HC Deb 10 July 1925 vol 186 cc798-806

Order for Second Reading read.

The POSTMASTER-GENERAL (Sir W. Mitchell-Thomson)

I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."

This small Hill is introduced in accordance with a statement made by the Prime Minister when he announced that the Government proposed during the autumn and winter of this year to hold an inquiry into the whole future of the system of broadcasting in this country. As regards that inquiry, while it is perhaps too much to hope that I may be able to tell the House the exact composition of those who are going to hold the inquiry, and the exact terms of reference, before we adjourn, although I will do my best, I may say that the arrangements for holding the inquiry are proceeding, and the investigation will be of a most comprehensive character. I hope that the investigations will start some time in November.

When the Prime Minister intimated that such an inquiry was in contemplation, he stated that we should introduce a short Bill with the single object of removing any doubts which might exist as to the validity of the system of licences. That is the object and the sole object of this Bill. The provisions are so simple that they need very little explanation. They are so narrow that it is extremely difficult to say much in explanation without transgressing the rules of Order. They are contained in two Sub-sections. I will deal first with Sub-section (2), because that is the only part of the Bill which I think in some quarters of the House is regarded as possibly being obscure.

In the principal Act, the Act of 1904, Section 2 deals with the grant of experimental licences to experimenters and provides that those licences shall be granted but shall not be subject to any rent or royalty. These words were inserted in the Act of 1904 for the reason that there was felt to be a certain apprehension lest in the case of any future invention, after the invention had been proved successful, the State might come along and claim, either explicitly or otherwise, that it should be a condition for the future user of that invention that some rent or royalty should be paid by the inventor to the State. The words were put in to prevent such a claim by the State.

It has always been recognised ever since the start of wireless telegraphy that, for obvious reasons connected with the defence of the Realm, some register of stations capable of sending out messages must be kept, and periodical inspection must be made. Accordingly, such a register has been kept and such inspections have taken place. A scale of fees was fixed towards covering the cost of maintaining such a register and carrying out the necessary inspections. The legal question has never been raised as to whether such a fee is, technically speaking, a rent or royalty, but as we were dealing with the question of interpretation in this Bill we thought it was perhaps as well to deal with this matter and put it beyond question that the fee for this purpose was not to be regarded as a rent or royalty.

1.0 P.M.

There might be, possibly, some apprehension lest the Postmaster-General, under cover of this Bill, was going to come down in the interim period during which this Bill was to operate, and raise the fees to the experimenters. I can assure the House, and I quite gladly give the assurance, that that is not so. It is not our intention during this period to make any change whatever in that direction. Perhaps as the best evidence that I could adduce of my bona fides in this matter, and of my goodwill towards the wireless fraternity generally, I might say that some months ago I thought that the existing scale of fees which had been charged for experimenters was too high, and I reduced them materially. At the present time, the scale, which only applies to those who have transmitting aerials, is, up to 10 watts, an initial fee of 10s. and £l a year for the licence; over 10 watts, £l initial fee and £2 a year for the licence. I think that scale is regarded as being satisfactory and reasonable by the experimenters generally. There is no intention to make any increase. After that assurance, I hope the House will be prepared to agree to Sub-section (2).

Sub-section (1) deals with a different and more popular matter, which also had its origin in a phrase in the Act of 1904. Section 1 (7) of the Act of 1904 purports to give a description of what is meant by wireless telegraphy: The expression 'wireless telegraphy' means any system of communication by telegraph as defined in the Telegraph Acts. 1863 to 1904, without the aid of any wire connecting the points from and at which the messages or other communications are sent and received: Provided that nothing in this Act shall prevent any person from making or using electrical apparatus for actuating machinery or for any other purpose other than the transmission of messages. From that, the argument was drawn that, admitting the fact that valve sets are properly subjects for licences, inasmuch as a valve set is, technically speaking, capable of radiating, a crystal set, being unable to radiate was not subject to licence. That raised two questions, one of law and the other of policy. When I came to deal with the matter, I found that a gentleman who had a crystal set and who had also rather a litigious type of mind had challenged my predecessor to prosecute him for maintaining a crystal set without having a licence. I had to decide what course to follow, whether a prosecution should be instituted or whether I should ask Parliament to legislate. I decided, and I will tell the House why. to ask Parliament to legislate. I so decided because, although my legal advice has always been quite clear that the position of the State was perfectly sound in the matter, it was perfectly obvious, and it was so stated, that those who held a contrary view were prepared to carry the case through all the Courts, if necessary, and up to the House of Lords. if they did that and succeeded in their case the whole system would be thrown into chaos, and, obviously, the House of Commons would have to ask the Government to legislate. If, on the other hand, the Government were successful, still I should be responsible for the expenditure, on a legal investigation, of a considerable sum of money which might have been saved by Parliamentary action Therefore, I decided to ask the House to clear the matter up.

