HC Deb 20 November 1974 vol 881 cc1318-25
Mr. Prior (by Private Notice)

asked the Secretary of State for Employment whether he would make a statement on his meeting with the national newspaper editors yesterday.

The Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Michael Foot)

The editors expressed to me their concern about the possible effects of a closed shop in journalism in relation to the forthcoming Bill to amend the Trade Union and Labour Relations Act. I undertook to consider their views and to have further discussions with them.

Mr. Prior

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that two separate but important issues are involved? First, there is the issue relating to the closed shop which the editors discussed with the right hon. Gentleman yesterday. Why can he not leave matters as they were decided by the last Parliament with regard to the closed shop? What evidence is there in the right hon. Gentleman's possession that there is any desire by journalists generally that changes in the law should now be made?

Second, with regard to the industrial dispute which is now taking place in the industry, is the Secretary of State aware that the type of action chosen is clearly interfering with editorial freedom and emphasises once more the validity of the editors' fears which they expressed to him yesterday? Is he aware that items of great public interest and importance are now being blacked? Is he aware, for example, that the publication of the Identikit pictures of persons wanted in connection with the Guildford bombing has been blacked? What action are the right hon. Gentleman and the Government taking to prevent this sort of thing? Will they now come forward with an assurance that they will protect the freedom of the Press and the editorial rights of editors to print what they think is correct without fear of contradiction or backing by journalists?

Mr. Foot

The right hon. Gentleman says that two issues are involved and he raised two questions. They are separate questions and I will reply to each of them. On the first question, that of the possible effects of a closed shop in journalism, if that were to arise, I believe that much the best way for the House to deal with that is in the debates on the Bill which we are presenting on the matter today or tomorrow. Of course, we shall have ample opportunities to discuss the issues involved when the Bill is presented. [HON. MEMBERS: "Tell us now."] I will come in a moment to the second part of the question that the right hon. Gentleman asked, but on the question of the Bill, the convention of the House—and a very good one in my opinion—is that legislation should be discussed on Second Reading, in Committee and on Third Reading. That is what we propose to do in relation to this Bill as with previous Bills, and I believe that that is the right occasion on which we should discuss the important matters of principle involved. I think that that is well understood, incidentally, by the editors.

Perhaps I may take this opportunity to say that I, of course, made it clear to the editors that the Bill was likely to be presented this week and that we should be able to debate it later. That is the way to deal with the first question. The second question that the right hon. Gentleman raised was not raised with me at all by the editors yesterday. Indeed, they did not ask to raise that question. If the right hon. Gentleman wishes to put down a Question on an industrial dispute, he should do so.

Mr. Corbett

Would my right hon. Friend confirm that no recent decisions by the National Union of Journalists affecting people in its membership have done anything to alter its jurisdiction, under the rules of that union, over any member? Will he therefore confirm that members of that union previously holding associate membership were by their membership also required to obey the instructions of the National Executive Council?

Mr. Foot

My hon. Friend is quite correct about the definition of associate membership, as I understand it. That is one of the questions which were discussed when I met the editors yesterday. They put their views, and I have done, and will be doing, what I undertook to do—to consider what they said and to have fresh discussions with them, but principally of course with the House of Commons. They did not raise the immediate question of the industrial disputes. I am sure that if they had wished to do so, they would have done so. They came to see me about the Bill.

What I said to the right hon. Gentleman—there is nothing discourteous in it, I hope—is that if he wishes to put down a Question on that subject, I will do my best to answer it, but I do not believe that the right way to raise such a Private Notice Question as that is to put down a Question on another subject.

Mr. George Gardiner

Will the right hon. Gentleman accept that opinion among working journalists on these matters is not nearly as united as some statements by national officials might indicate? Second, will he accept that in the view of many journalists his proposed legislation will need some change if the freedom of the written word is to be protected in this country? Third, as a former editor himself, does he agree with the proposition that the day on which a journalist becomes a censor he effectively ceases to be a journalist?

