§ 1.52 p.m.
§ Mr. R. Ewart (Sunderland, South)
I welcome the opportunity of putting to the Assistant Postmaster-General a point of view on the question of the North-Eastern B.B.C. shared wavelength. I do so because the last few weeks and, indeed, months, his noble Friend the Postmaster-General has, by virtue of the imposition of the closed shop on behalf of the Conservative Members of Parliament and the local authorities in the area, deprived myself and my hon. Friends in the northern group of Labour M.P.s from making representations to him on this subject on behalf of our constituents. Yet the northern group of Labour M.P.s are no mean body. In that group there are 29 right hon. and hon. Members of this House.
The prerogative of the Postmaster-General has been exercised to determine that six Conservative Members of Parliament, three of whom took the opportunity of visiting him with representatives of the 3022 local authorities, should be given the privilege of stating a case and a point of view outside the terms of reference on which local authorities requested their interview.
The local authorities asked for an interview on the matter of television facilities in the North-East. They stated that in correspondence with the Postmaster-General. The Postmaster-General said in effect to Labour Members of Parliament, "If you want to talk about the shared wavelength on the sound broadcast in your area you will have to queue behind the local authority representatives and the two or three Conservative Members of Parliament, and then I will permit you to state your case."
The facts of the situation are that this area, in which there is a population of over two and a half million, has been deprived of its own wavelength since 1945 and has been in the position, equally invidious for its partner, Northern Ireland, of sharing with it a wavelength. There is very little or no community of interest to determine such a policy, and the programme has largely been determined to about 75 per cent. of the content by Northern Ireland.
The hon. Gentleman knows that this vast population in the highly industrialised area to which I am referring, where coal, shipbuilding, chemicals and the principal industries from which this country derives its economic life-blood are to be found, are being refused the type of radio facilities that would give warmth and comfort to them. A miner returned from the mine, a shipyard worker back from the shipyard, sits down to his evening meal, turns on the radio, and listens to fat stock prices from Northern Ireland and to matters affecting Northern Ireland local government. And this seems to be a matter of very little importance to the Postmaster-General.
I want to put one or two questions to the Assistant Postmaster-General. The first is, has the consideration of this matter reached finality? I am led to believe by the decision which was given to the local authorities that the North-East would be first in the list of priorities for television facilities, that there would be a very high frequency station for sound broadcasting at Stagshawe in that area, and that these very high priorities 3023 might be exercised in five, six or seven years' time. The consideration of them is consequent upon the defence programme, and the effect of such a policy being implemented by his Department would have such an effect on the electronics industry of this country that it would take away from the full implementation of the defence programme a vital industry which will play a most important part.
It was for that precise reason that the Northern Labour Members of Parliament said that they agreed with the decision of the previous Postmaster-General on the matter of television facilities, and because of their responsibility in this matter—which has been shown in plain relief to the irresponsible attitude of Conservative Members of Parliament—they said, "We are prepared to stand by this decision given to us by our own Government, we recognise there has been little or no change since that decision was given in July, and we are desirous of asking the Postmaster-General to give special consideration to what might be the alternative for relieving the existing situation of the shared wavelength in the North-East. A very high frequency transmitter is a thing of the remote future."
Has the Postmaster-General exhausted all possibility of relieving and securing a foreign-broadcasts wavelength for the benefit of the North-East? I ask the Assistant Postmaster-General to answer that question when he replies to this debate. I am led to believe that there are certain settled wavelengths which are not being utilised to the full in foreign broadcasts and which might be released and secured for the purpose of giving the north-east area its own wavelength.
Why did the Postmaster-General bring down from the North-East representatives of local authorities and waste their time and money in order to give them precisely the same decision as his predecessor, my right hon. Friend, gave to the North-East Members in July last year, a decision which was widely publicised in the area? There is nothing new in the decision of the Postmaster-General.
It was stated by his predecessor that television would receive high priority when the time arrived, that it was not possible to secure a separate wavelength 3024 at that time, and that the question of a very high frequency transmitter was being considered for the north-east area. The local authorities were brought down from the North-East so that the Postmaster-General could give precisely the same decision as was given a matter of eight or nine months ago by his predecessor.
