HC Deb 23 January 1981 vol 997 cc567-71

11 am

Mr. John Smith (Lanarkshire, North)(by private notice) asked the Secretary of State for Trade whether he will make a statement on whether he intends to refer the proposed purchase of The Times and The Sunday Times by Mr. Rupert Murdoch to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission.

The Minister for Consumer Affairs (Mrs. Sally Oppenheim)

As yet, no formal application has been received by my Department for consent to the transfer of these newspapers. When such an application is received it will be considered by my right hon. Friend, who will decide whether the transfer should be referred to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission.

Mr. Smith

The right hon. Lady will understand that we appreciate that the Government cannot react until a formal application is made. However, all the facts in this case are speedily becoming known. Does she appreciate, as the Opposition have repeatedly urged in recent days, that this proposed purchase must be referred to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission? It will, in the first place, create one of the greatest concentrations of newspaper power in the history of journalism in the United Kingdom. We believe that in these circumstances it is unthinkable that the Secretary of State for Trade could conceive it to be his duty not to refer it for public scrutiny by the Monopolies and Mergers Commission.

Is the right hon. Lady aware that we believe that that could be done within a reasonable period of time? It does not need to take months if the Secretary of State makes a request to the Commission to deal with it with reasonable speed.

Finally, all the assurances in the world given by Mr. Rupert Murdoch to the present owners of the newspapers are no substitute for mature and public consideration given by the Monopolies and Mergers Commission and for undertakings given to the Commission in the public interest, for which Mr. Murdoch or anyone else would be held responsible to the public.

Mrs. Oppenheim

Naturally my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will consider all aspects of the matter very carefully. He will note what has been said in this House. At the end of the day, the decision is one not for Parliament but for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, having considered all these matters. But, under section 58(3) of the Fair Trading Act, the Secretary of State may or may not have discretion, depending on the circumstances, whether to refer the matter to the Commission. There are certain exceptions to his absolute duty to refer: such as if a newspaper is not economic as a going concern, and if he believes, within his discretion, that there is a question of urgency. This is the situation in which, if it arises, his discretion is available for use. He has no discretion if that is not the case.

Mr. Jonathan Aitken (Thanet, East)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that we all accept that she has given the only possible answer she could give today? At the same time, however, is she aware that when the application is received, any refusal by the Government to refer it to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission would be a shattering disappointment to all those who believe that the Government have a duty to safeguard the public interest in matters of the concentration of newspaper power in any one pair of hands? Is my right hon. Friend further aware that any evasions in this direction would be totally contrary to the spirit, if not the fine print, of the Fair Trading Act?

Mrs. Oppenheim

I am sure that my right hon. Friend will have noted carefully what my hon. Friend has said. My hon. Friend will also realise that, at this stage, this is all theoretical, because the facts of the case are not known to my right hon. Friend and will not be known until a formal application has been made.

Dr. David Owen (Plymouth, Devonport)

As The Sunday Times is an economic newspaper, and since it sells more than half a million copies, can there be any question of doubt, in the interpretation of the 1973 Act, that any application simply must be referred to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission? Although it is possible for the Minister not to state a view on a specific case, will she at least reassure the House that my interpretation of the Act is correct and that the Government will follow their legal obligations?

Mrs. Oppenheim

I can reassure the right hon. Gentleman that my right hon. Friend will reach a decision on the basis of the law as it stands and on the basis of such information as is supplied to him when the application is made.

Mr. Peter Emery (Honiton)

Will my right hon. Friend consider two things? Whilst everyone wants to ensure that the aspects of concentration of power are examined very closely—I do not think that anyone would dissent from that—the problems that arise on delay in carrying through takeover bids, amalgamations or new ownerships when references have been made have sometimes resulted in the withdrawal of an offer. That is of particular concern where there has been such trouble in being able to put together a bidder for the organisation, and particularly as certain of the unions appear already—so it is reported—to be in favour.

Lastly, will my right hon. Friend publish in the Official Report the exact part of the 1973 Act which gives the reasons and the powers which the Minister has? There is some doubt in people' minds about this. It would be useful to have that placed on record so that people may have it.

Mrs. Oppenheim

Among the very important factors that my right hon. Friend will have to consider is that of the possible consequences of delay caused by a reference to the Commission, but it is only one among a number of other very important factors.

In answer to an earlier question, it is apposite to say that we have no powers to compel the Monopolies and Mergers Commission to consider a case of this nature under the statutory period required.

As to the publication of the information requested by my hon. Friend, that is all in the Act, and I am sure that a copy of it will be available in the Vote Office. It all comes under section 58(3).

Several Hon. Membersrose

Mr. Speaker

Order. This is a private notice question. I do not want to set a precedent. I do not usually call more than two or three Members on a private notice question. I shall call those Members who have been rising in their places, but this must not be taken as a precedent for future private notice questions.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Is the right hon. Lady aware that the sale of The Times to Mr. Murdoch has caused the maximum amount of anxiety to all those who are concerned with the future of the Times papers, and thus a reference to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission is absolutely essential so that all aspects of the matter and agreements reached can be thoroughly investigated? Is it not also a matter of some concern that Mr. Murdoch is already the head of a vast international press empire and that his newspapers here, in Australia and in the United States have a sorry reputation for slanted news coverage of very controversial political matters?