Mr. Foot

Yes, Sir, I quite agree with the hon. Gentleman in his last view about censorship. I am very glad that that provision is included in the rules and provisions of the National Union of Journalists. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is gratified in that respect, so there is no dispute about censorship. When the hon. Gentleman says that there may be differences of views within the NUJ on the question of the Bill and other matters, I fully appreciate that there are differences of views in that union as there are in other unions. But sometimes the views of the NUJ, the official views declared at its conferences, are very much misrepresented. That has been shown by reports in some of the newspapers.

Mr. Madden

Does the Secretary of State agree that newspaper editors who dismiss members of their staff for taking legitimate trade union action in pursuit of legitimate pay claims are themselves doing a great deal to undermine the freedom of the Press? Does he further agree that in the past, large newspaper groups, such as Odhams, which have operated closed shop policies have done so quite properly and with the good will and agreement of all their staff?

Mr. Foot

On the first question, I shall not reply to my hon. Friend—for the same reason that I did not reply to the question from the right hon. Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Prior)—because what I wish to see in that dispute is a settlement as speedily as possible. If I answered my hon. Friend's question now, I am not sure that it would assist in that course.

As to my hon. Friend's historical reminiscences about what happened in Odhams in years gone by, I am happy to confirm what he says. There have been closed shops which have existed in journalism over many years and which have not interfered in any way with editorial freedom, and they certainly operated in Odhams when I was working there.

Mr. Grimond

I must declare an interest. I am grateful to the Secretary of State for saying that he will have a further conference, and I take note of what he says about the legislation that is to come before the House. However, surely in a matter of this importance the House has a right to an undertaking from a Minister who so powerfully represents the Miltonian tradition of freedom, and who is a very distinguished contributor to the Press, that he would not countenance any legislation which impinged upon the right of editors to engage outside contributors.

Mr. Foot

The right hon. Gentleman's last question is on a matter which was also referred to by the editors when they came to see me yesterday, although they did not request the Government to take any legislative action about it. They merely asked us to take note of it. Therefore, that was in a very different category —[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] It so happens that the editors themselves were not asking that the Government should take any action about dealing with con- tributors to the newspapers. That is what the editors said. Hon. Members may know better, but that is what they said. They were not asking for any Government action about it, nor were they making any protest about any Government legislation in connection with that matter.

I repeat to the House what I said to them. What we are doing in this respect is not to introduce any innovation. What we are seeking to do, as in so many matters in industrial relations, is to restore the situation to that which existed before 1971. [An HON. MEMBER: "Progress."] So disastrous were the reactionary consequences of the legislation between 1971 and 1974 that it is progress to restore things to the pre-1971 situation.

Sir D. Walker-Smith

When the right hon. Gentleman talks of restoring matters to the pre-1971 position, he is not suggesting to the House, is he, that there was any statutory requirement of a closed shop prior to 1971? Will he undertake that the views of individual journalists, even though they may be subject to this somewhat arbitrary rule of the NUJ, which has been referred to by hon. Members on the Government side of the House, will be fully and sympathetically taken into account?

Mr. Foot

I want to clear up any misapprehension which may have arisen from the right hon. and learned Gentleman's question. There was no statutory requirement for a closed shop in the pre-1971 legislation. There is no statutory requirement for a closed shop in the legislation that we introduced or in the legislation that we propose to introduce in the future. Therefore, I believe that the right hon. and learned Gentleman's fears in that respect are completely misplaced. I believe that the fears of the editors are misplaced, too. Their anxieties exist. No one could deny that. We shall seek to remove those anxieties. But their fears are misplaced and their proposed remedies are unworkable.

That is why we have to search for remedies which will be more successful and which will work successfully. That is what I am doing, not merely as a member of the Government but also as a defender of freedom in the newspapers and in the trade union movement generally—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] Yes, I am in favour of freedom for editors, freedom for journalists and freedom for trade unions, too.

