HC Deb 09 March 1971 vol 813 cc247-52
Mr. Benn

(by Private Notice) asked the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry if he will make a statement on the closure of the Daily Sketch.

The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and President of the Board of Trade (Mr. John Davies)

The Associated Newspapers Group has announced that it will merge the Daily Mail and the Daily Sketch by mid-May. Although I very much regret the disappearance of a national newspaper, it was not unexpected, particularly in view of the failure of the national newspaper industry to come to grips with its well known problems. The Department of Employment is in touch with management about arrangements to give all possible assistance to those who need help in finding other jobs.

Mr. Benn

The right hon. Gentleman will appreciate that I share his feelings about the death of a national newspaper in a democracy, even though politically it was not exactly favourable to this side of the House. Would he confirm the number of journalists and workers involved? I should like to ask him three further questions. First, what talks is he proposing to have with the proprietors and unions involved about the future? Secondly, have the Government assessed the likely effect of commercial radio on future advertising revenue for the Press, and will he discuss that with the unions and proprietors? Finally, will he recognise that blaming other people is getting a bit thin and that the Government had better accept some responsibility themselves?

Mr. Davies

I understand from the concern that 1,700 people are likely to lose their jobs out of a total work force of 7,500. Of course, that concerns me.

The answer to the right hon. Gentleman's question as to whether we are having talks with the proprietors is "No". That is a matter for them and not for me. That does not preclude talks between the Department of Employment and the proprietors and unions concerned with a view to finding other jobs. The question of commercial radio and its effect on the advertising revenue of the newspapers concerned is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Minister of Posts and Telecommunications and the industry. It is not for me.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

Can my right hon. Friend say to what extent this unhappy occurrence, with its many losses of jobs, is due to the restrictive practices imposed by the printing Unions, as reported on by the Shawcross Committee some years ago?

Mr. Davies

It is absolutely certain that, among the problems to which I referred in my Answer, those of over-manning and the difficulty of trying to procure better productivity in this industry are very well known throughout the nation and undoubtedly have contributed materially to the problem we now face.

Mr. Driberg

Is the Secretary of State aware that the protective—not restrictive—practices in the print unions are justified by the repeated closures of national newspapers, of which there may well be more in future? Tragic as the redundancies are, as they are in any industry or trade, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the important thing is that the closure of national newspapers diminishes the consumer's right of choice?

Mr. Davies

If there is a reduction in the number of newspapers there may be some diminution in the right of choice. But we still have ten national dailies and seven Sunday newspapers, so there is still a fair amount of choice. I think that the exact opposite of what the hon. Gentleman said in the first part of his supplementary question is the case. It is the restrictive practices which have been prevalent in this industry which have very largely caused the problems we face.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

In view of the very grave threat to the national Press, and as at least three national newspapers are being threatened with closure, is there not a case, because of the constitutional importance of the Press, for the Government to appoint a committee to investigate what needs to be done to assist newspapers in the present situation?

Mr. Davies

I have given thought to that proposal, but my conclusion is that no useful purpose would be served by instituting an inquiry at this stage.

Mr. Benn

Would the right hon. Gentleman now tell the House why he was not prepared to answer the question which I put about the effect on the newspapers of the introduction of commercial radio, which must be a matter of Cabinet decision and not of individual Ministerial decision? There is likely to be a further diminution in advertising revenue which will accentuate the difficulties which cause the whole House concern.

Mr. Davies

That is a matter for the Minister concerned to answer. But it is obvious that in the evolution of industry generally changes of this kind must be taken into account by the newspapers and by other industries. The shift of advertising material is a well-known factor which has taken place in a number of fields.

Sir F. Bennett

Can my right hon. Friend remind us—or would he need prior notice of this—exactly how many millions of pounds have been lost in the newspaper industry in the last ten years as a result of strikes, walk-outs and go-slows? Will he accept that most of us do not need a committee of inquiry to tell us why this sort of thing takes place?

Mr. Davies

I have no figure in mind and I doubt whether it would be practicable to assess it.

Mr. Raymond Fletcher

Surely the right hon. Gentleman will agree that the present death rate among newspapers and the anticipated death rate is a matter of concern for this House and the Government? Little as I like the paper which is to die, it is rather tragic, as my hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Mr. Driberg) pointed out, that freedom of choice is being diminished. In view of this crisis which affects us all, will the right hon. Gentleman or other Ministers carefully examine the German system of subsidising newsprint, which helps to keep some of the finest newspapers in Europe alive, to see whether that cannot be applied here to stop this alarming situation from getting worse?

Mr. Davies

This and other devices have long been the subject of study and discussion, but I think I am right in saying that the previous Administration rejected their practicability, as we do.