I want now to pass to a matter which we in the Labour Party consider to be of primary importance. That is, the right of Members of Parliament, elected to this House, to make representation on behalf of their constituents to Ministers of the Crown. That right has been denied by the present Postmaster-General. A serious misrepresentation was made by the hon. Gentleman in the House when answering questions on the subject a few days ago.
The facts are these. On 6th December last, the north-eastern area Labour Members of Parliament wrote to the hon. Gentleman's noble Friend saying that we desired a conference with him to discuss the question of the North-East shared wavelength, and nothing else. His noble Friend replied on 24th January offering facilities for us to meet him and to discuss the matter. In his letter of 24th January, he made three suggestions. He said that he was about to meet the local authorities from the North-East and invited us to meet him with them in that area; or we could meet the noble Lord or the Assistant Postmaster-General with the Conservative Members of Parliament; or thirdly, the noble Lord or the hon. Gentleman were prepared to meet us separately to hear our case.
The letter went on to say:Perhaps you will let me know whether you agree to a joint discussion on the date suggested or whether you would prefer to see me or the Assistant Postmaster-General in London at some other time.Consequent upon that, I informed the Postmaster-General that my colleagues and I desired to see him separately to discuss the matter. We agreed with that suggestion in a letter dated 5th February, wherein he invited us to meet in a room in another place. That offer was accepted through his secretary over the telephone.
An unfortunate intervention caused the deferment of the proposed meeting. The letter of 5th February said:Lord De La Warr has asked me to say that, if convenient to you, he could meet you 3025 at 3.30 on Thursday afternoon. He suggests that this might perhaps be a joint meeting with yourselves and the northern Conservative Members. …We raised no objections to that. That meeting would have been held but for the intervention of his late Majesty's death.
I was asked by the private secretary to the noble Lord if we would agree to defer—not to cancel—the meeting until after Parliament re-assembled, at some unspecified date. That agreement was entered into with the proviso I made over the telephone that the deferred meeting should be held prior to the proposed meeting between the Postmaster-General and the local authorities.
Since that time, the Postmaster-General has refused categorically to meet us and has refused to give us a further date. As we are not in the position of being able to put questions direct to the noble Lord, I ask the hon. Gentleman to give some reason for this change of mind and to say why the Postmaster-General, after arranging a meeting with Members of the House and agreeing through his private secretary that the meeting should be deferred, has refused to give a further date and has consistently said that he would not meet us unless we tagged on to the end of the queue with the local authorities and the Conservative Members of Parliament.
§ The Assistant Postmaster-General (Mr. David Gammans)
The hon. Member has read certain letters. Would he care to read the letters addressed to him by my noble Friend on 5th and 11th March?
§ Mr. Ewart
I am taking this matter in chronological order. I am making my case in my own way, and the correspondence will be revealed as I make my points. I am now only as far as 5th February and the subsequent telephone discussion following that letter.
I received a most interesting letter on 28th February, in reply to a letter of mine, wherein the noble Lord made these points. He said that he was not prepared to meet us separately. He gave no reason why the meeting, which had been deferred, was not now to be held except that he would not now meet us because he had decided to meet the local authorities in London. He said:I had in mind that we could keep the matter out of the sphere of party politics as 3026 this should not be allowed to become a political issue at all. If I see either yourselves or the Conservative Members separately before the others"—"the others" being the members of the local authority deputation—I shall be charged with having favoured one or other side, and this I am not prepared to do either for my own party or for yours.The noble Lord has more experience of political parties than I have—I have only been in one—and I am quite prepared to concede that point to him. But in this letter, he takes upon himself the right and the responsibility of determining, when Members of the House request an interview to discuss specific constituency matters, who shall accompany them.
