HC Deb 20 December 1945 vol 417 cc1619-34

4.17 p.m.

Lieut. -Colonel Derek Walker-Smith (Hertford)

" Per ardua ad astra." I regard myself as fortunate in being able to raise this question this afternoon, even at this late hour— fortunate in the occasion, because I think the approach of Christmas may do something to soften even the harsh austerity of the Board of Trade. Fortunate, too, in the subject, because I know I can rely on the traditional friendliness of the House towards literature and the Press for general sympathy in this matter. I shall give a necessarily sketchy background of the relevant position in regard to paper today. I am forced to take newspapers and books separately, because, as the House will be aware, the two subjects are really governed by very different considerations.

Before the war, the annual consumption of newsprint for papers and weekly periodicals was about 1,256,000 tons.Today, based on a weekly average of 5,750 tons, the annual average is 299,000 tons. Even this steep declension to 22½per cent.of the prewar total is eclipsed by the shrinkage of the amount of paper for the popular daily newspapers. They are reduced from a prewar issue of 24 pages, to a present size of four pages; that is to say, they are cut to one-sixth of their prewar total. People hold various views about the desirability of popular daily newspapers, but I think the House will recognise that they hold their position by the same title as Members of this House; that is to say, by the will of the majority. Indeed, their mandate is rather better than that of which we sometimes hear, because it was given, not in the gratuitous exercise of the suffrage, but in good hard currency.

I should like to review the sources and derivation of this newsprint. Before the war, of this 1,250,000 tons, 372,000 tons came from Canada and Newfoundland, 78,000 tons from Scandinavia and the balance of 800,000 tons by way of pulp from Scandinavia to be made into paper in the mills in this country. I have no doubt that the hon. Gentleman who is to reply will have some observations to make regarding the special difficulties of those countries today. Before I come to that, I would like to refer to the stocks of newsprint and pulp at present held in this country. I understand that there are 136,000 tons of newsprint in this country at the present time; that is to say, on the present basis of consumption, 24 weeks' supply.I understand, too, that the stocks of pulp held at mills in this country is the greatest total in history; and I shall be grateful if the hon. Gentleman will confirm or correct those figures.

So much for newsprint. With regard to books, the position, as I say, is different in three main respects. First, the quality and the derivation of the paper is different. Book paper, as the House will know, is made from straw, and the best book paper is that made from esparto grass from North Africa— not, unfortunately, at present being imported. Secondly, the position is different because, in regard to books, the paper position is a much smaller element of the whole problem. I think it was on the 27th October last that the quota of paper for books was raised from 50 per cent. of the 1939 reference period to 65 per cent.; and therefore, much more has been done in regard to books than in regard to newspapers— perhaps because the problem is so much smaller. The main problem in book production now is less the question of paper than the question of cloth and labour for binding. The third main difference is that the scope of the problem of books is so much smaller than that of newspapers because 65 per cent. of the pre-war quota of paper for books amounts to a total— and I include here for the sake of sim- plicity what is known as the Moberley Pool— of 37,000 tons; whereas a mere 22½ per cent. of the newspaper total is 299,000 tons, which shows how much smaller is the book problem than the newspaper problem.

Because these problems are different, I have different suggestions to put to the Minister. In respect of books, I ask him simply to keep the matter under vigilant and sympathetic review, to urge upon the Minister of Labour the necessity of providing labour for the printing and binding of books, and to be prepared at such a time to restore the pre-war paper quota as the conditions justify it. In regard to newspapers I make this specific recommendation, that the Minister should authorise the doubling of four-page daily newspapers. I do not know whether, even if circumstances permitted, there would be any intention or desire on the part of newspapers ever to go back to 24 pages. I should imagine not. There have been certain lessons, by way of compression, conciseness and streamlining, which have been learned from austerity. I am satisfied that those lessons are satisfactorily learned now, and that an eight-page daily newspaper would be an acceptable golden mean between the two extremes. Iwould like to say here that, so far as I am told—I am not sufficiently in the minds or the economic counsels of newspaper proprietors to say with any degree of precision—I understand that economically, at any rate on the short view, it would not pay newspapers to double their size from four to eight pages. In any case, I am not concerned with that; I am not concerned with whether ii pays the newspapers or not. What I am satisfied of is that it would pay the public, and that is why I urge thatcourse upon the hon. Member.

