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Newspaper Supply Chain

Volume 577: debated on Wednesday 19 March 2014

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dobbin. I am grateful to Mr Speaker for granting this debate. I commend the Minister because this is her second debate in a row.

The issue of the newspaper supply chain and independent newsagents is covered by two Government Departments, so it is important that independent newsagents know which Minister and Department they can go to. I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Minister is responding this afternoon. I would be grateful if, in her response, she told us whether there are plans for one Minister to take the lead on this issue and oversee the policies that affect independent retailers.

Independent newspapers have been an integral part of many communities for decades. I am the daughter of former shopkeepers, and I spent more than 35 years living above a shop. My parents would go downstairs at the crack of dawn to open the shop, mark up newspapers and deal with the many challenges of the newspaper supply chain, so I have first-hand experience of the benefits to local communities of independent newsagents and the challenges of the newspaper supply chain.

Today is Budget day, so we should remember that our economy benefits from having prosperous, dynamic, independent newsagents; it is an important sector. Whether it is a friendly face at the counter who knows exactly what each customer comes in to buy, or a paper boy earning money for the first time and getting work experience—I have plenty of experience of delivering newspapers—independent newsagents offer high-quality, personalised services. As much as we welcome choice in where we shop, we all recognise that large supermarkets and online platforms do not do that.

Conservative Ministers deserve credit for taking action to support the sector. In particular, they have cut the small profits rate of corporation tax, increased the cap on business rates—that is an important step—cut fuel duty by more than Labour planned, reduced the burden on employers of national insurance contributions, and cut red tape, which has made a significant difference. The announcements in today’s Budget, apart from the usual increase in tobacco duty, with which we would not argue, also give independent newsagents a helping hand.

However, it is clear that over a number of years independent newsagents have faced difficult challenges that have forced many out of business. New tobacco controls have harmed responsible independent retailers. They have also driven many customers into the arms of illicit traders and smugglers, but that is a subject for another debate. The expansion of supermarkets brought more challenges. Changes to the newspaper and magazine market, including the expansion of existing newspapers’ online media platforms, new entrants to the market and the growth of free newspapers, have led to a decline in newspaper sales. The terms and conditions imposed on independent retailers by wholesalers are a part of the challenge they face.

I want to concentrate on the relationship between newspaper and magazine wholesalers and independent newspapers. The underlying trends and changes in how consumers digest newspapers and the news is highly relevant, because it has led to change in the marketplace.

Since the turn of the millennium, independent newsagents have suffered a fall in sales caused by the emergence of free newspapers—we all pick them up—that target the commuter market. The Metro and the Evening Standard, which are available in railway and underground stations, are two prominent examples. However, newsagents have also felt the impact of technological changes; more and more content is available online. All the main newspapers now invest heavily in their online platforms, which are updated minute by minute, particularly on Budget day. The growth in the use of smartphones and tablets has enabled news groups to provide news in a much more user-friendly way. Consumers are able to seek out and read news stories on other platforms, such as blogs. As a result, hard copy sales are falling. In the past two years alone—between March 2012 and February 2014—sales declined by 16% from 18.3 million to 15.4 million.

Despite the challenges that those changes pose to the traditional ways of selling newspapers, there are still some positive features for independent newsagents. Many people still go to their newsagent on the way to work and value the service they receive, and national news groups still see a role for print editions, which is important for independent newsagents. Few of us would find fault in news groups’ entrepreneurial and commercial decisions to use new technologies—we have all got to embrace new technology—or the cost-effective ways in which consumers digest news.

However, an issue that needs to be addressed, which places independent newsagents at a disadvantage and hampers their ability to compete and respond, is the wholesalers’ control of the newspaper supply chain and their vice-like grip on independent newsagents. The Minister is aware of the campaign that the National Federation of Retail Newsagents, the Association of Convenience Stores and many others in the sector ran to raise awareness about the lack of competition in the wholesale market. The are only two main wholesalers that operate in Great Britain: Smiths News and Menzies Distribution. They operate in what can be described only as a near monopoly, or near duopoly. National publishers of newspapers and magazines sign exclusive distribution rights deals with those wholesalers. Prices are set and there is no scope for independent newsagents to get involved in the negotiations, so their voices are not heard. A third wholesaler, Dawson Holdings, ended its magazine and newspaper distribution activities in 2009 after losing out on contracts with publishers.

Smaller independent wholesalers that traditionally operate at a local or regional level have been squeezed out as publishers have concentrated their contracts with Smiths and Menzies. As a result, if a newsagent wishes to trade in newspapers, they are effectively at the mercy of the wholesaler when it comes to terms and conditions, the quality of service—which many newsagents would question—and charges.

