§ 4.5 p.m.
§ Debate on Second Reading resumed.
§ LORD FRANCIS-WILLIAMS
My Lords, in rising to support the Monopolies and Mergers Bill, I intend to restrict my attention almost entirely to one clause in it, Clause 8—that dealing with newspapers. I do so because without always, I am afraid, succeeding in my undertaking, I endeavour, so far as possible, to speak in this House only about things of which I know something. I confess at once that my knowledge on the general field of the Monopolies and Mergers Bill is small, but I think I have some knowledge on Clause 8, which deals with newspapers. It is, of course, an extremely important clause, because it marks a complete break with past practice in this country. It is, I think, the first instrument of legislation in recent history to deal specifically with newspapers.
I should like to say right away that I most strongly approve of Clause 8; but because it is, and marks, a break with the past in introducing legislation dealing specifically with newspapers, it has, quite naturally, led to a certain amount of disquiet and some anxiety on the part of many newspapers and newspaper organisations. The clause has been subject to criticism, although of a rather mild and friendly character, by the Press Council, which fears that it may mark, so to speak, the first opening in a move to bring the Press under greater control. But that I do not believe. It has also been attacked with an immense broadside by the Thomson organisation which has widely circulated a long and closely argued criticism of the Bill. I had hoped very much 1101 that the noble Lord, Lord Thomson of Fleet, might have been present in your Lordships' House when the Bill was having its Second Reading, in order to put before your Lordships the case set out in his organisation's memorandum; but I understand that he is away in Canada. However, I hope that perhaps he will come and speak at the Committee stage.
Let me say at once that I find the objections made by the Thomson organisation, and others, completely unacceptable. They are, I think, based on a complete misjudgment of what the freedom of the Press is really about. The freedom of the Press is the freedom to publish without censorship and without interference by Governments or other organisations, so long as you publish freely within the ordinary law. Controls of mergers, of amalgamations and of monopoly trends in the Press, of the buying and selling of newspapers by millionaires, has nothing whatever to do with the freedom of the Press, as it has been traditionally understood in this country, and as it is defended; because the freedom of the Press is not the possession of newspaper proprietors, or even of newspaper editors and journalists. It is, of course, the possession of the ordinary people of this country, and is simply exercised on their behalf by the provision of newspapers and of a Press that is not subject to censorship or control
Obviously, what has disturbed public opinion, and what was expressed in the Report of the Royal Commission on the Press, out of which this idea emerges, was such mergers, for example, as those under which Odham's Press—owners of an immense number of magazines, and also of the then Daily Herald and the People—were taken over by the Mirror—Pictorial group to form an immense empire controlling both newspapers and magazines to a possibly dangerous extent. Then there was the takeover bid in which the Thomson Group was recently concerned, when an attempt was made to buy the Glasgow Herald, thus putting both the Scotsman and the Glasgow Herald, the two quality daily newspapers in Scotland, under one control—fortunately, as I believe, resisted by local groups in Scotland. This, I think, provides exactly the sort of case in which 1102 an inquiry by a Commission of this kind is desirable, because great issues of public interest arise.
Originally, the Royal Commission on the Press restricted to daily and Sunday newspapers their proposals for what they called a "court" to examine newspaper mergers, but under this Bill the principle is extended, as I understand it, to local weekly newspapers of all kinds. That is probably right, though it raises some problems which will need consideration; and I hope that they will receive more consideration than they have yet been given before we reach further stages of this Bill. I think the extension is possibly right because we are now at a most interesting stage in newspaper development—a stage at which new methods of production, including web offset printing, photo-setting, the use of computers and so on, make it look as if it will be possible for evening and daily newspapers in the Provinces to become economically viable with a much smaller circulation than has until recently been the case. Indeed, we may see so much of a reversal of the trend that instead of, as in the past twenty or thirty years, having to record the death of newspapers, we may find ourselves in the next few years in the happier position of recording the birth of newspapers.
