I beg to move, That this House do now adjourn.
Leave having been given on Wednesday 29th November under Standing Order No. 9 to discuss:
The crisis in The Times newspaper and its serious consequences.
I am sure that the whole House regrets the necessity as much as it welcomes the opportunity to have this debate today. I merely express the hope at the beginning that what is said here will concentrate minds both here and outside on just how crucial to the proper functioning of a democracy a vigorous free press is, and that it must be an undisrupted free press. I hope also that we shall make a positive contribution to resolving some of the difficulties and healing some of the wounds.
I had hoped that, even at the eleventh hour, there would be a real chance that the suspension of The Times might be lifted. But even this morning, 67,000 copies of the paper were lost. Following another disastrous weekend when The Sunday Times lost some 570,000 copies, I am bound to say that I am not altogether surprised. Having recently talked to Mr. Hussey, the managing director, I do not believe there is much chance of his reconsidering the decision without immediate agreement from all the parties, and there is not really time for that, anyhow.
However, I do not think that we meet in an atmosphere of unrelieved gloom. I have spent much of this morning talking to the union leaders involved and I shall try to make my remarks in tune with two of theirs.
I quote Bill Keys, of SOGAT. He said"Now is not the time for bashing management or unions." I agree with that. When I was talking to Owen O'Brien of NATSOPA, he said"It is important that we treat this as an industrial and not as a political dispute." I hope that we can do that, too.
It is important that we should separate the shepherds from the flocks. The union leaders with whom we are here concerned for the most part are moderate, sensible, honourable men. My conversations with them this morning were extremely helpful. I believe that they are entirely sincere in their desire to see this unfortunate business resolved as soon as possible.
Of course, that is not to say that many of those who belong to their flocks behave as the shepherds would wish; they would be the first to admit that. Even when we look at Mr. Joe Wade, the leader of the NGA, with whom I also had a very interesting conversation, we see that he is not an intransigent firebrand or militant. Therefore, it is very important that those on the Opposition Benches resist any temptation to confuse the leaders with the led, whereas on the Government Benches it is very important that the sincerity and integrity of the management of The Times be accepted. That does not mean that on either side we have to agree with all that has been said or done by either of the parties. It is a question of good faith and honesty prevailing, and I see a real chance of an early resumption if not a lifting of the suspension if only we can meet and discuss matters in that spirit.
However many reservations we may have about the management's handling of this matter—and I have some myself—it is not a case of it attacking the unions. I believe genuinely that Mr. Hussey and his colleagues mean it when they say that they want strong trade union leaders with whom to negotiate—men who can deliver, who can make agreements and ensure that they are honoured. Equally, I agree with one of the union leaders to whom I was talking, who said that they want strong managements which can manage and with which they can negotiate. He made it plain that he was not endorsing all the methods. No one would have expected him to do so. Equally, he made it plain that he applauded the sentiments of the letter of 26th April, which really began this wholly sorry saga.
We are dealing with a dispute that has been precipitated by reckless, militant unofficial union action. The facts are horrifying. I refer to the letter of 26th April, when, writing to the leaders of the various unions concerned, Mr. Hussey pointed out that
In the first quarter of 1978 we lost 7.7 million copies—a staggering 20 per cent. of the total output. The effect has been, and continues to be disastrous. First, the Company has lost £1,750,000 in profit so far this year. This is equivalent to the total profit of 1977—easily the best year Times Newspapers has ever had.
The position today, of course, is very much worse. Since then, a further 5.3 million copies have been lost. The total loss of profit is £2.9 million. Since 26th April, 89 per cent. of the copies lost have been as a result of the unofficial action taken by Saturday night staff—some of those who sign in as"Micky Mouse"and the rest of it; we have all read the stories—on The Sunday Times.
By any standards, this is a desperate situation, and one can only welcome the determination of management to do something about it. It is very significant that all the trade union leaders have in their various ways at different times welcomed that determination. I am not seeking to suggest that they have endorsed all the methods, but they have welcomed the determination.
Whatever criticism one may have—perhaps of the wording of certain letters, perhaps of the timing of certain meetings, perhaps of the inability to come together with NATSOPA as quickly as that union would have liked, which are valid points of criticism—I do not think that we should allow it to blind us to the fact that the determination is one that can only serve everyone who believes in a free press.
Mr. Eric S. Heifer:
Does the hon. Member agree that the problem that he is talking about is the problem of casual employment on Saturday nights, not only for The Sunday Times but for other national newspapers, and that this is a problem that has been going on for a very long time? Some trade union leaders in the past have made concrete proposals for decasualisation. Surely this long-standing problem ought not to be used as an excuse for allowing a great newspaper to be closed down for three months. There should have been continual negotiation to deal with the concrete problem of casuals.
Most of the problems in The Times have not been caused by that factor—The Sunday Times, yes, but not The Times. It is a matter of having to grasp a nettle and deal with that problem among many others. That is what the management of The Times has sought to do.
I say again that I do not endorse every method and every means. I believe that there has been a lack of sensitivity in some of the handling of the matter. It would be nonsense to have a debate in this House and to pretend that all the right is on one side and all the wrong is on the other. That is manifest nonsense, and I would not begin to suggest it.
Does the hon. Member accept that what he has just said in terms of the lack of immediate response and the tabling of detailed papers and proposals for discussion by the management side has really totally undermined its idea of a deadline? Had the management tabled those papers and proposals for discussion, the deadline would have carried credibility. Without that, the fact that there was such a tardy response undermined the credibility and validity of the deadline.
I should like to make my speech in my own way. I shall deal with some of those issues as I come to them, but I take some of the hon. Gentleman's points.
The management is determined to bring stability and order where disorder and disruption have been rife. Surely no one who believes in a free press can quarrel with that. The aim is absolutely clear. totally right, and serves every hon. Member—perhaps more than any other single section of the community.
Certainly the union leaders do not quarrel with that determination, whatever some of their more militant elements may say. Let me illustrate the sort of antics that these militant elements get up to. The hon. Member for Coventry, North West (Mr. Robinson) has a point in what he said about the timing of the issuing of certain information, but nothing on earth can excuse the action of the group of union people who locked away the letters offering the terms and did not distribute them to their members. The union leader concerned deplores that as much as I do, but that is the sort of thing that one is up against. How can anything be put across fairly and clearly if one is being sabotaged in that way?
It is against that background and against some of the wild and vindictive statements made in recent days, especially at a rally not far from here, that we must look at the dispute. It is significant that when the letter went out all but one of the union leaders, in spite of qualms, misgivings and criticisms, were prepared to sit down and try to come to terms.
In that situation, it is hard that the apparent intransigence of one union should have prevented the whole thing being resolved. Of course it is not as simple as that, and although I find it difficult to understand Mr. Wade's refusal to negotiate at all, I have to concede that he is not a man with a militant and disruptive background. Indeed, he has taken his own members to court on occasions. I do not doubt his good intentions.
When I spoke to Mr. Wade this morning I saw some evidence of flexibility, because he said that if a target date could be fixed it might be possible to move towards proper negotiations, but he was adamant about the deadline. I find it difficult to understand his insistence in refusing to negotiate against any date when the actions that have caused such chaos and trouble and have brought The Times almost to the verge of collapse have been carried out at the drop of a hat, or the pulling of a lever. No deadline was given; the men just walked out.
The people who have been taking this action are Mr. Wade's members, and I find his apparent intransigence disappointing, but the fact that he is prepared to talk in terms of a target date should be welcomed by every hon. Member.
Equally, we can see that it is difficult for Mr. Hussey to call off the suspension on the strength of such a statement by Mr. Wade. It is not a question of doubting the honesty of the statement, but Mr. Hussey has not had the opportunity to negotiate with Mr. Wade since July and I fully understand his reluctance to climb down on the say-so of one man who cannot, much as he would like, deliver over the telephone at the eleventh hour.
This is where we come to the crunch of the debate. After today, there will be no deadline. Much as we regret it, TheTimes, The Sunday Times and the supplements will cease to appear. It is up to us all to appeal to every participant in the dispute to harness his genuine united resolve to talk and to get down and do it.
Our positive message, which might help to resolve the dispute, should be"Get to the table ". We should say to the NGA that there is now no deadline. It has gone, and every day that goes by weakens the position of The Times and must therefore weaken the position of the NGA members and do great damage to a free press and a free society.
We should say to the management that it has shown that it is determined and resolved, and was not bluffing. Let it now, together with the unions, set a target date—take Mr. Wade's suggestion. I should like to think that the target could be 14 days because some of those who are receiving notice have only 14 days' notice. If that were the target, it would concentrate minds wonderfully and prevent anyone being out of work. I hope that it is in that spirit that the management and unions will get together tomorrow or as soon as possible thereafter.
With good will and a sense of urgency, much can still be saved, and it is up to us all to reinforce that point. Nothing can be gained by anyone prolonging or exacerbating the dispute or seeking to excite tribal feelings on either side.
I shall listen with great interest to the Secretary of State for Employment. I must stress that this is not a dispute that needs Government involvement or interference. Exhortation of the sort that I have made would be fine if the right hon. Gentleman felt that he could endorse it, but there should be no Government involvement. Apart from the fact that we always regret that, ministerial involvement in a dispute in the press has certain unfortunate implications, and I hope that the Secretary of State will not get involved in that way.
The aim of the negotiations must be simple—to reach an agreed disputes procedure which guarantees, as far as any man can guarantee, that there will be no disruption of production, content or distribution of Times Newspapers. The prize will be not only the survival of The Times and its sister papers but a new stability in Fleet Street.
Anyone who is concerned with the press and its vital and unique contribution to a free society must tremble at some of the things that go on in Fleet Street. It is an industrial jungle without the laws of the jungle, and it is essential that union leaders should have power and status and should be able to discipline their members and enter into binding agreements and commitments, knowing that they will be honoured and kept. It is the breaking of those agreements and the total disregard for anything that ordinary men of honour would regard as binding that have brought Fleet Street and the British press to the present situation.
The hon. Gentleman has got it wrong. I apologise if I have not made it clear, but I thought the facts were well known. Although many unions made critical noises about the way in which the letters were sent out, and so on, only one refused to go to the negotiating table.
On the other point, the management made it plain on 26th April that if agreements could not be reached and a proper disputes procedure and all the things that go with it clinched, it would suspend publication, because it was being bled to death, and that The Times newspapers would not exist this time next year if the management had not made a fairly determined and united stand on this matter.
I have been following with some interest the hon. Gentleman's discourse about this lockout. What concerns me is that he has not so far mentioned the fact that The Guardian is printed in the same buildings by members of the same unions operating the same sort of machinery, but with a different management. Does that suggest to him that perhaps there is some difference between the managements which allowed one set of presses to run without any difficulties or interruption, year after year, while other presses faced difficulties?
No one who has looked at the history of The Times and of Fleet Street—including The Guardian—over the last few years could suggest that all has been sweetness, harmony and light, because it has not been. In this instance there might have been a happier situation on the one hand than on the other, but one cannot ignore the fact that Times newspapers were suffering, and have suffered as late as this morning—67,000—
Without profit, there could not be any newspapers.
The management's recommendations. which it asks should form the basis for agreement, are in line with the recommendations of the Royal Commission set up by the Labour Government. Only two days ago, in The Daily Telegraph the chairman of that Royal Commission made it plain that the agreements were indeed in line with those recommendations.
All sorts of half-truths have been put around. People have been talking about mass redundancy. There will be no compulsory redundancy as a result of the agreements that are being suggested. Those who accept voluntary redundancy will be treated more generously than any other group of people in living memory. A programme on television the other night pointed out that these were the most generous terms ever offered.
On the other parts of the agreement, there was an article in The Times earlier this week by Mr. Louis Heren in which he pointed out that
Holidays are to be six weeks a year, and sick pay is to be improved: 12 months' full pay in any 18-month period. Salaries and wages will be increased when the final agreement is reached. Redundancy payments will be generous; for instance, an employee earning £100 a week and with 20 years service will be offered £8,000.
