HL Deb 27 March 1974 vol 350 cc618-27

4.2 p.m.


My Lords, with permission, I would like now to repeat a Statement which is being made by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Trade in another place. His words are as follows:

"In my Statement of March 19, I promised to keep the House informed of the discussions I was having with Beaverbrook's Scottish newspapers. Since then my colleagues and I have talked to the various interests concerned.

"On the question of the transfer of Beaverbrook's Glasgow Citizen to the proprietors of the Glasgow Evening Times, my right honourable friend, the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection, has satisfied herself under the terms of the Fair Trading Act that the Glasgow Citizen is not economic as a going concern and as a separate newspaper. She has, therefore, today granted her consent, as under the Act she was bound to do, to the proposed acquisition.

"The House will recall it was when this application had been lodged with the then Department of Trade and Industry on February 19 of this year that the larger problem of the future printing arrangements for the Scottish Daily Express and the Scottish Sunday Express became apparent. Labour Ministers met the Beaverbrook management on March 13, and they impressed on us their view that the transfer of the arrangements for printing their two Scottish newspapers to Manchester had become essential to the financial viability of the group. We requested that the whole Beaverbrook group should look again urgently at its position, in the light of the number of jobs that would be lost, and against the background of the Government's Development Area policy and the special assistance available to firms in them.

"That was the position when I made my last Statement. Immediately afterwards the Prime Minister, together with the Secretary of State for Scotland and myself, met the Scottish T.U.C. at their request. My colleagues and I then met a strong deputation from the trade unions concerned. This was followed on the same day by a long and detailed discussion with the Beaverbrook management, when we put to them the suggestions and criticisms that had arisen from our talks with the trade unions and our own concern about the implications of their decision. It became clear at that meeting that there was only a slim prospect of arrangements being made to safeguard employment for the Albion Street labour force. This was contingent upon a satisfactory agreement between Beaverbrook's and Sir Hugh Fraser under which the latter would, on contract, continue printing the Scottish Express papers in Glasgow.

"We then met Sir Hugh and his management team to explore further the possibilities of these arrangements. From this it emerged that it was not physically possible for him to print the two Express papers in Albion Street and at the same time print there the two Glasgow papers for which he is responsible—a view with which the Beaverbrook group concurred.

"We then looked at further possibilities, including that of the Fraser Group printing the two Scottish Express newspapers at Albion Street while retaining its own two papers at Buchanan Street, and the proposal made by Sir Hugh to buy the two Scottish Express papers. Sir Hugh informed me that the latter proposal had been rejected by Beaverbrook's. So far as the first proposal was concerned, he expressed willingness to consider this carefully but doubted whether a contract could be made that would be economic for both parties.

"I saw the Beaverbrook management again yesterday to press them further to consider both these possibilities. Late last night, after further contact between the two groups, Sir Max Aitken informed me that neither of these possibilities was practicable.

"As the House will see, throughout these discussions we have been concerned with two objectives: first, to explore all possibilities of avoiding the grievous loss of jobs in hard-pressed Glasgow, and, second, to try to find an alternative solution based upon a Scottish newspaper group. It is with profound regret that we have been forced to the conclusion that no solution could be found.

"Many factors, over many years, have contributed to the situation. But it is clear to me that Beaverbrook's decision is based upon a serious concern about the future of their group as a whole and that the immediacy of their action, with all its deplorable consequences for unemployment, is greatly influenced by the financial need to defend the group as a whole and the need to find substantial funds to meet their redundancy commitments to the workers involved.

"As to the future, I can only say this. First, a substantial printing capacity remains in being in Albion Street; and we shall certainly be ready to discuss any serious proposal that may still emerge. Second, the whole unhappy sequence of events re-emphasises the point made by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister last Thursday when he said that he was urgently considering the possibility of some form of inquiry into the newspaper industry."

My Lords, that completes the Statement.


My Lords, as I think this is probably the first piece of Scottish business (if we can call it "Scottish business") to come before your Lordships in this Parliament, I am sure that your Lordships, certainly those behind me, would join me in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Hughes, on his return to what was a former position of his, though I think we must commiserate with him on being given such a sorry Statement to make as his first contribution.

This is sad news indeed, though not entirely unexpected. The Beaverbrook papers in Scotland are something of a national institution. Many of us have suffered from the whips and scourges of their writers. We have at times had their encouragement and support. But, whatever we have felt about them individually, they have been a vital force on the Scottish scene, lusty, robust and, above all, for Scotland all the time. They have done much to create a conscious awareness in Scotland of the important issues facing us, and therefore the prospective loss of these papers, their removal to production further South, is something that we must all lament very deeply. That said, I am bound to agree with the noble Lord that there seems little more, if anything, that can be done to save the situation. These papers have been the victims of the pressures of rising costs which we strove so hard when in power to contain.