This is an important development, but it is probable that in the first instance it will depend, in part, upon the operations and the investment potentialities of sizeable newspaper groups which are able (as has been done by the Thomson organisation in Reading) to buy up an existing local weekly paper and, with these new printing techniques, to build an evening newspaper serving the interests of a wider area, which is very desirable indeed. It is not, I think, wholly desirable that a great town like Reading should depend for its evening newspapers, as it at present does, almost entirely upon the London evening newspapers. The local interest—municipal affairs, and all the cultural and other activities of such an area—should be reflected in its evening newspapers.
The same sort of thing has happened, under the same sort of processes, with the development of a new evening paper in Shropshire—the Shropshire Star. Then the Thomson organisation itself, I think, has plans—at any rate, it is surveying 1103 the ground—for the possible development of some eight evening papers in various provincial centres on the same sort of pattern—that is, for the building of a new evening paper on the foundation of an existing local weekly, with the use of these new techniques of photo-setting, web offset printing, and so on. Although we need to be very careful of too much of a monopoly developing in the hands of any one newspaper group, it is very necessary that we should not, in our anxiety to prevent that, be so concerned that we make it impossible for the development of new newspapers, serving new or old communities, to come into existence. I hope that some consideration will be given to this kind of problem.
In many ways it would obviously be most desirable if new evening papers of this kind could be financed by and could arise from strong local interests, and could have deep roots in their own local communities. I think that the best local newspapers, whether day, evening or weekly, are papers which have these local roots. However, in the nature of things it is highly probable that local groups with the necessary "know-how" and with the necessary knowledge of the new techniques will not exist; and so the only means by which new evening papers of this kind can be brought into existence will be with the aid and assistance, and possibly the investment, of existing newspaper groups. So long as there are means of ensuring that there is some independence of editorial control, some representation of local interests in the new paper, and so on, that may not be a bad thing. And it is possible, if we look at the proposals of this Bill too narrowly, that we may stand in the way of such a development, desirable in many ways as it is, and certainly desirable as it is, as I said earlier, that there should be means to prevent such great mergers in the national Press as we have seen.
My Lords, whilst welcoming Clause 8 of this Bill, as I do, I would also suggest that it needs a good deal of clarification and a certain amount of additional thought. I am very anxious that it should be effective, but effective in the right way. Therefore, not only should we know exactly what is intended, but the clause should be in such a form as to do exactly that. I must say that, 1104 on reading the Bill, I find a certain confusion as to what exactly is meant by "circulation". In the Explanatory Memorandum of the Bill, it is stated that in Clause 8 the reference to "circulation" is to…newspapers having an aggregate daily circulation in the United Kingdom of five hundred thousand or more copies".But when we come to Clause 8 itself, we find it stated, in subsection (5):…the reference to relevant circulation is a reference, in relation to a newspaper published on any given day, to the circulation of that newspaper as published on that day …If one can make logical sense of a somewhat confused piece of English, it would seem to suggest that, when one talks about circulation, one is doing so as one in fact normally does when referring to circulation figures (when saying, for example, that a Sunday paper has a circulation of 2,100,000), and that that is the figure which would be regarded as "relevant". However, if it is to be daily circulation, as is suggested in the Explanatory Memorandum, then presumably one would divide that circulation of 2,100,000 by seven in order to bring it to a daily circulation. That would make the figure 300,000, which, of course, would leave the paper outside the confines of this Bill; whereas otherwise, if the relevant circulation is the actual circulation, it would come within it.
This is, I think, a point of some importance, and one which those concerned in newspapers ought to have clarified; because it may be the case—it quite likely is the case—that there will be situations in which a newspaper group controlling a morning and an evening paper in, say, Birmingham or another large town of that kind may have a combined circulation getting very near to this 500,000-a-day figure. It may be approaching, and it may be a sensible thing for it to take an interest in, a group of local weekly newspapers circulating in the area and serving the same sort of interests as does the group itself. Whether their circulation is to be divided by seven to give the figure or whether the figure to be taken is that given in the A.B.C. ratings, and so on, may be a highly relevant consideration in determining whether they can proceed with their discussions with or 1105 without reference to the Board of Trade. I feel that some clarification is needed, because I am anxious that this clause should operate, and should operate successfully, in the public interest.