I said that I would say something about the legal argument. Perhaps I had better not, but I will indicate briefly the sort of vista which is opened up. The argument that crystal sets should be exempted is founded on the words in the original Act, "purposes other than the transmission of messages." To the casual reader at first sight these words appear to give a certain amount of substance to the contention, but when the matter is considered it is seen that there is very little substance in the contention. While it is true that the word "transmission" has now come, with the increasing development of words generally, to have a technical signification, it had no such signification in 1904 when the Act was framed, and in construing the Act the Courts would have regard to the plain English meaning.

So read, the Act does not mean transmission at all. It is the emission of messages. Transmission of messages, so runs the legal argument, consists of at least three distinct parts. Emission, conveyance and reception, and until the third of these is accomplished the transmission is incomplete. Whether that sort of dialectic is good or bad, I think that the House will see, from what I have said, that it opens up a wide vista for investigation. The question of policy is quite clear. Any future system of broadcasting in this country is not in question, because that is going to be the subject of an inquiry in the autumn. Nor is the present system in question, because it is regulated by contract which runs until December, 1926. The sole question is whether, under the system which is stabilised until December, 1926, you are to have in the intervening period two different sets of people, one paying and the other not paying. I think that the House will agree that that would be a situation which it would be impossible to justify.

Captain BENN

Under what Statute does the Post Office levy the fee at present charged for the reception of wireless programmes?


Under the powers contained in the original Act of 1904.

Captain BENN

It is not D.O.R.A.?


No, that is under the Act of 1904. That is where the possibility of trouble has arisen because of the words "other than the transmission of messages." The House will agree that we could not, during the present period, continue to carry on a system of broadcasting under which one set of people should be asked to pay for a programme which another set of people would receive free. Our sole desire in introducing this particular provision is to remove any "probable possible shadow of doubt," so that all persons shall be equally liable to pay. The reason for the words appearing at the bottom of the proviso is simply that it is necessary to say that the words shall always be deemed to have included this particular point in order to prevent some litigious person claiming against the Government a, return of licence fees paid in the past. This proviso merely enacts that bygones shall be bygones, and nobody shall be prosecuted in respect of any act or omission prior to the date of the introduction of this Bill. With that brief explanation I hope that the House will be prepared to give a Second Heading to the Bill.


I think that the House will be willing to give a Second Reading to this Bill without any undue discussion. I was extremely glad to hear the Postmaster-General say that the promise of the Prime Minister with regard to an inquiry is to be carried out, and that the inquiry is to be a very comprehensive one. I gather that this Bill is only intended to provide a legal explanation for certain terms. I think that the whole House will be very glad to think that such a legal interpretation is provided, so as to obviate the necessity of spending public money in litigation, either in local courts, or, possibly, in the higher Courts. So far as I am aware, no opposition will be forthcoming from these benches.

Captain BENN

I do not think that the Bill is quite the harmless little Measure which the Postmaster-General represents. It raises a number of questions which are certainly of interest to those who have participated in this new popular science. I would ask under what Section of the Act of 1904 has the right hon. Gentleman levied the fees on those who have reception sets? I have looked through the Act—of course, it was passed in the time when the reception of wireless telephony was unknown—and I do not understand under what Section the charge is made. Is it Sub-section (2) of Section 1, or where do we find any power to levy a licence fee on the owner of a reception set? I was under the impression that the licence fees were taken under the provisions of the Defence of the Realm Act, certain Sections of which were renewed year by year under the Expiring Laws Continuance Bill. I do not know whether there are any sanctions subject to annual review in that way, but I think that I am right in saying that control was exercised at one time by the Postmaster-General under the powers conferred by the Defence of the Realm Act.


My hon. and gallant Friend is partly right, but in his reference to the Defence of the Realm Act he is wrong. The licences are collected under Section 1 of the Wireless Act but the Wireless Act is still an annual Act which is renewed every year under the Expiring Laws Continuance Bill.

