Tensions run high at Legco debate on right of abode

PUBLISHED : Friday, 14 December, 2012, 6:56pm
UPDATED : Friday, 14 December, 2012, 9:40pm

Lawmakers debated the next step to take in addressing the right of abode issue on Friday morning, voting narrowly against further discussing the matter until the Court of Final Appeal makes its ruling.

During a meeting of the legislature’s panel on administration of justice and legal services, chairwoman Dr Priscilla Leung Mei-fun said while lawmakers had a clear right to discuss the matter, “it would be better to wait until after the resolution of the court case”.

She was referring to the case of Evangeline Banao Vallejos, a foreign domestic helper, who is fighting for the right to apply for permanent residency in Hong Kong. The Court of Final Appeal will hear her case in February.

The Vallejos case will have far-reaching implications for the 285,000 foreign domestic helpers in the city.

On Thursday, Secretary for Justice Rimsky Yuen Kwok-keung confirmed that the government had suggested the city’s top court seek clarification from Beijing about a previous interpretation of residency laws.

Specifically, the government wants the National People’s Congress Standing Committee to clarify the meaning of its 1999 interpretation of Article 24 of the Basic Law, which deals with permanent residency – in particular for foreign domestic helpers and children born in Hong Kong to mainland parents.

Political and legal experts have expressed fears that asking Beijing to reinterpret Article 24 of the Basic Law  is a breach of Hong Kong’s right to independently manage its internal affairs.

Democratic Party member Emily Lau Wai-hing said in the meeting: “We’re not trying to interfere with the courts, but we should discuss whether the courts should be able to seek an interpretation … If you think we should set parameters for discussion then I’d agree. If you say that discussion is not allowed, I think that’s outrageous.”

Civic Party member Kwok Ka-ki said, “If there is no discussion, we will be failing our constituents.”

Other lawmakers argued that the government should not discuss the matter because it might influence the Court of Final Appeal’s decision.

Tam Yiu-chung of the pro-government Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, said: “At this stage, I don’t think we should have any more discussion on the matter because we do not want to influence the Court of Final Appeal. This is not an opportune time to have a discussion.”

Tensions ran high throughout the panel meeting, with lawmakers bickering among themselves.

Secretary for Development Paul Chan Mo-po said, “This panel is getting more and more disorderly … Emily Lau isn’t right just because she’s louder.”

Albert Ho Chun-yan’s motion to discuss the matter further as soon as possible was defeated, 14-12, by a vote of panel members.

Chairwoman Leung said, “I will maintain my suggestion that, upon the completion of the case by the court, we will put the item on our agenda and invite the secretary for justice to participate.”

After the panel meeting, Law Reform Commission sub-committee member Eric Cheung Tat-ming addressed the media to express his concerns about the government’s move.

“The requirements for right of abode are outlined in Article 24 of the Basic Law,” he said. “Hong Kong has the right to determine who can be a resident of the city. It has nothing to do with Beijing.”

“If the central government can reinterpret the right of abode, there will no longer be a clear demarcation between the two systems and this is in breach of the Basic Law.

“Then, there will be no guarantee that the central government won’t interfere with other rights that Hong Kong has, such as freedom of assembly and demonstration and freedom of speech.”