Again, we told the noble Lord that this was not acceptable and that we were not prepared to tag on to the end of a deputation who did not want to discuss the shared wavelength and who in their correspondence—I challenge the hon. Gentleman to produce one letter from the local authorities which mentions the shared wavelength—and in the memorandum which accompanied it and which Members of Parliament in the area received referred to the matter of television in the area, and only made reference to the shared wavelength. The noble Lord said, "If you want to discuss your subject you will have to come with the other people and discuss it when they are discussing theirs." That was not acceptable to us.
On 5th March, a further letter was received. This is the letter to which the hon. Gentleman has referred. It is rather illuminating, that the noble Lord, in replying to me, said:I am going ahead with the meeting with the local authorities and Conservative Members as arranged, and if you wish to talk the matter over"—talk the matter over—with the Assistant Postmaster-General or myself, possibly we can arrange a meeting a little later.What the noble Lord was saying there was, "I intend to pursue my intention of meeting the Conservative Members of Parliament with the local authority representatives, but I say to the 29 Labour Members of Parliament, 'If you like to talk the matter over with me—not have a discussion of policy—then this could be arranged a little later.'" This was after 18th March—and at no other time before—the date on which he had 3027 decided to meet the local authority representatives.
This is a sorry situation. Members of Parliament are told that a Minister of the Crown takes upon himself the right and responsibility to discuss a matter of policy with certain people, the majority of whom are outside bodies. This is not a local authority matter but purely a Parliamentary and Governmental matter. He will discuss it with outside bodies led by Conservative Members and after he has determined the policy with them, and made a final statement on the matter, Labour Members of Parliament can come along at some time in the future—but not before he has carried out this practice—and can talk the matter over, either with him or the Assistant Postmaster-General.
This is a serious situation, and one which we probably should not have exposed had it not been for the specially designed Question placed on the Order Paper by the hon. Member for Tyne-mouth (Miss Ward). It was a written Question to which hon. Members would have no right to put supplementary questions, asking who had been invited to the conference and a further Question asking who had refused to attend.
The noble Lord says, and I would draw the attention of the hon. Gentleman to this because it impinges on the statement he made in this House the other day, which was a gross misrepresentation:As far back as 24th September the local authorities passed a resolution calling upon"—note that—calling upon—the Postmaster-General to ask for a television transmitter at Pontop Pike and on the 18th November the Secretary of the Durham County Boroughs Committee wrote to Sir Fergus Graham on the question of the shared wavelength. Sir Fergus Graham wrote to me on the 20th November raising this point.When the hon. Member for Darlington (Sir F. Graham) wrote to the Postmaster-General on 20th November, he did not ask for an interview with the Postmaster-General either on his own behalf or on behalf of his Conservative colleagues. On the first point in this letter, that the meeting of the local authorities was in September, I now challenge the hon. Gentleman to produce the first letter from the clerk on behalf of those local authorities, the clerk to the Whitley Bay Urban District Council, requesting an interview. It was not in September, it was on 17th January.
§ Mr. Ewart
And the local authorities met in September, discussed this matter, and appointed a committee to go into the question of making representations to the noble Lord, and arranged a further meeting just prior to 17th January. Their clerk wrote to the noble Lord on 17th January requesting an interview. The hon. Gentleman said in this House, in answer to questions:The truth is that it was not Members of this House who first asked my noble Friend to meet them; it was members of local authorities as early as last September."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 2nd April, 1952; Vol. 498, c. 1659.]That is a total misrepresentation of the facts. The local authorities did not ask his noble Friend to meet them in September. They had their meeting in September. They appointed a committee to go into the matter and that committee went into the matter a few days prior to 17th January. And on 17th January of this year his noble Friend received a request for a meeting to discuss television, and television only. It was on 6th December last that I wrote on behalf of right hon. and hon. Friends on this side of the House representative of the northern group of Labour Members for a meeting—
§ Mr. Gammans
I think we may save a little time if I clear up the point as to what they wrote about. The document from the local authorities committee says:The Committee would also like to discuss with the Postmaster-General the arrangements under which the area is subjected to a regional programme which in so far as it is of local origin is almost 100 per cent. Northern Ireland. …
§ Mr. Gammans
The hon. Gentleman has contended that what the local authorities wanted to come about was television. That is not so. They realise the two questions were very intimately and inextricably bound up.
