Inside Parliament: Balliol chaps show how to get the message across: - Patten denounces students' protest 'siege' over loan deals - Hurd says that Britain has not broken off talks over Hong Kong

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Indy Politics
John Patten, the Secretary of State for Education, used his slot in the Budget debate yesterday to rail against 'yobbish' students from Oxford University who besieged him in a parish hall - requiring his rescue by the police.

'They were led by a lot of yobs from Balliol College, easily self- identified by a banner with Balliol JCR on it,' said Mr Patten, a Fellow of Hertford College, former lecturer at Oxford and MP for part of the 'eternal city'.

Opposition MPs found the indignant minister's plight amusing. Their attitude was 'entirely frivolous', he postured, using Friday's demonstrations as a prelude to a defence of the Budget shift in student support from grants to loans.

Mr Patten told the House that students had been served with a writ and removed from the registry of the University of East Anglia in Norwich yesterday after a weekend sit-in at the loans office. He also condemned an 'outrageous attack' on Michael Portillo, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, who was jostled and hit by an egg at Liverpool.

Detailing his own plight, Mr Patten said more that 100 students had prevented him and his helper, a 70-year old parish councillor, leaving Botley parish hall. 'We were driven back into the hall, the doors had to be locked and the police had to be called.'

Much worse, he claimed, had been the 'disgraceful scenes' earlier as he conducted an advice surgery in the prefabricated building. 'The hall was completely surrounded by other yobbish students from Oxford University, who I am ashamed to represent in Parliament, and students from Oxford Brookes University.' They hammered on the windows and walls putting his constituents in fear.

Mr Patten said he was 'surprised' at the response of the Brookes chaplin who saw him while the demonstration was going on and said 'this was exactly the sort of thing we should expect'. Opposition MPs seemed to side with the chaplin. The students' targeting had, after all, been quite specific - a loans office, the Secretary of State promoting them, and the Chief Secretary behind the cost- saving initiatives.

Ann Taylor, Labour's education spokeswoman, asked what Mr Patten expected would be the impact of charging for student tuition fees - an idea said to be favoured by Mr Portillo and mooted in a leaked briefing paper. But Mr Patten would not be drawn. 'I never comment on stolen documents.'

He said accelerating the shift in support from grants to loans did not mean students would be poorer. The total resources available through the main rates of maintenance grant and loan would be 4 per cent higher next year than this - worth pounds 3,935 for students studying in London and pounds 3,190 elsewhere.

The great majority of taxpayers had not enjoyed the economic and other benefits of higher education, Mr Patten said, quoting the Chancellor's Budget remark: 'Why should the bus driver or the pensioner also pay higher taxes to finance all the living costs of tomorrow's lawyers?'

Intervening, Dafydd Wigley, Plaid Cymru MP for Caernarfon, said the answer was that it was the sons or daughters of the bus driver or pensioner who might become tomorrow's lawyers. But Mr Patten insisted there was 'a strong moral case' for not asking those who did not have a lifetime's benefit to contribute too much from their hard- earned lower incomes.

'This is socially just. There is an equally strong case on grounds of motivation. People simply value that much more what they have to pay towards and are less likely to drop out, wasting our money and their efforts.'

Opening for Labour, Donald Dewar, the party's social security spokesman, said he had no sympathy with yobs whether in Oxford or anywhere else who threw eggs or acted violently. 'I do not believe that helps the course of public or political debate.'

But attacking a 'pay more, get less Budget', Mr Dewar added: 'Mr Patten must recognise the 10 per cent cuts, year by year for the next three years (in grants), are not likely to be forgotten and will be persistently resented.'

The behaviour of another Balliol man, the Hong Kong Governor Chris Patten, had been touched on earlier as Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, made a statement on the decision to press ahead with legislation on greater democracy for the colony.

Jack Cunningham, Labour's foreign affairs spokesman, said the 'through train of democratic reform' seemed to have come off the rails. 'What on earth has gone wrong? It is quite clear there is a fundamental divide between the government of the People's Republic of China and Her Majesty's Government.'

Mr Hurd said Britain was not breaking off the talks and had proposed a further round in December. 'We strongly hope that the talks will continue. Britain and China have to carry out what they agreed, namely to preserve Hong Kong's way of life and success while transferring sovereignty.'

The Government and Mr Patten were committed to working with China in the interests of Hong Kong and looked to a corresponding commitment from the Chinese side, he said, emphasising that the legislation announced by Mr Patten covered 'largely uncontroversial' aspects of the democracy package.

'The talks have been concerned with complex electoral issues. But the underlying question is simple. Will we bequeath to Hong Kong an open and democratic system, offering the electorate a genuine choice? Or will we settle for a system based on small electorates open to manipulation and corruption?'

Mr Cunningham observed that it did not seem 'very conciliatory or constructive' to imply that what the Chinese were suggesting was open to abuse or corruption. China could set aside Britain's proposals in 1997 and introduce its own, he said. 'And without a substantial recovery of trust, or further serious negotiations ending in agreement, there is absolutely nothing at all that the Government would be able to do about that.'

The exchanges confirmed general support for Mr Patten's proposals but differences on tactics and timing. Michael Jopling, a former Tory Cabinet minister, questioned whether it was right to move so quickly without Chinese support.

However, Gerald Kaufman, the former Labour foreign affairs spokesman, said the package was already 'a watered-down version' of an earlier consensus, and unless action was taken quickly it would not be worth taking at all.

Mr Hurd told MPs: 'We shall have in the next three months some bumping and grinding on this issue. But over the period of three-and-a-half years, the period remaining of British sovereignty, I am an optimist.' Backing his former Cabinet colleague and party chairman, he said Mr Patten and his proposals enjoyed wide support in the colony because he was 'no slouch in explaining them in terms which people in Hong Kong readily understand and accept'.

Balliol chaps, whether in Beijing or Botley, have a certain way of getting their message across.

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