May I, briefly, give the reasons for which I urge these courses upon the Minister? Those reasons are threefold. They are reasons deriving from our export trade, reasons of culture, and reasons regarding the efficient working ofdemocracy. In so far as export is concerned, this has a dual aspect Books are in themselves a valuable and desirable export. Further, the advertisement, direct and indirect, that we gain from books and newspapers is a highly important element in the restoration of the full activity of our export trade. I cannot, of course, comment on all these matters in detail, but they constitute, as the Minister will recognise, a very desirable form of trade, because the deraand already exists, if we can satisfy it. The raw material in a book is only 10 per cent of the total value of the export, which makes it a peculiarly good form of export at the present time. With regard to the general theme of advertising, direct and indirect, I am sure that the House will appreciate that American books, periodicals, and magazines naturally "push "—if I may employ a colloquialism—American ideas of commerce and American equipment, machinery and so on. If the Government are serious about this export drive, about which we have heard so much, they will not neglect the opportunity of "pushing" British ideas, British equipment and British technology, upon the markets of the world. I ask the Minister to believe that our books and newspapers can be the bagmen of our commerce, as they should be of our ideas. I ask him to assist in putting them on the road and to help them in their travels.

With regard to the cultural aspect, it is not, I think, necessary to say more than a word, because I am sure that the House will be united on the importance of this. I do not for a moment suggest that if more paper were made available, it would necessarily lead to a proportionate increase in the production of books of permanent literary value. I observe, perhaps, a blush on the faces ofsome hon. Members opposite who practice authorship. But I take my stand on these two propositions: that the more paper there is, the more likelihood there is of books of permanent value being printed; and the more paper there is, the greater the safeguardof continuance of publication of the classics. The difficulty that now arises is that, with their present amount of paper, publishers publish only the works of established authors whose good will they wish to retain, in the hope of better days; and new authors and dead authors come a very poor second. I hope that we may not reach a point when the classics will go steadily out of print, and that a generation will grow up which is denied access to the right of way of our traditional English literature. English books and papers are also required in libraries in the far parts of the world, and this is a big point. I understand, for example, that the University of Hong Kong is waiting for English books in order to reopen its library, and cannot obtain them.There is an opportunity for putting forward our culture and way of life which should not be lost. As for periodicals, if we do not have sufficiently good periodicals, we lose the export market and the home market. We surrender it, as we have surrendered to the domination of American films; and we are again in danger that the new generation will be merely imitative and living on secondhand imported culture.

My last reason is with regard to the efficient working of democracy. It is, I think, necessary in order to have a complete working of democracy that people should have as full as possible a knowledge of what is going on in public affairs. It is impossible for the most conscientious and ingenious editorial staff to provide adequate Parliamentary reportingor presentation of news with the paper now available. We have with us, although not of us, a distinguished assembly of talent in the Press Gallery, which, if given the tools, could, I am sure, do a great job for the British public; but it is not really possible with the small amount of paper now available. It is not enough to have a free Press; you must have a full Press as well, in order that all points of view may be canvassed and known to the British people. There is, I am convinced, at this time, a larger interest in Parliamentary and political matters than ever before, but never before have they been so sparsely catered for.

I am not going to commit the fault against which every young legal aspirant is warned, of leaping before he comes to the stile. I think it likely, however, that when the hon. Gentleman comes to reply, he will say that whereas he accepts in principle a good deal of what I have said, it would be unwise for him to dispose of his reserves of paper until he is more certain that he can effect their replacement. He will most likely refer to the difficulties of exchange in Canada, and the unwillingness of the Swedes to export pulp to us, unless they can be satisfied that we can export to them the coal, cotton, woollen goods and motor cars which they need.

All I will say is that we now have this American loan, or are about to have it; and it will be an early test of the advantages which we were led to believe were to come from it. As this Government have committed themselves to a big drive for exports, it would be a sorry thing if the hon. Gentleman came down to this House today and was unable to reassure the Swedes that, within a measurable distance of time, we shall be able to export these things to them in return for the importation ofpaper or pulp. I apologise for detaining the House so long, as I know there are many who wish to contribute to this Debate. I would, however, say in conclusion that I do not ask for these things as a Christmas present to the book trade or the newspapers. I put it on a higher ground. I ask the hon. Gentleman to open the gate that will lead to great advantages, economic, cultural and political, for the people of this country.