§ Mr. Willey
What was the date of the receipt of the communication? The hon. 3029 Gentleman has already conveyed the impression that it was received on 24th September.
§ Mr. Gammans
What I said to the House was that that is a copy of the minutes of a meeting held in September.
§ Mr. Ewart
This document referred to a statement of a meeting held in the Whitley Bay Urban District Council offices on 24th September, 1951, at which a number of councils were represented. A deputation was appointed and the committee made observations in support of their case. They go on to deal in four paragraphs with the question of television, and their case for the erection of a low-power transmitter at Pontop Pike. There is a very slight reference to the other matter. But if I concede that point to him now, will the Assistant Postmaster-General state the date on which he received the document with the request from the local authorities that they should be met? I am prepared to sit down now and await his answer.
§ Mr. Gammans
I cannot say whether this document was received in September or not, because I was not in office at that time. But there is no doubt about two things; that the local authorities wished to see the Postmaster-General and that they appointed a committee for the purpose of waiting upon the Postmaster-General to discuss these two subjects.
§ Mr. E. Shinwell (Easington)
Does the hon. Gentleman really say he is unable to answer for what transpired immediately before he assumed office? Does he mean to say he could not have ascertained from his staff what actually transpired? This is not a matter of high policy, it is merely a factual question which could easily have been answered if he had queried his staff about it. Is this his alibi, that he was not in office at the time?
§ Mr. Gammans
No, that is not an alibi. Of course it is not. I think that 3030 we had better let the hon. Gentleman continue his speech.
§ Mr. Shinwell
If my hon. Friend will permit me, I would say that it is bad enough to have a snooty aristocrat in another place treating Labour Members in this fashion, but let me tell the hon. Gentleman that we will not allow him to indulge in such tactics here.
§ Major H. Legge-Bourke (Isle of Ely)
On a point of order. Is it in order for the right hon. Gentleman, or for any other hon. Member of this House, to refer to a member of another place as a snooty aristocrat?
Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Mr. Hopkin Morris)
I did not understand the right hon. Gentleman to make that reference at all.
§ Mr. Shinwell
I will explain what I meant, if my hon. Friend will permit me. When the Postmaster-General sits in another place, and we cannot get at him because he is in another place, one has to rely on the Assistant Postmaster-General, who probably is not to blame at all in this regard—
§ Major Legge-Bourke
Further to that point of order. The right hon. Gentleman has now confirmed that he was referring to the Postmaster-General when he made that remark.
I understood that the reference was to the answer. The adjective was applied to the answer.
§ Mr. Shinwell
I am explaining why he was snooty. There is no doubt about him being an aristocrat. That is obvious. I say that he was snooty because he treated Members of Parliament, whether they are on one side of the House or the other, in this most obscene fashion, and we will not put up with it. I want to make that quite clear.
§ Miss Irene Ward (Tynemouth)
On a point of order. Is it in order for the right hon. Gentleman to use the word "obscene"?
§ Mr. Shinwell
I am surprised at the hon. Lady the Member for Tynemouth (Miss Ward) raising a most unseemly 3031 point of order of that kind. With the consent of my hon. Friend, I pursue my point. Does the hon. Gentleman really make this his alibi? I have been a Member of Governments, as he knows, and I should never dare to come to this House and treat hon. Members in this fashion.
I am not sure now whether the right hon. Gentleman is not making a speech. I would remind him that his hon. Friend is in possession of the House.
§ Mr. Shinwell
I am within the Ruling of the Chair, but I understood that my hon. Friend gave way so that I could put the point to the Assistant Postmaster-General. I am content with having put the point. No doubt the Assistant Postmaster-General will try to make a speedy escape from the alibi and admit that he could have obtained the information if he had asked for it.
§ Mr. Ewart
The position we have arrived at is that the hon. Gentleman has produced a document. He has implied to the House that the date of 24th September on that document was the date on which he received it in his Department. That is not true. The hon. Gentleman is in possession of the facts. If I give him the information and quote from a letter which I received from his noble Friend, perhaps he will then admit that he is wrong and withdraw the reference he made at Question time the other day.