I think we could also do with a little more clarification as to what exactly is meant by "a newspaper proprietor". This is particularly important, because in what is a rather exceptional provision—and one which, it seems to me, is open to a certain amount of criticism—the newspaper proprietor can, under this Bill, in certain circumstances, if he fails to do what the Commission require, be sent to prison for up to two years. It may well be that a large majority of the public would neither break their hearts nor burst into tears if Lord Rothermere, Mr. Cecil King or Mr. Max Aitken were conveyed to prison, to remain there for a certain period to be taught a lesson. But who, exactly, is a newspaper proprietor? It is clear when we are dealing with great newspapers, where there is one dominant figure, but what about a paper like the Observer, which is governed and controlled by a trust and which has a group of trustees separate from its group of directors?
Or, to take a quite different case, what about a newspaper group like the East Midland Allied Press, which owns a substantial group of provincial newspapers of one kind or another, the ordinary voting shares of which are held by 371 persons, none of whom has a controlling interest? In that case, are all 371 of them newspaper proprietors? Do they all have to go to prison if they overstep the mark? Because you cannot put a corporation, a company, into prison; and the fact that provision for not only fines but prison sentences is included in this Bill does, as the drafting of the clause shows, indicate that actual persons are thought of. I think that it will be the case increasingly in the future that persons, in that sense, are not likely to be relevant; because, despite the development of a few big newspaper figures or tycoons, what we are seeing now is the development of a managerial revolution in the newspaper industry, whereby companies owning newspapers are run by a board of officials with no dominating shareholder, no newspaper proprietor in the old sense, at all.
1106 Therefore I suggest that before we come to a later stage of this Bill this, too, needs to be looked at. If we are going to agree that in certain circumstances people ought to be sent to prison, let us at any rate try to be clear in our minds about what we mean by "proprietor" and about whom we intend to send to prison. I wanted to raise these points because I think this clause is important. It marks a new development in our law and in the acceptance of public responsibility to safeguard the public rights in the Press. Therefore it seems to me highly important that we should get it working right.
§ 4.26 p.m.
§ LORD ERROLL OF HALE
My Lords, I think we have had an interesting debate this afternoon covering many different aspects of this important Bill, so admirably introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Rhodes, not only with his customary clarity but also with his customary brevity. I should like to say how much I enjoyed listening to his explaining, so far as he could in the time, the work and nature of the Bill before us this afternoon. The Bill really extends and varies to a certain extent the stream of legislation passed through Parliament since the end of the war and adopts largely the principles outlined in the White Paper of the last Government issued last year; although it departs in certain important respects from what had been the views of the former Government.
I am very glad to see that the Monopolies Commission is to be strengthened once more; although I should like to place on record that the reason why it was reduced in 1956 was that there was no longer so much work for it to do, since restrictive practices were, in the light of the 1956 Act, to become the responsibility of the Restrictive Practices Court. However, industry and commerce has become more complicated over the last nine or ten years; so the need has grown for an investigating body capable of carrying out several investigations simultaneously.
We on these Benches are glad to see that the provision for increased membership of the Commission, which we proposed, is incorporated in the Bill, but I think noble Lords should realise that 1107 merely because we have panels which can sit simultaneously it does not mean that investigation can necessarily be carried out any more quickly, despite the special powers taken to overcome wilful delay on the part of those who are being investigated. The fact remains that as these investigations nowadays are much more complicated because industrial processes and arrangements are themselves more complicated, so, if investigations are to be fair, they must be long and painstaking and we must expect the time that will elapse from the referring of the case to the publication of the report to be long, rather than short.