I commend the hon. Lady for raising this issue. Like her, I have been contacted by constituents and small newsagents who are penalised by Menzies and other wholesalers, and have had their contract conditions changed without negotiation or consultation. Will the Minister respond to that issue? If an independent newsagent has a contract, how can they be charged extra money without consultation? There is no thought for the independent newsagent, who makes little money as it is.

I completely agree. That is the reality of what we are dealing with. It is not a new problem; it has been going on for decades. There is a lack of negotiation, and newsagents are just a second thought. Any newsagent will be able to wax lyrical about the poor service they receive. From my experience in my parents’ shop, I have seen the supermarket down the road getting its newspapers first. When the newspapers are taken off the lorry, the independent newsagent is bypassed completely. That is simply not acceptable, but the wholesalers operate a virtual monopoly.

It is astounding that despite the monopoly conditions to which independent retailers are subjected, the Office of Fair Trading decided in 2009 and 2012 against referring the matter to the Competition Commission for further investigation. There is a strong case for opening up the sector and looking at the way those organisations are governed. That outcome is grossly unfair to the tens of thousands of independent newsagents who, as I know, are up at 4 am—before dawn—to serve the public. They work long hours to deliver a service for their customers, but they are forced to accept declining margins, higher charges and appalling service.

In my capacity as chair of the all-party small shops group, I am frequently contacted about this issue. I receive regular communications from newsagents across the country about the problems they encounter as a result of the lack of competition in the wholesale market. If a newsagent is dissatisfied with the products they sell and the terms and conditions they receive, they are hemmed in, because there are not many places for them to go. When it comes to general products, an independent newsagent can go to many cash and carries—of course they can, because there is competition in the marketplace—but they are limited as to where they can go for newspapers and magazines. There is simply no other avenue, which is why so many newsagents feel aggrieved. The market is stacked, rigged against them, and the Minister must review that.

The consequences of a lack of competition in the wholesale market and the dominance of the relationship between the publishers and wholesalers over independent retailers are profound. Notably, the margins that newsagents receive on newspapers are declining, and fast. Just as the cover prices of newspapers are set by the publishers, so too are the margins that retailers receive. When prices increase, the share that the retailer receives does not always follow. Some newspapers, such as The Telegraph and the Express, have accompanied their recent price increases with a pro rata rise in the amount received by the retailer, so that the margin remains the same. Many others, however, have not done so. The Mirror, for example, did not pass on a pro rata rate when prices increased from 70p to 80p in January, with the percentage received by retailers being slashed from 22% to 21%. In Scotland, the equivalent margin fell from 23% to 21%. Since January, it has been reported that one particular publisher has cut the margins received by retailers for 65 out of 138 titles.

It is understandable that publishers and wholesalers are looking for savings and efficiencies; I understand that the marketplace is changing. However, the arbitrary nature of decisions to cut retailers’ margins seems harsh—it is a blunt instrument—and the effect on profitability is pretty stark for independent retailers. I hope that the Minister will look into that aspect of the relationship between wholesalers and publishers.

On top of the fact that margins are being eroded, newsagents face higher costs from what are known as carriage charges, imposed by wholesalers. Originally introduced after the first world war to protect the universal availability of newspapers and their distribution to remote areas, carriage charges have soared over the past 20 to 25 years. I know that because my dad always used to complain about them. Despite the falling volume of newspapers and magazines being sold and distributed, carriage charges are rising and now represent the primary source of profit for wholesalers.

It says something about the effect of carriage charges in recent years when an increase of 2% announced by Smiths last summer was welcomed by some newsagents. That puts the figures into context. The fact that the steep rise in carriage charges has coincided with the signing of exclusive distribution deals between publishers and wholesalers, and with the collapse of competition among wholesalers, adds to the injustice that independent retailers feel—it is the icing on the cake—with a duopoly in place and the OFT failing to take action.

I think the hon. Lady’s dad was right. We debated this issue in this Chamber 10 years ago, when there were more wholesale distributors. We are now down to two, but they have cut their nose off to spite their face; they have forced the costs on to retailers, and now corner shops are going out of business and circulation is declining. Short-term profit-making is significantly undermining the entire industry in the long term.

I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman. The shops that we are talking about are the lifeblood of many communities. I have seen, over 35 years, a massive change; there is no doubt that we have seen many big changes. Increases in carriage charges are relevant not only to Great Britain but to Northern Ireland. Newsagents there have faced huge increases in the past 12 months alone. I would be interested to hear from the Minister about where there is scope to review the changes to carriage charges.

