HC Deb 14 June 1956 vol 554 cc839-42
Mr. Jay

I beg to move, in page 25, line 29, after "minerals", to insert "newspapers and periodicals".

I should begin by declaring an interest as one who has always, when not in the Government's service, earned his livelihood through the newspaper industry. I am bound to say, however, that that does not affect the view I take on this matter. We want to ask the President of the Board of Trade for an assurance that newspapers and periodicals are included in the term "goods", which governs the whole operation of the Bill.

We ask for this assurance because at present rather disturbing restrictive practices operate in the newspaper world as well as in so much of the rest of British industry. I am informed on good authority that the following series of events has occurred in recent months. A few months ago, Hulton Press, a well-known publishing firm, decided to publish a Sunday newspaper and, indeed, publicly announced that it intended to do so.

Hulton Press found that it could not effectively do that unless it became a member of the Newspaper Proprietors' Association, a well-known association of newspaper owners, because without such membership it could not obtain facilities in the matter of newspaper trains, and so on, without which, in practice, it is impossible to distribute a newspaper. The N.P.A. informed Hulton Press, so I understand, that it was prepared to permit the newspaper to become a member of that organisation, provided that Hulton's accepted the terms for distribution laid down by another body, the Newsagents' Federation.

When Hulton's applied to the Federation to ask that it should be given the normal distributive facilities on terms which alone could enable it to become a member of the Newspaper Proprietors' Association, it was informed by the Federation that the Federation regarded the new publication not as a newspaper, but only as a periodical.

7.0 p.m.

That, of course, would mean raising the discount which the distributors, the members of the Federation, would get from 25 per cent. to 33⅓ per cent., and that, in the view of Hulton's, rightly or wrongly. made it uneconomic to distribute the paper. In any case, it was possible after a time, I gather, to satisfy the Federation that the proposed newspaper was on its merits, or by whatever test is applied, a newspaper and not a periodical.

At that stage, the Federation is alleged to have changed its ground and to have said that, although the proposed new Sunday Star, as it was to be called, was, in fact, a newspaper, nevertheless the Federation proposed to charge the discount of 33⅓ for this one particular Sunday newspaper as opposed to the 25 per cent. charged for all the rest. If that proposal had been accepted, the other condition laid down by the Newspaper Proprietors' Association would have been broken, because this paper would not have been distributed on the same terms as other Sunday newspapers.

Therefore, a situation appears to have been reached, if the facts are as stated—and I think that they are—in which these two bodies between them successfully prevented the publication of a new newspaper. It may be—I imagine that it is so—that the reasons for this action were, in this case, purely business and economic ones. It was not desired, maybe by some people, to have a further competitor in the field, or else it was felt that the margin the distribution would earn would not be sufficient, in their opinion, to justify their doing the job.

That may be, and it is very undesirable, but it appears—I have only mentioned this briefly, but it raises serious issues—that we have reached a stage in this industry where two or perhaps one of two trade associations can, in effect, prevent the publication of a new newspaper. So far as the public knows or can foresee, what is done in one case for economic reasons may conceivably be done for political reasons in another.

I think that all of us in this House are opposed to the control of newspapers, except perhaps in the extreme form such as we discussed in the horror comics Bill, even by Parliament and the Government, but I should have thought that we certainly do not want the control of newspapers by self-constituted bodies of traders in trade associations.

I hope that the President can assure us that by the definitions of this Bill newspapers and periodicals do count as goods and, therefore, that such arrangements as I have described would at least come within the registration powers of the Bill and would be within the competence of the Registrar, even if he could not do anything else, to have them examined in due course before the Restrictive Practices Court.

Mr. P. Thorneycroft

Without expressing any views about the way in which newspapers may arrange their affairs, I can give the assurance which the right hon. Gentleman asks for, that "goods" include newspapers and periodicals.

Sir L. Plummer

May I ask another question of the President of the Board of Trade, arising out of his answer? Would an agreement between a group of newsagents and newspaper publishers that, by virtue of the fact that the group of newsagents sell the publishers' products, the publishers refuse to supply anyone else entering the trade without their permission, be covered by this Bill?

To give an example, if a man wants to start a news-agency and open a newsagent's shop, before he is able to do so the Federation of Retail Newsagents will say, "We want to see, first, whether the distance limit operates". That is to say, they lay down, I think in co-operation with the newspaper proprietors, that a man may not open a newsagent's shop if there is another newsagent's shop within a given distance of his shop.

If the Federation is satisfied that opening the new shop would be breaking the distance limit, it then puts that case to the publishers. The publishers then investigate and, if they find that that is so, they refuse supplies to the man who wants to be a newsagent. This seems to be clearly an agreement which is restrictive of trade. Would such an agreement be registerable under the Clauses of the Bill?

Mr. P. Thorneycroft

I always rather hesitate to answer this kind of question off the cuff, but, following the hon. Gentleman's explanation of a case of that kind, my answer would be that the answer would appear to be, yes, such an arrangement would be restrictive within the terms of Clause 5 of the Bill and would be liable to registration.

Amendment negatived.