§ The Secretary of State for Trade and President of the Board of Trade (Mr. Peter Shore)
With permission. I should like to make a statement.
In my statement of 19th March, I promised to keep the House informed of the discussions I was having about 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 hon. 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 that it was when this application had been lodged with the then DTI on 19th February of this year that the larger problem of the future arrangements for the Scottish Daily Express and the Scottish Sunday Express became apparent. Labour Ministers met the Beaverbrook management on 13th March, 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, 468 the Prime Minister, together with the Secretary of State for Scotland and me, met the Scottish TUC at its 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 it the suggestions and criticisms that had arisen from our talks with the trade unions and our own concern about the implications of its decision. It became clear at that meeting that there was only a slim prospect of arrangements being agreed to safeguard employment for the Albion Street labour force. This was contingent upon a satisfactory agreement between Beaverbrooks 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 papers 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 Beaverbrooks. 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.
We saw the Beaverbrook management again yesterday to press it further to consider both these possibilities. Late last 469 night, after further contact between the two groups, Sir Max Aitken informed me that neither of these possibilities was practical.
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 its group as a whole and that the immediacy of its 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 its 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 hon. 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.
§ Mr. Buchanan-Smith
The right hon. Gentleman has made a sad statement which marks a black day for the Scottish Press. I appreciate the personal efforts that the right hon. Gentleman has made to try to seek a solution. The Opposition are sorry that nothing constructive has emerged from the discussions which he undertook. Will the right hon. Gentleman say precisely how many jobs are involved and how many Express staff are likely to be retained by the Express group in Scotland? How many staff are likely to be transferred to the Fraser group as a result of the merger?
The right hon. Gentleman referred to the economic and financial pressures that are involved. Does he realise that his right hon. Friend's Budget yesterday can only add to those pressures in Scotland?
§ Mr. Shore
The hon. Gentleman's last point is irrelevant to the situation in which the Express group found itself in Scotland we we came to power at the beginning of March, when it had already made the application for the merger.
I have little to say of comfort about jobs. The job loss situation is obviously a major factor. The extent of the need of the Fraser Group to take staff from the Albion works is minimal because the two papers are not merging in the sense that the old paper will continue to be printed. In fact, the Fraser Group's existing paper is to be expanded. That kind of operation clearly does not necessarily lead to any great increase of staff.
The Beaverbrook Press has clearly stated that it intends to maintain an editorial office in Glasgow which will employ between 40 and 50 journalists. I believe that there will be some increase in the number of journalistic staff who will be transferred to Manchester. These matters are subject to the more detailed arrangements that no doubt Beaverbrook Press will announce.
§ Mr. Harry Ewing
Is my right hon. Friend aware that during his statement he made an astonishing revelation—namely, that the Fraser Group had offered to buy the Scottish Daily Express and the Scottish Sunday Express? Does the fact that the Express Group refused to sell confirm the suspicion that many of us have held over the past weeks, that, come what may, the Daily Express was determined to close down its operations in Glasgow?
I must press my right hon. Friend on the alternatives which are available. I ask him to consider seriously the proposition which was put forward in last night's Adjournment debate—namely, the employee enterprise that was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell). I urge that that enterprise should receive every encouragement so that it can get going. Does he accept the assurance that if that enterprise gets going the Scottish readers will decide whether they will buy a paper printed in Glasgow or one that is printed in Manchester?
§ Mr. Shore
I assure my hon. Friend that I shall consider any proposal that comes forward for establishing a new newspaper enterprise which will make use 471 of the facilities in Albion Street. I am later this afternoon, following what my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Trade said last night, meeting representatives of the Scottish trade unions. My hon. Friend referred to the decision of Beaverbrook's to refuse an offer of purchase by the Fraser Group of Beaver-brook's two Express newspapers. That was one of the matters that I discussed yesterday with Sir Max Aitken and his colleagues. They made the point that if they were to transfer these two important papers to another group the general effect on their combined advertising revenue and the printing of their Express newspapers would be serious and would have grievous consequences on the total operation of the Express Group.
§ Mr. Teddy Taylor
Are the Government washing their hands of this catastrophe? Is not this a let-down compared with the extraordinary efforts which we made to save Upper Clyde Shipbuilders, which is now a thriving organisation? I make the specific suggestion that if the Government were prepared to announce a general newsprint subsidy to all the Press, many parts of which are facing identical problems, that would transform the economic situation of Beaverbrook newspapers and make it possible for the Minister to refuse permission under the Fair Trading Act for the merger to take place?
§ Mr. Shore
I repudiate the hon. Gentleman's suggestion that I am washing my hands of this matter. The analogy that he drew with the UCS group does not stand up. In that case there was a substantial number of orders for that shipyard and there was the basis on which a reconstruction and a rescue operation could be made. The fact that the Beaver-brook Press retains the title, the wish and the intention to go on printing the two Scottish Express editions in Manchester is clearly a different situation and must be considered in the light of the real world with which we are dealing.
A newsprint subsidy is worth thinking about, although it does not easily square with the philosophy of the Opposition. The short-term problem of the newspaper industry is much more concerned with the tardiness of price adjustments, when it has gone to the Price Commission dur- 472 ing the past year and sought to obtain a price increase to cover newspaper costs.
§ Mr. Hugh D. Brown
Will my right hon. Friend not pay too much attention to the apologists for the Beaverbrook Press from Cathcart? I am sure that the majority of hon. Members will appreciate the efforts which have been made by my right hon. Friend and his colleagues since there has been a locus within which the Government could operate. We recognise that. Surely it should be obvious that it is the intransigence and stubborn indifference of the Beaverbrook management that is responsible for this situation? Will my right hon. Friend consider, even though it requires imaginative action and even legislation, giving the greatest sympathy to what seems to be the last remaining proposal which is likely to be put before us?