4.32 p.m.

Mr. Michael Foot (Devonport)

I will try to be brief, but there are some comments I would like to make on the speech of the hon. and gallant Member for Hertford (Lieut.-Colonel Walker-Smith). This subject needs to be more carefully examined than he suggests. There is a great campaign going on in this country at present, run by the great newspaper proprietors, to get a bigger release of newsprint. The hon. and gallant Member for Hertford says that he is not in the councils of these newspaper proprietors. Perhaps he is possessed of some psychic powers, because the remarks he made would not be viewed by them with disfavour. He is proposing as an immediate measure that the size of newspapers should be doubled, and the book trade of which he spoke so eloquently is only to be given sympathetic consideration later in the year. Finally, he tells us how well these papers will report Parliament. I think it would be altogether wrong if this question of the newsprint supplies in this country—and we all hope that they will increase—were dictated by the pressure of the campaigns of the big newspaper proprietors.

Firstly, I do not believe it is altogether a bad thing that newspapers have been reduced in size. It has reversed the position of the advertiser as against the newspaper. The power of the advertiser has gone during the war. We all remember that before the war one reason why newspapers ran their ridiculous campaign that peace was going on for ever and ever, and that we need not worry, was that they wanted to maintain the good will of the advertisers, who believed that such sunshine propaganda was very good for them. Moreover, it is a complete fallacy to suppose, as the hon. and gallant Member suggested, that a reduction in the number of pages of newspapers represents a reduction in the number of words those papers are able to print. Owing to technical improvements during the war, the number of pages to which newspapers have been reduced is not a fair indication at all. Probably the popular newspaper has on one page today three times as many words as was the case before thewar. It would be a bad thing to restore the conditions we had in the big newspaper trade before the war. The freedom of the Press does not include the right of big newspaper proprietors to distribute free mangles, free saucepans and free kitchen sets to their enthusiastic and devoted readers.

A great deal of humbug is talked in this House about how these big newspapers want to have more paper in order to report the proceedings of this House properly. A great deal of nonsense is now printed in those papers which could be dispensed with if they wished to find more space for printing the proceedings of this House. Moreover, many of them do not make any attempt to print the affairs and the proceedings of this House properly. There was an example, which I take at random, from the "Daily Express." A few weeks ago the "Daily Express" reported a Debate in this House on the Emergency Laws (Transitional Provisions) Bill and we were told that a great discussion took place on the subject of liberty. The "Daily Express" devoted 90 lines of their report to the case of the Opposition, and exactly one line to the Home Secretary's reply. Even if you double the size of the newspapers, the Home Secretary is only going to get two lines, instead of one. I suggest that thereshould be a system of priorities for releasing this newsprint. First of all the limitation on the reprint of Hansard—the hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Bowles) referred to it the other day in a Question to which he received an unsatisfactory reply—should be removed, so that M.Ps. would have the power to distribute, not only their own speeches, but the speeches of other hon. Members freely in their constituencies. That would be much better than allowing the "Daily Express" to give continual distorted accounts of what takes place.

Lieut.-Colonel Walker-Smith

The hon. Member might bear in mind that: the "Express '' newspapers may have altered since he left them.

Mr. Foot

Yes, there has been a terrible deterioration.

Mr. Bowles (Nuneaton)

They have got new contributors.

Mr. Foot

Next on this list of priorities, I suggest that consideration should be given to books, and particularly children's books. It is quite true, as has been said, that the main consideration limiting the production of books is the lack of labour, but we all hope that will be overcome; in a few months time at any rate, and when it is overcome we want to make sure that there is a big supply of paper for books.

Thirdly, I believe that before consideration is given to the big London daily newspapers, consideration should be given to weekly and provincial newspapers. This dangerous trend towards monopoly and combines in the newspaper trade; has infiltrated into the weekly and provincial trade as well, but it still remains the fact that there is a much greater diffusion of ownership in the weekly and provincial newspaper business than in the big London newspaper business. I believe it would be perfectly proper on the part of the Government, in the interests of liberty, when they are disposing of this newsprint, to say that the newsprint increase of supplies shall go to provincial and weekly newspapers and that special consideration shall be given to those newspapers which can show that they are not tied up with any combine and to cases where a provincial newspaper is a genuine provincial newspaper, run by the people in that city. They ought to have prior rights over those mammoth combines, built up by big newspaper proprietors.

