HC Deb 14 June 1995 vol 261 cc777-8
1. Mr. Spellar

To ask the President of the Board of Trade what discussions he has had with representatives of newsagents regarding carriage charges by wholesalers. [26803]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Corporate Affairs (Mr. Jonathan Evans)

My officials met representatives of the National Federation of Retail Newsagents on 8 June regarding recent increases in wholesalers' carriage charges.

Mr. Spellar

I am sorry that the Minister is not able to be more forthcoming about the welcome meeting that he held with newsagents. Does he accept their enormous importance to the thousands of shopping parades across the country? Does he also accept that the recent dramatic increase in carriage charges is crippling many newsagents? Are not the magazine and newspaper publishers trying to recoup the cost of the price war by trying to extract more profit from newsagents? What exactly does the Minister intend to do about that?

Mr. Evans

There is not a Member of the House who does not recognise the important role played by small newsagents in every constituency. I have spoken to representatives of the profession in my constituency about the current difficulties caused by carriage charges. However, the hon. Gentleman ought to know that the Director General of Fair Trading has a responsibility placed on him by the Fair Trading Act 1973 to keep these matters under constant review. I have ensured that the director general is fully apprised of all the concerns outlined by representatives of the industry and by Members of Parliament.

Mr. Leigh

I am grateful for what my hon. Friend the Minister has just said. Will he confirm that the Office of Fair Trading should monitor the charges? Does he accept that, since the report by the Monopolies and Mergers Commission in 1993 and the changes in distribution arrangements mentioned by the hon. Member for Warley, West (Mr. Spellar), there has been not just a considerable increase but in some cases charges have doubled or even quadrupled, putting the survival of many newsagents on the line?

Mr. Evans

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There is widespread concern about carnage charges. I am bound to say that it is not in the interests of the publishers to see small newsagents in such difficulties because it is retail newsagents who are responsible for fixed deliveries and it is fixed deliveries which set the advertising rates that publishers are able to charge. In those circumstances, the entire industry has a responsibility to ensure that the problem is dealt with. I am aware that discussions are taking place between the National Federation of Retail Newsagents and publishers with a view to resolving the problem.

Mr. Bell

It took a question from the hon. Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh) to puncture the Minister's complacency. The Minister should be aware that small newsagents are going to the wall. Many are going bankrupt because of the changes to which the hon. Gentleman referred. It is not good enough for the Minister merely to say that he has met newsagents or to refer to the Office of Fair Trading. If there has been one report from the Monopolies and Mergers Commission, should there not be another?

Mr. Evans

The hon. Gentleman should know that delivery mechanisms were the subject of the MMC inquiry in 1993. On that occasion, there were no adverse findings. I am well aware of the concerns raised recently as to whether the position has been changed by the events outlined in representations to hon. Members and to me. As the hon. Gentleman has had so much to say about the operation of competition policy, he should know that a responsibility is placed upon the Director General of Fair Trading to keep matters under review and all those representations have been drawn to his attention. I have no doubt that he will also be receiving representations from the hon. Gentleman, given the force of the hon. Gentleman's remarks.

Mr. Hawkins

Does my hon. Friend accept that certain parts of the country such as my constituency and the north-west have been particularly badly affected by the problem? The National Federation of Retail Newsagents has drawn attention to particular difficulties in the north-west. In addition to his helpful comments this afternoon, will my hon. Friend ensure that the Director General of Fair Trading is made fully aware of the particular problems faced by newsagents in the north-west and in constituencies such as mine in that regard?

Mr. Evans

I can certainly give my hon. Friend that assurance. For the benefit of the considerable number of hon. Members who have written to me, I should couple with that assurance the information that, as I have made clear in my responses, full details of the concerns outlined have been passed to the Director General of Fair Trading. In my judgment, publishers and wholesalers must recognise the particular role of retail newsagents. I am at least reassured by the information that discussions within the industry are now taking place. It is a complex industry and in the circumstances all the relevant parts of the industry are interdependent and interrelated. Further discussions between relevant parts of the industry cannot come too soon.

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