I have here a letter received by myself from the Postmaster-General on 24th January. Accompanying that letter of 24th January was a letter which the Postmaster-General wrote to Mr. Ruddock, the Clerk of the Whitley Bay Urban District Council.
In the opening paragraph his noble Friend says to the Clerk of the Council:You wrote on 17th January asking me to receive a deputation from local authorities in the North-East to talk about the question of a low-power television transmitter at Pontop Pike, County Durham.By the same post I received a letter from Mr. Ruddock telling me that he also had written to the Postmaster-General asking for an interview. That letter was also dated 17th January.
§ Mr. Ewart
I ask in the interests of Parliamentary decorum and decency, if the hon. Gentleman is equal to such a 3032 courtesy, that the Assistant Postmaster-General should withdraw the statement he made in the House on 2nd April, when he said:The truth is that it was not Members of this House who first asked my noble Friend to meet them; it was members of local authorities, as early as last September."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 2nd April, 1952; Vol. 498, c. 1659.]Today the hon. Gentleman says that he does not know when the document was received; he has not got the information; he is only assuming that it was received on 24th September. I have given him the information from correspondence received from the Postmaster-General. Now, perhaps, he will have the decency to withdraw the statement.
I conclude by saying that the situation which I have endeavoured to put before the House has been brought about largely through the policy of the Prime Minister of appointing to high Ministerial office members of another place. They are not subject to questioning in this House. Either they are totally ignorant of the rights of Members or Parliament or they are entirely indifferent to them.
§ Mr. Ewart
The noble Lord can sit in splendid isolation in another place and consider himself to be safeguarded against demands that he should explain his conduct. But I want to say this about the Prime Minister. At least he pays lip-service to Parliamentary rights and to the high virtues of our Parliamentary democracy. He safeguards at all times the rights of Members in this House.
I suggest that, after the experience that we have had with one Minister of this kind who sits in another place, the Prime Minister should sack the noble Lord and, in view of the gross and deliberate misrepresentation of the hon. Gentleman at Question time on 2nd April, he should see that the Assistant Postmaster-General goes with him.
§ 2.28 p.m.
§ Captain L. P. S. Orr (Down, South)
Being an Irishman, and consequently of a peaceful disposition, I have no wish to become embroiled in certain aspects of this controversy, especially with the right hon. Member for Easington (Mr. Shinwell).
§ Captain Orr
The fact that there is controversy and that there are hard feelings shows that this shared wavelength gives rise to a lot of troubles and difficulties. If we can find some solution, so much the better. We do not like it in Northern Ireland any more than do our friends in the North-East of England. We think that they in the North-East can get a good deal of educational value from the programmes from Northern Ireland. No doubt the Northern Ireland news kept them up to date with the affairs of a very important part of the Kingdom, and I am sure that the doings of the Durham County Council are a model for all local authorities.
§ Captain Orr
This shared wavelength causes many difficulties. If we can provide an alternative, so much the better. There are various ways in which we could get a solution.
First of all, as has been suggested, we could perhaps get another wavelength, and I hope that my hon. Friend has not entirely closed his mind to that, because there is a possibility of piracy. I know that he is a model of rectitude and would not entertain that for a moment, but, behind the Iron Curtain, there are wavelengths which might quite easily be used, and I am sure that we do not blush to advocate that. There is one at Athlone in the Republic of Ireland, but perhaps that may be a little too near home.
The second way of doing it is by way of V.H.F., in which direction the Postmaster-General has said it is his intention to solve the problem, but there are, of course, the limitations of the re-armament programme, and it would be some time before we might be in a position to do that. If I might suggest another solution, which I have already suggested at Question time and also in a memorandum to my hon. Friend, it is that he should put the two transmitters in the North of England on the one wavelength.