That is not the attitude of a disdainful, insensitive, uncaring management. It is the attitude of a management that has a sense of real responsibility for those who work for it. Although, as Mr. Hussey
has said, some t's need crossing and some details need arguing over, there is the basis for a proper and lasting agreement.
I hope that this clear message can go out from the House today to all those involved:"For goodness' sake, if there is no Times tomorrow "—we must reluctantly and sadly accept that—" get to the table as soon as possible, have a target date for completing negotiations, bring order where there is disorder and stability where there is chaos. Let us get back to having a press of which we can be proud and which we know has an assured future."
I am glad to follow the speech of the hon. Member for Staffordshire, South-West (Mr. Cormack) and I shall take his advice on at least one point. I agree that if this debate is to help to ensure that The Times will continue to be printed, if it is to help to solve some of the many problems that need to be solved, so that The Times can be published regularly, it must not turn an industrial dispute into a political dispute.
So far this year, 12 million copies of The Times, The Sunday Times and the supplements have been lost through industrial disputes. I am told that all the disputes are unofficial and lack support from senior union officials. Many have lasted only a few hours, but in the production of a newspaper, at certain times a few hours can be very important.
I appreciate that it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between losses due to industrial disputes and those caused by mechanical failure. I nevertheless believe that that figure of copies lost graphically illustrates the scale of the problems at Times Newspapers. With The Sunday Times, I understand that it is some weeks since a full production run has been achieved.
Because of the heavy losses in the first quarter of this year, The Times chief executive and managing director, Mr. Hussey, wrote to the general secretaries of the unions in the newspaper industry on 26th April. In that letter he emphasised the damage that was being done to the loyalty of readers and advertisers and the serious diversion of managerial resources. He proposed discussions with the unions on a number of issues, speci- fically including continuity of production. an effective disputes procedure, efficient manning levels, general wage restructuring and new technology—certainly an impressive list.
My right hon. Friend talks about unofficial disputes. Is he aware that the roots of many of those disputes lie in the frustration of the men concerned, they having gone through the disputes procedure and found the management totally unwilling to deal with the problems raised in that way?
I hope that my hon. Friend will allow that I am not normally reluctant to respond to interventions, but I should like to come a little later to the point that he raised. At the moment I am seeking to describe as fairly as I can the position as the management stated it at the onset of this dispute.
The letter that Mr. Hussey sent to the union general secretaries ended by saying:
it is the firm decision of the Board of Times Newspapers that, if it is not possible to negotiate a joint approach to resolve these problems and if disruption continues, publication of all our newspapers will be suspended ".
This message was repeated in a further letter to general secretaries on 21st July, which was followed up three days later by a suggested disputes procedure.
TNL also wrote to all staff on 22nd July, confirming that if negotiations on management's proposals were not concluded by 30th November, TNL would have to suspend publication. They would also have to give the 90-days' notice required by section 100 of the Employment Protection Act—notice that has to be given if an employer proposes to dismiss 100 or more employees as redundant.
In the event, on 18th September Times Newspapers Limited formally notified me of potential redundancies affecting all its 4,270 employees. I had two meetings with Mr. Hussey, one before and one at the time when he was about to give me official notice. At those meetings he assured me that he was anxious to have full consultations with the trade unions in the hope that it would not prove necessary to suspend publication.
As the hon. Member for Staffordshire, South-West said, most of the unions concerned responded to that initial approach by the management The Society of Graphical and Allied Trades, the National Society of Operative Printers, Graphical and Media Personnel and the National Union of Journalists declared right away their willingness to negotiate. The National Graphical Association, however, was unwilling at that stage to enter discussions while the threat of suspension was over its head—a position that it has maintained ever since, apart from the fact that one meeting has taken place. Perhaps I can refer to that later.
As 30th November drew near, there were a number of strong complaints from the unions, particularly NATSOPA, about the lack of time to conclude some very detailed negotiations—negotiations on a wide range of issues that have been put forward by management. A recent publication entitled"NATSOPA Times Diary"contains a letter of 15th May from the union's general secretary, Mr. Owen O'Brien, to Mr. Hussey, agreeing to a meeting, but that meeting did not take place until 26th September. I understand that detailed proposals in relation to individual chapels were not put forward until as late as October, so that a considerable time elapsed between the initial approach and the first occasion on which it was possible for chapels to examine some very detailed proposals by management, affecting a new procedure agreement and manning levels.
It seems clear that the management, having given notice of its intentions in April, lost a good deal of the initiative that it believed it had gained in doing so by not bringing forward its detailed proposals as a basis for discussion for five to six months. That must have prejudiced its chances of securing agreement within the time scale that it had laid down.
There are 54 separate negotiating groups at Times Newspapers, some of them consisting of quite small numbers. The changes in working practices and procedures that Times Newspapers is seeking are radical and far-reaching. They require considerable adjustment on the part of the work force, particularly that part whose traditional trade is threatened with virtual extinction by some of the proposed changes.
Detailed changes in terms and conditions of employment will be required across the board in certain areas of employment. It is possible that the management underestimated the enormous amount of work involved in negotiating such changes. If it did, it may in doing so have aggravated what was in any case bound to be a difficult negotiating task.
On the other hand, and in fairness to the management, I must say that the fact that it has already reached agreements with some groups shows that, given good will on both sides, it has been possible to make considerable progress on some of the proposals.
Only two of the groups have signed final terms of complete agreement, but that is not to say that there has not been progress with other groups. I am trying to indicate that even within the time scale, and even given the complex and detailed nature of some of the proposals, it has been possible to make considerable progress. I am trying to give a fair account of the situation as I have seen it, having been involved from a particular point of view.
The NUJ chapel at The Sunday Times has completed an agreement, and an agreement has been completed in respect of 54 SOGAT distribution workers. Excluding the NGA, the unions involved have negotiated a new disputes procedure with the management. NATSOPA, for example, has indicated to me even within the past two days that, provided the threat of suspension were lifted, it would be prepared to recommend to all its chapels acceptance of the new disputes procedure and would seek to have it endorsed by the members in the chapels. Therefore, the management would not be relying on the signature of national officials. If that were possible it could have the agreement fully endorsed by the membership of the unions within Times Newspapers. Many meetings have taken place with a number of groups, and in some of those meetings substantial progress has been made.
Nevertheless, there remain some very important areas in which the prospects of agreement seem very dim at present. They include the clerical and machine branches of NATSOPA, where the management is seeking considerable changes in working practices. There is also a very difficult problem concerning the NGA, whose members will be most affected by the introduction of the new technology. Apart from one meeting earlier this month on one specific issue, there have been no serious discussions with the NGA since July. It can hardly be expected that a solution will be found within the next few hours.
I have kept in close touch with both sides to the dispute over a period of time. I have had meetings with representatives of NATSOPA, SOGAT, the NUJ and the NGA, and with management representatives. My understanding of the management's present intention—I checked this with Mr. Hussey and Mr. Nisbet-Smith as recently as yesterday morning—is that at some stage following the suspension of publication it will issue individual notices of termination of employment to all those employees with whom no agreement has been reached. No such notices will be given to those groups with which agreement has been reached. The full period of notice required by each employee's contract of employment will be given. I confirm that this ranges from as little as two weeks for some casual employees to as much as four months for some permanent employees.
Unless the proposed suspension of production continues for so long that the newspaper cannot be reopened in its present form, it is not the management's intention to declare any of its employees redundant. Although the management is undoubtedly seeking substantial reductions in manning levels in order to achieve greater efficiency and to accompany the introduction of new technology, its intention is that that should be achieved by voluntary severance on special terms that it has proposed. It is management's claim that it is now proposing very good redundancy terms.
What is my right hon. Friend's view of the validity of the dismissal notices that will be issued? As what stage would the company have to file a claim under the redundancy payments legislation for rebate?
If the management contends that it will not make anyone redundant, that on the termination of a dispute it is prepared to re-employ all those who worked for it previously, and that there are jobs for all the people concerned to return to, the management could contend that it was not a redundancy situation, and therefore the question of redundancy notice would not arise. The management would not make a claim upon redundancy funds.
If, however, an individual employee contended that his dismissal constituted redundancy it would be a matter for the appropriate arbitral body to determine. The general rule which has been followed by the appropriate arbitral body since redundancy legislation was introduced is that a person claiming redundancy has to show that his job has disappeared and that he cannot continue to work in the job in which he had previously worked. That matter may have to be tested. I hope that it will not. I seriously hope that wiser councils will prevail before anyone has to claim redundancy. I hope that the dispute will be resolved before then.
I believe that the course on which The Times management have embarked with its unions is a major enterprise. What it is seeking to do in terms of technology alone is an enormous enterprise. It involves nothing less than the replacement of the hot metal technique for the production of newspapers by a computer-assisted photographic method. If that technique is fully embraced, not only will many skilled men be redundant; their skills will become redundant.
The House should understand something of the apprehension and hostility that is bound to arise if a new form of technology is introduced in a way that causes men to be displaced from jobs and that does not involve satisfactory negotiations with union representatives. This is a problem in newspaper industries throughout the world; it is not peculiar to The Times. Difficulties have arisen in Germany because of the introduction of new technology in newspapers, and in a recent New York newspaper closure. However, progress is being made in most European countries with the introduction of the new print technologies. Many provincial papers in Britain have already adopted new technologies. They have been negotiated without disputes.
The Daily Mirror group is moving towards a computer system of production, which began with Reveille. There are substantial differences between the Daily Mirror and The Times in the way in which copy is assembled. Possibly the management of The Times has adopted a more radical and ambitious approach to the use of the computer. Because of that, problems have arisen which have not previously arisen in a national newspaper in this country.
The Times management is proposing a system that will involve the direct input of copy by tele-ad clerks and some journalists into the form of the page. That will render unnecessary highly skilled work by compositors who, in the view of many people working in other industries have earned high wages. Their skill is now being overtaken by a historic technological change.
Such changes in technology have been negotiated throughout the country. That shows that British trade unions have not simply stuck their heads in the sand and refused to come to terms with change. Far from it. The trade unions have recognised their primary function of protecting their members. They have recognised that they cannot go faster than their members will allow them to go.
Major changes such as this must be negotiated. In the last analysis they can be effectively introduced only with the consent of the people who are most directly concerned.
Everybody will understand the difficulties and feel the sympathy to which the Secretary of State has referred, but does he agree that it is going too far to say, as he did, that these changes can be introduced only with the consent of those affected, and through negotiations? Does that not mean that if consent is withheld the change cannot be made? That does not make sense in a progressive world.
I can see the point of the hon. and learned Gentleman's remarks. I shall qualify what I said. Changes can be introduced only in a way that is acceptable to the overwhelming majority of right hon. and hon. Members, and only when there is negotiation. Those who are most directly affected by the change in tech- nology have the right to be represented. particularly when the introduction of that technology involves redundancy. After all, as the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Bell) will concede, the House passed the Employment Protection Act, which gave to members of independent recognised trade unions the right to be consulted about changes of this type.
It behoves the House to remember that it may be a little easier to recommend the embracing of new technology when one is standing at the Dispatch Box, or speaking from one of the Banck Benches, than it is on a workshop floor, when one is talking about the loss of one's own job or the jobs of one's workmates.
I have seen some wonderful examples of trade union representatives agreeing to changes in technology. A few weeks ago I visited Baxi Fires, in Preston, where, as a result of a unanimous vote by the works council, the introduction of a new and efficient foundry system was agreed which rendered half the work force redundant. No golden handshakes were attached to that agreement. The workers who were made redundant received £50 above the national redundancy terms.
There are examples throughout the country of union representatives being involved in production changes. It is therefore reasonable to hope that the same attitudes can prevail in The Times.
I and other Ministers have been urged by a number of hon. Members and others to intervene in the dispute. I understand that request. I understand as well as, if not better than, anybody that a confrontation strategy cannot be relied upon to produce results on the scale required in this case. I do not believe that a further, immediate formal intervention in the full glare of publicity, without the agreement of the parties to the dispute, would be of help or be effective in the present circumstances.
