HC Deb 21 July 1983 vol 46 cc681-8

Motion made, and Question proposed, that this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Goodlad.]

11.51 pm
Mr. Maurice Macmillan (Surrey, South-West)

I asked for this debate because the present Financial Times dispute coinciding with the White Paper on trade union legislation emphasises once more the peculiar dangers of strike action in the newspaper industry and the damage that it can do to the national interest.

I do not wish to spend long on the details of the Financial Times dispute, because I am more concerned with the additions that it has provided to the body of evidence that has mounted up over the past six years of what amounts to effective censorship of the press through industrial action by production staff, notably by the National Graphical Association. The present stoppage at the Financial Times, whatever the reasons for it, is itself a considerable interference with the liberty of the press, especially as it began during a general election period.

As the House knows, the Financial Times stopped printing on 1 June when all 270 of its NGA workers were called out in support of a dispute involving the 24 NGA workers in the press room, of whom only eight were wholly employed by the Financial Times, the others working partly for the Financial Times and partly for other newspapers.

It is important to recognise that there was no dispute between the Financial Times and the other print union, SOGAT 82. Indeed, for the Financial Times to give in to the NGA and to meet all its demands would seriously disrupt the pay differentials accepted by SOGAT 82 as part of the wider press room agreement to which SOGAT 82 and the Financial Times have kept but which the NGA now disputes.

The dispute continued. On 29 June, after a series of discussions at ACAS, the Financial Times and the union began talks under the guidance and supervision of an independent mediator sitting with two assessors. Their object was to seek a press room agreement on staffing, pay and productivity, and they hoped to complete that agreement by 3 July.

The arrangements for these talks were formally accepted by both sides and were fully supported by Mr. Len Murray of the TUC. Mr. Murray confirmed in writing that the TUC expected both parties to respect the outcome of the agreed procedures and act on its recommendations.

The mediator made his recommendations on 3 July. They were immediately accepted by the Financial Times. On 7 July, the NGA held a meeting, as a result of which it objected to the recommendations of the mediator. Its main reason for doing so was that the proposals did not give it a 19.5 per cent. differential over the SOGAT members of the printing staff, a differential that is more than any other similar one in Fleet street, and more than has been enjoyed by the NGA over SOGAT in the Financial Times. Today we have learnt that the NGA has refused to consider the peace plan of Mr. Len Murray and Mr. Lowry, the chairman of ACAS.

Now, despite all the efforts of the management concerned, which if anything has been too weak rather than too harsh with the unions, and despite the fact that there has been no dispute with the other unions in the print rooms—which stand to suffer if the NGA gets its way—and that the TUC has made every effort to bring the NGA to its senses, the Financial Times is still not being produced.

I hope that the Minister and the Secretary of State find this situation as intolerable as I do. The loss of circulation and advertising to the newspaper can never be recovered. The Financial Times is losing about I million a week. The international edition is losing long-term contracts to the Herald Tribune and the Wall Street Journal, whose circulation has gone up by 4,000 a day since the strike started. The Financial Times has not taken an intransigent attitude. Only now has it decided that it must reduce SOGAT wages to the Newspaper Publishers Association basic rate. Only now is it seeking SOGAT agreement for alternative printing arrangements for the international edition. In other words, in the interests of getting as smooth a transaction as possible to the modern technological methods so essential to maintain its competitive position abroad as well as here, it has made every possible attempt to bring the unions along with it.

The condition that makes such things possible is the closed shop. Without it, it would be possible for management to bring in alternative labour without causing trouble or being in breach of agreement with the other unions. There are some palliatives other than doing away with the closed shop that could help in such circumstances. They are enforceable lay-off clauses, and enforceable contracts of employment. However they would not be nearly as effective as outlawing the closed shop, at least in the newspaper industry because of its peculiar and particularly important position, although one could go some way in that direction by making the union rather than the individual liable for damages for breach of contract in cases where a closed shop is in force.

