Benedict Rogers: What Ministers should do next to help Hong Kongers

1 Jul

Benedict Rogers is co-founder and Deputy Chair of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, founder and Chair of Hong Kong Watch, an advisor to the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC) and the Stop Uyghur Genocide Campaign, and Senior Analyst for East Asia to the international human organisation CSW.

A year ago today, Boris Johnson, Dominic Raab and Priti Patel did something genuinely courageous, generous and right.

Within hours of the imposition of a draconian National Security Law on Hong Kong that destroyed the city’s promised freedoms and autonomy, the United Kingdom announced a scheme that would enable five million Hong Kongers to come here on a “pathway to citizenship”. It provided a lifeline to many who may need to flee Hong Kong as it is rapidly transformed from one of Asia’s most open cities into a place of Orwellian fear and repression.

The Government deserves credit for this, and the Home Secretary especially. For a government that delivered Brexit on a theme of limiting immigration to throw open the doors to a few million people in their hour of need is remarkable.

Both the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary declared that the National Security Law, imposed on Hong Kong by the Chinese Communist Party regime with no consultation whatsoever, represents a “clear and serious breach” of the Sino-British Joint Declaration, the international treaty that was supposed to protect Hong Kong’s freedoms for at least fifty years from the handover.

Over the past year, the Foreign Secretary has declared further breaches and says Beijing is in a “state of ongoing non-compliance” with the treaty. A diplomatic understatement.

We have seen Hong Kong’s most respected, moderate, internationally-renowned pro-democracy leaders prosecuted and jailed, simply for expressing their desire for freedom.

The pro-democracy camp has been expelled from the legislature, politicians and activists charged and jailed for holding a primary election and the electoral law changed to exclude pro-democracy candidates.

And last week, in the latest hammer-blow, Hong Kong’s only remaining Chinese language, mass circulation pro-democracy daily newspaper, Apple Daily, was strangled to death, its editor and senior executives arrested and charged with “collusion” with foreigners, its newsroom raided by 500 police officers, its bank accounts frozen and its existence extinguished. Its founder, Jimmy Lai, languishes in jail awaiting trial, and could face life imprisonment.

As we mark the 24th anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong – as well as the 100th birthday of the Chinese Communist Party – there is nothing to celebrate. Today is, for freedom-loving people everywhere, a day of mourning. The only thing we can be grateful for is that, at the eleventh hour, Britain did right by Hong Kong.

And thousands of Hong Kongers are taking up the offer. In the first two months after the scheme opened, 34,300 applications were made. From July 2020 until March this year, 292,000 British National Overseas (BNO) passports were issued. The Home Office anticipates between 258,000-322,400 Hong Kongers arriving here over the next five years and up to 150,000 this year alone.

So the Government’s job is not done. Ensuring a proper welcome and integration programme to help Hong Kongers settle here successfully is vital. Ministers are seized of this, with Lord Greenhalgh leading as co-ordinating minister, ensuring a cross-Whitehall approach. In April, the Government announced a £43 million support package and 12 ‘Welcome hubs’ across the country, helping Hong Kongers access housing, employment and educational support. Ministers also dropped their condition of no recourse to public funds, making assistance available for anyone in danger of destitution.

No one expects government to do this alone. Civil society is stepping up, a ‘Welcoming Committee’ has been established and government is eager to listen and collaborate.

All good. But more to do.

Hong Kongers moving here are still subject to international student fees for higher education, which for Russell Group universities average at £20,000. Given that BNO families will already have had to meet visa fees, an immigration health surcharge and provide evidence of ability to support themselves for six months, and that residents from almost all British Overseas Territories are eligible for ‘home fees’, this should be addressed. Hong Kong students who intend to make their life here and contribute to our economy and society should be treated as ‘home’ students.

