HC Deb 14 December 1950 vol 482 cc1465-74

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

10.1 p.m.

Surgeon Lieut.-Commander Bennett (Gosport and Fareham)

The subject to which I wish to draw attention is fairly small compared with the subjects that have been under discussion during the day. It is not, however, a matter of any insignificance, and therefore I will not apologise to the House for raising it. Since the abolition of the Airmet radio meteorological Service last March, there has been a large and increasing body of feeling generated throughout the country. It is what can be fairly described as an outcry.

I do not think that the value of this service has been sufficiently appreciated by the Government. A petition will be presented to the House in due course, and I see from the columns of the magazine "Weather," that some 20,000 signatures have been obtained. These signatures are divided among various extremely wide activities. An analysis discloses that 27 per cent. are concerned with agriculture, 21 per cent. with sport, 21 per cent. with aviation, 14 per cent. miscellaneous, 7 per cent. with industry, 6 per cent. with education and 4 per cent. with science.

It was, of course, for aviators that this service was originally introduced, and they have found it an invaluable service. In spite of the centralisation of civil aviation, this service has been used to supplement the ordinary telephonic and teleprint service to a very large extent. We know that Service and commercial pilots have their own forecasts, but it is perhaps not realised that pilots have chosen to be tuned in to Airmet because, no matter how accurate the forecasts, they needed this up-to-the-minute information, which was put out every half hour. That was one of the salient points of the service. I know a senior officer in the Fleet Air Arm who always relied on this service because, however accurate the radio forecasts may have been, the advantage of this service was that information was kept up to date. That is the essence of the complaint against the abolition of the Airmet Service.

Our climate, more than any other climate in the world, is subject to swift and unpredictable changes. The atmosphere is always about 100 per cent. saturated with moisture, and it is just luck whether it becomes visible moisture or not. I can remember three occasions, when, flying as a pilot, starting off in good weather with a good weather forecast, I have found myself in trouble with the weather. On one occasion I ended up among the Downs with the cloudbase just overhead, and had to pull up and climb through 9,000 feet of solid cloud to get out of the death-trap. That was in the days before we had blind flying instruments. I also flew as a passenger on a clear, cloudless day from London to Liverpool and on to the Isle of Man, where we ran into another situation which was bad enough to be lethal. It was only good pilotage which saved us. Even when he is equipped with route forecasts, the aviator desperately needs this service.

The seaman is another man who needs the service badly. When I first brought up the question of the abolition of this service, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Civil Aviation was somewhat shocked because I said it was a matter of life and death. I adhere to that. I do not confine it to aviation. I want also to draw attention to the need of the seaman. How one proceeds at sea is a matter of great seriousness even when it is not a matter of life and death. I speak on behalf of professional seamen, and I have here a letter urging the value of Airmet from a man who is an inshore fisherman and a crabber and lobster man: My work is controlled completely by the weather. In unsettled weather our work is very much of the nature of tip and run, and short-term forecasts are invaluable. We have also the large, and, I am happy to say, ever-growing, world of those who call themselves yachtsmen. They are not to be despised as being sybaritic and luxurious; they are the innumerable little chaps who go to sea in highly unseaworthy motorboats, learning about motors as well as the sea, and it is their inexperience which makes them so extraordinarily gallant. I know very many of them. They are my associates on the coast. They are always liable to get into trouble. I want also to draw attention to the fact that there is at this very time the prospect of a reduction in the coastguard service. Lives have been lost and very many boats have been lost which could perhaps have been saved had a sufficiently short-term meteorological service been available. I have here a letter from a group captain who says: I have cause to thank Airmet for its timely warning of a gale when we were waiting in Le Havre to cross the Channel in May, 1948. Another English yacht which left that day suffered very severely. I have had similar experiences in the Channel. I am sure that other hon. Members have also, and that they will be able to endorse what I said.

