HC Deb 03 May 1948 vol 450 cc1053-62

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. R. J. Taylor.]

11.21 p.m.

Mr. York (Ripon)

Even though it is a late hour, I have an important subject to raise, and I think that the House, when it has heard the case which I have to make, will realise how important it is. It is concerned with the growing shortage of newsprint and the effect which that will have in particular on the newspapers of this country. First, may I draw the attention of the House to the history of the amount of newsprint which has been available since the end of the war? In 1946, when we hoped that things would improve, the number of pages which the newspapers were able to publish was up to five, and the basis of the newsprint supply was the five-page paper. The House must remember that, in addition, of course, the number of papers allowed to be published was unlimited.

In June, 1947, owing to the possibility of a crisis arising, the number of newspapers which might be sold in a day was "pegged" In July, the dollar crisis broke, and the first thing which happened was that newspapers were cut down to four pages. Then, another serious potential cut in the newsprint supply came about in December, when the output of the home paper mills had to be reduced, and that reduction went as low as 20 per cent. of the total capacity of the home mills. In 1948, the newspapers and the users of newsprint have been living on their stocks. This is the reason why I have brought the subject up at so late an hour. I am most concerned with the urgency of the position.

I want to put my case in three parts. First, the stock position today is at danger point. There will be a break-down should any hitch occur in the supply coming into this country. Secondly, the Canadian suppliers of newsprint are anxious to know how much of the 1949 demands are going to be taken up by the newsprint companies. There is considerable pressure on them to sell by other people. Thirdly, newsprint is being offered to this country under the Marshall Aid Plan.

First as to the stock position. By the end of this year we shall be down to a total stock of 90,000 tons and when I tell the House that that is 50 per cent. of the stocks which we held in August, 1946, it will realise the seriousness of the position. Further, to maintain the present level of consumption, the users of newsprint are using the reserve of stock which they were able to accumulate in anticipation of the number of pages being increased. We are living on our fat, in this respect, and there are no margins for any contingencies. I am told that the newspapers each have their own stocks, and that these stocks are not necessarily transferable—in many cases they certainly are not transferable—from one paper to another. For example, "The Times" uses one size of paper, the "Express" may use another, and, for all I know, the "Herald" may use yet another size.

In particular it is the small and also the provincial newspapers which are most in danger if what is commonly called the pipeline of supply happens to dry up at any time. To safeguard the four-page newspapers which we have enjoyed for the past nine months, it is essential not only that we should not run down the present stocks, but that we should begin at once to build up stocks; and, to safeguard the four-page newspapers, it is essential to add to that 90,000 tons of stock a further 30,000 tons. I would put it this way: I am informed that if there is a hitch, if the supplies, which I will deal with in one moment, are not forthcoming, it is very probable that in 1949 we shall be down to the two-page newspaper. I am sure that there is no one in this House who does not agree that that would be a very serious position.

Now as to the supply position. To make certain of the four-page newspapers, we require 350,00o tons a year. The home mills, if they return once more to an output representing one-third of their total capacity—they are somewhere about 24 per cent. of capacity at the moment—will produce 230,000 tons—that is not certain. That shows a deficit of 120,000 tons. The newsprint people had hoped that this deficit would be met by Canadian supplies. But, as the Board of Trade well knows, the supplies from Canadian sources have been cut to 100,000 tons. Today I have heard rumours that there may be cuts even below that figure. I have also been informed that it is more than doubtful whether the home mills can produce the one-third of their capacity; and that if this deficit is to be met they will have to exceed the one-third, and will have to increase their output to something like 40 per cent. of capacity. It is also doubtful whether we can get very much more than about 12,000 tons of newsprint from Scandinavia, which is our other safety line. Therefore, I think, the House will agree that the supply position is as serious as the stock position.

It is agreed on all sides of the House, and accepted by the Government I think, that the principle that one-third of our newsprint supply should come from Canada is based on sound reasoning. Quite apart from our dealings and friendship with the Dominion and fellow member of the Commonwealth, there is the over-riding importance of security. It is obviously undesirable that we should not keep up our supplies of newsprint from the New World in case there might be a lack of supplies from Scandinavia and other European countries. But if we go on as the trends appear to be going at the moment, in 1949 we shall be lucky to get one-sixth of our total supply from Canada.

