HC Deb 15 December 1949 vol 470 cc3043-52

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

10.25 p.m.

Dr. Broughton (Batley and Morley)

The large number of Questions relating to television which have appeared on the Order Paper in recent months serves as an indication of the keen interest of hon. Members in this subject and reflects the interest of people throughout the country. I have heard it said that television is only a luxury for the rich; and it is certainly true that the present price of receiving sets is beyond the means of most people. With the expansion of broadcasting, however, more and more sets will be needed by clubs as well as by individuals and a demand should be created, stimulating to the industry and enabling it to put on to the market better and cheaper sets.

Television is a new development in broadcasting, and people wish to keep abreast of modern progress. There are some who say that the present lack of television in most parts of the country is deplorable and that they are disappointed that we have no more than the London station broadcasting and the Sutton Coldfield station just completed. On the other hand, the idea of a nationwide television service has its opponents. Some are concerned about the effects on people's eyesight, others are uneasy lest housewives watching the screen in a darkened room neglect to darn their husbands' socks and schoolchildren lay aside their homework. Nevertheless, many people eagerly await the day when television will become available in clubs and homes throughout the country, to provide entertainment and instruction.

The cost of building television stations is a matter for careful consideration in these days of economic difficulty, and I should like my hon. Friend to say something about this when he replies. If the choice lay between constructing broadcasting stations and building houses for those in need, the decision would definitely go in favour of houses; but the answer is not such a simple one as that. To build houses we must import materials from abroad. To pay for those imports we must export goods which people over- seas will accept, and I see no reason why we should not be able to establish a valuable overseas trade in television transmitting and receiving equipment to help to pay for food, raw materials, building materials and other imports which we need.

We have scientists and technicians with knowledge and vision, businessmen with energy and enterprise and workers with skill, industry and intelligence. But a prerequisite of a prosperous overseas trade is a flourishing home market. The first step is to popularise television at home, for which a vast expansion of broadcasting is required.

As I have said, I think many people are eager to have television. They want to see plays, sporting events and events of national importance. They hope, as time goes on, to be able to see something of what is happening in other countries, and they foresee in the future development of international television, a better understanding between nations. Television offers prospects stimulating to imagination and initiative and appealing to those who wish to explore new fields of adventure. It places on the Government an important and pressing responsibility. We want to see this country of ours leading the world in television.

We are glad to know that this weekend, a few hours from now, Sutton Cold-field station will begin to operate. I should be interested to know the detailed results of the trials of that station. Reception, I understand, has been good over a wide area, including some parts of Yorkshire. Will this be maintained and will the results in any way affect the plans previously made for the Holme Moss station? I should be interested to learn from my hon. Friend all that I can about Sutton Coldfield, about Holme Moss and about the further spread of television throughout the country.

10.31 p.m.

Mr. William Paling (Dewsbury)

I rise because of the interest displayed in the Midlands, particularly in Yorkshire,. in the opening of the new Sutton Cold-field television station on Saturday. For some days now there has been excitement in Yorkshire, especially in the areas from which my hon. Friend and I come, about the excellent results that have arisen from the test trials at Sutton Cold-field. I have been looking at a remark- able photograph, taken last Sunday during a test, of an announcer from the television station. It is making people in the area wonder whether Yorkshire can hope for reasonably good results from the station to be opened officially tomorrow.

One or two points arise in regard to this new station which are giving some hope to many thousands of homes in the outer fringes of the area covered by Sutton Coldfield station. We read in the Press that the new station has twice the visual strength and something like four times the strength of tone of Alexandra Palace. It is stated that Sutton Coldfield has a range of something like 65 miles, which I believe is much more than the London station. The results we have had in Yorkshire have been so good that people are contemplating getting sets—if they can get them—while the getting is good.

Because of this, I should like to know how far my hon. Friend the Assistant Postmaster-General can help us. There are a number of questions, such as the correct type of aerial and lead-in, and interference, about which I want my hon. Friend's Department, if they can, to give the people on the outer fringes of the area some information in understandable terms. Though the local radio dealers and the local Press are asking people to go cautiously in the purchase of television sets, we all know that with a new set-up like this, in an industrial area, people are anxious to have, if they can, a television set that will give them extra entertainment. Can my hon. Friend do anything in the way of giving us a radius of really good reception without interference from Sutton Coldfield?

Another point that is worrying many people—and I have received many questions about this which I have tried to answer as best I could—is whether the receiving sets purchased now will be suitable for the new Holme Moss station when that is erected. There is much misunderstanding on this point. I think it should be made well known whether sets bought to receive from the Sutton Coldfield station will be suitable for the new Holme Moss station when it is ready for action. Some people are contemplating buying television sets and are now wondering whether those sets are unlikely to be suitable for receiving the new Holme Moss station, or whether they can be easily converted and used for the new station.