There is also the very large percentage of farmers. I have sent the Minister of Agriculture a variety of letters which I have received from farmers all over the country apropos the service. Here is one from a farmer near Aylesbury: I am convinced that on the majority of farms, as on the farm where I work, the continued use of the Airmet forecast could have reduced the cost of harvesting and the amount of crops spoilt of both the hay and the corn harvests this year. I have another from Westmorland. It says: We used Airmet every day and are going to feel its loss keenly during the winter months. Last winter our milk cows were only kept in on six days as we were able to turn them out each day on Airmet forecasts. I have another from Hungerford in Berkshire which says: If you tell a countryman the weather prevailing at a given point to windward, together with the wind speed it is of infinitely greater value to him than the ambitious long-range forecasts, so often completely contradicted a few hours later. I have an assurance from the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Agriculture that he has taken serious cognisance of these letters and very many others. We know that weather forecasts have been transmitted by the B.B.C. and have been supplemented with warnings about rain and frost, which have at least done something in connection with the seriousness of this problem.

Other people interested who may surprise the House are the pigeon fanciers. The "Racing Pigeon" magazine has written to say: On behalf of the 150,000 pigeon fanciers we desire to associate ourselves with the protest against the suppression of the Airmet broadcasts. Airmet is also of interest to astronomers. I have received a letter from a doctor at the University Observatory, Oxford, who says: The met information helps one to plan and prepare for observing programmes. We have also had large numbers of letters from those humble but often forgotten people, housewives, who are very much concerned with this. This may again be very surprising. I have here a letter from a gentleman who says: I can assure you that in this house at any rate"— meaning, of course, his own house— there has been much binding since Airmet ceased to transmit its programme, and in the interests of washing day information, photography, picnics, runs to the sea, holidays and, just interests, my wife and family join me in. hoping for a speedy renewal of Airmet. Another housewife said: As a housewife and one very interested in the weather, I am writing to join my humble voice to those more entitled perhaps than I am to make themselves heard, but I know that many people found it not only interesting, but very useful to know nearly always. accurately what to expect within the next few hours. One's day could be planned accordingly, whether to shop this morning or this. afternoon; is it worthwhile hanging out the washing today or not? These things, trivial as they sound, are anything but trivial to most of us who these days get very little help in our homes. So it goes on. Ordinary citizens have been protesting. I have here a letter from Helston in Cornwall which says: You don't know me, and I don't know you. I am only an old pongo and retired with 100 per cent. disability at that. But I wish to thank you for the letter you wrote last week to the 'Daily Telegraph' and to hope that your efforts … may be crowned with success. That, I hope, indicates the very broad basis of the protests on the abolition of this service. I should like to add that on top of all these people, we have also the protests of one man with whom I have every sympathy nowadays in the present weather, that is, a nudist.

Why was this service lost? Was it a surprise? I can say it was no surprise to me, for the Copenhagen Agreement was bound to come. In November, 1949, I received a circular from a firm of paint manufacturers giving details of the Airmet Service and saying that in March the wavelength would be altered. But it was not altered; it disappeared.

I should like to ask the Assistant Postmaster-General whether a new wavelength for this service was forgotten or overlooked? If it was not sought, why not? These are questions to which the whole country requires an answer. As it is we now have a situation where we have gone back to five-hourly intervals in the matter of weather forecasts, and we know what can happen in five hours to our weather, in spite of the most learned broadcasts. We have a period of 13 blank hours in which there are no forecasts. In the B.B.C. programme we get a regional broadcast, which is good, but it is hopelessly inadequate once a day in the evening. We should have similar broadcasts before work begins in the morning. We could follow the progress of squalls or rain belts across the country which can tell us what is due, and how the weather will affect our activities.

What are the solutions to this? I submit that the wavelength which existed previously is not entirely over-lapped by the transmissions from Lahti, that a screened aerial could supply the necessary information somewhere near the 1,150 metre mark if Finland were consulted. There is a second alternative, that the Third Programme wavelength might be used part-time.