I am sorry that the present Government could not see their way to appointing a separate Registrar for Monopolies, because although the present Ministers of the Board of Trade may say—as I did in my day when I was there—that the Board of Trade and the Monopolies Commission are completely impartial and that there is no question of an investigated firm being in any way "in the dock", the fact remains that often the firm consider themselves to be "in the dock". It would have done a great deal to establish the Monopolies Commission in the favour of industrialists if there had been set up in this Bill a Registrar who could prepare the case and put it to the Monopolies Commission and who could thus show the organisation that was to be investigated just what sort of case it was that the organisation was expected to answer.
As regards the investigating of services, the Government have decided to go further than we recommended and to embrace the whole field of services, both commercial and professional. Naturally we shall—as I am sure will the whole country—watch with the closest interest to see what are the first references which are to be made in respect of services. I hope that the Government will bear in mind that a number of professions have their scales of charges and professional conduct laid down by statutory devices or by Royal Charters, and it would seem wrong that they should be called to account for carrying out what has been provided for by Statute.
Those parts of the Bill, principally Clause 6, which deal with mergers depart substantially from what were our proposals. I do not propose to repeat what 1108 were our proposals, as that was dealt with so admirably by my noble friend Lord Drumalbyn, who was at the Board of Trade when the White Paper was being prepared and issued. Nevertheless, I think that the effect of this Bill will be to make some firms reluctant to merge who might otherwise have been prepared to do so. Although the powers of the Board of Trade are in large part permissive and not mandatory, the very fact that the Board of Trade could hold up a merger, or break up a merger after it has gone through, will have an inhibiting influence on a number of industrialists and boards of directors who might otherwise have gone ahead.
I thought that the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Brown, was particularly interesting in that he was doubtful, from practical experience as well as from a study of this important subject, whether there is not a great deal to be said for a more rapid rate of merger and to have fewer larger and stronger companies rather than a great number of small ones. Let us remember that many great companies started from small beginnings. We should never forget the importance of the small independent business—whether the manager be worth £5,000 or a quarter of a million—in Britain to-day and in the future.
The figure of £5 million in Clause 6 refers to the assets of a firm to be taken over, and I understand that by "asset" is meant the total book assets. It would be helpful if that could be written into the Bill. Presumably, it means the combined revenue and capital assets; in other words, the figure at the bottom right-hand column of a company's balance sheet. It would be helpful to know exactly what that figure is meant to be in terms of assets. I hope that the figure of £5 million may be explored during the Committee stage, rather than that time be taken up during the Second Reading debate, and that we shall be told exactly why it was chosen. I hope that it is not a case of "Think of a number and double it", but that the Board of Trade have looked at the structure of companies throughout Britain and are able to say, "Were we to draw the line at £4 million it would be too low; if we put the figure at £6 million it would be too high." Any evidence we can be given to show why £5 million is the right figure would, I 1109 think, help noble Lords in their consideration of this Bill.
Regarding foreign takeovers, I find it difficult to see how the Monopolies Commission could be capable of impartially investigating the desirability or otherwise of a foreign company making a merger deal, or a takeover deal, with a British company. Here factors quite outside the normal purview of the Commission would almost invariably enter into the consideration, and if there had to be decision I should have thought that it would be better coming from the Government, taking into account the political factors, rather than the Monopolies Commission whose information would be of United Kingdom experience and working. Although the noble Lord, Lord Brown, said that we should be careful about foreign companies, I think the words he used were "seizing key sectors of the economy", I think we should also remember that this process of amalgamation and takeover works in more than one direction; and that we should suffer a great deal were the United States to limit and restrict the activities of British companies expanding there.
§ LORD BROWN
My Lords, what is hitting businessmen on an ever-increasing scale as they go abroad to do their deals is the extent to which a number of foreign Governments and Commonwealth Governments are already in possession of powers which limit the extent to which we can invest in or take control of industries overseas.
§ LORD ERROLL OF HALE
Yes, I think it a most undesirable trend and one which we should resist, and, with our world-wide influence, try to reverse.