Captain BENN

I am very much obliged to the right hon. Gentleman. That leaves still the question as to what precise powers are conferred by this Act to collect fees in respect of a crystal reception set. I am not at all clear that such power exists. The right hon. Gentleman gets over it in this way. He says "Under this Act transmission means reception," and he says that "rent or royalty" means that he may charge fees on licences. That is his way of explaining the meaning of the early Act. It is desirable that the Postmaster-General should have control of the transmission of wireless messages and of instruments that are capable of transmitting wireless messages, but I have never understood why the Postmaster-General as Postmaster-General, or the Government, should have any control over crystal reception sets which are incapable of transmitting messages. Wireless telegraphy may take the place of books or newspapers or any other form of transmission of information. I am not speaking about the propriety of a man who receives a programme paying for it, but what other reason is there why the Government should say that each one of these little sets, which can do nothing but listen to what is going on in the ether, should be controlled and inspected and licensed by the Government? It is a commercial proposition. The people who broadcast an entertainment should be paid for doing so by those who enjoy it. But that is a different matter. This Bill is only a second thought of the Postmaster-General. He was to have produced a most formidable and devastating weapon. He had it prepared and printed, and all his blandishments to-day will not make us forget what a terrible fellow he is if he has his head. That is all gone for the time being. If we are a little suspicious and put these questions, the Postmaster-General will forgive us, because he knows that we remember what he intended to do and could not do. What we feel is that this Bill is merely a way of extending the power of the Postmaster-General in directions that are not necessary. In time of war he must have the power instantly to put under control transmission stations, but why should he have the power now to inspect and control a reception set when it is incapable of transmission?


A portion of the speech of my hon. and gallant Friend appears to have been prepared for another Bill which is not now before the House. The power is purported to be exercised under Section 1, Sub-sections (1) and (2) of the Act of 1904. Any place which receives messages sent out is a wireless telegraph station. As regards the apprehension the hon. and gallant Member has expressed as to a possible extension of this Bill, I can assure him that it is entirely groundless. Even if he were not satisfied as to my bona fides in the matter, I beg him to remember that, while this Bill is designed solely to deal with the interim period before we settle what is to be the whole future of broadcasting, if I do commit any sins, not only are the ordinary opportunities of challenging the unhappy Postmaster-General open to my hon. and gallant Friend—he is not slow to avail himself of such opportunities—but, in addition, if he will look at the end of this Bill he will set: that it is to be construed as one with the Act of 1904, and the Act of 1904 is included in the Expiring Laws Continuance Bill. Therefore, if I do anything wrong, as soon as the Expiring Laws Continuance Bill is brought forward my hon. and gallant Friend will have an opportunity of bringing me to book.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Resolved, "That this House will immediately resolve itself into the Committee on the Bill."—[Commander Eyres Monsell.]

Bill accordingly considered in Committee, and reported, without Amendment.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read the Third time."

Captain BENN

Some of us are interested in the business which still remains on the Order Paper. If it were possible for arrangements to be made for a short discussion of some other items on the Paper, we would be prepared to forego, until the discussion of the Expiring Laws Continuance Bill, any further points on this Bill. Otherwise, to force this Bill through in one stage seems to be asking too much. However, it is just as the Government likes.

The PARLIAMENTARY SECRETARY to the TREASURY (Commander Eyres Monsell)

I am always ready to meet the hon. and gallant Gentleman whenever I can, but he is now going a little too far. Hon. Gentlemen who are interested in this Bill are present. I would not dream of trying to force it through unless with the consent of the House, and I am prepared to move the adjournment of the Debate.


Are you going to move the Adjournment of the House?


Yes, after the next Order. I now beg to move, "That the Debate be now adjourned."

Captain BENN

I have not the least desire to put difficulties in the way of the Bill. As we have time this afternoon, and as Members have taken the trouble to bring Bills forward, I do not think it is treating us quite fairly to ask us to give an immediate passage to this Bill for the purpose of moving the Adjournment of the House. I say that out of no hostility to this Bill. It is a question of the arrangement of business. There are one or two Bills of importance on the Paper, and as time is available to discuss them it docs not seem fair to give this Bill a quick passage in order that the House may adjourn. If the Government can permit a short Debate on some of the Private Members' Bills on the Order Paper, the House would be grateful. That would advantage the Government's own business and please everyone. I suggest that the Motion for the Adjournment of the Debate be withdrawn, and that the Third Reading of the Bill be taken.

Question, "That the Debate be now adjourned," put, and agreed to.

Debate to be resumed upon Monday next.