I assure the House that I have talked to all the main parties and that I shall continue to do so. I shall miss no opportunity to contribute towards a solution, although of course, in the last resort, a solution must depend to a large extent upon accommodation between the parties to the dispute.
It is also open to those parties, if they feel that it would be helpful, to have the assistance of ACAS. That body has done a great deal of useful work, including work with the Royal Commission on the press, which has been acknowledged by hon. Members who are interested in the press. I have had the opportunity on several occasions of discussing The Times problems with the ACAS chairman, Mr. Jim Mortimer. The service has been keeping in close touch in case it can offer assistance.
In order for ACAS to help it will need the co-operation of both sides. At no time has that been forthcoming. There is no magic formula by which anybody can wave away the problems in the dispute. I do not believe that a solution can be imposed, by a Government Minister or anybody else.
I am under no illusions that there are plenty of faults on both sides in the dispute. Like the hon. Member for Staffordshire, South-West I hope that both sides will admit candidly that there are faults on both sides.
Management has willingly made concessions, under pressure, to individual work groups in a way that has undermined its position and the position of some senior union representatives. I do not believe that any useful purpose would be served this afternoon by cataloguing the faults of unions or management in newspapers. We have to appreciate that we may be at a highly critical stage in the dispute, that there will be a change in the situation tonight which might be the right moment psychologically, if there is a suspension of publication, to make another attempt to resolve the dispute.
I recognise the strong feeling that exists in the House and elsewhere about the situation that has developed at The Times. The Government certainly share this concern, a concern that will no doubt be expressed throughout the debate. There is a concern, too, that the difficulties of The Times should not lead to the loss of a newspaper that has become a national institution. Of course, we are anxious that the present range of newspapers, which are the basis of press freedom in this country, should not be further restricted. Above all, I am extremely concerned that 4,000 jobs should not be thrown away unnecessarily as a result of the dispute.
We debated these issues earlier this year. There was a considerable measure of agreement that industrial relations in Fleet Street were in a mess. The recommendations of the Royal Commission on the press would, I believe, command support from most employers and trade unions in Fleet Street. I am sure that hon. Members on both sides will join me in hoping that out of this present difficult situation the basis for more stable and constructive industrial relations in Times Newspapers will emerge.
Even at this late stage, with only a few hours to go, I entreat both the management and the unions of Times Newspapers to negotiate urgently to preserve jobs and The Times titles. I stand ready to respond to any invitation from any of the parties to the dispute to do anything that I or my Department can do to help. I very much hope that if that is necessary I shall be able to participate in bringing about a solution that can not only keep our press going but will contribute to jobs and good working procedures, and will ensure that employment in this industry will grow and not be threatened by industrial relations problems.
I have written many obituaries for The Times. I hope that this debate is not an obituary for that great newspaper. Were The Times to be suspended we should miss a great deal: Marc's cartoons, those magisterial leaders that come down firmly on both sides of the fence, and Bernard Levin's fresh weekly insight into Wagner.
Indeed, and the obituaries. I have written the obituaries of many members of our own Front Bench. Some have taken far longer than others.
Times Newspapers is trying single handed to bring order into the chaos that is Fleet Street, a labour to rank with those of Hercules. Management weakness and union avarice have brought great newspapers to their knees. Will the print unions now be brought to their senses?
The NGA is holding out on the ground that it refuses to negotiate under duress. I know that humbug is the essential lubricant of public life, but that is ridiculous. What has Ford been doing this last nine weeks? Strikes, or the threat of them, are weapons that unions never hesitate to use. In the past the NGA or its members have held up the production of newspapers in the small hours at revolver point. Yet they now call"Foul ". It would be funny were it not so desperately sad.
At the very least some of the stones of Fleet Street have been lifted recently and we can now see what has gone on beneath. This initiative on behalf of Times Newspapers, an article last year in Index by Mr. David Astor, and the attentions of television have revealed a truly shocking picture.
The Fleet Street unions have successfully exploited the rivalries between newspapers. In the past management has been willing to concede anything rather than risk a strike that might throw its readers into the hands of its rivals.
The print unions—SLADE, NGA and, to a lesser extent, SOGAT—use several stratagems to increase the earnings of their members. Compositors can earn three, four or even five times as much as the official wage rates. Let me outline a few of those stratagems.
There is the blow system. This is rest time which is often as much as one hour out of three. It does not mean that the men remain idle, only that throughout nominal rest time they have to be paid at overtime rates.
Another device is ghost working. Here the unions extract payments for workers who do not exist because of new machines or new methods and they are no longer needed. The father of the chapel shares out the money among the living.
A third device is known as double working. Some chapels limit the week's rota to four shifts. One employer then signs men on for social security and they work at other times as casuals on overtime rates. Managers turn a blind eye to the practice among some union men of defrauding the Revenue by using false names, such as Mickey Mouse or"Duke"Hussey when they register as casuals in order to collect the money.
A final device used by the print unions is called fat. This is the money shared out among the compositors for the advertising copy that they never set.
I wish Times Newspapers well. Its initiative is long overdue. Fortunately, it is rich enough to be able to take such initiatives, and that is not always the case with other newspapers in Fleet Street. It wishes to restore its power to manage its newspapers. After all, we are not dealing here with the Tolpuddle Martyrs.
The struggle is with a small, highly privileged minority of 6,000 or 7,000 men. many earning more than £13,000 a year. Why should this little band of the comparatively rich and the comparatively idle be allowed to hold newspapers and their readers to ransom? If nothing is done we shall see the destruction of many of our great newspapers and the destruction of a free Press and all that that means to our democracy.
There is often a widespread misconception by people outside this House that we are unable to debate matters of great urgency and public interest. Therefore, it is most welcome that our procedure that enables us to discuss the closure of The Times permits us a rare chance to discuss a matter of urgency and general concern.
I declare an interest as a member of the National Union of Journalists. Before becoming a Member of the House I spent a very large part of my working life as an industrial reporter, reporting all sorts of industrial disputes, national and local. During those years I witnessed as a reporter the folly of attempting to negotiate by ultimatum. It is rarely successful, and indeed the events we are discussing today illustrate that it has proved unsuccessful for Times Newspapers.
As a journalist, I wish to say that I have no illusions or misunderstandings about the human foibles of all those who work together collectively to produce newspapers each day, each week or every Sunday. The relationship between journalists and printers especially is one of creative tension, usually carried out in very colourful language. But we all share a common view that it is necessary for each person to contribute towards the production of a newspaper, and on most occasions it is done with success.
However, there are occasions on every newspaper and publication when for one reason or another that is not possible. It would be wrong to point a finger of accusation and to say that the responsibility for any interruption lies always with one section of those who are responsible for producing a newspaper. I hope that some of the attempts which have been made in this debate and which seek to leave the impression that the responsibility for lost production and interruptions in production lies with just one section of those who produce newspapers will not be pursued in later speeches.
We are concerned in this debate with the suspension of Times Newspapers which, if it occurs in a little under six hours' time, will result quickly in a substantial loss of jobs, may well escalate into other newspapers and publications throughout the country and deprive many people of their choice of reading possibly for a considerable time.
I in no way wish to be disrespectful to you, Mr. Speaker, but in many ways I feel that it would have been better if this debate had taken place yesterday, or indeed earlier this week. I believe that this debate, and perhaps the involvement of Ministers, could have been used towards some constructive purpose, namely, in trying to persuade the management of Times Newspapers to withdraw its threat of suspension to enable full and proper negotiations to take place. However, alas, that has not been the case.
We have had an account from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment about his involvement and contact with management and trade unions, and we have heard about the consultations he has carried out. My right hon. Friend has also expressed readiness, even at this late stage, to try to assist. I urge my right hon. Friend to make sure that his offer is known personally to all the parties concerned, because I think that some of the conditions for the withdrawal of the suspension threat in seeking to avert the loss of these newspapers and in achieving success in negotiation could be won even at this late hour if there were a general willingness for success to take place.
The management of Times Newspapers has skilfully sought to leave with the general public and all those who take an interest in these matters the impression that its proposals centre entirely on the acceptance of new technology. That is not the case. Reference is being made to the letter from Mr. Marmaduke Hussey of 26th April this year. I shall not go through that long letter, but I believe that any objective reader will understand that all the working agreements in Times Newspapers Limited were to be regarded as null and void and were to be renegotiated in respect of every conceivable working agreement within Times Newspapers. These agreements cover manning levels, wages structure, disputes procedure, new technology and many other matters.
In one of the areas of Times Newspapers that would suffer the largest reduction in manpower, namely, the machine room where a 60 per cent. reduction in employment would take place on the proposals made by the management, there is no technology involved whatever. Therefore, hon. Members and the public should understand that this is not an argument about new technology and its acceptance across the board. It is in many ways an altogether different argument. What the management has sought to do is to secure wide-ranging and fundamental changes in working agreements and practices throughout the company affecting every employee.
I am certain that the hon. Gentleman would not wish to misrepresent management in this case, because everybody knew right from the start that the management was very much concerned with overmanning. Indeed, this has been one of the crucial issues throughout these events. It would be wrong to say that the management has concentrated entirely on new technology, because certainly overmanning has always been one of the issues.
I am trying to say that there are a number of major issues which lie behind the attempt to renegotiate working agreements. Manning was one, and technology was another.
The hon. Member for Staffordshire, South-West (Mr. Cormack) in opening the debate drew attention to losses in production. However, surely the disputes procedure and its acceptance is also a crucially important matter. There is not one issue to which one can point as the predominant or dominating issue. There are a whole series of inter-related issues and matters which are the subject of negotiation.
Therefore, it is wrong to say that the only reason why these matters are being pressed under the threat of closure is the loss of production. Of course, we are concerned about such losses, and they have been condemned by many who work for Times Newspapers Limited. The House should not believe that there is wholesale support for every interruption in production. That view would be quite wrong.
Equally, it would be wrong to say that the guilt for those interruptions lies on each occasion with workers in the company. There was a recent incident involving the loss of several hundred thousand newspapers because a belt on a machine had broken. The management insisted that the workers should buy a needle to sew the belt to enable the machines to operate. That cost 12p to purchase, and that happened the following morning. There was a loss of production that night, which no doubt was entered in the books as an industrial interruption caused by the workers. That occurred because the management refused to spend 12p on a needle with which to mend the belt to enable the machine to operate effectively.
The hon. Gentleman appears to be admitting the existence of overmanning, but he should point out that the management of Times Newspapers has made it clear that there will be no dismissals. [HON. MEMBERS:"Reductions."] If there is gross overmanning, who can object to the fact that there have to be some reductions? However, the management has also made clear that the terms of redundancy will be better than any terms of redundancy which have operated before. It should be made clear that the management is not treating the workers who constitute the overmanning in a cavalier or casual manner.
This is a short debate, and I do not wish to be diverted into such considerations as those. There are many other hon. Members who wish to take part in this debate.
I do not believe that any objective observer of recent events would say that
the management, if it wanted successfully to secure renegotiation on wide-ranging and fundamental issues, displayed a sense of urgency in securing those agreements. The excellent document from NATSOPA setting out the chronicle of these events includes an interesting letter from Mr. Marmaduke Hussey dated 5th September and addressed to Mr. Owen O'Brien, general secretary of NATSOPA. The letter reads:
Thank you for your letter of 11th August, which I only read last night on my return from a holiday in Somerset. I am very grateful for your constructive reply to our suggestion of a meeting and hope to arrange very shortly with your office a meeting between Times Newspapers management and national and branch officers to explore the problems which we believe exist. Thank you again for your prompt reply.
If one goes through the sequence of letters and dates, there does not appear to be that sense of urgency that one would expect from a competent management trying to secure successful renegotiation of all its working agreements with every employee.