To turn briefly to the question of Press mergers, I thought that the noble Lord, Lord Francis-Williams, made some very interesting points, particularly about what is a newspaper proprietor. Clause 8(6), which deals with that, contains one of those circular definitions which I always find attractive, if not comprehensible. Clause 8(6) says:For the purposes of this section—(a) 'newspaper proprietor' includes, in addition to an actual proprietor of a newspaper, any person having a controlling interest in a body corporate which is a newspaper proprietor, and any body cor- 1110 porate in which a newspaper proprietor has a controlling interest".I hope that when the noble Lord studies that subsequently he will find it becomes a little clearer. I must say that to be an associated person or relative would seem even more dangerous than being a newspaper proprietor, because from the following clause one learns that a relative shall be an associated person and, curiously enough, for the purposes of subsection (3):…relative ' means a brother, sister, uncle, aunt, nephew, niece, lineal ancestor or descendant (the step-child, adopted child or illegitimate child of any person being taken into account as a relative or to trace a relationship in the same way as that person's child); and references to a wife or husband shall include a former wife or husband and a reputed wife or husband.I can only wonder what has happened to all the cousins and why they have been left out. Later on we may be given some explanation why this definition of relative has been adopted.
On the subject of Press mergers, I think the question of circulation and the figure of 500,000 after the acquired newspaper has been taken over is one which we should explore more carefully during the Committee stage discussions. Much the same comments as I made in respect of the figure of £5 million would apply to this figure. Has the Board of Trade studied the present circulation figures of newspapers? Are there a number of newspapers with circulations of about 400,000 which, if they took over one small newspaper, would be caught by this provision? Or is it perhaps the case that there are a large number of newspapers with circulations of just over the 500,000 mark which would automatically be caught by the provisions in the Bill if they attempted any further acquisitions? As this is a quite new matter, I think it would be advisable for the Government to insert somewhere in the Clause—I will help them by tabling an appropriate Amendment—the power to vary the figure either up or down in the light of experience, so that if the figure is found to be too high it could be lowered, or if the figure of half-a-million was found not to be the most suitable in practice, it could be raised.
The noble Lord, Lord Rhodes, made some play with the powers being taken particularly to deal with monoplies whose 1111 practices had been adversely commented on by the Commission. My own experience was that in the absence of powers it was always possible (although it sometimes took a little time) to secure by agreement with the firm or monopoly concerned an undertaking to comply with the wishes of the Government. On balance, I think it is probably right to have these powers in reserve, but I should not like it to be thought that because we operated without such powers, we were not able to be extremely effective in this respect. Although we shall be granting these powers to the Government, I hope that they will be reluctant to use them, and will rely on persuasion, which leaves a much better taste in the mouth than does compulsion. If we may have that assurance, I shall be much happier. Apart from that, as this Bill embodies so much of what was enshrined in our own White Paper, I feel that it would be wrong to prolong the present discussion. Subject to the reservations which my noble friend and I have made, we hope that the Bill will have a good passage.
§ 4.40 p.m.
§ LORD SHEPHERD
My Lords, I am sure that the Government have a sense of satisfaction at the spirit of this debate. It has been interesting but, above all else, constructive. It has been much in line with the discussions that took place in another place, when Members put Party politics aside for a moment and sought to improve what is an important Bill. I feel that this spirit is likely to continue to prevail in your Lordships' House, particularly as we have the noble Lord, Lord Drumalbyn, an ex-Minister of State, and the noble Lord, Lord Erroll of Hale, an ex-President of the Board of Trade, obviously going to take an active part in the proceedings. This is a formidable combination. I sensed sympathy with the objects of the Bill in what the noble Lord, Lord Erroll of Hale, said when going rather joyfully round the phrases of the definition of what is a newspaper proprietor. The noble Lord well knows that in this class of legislation it is difficult to make a definition clearly understandable, yet prevent loopholes.