Mr. G. P. Stevens (Portsmouth, Langstone)

All the time.

Surgeon Lieut.-Commander Bennett

I am not sure that the highbrows would appreciate that altogether. Others have said to me that the Light Programme might be used all the time. Then, again, the Ministry of Civil Aviation have a number of frequencies. Why not take one of theirs? If all the ordinary broadcasts are crowded out, why not use the short-wave? What is wrong with the 49-metre band?

Much the least good possibility is the prospect of having interpolations on the B.B.C. every hour, on the hour, or something like that. All I assert is that the meterorological service is valuable or we would not have weather broadcasts at all, and that we have taken a serious retrograde step. Can something be done to restore this valuable service and to give us information which we need so badly?

10.17 p.m.

The Assistant Postmaster-General (Mr. Hobson)

We have had a friendly and interesting discussion on what is indeed a very important subject, namely, the provision of an Airmet Service. The debate is based on restoring Airmet on a frequency which can be received by the normal broadcasting receiver. That is a desirable service, nevertheless I think the hon. and gallant Gentleman would be the first to agree that it is a limited requirement in relation to the 12,300,000 broadcast receiving licence holders in this country. The magazine "Weather" is organising a petition, and the latest information which the hon. and gallant Member gave us was that only 20,000 people—not licence holders of necessity—out of a population of, say, 50 million have seen fit to sign this petition which, from the point of view of the hon. and gallant Member, is all-important.

The people primarily concerned are obviously the maritime interests, the aviators and the land interests, chiefly the farmers. The maritime interests are catered for partly by the existing B.B.C. weather forecasts but mainly by the nine Post Office wireless stations around our coasts, which not only give weather fore casts and warnings of gales, but also navigational information which is highly important.

Surgeon Lieut.-Commander Bennett

Is it not necessary for the mariner to be able to read Morse in order to receive these signals?

Mr. Hobson

No, not of necessity. The ships can be fitted with radio telephone, and many are. I was on a Clyde "Puffer" recently which was fitted with radio telephone. The stations make regular broadcasts, and it is in the interests of people who go to sea to provide themselves with a set capable of receiving the wavelengths emitted from our Post Office wireless stations around the coast. It is interesting to note that it is compulsory for ships of over 1,600 tons to carry this necessary radio equipment. As far as smaller vessels are concerned, I urge them in their own interests to have the necessary wireless apparatus.

The hon. and gallant Member raised the question of aeronautical interests. Meteorological broadcasts are made on frequencies appropriate to the aeronautical services. It would seem that for traffic control and safety purposes, the case for having sets capable of receiving transmissions on these wavelengths is on all fours with the need for mariners to have wireless sets to receive messages on their ships.

I come now to the third point, concerning land interests, which are chiefly farmers. The existing weather forecasts already help farmers, and there is a quite recent development in the Home Services, which is to give regionalised broadcasts. Furthermore—and this is often forgotten—there are facilities for any farmer or any member of the community—for example, the housewife who wants to do washing on a Tuesday, or a vicar who is having a garden fete and wants to know whether he should erect the marquee—to telephone the nearest meteorological office and have up-to-the-minute information of the prospects of having a fine day. I do not think, therefore, that farmers, or even people who want to know about the weather for social purposes, are suffering any great distress or inconvenience. This service is free except for the premium which my right hon. Friend collects for the making of the call.

The problem of the B.B.C. is that they have to cater for a tremendous number of people. It is difficult for them to cater for specialised interests. This is a very real problem. The content of their programmes is a matter solely for the B.B.C.

What is the real problem? Why cannot this service be given? The reason is the shortage of wavelengths in the long and medium wavebands, which are limited by the available space in the spectrum. Wavelengths have, therefore, to be allocated internationally. This was done at Copenhagen quite recently. Great Britain was allocated one long wavelength and 13 medium wavelengths, essentially for the purposes of domestic broad- casting. They were allocated to Great Britain for that specific purpose, and it would be quite wrong for us to allocate for aeronautical use or for an Airmet Service wavelengths which have been allocated to us internationally for domestic broadcasting.