§ Mr. Shore
I have promised to study all proposals, and I reaffirm that promise. I am grateful for the first part of the comments that my hon. Friend made. The impression that I formed of the Beaverbrook Press in general was that perhaps the major factor here was that the management was seriously at fault in its judgment about the deterioration in the group's affairs. In other words, I do not think that the management realised until very recently just how grievous the situation was and how immediate and urgent it was that remedies were taken.
§ Mr. Steel
Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that we on this bench recognise what he and the Secretary of State for Scotland have tried to do in this impossible situation and that, though we do not consider this group of newspapers to have been exactly purveyors of Liberalism, it is a serious loss to the media and to lively journalism in Scotland?
Will the right hon. Gentleman say a little more about the Government's determination to set up an inquiry into the Press? Will it specifically look at the cost of newsprint and the nature of restrictive practices in the Press? Will the right hon. Gentleman confer with the Secretary of State for Employment to ensure that in the new Bill to replace the Industrial Relations Act there will be rights of consultation for employees as well as shareholders before decisions such as these are taken?
§ Mr. Shore
I absolutely welcome what the hon. Gentleman said about making it almost a statutory right for employees to be consulted before decisions of this kind are taken. For me the most intolerable feature of this whole affair was that the matter should have been dealt with so summarily.
I will consider further what the hon. Gentleman said about an inquiry into the Press. I am not in a position at the moment to go further than what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said only last week.
§ Mr. Stonehouse
May I add to the congratulations which have been offered to my right hon. Friend on what he has tried to do to save this situation, which has effects not only in Scotland but in the rest of the United Kingdom?
Is not one of the fundamental problems in the newspaper industry the very serious restrictive practices referred to in the supplementary question of the hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles (Mr. Steel)? What do the Government intend to do about these restrictive practices, about which we do not read very much in the Press, for obvious reasons?
§ Mr. Shore
Nobody who has studied or followed the affairs of the newspaper industry in the past 10 years can deny that there are major problems within the industry. I have a feeling that these are increasingly coming to be recognised by both management and unions. I wholly agree with the point made by my right hon. Friend and, indeed, by the right hon. Gentleman the former Leader of the Liberal Party, that, apart from anything that the Government might do in this matter, there is a need for a much more searching introspection into its own affairs by the newspaper industry.
§ Mr. MacArthur
In the light of this catastrophe, why are the Government putting further financial penalties on industry in Scotland, as the Budget will do; and how many more newspapers will be closed and how many more jobs will be lost in consequence?
§ Mr. Dalyell
Since there is now a serious head of steam behind the employees' enterprise, could my right hon. Friend look favourably on a proposed 50 per cent. bridging loan at a 10 per cent. interest rate, which is being asked for by representatives of the employees?
§ Mr. Shore
I promise my hon. Friend that I will look at proposals that are put forward, but all matters that might involve the use of the Industry Act I would have to deal with in consultation with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Industry.
§ Mr. Reid
Will the Secretary of State say whether in his negotiations he gave serious consideration to a holding operation as called for from the Labour benches last night involving, possibly, a subvention on a short-term basis—say, three months—until matters could be seriously sorted out? Secondly, does the right hon. Gentleman appreciate the monopoly situation which may be created in the popular Press in Scotland? Lastly, will he state, given redundancy, what alternative employment is available for these 2,000 men and women?
§ Mr. Shore
I pressed very hard for precisely that breathing space which I thought would be helpful so that the Government and others concerned might look in a more leisurely way, and perhaps even more thoroughly than we have been able to, at possible alternatives, but I regret to say that it was the strong view of the management, in spite of all that we said, that it could not hold the position and that it had to come to a rapid decision.
§ Mr. Heath
We all greatly regret the change which the Secretary of State has had to announce, and we recognise what he has done to try to help solve the problem. The Prime Minister, in answer to my question last Thursday, to which the right hon. Gentleman has referred, said that the proposal was an inquiry into the ownership of the Press. If there is to be such an inquiry, will the right hon. Gentleman impress upon the Prime Minister the need for an inquiry into the aspects with which he himself has been dealing this afternoon, which are really the economics of the Press?
475 Will the right hon. Gentleman also resist the attempts made by some of his back benchers to get him to force a change of ownership upon the Press? After all, this runs entirely contrary to what the Labour Party has stood for in the past, that there should be a wider range of ownership of the Press and there should be no forcing of ownership of the Press into a smaller number of hands.
Lastly, it is the economics of the Press which are reducing the range of ownership of the Press. I therefore very much agree with what the right hon. Member for Wednesbury (Mr. Stonehouse) said. When will the industry and those who work in it recognise that at a comparatively fast rate they are putting their own industry out of business? Until that is recognised, we shall not be able to maintain the freedom of the Press in this country.
§ Mr. Shore
I do not agree with the right hon. Gentleman that my hon. Friends were pressing for changes in ownership per se. What they are concerned with, as I think that the whole House is, is that ownership does not lead to increasing concentration, because that is one aspect, quite apart from the economics of the Press, about which we must be deeply concerned, and that was a point which was made in a previous supplementary question—a point to which I did not reply.
On the question of the economics of the Press, it is absolutely clear that the industry is facing major changes. All parts of it are under pressure. Therefore, that must be at least the other half of any serious new inquiry into the Press.