Certain of the B.B.C. technicians have dismissed that as impossible, but their 3034 view is by no means unanimous within the B.B.C. itself, and I agree that if we did that we might incur the difficulty of having a "mush" area over part of the region, and some people might suffer worse reception as a consequence. I think the difficulties of that are exaggerated, and that it may not be as bad as it sounds. At any rate, we should satisfy a far greater number of listeners than are satisfied at the present time.
§ Captain Orr
No, what I was suggesting was that the aggregate of listeners in Northern Ireland and the North-East Coast—and this is the essence of democracy—might be satisfied to a greater extent, though, in the region referred to by the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Peart), we might dissatisfy a few people, while satisfying far more elsewhere. I suggest that the advantages would outweigh any disadvantages.
At any rate, why should we not try it for six months, and, at the end of that time, by listener research or some other methods, then find out whether we have satisfied the people and whether this "mush" area is as bad as it sounds. Then, we might inquire whether the B.B.C. technicians could not, by a little ingenuity in these areas, mitigate the evils that may arise there. I suggest we might try that as an experiment for six months, and that we might find that perhaps both of these areas could get along quite well.
§ Mr. Speaker
May I point out to the House that we are running a little late? Although I have some time in hand, I would ask succeeding speakers to be as brief as they possibly can.
§ 2.34 p.m.
§ Mr. Frederick Willey (Sunderland, North)
I readily comply with that invitation, as I think that my hon. Friend has put a very comprehensive case, and that his indictment certainly demands a reply from the Assistant Postmaster-General.
I think it would be very disturbing to the local authorities when they read HANSARD and see how badly northern 3035 Members of Parliament have been treated. This is an entirely new Parliamentary doctrine to say to a group of Members that a Minister is quite willing to see them, provided that they come along with somebody else and discuss something entirely different. If we were to press that still further, it would make nonsense of what has always been understood to be the right of access of Members of Parliament to Ministers of the Crown.
This is a very serious matter, which calls for a serious reply. Having heard the correspondence revealed by my hon. Friend today, I think the hon. Gentleman appears to have misled the House, and that again is a serious matter. I share the impression of my hon. Friend that, when the Assistant Postmaster-General gave his reply at Question time, he created the impression that an invitation had been received from the local authorities—a different group to the Durham County Boroughs group—and that he received those representations in September. It is clear from the correspondence quoted by my hon. Friend that this is not so.
On the broad issue, I realise that this matter concerns not only the present Assistant Postmaster-General but his predecessors, but I would emphasise again that the North-East Coast rightly feels that it has been neglected about many things, that its claims have been too frequently overlooked. I concede that on this particular matter the Conservative group of hon. Members had reached a similar conclusion.
Here we have a part of Britain upon which very heavy demands are being made and appeals are being made to coal miners and other workers to work harder in the heavy industries. These people want some compensation, and do not want to feel that they are being overlooked and that they have to put up both with a shared wavelength and to enjoy no television facilities.
I feel that, when we discussed this matter with the Minister's predecessor, we really had a good case in regard to television. I appreciate that this is a matter of balance, but it is arguable that the heavy capital cost went into the coaxial cables and that the cost of the transmitters was not so great, as the hon. 3036 Gentleman has conceded. It is a dangerous argument to say that television must not be given to miners and other heavy workers in an industrial area. I know the difficulties of a shared wavelength, and they have been explained to me by the previous Postmaster-General as well as by the hon. Gentleman, but I think we should really try to do something about it when at present we are suffering from both of these disadvantages.
§ 2.37 p.m.
§ Miss Irene Ward (Tynemouth)
Some time ago I asked my hon. Friend the Assistant Postmaster-General if he could tell me when the pledge given to restore our wavelength, which was taken from us during the war, would be implemented, and he said that he could find no trace of that pledge. If I may say so with very great respect, I think he must have been in error in giving such a quick answer, and I have been at some pains to look into the matter. I merely want now to place on record confirmation of the facts which I gave to my hon. Friend on that occasion.
