruz and Rick Scott for action, but also to Hong Kong Watch's Luke de Pulford, in the UK.
Chau also disclosed how, using Lai's finances, Li and Finn Lau Cho-dick, another criminal fugitive, had created SWHK in August 2019. Whenever Lai and Simon needed to give instructions to Li and Lau, they were conveyed by Chan Tsz-wah. At that stage, one of SWHK's roles was to press for foreign sanctions, as well as to seek global condemnation of local and mainland officials, and the Police Force. Hostile articles were placed in overseas newspapers, and foreign functionaries, like De Pulford, were allegedly engaged to persuade 32 countries to terminate their extradition and mutual legal assistance agreements with Hong Kong, which, of course, some did. Lai and Simon, moreover, also offered free publicity for SWHK in Apple Daily, and Lau, who was described as its spiritual leader, was told he could use copyrighted photographs for propaganda purposes.
As regards SWHK's crowdfunding campaigns in 2019-20, Chau revealed that these netted approximately HK$37.6 million ($4.79 million). The money was used to publish propaganda/reports (like that of the APPG/HK), to retain consultancy and lobbying firms (like Whitehouse), to organize demonstrations, and to sponsor foreign politicians to visit Hong Kong and observe the protests.
After its success in creating, and then manipulating, the APPG/HK, SWHK naturally felt emboldened, recognizing its anti-China propaganda value. Thus, on Jan 11, 2023, it was discovered that it had invested yet more heavily in the APPG/HK, with its investment now standing at 99,001 pounds, almost triple that of 2019.After its earlier exposure, Whitehouse felt obliged to acknowledge that "Whitehouse Communications Ltd is funded by Stand With Hong Kong to act as the group's secretariat", and this will intrigue Bryant's committee.
Having got away with its attempts to smear the Police Force, the APPG/HK, undoubtedly on SWHK's instructions, then set about maligning two British banks, HSBC and Standard Chartered Bank. As both banks had very responsibly supported the enactment of the National Security Law for Hong Kong in 2020, this was clearly payback time. On Feb 8, 2023, therefore, after another farcical inquiry, the banks were accused of "being complicit in suppressing the human rights of Hongkongers". This, of course, was nonsensical, and, as HSBC explained, it "has an enduring commitment to Hong Kong, its people and communities; it is where we were founded nearly 160 years ago".
The APPG/HK alleged that HSBC had acted "unjustly" in not releasing the Mandatory Provident Fund savings of Hong Kong people who have moved to the UK. The situation of such people is, of course, of no interest to the APPG/HK, whose only concern is with political point scoring. This became obvious when its co-chairman, Alistair Carmichael, as befitted a Hong Kong Watch patron, accused the banks of "doing the dirty work of the Chinese Communist Party".
Quite clearly, Carmichael, like his cronies, was only interested in putting the boot into China. If his inquiry had been genuine, it would have focused on the nub of the matter, which was that the entry documents provided by the UK to Hong Kong immigrants are insufficient to unlock their funds, given that BN(O) visas, issued in contravention of the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984 (about which the UK always waxes so lyrical), are invalid for identification purposes. Indeed, as Britain's then-Attorney General, Lord (Peter) Goldsmith, explained in his Review of Citizenship in 2008, the granting of full British citizenship to BN(O) passport holders "would be a breach of the commitments made between China and the UK in the 1984 Joint Declaration on the future of Hong Kong".
In light of this, therefore, HSBC very properly explained that, "like all banks, we have to obey the law, and the instructions of the regulators, in every territory in which we operate". The legal niceties, however, were wholly lost on the APPG/HK, whose only concern was to please its paymaster, SWHK, which will have been delighted with its handiwork.
One of the cardinal principles of British justice, however, is reflected in the Latin maxim nemo judex in causa sua, meaning nobody should be a judge in their own cause. This, however, with their widely publicized prejudices, has been trashed by the likes of Carmichael and Alton. Given their track records, they should obviously have recused themselves from the APPG/HK's inquiries, and their failure to do so is another scandal for Bryant's committee to consider. Their conduct has, to put it mildly, caused what Hoyle and McFall described as "reputational risks to Parliament".
In 2021, when he announced the parliamentary inquiry into how the APPGs are run, Bryant warned that the way some were being conducted "has the potential to become another lobbying scandal", and how right he was. He added that these "groups cannot be a back door for peddling influence or gaining access to MPs", and that "the Parliamentary logo is not for sale", yet this is exactly what has happened. If, therefore, it transpires that the other APPGs are being run in the same way as the APPG/HK, Bryant's worst fears will have been vindicated, and the APPG/HK, financed as it is by SWHK, highlights everything rotten with the system he is now investigating.
The author is a senior counsel and law professor, and was previously the director of public prosecutions of the Hong Kong SAR.
The article was first published in China Daily.