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Newsprint Import Restrictions

Volume 440: debated on Thursday 17 July 1947

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21.

asked the President of the Board of Trade what is the estimated daily reduction in the number of inches of reading matter and advertisements, respectively, which will be caused by the cut in imports of newsprint; and what will be the saving in dollars per yard.

I am unable to state the reduction in the number of inches of matter which will result. The newspapers will either reduce their size by one page per issue or will reduce their circulation to a corresponding extent.

Will the President say whether the Government do or do not desire a free expression of news and opinions, and if they do, will they not consider some alternative to this cut, which saves only a comparatively few dollars?

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will wait until I answer another series of Questions on this matter in a moment.

24.

asked the President of the Board of Trade whether, in view of the widespread concern about, and opposition to, the cut in newsprint decided on by the Government, he will have the position re-investigated with the object of reversing a policy liable to misunderstanding in Canada and elsewhere, involving unfair discrimination against a particular industry, and likely to endanger regular future supplies of the material on which the future expansion of the British Press depends.

No, Sir. The whole circumstances have been very carefully examined, but owing to the present difficulties of our balance of payments, a reduction in imports must be made. There is no question of discrimination against a particular industry; this is a case where economies can be made without undue hardship to the public or reduction of our power to export.

Is my right hon. and learned Friend not aware of the fact that public opinion is most seriously disturbed about this newsprint cut? Is he further aware of the fact that we may well be squeezed out of the Canadian market for newsprint as a result of the Government's policy, and, again, that small independent newspapers may be driven into monopolies, which is entirely opposed to the policy for which this Government stands?

I am fully aware of all those arguments, which were put forward when the matter was being discussed. I am also aware that the newspapers naturally have a good opportunity of making the most of this cut.

In view of the fact that this decision affects many Government Departments, was this decision to cut newsprint a Cabinet or a Departmental decision?

Are we to understand that these restrictions are coming into effect immediately; that on Monday there will be a cut in the size of all the newspapers—definitely on Monday?

I understand it has been arranged to introduce the new regime on 21st July.

On a point of Order, Mr. Speaker. Would this be the right moment to ask you in those circumstances and in view of that answer, to consider a notice of Motion for the Adjournment of the House under Standing Order No. 8 on a definite matter of urgent public importance?

The right hon. and learned Gentleman can raise it after Questions if he so chooses, and then I shall have an opportunity meanwhile of considering it.

It the right hon. and learned Gentleman is going to raise the matter after Questions, we had better continue with Questions.

25, 26 and 27.

asked the President of the Board of Trade (1) whether in view of the statement of the Newsprint Supply Company that the restriction of imports, which begins on Monday, will involve the cancellation of longterm contracts with North American mills, the Government will urgently reconsider the position;

(2) what action His Majesty's Government proposes to take, in conjunction with the Newsprint Supply Company, to honour the contracts made with North American mills for 150,000 tons of newsprint in 1947, 180,000 tons in 1948 and 300,000 tons in 1949, in view of the new restriction on imports;

(3) whether in view of the fact that the new restriction on newsprint supplies, in- volving a return to smaller papers and other disabilities will effect a dollar saving of only £1 million in the next six months, the Government will withdraw the restriction.

The Newsprint Supply Company have been informed that they may proceed by way of postponing deliveries of some 48,000 tons of newsprint due for delivery from North America during the coming six months, which will involve a saving of about £1,100,000 in Canadian dollars. There cannot be any commitment as to deliveries of these or any further quantities later, but I shall be ready to re-examine the whole matter by the beginning of next year in the light of the general balance of payments position as it then is. In these circumstances, the Newsprint Supply Company will no doubt consider with their suppliers what adjustments are necessary in their present contracts. With regard to the third Question, I would refer my hon. Friend to the reply I have just given to my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Mr. Skeffington-Lodge).

Are we to understand that these contracts remain and are not cancelled, but merely deferred; and if it is a fact of deferment, have the Canadian and Newfoundland mills been consulted, or is it merely a term, "deferment of contract," without consultation with the people to whom the contract was given on the advice of my right hon. and learned Friend?

There is no question of cur breaking a contract, because we have not any. The Newsprint Supply Company have been informed that there will not be the dollars available for the quantity of paper I have mentioned, and it has been suggested to them that they should adjust the contract.