Another point is that if, as seems likely, there is all this power in the new Sutton Coldfield station, there is a feeling that there will be a much wider range from this station than has been anticipated. If that be so, will that interfere with the building of the Holme Moss station; will it even jeopardise the building of that station? There are other snags. If my hon. Friend can persuade his Department to give people in the fringe areas enlightenment on all the problems which arise, and on the snags which they are likely to come up against, he will be doing a public service and the public will appreciate the advice.

10.37 p.m.

Sir Ian Fraser (Lonsdale)

The original television plan contemplated covering 80 per cent. of the homes in these islands. Since then tremendous development has taken place in America, such as development of methods of distributing the television waves by wire, and other things. It should now be possible to do better than cover 80 per cent. of the homes. My first question is whether there is any plan, or any committee whose job it is, to see whether a better distribution than 80 per cent. can now be contemplated.

As I have to be brief, I will put my speech into two or three questions. Holme Moss is on the eastern side of the Pennines. The television wave is a very high-frequency wave and behaves rather like light. It does not go round corners. Only when there is a "fluke" do you get distant reception. Normally reception is to the horizon line, which may be 40 or 50 miles distant, depending on the height of the masts. That is why the circulation is limited. Better circulation can be obtained only by having more stations. Those stations need not be more powerful. Holme Moss cannot be expected to carry over the Pennines and, coming down on the other side, to serve north-west England. Places like Barrow-in-Furness, Ulverstone, Morecambe, Lancaster, Preston and other places in and near the Lake District will, I suspect, be without television unless a new plan is brought into being.

Finally, television is so costly that I cannot believe it can be paid for out of the taxes which are levied by way of licences, and I would ask, therefore, whether there is any authority now considering the sponsoring of these programmes. I would remind the House that while we have all set our faces against sponsored programmes on the ordinary radio, two or three powerful and influential committees in this House have raised the question whether television can be adequate in this country without sponsoring.

10.39 p.m.

Colonel J. R. H. Hutchison (Glasgow, Central)

I want to ask a short question, and will delay the House for only a minute or so. Yesterday the hon. Gentleman said that the extension of Holme Moss is not affected by the cuts in capital expenditure made so far, but he could not give an assurance as regards expenditure in later years upon the remainder of the plan. I ask him to "come clean"—

The Assistant Postmaster-General (Mr. Hobson)

I "came clean" yesterday when I answered the question.

Colonel Hutchison

I do not want to give any offence by my phraseology. Therefore, I will ask the hon. Gentleman to explain clearly exactly what is happening about the rest of the plan. He says that he cannot give any assurance about the expenditure in later years. But the economy cuts are already known—or is it that there are more, and that this finance is still in the melting pot? Let the House know whether the plan outlined by the Lord President of the Council still holds good; or is it still in the melting pot? When will the rest of the plan take effect?

10.41 p.m.

The Assistant Postmaster-General (Mr. Hobson)

I was interested in the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Morley (Dr. Broughton) because it was indicative of the general interest in television on all sides of the House. He has asked many questions and I shall endeavour to the best of my ability to answer them; but first let me give a broad outline of the programme. In other words, I shall be "coming clean" as the hon. Member opposite phrased it.

The programme is for five high-powered stations; Alexandra Park is in operation, and covers a population of 12 million; Sutton Coldfield is being opened by my right hon. Friend on 17th December, and will cater for 6 million of our population. By the middle of 1951 it is hoped that the Holme Moss station in Yorkshire will be completed. The capital investment for the Holme Moss station is approved, and construction will commence early next year. Then it is contemplated that there will be a fourth high-powered station for Scotland, and one for Wales and the Bristol Channel area. Besides these high-powered stations, it is contemplated that there will be five low-powered stations—Tyneside, Southampton, Northern Ireland, Aberdeen and Plymouth. I cannot say when the station for Scotland or South Wales will be commenced.

The Government have not yet decided the amount of capital investment for the 1951 programme for television. That, I think, is a clear, definite, and specific statement, made without any equivocation at all. Hon. Members will realise that we cannot come out of a war—the sort of war we experienced for six years—and immediately put all our energies into the provision of television. There are things far more pressing than that; there is capital investment in the modernisation of the railways, the cotton industry, and the woollen industry, and we cannot give top priority in capital investment to television. But the Government have indicated their desire to go ahead with television, and I should like to repeat to the House what I said in the Debate on 20th July last on this subject, that we shall go ahead with the extension of television in Britain, having regard to the economic well-being of our country.

As for the specific questions which have been asked tonight, I would say first that we have, I think, a very flourishing home market. There were at the end of October, 188,350 television licences, which represents an increase of over 100 per cent. since 1st January last. That, I think, proves there is a very good demand for television. So far as the Sutton Coldfield station is concerned, I am asked what is the range; its range is over a radius of 50 miles, and we cannot say more than that. Although reception is possible in Yorkshire at a greater distance than 50 miles, the Post Office and the B.B.C. cannot guarantee clear reception beyond 50 miles.

The radius of reception depends on many things. It depends on the topography of the country between the sending station and the receiving station. It sometimes depends on the extent of interference and sometimes even on climatic conditions. Therefore, I cannot give any guarantee that over and above 50 miles radius, there will be good reception. Of course, we have, more or less, I must admit, got to experiment, but we are taking the figure of 50 miles as the area in which clear reception will be available to those who have television sets.

