HC Deb 16 January 1975 vol 884 cc680-4
Mr. Prior

(by Private Notice) asked the Secretary of State for Employment whether he will make a statement about the action his Department is taking to resolve the industrial dispute which is affecting the production of national newspapers.

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

The National Graphical Association has instructed its members employed by national newspapers in membership of the Newspaper Publishers' Association to resume industrial action in support of a claim for the restoration of a pay differential. The issue arose from the negotiation of new annual agreements to be implemented from last October. Agreements have been reached between the Newspaper Publishers' Association and the other five unions representing manual workers, but the offer of a similar agreement has been rejected by the National Graphical Association because it would not maintain an existing differential of 12½ per cent.

Industrial action, which was directed at limiting the production of newspapers to only one edition, began in mid-December but was suspended from 18th December on the intervention of the Conciliation and Arbitration Service. Since that time, the service has chaired a series of meetings of the parties in an endeavour to assist them to reach a settlement. On 13th January it became evident that for the present agreement was not possible. At that meeting the Newspaper Publishers' Association again offered to enter negotiations with all six unions, including the National Graphical Association, on any issues they might want to raise—including questions on differentials—with the objective of implementing any agreements reached at the end of the current agreements in October 1975. This was not acceptable to the National Graphical Association, which sought a firm commitment that the differential would in fact be restored.

Industrial action resumed on 14th January. This had led to disruptions in production and the Newspaper Publishers' Association has informed the National Graphical Association that all its members employed by newspapers in membership of the association will be regarded as having terminated their personal contracts of employment from 9 a.m. on 17th January unless, before that time, the National Graphical Association has withdrawn its instructions for industrial action and given an undertaking that uninterrupted production will be restored.

A very serious threat therefore exists to the continued publication of most national newspapers. Moreover, the very viability of some newspapers might well be put at risk by the action being taken or the action threatened. Whatever the strength of feeling of members of the National Graphical Association, or, indeed, whatever the merits of the case, I very much hope that they will now reconsider their position and lift the threat to the Press.

Mr. Prior

Is the Secretary of State aware that we join him in his statement urging the NGA to resume work straight away? Secondly, is he also aware that we share to the full his views about the economic position of certain newspapers? I think it is true to say that at the moment there is not a single national daily newspaper that is making a profit. If this dispute is allowed to continue or worsen, it could mean that certain newspapers will go out of business altogether. Therefore, we face a very serious situation indeed.

I should like to make a suggestion to the Secretary of State, and perhaps also to his right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. I believe that the present situation now requires a meeting at the highest level of all six unions to the dispute. I hope that if such a meeting can be called, it will be held quickly; and the NGA would have the understanding that, as the publishers have promised, the dif- ferential could be at the top of the agenda for the next round of negotiations. In the meantime, I should not like to press the right hon. Gentleman further. I hope that the meeting will be called and that the House will be kept fully in touch with what has now become a desperate situation for the survival of our national newspapers.

Mr. Foot

Because of the extreme seriousness of the situation, I give the undertaking that we shall keep the House informed of any developments that may occur and of any possibilities of a settlement. I entirely accept what the right hon. Gentleman said about the nature of the crisis that might face Fleet Street and the newspaper industry generally if we were not able to secure a sensible settlement. Furthermore, the Chairman of the Conciliation and Arbitration Service, myself and the Government are prepared to consider any suggestion that we think might be successful, but all the various possibilities have been most carefully explored in all the discussions which have taken place in the Conciliation and Arbitration Service, and indeed those discussions have gone on for hours on end over the whole of this period.

I am not certain that the proposal advanced by the right hon. Gentleman is the way to secure any change in the position but, as I have said, any suggestion is carefully considered. We do not at the moment think that that is the right way for us to proceed, but that does not mean that we bar any suggestion. The Chairman of the Conciliation and Arbitration Service is open to any fresh possibility of reopening discussions before tomorrow's deadline and I very much hope that all the parties concerned will take that into account.

Mr. Madel

Has the NGA indicated its willingness to take part in a further series of meetings under the chairmanship of the Conciliation and Arbitration Service? Since the Secretary of State referred to meetings held from 18th December onwards, does he have any idea about the NGA's current attitude to further meetings?

Mr. Foot

The hon. Gentleman has put his finger on one of the difficulties. There was a proposal for fresh discussions to take place—discussions in which the differential would be involved—but the NGA, after all the discussions which had taken place—and I emphasise that point so as not to misrepresent the situation—was still saying that there must be a commitment to a restoration of the differential before it would proceed with discussions. That is part of the difficulty which has led to the present situation and one reason why I do not believe that the course put forward by the right hon. Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Prior) is necessarily the best way to proceed.

Mr. Corbett

Will the Secretary of State accept that there is wide support in Fleet Street for the excellent efforts which are being made by the Conciliation and Arbitration Service to achieve a sensible settlement of the dispute? Will he also accept that a contribution to a resumption of sensible and meaningful negotiations would be made if the Newspaper Publishers' Association could be persuaded to withdraw what many workers in the industry see as a threat aimed at locking them out of their jobs?

Mr. Foot

I have had a number of informal discussions over several weeks with different parties to the dispute. It is right that I should not reveal what those discussions involved, but I should say that they were very full discussions under the Conciliation and Arbitration Service. In those discussions the highest possible tribute has been paid from all quarters, both employers and unions, to that service, and in particular to Mr. Jim Mortimer, who has chaired most of the meetings and played a special part in seeking a solution. When a solution is reached, as I hope eventually will happen, I am sure that much credit will be due to him.

My hon. Friend referred to the NPA statement, and I cannot see that what it proposes will ease the situation. That should also be taken into account. But we are still open to examine any way in which to overcome the problem. One factor to be taken into consideration is likely to be the response to the action of the NPA.

Mr. Grimond

As usual, I wish to declare an interest. I welcome the Secretary of State's statement and support it in every way. I also confirm that behind the current dispute there is a fear about redundancy which may follow technical changes in the industry, and it is a fear with which there must be some sympathy. Will the right hon. Gentleman make it clear that Fleet Street is well aware that redundancies will have to be fully discussed with the unions, and that this is a matter about which the proprietors feel deep concern?

Mr. Foot

I do not say that that is a factor which figures directly in this dispute, but it is part of the background and part of the cause of the fears of the NGA. As I said in my statement, I am not passing judgment on the merits or demerits of the case. I believe that the NGA could perform a great service, not only to its own members but to everybody else in Fleet Street, if it called off this action and enabled us to decide what was the next best step to take. I still hope that it may be able to consider that. I still also hope that the NPA will consider how best it can contribute to achieving that result.