HC Deb 21 November 1974 vol 881 cc1529-35
The Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Michael Foot)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish, in response to the request from the right hon. Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Prior) yesterday, to make a statement about the current dispute between the Newspaper Society and the National Union of Journalists.

The dispute has arisen in the course of negotiations for a new annual agreement on the pay and conditions of some 8,000 journalists employed on provincial newspapers. This would be for implementation on 1st January when the present agreement ends. The union's claim has a number of components, but central to it is a claim for a new single basic minimum rate for all journalists working in provincial and suburban offices. I understand that the union has calculated that to restore the real value of wage rates and to establish a new single rate increases of between £13.31 and £7.69 per week would be justified. In response to this particular claim, the society offered increases of £5.40 per week. This was not acceptable to the union.

From 5th November the union imposed sanctions, the operation of which led to the dismissal of 66 journalists employed by the Kentish Times and one by the Slough Evening Mail. Subsequently the union instructed its members employed by London suburban newspapers to strike from 18th November until these journalists were reinstated.

I very much hope that a basis can be found for a resumption of negotiations and for a settlemenet and that the dispute can now be quickly resolved. The Conciliation and Arbitration Service is closely in touch with both parties and, I understand, is very ready to be of assistance. If the parties remain unable to reach agreement, I would urge them both to consider urgently seeking that assistance.

Mr. Prior

The House will be grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his statement in response to questions asked yesterday and for confirming that the dispute is basically about wages, although, as many hon. Members on both sides of the House know, there are sinister undertones as well. Will he accept that there is concern on both sides of the House that the type of industrial action chosen by the NUJ, which results in non-NUJ material being blacked, is clearly a threat to the freedom of the Press and to editorial rights, and that it denies to the public vital information that they should have? Therefore, will the right hon. Gentleman do all in his power, with his great experience in these matters, not only to help bring the dispute to an end but to state clearly that censorship of the Press can never form part of an industrial dispute of this nature?

Mr. Foot

I hope that the right hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members will appreciate from my statement why I wished to keep that aspect separate from the other question raised yesterday. I wished to keep it separate for the simple reason that if the two matters became tangled up it might be much more difficult to secure an ending of the dispute.

When the right hon. Gentleman asks me to comment on actions taken by the trade union in this respect, I might be tempted to comment on actions taken by the employers. If I embarked upon that kind of comment now, I very much doubt whether it would assist in securing a settlement of the dispute. That is the urgent necessity.

I am not denying the importance of the matter, but the way in which the right hon. Gentleman has raised it begs the question. Some employers and others—not all the employers by any means—claim that the action of the union raises questions of censorship, while the union insists that it is concerned solely with pursuing its claim. That is why I say that it would be wrong for me to try to pronounce on these matters now. But—and this applies in my attempt to get both the employers and the unions to come to an early settlement—I agree that disputes which lead to frequent and persistent stoppages in the newspaper industry have a special significance, in that they touch upon the free flow of opinion. If such disputes were to persist in the way that some people forecast, they could drain away the life blood of democracy in this country. That is one of the reasons why I want to see the dispute settled as quickly as possible, so that all the issues can be sensibly discussed when we come to the Second Reading of our Bill to amend the Trade Union and Labour Relations Act and its Committee stage.

Mr. Leslie Huckfield

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the dispute between 240 journailsts and the Birmingham Post and Mail, for example, could be settled by continued negotiations and an improved national pay offer? Will he also confirm that he does not agree with the claim of the Newspaper Society that the carrying out of a national trade union instruction in support of a wage claim by responsible newsmen represents an erosion of editorial prerogative?

Mr. Foot

As I have already said, I do not accept the statement that the issue of censorship is involved in the actions that the union has taken. I know that other people take a different view. That is why I say it is a proper matter for us to discuss at the most appropriate time in the House.

As for my hon. Friend's first question, I am not pronouncing on what should be the terms of the settlement, but I fully agree that it is an industrial dispute, and I believe that I am giving the best advice to the House and the parties concerned as how it can be settled.

Mr. Churchill

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that his determination to grant the militants of the NUJ the right to the closed shop that they are demanding will place the freedom of the Press at the mercy and caprice of a small and highly politically motivated monopoly?

Mr. Foot

The hon. Gentleman has grossly and gratuitously misrepresented the intention of the Government's legislation. The more he spreads that kind of alarm throughout the country, the more difficult it may be to deal with future disputes as well as the present dispute. I hope that even the hon. Gentleman will be eager to have the dispute speedily settled, in the interests of the freedom of the Press.

Mr. Flannery

Is my right hon. Friend aware that many of us, especially on the Labour benches, want to see a reasonable settlement and do not want to use the dispute, as many Opposition Members do, as a vehicle for slandering the National Union of Journalists? Is my right hon. Friend also aware that we view with alarm the sacking of journalists instead of looking into the problem with a view to settling it amicably, which the hon. Member for Stretford (Mr. Churchill) obviously does not want to do?

Mr. Foot

I hope that I have made it clear that I want a settlement. Some other people seem to want a row.