On that subject, the costs in Northern Ireland are exorbitant—I believe they are greater than here on the UK mainland. Independent newsagents have informed me and other elected representatives that it is getting to the point where they will have to decide whether to carry newspapers at all, because the margins are so tight. At the end of the day, it does not add up. Let us be honest: small shops are selling perhaps 100 newspapers, or 200 at the very most—there is no profit in that.

The hon. Gentleman makes a really interesting point. I make it my business to visit many independent shops, particularly newsagents, and I always ask about the number of newspapers they are selling. The figures are staggering, because they are declining at such a rate. I remember, when I was a child, the bundles of our Sunday newspapers being enormous—we were dealing with hundreds and hundreds of newspapers on a weekend alone. That landscape really has changed completely.

Along with all the additional costs, independent retailers are frustrated by the appalling service that they receive from wholesalers. Of course, that has a knock-on effect on their business and the quality of service that they can offer to their customers. When their newspapers are delivered late, people stop going to those shops. I hear many reports from newsagents about late paper deliveries. Other newsagents find that the wholesaler has given them the wrong order or the wrong number of newspapers, or that the supplier has gone to the supermarket down the road, and not to their shop.

Although there is a process by which a newsagent can complain, it does not change a thing. It just adds to the stress and frustration of running a business. Newsagents feel increasingly powerless to get redress for their situation. With the latest promotion by one supermarket chain—it gives away free newspapers to customers spending more than £5—the squeeze is being felt even more. Will the Minister update us on what action the Government are taking to investigate possible abuses in the supply chain and to ensure that independent retailers are not unfairly disadvantaged?

In conclusion, independent newsagents, some of which are dependent for 75% of their business on newspaper sales, deserve to be treated with fairness—the debate is all about fairness in the supply chain. Unless changes are made to boost competition and give them a fair deal, including involvement in negotiations and decision making, more and more newsagents will struggle to compete. We will see more withdraw from the marketplace because they will not be able to survive, and our communities will be much poorer as a result. One newsagent put it clearly:

“the big point that needs to be made is that falling sales, shrinking margins and disproportionately high carriage charges will before long drive many smaller news retailers out of the market, to the detriment of consumers—notably the elderly who may not be tech-savvy and digitally aware of the alternatives to print editions.”

I hope that the Minister will give due consideration to the points I have made, and will help us to see what can be done to support the future of independent newsagents. These are small and micro-businesses, and the Government are doing great things for similarly sized companies. The issue should be reviewed by the Competition and Markets Authority, and the Government should work with newsagents to assess the reforms that are long overdue. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.

Thank you very much, Mr Dobbin—from one subject to another.

I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel) for securing this debate on such an important issue, albeit one that is not raised as often in the House as the subject of the previous debate. I am present to address my hon. Friend’s concerns as the Minister with responsibility for competition, but I will ensure that the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis), who has responsibility for retail and small shops—indeed, shops of any size—is aware of the debate as well, because it is an important issue.

My hon. Friend rightly pointed out that independent newsagents are an important part of local communities—they can be crucial—and of the UK economy more generally. I was therefore delighted to see figures from the Office for National Statistics—I have said that about five times today—that show that small stores are seeing annual growth of 8%, whereas larger stores are seeing growth of 2.6%. That shows that small stores have an important place in communities, and that their position is quite resilient.

The public’s ability to access a wide range of news, views and information about the world in which we live is absolutely central to the health of our democracy and society. Even in an increasingly digital world, access to a range of newspapers is a critical part of ensuring a healthy and vibrant democracy. It is important, therefore, that the market in the supply and retail of newspapers continues to operate in the best interests of consumers.

Newspaper publishers in the UK operate in a two-sided market, generating income from both advertising and sales. Publishers therefore take into account how circulation affects the revenue generated from both the cover price and advertising. On the other hand, wholesalers and retailers exist in a more traditional, one-sided market, so they are more likely to be interested in how changes to cover prices or delivery charges affect their sales volumes and profit margins. Although different elements of the supply chain clearly have different objectives, it is in their best interests to co-operate to promote effective newspaper sales, particularly in the face of changing consumer behaviour. As part of that, ensuring an efficient, cost-effective method of providing retailers and consumers with newspapers is important.