I have in my possession a memorandum and a letter from Mr. John Coatman, who was an official of the Northern Region of the B.B.C. during that period, on the whole of the circumstances which arose when our wavelength was taken away. Mr. Coatman wrote to the Governors of the B.B.C. to ask for the implementation of the pledge, in view of the treatment that had been meted out to the North-East Coast. I have Mr. Coatman's permission to make these remarks in the House, and I propose to send to my hon. Friend, in implementation of my statement, the full texts as I have them in my possession, but there are two or three brief points that I want to make.
One is to place on record Mr. Coat-man's appreciation of the situation that we are discussing this afternoon. In a letter to me, Mr. Coatman, who is now Director of Research in the Social Sciences at St. Andrew's University, on 16th February, 1952, said:The note"—that is, the memorandum which I propose to send to my hon. Friend—gives some idea of how I fought Stagshaw's case for years, receiving no help whatsoever from the Labour M.Ps., who toed the party line, or from local bodies. Contrast this with my account of the West of England's case.3037 No doubt, my hon. Friend will say that when the West of England's case for restoration of their wavelength came up, the very strongest representations were made from the Western Region to the then Lord President of the Council, the right hon. Member for Lewisham, South (Mr. Morrison). On these representations from Members of Parliament and members of local bodies, the West of England won the restoration of their wavelength and the North-East coast was the area which was eliminated. I proposed to leave it to my hon. Friend to deal with what I call the local interest. It is a good thing that Conservative Members of Parliament have intervened in this debate because had Labour Members, during the time that their party was in power, made a strong—
§ Commander C. E. M. Donaldson (Roxburgh and Selkirk)
On a point of order. Is it proper, Mr. Speaker, for the hon. Member opposite to refer to an hon. Member on this side of the House as a fishwife and to repeat that she is?
§ Mr. Speaker
I did not hear the expression alluded to. I heard the hon. Lady refer to it. If the hon. Member did use the expression, he ought to withdraw it.
§ Miss Ward
Further to that point of order. I should be grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, if you would kindly not press the hon. Gentleman opposite to withdraw the remark because in the North of England we are very proud of our fishwives. I represent them in this House, and, therefore, I am delighted to be associated with them.
§ Mr. Ewart
I would like for the purpose of the record—and this can be ascertained from the files of the Post Office—to say also that Labour Members of Parliament have made repeated representations by conference, by speeches and by Questions in this House since 1946 on the matter of the north-eastern area.
§ Miss Ward
I would not for one moment deprive the hon. Gentleman of that intervention. I think it is a very good thing, but all I can say is that after six years of Labour rule the North-East Coast is still badly served in this respect despite the representations made by hon. Members opposite to their Ministers when they were in power. Preferably, I like to bring things out into the daylight and to have them on record in the House of Commons.
In conclusion, I want to say that I think it is of very great importance that we on the North-East Coast should have adequate facilities for both television and sound broadcasts. If this debate has done anything useful at all, it has certainly directed the attention of the Assistant Postmaster-General to the position, and has also given him an opportunity of answering the allegations made by hon. Members opposite. So far as my hon. Friends and I are concerned, we shall continue to press our own side, and, thank goodness, we in the Conservative Party still have the courage to do it in public.
§ Mr. Harry Wallace (Walthamstow, East)
On a point of order. The hon. Lady says she likes to bring things out into the daylight. I have been very interested this afternoon in the conflict of evidence. The hon. Lady referred to a pledge which, I think, implicates the Assistant Postmaster-General. She did not give the House any information about that pledge, neither the date of it nor what it involves. It seems unfair to make a reflection upon an hon. Member holding the office of Assistant Postmaster-General without giving more details of the alleged pledge. The hon. Lady spoke vaguely about, "The pledge I told the House about; the pledge I gave them no information about, but which I will send to my hon. Friend." Is not the House entitled to a little more respect than that, Mr. Speaker?
§ Miss Ward
If I may, Mr. Speaker, I should like to be allowed to tie that up. I am very grateful to the hon. Member, who was not present when I addressed the question to my hon. Friend. When our wavelength was taken for war purposes under the Coalition Government, a pledge was given that it would be restored to us at the end of the war. I can quite 3039 understand that there may be an alteration in the circumstances, but I am only pointing out that if the Labour Party had fought as hard for the North-East Coast as the Northern Region Members of all parties fought for their area, we might have had our wavelength restored.