The most important point I am dealing with tonight is this question of the contracts with the American suppliers. The Newsprint Company have contracted from 1949, and what they want to know, and more important even than that, what the Canadian suppliers want to know, is what proportion of that newsprint is going to be taken up. The House will no doubt be aware that there is tremendous pressure both on the financial side and from the purely commercial aspect on the Canadian suppliers to sell their newsprint to the United States. It is only because of their great generosity and their friendliness towards this country that the Canadian suppliers are holding off as long as they can in coming to a decision on this matter in order to give the Government as well as our buyers the greatest possible chance to buy as much as possible.

There is also this point. I am informed that it may be necessary for the Canadian suppliers to base their long-term contracts upon the amount which is sent over and sold to this country during 1949. If the amount that we buy is very low, and if that amount is the basis of future supplies, then for some years to come the supply position of this country will be very seriously affected. I must strongly press on the Government, if they cannot make any decision tonight, that they will help both the Newsprint Company in this country and the Canadian suppliers by coming to a decision at the latest this week.

My third point has to do with the offer made by the administrator of Marshall Aid to send this country supplies of newsprint under the Marshall Aid Plan. I am told, although I have not checked up, that we have been offered about 22,000,000 dollars worth of newsprint under the plan. If, the Government could say that they would agree to accept this offer then we could certainly accept the Canadian contract in full, and that would mean at least that we should be able to get 100,000 tons from Canada in 1949.

I do not think I need argue at any length the importance of increasing the size of newspapers. It should be recognised both in this country and the world that the United Kingdom now has practically the smallest proportion of pre-war supplies of newsprint of any country in the world. There are, it is true, one or two countries to be excepted. I think Japan is one and Hungary is the other. But almost all the other countries are getting a considerable amount more than they were during the War and a great number are getting more than they got before the War. Our proportion, I am told, is about one-quarter of what we used to obtain in pre-war days, but the effect of the small four-sheet newspaper is that the public is not nearly as well informed of certain special subjects, notably foreign affairs, as it should be, and that reports are unbalanced; and I am told that, comparing the pre-war newspapers with the present day newspapers, the Parliamentary reports are very much condensed. Although perhaps we have no right to ask for more paper for that purpose, it certainly is a necessary part of Parliamentary democracy that there should be full reports about this House.

The most important aspect of the matter, I think, is that when you condense newspapers you incline to reduce the best type of journalism. It is the best type of journalism that today is suffering from the lack of newsprint. I am quite certain that the American people who came over here to look into our difficulties are not only very well aware of our difficulties but are very anxious that we should accept the Marshall Aid which has been offered to this country. The real reason for the emergency which has arisen is that newsprint has not been put high enough up on the Government list of priorities.

I would put two questions to the Government, and I do not ask for an answer tonight. I know that it is difficult to answer these big questions in a short time, but I would like them to give to the representatives of the industry concerned their answers as quickly as possible. The first question is: What is the policy of the Government towards newspapers? Do they intend to maintain the four-sheet newspaper? It is the size of the daily paper which conditions all other magazines and papers. Do they intend if the opportunity arises—and I believe it does arise now—to give newsprint towards bigger papers of five and six sheets? There has been a rumour that the talk at the Geneva Convention was that the Government intended to maintain the four-page news- paper and that was all. I hope that that is not true. The second question I want to ask is: Will the Government accept Marshall Aid? The offer has been made, a generous offer. There is a rumour that there is a resistance in this Government to it being accepted. There may be reasons for that resistance, but I do ask them very strongly to consider accepting the Marshall Aid offer for newsprint.

I have said that this is an urgent matter. It is urgent, and that is why my hon. Friends and I have had to give very short notice of this question. I cannot expect answers to these detailed points tonight on what the Government have done, but the next few weeks may condition the future of our newspapers in this country. If the newspapers are restricted it reflects upon the political life of the country, and that is the excuse which is made by my hon. Friends and myself for raising the matter at this late hour.

Mr. Lennox-Boyd (Mid-Bedford)

On a point of Order. Who is to reply to this Debate for the Government? The whole purpose of these Adjournment Debates is to get an answer from a responsible Minister, and we are interested to know who is going to answer this Debate.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Major Milner)

The Government will reply. I do not think the hon. Gentleman is entitled to ask me that. It is not a point of Order.

11.41 p.m.

