HC Deb 15 November 1977 vol 939 cc268-9
5. Mr. Aitken

asked the Secretary of State for Employment if he will make a statement on his Department's progress in drawing up the Press charter as required under the provisions of the Trade Union and Labour Relations Act.

Mr. Harold Walker

At the request of the Secretary of State I am currently engaged in the extensive programme of consultations required by the Act.

Mr. Aitken

Is it intended to write into the Press charter the fundamental right of a journalist to belong to the appropriate union of his choice or not to belong to a union? Does the Minister realise that almost all the Press representatives—the only notable exception being the NUJ—who tried to reach agreement for the industry on a voluntary charter agreed that this right should be written in, and will he take cognisance of that important fact?

Mr. Walker

I am not sure where the hon. Gentleman gets his authority for the last part of his question. On the first part, it would be most unwise of me, while engaged in consultation, to preempt the outcome in the way that the hon. Gentleman suggests. Indeed, I am astonished that the right hon. Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Prior), in advance of the outcome of consultations and before the laying of the charter before the House, should have so firmly committed himself and his party on this point. It is difficult for me to reconcile what the hon. Gentleman wants with the provisions of the Trade Union and Labour Relations Act 1976.

Mr. Prior

Do we take it from what the hon. Gentleman has just said that he does not believe in total Press freedom, to the extent that the journalist should have freedom to write what he likes without having to belong to a union?

Mr. Walker

The right hon. Gentleman has declared that he would not support any charter that did not contain an absolute right for a journalist not to belong to a trade union. First, that is a significant shift from the attitude that he and his party adopted when this matter was before the House in 1974 and 1976. Second, I repeat that, although I am anxious to avoid pre-empting the discussions in which I am engaged, I should find it very difficult to reconcile what the right hon. Gentleman seeks with the provisions in the 1976 Act which require the charter to contain provisions for the application of union membership agreements to journalists. If the right hon. Gentleman will look at the definition of a union membership agreement he will understand what I am saying.