Mr. Money

It is nearly ten years since the Shawcross Committee reported and found that the employment of an excessive labour force and the failure to exploit the development of machinery were at the root of many of the problems of the industry. Will my right hon. Friend indicate whether any steps can be taken by the House now to bring these matters before both sides of the industry?

Mr. Davies

The industry itself is not at all unaware of the problems which it has to face and of the need to change fundamentally the weaknesses which exist within it. It last year set up a steering group, which had the support of both sides of the industry, with a view specifically to trying to overcome these difficulties. I am bound to say, with regret, that the success of this steering group is very questionable and its survival in doubt.

Mr. Harold Wilson

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that while, as he said, the demise of this paper was not unexpected, there is, as his hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas) said, a very serious position in the newspaper industry, in which other newspapers might go under, with the loss of freedom of choice to which reference has been made, with heavy unemployment in an industry, or a profession, where it is not easy to get alternative employment, and with all the other reasons why the whole House would not wish to see any further diminution?

Would the right hon. Gentleman in those circumstances—I do not press him for an answer now—think again about some of the answers which he has given? Will he agree, for example, that it might be right for him to sit down with the Newspaper Proprietors' Association and the unions, including the journalists as well as the printers, to see whether there is any scheme which the industry itself can put up, either of joint action or involving Government action, to see that the present parlous state of the newspaper profession is looked at again?

Will the right hon. Gentleman take it from me that what he said about the last Government was quite wrong? I am sure that he was badly briefed on this—[Laughter.] This is a serious matter—although the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Powell) may not think so—to many people who are losing their jobs at this moment. Would the Secretary of State look up the record on this and then tell the House that what we said was that if the industry as a whole would put up any scheme we would consider it, including the newsprint scheme, but that it would have to be on a non-selective basis—because the whole House would agree that there should not be individual help for an individual newspaper?

Mr. Davies

Of course I will give further thought to the questions involved, but the experience with the steering group set up by both sides of the industry last year is not at all promising. In relation to the devices which might be used to give a helping hand to the newspaper industry, the point put to me by the right hon. Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn) was not one which would originate from an initiative taken by the industry: he wished the Government themselves to initiate something.

Sir J. Rodgers

Would my right hon. Friend seek the help of the Leader of the Opposition in getting rid of the gross restrictive practices carried out by the printing side of the newspaper industry which have caused the collapse of so many papers?

Mr. Davies

Yes, I take due note of the points made.

Mr. Hugh Jenkins

In considering the proposals put forward by his hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas) and supported by the Leader of the Opposition, will the Secretary of State recognise that although on this side there is little love for the paper which is going, we recognise that there is a very serious problem here which should concern all of us if we are to have a diminution of the number of organs of the national Press? For this reason, will the right hon. Gentleman seriously think again and, in considering the difficulties of reaching agreement, recognise that the intervention of a third party, governmentally-appointed, might be a means of reaching a solution?

Mr. Davies

My belief is that inquiries of this kind are useful if one does not know what the malady is, but we know what the malady is, and the industry does. It is a question of setting their own problem in order.

Mr. John Page

In view of the agreed difficulties of the newspaper industry, will my right hon. Friend use whatever means are open to him, and also enlist the aid of the Leader of the Opposition, to see that the stoppage of newspapers on 18th March does not take place as on 1st March?

Mr. Davies

I take due note of that, but it is not really a point for me.

Mr. Harold Wilson

While the right hon. Gentleman is taking due note, will he remember that we all deplore the stoppage of newspapers for any reason whatever, including that proposed for 18th March, and we have made—[Interruption.] Hon. Members should be a little more serious about this and stop joking. I was asked a view and I am stating it.

Is the Secretary of State aware that his diagnosis of the problems of the industry, which he seems to be unwilling even to discuss with the industry as a whole, is a little naïve and one-sided, that, in addition to the problem of restrictive practices—which we never hesitated to condemn in this industry—the Economist Intelligence Survey report was equally critical of the management side, and that both need to be looked at impartially?

Will the right hon. Gentleman ponder further on this, and will he, if willing to talk to both sides of the industry, recognising the anxieties in the House about it and the problem of a communications industry, take it from us—I hope that I can speak for other parties—that if he wants to propose anything for settlement on an all-party basis we shall be ready to support it?

Mr. Davies

I express my gratitude to the right hon. Gentleman for that assurance, but I do not think that any particular intervention by myself is of much use at the moment. In trying to make the point that restrictive trade practices were the only question which I had cited, the right hon. Gentleman is doing me less than justice. I said that there were various problems.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker


Back to