We should take careful note of the fact that there is now general agreement, apart from the NGA, on a comprehensive disputes procedure which, in the view of the signatories to it, would lessen the interruptions in productions which, rightly, have been emphasised in this debate. I shall read the first paragraph of that disputes procedure:
In the event of any difference arising between the chapel and management which cannot immediately be resolved, continuity of the full operation required by the company will be safeguarded, and practices and agreements existing prior to the difference shall continue to operate pending a settlement, or until the agreed procedure has been exhausted. There shall be no stoppage of work, either of a partial or a general character. Neither shall either side take any action restricting the total production and administrative requirements of the company during the stages of the following procedures.
That, I would argue, constitutes a major advance which would help to alleviate interruptions in production. It also offers the prospect, even at this late stage, for the management to say that this gave it the chance to combat interruptions in production and the opportunity to lift its suspension threat, thereby allowing proper negotiations to get under way.
Our industry has been characterised for many years by reductions in employment, concentration of ownership in more and more private hands, and a contraction of the industry which has created a climate of mistrust and suspicion. Is it any wonder that there have been interruptions in production in this company over the past few weeks when the threat of suspension has been hanging over the heads of workers? It is any wonder that that situation has arisen? I would argue that it is not, and I would hope that many people will read the editorial in The Guardian today because I think that it gave a very objective and dispassionate view of the situation.
The Times is not fighting a general battle on behalf of Fleet Street. Its difficulties are not shared by every newspaper in the land. The Times management has dug a hole into which it looks as if it will fall. This is a tragedy, particularly because it is a needless one.
I was amazed by the selective and highly partisan account which the hon. Member for Sowerby (Mr. Madden) gave when he ran through some of the recent events in Fleet Street. For example, he said that the only reason—[Interruption.) I declare an interest as a member of the NUJ. I have done so many times before. It was said that the only reason why copies have been lost at The Times was that there was the threat of suspension. The hon. Member omitted to mention that vast numbers of copies had been lost long before there was any threat of suspension. This is a deep rooted and historical problem which does not just apply to The Times, although The Times is the first management which has grasped the nettle and tackled the problem.
Those of us who took part in the debate on 18th May will recall that there was widespread agreement about the serious nature of the problem, and similar agreement on both sides of the House that the abuses by certain groups of workers in Fleet Street were out of control. Several hon. Members, of whom I was one, predicted that sooner or later some management would say"This dance shall go no further ", take a firm stand, and do the task which managements have been asked to do for many years and actually manage.
The problem in Fleet Street has been that managements have been too weak. Now at last, when we see a strong man- agement doing its job properly, there are howls of outrage, such as those from the hon. Member for Sowerby.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, South-West (Mr. Cormack) on the judicious and balanced way in which he outlined the problem. Because I know this industry well, I hope that he will forgive me if I use stronger language than he did.
First, we have to recognise that we are dealing in Fleet Street with the most overpaid and underworked group of workers in Britain. There are quite astonishing built-in extravagances in the salary structure. On The Times today, and indeed in any Fleet Street newspaper, even an unskilled worker—a cleaner, for example —earns in excess of £100 a week. A linotype operator whose skills, after all, are scarcely superior to those of a typist, earns £15,000 or more a year in Fleet Street.
These gold-plated salaries are paid in many instances to men who work only 28 hours a week. Should we therefore be pouring out buckets of sympathy on those who have disrupted production, in view of the excellent rewards they are getting?
The hon. Gentleman should not make these statements. He will know that in The Times machine room the standard rate. including premiums, is at the most £16:20p per shift, times five days per week. These are total gross earnings of £81, not the figures quoted by the hon. Gentleman.
There are, of course, discrepancies between various branches and various unions. This is one of the problems. The hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. Atkinson) has done the House a service by drawing attention to them. It is a fact that some of those who work hardest in Fleet Street sometimes do not get the kind of rewards of which I have been speaking. Thus, there is a sense of grievance between union and union. That is why there are about 52 to 54 negotiating groups at The Times. There is some justice for the sense of grievance that some of them feel. We must bear in mind—when talking of the low figures—some of the abuses outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Critchley). The truth is that this is a well-paid and well-heeled industry for the workers.
The best that we hope for from this unfortunate suspension is that out of it will emerge strong trades unions. That is the view of The Times management, because it wants to be able to negotiate with union leaders who can deliver their bargains and keep their promises. The problem is that the wildcats are in control today not the union leaders. For Fleet Street, Lord Acton's famous aphorism about power has to be amended. In Fleet Street it is lack of power which corrupts absolutely, because, whatever the union leaders are saying, sure enough, there is some chapel, even an element within that chapel, doing something completely different and in violation of the disputes procedures.
What is needed more than anything else—and this is where management at The Times has rightly dug in its toes—is an agreed disputes procedure. Until we have that, there is no future for The Times or any other newspaper against the background of a Fleet Street which has lost 70 million copies this year, with The Times losing more than 12 million copies.
I rejoice in the fact that we now have a management which is really managing. This must make sense for the future of the industry, for the workers, and, of course, for the readers, who are too often neglected during discussions of these complex problems. This debate is a harbinger of things to come for the future of British industry. We should be well aware that new technologies are coming into the industry. We have heard a great deal about the micro-processor and the silicon chip. Without doubt, a great deal of British industry needs modernising. New technologies have to be implemented. There is no doubt that unions and managements have to co-operate in a constructive way to ensure that British industry is profitable and successful and that a minimum of jobs is lost.
These problems have to be tackled. We cannot get away from that. The approach of the unions in Fleet Street has been the approach of a lot of ostriches who have dug their heads into the sand and caused the newspapers to lose millions of copies because they will not come to terms with the need for a sensible disputes proce- dure, and a sensible approach to new technology and its implementation.
I congratulate The Times management on the stand that it has taken. I am sure that it may have made a mistake or two in certain discussions along the line, just as I am certain that the unions have made mistakes. That is not the point. The big picture is that management is doing its job. The majority of the unions which are still in dispute have not made any comparable response. Sadly, I believe that the right move has been made by the management of The Times.
I admit to being a member of the National Graphical Association, a union which has come in for some criticism here this afternoon as well as having been criticised outside the House. It might be worth mentioning at the beginning of my speech a word or two about the position of the NGA. Even those who criticise the NGA for its approach to the negotiations with The Times have had to admit that it is the NGA, through its membership in The Times, which has the most to suffer. The greatest degree of change expected of any group of people in The Times is expected from those who work and operate within the NGA.
The worry and anxiety caused by the new technology, what it could mean to traditional skills, requiring long apprenticeships—I served an apprenticeship in the NGA 30 years ago—must greatly exercise the minds of the men who are now being taken from one type of process to another. As has been said earlier, we in this House are too remote from the scene to imagine that we can even begin, during this short debate, to try to understand the feelings and the anxieties of those on the shop floor.
The issue at The Times may concern official disputes. It may concern pay. Fundamentally, it is about the way in which new technology is to be incorporated into old and traditional skills. That is pretty important. Anyone who does not understand that will never make much headway in trying to bring about the introduction of technology in other forms of industry. That is the first point to be made.
There are, perhaps, even more important points to be made. I do not believe that this is the moment to apportion blame. I believe that the spirit and feeling of the trade union leadership associated with The Times and the spirit and feeling of the management are to try to get to grips with the problem tomorrow. It is almost impossible to resolve this dispute within the next few hours. However, I am sure that it is the will of those involved to get together tomorrow, and in the days that follow, and seek to ensure that there is a procedure dealing with disputes, work operations, and with the new technology—a procedure which will see the company through for many years to come. It is to that point that we must direct our attention.
It is futile for anyone in this short debate to imagine that he gains a point, on political or any other grounds, by saying that one side is totally right and the other totally wrong.
My second point concerns the difficult situation which we in Parliament face. What can we do to counsel the management or the trade unions? We have no executive authority. It is right for us to remember that occasionally. There is no precedent for action in this crisis, any more than there is in any other industrial crisis. If we are brutally honest with ourselves, we have to admit that there is not the public interest, in quantitative terms, to suggest that this is a campaign, above all issues, likely to disturb the public conscience. Although The Times has a limited circulation, I do not say that the public is uninterested for that reason alone.
Over the past year or so we have seen a number of other newspapers with a great popular appeal fail to appear for 10 days or so. That has not brought the public into an anxious state, as some people might suggest. I suggest that part of the reason lies in our understanding of what is happening in communications generally. It is not as if the only form of information available to people is through the newspaper. I do not believe that the public, in the widest sense, is very concerned about what happens at The Times. That is not a sufficient reason for us to ignore the position. Clearly, this debate has an important part to play in trying to resolve the dispute.
The issues resulting in the suspension of The Times tonight are deeply serious. They affect the people and heritage of this nation, even though many people will not see its immediate application to their roles and circumstances. It was on 18th May that we last debated the newspaper industry in some detail. Perhaps, even at that stage, if some of the ideas, some of the anxieties expressed then, had been even partially taken into account, we would not be in this cliff-hanger situation.
Three things came out of the debate of 18th May which highlight the problems in Fleet Street. One concerns the type of production. It is quite extraordinary that here we have, within the course of four or five hours—sometimes a little longer—management and trade union representatives taking critical decisions about the production for a particular night. If the delivery is not met, if the right number of papers is not produced, if not all of the machines are operating, this means that there are not enough newspapers. That clearly affects relationships. It affects the way things are done. It has meant that in the past management, not just of The Times but of other newspapers, has not managed. More than one trade union leader has said that he would prefer a strong management to the management that produced the type of managerial decisions of which I was aware 10, 15 and 20 years ago.
To solve the problems of Fleet Street and of The Times tonight, we must resist the temptation to indulge in union bashing. The unions and their leadership, whether Owen O'Brien of NATSOPA or Joe Wade of the NGA, have not hesitated to deal with unofficial strikes. This point has been made in this debate and elsewhere. I am certain, from everything that these men have said, that they will continue to deal with unofficial strikes. What they are asking for is a clear communications system which will take account of the issues ahead.
The second factor, aside from industrial relations, involves poor communications within the newspapers. Although many managers in the newspaper industry have received training and taken part in development schemes and so on, they still have not understood the basic job of communication. There are too many people working in newspapers who do not know what it is all about. They have not yet understood the important role which they have to fulfil of informing people within an organisation.
The third point which I believe aggravates the newspaper industry more than most and which is central to the whole issue is the shadow of the fear of new technology. New printing technology means a total revolution in the organisation of newspaper printing, cutting across traditional skills. It is not surprising to hear the concern of the NGA. It is talking about a process whereby copy can be sent direct to the composing room by people who are not members of the NGA. There is a great pride in the industry, part of which is reflected in the way in which some of these changes are expected to take place.
It has to be said that improvements have been made. New technology has been introduced in other newspapers. The Daily Mirror is now operating a considerable amount of new technology. Them were extraordinarily long discussions at the Daily Mirror, involving the NGA. A film was made of it and many hon. Members will have seen it. There were long drawn-out discussions. But this technology is operating and in the past few weeks two to four pages have appeared in the Daily Mirror using the new technology. A slower introduction is being planned—and I am sure will he operating—in two other papers. Reveille is not a daily but a fairly active weekly paper. In terms of its printing competence, with a large run, it is fairly important. It has been totally produced for months under a new technology agreement reached between the NGA and the management.
It was said earlier that The Guardian had been rather fortunate, working on the same lines. Let us be fair. The Guardian had not intended to use, and is not likely to think in terms of using, the new technology. There are hard examples of the way in which, despite the worries many craftsmen have about the new technology, they have been prepared to sit with management and work out a proper arrangement.
That is right. I believe that The Times had the wrong time scale. It attempted to introduce a fundamental change in technology. Anyone who has seen the equipment at The Times will realise that it is remarkable. If someone sees that equipment who knows what it will mean to the traditional composing room, which is the work with which I am mainly concerned, he will realise that the time scale was impossible.
There are many negotiators who believe that it is not possible to get an agreement until only two or three days remain. That is foolish. It is possible to achieve an agreement within three or four months if there is a clearly defined system of negotiation and where relationships are not bad within an industry. However, the printing industry has many problems. The time scale, even taking into account the initial efforts, was not long enough. There were many problems in the Mirror group and the negotiations continued for far longer than a few months.