Mr. Galleicher (Fife, West)

What about the "Daily Worker "?

Mr. Foot

I am in favour of the "Daily Worker "having more newsprint, because they are not a combine and, much as I dislike most of their views, they have every right to bigger supplies.

We had a Debate in this House the other day about the film industry. Hon. Members opposite who pretend they are so much in favour of maintaining the liberties of the people were unanimous—or almost unanimous—there were one or two honourable exceptions—in voting for this giant monopoly.Sooner or later, if we believe in freedom, we shall have to fight this monopoly, and I am sorry the Government have not shown any attempt to do so. I hope the Government will have better luck in fighting the big combines in the newspaper industry. The great traditions of British journalism were not built up by the Northcliffes, the Rothermeres and the Beaverbrooks, but by the William Cobbetts, and the William Hazlitts and the Jonathan Swifts, and all those great writers, who knew what they fought for, andloved what they knew. I hope that the Government will make a much better stand in fighting the newspaper proprietors, than they have made in fighting the film monopolists.

4.40 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade (Mr. Ellis Smith)

I am disappointed at the limited time at our disposal, but it is not my responsibility. I would like all desirous of taking part in the Debate to have an opportunity of doing so. However, it is necessary today that we should get the facts on record. A controversy has developed around this issue, and, in order that opinion may be formed, it is necessary to state the facts. The hon. and gallant Gentleman who opened this Debate was largely preaching to the converted, so far as the Government are concerned. With regard to his suggestions concerning books, we have as much sympathy as he has with the case for books, and the same applies to his remarks on exports and on culture. I would say, in connection with his observations on China and the Chinese students, that I happen to be very closely in touch with hundreds of Chinese students, and I know the good will which exists between them and our own country. So far as that matter is concerned, we go out of our way to meet his appeal.

With regard to his request that more space should be at the disposal of the Press for reporting the proceedings in Parliament, I hope that when paper is available, the Press of this country will devote more space to reports of Parliamentary proceedings. Those hon. Members who have spent some time in this House, and particularly those on this side who were in a minority for so many years, cannot forget the small amount of reporting of Parliament which has been done by the big daily newspapers in this country for a long time past. If newspaper proprietors have now reformed, and if it is their desire that more space shall be devoted to Parliamentary reports of proceedings, no one will be more pleased than the present Government and hon. Members on this side of the House.

The hon. Member for Devonport (Mr. Foot) made a very well informed speech, as we should expect him to do, because he is very familiar with the industry it self. He may have had to obtain his livelihood through the Press; that is nothing to be ashamed of. That applies to many other hon. Members who are now interrupting and smiling. Therefore, if anything is to be said about my hon. Friend hon. Members must not object if I say it about others.

Viscount Hinchingbrooke (Dorset, Southern)

Could the hon. Gentleman arrange for some more paper to be supplied to the "Daily Herald" in order that we may read contributions from somebody other than the hon. Member for Devonport (Mr. Foot)?

Mr. Ellis Smith

I think the hon. Member writes a weekly feature article, and hon. Members may depend upon it, that it must be giving satisfaction to the editor of the "Daily Herald."

Mr. Vernon Bartlett (Bridgwater)

He has a contract.

Mr. Ellis Smith

Even if he has, he is not the only one who has got a contract. The only difference between some of us and certain hon. Members opposite is that many of us have had to work for our living for many years.

We can now reveal the facts about the supply of paper, and I do so in order that when discussions take place in future, they can take place upon the basis of the facts. I consider that these facts are indicative of Britain's economic position which was brought about by our mighty contribution to the recent war, and I only wish that people living in other parts of the world paid more regard to the strain under which the British people have lived during the past seven years. We shall get over that. The mood of our people is such, and many of us have such confidence in our people, that we shall get over our present economic difficulties, but it is going to mean a gigantic effort.