I think that I can be brief, because many of the points that have been raised are those for Committee and, in any 1112 case, if I attempted to answer, I doubt whether noble Lords would be satisfied but would certainly feel that they should raise their points again on Committee. Furthermore, if I attempted to answer all the points that the noble Lord, Lord Drumalbyn, made, we should be here until a late hour. I should like to repeat what my noble friend Lord Rhodes said at the beginning. This is a Bill which is part of the general evolution of legislalation in this field. There is not one of us who believes that this is the end. The Bill is an extension of the first Act of 1948, which was created to obtain for the Government, Parliament and the general public information in a field which, even to those who operate in commerce, is not very clear.
My noble friend Lord Brown alluded to what he called too much absolutism in the attitudes towards this question. On the one side, there is the view that large organisations and monopolies are a danger to the country, and, on the other, there are those who believe that competition can produce all the benefits that the country needs. We all know that competition can lead companies and industries into difficulties, and we know that monopolies, if they are not properly operated to the public good, because of their size and power can be detrimental to the nation and, in particular, to its export trade.
But, with the obtaining of more information about these operations, I believe our views are changing. I think I can say that what we want to-day is not merely competition within our own country, but also the creation of organisations which are able to face competition abroad, which are able to meet and match the large organisations in America and Europe. But we must look at this development carefully. This type of legislation is largely to obtain information, and the Government are now taking powers to act if, from the information obtained from the Monopolies Commission, they consider that a monopoly or merger is likely to be against the public interest. I do not think that industry and commerce need fear this Bill. I should have thought that in many respects they would welcome it.
The noble Lord, Lord Drumalbyn, asked me in regard to services why we have gone a degree further than the 1113 White Paper produced by his own Administration. We felt that the terms of the White Paper in regard to services connected with goods were too narrow. It might well be necessary to look into insurance and hire-purchase organisations and other services of which one could think. But I would make it clear that the Government share the view of the previous Administration that it is the general commercial services at which we shall take a look first, and at this time we do not contemplate looking into professional services or insurance. Nevertheless, we feel that in drafting this Bill we should draft it sufficiently widely so that, if the need arose, the Government could act.
The noble Lord also asked whether Clause 5 could be brought into effect in regard to information agreements. Clause 5 could be used in regard to information agreements and I believe that in certain circumstances Clause 1(3) could also be used. As to mergers and the standstill power, I take it from what was said in all quarters of the House that your Lordships feel that mergers should be looked into. I remember the serious disquiet in your Lordships' House, in another place and in the Press during the great battle between Courtauld's and I.C.I. One can think of other mergers that have taken place where there was not sufficient information for the public to understand whether such a merger was in the public interest or not. I think there is a general welcome to the Government's taking this power to inquire.
But there would be little purpose in taking this power if it appeared from its use that a merger would be contrary to the public interest and the Government then had no power to take action. In his admirable, short speech, the noble Lord, Lord Byers, drew attention to the difficulties that had arisen about the Monopolies Commission, when they had made reports and the previous Government had been under difficulty in dealing with them. This was because under previous legislation the Government had no power to act. They were dependent upon conciliation and negotiation. We feel that the Government, if on the information that is available to them they consider that a merger is likely to be contrary to the public interest, should 1114 have this power. There are two qualifications. First of all, there is the question of whether the merger in itself would create a monopoly. In such a situation, the Government could hold up the merger for a period, or could permit it to go forward under certain conditions, and the Bill gives the Board of Trade power to lay down these conditions—for example, that the assets of the company, particularly the machinery and equipment for production, shall not be scrambled in such a way that, if the Monopolies Commission found that the merger was contrary to the public interest, it could not be unscrambled without extreme difficulty.