I hope that the Government will agree that some special action is needed. However weak and unco-ordinated the Newspaper Publishers Association Ltd. might be—it has not always shown up very well in these situations—we are confronted with an almost impossible situation in which only the Government can give any long term help.

I also hope that the Government will agree that quite apart from other considerations the threat to the freedom of the press justifies special measures in the newspaper industry. As Lord Denning said in giving judgment in another context Interference with the freedom of the press is so contrary to the public interest that it has to be regarded as the unlawful employment of means. Another aspect of the NGA's activities is its ability to interfere with the liberty of the press in reporting disputes in which we are involved and to use industrial power to prevent the publishing of news, comment or advertisements which are politically unacceptable to them.

In this current dispute, the Financial Times put out two advertisements. The first was carried by The Guardian on Friday 24 June, but The Times and the Daily Telegraph, for one reason or another, did not feel able to print, even as an advertisement, that explanation of the Financial Times' position. The Financial Times produced a follow-up, carrying on its explanation on Monday 18 July. That fared better and appeared in The Times, although the Daily Telegraph continued to feel unable to print such an advertisement.

I have certain indications that comment on this dispute has been modified in one way or another for fear of causing union trouble. I must admit that I have no hard evidence that would stand up in court but people are understandably worried in such situations about coming forward. As Mr. David Astor pointed out in a famous article as far back as 1977 public cases of press censorship by unions constitute only the tip of an iceberg". There are more instances under this Government.

In April 1979 the NGA blacked advertisements inserted by advertisers who were also using the Nottingham Evening Post with which the NGA was in dispute. The High Court made an order to stop that. The NGA appealed and it was rejected by the Master of the Rolls, Lord Denning. He said The union has no right to use industrial strength to interfere with the freedom of the press. He continued with the words which I quoted previously.

On 16 July 1982, The Standard reported a speech by the Secretary of State for Employment in which he praised Mr. Joe Wade of the NGA for giving a direct and blunt warning to the print trade of the need for more flexible working practices and the acceptance of new technology. Mr. Wade also said that in Holland where the technology had been accepted there was a shortage of printers and in the United Kingdom there was unemployment among printers.

Apparently that praise was not welcome, for both it and Mr. Wade's photograph were cut out of later editions of The Standard having appeared in the first edition.

In September 1982 the editorial of the Daily Mail on the TUC day of action was blacked because the NGA chapel disapproved of the context and the editor rightly refused to alter it.

Later still, on 6 June this year, The Times reported that the Daily Express leading article on the march for jobs rally had failed to appear in the paper's first edition when a demand by the NGA for right of reply on the same page was refused.

None of those or other similar incidents appear to cause much concern to Members of Parliament or to the media. Perhaps they are too trivial, but I do not think that they are. They do not seem to worry my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment or even my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. Yet when The Times failed to appear on 13 January 1977, their reaction in Opposition to what they regarded as censorship of The Times by the NGA was fierce and immediate. In response to the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Callaghan), the then Prime Minister, when his reaction to that gross infringement of the freedom of the press appeared to be inadequate, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, then the Leader of the Opposition, shouted: I little thought that I would ever hear a Prime Minister uphold the censorship of the Press, because that is what he has done." — [Official Report, 13 January 1977; Vol. 923, c. 1638.] On that occasion my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment expressed no less strongly his sense of outrage.

Yet nobody now appears to worry too much. One might say "Where have all the protests gone?" I hope that it is not because we have come to consider such incidents as too trivial to worry about. After all, there are other newspapers. The press is still relatively healthy. There is a local press, a regional press and a number of national newspapers. These incidents have affected very few.

I hope that it is not the case, as it is in so many other areas, that we are becoming so used to that type of abuse that we tend to accept it as an inevitable part of modern life, without there being much that anyone can do about it. Trivial as some of the incidents may appear, it is impossible to regard any threat, large or small, to the freedom of the press to publish what it likes under the law to be unimportant.

The Government must not allow over-powerful groups of individuals, not even the NGA, to interfere with the liberty of the subject and the freedom of the press.