BNOs leaving Hong Kong may be penalised from doing so by financial institutions. Hong Kong’s Mandatory Provident Fund (MPF) is preventing BNOs from withdrawing pension funds, depriving people of life savings. One couple saved around £36,800 in their MPF over twenty years, and yet despite providing proof of their relocation, they have been unable to withdraw their funds. The two biggest MPF providers are HSBC, headquartered in London, and Manulife, headquartered in Canada.

Other financial pressure is also being applied. HSBC froze the bank accounts of a former legislator Ted Hui, now in Australia, and warned that online and mobile banking services may not be authorized for Hong Kongers outside Hong Kong. The UK must put pressure on international financial institutions to cease complicity with the regime’s coercion.

English language teaching will be needed for some, mental health and trauma counselling for others and prevention of both racially-motivated hate crime in communities and politically-motivated intimidation by pro-Beijing elements should be a priority. It will also be essential to ensure that pro-Beijing entities here, who support Beijing’s repression of Hong Kong, do not benefit from public funding.

The biggest single issue yet to be addressed is eligibility. Those born after 1997 who are not dependents of BNO holders don’t qualify. And that leaves many of the most politically active, vulnerable young people in danger. If they stay in Hong Kong they face jail or a bleak future. If they come here, currently their options are limited. Asylum is a bleak route.

Better would be to expand study or work visas that could lead to settlement. Canada and Australia have offered options, and there are efforts in the United States and the European Union to do likewise. If Britain shares the load with other democracies, the numbers involved are small but the lives and futures at stake incalculable. Yesterday, Hong Kong Watch released a briefing, with recommendations, on all these and other challenges. Implemented well, this scheme can be a great success, giving Hong Kongers a lifeline and injecting into the UK a new, dynamic, entrepreneurial, creative, exciting spirit which they embody. But failure to properly welcome and integrate could be costly.

Finally, let us not think the BNO policy is the only step we need to take. It is not a solution. It offers a lifeline, but it does nothing to change the dire situation on the ground.

So on the Chinese Communist Party’s 100th birthday, if we’re really serious about defending our values, we need to give Beijing a special present. We must make the regime pay for its crimes. We need sanctions. To allow the regime to get away with tearing up an international treaty with impunity will only embolden them to continue assaulting freedom. Taiwan is in its sights, and our own freedoms are too. So as well as welcoming Hong Kongers, we must hold the regime that drove them here to account.

Sunak opts to suck it and see

25 Nov

We must be thankful that no-one is forecasting that Government borrowing will rise to record levels this year.  Or Rishi Sunak wouldn’t have been in a position to announce that Government spending will rise at its fastest rate for 15 years.

Apologies for the sarcasm – which isn’t aimed at the Chancellor’s measures, but is meant instead to provide an introduction to the thinking behind them.

One response to a ballooning deficit is to cut the rate of growth of spending.  That’s what the Coalition did after 2010, when the deficit hit seven per cent of GDP.

The Office for Budget Responsibility is forecasting a peak of 19 per this year.  But Sunak’s response is to raise the rate of spending.  Why?

Because in 2010 George Osborne judged the deficit to be structural (he was right), and his successor judges this one to be exceptional (he’s right, too).

It is almost entirely a product of the pandemic and what has followed.  It is in this context that the OBR forecasts the economy to shrink by 11 per cent this year and unemployment to hit 2.6 million next year.

In these circumstances, the Chancellor has found it impossible to produce the four year spending review he hoped for, and has been forced to issue one for a single year instead.

Furthermore, his statement was only one side of the tax and spending coin. Today, we got the spending.  In the Spring, we will get the Budget – and the tax.

Given all this, it will be very odd if Sunak turns up then with large-scale tax rises to raise revenue quickly.  The foundation of his measures today appears to be: suck it and see.

Broadly speaking, the spending package suggests that the Chancellor is going for growth.  That’s the logic of the infrastructure spending, the coming review of regulation, the new northern bank and the enlarged Restart programme.

The Levelling-Up Fund is a classic Treasury exercise in the English centralist tradition, with its central feature of bids from the provinces to Westminster for money.  So it is in a country with relatively few local taxes.