There are, I think, two wider aspects of this matter that must create worry beyond the immediate one of this particular group. One is the whole future of the newspaper industry itself, which must be under threat as a result of these same forces. Therefore, I am sure we are all delighted to hear that some form of inquiry into that industry is under consideration, and I hope that a decision will be made quickly. The second worrying matter is that this is an example of the situation that arises when a major national concern finds itself the victim of pressures of this kind, many of them not the responsibility or the fault of management; when in difficulty it will retrench on the operations furthest from the centre. In this case the blow falls first on Scotland; in other cases it may fall on Wales, the North of England or other remoter parts of the country. So I think we can but receive this Statement with profound regret.


My Lords, as one who was closely associated with the News Chronicle in its final days, I find what has taken place in Scotland a most distressing event. All of us would deplore the loss of any newspaper, no matter what its political views, in this country or indeed elsewhere. We are short of newspapers. This is a distressing and deplorable situation. I want to ask only two questions of the noble Lord, Lord Hughes. First of all, what are to be the redundancy arrangements? In asking that question, I should like to express our sympathy with the 2,000 people who are going to find themselves without a job in the very near future. Secondly, what is the position of the pensioners, and the future pensions of those who will become redundant in the very near future? Are these fully protected and, if not, what is going to be done about the situation?

4.11 p.m.


My Lords, I must first of all express thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Polwarth, for his remarks, and to both the noble Lord and the noble Lord, Lord Byers, for the sympathetic way in which they have received this rather lamentable story. I could certainly have wished for something much more pleasing to be my first Statement on Scottish affairs. The noble Lord, Lord Polwarth, expressed the hope that the inquiry into the newspaper industry which was mentioned as a possibility would in fact become a reality. I shall certainly ensure that these remarks are brought to the notice of my right honourable friend the Prime Minister, because I sense that this would probably be the wish of the House as a whole.

With regard to the two questions asked by the noble Lord, Lord Byers, I am sorry I cannot answer the question about the pensioners because, although the admirable officials tried to anticipate all possible inquiries, with his usual accuracy the noble Lord has managed to pitch on one they had not thought of. It is a point of considerable importance, and I shall make certain that the noble Lord is given the answer as speedily as possible. So far as the redundancy payments are concerned, first of all the basic statutory requirements will be met, but Beaverbrook are offering substantially more. The details are for negotiation between them and their employees, but I understand that what they have offered as a first stage is made up of two weeks' pay for each year of set-Vice in addition to payment in lieu of notice and holiday money, and these together will cost £3.9 million. They hope to be able to make a second payment in January, 1975, of one week's pay, which would cost £1.4 million. Having said that these are the arrangements which Beaverbrook hope to make in supplementation of redundancy, I do not think that I am sticking my neck out unduly when I say that I think they would probably regard as an equal charge upon their resources the safeguarding of the pensions position, but I do not have any specific right to answer that problem. However, as I said, I shall try to find out.


My Lords, I would inform my noble friend that I was in Glasgow last Thursday attending a function organised by Beaverbrook newspapers, and I am bound to tell him that the redundancy payments, however adequate they are likely to be—although, in the opinion of the journalists and those engaged in the printing side they are far from adequate—and even if they are improved, would be quite unable to remove the depression that exists in Glasgow at the present time because of the closing down of the Albion Street Works. In view of what I have heard, I should like to ask whether it is likely that the Beaverbrook firm will be able to liquidate some of the vast properties they possess, thereby ensuring the availability of more adequate redundancy payments?

I should also like to ask whether my noble friend has any information to the effect that there were three items responsible for the closure: first, which seemed to me remarkable and I cannot vouch for the truth of it, that payments made both to journalists and printing operatives were far in excess of what ought to have been paid; secondly, the reduction in advertising revenue because there were two evening newspapers in Glasgow, the Evening Times and the Citizen (mention of the Citizen I understand, because of suggestions made by Sir Hugh Fraser, that it was likely to be merged in the Evening Times); thirdly, the cost of newsprint. I should have thought that the cost of newsprint would have affected papers generally. Why is the suggestion made in Glasgow that the cost of newsprint is one of the items that has caused this adverse situation?


