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Dr. Ashok Kumar (Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Mr. Vara) on making such a moving maiden speech. He talked about all the former Members of Parliament who reside in his constituencyhe will not be short of advice, that is for sure. May I say, as someone who is also of Indian descentI was born in India of Punjabi descent and I share the same cultural spirit as the hon. Gentlemanthat it is a great pleasure for me to follow him? I wish him many happy years in the House and I wish his constituents well. I am sure that he will serve them with great spirit.
I want to use today's debate to highlight an aspect of competition law with which the Deputy Leader of the House might be familiar, given that he was previously a Minister in the Department of Trade and Industry. It concerns the Office of Fair Trading's recent consultation on newspaper and magazine distribution. This is a matter of concern to me and, I am sure, to other hon. Members.
If I wanted a newspaper or a magazine, I would go to my local newsagent or a corner shop to purchase one. Alternatively, I could order one, be it the Financial Times, the Daily Sport, or whatever interested me. The reason that we are able to get such newspapers locally is that the present distribution system enables us to purchase them everywhere, from supermarkets to local newsagents. The local papers that serve my area, such as the Evening Gazette and The Northern Echo, have also benefited from the unique distribution arrangement.
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The Evening Gazette, printed in Middlesbrough, goes to some 550 individual outlets across Teesside and parts of north Yorkshire. The vast majority of those are purely local and far removed from the high street. Its editor tells me that only 11.1 per cent. of its sales come from copies purchased in the big supermarkets. The overwhelming majority of its sales come from local newsagents, convenience stores, service stations and corner shops.
That arrangement is possible only because of a long-standing agreement between the publishers of the country's newspapers and magazines and a small number of distributors. The system works. Unlike most specialist retailers, newsagents have been a great success story. In 1995, there were 45,000 newsagents in the UK. There are now 54,000. Inevitably, however, the supermarket chains seem to want to crush this system, accusing it of being anti-competitive. They want to set up their own exclusive delivery system for magazines. They want a distribution system that would corner the lucrative mass market in the magazines that they sell.
The OFT is examining this issue, although there is no trace whatever of any popular desire among the people of this country for change to the current system. At the moment, the demand from supermarkets is for liberalisation only in the sale of magazines. The existing big distributors, however, carry magazines and newspapers together. They are not separate entities living in separate marketsthey are both printed words on paper. They are distributed through a system that ensures equality of access. Breaking up that arrangement and allowing the supermarkets to stitch up exclusive deals with distribution firms of their own choosing will have devastating effects. It will mean that the costs for all remaining distributors will rise if they are left to supply only newspapers and a few magazines to local newsagents and corner shops. It will mean that the distribution of newsprint to small villages, small towns and small shops could no longer be subsidised by sales to high street giants and out-of-town superstores.
I see that as a direct attack on the availability of news information and comment to the community. It will certainly affect my constituency, which consists of small towns, villages and outlying estates. All of those are served by thriving newsagents and good entrepreneurs in small shopkeepers. I wonder whether a newsprint distribution system will be willing to incur the costs of delivery to some of the small settlements in my constituency. How will they be able to take a small number of papers to tiny pockets of villages such as Skinningrove, Charltons or Carlin How if they cannot be supported by bulk sales to a supermarket? At that point, distributors might start to demand delivery charges, which most small shopkeepers will be unable to bear. If those shops are driven out of the newspaper market, local papers such as those serving my constituency will also feel the dual impact of lost sales and a declining readership. That will affect everyone in this country.
Local newspapers are a bastion of democracy in this country. As Members of the House, we might not always like what they say and might mutter about some of the letters that they carry, but they genuinely represent democracy and the free exchange of news and information in a local area. The possible options
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proposed by the OFT could act as a way of killing those organs of democracy. We should prevent that. News and information are not mere commodities that should be traded like jam and potatoes. Local papers and the ability to buy them are key requisites of a good, ordered and civilised society. The OFT cannot be allowed to kill off such an important function.
The Deputy Leader of the House should talk to his colleagues in the Department for Trade and Industry and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. I have written to them and they haveobliquelytaken in my concerns. I realise that they are in a difficult position because consultation is still under way, but I am still concerned, as are my local newspaper editors and newspaper managers. They are all equally horrified. They are all worried about the future of their local papers and their ability to reach out to a wide membership.