On that point, Sunak announced “extra flexibility for Council Tax and Adult Social Care precept”.  Local authorities will like that, council taxpayers not so much.

It’s worth stressing that the OBR’s forecasts, like all such animals, shouldn’t be taken too seriously.  Our columnist Ryan Bourne debunked its record on this site earlier this week.

If you walk down the sunny side of the street, you will smack your lips at the thought of a Roaring Twenties effect, as employment recovers, consumers spend, the hospitality sector booms and people pile into holidays abroad.

And it may be that post-Covid changes even out for the better, with a shift in activity and spending from city centres to the suburbs and countryside, together with music, art, theatre and all the rest of it.

That might not be such a bad things for towns and their centres, at which the new Levelling Up Fund is partly aimed.  Our columnist James Frayne believes they are a core concern for provincial voters, and government listens to him.

If on the other hand you stick to the shady side, you will point to the economic equivalent of Long Covid: fearsome economic and social bills for damaged mental health, postponed operations, lost educational opportunities.

All that is a big minus for levelling-up – because it’s the disabled, poor and disadvantaged who have been hit hardest by restrictions and lockdowns, especially if they work in the private sector.

The background in recent years is not encouraging.  Since the financial crash exploded, we haven’t grown at more than 2.6 per cent a year.  That suggests recovery may be sticky.

Sunak’s persuasive manner, grip of detail and spare eloquence have served him well during this crisis.  Others holding his post would not have survived roughly ten major finance annoucements in less than a year.

It’s not as though he hasn’t sometimes had to recast his plans – as in October, when he pumped more money into his Job Support Scheme.

And if the economics of his strategy are straightforward enough, its politics was sometimes a bit odd.  If the Government’s overall plan in the short-term is expansionary, why raise the minimum wage but curb public sector pay?

If spending on nearly everything else is rising, why crack down on the 0.7 per cent aid spend?  Doing so because you think aid is wasted or the target is wasteful is one thing.

But that wasn’t the basis of Sunak’s decision – since, after all, he said that the Government intends to return to 0.7 per cent “when the fiscal situation allows”.

The Chancellor also left a big unresolved question hanging in the air.  What will the Government do about the Universal Credit uplift?  Will it be extended or not?

The sense of a statement with contradictory messages was picked up Rob Covile of the Centre for Policy Studies.  (The Treasury would do well when the Budget approaches to look at its supply side ideas.)

“Feels slightly like Treasury couldn’t decide whether the message was ‘tighten belts’ or ‘we’re still spending’,” he tweeted. “So we’re getting two or three minutes of each in turn.”

That first element in the Chancellor’s statement, plus the OBR’s horrid short-term forecasts, comes at a bad time for the Government.

For tomorrow, the toughened tiering details are announced. Lots of Conservative MPs won’t like them.  The detail of which tiers apply in which areas will be published, too.  Many Tory MPs will like those even less.

Graham Brady, Steve Baker, Mark Harper, and the Covid Recovery Group will say that the economic damage of restrictions is so severe that the Commons should not vote for more – at least, without an impact assessment.

They may not be alone.  “These measures may be a short-term strategy, but they cannot be a long-term one,” Jeremy Wright declared in the Commons during the recent debate on the lockdown regulations.

He and Edward Timpson (another ex-Minister) plus other MPs backed the Government but, sounded a cautionary note.

Will the prospect of vaccines be sufficient to rally the doubters round?  Or will they take a leaf from the book of Theresa May, who savaged the regulations during the same debate?

We shall see – but Ministers are not helping themselves by dodging requests for that impact assessment, urged by this site and others, and the subject of a dogged campaign by Mel Stride, Chair of the Treasury Select Committee.

All in all, Sunak is shaping up to go for growth.  Good for him.  Nonetheless, he must watch and wait to see how and when the economy rebounds.  Brady and company are less patient.