12.8 am

The Under-Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. John Selwyn Gummer)

How well I understand the concern felt by my right hon. Friend the Member for Surrey, South-West (Mr. Macmillan) that has led him to raise this matter on the Adjournment. He was right to suggest that it is not simply a response to the most recent strike that has affected the Financial Times. There is a much wider feeling of concern.

As one whose connections with the printing industry stretch back over 20 years, I am well aware of the serious effects on the printing industry of the actions of trade unions which, instead of using their power for the benefit of the people they serve, or for the nation as a whole, have sought to use it for narrow and short-term reasons. As the Royal Commission suggested, the spotlight turned on what is wrong in Fleet Street and, in a sense, turned on what has been deeply wrong in our country as a whole.

The problems of Fleet Street are perhaps more important than the problems of any other industry. As my right hon. Friend said, they are a matter not merely of industrial dispute but of the very freedom of the press. The industrial dispute, which may be for a specific reason—perhaps about pay or conditions — can destroy the opportunity of thoughts, views and attitudes being put over. It has begun to dawn on people how much damage has been done, and I support the comments made by my right hon. Friend about some of the occasions when there have been clear and undoubted attempts to censure the press. He mentioned some and I will mention some others.

My right hon. Friend will remember some of the activities during the so-called day of action when a Liverpool newspaper was unable to print material which it wished to print because of the action of the National Graphical Association. My right hon. Friend referred to the Daily Mail being unable to produce a leader and having to leave that space in its newspaper empty because of the action of one of the unions. It was repeated by the Press Council, and I quote from that repeat in 1977: Newspaper industry workers and trade unions are not in a special, privileged position in regard to the publication of material of which they are critical. Their rights are no greater and no less than those of the rest of the public. Like everyone else, they are entitled to the assurance that impartial consideration will be given by the Press Council to any complaint made by individuals, chapels or unions about a newspaper's content or conduct. No-one should usurp an editor's responsibility to the public and to the law for what appears in his newspaper. It is the attempt to usurp the editorial powers that has done so much damage to the newspaper industry, and I applaud my right hon. Friend for raising the matter.

I am tempted to join my right hon. Friend in his comments about the problems at the Financial Times. I must restrain myself from that because, although the present news is bad and things look difficult, and despite the clear attempt by Mr. Len Murray and the TUC to find an answer to the problem, with ACAS considerably involved, I feel that it would be a mistake to make the solution more difficult by the kind of comments one might make on the Floor of the House.

That is not because I do not feel them strongly; but the talks are to continue and I am concerned that the newspaper should get back on to the streets, not least because of the remarkable job it has been doing in the rest of Europe, establishing itself, and it is that establishment which my right hon. Friend mentioned, fearing that it will have lost out considerably to its competitors.

It is well known that, not just on this issue but on others, for one reason or another Fleet Street has been particularly vulnerable to this sort of self-inflicted wound. The great sadness is that the effect of these strikes has been not to protect the jobs which so often they are supposed to do, but actually to reduce them. In April 1970 there were 155,800 employed in the industry. There are now 140,000.

At the beginning of the final report of the Royal Commission on the Press appeared a quotation from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Blue Carbuncle". In 1892 an advertisement was to be placed in the evening newspapers. When somebody asked which evening papers, the answer was: Oh, in the Globe, Star, Pall Mall, St. James's Gazette, Evening News, Standard, Echo and any others that occur to you. That could not happen today. The only remaining evening newspaper in London is The Standard. As a boy, I remember a vendor on the street corner shouting, "Star, News, Standard". The Star and the Evening News have gone and The Standard is left. The number of jobs is reduced. When I read that when the trade unions decide that they might like to produce their own newspaper—it is right to have as wide a range of newspapers as possible —what do I see? I see that they look to a newspaper which has new equipment and uses new techniques—the techniques that trade unions have stopped being used in any of the present newspapers—because they admit that that is the only way to make a newspaper work, to produce a new newspaper and to create new jobs in the newspaper industry.