Mr. Grimond

I should like to ask the Secretary of State two purely factual questions. First, if the union claim were granted, what would be the new single rate? Secondly, and perhaps more important, may we have an authoritative description of what the sanctions were? It is difficult for the House to make up its mind whether they were reasonable without knowing precisely what they were.

Mr. Foot

I think I gave the figures for which the right hon. Gentleman asks in my original reply. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] If I did not, I am sorry. I do not know what the single new rate would be, but I know the calculations. [Interruption.] I thought that I had answered the right hon. Gentleman.

What I am saying is that the important aspect of the matter raised by the right hon. Gentleman in the first part of his question is not the claim but the settlement. The journalists' figures varied between £7.69 and £13.31, and the Newspaper Society offered £5.40. What I am saying is that no doubt a settlement could be reached on some figure in between those limits. I am not making any suggestion as to what that should be. What is more, it would be foolish of me to suggest that it should be because that is precisely the kind of matter on which I hope discussions are taking place already. I do not wish to go into that any further.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the form of the sanctions authorised and being applied by the union. These are a refusal to handle copy prepared or submitted by anyone other than a member of the union, a restriction on the number of hours worked to 40 a week, and a requirement that sub-editors should check the facts in copy before them. The claim of the NUJ is that in applying such sanctions it is applying the kind of sanctions that might be applied by other workers in other industries.

I know that Conservative Members may make a different claim about it. That is one of the issues in dispute between the different people approaching the matter. But that is what the union is doing, and it is on that basis that it says it is pursuing an industrial claim and not engaging in censorship.

Mr. Grimond

The Secretary of State gave some figures but not the total. Can he state what the total weekly rate would be if the increases were granted?

Mr. Foot

I apologise to the right hon. Gentleman and to the House if I cannot give the figure in different terms from those that I have stated, but I believe that that does not affect the issue that I have put to the House. What I am suggesting is that the figure on which a settlement should be made is not a matter for debate in this House. Our aim should be to try to secure a settlement as speedily as possible.

Mr. Madden

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for contributing to the education of the Opposition in this dispute.

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Member must ask a question.

Mr. Madden

My comment applies particularly to the right hon. Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Prior).

Does my right hon. Friend agree that with 900 NUJ members on 18 newspapers on strike this dispute is now reaching serious proportions?

Does my right hon. Friend agree that as the society has not seen fit to reopen genuine negotiations one can conclude that it does not seem to regard the dispute as serious? Can he confirm that it is known unofficially that the Newspaper Society is ready to improve its offer, and that if that were made known industrial sanctions would be withdrawn, negotiations could be reopened and the dispute could be settled?

Mr. Foot

Perhaps I may now tell the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond) that I am refortified in this matter and that the figure for which he was searching, and for which I was searching even more avidly, is £51.

My reply to my hon. Friend is that I have regarded the dispute as serious right from the start, for the reasons that I gave at the beginning. I want to see this dispute settled as speedily as possible, and I believe that there are chances of its being settled. I think that I must be careful. Others can be as irresponsible as they wish but I have to try to ensure that we get a settlement, and I should like a little assistance from those others in getting it.

Mr. Percival

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that, whatever else may be in doubt, one thing is plain, namely, that the action impinges heavily on the editorial freedom of some papers but scarcely, if at all, on others? How can that be squared with the suggestion that this is industrial action taken only in support of a pay claim that is against all of them? Is it not obvious that the dispute is designed, at least in part, to further the avowed intention—whether it it good or bad is a matter of opinion—of the leaders of the NUJ to secure a single union closed shop up to and including editors, and does not the right hon. Gentleman deplore impingement upon editorial freedom for any of those purposes?

Mr. Foot

The hon. and learned Gentleman is now tempting me to follow the course which I have said over the past two days it would be unwise to adopt. In attempting to secure a settlement we must avoid tangling the two issues—the issue of the alleged attempt to establish a closed shop and the issue of the industrial dispute. I repeat and emphasise my belief that what I am saying is correct. If these two issues become tangled it will be much more difficult to untangle the whole situation.

As far as the hon. and learned Gentleman's views and those of others on the question of a closed shop are concerned, I believe that there has been a lot of misrepresentation of what the Government seek to do in the matter and I shall be happy to debate the whole question on the Floor of the House at the first available opportunity.

Mr. Peyton

If there has been any tangling up, it has been done not by the House of Commons but by the Government, and one way of untangling it is for the Government to drop their amendment to the Industrial Relations Act. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that no one in the Opposition wants a row? Everybody wants a settlement, but they want a settlement of an extraordinary important matter that has regard to the public interest; namely, the freedom of the Press.

Mr. Foot

I gather that the right hon. Gentleman now agrees that these two issues should be kept separate, and that is an advance. He suggests that we should drop the proposed clause dealing with this matter. I must tell him that the clause deals not only with newspapers but with industrial relations generally. Our commitment, which we intend to fulfil, is the complete repeal of all the offensive parts of the 1971 Industrial Relations Act. As long as the offensive remnants of that Act, which was introduced by right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite, remain on the statute book there is grave danger to industrial relations in this country, including the newspaper industry itself. The newspaper proprietors told me a few months ago that they had lost about £10 million as a result of the Industrial Relations Act. We are trying to help the newspapers, even if they do not know how to help themselves.