The cardinal principle of the Copenhagan Conference was to deal with wavelengths for domestic broadcasting. Therefore, if we were to allocate for Airmet purposes a wavelength which was earmarked for domestic purposes, we would jeopardise our interests at any future international conference. This is an important point and will, I am sure, commend itself to the whole House.

What have the Government tried to do? If we have sat back and done nothing, we are entitled to be criticised. We have, however, made every possible endeavour, as has been indicated by my right hon. Friend in reply to Questions and by myself in conversation with hon. Members, to do all that we could. We have made approaches to Finland for the use of the Lahti frequency of 254 kcs., but Finland were unable to agree. I do not blame them, because that is the only wavelength allocated for their exclusive use.

It may be asked what other methods we have tried. I am advised by our engineers that it would be impossible to use any other foreign frequency without causing serious interference. Therefore, nothing can be done in that direction. As for the Third Programme and the Light Programme frequencies, during the hours they are not used for domestic broadcasting, those frequencies are used by the B.B.C. Overseas service, that is to say, the Third Programme before 6 p.m. and the Light Programme before 9 a.m. It is interesting to note that the Airmet Service never used a domestic broadcasting wavelength. We cannot afford to depart from that practice.

If there were to arise a situation in which additional frequencies became available to the British Broadcasting Corporation, the B.B.C. would use them to improve existing broadcasting reception throughout the islands. That is a very important point because we have had many questions from all sides of the House complaining about poor reception of broadcast programmes. If frequencies become available we shall use them, not in the interests of the 20,000 who signed this petition as potential users of Airmet, but in the interests of the 12 million who hold broadcast receiving licences.

We have already made approaches to the B.B.C. and got their co-operation, and that is indicated, as the hon. and gallant Member pointed out, by the fact that there has been an alteration in the form of the 5.55 p.m. weather news on the Home Service. I think that is proving a great advantage. The hon. and gallant Member might be interested to know that there was also a feature programme on, I think, 5th December, stressing the importance of weather reporting. It was quite a big feature at 8 o'clock at night on the Home Service which, I am informed, is a heavy listening time. One would have thought that as a result, if there were an imperative need for the Airmet Service, the B.B.C. would have received something in the nature of a "fan mail," but in fact hardly any letters were received. But we did have information to the effect that the change has been well received, particularly in the West and South-West.

This is a very difficult problem. With our present resources with the limitations of the frequencies available to us, it is utterly impossible for us to allocate any available wavelengths specifically for an Airmet Service. The hon. and gallant Member was good enough to ask me to get the information in regard to the 49 metre band. This, as he knows, is 6,000 kilocycles, a short wave. This waveband is used internationally for long distance broadcasting and we are using it in that way. But I am informed that even if we could allocate a wavelength on the 49-metre band, the propagation characteristics are such that during certain hours of the day in summer it is likely that there would be no coverage inside a radius of 200 miles from the transmitter station, although strong signals would be received at about 1,800 miles. That would be an impracticable proposition as far as Great Britain is concerned, as the station would have to be situated, say, in North Africa. This suggests an international service, but there would be all sorts of complications including language.

We have explored this problem and gone into it with the Post Office engineers and with the B.B.C. There is no question of caprice or of my right hon. Friend's Department not desiring to help. We would help if we could but, unfortunately, because of the shortages of wavelengths and the vital fact that these matters have to be allocated through international conferences, I am sorry to have to inform the hon. and gallant Member that nothing can be done at this stage. We are always prepared to look at the problem de novo, but in the present light of our information the advice of skilled radio technicians in the Post Office and the B.B.C. is that we are in an impossible situation.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'Clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Twenty-Nine Minutes to Eleven o'Clock.