My hon. Friend raised concerns about competition in the market. Whenever the Government look at competition issues in sectors, they take into account assessments made by the UK’s independent competition authorities. In the case of newspaper supply, the Office of Fair Trading considered the market in a broad and detailed way over several years and, as part of those investigations, consulted widely and collected much evidence. In 2008, the OFT published competition guidance to the newspaper wholesale sector. It did not give the sector a clean bill of health on competition, but said that the industry should assess its distribution agreements against that guidance and make any necessary changes.

In 2012, the OFT looked at whether it needed to carry out a follow-up review, but decided it was unnecessary. As my hon. Friend said, the Association of Convenience Stores and the National Federation of Retail Newsagents appealed that decision to the Competition Appeal Tribunal, but the tribunal supported the OFT’s decision and said that it was right to consider that the likely consumer benefit did not justify undertaking a review.

That does not mean, however, that the UK competition authorities will not consider the issue again in the future. The new Competition and Markets Authority will launch on 1 April and take on the OFT’s and Competition Commission’s competition responsibilities. In the strategic steer to the CMA issued by the Government last October, we asked it to

“consider potential competition concerns in business-to-business markets, including the effects of differences in bargaining power between firms in a supply chain.”

This issue is therefore quite clearly in its remit.

The CMA’s draft annual plan showed that it is aware of the risks posed in particular by the current economic climate. If my hon. Friend has new evidence that anti-competitive practices in newspaper supply are causing detriment either to consumers or to businesses in the supply chain, I encourage her to submit that to the CMA for consideration.

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) raised concerns about contracts being changed without consultation and negotiation. That is clearly wrong: contracts should not be able to be changed unilaterally. If he is aware of evidence of such behaviour, I encourage him to provide that to the CMA because it will have strong powers to take action against anti-competitive behaviour by businesses.

My hon. Friend also raised concerns about the impact on small retailers of supermarket chains offering discounted or free newspapers. I know that that issue has been raised with several Members by their constituents; it is a concern. Large stores can benefit from economies of scale and in this very competitive marketplace they look for inventive ways to increase their market share. That can make it extremely difficult for smaller shops to compete with them; smaller shops simply do not have the same capacity to provide such offers. I have already said this to some Members, but if small retailers believe that local supermarkets are behaving anti-competitively, I encourage them to raise their concerns with the CMA, because it is within its powers to look at this area. The CMA will have wide-ranging powers from 1 April to tackle such behaviour, and I will write to it with a transcript of this debate to highlight the concerns that have been raised today and to make sure that they are on its radar.

Looking more broadly than at the supply of newspapers, the Government are aware of the need to support small retailers, to help to drive sustained growth. My hon. Friend highlighted some of the things that the Government have done. For example, the autumn statement announced the biggest business rate support package for 20 years, to try to support small businesses, with measures including extending the doubling of the small business rate relief; giving a discount of £1,000 for smaller retail premises; and introducing the option to pay bills over 12 months rather than 10. We are keen to support small businesses, particularly as we come out of the difficult financial circumstances that we have been in recently.

Alongside that, in December last year the Government announced the town centre support package, which builds on a range of other measures that have been taken to help high streets. That package could be particularly helpful to independent retailers, many of which are in high streets. They are not out-of-town businesses—I have not seen a small, independent out-of-town newsagent—so that sort of policy can benefit small retailers as well.

In addition, the Government published, “Small business: GREAT ambition”, in December last year, which sets out our commitment to make it easier for small businesses to grow. It was published on small business Saturday, which I know a number of Members across the House took part in. That event gave everyone the opportunity to celebrate small firms and it is important that we do so; often, small firms get crowded out and it is difficult for them to have the opportunity to raise awareness of what they do and the part they play in our communities. One of the businesses that I visited in my constituency on that day is a fabulous newsagent and sweet shop. It is called the Royal sweet shop and it has now been in existence in Cardiff in the same place in the Royal Arcade for—I think—103 years. It has the most amazing display of sweets that I have ever seen—I think people’s teeth practically rot as they walk in. It was very nice to have the opportunity to support the important small businesses that add vibrancy to our town centres and our communities. They have an important role to play, not only at an economic level but in supporting our communities.

I repeat my thanks to my hon. Friend for the opportunity to debate this issue today. I hope that I have managed to make it clear that the Government and the competition authorities are concerned about this issue; it is an important issue that we take seriously. I appreciate the difficulties currently being faced by independent retailers; it is not an easy time for them. I hope that, as the economy slowly starts to return to health, small retailers will be able to take advantage of the opportunities that exist for them, and I encourage hon. Members to raise their concerns with the CMA. As I said, I will write to the CMA myself, to ensure that it takes on board the concerns that have been raised today.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.