Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page


Lord Sainsbury of Turville: Amendment No. 130 appears to relate to a subsection—subsection (1A)—that does not appear in the Bill. On that basis alone I would ask the noble Lord to withdraw it. But in the light of the explanation given by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, it may be helpful for me to set out why I do not believe that any amendments relating to the handling of newspaper mergers are needed.

This is an important issue and one that we are taking forward through the Communications Bill. Those provisions will replace the special newspaper regime of the Fair Trading Act with a streamlined and less burdensome regime that focuses regulatory action on those newspaper transfers that appear to raise competition or what can be generally termed "plurality concerns". By "plurality" we mean to encompass the public interest in the accurate presentation of the news, free expression of opinion and plurality of views in the UK press.

The effect of the new provisions will be that only those cases raising real plurality concerns will be subject to the additional newspaper merger provisions. Other transactions that do not raise such concerns will

18 Jul 2002 : Column 1495

be examined—if at all—only under the normal merger provisions in the Enterprise Bill. There will no longer be a bar to parties completing a newspaper transfer before the Secretary of State has given her consent. Rather, the competition authorities will consider any competition issues raised by a newspaper transfer in the same way as they do in the case of any other merger which qualifies for consideration. And the Secretary of State will intervene in merger cases only where she considers issues of plurality should also be considered.

I believe that to be the intention behind Amendment No. 130. However, the Government also want the new regime to apply regardless of the identity or existing business interests of the person acquiring the newspaper, if the merger would involve a newspaper that has a 25 per cent share of supply in a substantial part of the United Kingdom. The provisions to be brought forward in the Communications Bill will ensure that that is the case.

The reason we have not put the reform in the Enterprise Bill is that the Government wanted interested parties to be able to consider their proposals on media ownership in the round. That is why we consulted on proposals for reform of the special newspaper regime in the White Paper, A New Future for Communications, and in the November 2001, Consultation on Media Ownership Rules, and will be bringing forward provisions in the Communications Bill to deliver a regulatory framework for the communications industry as a whole.

The plurality of views and opinions in the press continues to be of vital public interest and the Government remain committed to protecting those in relation to the transfer of newspaper titles. In the light of that explanation of the provisions we will bring forward in the Communications Bill, I invite the noble Lord to withdraw the amendment.

Lord Hunt of Wirral: I am interested in what the Minister said. I do not believe that he or his ministerial colleagues alerted me to the fact that they had decided not to do what they said on 11th May they would do. I recall the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, saying that he would let us know what the decision was when we debated the Bill at Second Reading. But no one has alerted me since that time to the fact that the decision had been taken not to include it in the Enterprise Bill, even though the draft Communications Bill makes it clear that it would be contained in the Enterprise Bill.

I am not sure why the Government reached that decision other than the Minister's statement that he wanted the provisions to be seen in the round. But if the Communications Bill is proceeding, as is the Enterprise Bill, and we are now approaching the Recess, presumably it is possible for us to be told what the provisions are to be. Though the Government may have decided to put them in the Communications Bill, they have not yet detailed what they are to be. I may be incorrect and perhaps the Minister will put me right on that.

18 Jul 2002 : Column 1496

I have not seen any detail of the provisions which were to be included in the Enterprise Bill dealing with exceptional public interest. That relates to newspapers generally and indeed to any other EPI cases. It would be helpful if the Minister could correct me if I am wrong.

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: I believe that we wrote to the noble Lord, but I shall check on that and confirm what the position is.

Lord Hunt of Wirral: I shall check. I have not seen the letter, but it may well have been sent in my direction. Will it contain the provisions which are so clearly flagged up on page 60 of the document, which is only two months old? It would be very helpful if the Minister can give some indication.

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: I do not believe that there was any intention to include newspapers in the Enterprise Bill. Indeed, a memorandum has been provided to the Joint Committee on the Communications Bill which sets out some of the fundamental issues.

Lord Hunt of Wirral: I was aware that there was a memorandum. The Minister may wish to write to me in more detail. When the Government issued this paper in May, presumably they had some idea of the provisions they were planning to table in the Enterprise Bill detailing the exceptional public interest—the EPI—cases. Perhaps the easiest thing is for the Minister to let me know what the provisions are, whether there will be a read-across and, if so, to what extent, between the Communications Bill and the Enterprise Bill.

I hope that the Minister will recognise that the reason why this matter is of such considerable interest is the need to safeguard the free press we have in this country and to have some assurance that what happened in the case of Mr Richard Desmond will never happen again. I notice that when this issue was debated in the other place on this Bill, one Back-Bencher on the Labour side said how disgraceful he thought the episode had been.

It may be of assistance to the Minister if I set out briefly what it is that causes so much concern and why we need his reassurance on these matters. On 26th October 2000, the then Secretary of State, Mr Byers, announced that, following the Tebbit doctrine, he would accept the advice of the Director-General of Fair Trading on take-over matters, save in exceptional circumstances.

On 22nd November, Mr Desmond announced that he and his Northern & Shell media group had decided to pay 125 million for Express Newspapers. I am not going to repeat all the accusations because they have been aired elsewhere. But Mr Desmond's record gave rise to some serious concern. The Minister may recall that on 7th February the then Secretary of State announced that he was not going to refer the take-over of the Daily Express to the Competition Commission. I believe that there was serious concern about that, not

18 Jul 2002 : Column 1497

only because of Mr Desmond's record in other titles and alleged pornographic involvement. I would not besmirch the ears of Members of the Committee by reading out even the titles of some of the magazines like Horny Housewives or Mega-Boobs except to give an idea to the Committee of the kind of titles we are referring to, which are quite disgusting.

I mentioned that the director-general had advised the Secretary of State that on competition issues he could see no reason to refer the bid. I shall give way in a moment. The suspicion has arisen that this could well happen again. I believe that the Minister is about to intervene. If he will assure me that the circumstances which arose with Mr Desmond will never be allowed to happen again, and that the Secretary of State will consider the circumstances to be exceptional, we shall all be greatly reassured.

9.30 p.m.

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: I merely intervene to say that if the noble Lord wishes to talk about pornographic titles and Mr Desmond that is perfectly reasonable. I have made it clear that the matter is currently covered under the Fair Trading Act. We also made clear that the revision of this legislation will take place as part of a communications Bill. Therefore, this is not an appropriate place to discuss that. The appropriate place is when the communications Bill comes back and revises and reforms what is currently in the Fair Trading Act.

Lord Hunt of Wirral: I hope the Minister will accept that my direction was put towards the Enterprise Bill by the Government saying that that would be the vehicle. It may well be that the Government will change their mind over the summer Recess and return to the Enterprise Bill, given the two-month gap since they had a complete change of mind.

It is critical to the provisions in the Enterprise Bill that we are given assurances. It is sad that the Minister did not take the opportunity to give the assurance that the circumstances of Mr Richard Desmond and the Secretary of State failing to accept the advice of the director-general could never happen again. It would have been of great reassurance to the Committee, whether in the Enterprise Bill or the communications Bill, to be told that it could never happen again. I do not know whether the Minister will have the opportunity later in the Bill to do that again as we continue to discuss exceptional considerations.

I shall of course reflect on what the Minsiter has said. I look forward to receiving the material he has kindly agreed to send me. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page