I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, for calling me. It is a pleasure to be called immediately after the hon. Member for Newham, North-East (Mr. Leighton) who, as he said, is an hon. Member sponsored by NATSOPA.
I probably have in my constituency more print workers than any other hon. Member, and the main tenor of my remarks will be to make, quite unashamedly, a constituency point relating to this matter. I do not enjoy the sponsorship of any of the unions in my constituency. However, I make a point of speaking to each union and, given some of the difficulties in the printing industry, I believe that there is some advantage in not representing one union's point of view and attempting to represent the whole.
The Sunday Times colour supplement is printed by Sun Printers, in my constituency, and both the chapels of the unions involved and the management of Sun Printers have made it clear that they are delighted with this deal and hope very much that it will go ahead. The management made it clear to me this morning that if the deal does not go through, for whatever reason, Sun Printers will move immediately on to short-time working.
I can say with confidence that the management and the print workers of Sun Printers are not unaware of the other consequences and implications involved in this matter. However, there is no doubt that they will be delighted by the decision that my right hon. Friend has taken, and I want to suggest one reason why I believe it was the right decision.
When I came into the Chamber today I had no inkling of what my right hon. Friend was about to say. The proposal that I had intended to put to him was to say that if he made a referral to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission we had no reason for knowing not only what the commission might say but what recommendations it might make.
As I understand it, any proposal made by the commission is not in itself necessarily legally binding. But, reading the Fair Trading Act 1973, I discover—and I was surprised that my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, East (Mr. Aitken) was not aware of it—that any conditions placed upon this deal by my right hon. Friend are legally binding.
Section 62(2) of the Act provides:
Where…the consent of the Secretary of State is given to a transfer of a newspaper or of newspaper assets, but is given subject to one or more conditions, any person who is knowingly concerned in, or privy to, a breach of that condition, or of any of those conditions, as the case may be, shall be guilty of an offence.
Subsection (3) provides:
A person guilty of an offence under this section shall be liable, on conviction on indictment, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years or to a fine or to both.
When I read that section it seemed to me that it was in the interests of those of us who wished to preserve The Times in its present form—we hope, improved in its independence—we should urge the Secretary of State to use his powers and lay down these conditions, since they would be legally binding.
I had drawn up in my mind a list of conditions that it would seem appropriate to suggest that my right hon. Friend might lay before the parties in this proposed deal. However, the conditions with which my right hon. Friend has come forward seem to be wholly comprehensive and wholly satisfactory.
Many Opposition Members have seemed to say that the Thomson Organisation is bluffing and that Rupert Murdoch is bluffing. Right hon. and hon. Members are really asking my right hon. Friend to call that bluff. However, in a game of poker, a player who calls someone's bluff has to come up with the "ante". The ante to this bluff is that if Thomson and Mr. Murdoch are not bluffing and the deal does not go through, my constituents lose their jobs, the print workers referred to by the hon. Member for Newham, North-East lose their jobs, and the nation loses one of its great institutions.
I do not believe that my right hon. Friend should call that bluff, and I do not believe that he should put up that ante. At the end of the day, the ante will be taxpayers' money. I am convinced that the conditions that he has laid down are perfectly acceptable to most of us. The legal provisions contained in the Act seem to be very severe. I hope that my right hon. Friend will say where the conditions are to be printed, whether they will be available to the House, how they will become legally binding, and how they will be enforced.
On behalf of my constituents, who have a great personal interest in the deal going through, I can tell my right hon. Friend that we very much welcome his decision and congratulate him on taking it.