Mr. Wellbeloved

Will my right hon. Friend take note of the fact that when the Monopolies Commission reported on the Westminster Press acquisition of the Kentish Times, that series omitted in any way to report the Monopolies Commission's report in its newspaper columns? Will he confirm that his Department's Conciliation and Arbitration Service is ready, available and, indeed, anxious to offer its services to try to achieve a resolution of the present dispute in the Kentish Times area?

Mr. Foot

I said earlier that I am very eager to see a resolution of the dispute involving the Kentish Times and of the other disputes that are taking place in the newspapers generally. I am very eager to assist in that purpose, if we can. Certainly the CAS would be very eager to assist in the situation where that is desirable and is the best way of going about it.

Sir John Hall

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that at present editors find themselves unable to accept any material, including statements, sent to them by any person who is not a member of the NUJ, including Members of Parliament? Does not this mean that the use of the Press, which is the best and quickest way by which Members of Parliament can get in touch with their constituents on matters of vital importance to the well-being of those constituents, is now denied to Members of Parliament? Is not this not only very undesirable but an absolutely unnecessary and petty action to take in support of an existing industrial dispute? Will the right hon. Gentleman take that matter into consideration and do what he can to bring the matter to a very speedy end?

Mr. Foot

I should certainly have to see the evidence of the matter to which the hon. Gentleman refers before commenting upon it. I also say to the House, in the interests of geting these newspapers published as quickly as possible, and in the interests of the journalists, that I believe that it is right to keep separate the general question of what provisions are to be made in our legis- lation—that is an important matter; I am not depreciating the importance of the discussions at all—and the industrial dispute that is taking place in the newspaper industry and the action which may be taken in connection with that industrial dispute. I believe that if those two steps are muddled together it will make more difficult a solution of the dispute and more difficult the long-term solution on the basis of freedom and what we want to secure.

I believe that the approach that I have made to the industrial dispute is the best one in the interests of all concerned. But, of course, if the House wishes to ask questions about it, it is entitled to do so. One of the reasons that I did not reply to the right hon. Member for Lowestoft on the matter when he raised it earlier is that there was a proposal yesterday to Mr. Speaker for a Private Notice Question on the industrial dispute, which, in the circumstances, Mr. Speaker did not accept. Therefore, I did not think that it was improper for me to reply to the right hon. Gentleman in the way that I did.

But as the point has now been raised. I certainly urge the House to try to keep these two matters separate. That is the way to get the newspapers printed as quickly as possible and the general work in the newspaper industry back to normal. That is what I want to see, and that is what I want to assist in securing.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. We have been on this for nearly 20 minutes. We have a very important debate to follow on rates. We have a statement before that. I think that we must move on now.

Mr. Hooson

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Hon. Members will have seen detailed reports in the newspapers and heard reports on the radio of the outcome of certain discussions that the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has had in Brussels. I do not have access to the usual channels, but I am given to understand that the Minister of Agriculture will not be making a statement today. When discussions of this kind result in certain agreements, according to all the reports, is it not right that the Minister should report to the House as soon as possible and should have done so today?

Mr. Speaker

That is not a matter for the Chair.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Prior

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. In view of the answer given by the Secretary of State this afternoon to my Private Notice Question and his desire to keep these two matters separate, may I ask him, through you, Mr. Speaker, whether he will make a statement tomorrow on the industrial dispute so that we may have a proper opportunity of questioning the Minister about it?

Mr. Foot

I should be quite happy to make a statement tomorrow. If I think that it will not assist to make a lengthy statement, I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will understand. However, if he asks me to make a statement tomorrow, I shall be happy to oblige.

Mr. Speaker

Mr. Hastings, point of order.

Mr. Hastings

The point of order I intended to raise is effectively met by what the right hon. Gentleman has just said—if he makes a statement tomorrow.