Am I right in estimating that a similar saving in dollars could be effected by a cut of one-seventeenth in the import of American films, and would it not be more in the national interest to impose such a cut than to inflict such Draconian restrictions on the British Press?

I think it is extremely doubtful whether anything would be saved at all by cutting the importation of even half the American films; they would then collect the same sum of money on half the number of films.

May I ask the President of the Board of Trade whether he has considered cutting tobacco by another million pounds in order to make this saving, because he cuts it in very large figures£10 million at a time£so why not cut £11 million, and so avoid this cut?

We considered that it would be undue discrimination against the tobacco smoker and tobacco trade if they were asked to carry more than the 25 per cent. reduction they have already had imposed upon them.

Could I ask my right hon. and learned Friend whether or not this long-term contract running till 1959 was made with the Newfoundland mills on a written statement of the Government that dollars would be available?

There was, I understand, a statement made. I am not quite sure whether it was in writing or not, but there was a statement made that dollars would be available and, had the circumstances been different, they would have been.

Is the right hon. and learned Gentleman aware that there is a suspicion in many people's minds—by no means all opponents of the Government—that the action of the Government cannot be dissociated from their well-known dislike of and contempt for the popular Press, and that they are doing this deliberately?

I am afraid I cannot prevent suspicion coming into the mind of anybody who is suspicious, but it is quite clear that the Government are taking this action in order to deal with the balance of payments and not with the Press.

Would not my right hon. and learned Friend agree that it is an actual fact that before Lord Layton undertook the negotiations with Canadian suppliers, he had in his possession a letter from my right hon. and learned Friend stating in the most specific terms that import licences and exchange facilities for a five-year agreement would be available, and that is the basis upon which those negotiations took place?

I understand that is quite accurate; circumstances, unfortunately, have altered since.

Has the right hon. and learned Gentleman considered that while this is not discrimination against a particular industry, it is discrimination against the whole public? Democracy cannot function without adequate information, and adequate information cannot be given with the present space available in the Press.

Are we to gather from the President's reply that he seriously does not distinguish between smoking and the power of the Press and the importance of the Press; and does he realise that this will mean the closing of the doors to young journalists and ex-Service men about to make their way, and that the whole House, I think, feels the intolerance and the mistake of this decision?

With regard to these supplementary questions, I should like to point out that this Question only deals with the cancellation of a contract.

May I ask the President of the Board of Trade whether, in view of the fact that a perfectly plain statement from the Government that dollars would be available has been gone back on, in future any contract entered into and based on an absolutely unequivocal statement by the Government must be qualified to mean "unless we think it is not right to do it later."

I think that in all cases where there are emergency conditions arising as regards balance of payments, the Government must be able to take what action they think best for the country.

On a point of Order, Mr. Speaker; owing to the extremely unsatisfactory replies given by my right hon. and learned Friend, I beg to give notice that I will raise the matter on the Adjournment.

At the end of Questions:

In consequence of the answer given earlier today by the President of the Board of Trade, I ask leave to move the Adjournment of the House for the purpose of discussing a definite matter of urgent public importance involving the administrative responsibility of the Government, namely, the immediate reduction in the allocation of newsprint to the Press. Before I bring this Motion to the Chair, would you allow me, Mr. Speaker, to make a respectful submission—first, that it is definite, because it involves the restriction of newsprint to all newspapers in this country—

The right hon. and learned Gentleman had better make his submission after he has brought the Motion to the Chair, if necessary. To make it before I give a decision would appear to be unnecessary.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman has asked me for leave to move the Adjournment of the House to discuss a definite matter of urgent public importance involving the responsibility of the Government, namely, the immediate reduction in the allocation of newsprint to the Press. To be quite candid with the right hon. and learned Gentleman the only new point that I can see here is that arising from the word "immediate." The matter was discussed on 8th July on the general question of the restriction of imports, but I find it rather hard, as a matter of fact, to give a decision on this. The point, I quite realise, centres round the word "immediate," and the Debate is to be confined to the allocation of newsprint to the Press and not on the general question of the restriction of imports of paper. On those grounds, I think I should be justified in asking if the right hon. and learned Gentleman has the leave of the House.

The pleasure of the House having been signified, the Motion stood over, under Standing Order No. 8, until Seven o'Clock this evening.