I think I should stress, particularly in view of the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Drumalbyn, that we do not believe that there will be many mergers that will have to be sent to the Monopolies Commission. In most cases it will be quite clear from the beginning whether the merger should go forward or whether it should stop. It is only in what one might call the very small fringe area, where an element of doubt may arise, that the Minister will think it right to send the case to the Monopolies Commission for investigation. I hope that the public and your Lordships' House will not feel, as might be suggested by the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Drumalbyn, that all classes of mergers are going to be involved. As I have already said, I do not think this will be the case. I believe that only a few will need to be sent to the Monopolies Commission.
I appreciate, of course, some of the difficulties that would be involved if there were a standstill. But what is the alternative? Really, it is to do nothing. I think that, on balance, considering the few companies which are likely to be involved, this is the right course. I certainly hope that all companies which do enter into merger arrangements will consult with the Board of Trade at the earliest possible moment. They will be able to get a great deal of information. As the House knows (and I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Erroll of Hale, will confirm this), these inquiries are treated with the greatest confidence.
§ LORD BYERS
My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord a question? Does this 1115 mean that it would be possible to get a clearance from the Board of Trade? If one can do that, of course, it is a different matter.
§ LORD SHEPHERD
As I understand it, only when there is a prima facie case that a proposed merger is likely to be contrary to the public interest will it be referred to the Monopolies Commission; and if it is clear that it does not come within the provisos—obviously if it does, then it will be vulnerable—it will be up to the Minister, and I imagine that the Board of Trade, given the full information, will quickly be able to make recommendations to the company.
The noble Lord, Lord Drumalbyn, also asked for full-time members of the Monopolies Commission. As the law stands, it is already open to the Board of Trade to make full-time appointments to the Monopolies Commission. One of the greatest difficulties—and the noble Lord referred to this—is whether there should be a small Commission full-time, in which event you become rather limited as to the area of knowledge and experience available, or whether you adopt the practice, as we have it in this country, of generally having part-time personnel on these Commissions, and thereby being able to bring in a wide area of knowledge and experience. I should have thought that this was the best way to do it.
What we are going to do is to strengthen the executive side of the Monopolies Commission so that the resources—one might call it the horsepower behind the personnel—will be very much stronger. I am bound to point out (I do not put this in any Party way) that there was a time, in 1954, when the Monopolies Commission employed, I think, 104 executive officers, and during the ten years in which the noble Lord was the Minister the number fell from 104 to 34. It is our intention to increase that and to give much greater strength to the Commission to act. I feel sure the House will agree with me that this Commission should embrace as wide a knowledge and experience as possible. If we are to have that, we cannot limit the opportunity of finding full-time servants for the Commission.
§ LORD DRUMALBYN
I am grateful to the noble Lord. I do not think that 1116 he has quite dealt with the point I tried to raise. The point I tried to raise concerned having full-time members of the Commission to deal particularly with mergers, because of the urgency of the matter. I did not question that, in the general way, it is better to have a widespread knowledge and to accept the greater time that results. But where urgent examination is obviously needed, I should have thought there was a good deal to be said for having a special panel of full-time people who would be able to get on with the job quickly.
§ LORD SHEPHERD
That is a good point, and I take it from the noble Lord. But, as I said earlier, as the law stands it is already open to the Board of Trade to appoint full-time members of the Monopolies Commission. I will certainly put to my right honourable friend what the noble Lord has said with regard to merger inquiries, but I should have thought that it would be best to leave the construction and the law as it now stands. They have a sense of flexibility, and it is up to the Commission and the Minister to see that these inquiries on mergers are dealt with expeditiously; and I agree that the sooner they are dealt with, the better.
The noble Lords, Lord Drumalbyn, Lord Byers and Lord Erroll of Hale, mentioned the question of a Registrar of Monopolies. My right honourable friend made it quite clear in another place that the Government's mind is not closed to the appointment of a Registrar. Certainly there are advantages, in that it would take away from the political arena the question of deciding what is to be sent to the Monopolies Commission. Maybe there could be such an organisation, and a great deal of the investigation work could be done by the Registrar.