Mr. David Amess (Southend, West) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Mr. Vara) on his magnificent maiden speech. He spoke without notes, with great hand movements, with tremendous conviction, and with a wide knowledge of his constituency at a very early stage. I know I speak for everyone in the House when I wish him well for the future. He has a very bright future.
I have a shopping list for the Deputy Leader of the House. On a number of occasions, he will have heard me raise the plight of my constituent Maajid Nawaz, who, along with two other Brits, has been detained in a Cairo prison for three and a half years. Very recently, Maajid Nawaz and the other two British detainees witnessed the beating of another prisoner. They went to his assistance, and were then attacked themselves. Those three British detainees are now in the second week of a hunger strike. Mrs. Abi Nawaz, who came to my surgery recently, is extremely worried, and I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will do what he can to persuade the Foreign Office to deal with what is currently a dire situation.
I agonised about going public on the next issue that I intend to raise, but the family involved have now insisted that I do so. Last December Phil Collings, who was 20 years old, died outside Talk nightclub. The incident took place outside the club. One assailant held Phil around the neck, and the other held him from the front. The two men were arrested. One was the son of a police officer. I am advised by the family that the police never informed the pathologist who carried out the post mortem that Phil had suffered a blow. The result of the post mortem was therefore that he had died of natural causes. The family are not at all happy with the Crown Prosecution Service, which says it has decided to take no action. I have tried quietly to deal with Departments.
The family have now insisted that I raise the matter because two weeks ago a local taxi driver picked up a local police officer who started talking about the CCTV footage of the incident, which clearly showed that Phil had been involved in an altercation with others before his death and had received a blow. At this moment, the
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official position is that no CCTV footage exists. When I spoke to the taxi driver on the telephone last week, he was happy for me to go public. He will not rest until Phil's mother gets justice for her son. He was a twin. The family have been destroyed by what has happened, and I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will convey my disquiet to the other Departments with which I have tried to deal in a normal fashion without going public.
Let me raise a similar subject, and ask the Deputy Leader of the House to draw the attention of Home Office Ministers to the BBC 1 programme "Drunk and Dangerous". Everyone saw it: it was peak viewing at 9 pm two months ago. Disgraceful scenes were shown. Will the Deputy Leader of the House kindly ask Home Office Ministers why the nightclubs featured in the programme receive no objections from the police when their licences come up for renewal? I find that quite extraordinary.
The Deputy Leader of the House will also know that Southend council, my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East (James Duddridge) and I have a dispute with the Office for National Statistics, which claims that there are 20,000 fewer people living in Southend than actually live there. On 20 June, I held a public meeting about local bus services, which have had to be cut as a result of the funding situation. So many people turned up to that meeting that they could not all fit into the building. We are talking about people aged from their 60s to their 90s, and it was heartbreaking to hear the devastating effect that those cuts have had on their quality of life. The Minister for Local Government is doing a splendid job in trying to support the local councilwe had a very constructive meeting with himand I raise this issue again simply to ask the Deputy Leader of the House to pass on my concerns.
I am the chairman of the all-party group on solvent abuse, and today the Department of Health published its framework for volatile substance abuse, which is very good news. Until now, the Society for the Prevention of Solvent and Volatile Substance AbuseRe-Solvhas had to depend on charitable giving from the national lottery. The national lottery and LloydsTSB, which used to fund Re-Solv, have withdrawn their funding saying that funding for substance abuse victims should come from the Government. I ask the Deputy Leader of the House to relay my concerns to the Under-Secretary of State for Health, the hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint), and to request that she arrange a meetingI suspect that she will agreeso that we can address the funding problem.
During the last such Adjournment debate, I told the House that Southend United were involved in the play-offs at Cardiff for promotion to league one. I am delighted to report to the House that they won. I also told the House then that St. Bernard's high school for girls, in Westcliff-on-Sea, reached the final of the under-13s national football championship, held at Aston Villa's ground. I am delighted to report that they won. I further told the House that I hoped that the UK would win the right to stage the Olympic games in 2012. I join Mr. Putin, Mr. Chirac and Mr. Schröder in being absolutely delighted that we will indeed be staging the Olympics. In a debate in Westminster Hall in March 2004, I asked our excellent Minister for Sport and Tourism whether, if we were successful in that bid, Essex, and particularly Southend, could be involved. I
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ask the Deputy Leader of the House to find out from the Minister for Sport and Tourism how Essex and Southend will be involved in the staging of the Olympics.
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