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Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. If Members are leaving the Chamber, they should do so quietly and, hopefully, in ones or twos, rather than like a football crowd. That will allow us to get on with the next items of business.
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Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): I propose to put together the Questions on motions 3 to 5.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6) (Standing Committees on Delegated Legislation),

Representation of the People

That the draft Representation of the People (England and Wales) (Amendment) Regulations 2006, which were laid before this House on 24th January, be approved.

Constitutional Law

That the draft National Assembly for Wales (Representation of the People) (Amendment) Order 2006, which was laid before this House on 24th January, be approved.

Representation of the People (Scotland)

That the draft Representation of the People (Scotland) (Amendment) Regulations 2006, which were laid before this House on 6th February, be approved.—[Mr. Heppell.]

Question agreed to.



7.17 pm

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): I am pleased to support an organisation called The Way Nature Intended in presenting to Parliament a petition signed by just over 1,000 people and collected by breast-feeding support groups around the country to support a change to legislation to make it illegal to discriminate against mothers because of how they decide to feed their babies. There are several thousand more signatures to the same petition online, but Parliament currently does not accept web-based petitions.

The petition states:

To lie upon the Table.

Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Bill

7.19 pm

David Lepper (Brighton, Pavilion) (Lab/Co-op): The petition is from the Brighton and Hove Chinese Society and has 92 signatures.

The petition

1 Mar 2006 : Column 371

To lie upon the Table.

Planning Application (Canvey Island)

7.20 pm

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): The trend in the south-east now seems to be for blocks of flats to be shoehorned into very small places. That has a number of consequences: it maximises developers' profits and it suits the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, which is trying to cram more houses into the south-east, but it has negative consequences for local communities, particularly as it places great stress on their infrastructure. This petition relates to such a case, and I pay tribute to Mr. and Mrs. Archer and Paul Bailey, who organised it, and to all who signed it.

The petition states:

To lie upon the Table.

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Local Press Ownership

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Heppell.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Before I call the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell), I just say to the Minister and the House that the hon. Gentleman is seriously incapacitated and is being given special dispensation to remain seated while he addresses the House this evening.

7.21 pm

Mr. Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby) (Lab): Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am most grateful for that permission to remain seated for entirely non-alcoholic reasons. I hope that it will not inhibit the ability of other Members to stand and applaud, as usual, during a speech on the Adjournment.

I declare an interest, first, in that I am a member of the National Union of Journalists. Secondly, I, too, have been fired by the Yorkshire Post for, I assume, economic reasons; it could not have been because of the quality of the articles that I was writing. Thirdly, I am chair of the parliamentary NUJ group. The situation has slightly changed since I requested the debate, which is basically about job cuts in regional and provincial newspapers. The Daily Mail and General Trust's proposal to sell off Northcliffe Press, which has 113 titles, including the Grimsby Telegraph and the Scunthorpe Telegraph, has now been postponed pro tem.

I wonder whether that is because I wrote to Lord Rothermere personally to advise him against the move. Although I do not like Northcliffe's politics in any way, it is one of the better organised groups and it has always been more concerned with quality, journalistic standards, training and the appointment of good editors—certainly at the Grimsby Telegraph—within the group. Grimsby has always had a good quality local evening paper, so I did not want the young Lord Rothermere to be misled by City slickers advising, as they usually do because of the fees that they get, "Sell and acquire," or by the conmen who often cluster round powerful figures advising them to invest in new technology such as the dotcom bubble of a few years back and abandon what they are doing well. I was delighted that although Lord Rothermere's reply did not exactly say, "My God, Mitchell, you are quite right. Why didn't I think of that? Would you like a directorship?", the plans have been slightly postponed, and I hope that that will give us the power to fight another day in this matter.

As an illustration of what is going on in the local press because of the preparations for the sale, Northcliffe's strategy involved a programme of redundancies and job losses. As the term goes, there was a "feeding down" of local newspapers to make them more profitable before selling them. The programme was called "Aim Higher", which journalists, with their usual cynicism, promptly called "Aim Fire". That involved getting rid of substantial numbers of journalists throughout the country to make the group more saleable.

That process has been repeated in every newspaper group throughout the country. These days, provincial newspapers are basically in chains. They are born free, but everywhere they are in chains, and the chains are
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looking to profitability. Trinity Mirror has 230 titles. Last year, it made a profit of £172 million. It is proposing hundreds of redundancies. Newsquest was £700 million in profit last year. It has 216 titles. It has already fired 25 subs in Colchester and between 60 and 70 in Scotland. Johnston had a profit of £177 million last year. It has 283 titles. It has just closed its press in Scarborough. Archant made a profit of £332 million out of 80 titles and is firing 17 subs in Norfolk. Even The Guardian is going through this process. There will be hundreds, if not more than 1,000, job losses in provincial newspapers.

This is being done at a time when the provincial press is profitable. It is said that it is being done because other advertising media—internet websites—will take revenue from other forms of profitable classified advertising, which provides about 50 per cent. of the revenue of local newspapers. If that were the motive, newspapers could always buy up the competition, as they bought up the free sheets. At present, regional newspapers are very profitable and becoming more profitable year on year. Profit margins are between 20 and 35 per cent. Those margins are higher than any margins in the local press in France, Germany, Europe generally and the United States. Advertising spending is increasing in local newspapers by 5.8 per cent. a year, and has increased every year for 13 years.

It is not the fact that these newspapers are unprofitable and are thus subject to job losses. They are local monopolies that do not face competition, which would enforce higher spending, so they are able to reduce the numbers of journalists and to cut spending on staff generally. The other factor to take into account is the growing power of the newspaper chains that want to increase the rate of return that they pay to their shareholders. In fact, that is the main explanation for what is going on.

The consequences of those job losses fall on the quality of the newspapers. Despite what some directors and, particularly, accountants seem to think, journalists do need newspapers, and newspapers need journalists. Newspapers cannot be produced without journalists. Cut the journalism and all else fails. That is a failure from which we all suffer, as does local democracy. There is less coverage of council meetings, less coverage of the courts and less coverage of all local bodies. There is less coverage of the arguments over, for example, academy schools. There is less discussion and less analysis of what is going on locally.

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