The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997

1983-1987 Parliament

Mr Major’s Comments During the Newspaper Industry Debate – 26 March 1985

Below is the text of Mr Major’s comments during the debate on the Newspaper Industry, held in the House of Commons on 26th March 1985.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Peter Bottomley) I am grateful to all my hon. Friends who have come to listen to this important debate. They should join me in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Bruinvels) on raising it. This is not the first time that he has raised the issue; he has drawn the House’s attention on several occasions to something that probably matters to more people each day than almost any other issue that can be discussed here. People rely on the newspapers for their information. They rely on them for buying and selling goods. Many rely on the newspapers for their employment. We should remember, as my hon. Friend said, that more people might be able to rely on the industry for their employment if conditions were such that people could enter it as publishers. Therefore, there would he more titles, and more competition. Some newspapers would go out of business. I see no reason why it is any purpose of Parliament to protect every title that presently exists. We want to make sure that there can be free and fair competition within the industry.

The hon. Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O’Neill) made one or two unwarranted attacks on my hon. Friend, and I suspect that he led his hon. Friend the Member for St. Helens, North (Mr. Evans) into similar behaviour. Given that it is the time when the final editions of the national press are being put to bed, it may be a sign that more of us should be put to bed. Perhaps we can conduct the rest of the debate in a more open and friendly way.

I had not realised that it was my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House who had suggested to my hon. Friend that he should raise this matter on the Consolidated Fund. I shall not be buying a drink for my right hon. Friend for some time.

I do not intend to give a direct answer to the point made on what may be connivance between workers, employers and possibly even trade unions when people apparently work under certain names so that their income tax is not deducted and their national insurance is not paid. My suspicion is that the situation has changed over the past two years, but I shall make sure that the remarks of the hon. Member for St. Helens, North are passed on to colleagues in Government. He will receive a reply spelling out the situation, which could also go to my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Clackmannan.

The hon. Member for Clackmannan managed to put a more acceptable face on the NGA than almost anyone else could have done. I had my suspicions, and they were only confirmed when I looked up the hon. Gentleman in The Times guide. I see that he is really a member of the General and Municipal Workers Union, and the white collar section at that. I recommend to the NGA that it at least doubles the contribution that it makes to him for his advice and the way in which he puts across its case.

I should like to refer to the most significant points that underlie the debate and which –

Mr. O’Neill Before the Minister goes further, to save myself any extra, if not undue, embarrassment, I should like to say that under the sponsorship arrangement, with which I am sure he is well acquainted, any moneys from unions that sponsor hon. Members go to the local Labour party, not to the individuals concerned. There is a certain nicety there, which should be made clear for those who take an interest in these matters but are not always as well informed as I am sure the Minister is.

Mr. Bottomley I do not see any reason why I should be more precise in my remarks than the hon. Gentleman was when he referred to my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East. The honours, perhaps, are even.

I am sure that the House will return to these issues on a number of occasions. I do not want to launch into what might be seen as a reasonably standard attack on the unions. I certainly do not think that the Fleet street chapels are under the control of the national executive or the national union. Most people realise that they are independent, autonomous groups of people no more tied to Socialism than I am. Many of them live in my constituency, and when I am canvassing they tell me with pride that they have contracted out of the political levy and they often say that they are rather keen on earning a good deal of money.

Mr. Evans What has that to do with the future of the industry?

Mr. Bottomley I thought that we were talking about the people in the industry. The underlying issue is whether the trade unions are doing what their members want. In most cases, they are doing that. The questions whether there is a framework within which they can negotiate and whether there is a reasonable balance of power between employers and employees will also be covered in the next debate.

In the newspaper industry, there is a common acceptance of the priorities for the industry, but different interests in moving towards that. It is a matter of reconciling different union interests and trying to get a better developed common interest between employers and those working in the industry. We must always remember that those who will decide the future of the industry are not those working in it but the customers. It is the response that the industry gives to the demands of its customers that will determine the number of jobs, the pattern of production, the people involved and the industrial agreements that will best meet the needs of the customers.

It is sad, but true, that industrial relations practices in Fleet street, especially in the printing industry, can be among the worst in this country. When things go well, they are probably among the best. The difficulty is that today’s newspapers are of interest today, but not tomorrow. If production is lost employers find themselves in a great deal of difficulty and feel that the bargaining strength is not balanced. I do not believe that Government should step in and try to make special industrial relations arrangements for the newspaper industry. However, we recognise that on occasions resistance to bully-boy tactics in the industry has not been as effective as it might have been. Government legislation –or Parliament’s legislation –

Mr. Evans Government legislation.

Mr. Bottomley Legislation is passed by a majority in the House. It is no better and no worse than motions passed by a majority in a union conference, or even the Labour party conference.

Mr. John Major (Huntingdon) It is better when passed by the House, especially when the Conservative party is in Government.