I believe that the Government have an interest. I well understand and respect the observations of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment on this occasion and in the previous debate on 18th May. He is right to say that private discussions have been taking place. Is a bolder course of action demanded?
I am not sure whether Opposition Members want to see Government intervention. When we have dealt with other matters associated with wages and prices they have been inclined not to seek Government intervention. Some of us who think that Government intervention is no bad thing feel that in this instance more than guidance is required. Although I am sure that private negotiations have a part to play, I believe that something bolder is required.
What has the Department of Employment done to implement some of the recommendations that arose from the Royal Commission on the press? What was there in that important Royal Commission that was worthy of immediate introduction rather than delay and waiting for further reference?
What is the role of ACAS? My right hon. Friend said today—he had the courtesy to send me a letter arising from my concern about the issue—that there is the possibility of ACAS being involved. Will he be encouraged to take that a little further? If we are reaching the point of total reality when tomorrow The Times will not appear and when there are possibly seven or 14 days before notices become operative, is there not some way whereby ACAS could take the initiative? That would be a most important development. In practical terms it could get both management and the trade unions off the hook.
The integrity of the union leadership, of the general secretaries of the unions and of the senior management of The Times is not in dispute. Despite some believing that they have various motives, I believe that neither side wants to see the closure of a group of papers with the likely killing in the end of the loss-maker in the group, namely, The Times.
I regret what was said by the hon. Member for Thanet, East (Mr. Aitken). There is no cause for rejoicing when a newspaper group's products will not appear for a period. It is foolish for any hon. Members to go down that road and suggest that there is a justifiable strategy on the part of the newspaper group in taking that course. There is nothing that should cause us to have any feeling of satisfaction. It may be that the newspaper group has so acted because it did not know better. We do not have to justify the extraordinary strategy that means that tomorrow there will not be the appearance of a newspaper.
It is vital that we do everything possible in the next 14 days, through all the associations we have with management and the trade unions, to ensure that a target date is arrived at that is totally acceptable to all the trade unions and that the newspaper group appears again. If there is any value in the debate, it will be seen—certainly not tonight or tomorrow—in establishing a clear target date in 14 days' time.
Like the hon. Member for Sowerby (Mr. Madden), I declare an interest. I am a member of the National Union of Journalists. I declare a far more personal interest as I was employed for a number of years by The Sunday Times. I should not like it to be thought by the House or by the country generally that the views put forward by the hon. Member for Sowerby, speaking as a member of the National Union of Journalists, are in any way representative of the views of journalists in Fleet Street or of other employees in Fleet Street.
The hon. Gentleman devoted a good deal of his speech to a straightforward attack on The Times and The Sunday Times management. I know that a number of the difficulties that are inherent in the dispute take a rather individual form. The Times and The Sunday Times are especially dependent on a very heavy load of type-setting. Therefore, computer typesetting is especially relevant to them. However, we cannot close our eyes to the problems that are afflicting many other Fleet Street newspapers.
Even while the argument at The Times has been going on we have seen The Daily Telegraph appearing daily with large white spaces where the pictures should have been. It is fresh in our memory, too, how that same newspaper went out of production for some days over a dispute and how other newspapers have repeatedly lost a large number of copies as a result of the industrial tactics that The Times management is saying must cease as a condition of continued production.
The situation that now faces us at The Times and The Sunday Times was bound to have arisen before very long at some time and somewhere in Fleet Street. Those working on the two newspapers are sick to death of what has and is happening. They know that they cannot continue working without assurances that all the work put into producing a newspaper on a certain day will see the light of day.
I have no wish to question the professional position and integrity of the hon. Member for Sowerby. Indeed, I respect it. However, I do not know when it was that he last worked on a newspaper. Was the hon. Gentleman ever in the position of working on a project throughout a week, building up a case and writing it, only to realise that it would not appear in print? Was he ever engaged in a piece of investigative journalism that required a great deal of effort over a longer period, only to learn at the last moment that because of a dispute in setting type for the front page or a dispute in the machine room all his work would go up in smoke and nothing would be seen of it? That is intensely frustrating for anybody working on a newspaper. That frustration is shared by people other than journalists.
Those working on The Times and The Sunday Times also know that they cannot continue dealing with advertisers, collecting advertising copy and promising to print it when there is the real risk every week that the paper will not be printed, or that not as many copies will be sold as promised and as embodied in the advertising rates. They cannot continue to pretend that they are providing a service for readers if it is an open question in their minds every Sunday morning whether the newspaper that they have ordered will come through their letter boxes. An industry cannot continue working in that way.
If the issue had not come to a head at Times Newspapers, it would have inevitably come somewhere else. It is not something that can be considered only in some watertight compartment of Times Newspapers.
I am glad that the hon. Member for Basildon (Mr. Moonman)—for whose speech I had rather more sympathy than I had for the speech of his hon. Friend the Member for Sowerby—brought up and acknowledged the point that modern technology and its introduction is a real and meaningful element in this dispute. The hon. Member for Sowerby seemed to me to be suggesting that it was not.
Journalists and others working in the industry know that we just cannot go on setting our face against the introduction of modern technology. That technology is being exploited in almost every other country which produces free newspapers, and yet it has barely been touched here. This technology has great potential to serve newspaper workers and readers alike.
I acknowledged at the start of my speech that the question of computer type-setting comes up in a particularly acute form for papers such as The Times and The Sunday Times, which have a very heavy volume of type to be set every week. But this question of modern technology arises elsewhere. One has only to speak to anyone in Fleet Street who has tried to replace some worn-out Linotype machines. People have to go shopping round the world to find second-hand ones because they are not being produced now. No one else wants them. People elsewhere have moved on to something else that is far more advanced and far more efficient. Yet here we are throughout Fleet Street clinging still to the use of these antiquated pieces of machinery.
I have looked at some of the daily newspapers which are produced in Scandinavia. They are producing full colour news pictures every day.for their readers. That is done by using techniques which are not even being talked about in the dispute at Times Newspapers. In those countries there are printers and trade unions. They have these difficulties of attitude. Indeed, workers in those countries undoubtedly had the same natural and understandable fears to which the hon. Member for Basildon referred, yet they have managed to produce newspapers with these new techniques. It really is time that we set out to do it as well.
With all respect to the hon. Member for Basildon, I also say that we cannot accept a situation in which work is needlessly duplicated, when these modern techniques are applied. Can we accept a situation in which the operation of computer keyboards can be made the exclusive preserve of one small union which was formed to cope with and handle a totally different craft?
The situation we are now witnessing, although there are elements in it which are very individual to the papers concerned, might well prove to be something of a catalyst to Fleet Street generally. As The Times put it in a leader this morning:
There are occasions when one comes to a river which has to be crossed.
That is true. It has to be crossed by The Times. It has to be crossed by others. At the very worst, crossing that river will involve a newspaper collapsing altogether. But, thank goodness, at least we have a newspaper simply saying"We cannot go on like this without the agreements which enable us to guarantee production at more than an hour's notice,
but we are willing to come back and start again when we can get the necessary agreements operating."
At least we have not here finally lost a newspaper, but we could well have done. The first test could well have been over a newspaper closing for good instead of one suspending production, as in this case. We all deeply regret the situation which faces us and which faces all the employees of The Times, The Sunday Times and the supplements, but in the end this action may perform a in service for us all—and for everyone in Fleet Street.
I welcomed the assurance of the Secretary of State that he was not contemplating any intervention at this juncture, and that there was, indeed, little practical help that he could give. I believe that that was an honest and straightforward statement of the position. It is no use producing some arbitration formula which will see us through just another two weeks or so of uninterrupted production. That would not help us one little bit.
This situation has grown up for a multiplicity of reasons, and management as well as trade unions can take some blame for it. It has built up over a number of years. Fleet Street must solve this problem. If it does not solve it, Fleet Street itself will end up by being nothing more than a street name on a tourist map. Fleet Street as we know it will truly die unless it begins very soon to grapple with some of these problems—on which we have had advice galore from Royal Commissions, one after another, but still with no product at the end of all this deliberation.
I referred to the statement in the leader in The Times this morning that
There are occasions when one comes to a river which has to be crossed.
At least the company is embarking on the task of trying to cross that river. We can do nothing directly in this House to help in that. We might as well be honest and say so. The responsibility lies with those who are in the industry, and in particular with those who are in this company. But 1 should like it to be known that there are many of us in this House, journalists and non-journalists, and also many in Fleet Street, journalists and non-journalists, who will be waiting to offer a hand at the other side of that river to help them back on to the bank.
I declare an interest as a member of the National Union of Journalists and an addict of The Guardian. This means that 1 am a little unable to join in the prevailing lamentation, both here and in the media today, about the threat to a British institution and to a free press. I shall miss The Times in a sense like a gourmet would miss a suet pudding at the end of an epicure meal.
The editors who are now complaining of the threat to a free press show the hypocrisy of those complaints by their willingness to participate in the closure of their own newspapers. This is essentially not so much an issue of a free press as a basic issue of industrial relations.
We all know that Fleet Street has its problems and that The Times has its problems, but those problems have been and are being overstated as an argument for action which is wanted for other reasons rather than because of these problems themselves. The problems of Fleet Street are not one-sided problems. Disputes and stoppages are a problem of management as well as a problem of labour relations.
They are problems which, in the case of The Times, have not precluded the making of profits. So far this year, Times Newspapers Limited has made a net pretax profit of £2.1 million. It could be said that that pre-tax profit is due to low wages and that Times Newspapers tends to lag behind the prevailing level of wages in Fleet Street generally. It could be said that that is the cause of the profit, but it cannot be said that industrial relations and disputes are preventing Times Newspapers from making profits, which is the argument being put forward.
In any case, whatever the problems of Fleet Street, whatever the problems of Times Newspapers, there is no justification for the kind of tactics that we are seeing today, culminating in today's closure. Here we have the tactics of clutching at a closure date, producing a date almost out of the air, almost at random, doing nothing for months, then putting before the unions quite detailed and complex last-minute proposals, and blaming the resulting closure on the unions. The greater the difficulties the newspapers face, the greater the argument for sensitivity, negotiation and discussion to solve those problems.
Bringing problems to a head in this fashion is the industrial technique either of the bungling amateur or weak management trying desperately, but belatedly, to prove its industrial virility. They are the tactics of Dougal and Zebedee rather than industrial tactics with any thought to the fate of modern Fleet Street. They are irrelevant tactics.
The problems of Times Newspapers Limited are caused by the activities of a few people. Yet the tactics which have been used hit indiscriminately at everyone employed by Times Newspapers—the loyal, the disloyal, the experienced and the inexperienced. Those with the interests of Times Newspapers at heart and those who could not care about Times Newspapers are equally hit by the tactics which have been used. These tactics have the same relevance to industrial relations as the My Lai massacre had to fighting a guerrilla war.
The tactics are irrelevant and wrong because of the impossible task which has been set by the timetable. As has been pointed out, 54 chapels and negotiating units are involved. This is a complex, difficult and detailed structure. The introduction of a new technology on the Daily Mirror, where a less complex, less demanding and less disruptive form of new technology was introduced, took 18 months of negotiation. Times Newspapers Ltd. is trying to get a far more complicated technology accepted within two months.
Substantial job losses are involved. For example, there are 900 NATSOPA members working for Times Newspapers Limited. Apparently 104 of those jobs will eventually disappear, perhaps with compensation and on proper terms, but it is a huge disruption for one union. That is paralleled by all the other unions on Times Newspapers.
There are problems for the earnings of people employed by Times Newspapers. It is not true that their incomes will increase as the management has argued. Yesterday I spoke to the father of the chapel of the revisers. His income will be cut by £5 a week under the new proposals, and that will be for working on five titles whereas he now works on one title. All 28 members of his chapel will lose earnings under the new proposals.