Let me deal with the facts in order that they can be put on record. Dealing first with periodicals, the quantity generally allowed at present is 28½ per cent. of the amount used in the 12 months before 31st August, 1939. Additional paper is given in a number of cases, either where the publisher concerned earlier in the war reduced the quantity used in some of his periodicals for the benefit of other publications issued by him, or because of the importance and situation of the individual periodical. For example, during the war, in the case of the agricultural industry, we gave more paper in order to do justice to that important industry; and special consideration has also been given to— and this answers one of the points that the hon. Member made—and extra paper allocated to, those periodicals dealing with the export trade. The present consumption is 78,000 tons a year, as compared with the estimated prewar figure of 250,000 tons, which is approximately 31 per cent, of the prewar consumption.

The general consumption level was put up in November, 1943, from19½ per cent, to 21⅜ per cent., and this was followed by further increases in November, 1944, and July, 1945, when the figure became 23 per cent. With the end of the war and an improvement in supplies the general allocation was increased in November of this year to 28½ per cent., and additional supplies were provided for export purposes, bringing the total allocation to 31 per cent. of the prewar figure.

This is the position with regard to newspapers. The supply of paper available is allocated by a committee of publishers on a basis which was devised by the publishers themselves and approved by the Ministry of Supply in the early part of 1940. The quantity at present consumed is 290,000 tons a year as compared with the estimated pre-war figure, of 1,100,000 tons, equivalent to approximately 26 per cent. of the pre-war consumption. During the war the quality was continuously reduced, bringing the figure down to 20.7 per cent. Of pre-war in February, 1943. In order to reach this level and yet maintain a reasonably adequate distribution the newspapers reduced their sizes very considerably, the large-sized penny dailies becoming four pages only. This is the minimum size which can properly be printed, consisting as it does of a single double sheet. Corresponding reductions were made in the sizes of the smaller sized penny and of the weekly papers. The Services and public demand for copies of the daily newspapers became such that in September, 1943, existing consumption was increased by 11.5 per cent. to provide additional copies only, and a subsequent increase of 5 per cent. was given in June, 1944, bringing the consumption up to nearly 24 per cent. of pre-war.

With the approach of the end of the war in Europe a further small increase was allowed, and in order to provide additional copies for news of the General Election 10 per cent. more paper was allowed, giving a total permitted consumption today of nearly 27 per cent. of the pre-war figure. The consumption is not uniformly restricted for the different classes of newspapers.

Mr. Bartlett

On a point of Order. May I point out that the Minister is reading a speech containing a great number of figures which everybody knows? We know perfectly well that we have four page papers. The Member is not in any way answering the Debate. Will he answer the points which have been made in the Debate?

Mr. Ellis Smith

I am not one who believes in interjections of that kind. I am not complaining, but I do not think an hon. Member should make an interjection and then smile.

Mr. Bartlett

If the hon. Gentleman does not want me to smile, I will not. I am normally a good tempered person and, therefore, I smiled.

Lieut. - Commander Joynson - Hicks (Chichester)

Perhaps I could put the question differently. The figures the hon. Gentleman has been giving us are precisely, word for word, the figures which the President of the Board of Trade gave in answer to Questions.

Mr. Ellis Smith

There has been a great deal of controversy over this issue. Many questions, as the hon. and gallant Gentle- man said, have been put in this House, and I have gone out of my way to put the facts on record today so that, from now onwards, when discussion takes place it can take place on the facts. For that reason I took the line I have taken.

Mr. Kenneth Lindsay (Combined English Universities)

Further to the point of Order. Would the hon. Gentleman say whether he has finished with the points put to him on exports, because they have not been answered? It is the most serious situation in the whole of Europe and we want a reply. With the exception of exports to Denmark, no British books are going into Europe.

Mr. Ellis Smith

I am not responsible for the limited time. I began by saying we are restricted for time, especially when it is considered what a big issue is involved. I was going to put the facts on record, but if hon. Gentlemen do not want that, I am quite prepared to take notice of the wish of the House. I was going on to say that local newspapers receive a larger allocation of paper, in relation to what they received prewar, than the national newspapers. In the basic period, the consumption by local newspapers had not been reduced so severely as that of national newspapers. In view of the urgent necessity for restricting imports as far as possible, it would not be possible, at present, to justify a large expenditure of foreign currency in obtaining additional supplies of paper, in order to bring up the consumption of reading matter to the pre-war level. I am purposely missing out a good deal of material that I wanted to place on record because of the irritability of several hon. Members who are obviously desirous of taking part in the Debate.