How sad it is that in regarding what they want to do for themselves, those unions have to admit that they too do the opposite to that which they have done for years and years. They have to welcome new techniques, new technology, remove the threat of industrial action and ensure that a newspaper can depend upon regular daily production.

If that is necessary for a new trade union newspaper, it is just as necessary for those newspapers which exist already. The sadness of the industry is that we have seen, year after year, a decline in the number of newspapers.

I remember as a schoolboy that the Daily Telegraph's politics were balanced in our house by buying the News Chronicle. That cannot be done today. One has to put up with a restricted number of newspapers. There is no Daily Herald. Who has killed those newspapers? It must be the restrictive practices, because today's modern techniques should make more newspapers possible rather than fewer. That is the nature of the new technique. The new methods make it possible to produce newspapers much more cheaply than at present. That should mean a wider range of newspapers.

It is sad to look at the number of days lost in the newspaper industry. So far this year, the newspaper industry has lost 20,700 working days, about 8,000 of which only are related to the current dispute at the Financial Times. Many other disputes have taken place. In the past nine years industry generally has suffered stoppages averaging 463 day per annum per 1,000 employess; in the newspaper, publishing and printing industry, the corresponding figure is more than three times higher at 1,500 days per annum per 1,000 employees. A day and a half per man is lost in strikes in the newspaper industry. That is the measure of the poorness of industrial relations in the industry.

Some of Fleet street's problems have arisen from the very agreements which managements and unions have reached with the presumed intention of bringing harmony to their industrial relations. I agree with much of what my hon. Friend said. If they are to be acceptable at all, closed shop agreements demand responsibility from the unions which enter into them. It is an abdication of responsibility to enter into such an agreement without the intention of ensuring that the union keeps its side of the bargain. If pockets of workers can disrupt production in a closed shop, it is for management to consider whether the closed shop agreement is worth having.

It is far from coincidence that the newspaper industry, which has such a sorry industrial relations record, is also one of the industries in which the tentacles of the closed shop—in its most virulent pre-entry form— are most deeply entwined. There can be no better example of the harm which the closed shop does, not just to individual liberty but also to our economic health as a nation; and no better example either of the justification for the measures on the closed shop which we have taken. I note that in a leading article on 14 July 1983 The Times stated that it is for Fleet Street managements to introduce a system, such as a layoff clause in their working agreements, which would prevent small groups of workers being able to hold the whole company to ransom because it has to continue paying all its other workers during their period of enforced idleness. The unions should take note that desperate managements are having to consider these issues to defend their companies against the attacks of short-sighted militants. They would be well advised to put their house in order.

On the positive side of this depressing picture, I must say that some unions, at least, are seized of the need for change. Although my right hon. Friend mentioned an occasion on which there appeared to be some form of censorship, my right hon. Friend the present Secretary of State for Employment—a job previously held by my right hon. Friend who introduced this debate — was quoted in The Standard. I have the copies here. I cannot prove anything about it, nor can my right hon. Friend, but anyone who had a malevolent mind might wonder why, in the first edition, there was a picture of Mr. Joe Wade and a section praising him for the clear statement that he made at the union's conference in Eastbourne last year: I have to say to you that unless we are prepared to take on board the full implications of new technology, unless we are prepared to be more flexible in our attitudes, and unless we are prepared to co-operate in improving productivity within the industry, we shall be engulfed by a tidal wave of technology which we will not be able to control. I know that there will be those who will argue that to go down that road would result in the loss of many more jobs. I have to say to you that the reverse is true. Unless we make the industry more efficient, unless we reduce unit costs of production, unless we become more flexible—what we will undoubtedly get is even more competition from abroad and from instant print shops at home". That is what Joe Wade said. My right hon. Friend referred to it with approbation, with his customary charm, in the article that was printed in The Standard. That reference appeared in the first edition, and there was a picture of Mr. Wade. In the second edition, there was no picture of Mr. Wade. No doubt that was a great sadness for many who bought the newspaper for that purpose and then found that the whole section was excised.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-one minutes past Twelve o'clock.