There will be drastic changes in the jobs which people are now doing and in the functions which they will perform. All this is roped together in one great negotiating bundle to be carried through not in six months, because the deadline was set in April, but in two months because it was not until October that the management laid detailed negotiating proposals before the unions.
I have here the detailed negotiating proposals laid before one section of one union. The Times clerical chapel began to get these detailed proposals from 23rd October onwards in an increasing flood. For one union to digest and discuss all these proposals with its national officials and members was impossible in the time available.
That kind of tactic is not based on any desire to secure a compromise or real agreement. It is so inflexible, with the deadline at the end of it, that it amounts to a strike by management wildcats trying to impose terms and conditions which there is no possibility of negotiating, discussing or obtaining agreement on in the time available. It is a tactic which must make the industrial situation, however good or bad it may be at Times Newspapers, far worse that it is. Any good will which exists must surely evaporate in the face of negotiating tactics and demands such as these enforced in this fashion with this sanction at the end. What possible pride can people have in working for and belonging to an organisation, whether a great British newspaper or not, which treats it employees in such a fashion?
The possibility of a clean, pristine new Times—a symbolic name perhaps rising phoenix-like from the ashes looks increasingly difficult, given the embittering nature of these negotiations and the embittering end to which they are coming. It is more likely to produce a prolonged and bitter period of trench warfare than the clean new beginning to which Times Newspapers Limited is looking.
The people to whom I have spoken are extremely bitter. That goes for all sections to which I have spoken. They are bitter and dismayed about the tactics which have been used. They are at a total loss to understand why such tactics have been used on them. People who have a pride in working for Times Newspapers Limited and a feeling of involvement have now become hostile because of this situation.
I should regard ministerial intervention as out of the question and having difficult consequences, but there is an argument for an impartial inquiry, because claims and counter-claims are now getting confused and bitterness is growing. The consequences are dangerous. The argument will be prolonged and bitter. Therefore, there is an argument for an impartial inquiry which will give a calm objective analysis and obtain the information which now, thanks to the tactics of management, will be difficult to get in view of the bitterness which is likely to follow.
Order. I should like to appeal to the House. There are 38 minutes left before we start the wind-up speeches, but there are about eight hon. Members who are just as anxious to speak as those who have already spoken. I should be grateful if hon. Members would bear that point in mind.
I am sure that there are particularities in this dispute, but I am not competent to discuss them. I am not an insider in this industry, but its whole purpose and justification are to provide something for the public. It is as a member of the public and a reader of The Times and other newspapers that I shall make my short contribution.
Overmanning in the newspaper industry is not new. It has been going on and building up for two generations. It was referred to and assessed in the Royal Commission report in 1961. That report concluded that London newspaper offices were overmanned by at least 30 per cent. I do not think that in the 17 years which have passed since the report of that Royal Commission anything much has been done about that overmanning. During that period many famous or well-known newspapers, both dailies and Sundays, have disappeared. That has been highly regrettable.
There must be something wrong in a newspaper industry such as ours if newspapers with circulations which by world standards are vast—between 1 million and 3 million—are unable to pay their way; newspapers in other countries do not even dream of such circulations. The answer is that costs have been allowed to creep up and techniques have fallen behind.
One cause of the present dispute is the introduction of the new techniques about which we have heard. However, as has been emphasised, the general problem is overmanning, not the new techniques which are under discussion.
All the overmanning is the accumulation of past disputes largely about the introduction of new techniques. Each group of overmanning—of ghost workers, of people being paid for nothing or for doing less than a day's work—is the terminal moraine of some argument about the introduction of new techniques in the past. They were agreed to on the condition that no jobs were lost. The more efficient machine made its contribution perhaps, but the number of people on the payroll was not diminished.
What this debate is really about is resistance to change and the suggestion that it ought to take place more slowly. In this country techniques are introduced more slowly than anywhere else in the world. If it is the newspapers, one can see the new technique introduced in the United States of America and on the Continent of Europe while we still are arguing about it here.
The case being put forward by the hon. Members for Basildon (Mr. Moon-man) and for Sowerby (Mr. Madden) and others who have a professional interest in this matter, is that we ought to be so worried about the change and its effects on employment that we should go more slowly, when the truth is that we ought to go faster. The prosperity of this country depends upon a rapid acceptance of change and not upon going slow. The London newspaper industry is the most striking example of our underlying national fault.
Naturally, it is easy for someone who is not in an industry to talk about the necessity for rapid change, because his job is not immediately at stake. But everybody in the community is subject to the effects of change. I suppose one might call a General Election an occasion when the public looks at the possibility of new techniques, new technology. I am inclined to say—it may be a rather unusual thing to say—that we have too much security in this country and we are becoming security-minded. It colours our whole approach to all the technical and managerial changes of modern society. I am not competent to say what one should do with the members of the National Graphical Association who were trained as linotype operators—and, I am afraid, grossly overpaid for it—who now face the extinction of their jobs and skills.
There must be an answer to these problems. The difficulty of solving them must never be an excuse for delaying the onset of change. A modern society ought to be able to look after its members, to help them through the difficult periods and still be in the forefront of technical advance. Therefore, I believe that The Times management is absolutely right to say, in effect, that 17 years is more than enough, and that this matter must now be brought to a head and the national newspaper industry should no longer be the supreme example of backwardness, overmanning and resistance to change in our country.
There are those of us in the House who would say that the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Bell) belongs to a profession which is more noted for its restrictive practices than is the profession of journalism, to which I belong. I, too, must declare an interest as a member of the National Union of Journalists.
There are no restrictive practices at all in the law—[HON. MEMBERS:"Oh."]—and far from resisting change the House is changing the law every day that it sits.—[Interruption.]
My hon. Friends are making my point for me by their general derision.
I share one other thing with almost everybody who has spoken in this debate —and I congratulate the hon. Member for Staffordshire, South-West (Mr. Cormack) on the way in which he introduced it—and that is a feeling of almost total impotence in watching this drama unfold. It has unfolded since 26th April and everyone involved, at some stage or another, has disbelieved, or affected to disbelieve, that we would reach the point where we are now.
It is almost as though one were watching the beginning of the First World War. The armies are in their trenches, the treaties are invoked and the reluctant neutrals have been dragged in. Here and there those who are really not part of the dispute at all know that today, tomorrow or the next day it may well involve them. Meanwhile, the supreme war lords sit in their offices in New Printing House Square, no doubt in daily communication with the all-highest sitting with his money in Toronto, deploying their battle plans.
They have their supporters here in the House. I greatly regret the tone of the speeches of some hon. Members in this debate who have appeared to welcome what is happening. Glistening eyes have greeted what has happened."My goodness me, our chaps are going over the top "—that is the feeling that one has had.
The deep waters into which I think The Times management has fallen—and I say this with regret because there are faults on both sides in this dispute—essentially lie in attempting to tackle three disputes at once, in the wrong way and on the wrong timetable. Of course there is a problem about overmanning; of course there is a problem about new technology and about the loss of production through disputes which cannot be controlled by unions or management. But it is the attempt to tackle all three simultaneously and to invoke this perilous deadline, plucked out almost at random, as someone has said, that has led The Times into the present position. That is the problem.
The fact that only two out of 54 chapels have signed up to the present time indicates the anticipation of those who provoked this trouble. Either they did not know that only two out of 54 chapels were going to sign—in which case they are very stupid and should not be managers —or they did know and have been, as some suspect, sitting it out for a long struggle in which they can shed the more recalcitrant of their employees. It is one or the other. I cannot believe that this situation arose purely by accident.
The problems which we face are those which could have been foreseen and which ought to have told The Times management that the implications of this deadline would not be successful. Let me isolate the problems as they have been referred to in the debate. It is not the case that the problem of new technology can be seen purely in terms of union resistance. There are grave suspicions in the minds of some of the people who work for Times Newspapers Ltd. about the SDC system which it wants to install. I saw a quote the other day from Mr. Harold Evans, the editor of The Sunday Times. referring to this. He said to his assembled employees:
Two years ago I told you I have seen the future of Fleet Street and it works. I now have to tell you that it doesn't.
He was, I believe, right in more senses than he knew, and he was referring there to the new technology and to some of the great difficulties which The Times management is encountering with it. That is over and above the great resistance to these innovations which, of course, one encounters unless there is sensitive negotiation on the shop floor.
I was extremely interested in Mr. Hugh Walters's letter in The Times today in which he quoted the leading article for 29th November 1814, when there was equal resistance from the compositors to change which was threatening jobs and bringing in innovations at least as profound as those that are faced today. If the work force is told that it has to face a slimming down in this exercise and then sees that it has been presented as a bovine work force resisting new technology, it is naturally deeply resentful when it finds that the large majority of the thousand jobs that are to be lost are nothing to do with the new technology. Those concerned are deeply resentful—as some of the people who came here to see us yesterday said—because some of the industrial disputes about which people have made such play in this debate have arisen because the existing machinery is old and worn out and cannot be replaced when protests are made about the safety of working with it. That is the difficulty here.
It is true that X-million conies of the group's papers have been lost this year, but not all of the disputes have occurred through bloody-mindedness. In this debate nobody has adequately answered the point that The Guardian, printing on the same machinery, in the same place and with the same people, has not had the history of disputes which Times Newspapers Ltd. has had this year.
Ah, there the game is given away. There is no doubt about that. I shall come to that in a moment; indeed, I may as well do so now. Why is Times Newspapers Ltd. doing this at this time? The answer to that, I am sure, is that it has the money, as has just been said. It has the money to fight a war on all fronts—or so it thinks, because it has a lovely oil bonanza, because there has been a shift from paternal to filial ownership of the paper and because different attitudes are now prevailing.
" Why not take them all on?"say these new frontiersmen."Why not settle all the problems at once?"But when problems are hydra-headed, as they are in Fleet Street, that kind of attitude does not get one very far. It has not got the management very far when one considers the position that it is in now.
The suspicion—it is no more than a suspicion in my mind, but I was disabused of it by Mr. Duke Hussey when we discussed this matter with him—is that The Times management decided that it would sort out the unions, and it decided to do that once it had the money to do it, and once it could afford a dispute on its terms of six months or more, involving the shedding of many of the people who now work for this organisation.
The tragedy of this is that some of the first to go, and some of those who will be most profoundly affected, are not at all involved in the kind of disputes that have been cited in this debate. The secretaries on the paper, for example, who are the people on almost the shortest notice, will be out after the 14 days to which reference has been made. They are not parties to some of the disputes.
In conclusion, I hope that the next 14 days will be used by my right hon. Friend and by everyone present who has any influence on either side of this dispute—there are hon. Members on both sides of the House who have that—to bring the two parties together. At the beginning of my speech I used the parallel of the beginning of a war and of the crowds who cheered at the beginning. This is rather like that position. It is much easier to settle a war in the early stages. It is very difficult once it becomes prolonged, once hostilities have gone on, once positions are entrenched, and once bitterness extends not merely to the parts of this empire now in dispute but to all the provincial parts of it as well. If The Times operations in Manchester shut down, a great slice additionally of the press, including The Guardian, will be threatened far more significantly than it is at present.
That is the reason why we should have less partiality in the debate and more peacemaking. I know that we shall see that from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. I hope that we shall see it from every other person of good sense and good intentions, on both sides of the House.
I hope that the hon. Member for Derby, North (Mr. Whitehead) will forgive me if, in response to your request for brevity, Mr. Speaker, I do not follow him precisely in terms of what he said. I congratulate him on the way in which he organised his material so that he got a great deal of it into his speech in a very concise form.
I must declare a brief interest as a consultant in the past to Times Newspapers, although the services that I have rendered to that organisation have been wholly irrelevant to the subject that we are now debating.
I speak as the Member in whose constituency Fleet Street falls, though Times Newspapers is a refugee from my constituency and has moved into the constituency of my parliamentary neighbour, the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, South (Mrs. Jeger).
The hon. Member for Derby, North spoke about the First World War. I join with him in regretting that this debate has become a series of entrenched positions, representing much less well than the protagonists to the issues the points and the arguments that underlie their respective cases.