On the question whether the sets available in London will be able to be used for Sutton Coldfield and those for Sutton Coldfield will be able to be used for Holme Moss, frankly, I cannot give that assurance. There are sets where it is possible to change the frequency, but there are not many, and it is a problem that the industry, in conjunction with the Television Advisory Committee, have to face. Otherwise, we shall have a situation where sets have to be made available for specific stations. In America there are sets on the market in which it is possible to change the frequency. There are some in Great Britain, too, but nevertheless, it is very important that the public should know that the sets they buy will receive the specific station in whose area they are.

In reply to the hon. and gallant Member for Central Glasgow (Colonel Hutchison), I think I can even give him a little good news tonight.

Colonel Hutchison


Mr. Hobson

It is not very often I am in that happy position. When we know what the 1951 programme is going to be, and as yet we do not, and if there is to be capital investment for television, Scotland will be the next station. That does not mean—and I do not notice any Welsh Members present—that Wales will not receive television. It will be our earnest endeavour to see that the Scottish station and the Welsh station proceed concurrently, and I think that is a very happy solution and one which shows foresight on the part of both my right hon. Friend and the B.B.C.

We hear a lot of talk with regard to exports. One would assume that we have not got a healthy home market here. We have a very healthy home market. There are five countries, I think, where there are television programmes—the U.S.A., Great Britain, Russia, Holland, and France—but television in the last-named countries is on a much smaller scale than in Great Britain. The position is that the industry cannot export television sets for the reception of television until there are transmitters in the countries concerned. There is nothing to preclude the television industry, if it wants to, from going into the dollar area now and selling television sets, provided those sets will take in the lineage and definition of those countries.

As far as Europe is concerned, the lineage by which television is to be transmitted has not yet been finally declared. For instance France is experimenting on 425 lines and 819 lines; the Dutch on 625 lines. In the U.S.A., 425 lines are used. But the fact is there are no general television services in those European countries I have mentioned and we cannot export the sets until such time as there are transmitters. There is nothing to prevent the British industry from exporting transmitters to those countries. Then we hope with competitive costs to be able to get into those markets. It is a little unkind to say the Government are neglecting the export trade. It is not a question for this Government to tell those countries that they have got to have British television sets. It is for those countries themselves to decide when they are going to have television and on what lineage. Anything which His Majesty's Government can do to help the export trade they are only too happy to do. There was an international television exhibition in Milan this year, but only two British firms showed any exhibits. That does not seem to me to be very enterprising on the part of private enterprise.

Sir I. Fraser

Can the hon. Gentleman tell us about Lancashire. There are more people living in Lancashire than in Scotland or Wales.

Mr. Hobson

As a Yorkshireman, I do not want to enter into a "battle of the roses," but I wish to deal with the salient points which have been raised by hon. Gentlemen in this Debate and the question of the export trade is an important one.

To come to Holme Moss, this station will cover the Manchester area, where there is a teeming population. I believe there are more people within ten miles of Piccadilly, Manchester, than there are within ten miles of Piccadilly, London. The north-western area of Lancashire, a region I know well, is more than 50 miles from Holme Moss and is a difficult area to cover by television, because of the peculiar topographical nature of the country. I cannot therefore give the assurance which the hon. Gentleman is seeking, and as far as Holme Moss is concerned, I have to answer in the negative. Although it might be possible, as my hon. Friend the Member for Dews-bury (Mr. William Paling) suggests, to receive a television programme at a greater distance than 50 miles, I think I have answered the question which the hon. Member for Lonsdale (Sir I. Fraser) raised.

There are one or two other matters with which I want to deal. There seems to be an idea that there is delay on the part of the Post Office in approving television sites. That is not true. The Post Office has always been in the forefront in the matter of the extension of television. Sites were approved and we decided early on what lineage and definition we should operate in Great Britain—405, and we gave that assurance to the trade. We have even endeavoured to introduce legislation to deal with the question of interference, which is an important and real problem so far as television is concerned. I can only hope when the regulations are laid before this House we shall be able to deal with certain types of industrial interference.

In the London area people with television sets will have noticed that sometimes when a motorcar passes while they are watching a television programme there will be a blur on the screen caused by an emission of electro-magnetic energy. The same is true of diathermy. This problem causes difficulty to the new science of television, and we have to find ways and means of dealing with it. It is to the credit of the Government and the Post Office that we were able to bring forward legislation to deal with this nuisance.

It is argued that private enterprise could have erected these stations more quickly. Private enterprise does erect the stations at the present time; but like a public corporation, like the Government, like private firms, they have to be granted permission for the capital investment to expend on the particular job, which in this case would be television. There was also a suggestion that temporary stations could have been erected more rapidly. All I can say is that this is very doubtful indeed. In the next year there is hope of extending the television programme by one half hour and to have a Children's Hour.

Adjourned accordingly at Five Minutes to Eleven o'Clock.