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Times Newspapers

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:40 pm on 27th January 1981.

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Photo of Mr John Smith Mr John Smith , Lanarkshire North 6:40 pm, 27th January 1981

There are occasions when a Minister makes a statement, when the House has a sense, that all is not well. I think that hon. Members on both sides of the House will have felt unease as the Secretary of State made his speech—an unease that has not diminished as the debate has gone on and as hon. Members on both sides have expressed their concerns.

The first concern is whether the Secretary of State has properly carried out the duty laid upon him in the Fair Trading Act, whether he was right to satisfy himself, as he appears to have done, that The Sunday Times, in particular, was not a going concern. It came as a great surprise to many hon. Members and to me that the Secretary of State reached that conclusion.

We know that certain figures were given by Warburg in the prospectus. I do not know whether those figures are accurate. Some information was given to me which I conveyed in my speech. I think the time has come, since there is doubt and surprise at the Secretary of State's conclusion, for more information to be made available than has been forthcoming so far. Apparently, application to the bankers and to the organisations concerned has not revealed the information, as the hon. Member for Thanet. East (Mr. Aitken) discovered. Some hon. Members may seek that information through other procedures of the House. In this regard, Select Committees were mentioned.

The Secretary of State must allay the concern felt by the House by providing—perhaps he could make the information available in the Library—the papers upon which he reached his conclusion that The Sunday Times is not economic or a going concern. Indeed, it may surprise Mr. Murdoch himself to discover that The Sunday Times is not economic or a going concern. He may even reconsider the whole matter. But I think he will understand perfectly well what is going on here.

I believe that the Secretary of State is a man of integrity. I cast no aspersions on him. But genuine doubts have been raised which the Secretary of State should seek to satisfy, as he could legitimately do. Unless he is able to satisfy us in that regard, the matter will clearly be taken further.

Reference was made to a possible action in the courts by some of the interested parties. I do not know whether that will happen. But, irrespective of what happens in the courts, the House is entitled to receive more in the way of assurances than it has received so far.

Apart from the legal question, we should not lose sight of the other side of the argument. Whatever the law, there is nothing to stop the Secretary of State referring the matter. It is our submission that, in this case, he has come to a completely wrong decision. This large concentration of newspaper power will happen without the use of the scrutiny mechanism which Parliament itself has provided. We have to rely on the Secretary of State signing and endorsing those assurances that the parties themselves produced, and most of the assurances are those which were asked of Mr. Murdoch and which he has given.

There is great doubt also about how this arrangement can be effectively enforced through the mechanism of the Companies Acts. All these matters could have been looked at. We are told by the Secretary of State that that could not have been done in eight weeks. Had there been a real will, it could have been done in a shorter period than that. But even if it took eight weeks, would another four or five weeks' delay in dealing with the matter have been too much to ask, when so much is at stake? Are Parliament and Government to be held effectively to a position where they cannot use the legislation that they have provided for themselves, because the parties so arranged their affairs that they put the Government in this difficult position?

It is therefore important that Parliament should speak on the matter. If we were to let the matter pass without a vote, it would amount to Parliament's sanctioning a very doubtful proceeding. Parliament should not give its approval or sanction to the way in which the matter has been conducted. There is something badly wrong, and in their hearts and minds hon. Members on all sides know that. It is for that reason that we shall seek to divide the House, and I hope that our motion is carried.