But whatever the advantages may be, the Government were seized of the need (I am sure the noble Earl, Lord Erroll of Hale, will understand this) to draft a relatively short Bill in this First Parliamentary Session of a new Government. We felt that this Monopolies Commission should be dealt with immediately. If we had extended the Bill, it would undoubtedly have been a much larger and more complex Bill than it is to-day. With all the other legislation going through on other matters, it would have been 1117 extremely difficult to pilot such a Bill through in so short a space of time.
I think it was the noble Lord, Lord Drumalbyn, who said that he was contemplating putting down an Amendment to bring in the Registrar.
§ LORD DRUMALBYN
With respect, I did not say that. I said that I was contemplating putting down an Amendment to deal with factual reports. I realise that to deal with the position of the Registrar would be a most complicated business.
§ LORD SHEPHERD
I am glad that the noble Lord has set my mind, and I am sure that of my right honourable friend, at rest, because this would involve us in a difficult task, as the noble Lord, Lord Drumalbyn, will realise, having piloted the Resale Prices Act through your Lordships' House and remembering the difficulties we had in that case.
With regard to the Commissions' procedure, and the evidence, I think this would best be left to the Committee stage. The noble Lord has indicated that he intends to move an Amendment to this effect. We will look at it, and perhaps we might have a conversation with regard to it between now and the Committee stage. I am afraid that I cannot give the noble Lord much hope, if any, in this respect, but we shall certainly listen carefully to what he has to say.
So far as the Press are concerned, I must say that I was rather surprised, in view of some of the strong statements that have appeared in the Press, that noble Lords who have some connection with the Press have not come here to give us the benefit of their views. I am sure that we should have been very pleased to hear them. The Government feel it right, in bringing in a Bill of this type dealing with monopolies and also with mergers, to deal with the problems of mergers within the Press. We feel that we have struck the right balance. It is true that we have departed from the Royal Commission, which was chaired by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Shawcross, but we feel that we shall have achieved the end for which that Commission sat.
One point, which I do not propose really to answer, is with regard to the 1118 definition of newspaper proprietor. This is very involved. If the noble Lord, Lord Erroll of Hale, and the noble Lord, Lord Francis-Williams, cannot be satisfield in Committee I will undertake to bring the experts together—and they will not be either me or, I am sure, my noble friend Lord Rhodes—and ask them to go through this line by line. Then I would hope that the House in Committee (if the noble Lord, Lord Erroll of Hale, is satisfied) will feel that we have got the right drafting in the Bill.
The noble Lord, Lord Francis-Williams, spoke about the criminal clause. I quite appreciate the feelings in a British Parliament towards inserting criminal sanctions in what is largely a civil commercial piece of legislation. But this type of sanction appears in American and Canadian Anti-Trust laws. I would suggest to the House that where a merger could take place which could result in the death of a paper, and that once it has died the chances of being able to resurrect it again are very small, there should be pretty severe sanctions on any newspaper proprietor taking over and doing something which is unlawful under this Bill. I think we can give this assurance. There is nothing in Clause 8 which is in any way obscure. I cannot believe that there will be any newspaper proprietor who could plead that his innocence was based on ignorance of the law. It is very simple. Therefore, I would not have thought there is any fear of any newspaper proprietor—and here I need not mention any names—accidentally finding himself in prison for two years for the infringement of this law. I would suggest that in the circumstances it is right, taking everything into account, that you should have a fairly severe penalty for this type of infringement.
I think that is all I need to say. I appreciate that there are a number of points which have been made with which I have not dealt. But they are all points which I feel will arise in Committee. The Government will naturally look forward with interest to the suggestions that noble Lords opposite may wish to make. We shall certainly look at them with the greatest possible care, but—and this is in no way a threat—as noble Lords know, the timetable is getting very short and very difficult indeed, and I would hope that we shall have 1119 some understanding in this matter, bearing in mind again that this is one Bill following on others. No doubt we shall learn from experience with this Bill so that the next Bill which this Government produces will be a little better than this one.
§ On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.