Inside Parliament: Patten's efforts in Hong Kong under fire: Conservative peer fears damage to trade - Chalker defends Government's approach - Figures sought on Britain's 'quasi-slaves'

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Chris Patten's attempt to bring democracy to Hong Kong came under fierce attack in the House of Lords yesterday. The Earl of Cromer suggested the Governor was seeking plaudits for standing up to a 'vast communist ogre' but putting at risk trade with potentially one of the largest economies of the world.

'What the Hong Kong people want is prosperity, not democracy, unless they can have both,' the Tory peer said during a debate on the colony - due to be handed back to China in 1997.

As a fourth earl, democracy and universal suffrage may not be his strong suit, but as managing director of Inchcape (China) Ltd, Lord Cromer's credentials on trade with the East are undoubted. His links with the colony go back to 1841 when his forebear Captain Charles Elliot acquired it from the Chinese.

The Government's policy was 'seriously flawed'. It was proposing a political system rejected by other east Asian nations, Lord Cromer said. His party colleague Lord Geddes, a company chairman, said western-style democracy was an 'alien concept' for Asia.

Hong Kong's legislative council is expected to decide on Mr Patten's democracy package, covering elections in 1995, in July. Talks between Britain and China on the proposals broke down with Peking heaping abuse on the former Conservative Party chairman.

Lord Cromer said China felt Britain was going back on the 1984 'one country - two systems' agreement. 'This dangerous strategy is ensuring that after China resumes sovereignty, it will be approaching the territory with grave suspicions that Hong Kong could become a hot-bed of subversion, bent on spreading western democratic ideas through southern China and thus posing a risk to the entire nation.' He said the rapid expansion of China's trade with the outside world had whetted the appetite of the business community. 'It must be in Britain's interest to recover our position of trust with the Chinese government.'

Foreign Office minister Baroness Chalker denied suggestions that the Government's approach had done 'deep and irreversible damage' to all co-operation with China. Peking had said that trade and politics should be kept separate.

Baroness Dunn, a member of the legislative council who had flown from Hong Kong for the debate, appealled to both to 'free up the log jam' in the political dispute and resume co-operation. But she remained optimistic about Hong Kong's future. All its people had 'the desire and capacity to develop a healthy and trusting relationship with their future sovereign'.

Former governors Lord Wilson of Tillyorn and Lord MacLehose warned that without agreement with the Chinese, the council elected in 1995 would not survive the hand-over. Reworking a phrase of Mr Patten's, Lord MacLehose added: 'My fear is that the Hong Kong people are in danger of becoming 'heroic pawns' in Sino-British quarrels and, in particular, on this electoral issue it has cost quite enough already.'

The plight of victims closer to home was raised by cross- bencher Lord Hylton and others as they asked the Home Office's Earl Ferrers for figures on how many domestic workers admitted to Britain had suffered 'abuse, exploitation and quasi-slavery' at the hands of their employers. But the Minister of State said they did not have that kind of information for domestic servants 'any more than we have it for turf accountants, ironmongers or dog-handlers'.

Peers spoke of employees having their passports taken away or being told that they complained they would be sent to prison. And Lord Ennals, a former health secretary, accused Earl Ferrers of a 'rather brush-off manner'.

Asked by Lord Morris what the term 'quasi-slavery' could possibly mean, the minister replied: 'I'm not quite sure, but I sometimes wonder whether it might apply to members of the government front bench.'

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