That distinguished constituent of one of my predecessors, Dr. Samuel Johnson, said the last word about the way in which a deadline can concentrate a man's mind. It is a good thing that the mind of the House has been concentrated today. However, I am not sure that today we can achieve anything more than two simple things. The first is to draw the attention of those involved in this dispute to the national importance which the House attaches to the solution of it. Every hon. Member who has spoken in the debate has emphasised that. The second is to identify whether there are any initiatives which the Government can take to accelerate the finding of a solution. As in so many human affairs, timing is of crucial importance. I pay tribute to the Secretary of State for Employment for the recognition of this, which was apparent in his remarks.
I am not one of those in favour of permanent Government interference in private matters, however important they may be for the public. Though I am appalled at the thought of being without The Times for weeks on end, I am in favour of management and unions being left to reach agreement on the outstanding issues, at least for the time being. I am confident that they will reach agreement. I am sure that the whole House wishes them well in that endeavour.
Finally, I share the views of the Secretary of State, which were echoed by my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, East (Mr. Aitken), by the hon. Member for Basildon (Mr. Moonman) and by others, about the extreme problems which new technology poses. It poses them now and it will continue to do so for the industrial West.
Various hon. Members have criticised Times Newspapers and its management for its time scale in approaching the matter of the new technology. I shall not comment on that, though from my industrial experience I have been aware that this new technology has been approaching for at least the past decade, and if I could have been aware of it from outside the industry, I am certain that those in the industry must have been aware of it also.
On the industrial relations aspect, which is different from the technology aspect but is linked to it, I have no personal expertise which enables me to pass judgment on the time scale that has been adopted. From whichever side the criticism comes, the House does itself a disservice when it adopts a posture or a position on matters on which it is necessarily less well informed and about which it is less intimately involved than those outside the House who are parties to particular industrial issues. If any hon. Member disagrees with me, I ask him to reflect on his or her reaction when any industrialist or trade unionist sounds forth outside the House about our inadequacies and the reforms that we should institute in parliamentary affairs. What I am certain of is that the job of the House—here I join cause with the hon. Member for Derby, North—is to reinforce the forces that make for reconciliation and not to exacerbate the forces that make for confrontation. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the earlier a solution is found, the better it will be.
My remarks are guided neither by a sense of appeasement nor by Panglossian complacency. But I believe profoundly that the resolution of this matter lies primarily with those who are employed in the industry and who understand it. My one wish is that they achieve that solution solidly and conclusively at the earliest possible date. We in the House and the whole country will be better for it.
The dispute at Times Newspapers is not simply a problem of industrial relations. It is, sadly, one of a total breakdown of human relations. I have long believed that important as written agreements are between all those involved in an enterprise, I say this as a journalist —and especially so because of the intensity, strain and stress involved in the production of a newspaper—it is much more important to have openness, understanding, belief and trust between the people in the various positions in the particular publication.
I am sorry that the hon. Member for Thanet, East (Mr. Aitken) is not in his place at present, because among the more stupid of his remarks was a rejoicing at what is going on in New Printing House Square. I hope that in the morning he will regret that phrase. It is extremely regrettable. Where he will not read it will be in The Times tomorrow morning.
The other thing that must be made clear at the outset is that there was no possibility whatsoever that The Times,/i> management would meet this self-imposed deadline of 30th November. How could there possibly be any chance of a successful outcome to the negotiations when the whole way in which they were set up rested on the willingness of one party to surrender? It was not an invitation to New Printing House Square. It was an invitation to a caravan on Luneburg Heath, because implicit in this—this is the fact of the matter and why we are having this debate—is that unless and until everybody involved in this matter signed on the dotted line in the way in which the management insisted, the management would declare a lockout. The whole way in which this matter started implied that someone was going to surrender.
We have had lectures from the Opposition Benches about people on The Times, in essence, being Luddites, There is not one group of workers on,i>The Times, however suspicious they may be of the consequences of the introduction of the new technology, which has declined to negotiate on the application and introduction of that new technology. That is a fact. What one of the unions has said is"We are not going to do this while you are holding a pistol to our heads." That is the position and the basis on which the management of Times Newspapers set off these negotiations. In that context, I am bound to say that it leads one to the regrettable conclusion that about the only thing that has changed in The Times in 193 years is the date on the front page, because it implies an attitude that was prevalent in that establishment when the first issue went to press.
In his repudiation of the time scale of The Times—and I understand that—does the hon. Gentleman accept that when trade unions make threats about militant action, and so on, they should adopt the same attitude of restraint which he says The Times should impose because of the difficulty of reaching agreement?
We are talking not about strong or weak management, but about effective management. We are not talking about a document labelled"disputes procedure ". We are talking about arrangements being made between groups of people at work—but not by people who never put the nuts on the bolts, or go down to the machine pit, or wherever else—in which everyone can have confidence.
I intervened earlier when my right hon. Friend was speaking in relation to the number of lost copies. Because of time, I shall not go into the constant, costly interruption with the livelihood of newsagents, let alone readers, which comes from night after night late deliveries of newspapers to the main line London termini as a result of management decisions. I leave that on one side. In that intervention I said to my right hon. Friend that the roots of a number of these disputes—not all of them by any manner of means—go back, I am told, to complaints from men working machines which should be down the road in South Kensington, who have called in the Health and Safety Executive to have a look at their complaints, who have asked it to make recommendations to management to deal with these matters and have then got no response from management.
With the increasing attention which the House has insisted should be paid to matters of health and safety at work, those men then declined to operate that machinery until something was done about it. Yet that goes down in The Times black book as"an unofficial stoppage ".
I want to make another point in relation to the new technology. I hope that no hon. Member will say, as was said earlier, that it is simply a matter of applying new technology, the faster the better and with no thought to the consequences. I hope no one will suggest that this debate is not simply about the loss of jobs, because the jobs about which we are talking will be gone for ever. The men so displaced will have no chance of finding alternative work anywhere else in the industry. I hope that no hon. Member will suggest that in that circumstance anyone will rush forward and volunteer for that process. We must assert in this debate that with this new technology people must be in charge of the application of those machines, rather than the machines being allowed to run riot over large sections of our industry.
The Times management still has it within its control to see that this lockout does not occur—and lockout it is. Even now, it can see the folly of the whole way in which it has gone about this business. I had hoped, particularly from The Times, that there would be more concern and care about press freedom. Had this lockout and stoppage arisen by a different route, we would have had lectures about the threat to press freedom. Yet the tragic reality of what will happen tonight is that the proprietors of The Times are taking the lever of press freedom into their hands and denying people copies of The Times from tomorrow. That, I hope, will teach everyone in this industry a lesson.
In the interests of brevity, I am sure that the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. Corbett) will understand if I do not follow too closely his ill-tempered and ill-thought-out remarks.
I, too, must declare an interest, in that I was employed by Times Newspapers for some years in a commercial capacity. I sometimes think that the difference between myself and my colleagues and many others who worked on that newspaper was that we tried to make money for the newspaper.
When I joined The Times newspaper about 11½ years ago, I recall that after a few days I had to change my office. In those days I was fairly new to civilian life, and was certainly very new, indeed, to the ways of trade unions and how they operate. I picked up a small filing cabinet on my desk and made to take it to my new office. I was warned very strictly by a member of some chapel or other that I had better put it down pretty quickly, otherwise everyone would be out on strike because I was doing something which should be done by a member of the engineering chapel.
Later in the day, after I had gone out, done my work and returned to the office, people were still shifting our furniture around. I asked the same gentleman whether it was possible for me to lift my own wastepaper basket and take it into my new office. After due consideration he replied that he thought that would be all right. That is the sort of problem with which the management of Times Newspapers has been dealing ever since the end of the Second World War.
I am sorry that my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, East (Mr. Aitken) is not in the Chamber, first, because I should like to congratulate him on his excellent speech, and, secondly, because I shall say something about one of his forebears. Bearing in mind what happened at about 3.25 this afternoon, I know that one has to be very careful about what one says about the ancestors of those who sit in the House. But there are in Fleet Street the Beaverbrooks and Rothermeres of this world, and many of the faults in Fleet Street today stem from the 1950s when the managements of our great national newspapers were so greedy for circulation that they gave in to almost every demand that was made by every union. They surrendered the responsibility for running their own newspapers and even conceded the right to recruit to many of the individual chapels. That being said, we have now reached a stage in 1978 when, at long last, one great national newspaper—Times Newspapers —is willing to stand up, take the consequences and puts its own house in order.
The overmanning in Fleet Street has been talked about at great length this afternoon. The other day I thought that it would be interesting to table a Question about the earnings of Mr. Mickey Mouse, who I gather has been recently employed in Fleet Street on some newspaper. I was informed that it was not possible to table a Question about the taxation affairs of individuals because there might indeed be a Mr. Michael Mouse who was working on The Observer. Therefore, I was not allowed to table that Question. But with over 30 per cent. overmanning in Fleet Street, is it any wonder that our national newspapers are losing money? My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Bell) talked about the problem of overmanning and put the facts very succinctly indeed.
When a newspaper is subjected, as Times Newspapers Ltd. has been over the past years, to so many wildcat strikes, it loses an enormous amount of revenue. Little has been said today about the actual mechanics of the way in which newspapers are run. Newspapers such as The Times are dependent more on advertising revenue than on any other form of revenue to make themselves enough money to run. Unlike the so-called popular newspapers, which are dependent on their cover charge, papers such as The Times, The Daily Telegraph and the Financial Times are dependent to a great extent on advertising revenue.
If one of the big public companies takes a series of full-page advertisements in a newspaper such as The Times and the paper is subjected to a strike on that particular day, that is all right because that advertisement can appear the following Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday or whenever it may be. But in a newspaper such as The Times there is the back page with its personal column and columns of births, deaths, marriages and property advertising. These things make enormous sums of money for the newspaper. When one has a strike on a newspaper such as The Times, all that is lost and can never be recovered. Every day that The Times does not appear the loss of classified revenue is absolute. That revenue cannot be regained. That is why I am convinced that The Times management has decided that enough is enough and that now is the time to stand firm and to put its house in order.
I know that we in this House have no powers in this matter, thank God. All that we can do is talk and advise. My advice to the management of The Times is to stand firm and not to give way.
When the NGA says that it will not talk under duress, it must consider this matter. What is the difference when employees go on a wildcat strike at 2 a.m. or 3 a.m.? Trade unionists must learn that what is sauce for them is also sauce for the management. The Times management is standing up to the mad men of Fleet Street. It is standing firm against the wildcat strikers of Printing House Square, and I say good luck to it.
This debate has been largely dominated by the journalistic profession. I have the headquarters of the printing unions in my borough, and many of my constituents are workers on The Times or in Fleet Street generally.
The Times headline today said that the management thought that this was a river which it had to cross. I wish it could have approached the issue on the basis that there were bridges that it must build between itself and the printing unions. It was a great pity that this whole question arose in a letter of 26th April which, at that time, contained the deadline of 30th November. What is even more regrettable is the dilatory way in which the The Times has approached negotiation, as was outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell).
I speak with particular reference to NATSOPA, whose headquarters are in my borough. It replied to the management letter on 17th May welcoming the suggestion of a meeting with the management. NATSOPA eventually got a reply to that letter saying that the management would be in touch at the earliest opportunity. It took until 24th July for a communication to be sent from The Times to NATSOPA, and it was not until 26th September that it was possible for the two sides to get together.
The current situation is that NATSOPA and the majority of the servicing unions covering The Times have indicated that they are prepared to recommend to their members a new disputes procedure which will enable the negotiations to continue on these far-reaching and complex problems. They are prepared to recommend to their members the new disputes machinery which will allow the negotiations to continue in an atmosphere free from the interruptions to production which anyone interested in the welfare of Fleet Street generally must find regrettable.