Mr. Bartlett

On a point of Order. Did the hon. Gentleman say "irritability "? I merely asked for information, and hon. Members want some information. Surely, it is not "irritability" to make that request.

Mr. Beverley Baxter (Wood Green)

Further to that point of Order. Is it in order, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, for a Minister first to lecture us on smiling, and then to complain of our being irritable? Cannot he make up his mind?

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Mr. Hubert Beaumont)

One of the charges is singularly appropriate at this season of the year.

Mr. Ellis Smith

If paper supplies are increased, the allocation will be stepped up even further. In the case of newspapers, any additional supplies must be substantial, because any increase in their size means that a four-page daily paper must be increased to six or eight pages.

An increase of approximately 50 per cent., or 100 per cent., of the present consumption, is therefore necessary, and this requires a quantity of the order of either 150,000 tons or 300,000 tons a year. It would be desirable to increase supplies for periodicals in line with the newspapers if this were possible. The public importance of making increased supplies of paper available generally for these purposes is fully appreciated. It raisesat this stage issues of currency as well as difficulties of supply. On the raw material side, the full quantities of pulp available for the production of newsprint have been acquired, but the future position depends largely upon developments in Northern Europe, where shortage of coal, labour, power and fuel, limit production. It is too early to forecast the prospects of increasing newsprint production in this country in the latter part of 1946. There is a general shortage of supplies of foreign newsprint available for export, although it may be possible to import some additional quantities. This question will be reviewed at a later date, when the currency position is clearer.

The Government will take note of this Debate and of the feeling of the House and, early next year, further consideration will be given to the issues raised, in conjunction with our other needs. We have to work— I would emphasise this point— towards a balanced economy, in order to obtain the best results from our supplies and resources. With regard to books for educational purposes, those who are producing them can already have access to the Moberley Committee, which considers requests for extra paper and makes increased allocations in approved cases. I have endeavoured, in the limited time available, to put the facts upon record. Unfortunately, because of the limited time, I have not been able to put the whole of them on record, If this matter is raised again we shall be only too pleased to face the position and deal with it more satisfactorily,

4.56 p.m.

Lieut.-Colonel Sir Thomas Moore (Ayr Burghs)

The hon. Gentleman has really done us and the hon, and gallant Gentleman who raised this question an injustice, in not referring either to the numerous arguments that were advanced, or to the one decisive factor, which is labour. This is not a question of paper shortage but of labour. That is the one question which the hon. Gentleman ignored throughout his speech. I ask him— I know he cannot speak again in this Debate— to bear in mind, from the point of view of the Government, that that is a matter which will have to be faced if this matter is raised later.

Mr. Ellis Smith

If the House will for give me—

4.57 p.m.

Lieut.-Colonel Sir Ian Fraser (Lons-dale)

I would make the plea that, when increasing paper allocations, the Government should have in mind the claims of all industries who use paper. The newspaper industry is not the only one, although I agree that it is supremely important. I hope that the Government will have regard to that fact and will bear in mind that many industries depend for their development, and indeed for their rehabilitation, upon the use of paper. Any increase ought: to be a fair increase all round.

4.58 p.m.

Mr. Kenneth Lindsay

Inthe half minute that remains I should like to bring to the attention of the Minister the fact that 44,000 standard books have gone completely out of print and that 8,000 manuscripts are now waiting. The number of skilled printers and binders is likely tobe 10,000 fewer than before the war. Never, even at the highest peak before the war, did we produce more than 16,000 books per year, but 52,000 are waiting now. That will show the hon. Gentleman the urgency of the question. Only one country in Europe has a regular book trade with this country, and that is Denmark; there is possibly also Sweden. There is a hope for Holland. Canada is almost a lost market. In America, no copyright now exists for British books. This matter is very urgent, and that is why we should very much like to have a further Debate on the subject when we resume.

Mr. Driberg (Maldon)

In the ten seconds that remain, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, may I wish you, Mr. Speaker, and the staff of the House a merry Christmas?

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at One Minute to Five o'Clock, till Tuesday, 22nd January, pursuant to the Resolution of the House yesterday.