My Lords, first of all on the question of redundancy, as I stated in reply to the question about redundancy payments this is a matter for discussion between the two sides. I indicated what the Beaverbrook organisation had offered. I can only add to that, that what will eventually emerge will depend very largely on these discussions, and say that of course no amount of redundancy payment, no matter how extraordinarily generous it might be possible to make it at the end of the day, can be anything but a poor substitute for the loss of 2,000 jobs in the newspaper industry in Scotland, for which in the foreseeable future there can be no alternative source of employment. Therefore, one can well understand the feeling of depression of these 2,000 people.

So far as the suggestions as to how this situation has come about are concerned, I have no doubt that there will be many ideas put forward by different people as to the contributory causes. Without having an exhaustive investigation into the finances and organisation of this particular group it would be quite impossible for me or, I would suggest, possibly any other Minister, to say which of these factors had the greatest contributory effect. All I can say is, that if in fact the excess of payments to journalists was a contributory factor, no journalist had suggested hitherto that he was being paid too much. On the question of the cost of newsprint, this is a complaint that is being made by newspapers throughout the country. It is undoubtedly a factor which increases their costs considerably. While it may not be any more expensive to the Beaverbrook group in Glasgow than it is to anybody else, if it comes on top of another set of adverse circumstances it may turn out to be the straw that breaks the camel's back. Unfortunately, although I wrote down very quickly the noble Lord's second point, I wrote it so quickly that I cannot now read it. Would my noble friend be good enough to repeat it for me?


My Lords, it was the question of the reduction of advertising revenue because of the existence of the two evening papers, and whether the disposal of one of them would not have made a vast difference.


My Lords, when there are two evening newspapers, or sometimes two morning newspapers, circulating in a particular area, one of them inevitably grows stronger at the expense of the other, and it then attracts a larger share of revenue. Presumably there is a reasonably successful future for one evening newspaper in Glasgow, and this is why the alternative newspaper proprietor has found it advantageous to pay a very considerable sum—I gather approaching £3 million—merely for the right to have the title of the evening newspaper that is being closed down.


My Lords, must not we also recognise that here there was a history of industrial disputes and industrial action, no matter who was responsible for it? This is a prime fact in this situation.


My Lords, first may I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Hughes, most sincerely on his appointment; and, secondly, say how sorry one feels about people losing their jobs? Can the noble Lord tell us how many industrial disputes there have been in the past year in the Beaverbrook newspapers in Scotland? Also, I find it a little difficult to gather from the figures what are the average gross earnings of the people operating the newspapers in Scotland. Can the noble Lord tell us what these were?


My Lords, I find the noble Earl twice as difficult to answer as the noble Lord, Lord Byers, because he has asked two questions to which I do not have the answers. However, they are questions of very real importance and I shall do my best to get the answers for him as quickly as possible. What I would say is that I have not heard it suggested—and I think that what I am now saying can be taken in part as a reply to the noble Lord, Lord Byers—that industrial disputes in the Express group in Glasgow have been a major contributory factor to the present situation.


My Lords, does the noble Lord know whether any talks took place between management and employees about such possibilities as might have been open? For example, the noble Lord, Lord Shinwell, suggested that the rates of pay were above the normal. Was it suggested that it might be possible for the printing to go on in Glasgow if lower rates were acceptable? I take it that the Scottish Daily Express will continue to circulate in Scotland but will be printed in Manchester. That means there will be a considerable journalistic staff remaining in Scotland, so am I right in thinking that not all of the employees of the Scottish Daily Express will have to be paid off?


My Lords, it is correct that there will remain a journalistic staff in Scotland, although I do not know what proportion that will be of the total journalists employed at the present time. I understand that the figure remaining will be approximately 50 and when that is set off against the total number of jobs involved in the printing of the newspaper it will be seen that it is a very small part. So only time will tell what will be the effect of printing in Manchester, and to what extent the newspaper will continue to be sold in Scotland. What was the noble Lord's first question?


My Lords, I asked whether the alternatives had been considered.


My Lords, I do not know anything specific about that aspect, but having regard to the negotiations which have taken place between management and staff, between management and Sir Hugh Fraser and between management—when I say "management" I mean the Beaverbrook management—and Ministers, I am quite certain that every possibility, including the one mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Drumalbyn, has been gone into most exhaustively. But I think that the nature of the financial catastrophe which the group are meeting is such that, in their opinion, none of these suggestions is of value in restoring a viable operation in Glasgow.


My Lords, may I suggest that it might now be appropriate if the noble Lord, Lord Polwarth, resumed the debate on industry and commerce?