Mrs. Oppenheim

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be aware that I cannot comment on any aspect of the proposed transfer until a formal application has been received.

Sir Ronald Bell (Beaconsfield)

Is it not the case that my right hon. Friend's duty is to consider the relevant factors which are set out in the Act, and that he has no legal duty to refer the matter to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission but merely to exercise his discretion? Secondly, is it not of prime importance that The Times newspaper should continue, and is it not most unlikely that it will continue unless it is purchased by someone with an established position in the newspaper industry?

Mrs. Oppenheim

I am afraid that that is not quite correct. My right hon. Friend, in certain circumstances, has no discretion but to make a reference to the Commission. It is only where the exceptions arise to the situation that I have already described that his discretion is involved.

Mr. Geoffrey Robinson (Coventry, North-West)

Further to the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen), may I ask the right hon. Lady to take the opportunity, as requested, to confirm that the Secretary of State has to refer the case of The Sunday Times? Further to that, does she agree that under sections 57 to 62 there are ample grounds, if the Government wish, for referring the whole of this sordid business, because it is not just The Sunday Times that is at stake but also The Times?

Mrs. Oppenheim

At present there is no question of a wider monopoly reference. In this particular case, if and when the application is made, section 58(3) will be the sole section to be invoked. I have already explained the position as regards the earlier part of the hon. Gentleman's question.

Mr. Hugh Dykes (Harrow, East)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that phrases such as "sordid business" from the other side do nothing to help a situation in which a genuine offer has been made by a group that is prepared to undertake normal risks in a commercial sense? Is my right hon. Friend further aware that, although we fully accept that she cannot give more than a preliminary technical response today, it is inconceivable that a referral to the Monopolies Commission should not take place? Despite its economic problems, The Times is the leading newspaper in the country, and it is in the public interest that the whole group should be looked at carefully in order to see whether the argument about concentration of power is valid, or an impediment to the deal.

Mrs. Oppenheim

My hon. Friend will understand that I cannot say what is conceivable or inconceivable in the present circumstances. I uphold what my hon. Friend said. The reference to "sordid business" was insensitive when jobs are involved.

Mr. Dick Douglas (Dunfermline)

Does the Minister accept that her statement, and the manner in which she made it, will cause considerable disquiet? Although the law is apparently neutral, it imposes certain obligations on the Minister to be a bit more active than she appears to have been. All the communications in the press today indicate that her Department is being informed. Given the information available, are we not entitled to know much more than the Minister is giving away about the Department's state of mind on the negotiations, and about how far the right hon. Lady is willing to be active in terms of the law?

Mrs. Oppenheim

My right hon. Friend will uphold the law as it stands. I have made that perfectly clear. I have also made clear that no formal application has yet been received. Therefore, I cannot be expected, in all courtesy to the House, to go any further than I have done.

Mr. Albert McQuarrie (Aberdeenshire, East)

The right hon. Member for Lanarkshire, North (Mr. Smith) has raised a private notice question on the sale of Times Newspapers. Does my right hon. Friend think that he has forgotten that the trade unions have agreed that a satisfactory deal could be reached? Is not the right hon. Gentleman aware that Mr. Joe Wade, general secretary of one of the largest unions, was quoted in The Times of this morning as saying that he was delighted that Mr. Murdoch had come forward as a purchaser? Mr. Keys has also said that his 1,000 members are delighted that the merger will take place. Is my right hon. Friend aware that, if the matter is referred to the Monopolies Commission, the Commission will not be able to reach a decision within three weeks, which is the period within which Mr. Murdoch hopes to complete the deal on The Times? Given that we continually hear from the Opposition about unemployment, is it not farcical that a Labour Member should suggest to the House and that 3,000 or 4,000 jobs—which would be saved if The Times is purchased—should be put at risk by referring the matter to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission?

Mrs. Oppenheim

I assure my hon. Friend that the expressed delight of the unions has been noted and is among the factors that my right hon. Friend will consider.

Mr. Bruce George (Walsall, South)

Although I realise that the Minister is in a difficult situation and although I do not wish to appear to be elitist, chauvinistic or prudish, could she at least communicate to the owners of The Times and to all prospective buyers the vibrations that are emanating not only from this side of the House but also, to a certain extent, from the other side? We hope that other purchasers have not been entirely frightened away by the announcement made in the past few days. We are all desperately anxious to see The Times survive, but, if the future of The Times can be guaranteed only at the cost of altering its character, it will be a sad day and a sad month for British newspapers.

Mrs. Oppenheim

The exchanges that have taken place in the House this morning will have been carefully noted by all parties involved, and particularly by my right hon. Friend.

Mr. Tristan Garel-Jones (Watford)

I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, for calling me, but the points that I had wished to raise have already been covered by my hon. Friends.