Mr. Percy Wells (Faversham)

I will detain the House for only a moment in order that I might deal with an aspect of this matter which very seriously concerns hundreds of my constituents and thousands of paper makers up and down the country. I share the desire of the hon. Member for Ripon (Mr. York) for an early increase in the supply of newsprint, but I hope with all sincerity that this will not be done by increasing the importation of the finished article. I notice with some concern that on the list of suggested aid to this country under the Marshall Plan is£5½million on account of newsprint. This follows propaganda which Lord Rothermere has been conducting in the United States for some time. Speaking at a banquet given by the Associated Press in New York recently he said that an adequate supply of newsprint was necessary if the battle for freedom was to be won. He also stated that a tyrannical government might be afraid to attack news at its source but quite ready to attack newsprint. Whilst agreeing with Lord Rothermere, because he was not attacking the Government of this country, I hope that none of this newsprint ever enters this country.

At Sittingbourne we have at the Kemsley Mill one of the largest paper making machines in existence. This machine can produce newsprint more quickly and cheaply than any other machine. It is operated by a crew of very skilled paper makers, but since 1939 this machine has been idle. Its skilled workers have been engaged on other work. For nine long years they have waited and hoped that they will once more be able to engage in their skill and their craft. Can anyone wonder that to them the position now appears to be perfectly hopeless? They view this question of the importation of newsprint from a different angle from that of the hon. Member for Ripon. While this machine has been idle they see waste paper arriving in the mills from Sweden. This waste paper costs£25 a ton, which is two and a half times as much as they were able to produce first class newsprint for before the war. By instructions from the Board of Trade 12½per cent. of this Swedish waste paper is to be incorporated in every ton of newsprint produced.

Our people cannot understand why we are faced with this situation when we have options on large tracts of forest in Newfoundland, where we could get an inexhaustible supply of wood. Because of shipping difficulties in 1940 shipping from Newfoundland was stopped. In 1945 the Board of Trade gave permission for the importation of raw wood to be resumed, but that was stopped again last winter. From the raw wood which is used in the Kemsley Mill a very valuable by-product is hard board, so vital to the building industry, of which last year we imported no less than 33,000 tons, largely from Canada and other hard currency countries. The point we in Sittingbourne cannot understand is why we cannot produce—

Mr. Lennox-Boyd

On a point of Order. In view of the fact that there are only four minutes to go before the Debate auto- maticaliy ends, could we know if there is to be an answer from the Government?

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

That is not a point of Order.

Mr. Wells

As I was saying before the interruption, we imported last year 33,000 tons of hard board, much of it from Canada and other hard currency countries, but it is felt to be only common sense to import raw material from which paper can be got and then secure this byproduct. That would ensure that modern machines in this modern paper mill will be working to capacity. We hope, therefore, that the Minister will take all these points into consideration.

11.48 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health (Mr. John Edwards)

The hon. Member for Ripon (Mr. York) was good enough to say that he did not expect complete answers now to all the points which he made. There are, however, a few things that can be said and which may help the hon. Member who raised the matter. The first is that the figures which the U.S. Government have published are not, of course, the figures which have been discussed with His Majesty's Government. It was suggested that some part of the newsprint there indicated would be paid for not from Marshall Aid but out of free dollars, and that raised considerable difficulties for us, as will be generally agreed. One may sum up the position in this way, that, as far as we see, our present resources will not allow us to contemplate any increase in the size of newspapers above four pages; secondly, that the figures for imports recently suggested by the United States Administration are far beyond our means; and, thirdly, if we are to maintain our present position and build up supplies for an increase of size when this does become possible, we can only hope to do it by the salvage of waste paper to increase the home production of newsprint. The position is extremely tight—[Interrup—tion.] If hon. Gentlemen would not interrupt, I will explain. Our present position is as follows. We are at present using about 355,000 tons a year for newspapers, and 35,000 tons for other purposes, making 395,000 tons in all. Of this, about 105,000 tons will be drawn from Canada, 23,000 tons from Scandinavia and—

Mr. York

On a point of Order. In view of the fact that, without any discourtesy to the hon. Member, there is no responsible Government spokesman there, I beg to give notice that I will raise this matter again on an Adjournment.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

The hon. Gentleman is not raising a point of Order.

Mr. York

May I put my point to you? If a case is made at Question Time and no proper answer is given, the hon. Member is allowed to make that case again on an Adjournment. If, on the Adjournment he receives no answer, he has the opportunity of raising it again if he gives notice. That was my point of Order.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

It is a matter for Mr. Speaker as to how far the hon. Mem- ber is given a further opportunity, but I must point out that it is the practice of this House that the Government are entitled to give such reply as they think fit. It may or may not be satisfactory but hon. Members have their remedy.

Mr. Edwards

I was doing my best to give the hon. Gentleman information which is quite accurate, and can be relied on.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'Clock and the Debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Nine Minutes to Twelve o'Clock.