Even at this late stage I ask The Times management to accept the offer of these printing and service unions which are prepared to recommend a new disputes machinery to enable discussion on complex matters, proposals for which only came to light in October. Failure to do so will lead to the conclusion that The Times management never had the slightest intention of negotiating and that its letter of 26th April, without any prior negotiation and without proposals until October, meant that it intended to allow any negotiations to take place only after the paper had closed.
I am sorry that the hon. Member for Peckham (Mr. Lamborn) was not able to make a fuller speech. I sympathise with him about the short time that he was allowed.
The Times is a paper of international reputation and when it is not published it is a matter which affects the honour of this country and its reputation for industrial relations throughout the world. Therefore, this is an important debate.
Although I have my doubts as to whether the House of Commons is the best place to debate industrial relations issues in a delicate situation like this, I accept that the House has a great interest and must have the opportunity to discuss the matter.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, South-West (Mr. Cormack) on the way he introduced the debate. The tone of his speech and everything that he said was just right for the occasion. I do not feel quite the same about all the speeches that have been made tonight, but some hon. Members may say that about my speech. For all that, I do not think that this is a situation which any management would contemplate lightly, because its jobs are at risk just as much as anyone else's.
The owners of Times Newspapers said that they would pay no dividends for five years and that two-thirds of any savings achieved would be repaid to the workers in increased wages. That is not exactly the old-fashioned approach to drive people out of jobs. The management is worried and I do not accept that it has in any way sought a confrontation of this nature.
If Labour Members consulted the leaders of the trade unions involved and asked them their views on the managing director of Times Newspapers, Mr. Duke Hussey, none of those leaders would say that he was in any way the sort of man who wanted to see The Times close or jobs lost as a result of the closure.
This debate is symptomatic of many deep-seated problems in the whole of our industrial society. We could be doing so much better as a nation than we are. We are still prisoners of our past to far too great an extent, as has been borne out time and again in this debate. To find the right solution is of great importance, but we must not run away with the belief that the solution to the problems of The Times will solve other problems in Fleet Street or outside. I am by no means certain that it could or it would.
I have no doubt that the management of The Times had to take a firm line. After all, that was what the union leaders had been asking it to do. Let me quote from the speech which I made in this House on 18th May. In the course of my remarks, I said:
A leading trade unionist said to me this week Fleet Street is in a mess because both sides have made it so. Bad management has been chiefly responsible, but the unions have lost control at national level and union leaders have been stripped of their authority.'"—"[Official Report, 18th May 1978; Vol. 950, c. 793.]
I put that statement to a leading manager in Fleet Street, and he agreed with every word of it.
For that reason, we have no right to complain when the management of Times Newspapers starts to manage properly and firmly and we then run into trouble. Times Newspapers was losing copies. It was losing its reputation as the producer of a reliable newspaper long before any ultimatum was issued. The effect that this has had on newsagents, on advertising and on the industry generally in the country must not be underestimated.
Shortly after the announcement was made, the attitude of the union leaders was very reasonable. In view of the time, I shall not quote exactly what they
said, but all of them made very reasonable statements. They recognised that something had to be done. Perhaps I might quote one of them. Mr. Bill Keys said:
There is no doubt that industry cannot support the losses much longer and there is a dangerous challenge from other media. I welcome this move by Times Newspapers if it is a catalyst to bring order into Fleet Street.
That is just one of the statements which were made, and the other union leaders made similar statements.
The complaints today and the complains which have been made to me by union leaders, which my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, South-West also mentioned, are twofold. The first is that there has been a deadline. As several of my hon. Friends said, deadlines operate both ways. No one can say by any stretch of the imagination that the unions have not put deadlines on the newspaper managements time and time again. No one can doubt that. Anyone who tries to deny that is simply not looking at the facts in an even-handed way. They put on deadlines. I do not think that it can be unreasonable for a management to say that there has to he a deadline.
When a management puts on a deadline, however, it is called confrontation. When unions demand more cash or improved terms, that is not"confrontation "; it is"a legitimate demand." I should like to know where confrontation begins and where a legitimate demand ends, and we have to keep that clear between the parties involved.
The second complaint concerns the lack of time to negotiate. I have been through the arguments about the delay in getting out the terms and conditions for the new arrangements which were to be made with a good deal of care. The hon. Member for Basildon (Mr. Moon-man) criticised six months as not being long enough. If it had not been six months but two years, would that have made any difference? I doubt it very much, and I think that anyone who has anything to do with negotiation knows that to be true.
I think that there was delay and that the management is vulnerable to criticism about not getting on with the negotiation sooner. There were a number of reasons for it, as we know, but management did not get on with it very quickly. On the other hand, I have been shocked by the labyrinth of different agreements, because the volumes of paper are beyond belief.
I must confess that I did not have the slightest idea of the contracts of agreement and negotiations which had taken place in that industry over a number of years. There are literally volumes of them, and they concern the most nonsensical matters that I have ever heard. Let me take one example. Mr. Barry Fitzpatrick is on record as complaining that there were 59 different bargaining units and that he had not the time to negotiate his in the time made available to him. He said:
The management does not seem to have realised the complications involved in grouping editorial secretaries with secretaries in the advertising department.
That is a very difficult problem.
In the past these groups have had separate agreements. Now I shall have to get them all together and try to get agreement on a great many details. For example there are clauses specifying that secretaries have to make tea or coffee.
What are we up to? This is 1978, but we are behaving as though we were living in years gone by. It is a simply horrifying state of affairs. It is rather like watching a bad play. One cannot be certain whether to laugh at certain passages or to cry at them. It is quite ridiculous, and I cannot believe that we ought not to get the two sides together as soon as we can, because a lot of these difficulties need wiping out altogether.
The vast majority of the people involved are perfectly reasonable. They are desperately worried about their future and the uncertainties surrounding them. On the whole, the people from the NATSOPA chapels whom I have met in the last few days are not motivated by malice. One or two may be, but the majority are not. They want to see a sensible settlement, but they are worried about the uncertainties surrounding their future.
I think that, reluctantly, we have to come to the conclusion that there has to be a short natural break, and the shorter, the better. During the natural break, the parties concerned must get on with restructuring the work force and with reorganising and reducing the number of bargaining units. If that happens, it will be followed by a procedural agreement which will be more orderly and which can work much better. In fact, I believe that it must be that way round: there must be a restructuring and a reorganisation first. Then a procedural agreement will come almost automatically from it.
The hon. Member for Sowerby (Mr. Madden) said that all the emphasis had been put on the new techniques and on using new equipment. We argued that one out. In my view, it is overmanning as well as that, and overmanning has an important part to play in the negotiations.
The introduction of new technology is always difficult. But this does not mean the elimination of the NGA. A lot of the jobs will remain. It will not happen overnight. Those who are not required have the chance of voluntary redundancy. There is to be no compulsory redundancy. There are redundancy payments available of up to £25,000. It is a fact that a number of people wish to take that redundancy who at the moment cannot.
We have to be sensible about this. We all recognise the emotions of people who do not want to change and who find change difficult. We have to recognise as well that we are dealing with a proud, skilled craft industry. But other proud, skilled craft industries have had to make changes. As my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Gardiner) pointed out, changes are going on in other parts of the world and in other parts of Fleet Street. There is no way in which we can turn back the clock.
The hon. Member for Derby, North (Mr. Whitehead) said that some of the machinery was clapped out. We know that to be true. However, in a letter which I received from Times Newspapers, it was said:
We have counter stackers in the machine room which are only replacement machinery which we have bought at great cost. We cannot use them because we have claims from people of up to £5 a night not for working them but because they are in the same room.
Both sides of the House and the whole nation have to accept that change has to come about. They should get round the negotiating table either tonight or tomorrow morning. I appeal to the management to make some positive gesture to create a better climate in which those negotiations make take place. I appeal
to the unions to accept that gesture and to make one themselves by all agreeing to get on with the negotiations. I appeal to the House to allow the negotiations to proceed in a quiet and reasoned way. At the end of the day, a solution has to be found and this great newspaper has to survive and show the rest of the world that Britain can make changes and make them peacefully and efficiently.
I shall not take up much of the time of the House. The right hon. Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Prior) was correct to start his speech by urging upon the House the need for caution in these matters and the need to avoid language that might make matters worse. I entirely agree, and, for that reason, I am glad that he did not pursue the rather less temperate example set by the Leader of the Opposition who, in a circulated press statement, said about this deplorable situation
I wish Lord Thomson well. I wish him victory ".
The language in that circular is not the sort of language that helps industrial relations. My hon. Friend the Member for Peckham (Mr. Lamborn) made a useful contribution to the debate when he referred to an editorial in The Times today which said:
There are occasions when one comes to a river which has to be crossed. Whether you wade or swim or hop there is no security until you get to the other side.
I very much hope that in contemplating the various ways of getting across the river, the possibility of building a bridge, has not been ruled out.
I appreciate the general theme of the right hon. Member for Lowestoft, who suggested that in this situation, where change is being resisted, it is not just a blind and obdurate resistance to change. It is not merely a question of change of practice and not merely loss of skills, important though that it; it is a question of the loss of livelihoods, very often by people who may have little prospect of getting a similar job or even a job at all. That is what we have to bear in mind.
That is not to argue in support of those who resist change; it is an argument in favour of understanding the problems involved. The right hon. Gentleman talked about the need to carry out restructuring first—I think that that was the way he put it—and to change the procedures afterwards, but that calls for further consideration on his part. What he seemed to be saying was that industry should carry out the necessary changes and decide afterwards what was the best way of going about it. The sensible way would be to do it the other way round.
My hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Mr. Moonman) asked what my Department had done to secure implementation of some of the recommendations of the Royal Commission on the press. The Commission's recommendations were directed to action that needed to be taken by management and unions. They were directed not at the Government, but at the industry itself. I hope that those in the industry on whom these recommendations have a bearing are examining what they can do to respond, and are, indeed, responding.
My hon. Friend also asked about the role of ACAS and urged it to take an initiative. He will recognise, as will the House, that, although ACAS has been keeping very closely in touch with what has been happening and has kept itself very fully informed—the chairman has had an exchange of views with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State—it cannot intervene until asked to do so. If it is asked by the parties, it will respond immediately. It is for ACAS to use its judgment about how it responds to a request for its services.
My hon. Friend the Member for Basildon said that he understood my right hon. Friend's position and the difficulties that face him, but wondered whether a bolder approach might not have been more helpful. It has been recognised in the debate that, for my right hon. Friend to intervene usefully and effectively, he has to have regard to the wishes of the parties themselves. Equally, he has to be assured before becoming involved that he has an effective role. It is a dual question both of his standing and of his judgment.
If, as now seems inevitable, the decision to suspend publication is implemented, we may very well be moving into a changed situation. In that changed situation, if the parties feel that he can usefully contribute to a solution, my right hon. Friend will be ready to respond to any request from them. Certainly, he remains ready, as he has been all along, to talk at any time to any of the parties involved. Clearly he cannot act to bring the parties together until it is their common wish that he should do so.
I welcome the concluding remarks of the right hon. Member for Lowestoft in which he urged the parties to seek to establish sufficient common will, if not common ground, to reach a solution, and perhaps to respond to what has been said in the House and to say"Yes, we would like the Secretary of State to make his services available and for us to come together in the kind of dialogue which we hope will lead to a solution."
My right hon. Friend will not miss any favourable opportunity that arises. I hope that the parties will respond. My hon. Friend the Member for Basildon referred to negotiations within 14 days. I do not see why we need to talk of 14 days. There is no reason why, within days or hours, there should not be a response to the appeals made in the House, even at this last minute of the eleventh hour, for the parties to come together and reach a common understanding on a sensible way ahead. My hon. Friend said that it was vital to use the next 14 days. I think it is vital to use every day without necessarily working to any target date.
Although a number of points have been raised, I think that in the light of what we all understand about the way the House responds to industrial relations difficulties, it would be unwise if I allowed myself to be tempted to respond to some intemperate comments in the debate. I end my remarks with the appeal that I have made and which has also been made by the right hon. Member for Lowestoft and other hon. Members.