§ 2.46 p.m.
§ The Assistant Postmaster-General (Mr. David Gammans)
I think it is a pity that we should have had to discuss this most important question of radio and television on the North-East Coast in terms of party warfare, for that is what it has come down to. This is a matter which does not concern parties. At any rate, that is the viewpoint from which we at the Post Office have looked at it. I also think it unfortunate that the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Ewart), should think that my noble Friend has been discourteous to him. May I assure him and the House that that is the very last thing my noble Friend or I would wish to do, and I hope I shall succeed in proving to the hon. Gentleman that although there may have been a difference of opinion on both sides about the best way of dealing with this problem, the very last thing that my noble Friend desired was a charge of discourtesy.
I think the trouble has arisen partly owing to a misunderstanding as to what my noble Friend may have had in mind and also the history of it. On one particular point I wish to correct something I said just now. I perhaps gave the impression that these representations from the local authorities came to the Post Office in September. That was not so. Their meeting was held in September, but, so far as I can trace, the first representation we received from them enclosing a copy of their minutes was in November.
§ Mr. Ewart
This is rather important if we want to get the facts right. When that communication was received in November—and I have no reason to doubt the hon. Gentleman's word—was there an accompanying letter asking for an interview with the hon. Gentleman's noble Friend, because the statement made by the hon. Gentleman at Question time last week was to the effect that the local authorities asked for a meeting as far back as September. Was there not a request for a meeting in the document received in November?
§ Mr. Gammans
The document itself asked for a meeting. That is how, I think, the misunderstanding in the mind of the hon. Gentleman may have arisen. May I make it perfectly clear that the first time that this matter came to the notice of the Post Office was in November. Let us get the chronological order right. The next representations were made by the hon. Member for Darlington (Sir F. Graham). They were made towards the end of November. Finally, on 6th December, representations were made by the hon. Member himself.
§ Mr. Gammans
He sent along the request for a meeting with my noble Friend with regard to the local authorities in the North of England.
May I just deal with one other point because I think some of the misunderstanding may have arisen on it. The hon. Gentleman opposite, I believe, thought there was a division between the matter of television and the shared wavelength. Technically, as I will try to show in a minute, those two things are bound up together, and, therefore, there may perhaps have arisen in the hon. Gentleman's mind the feeling that by trying to get the joint meeting between all the parties interested my noble Friend was side-tracking the issue on which the hon. Gentleman himself was particularly interested. May I assure him that we have not the slightest desire to do that. That, as it were, was the order in which the requests were made.
§ Mr. Ewart
On a point of order. For the purpose of the record—I hope the hon. Gentleman will give way, for I must make this point of order—the statement made by him was that the hon. Member for Darlington (Sir F. Graham) wrote in November requesting a meeting on behalf of the local authorities. I have a letter from the same body of local authorities who did not desire a conference—that is the county borough authorities—but who merely asked that Members of Parliament should raise the matter on their behalf.
§ Mr. Speaker
That is not a point of order. There seems to be a considerable conflict of evidence on this matter, but that should not be raised on a point of order.
§ Mr. Gammans
I hope I shall satisfy the hon. Member that there is on the part of my noble Friend not the slightest desire to be discourteous. Indeed, as has already been said, it would be contrary to all Parliamentary practice that any Minister of the Crown, whether in this House or in another place, should refuse to see Members of Parliament. The suggestion is fantastic. I hope I can assure the hon. Member that all I want to do is to try and meet the difficulties of the North-East Coast.
There is a long correspondence back and forth between my noble Friend and the hon. Member. My noble Friend says he hopes they will consent to come to this meeting which he has arranged with the local authorities, because he felt that local authorities, who, after all, are representatives of the people, like ourselves, were the people who asked first. To his mind, rightly or wrongly, it would appear discourteous to them if he saw any group of hon. Members from either side of the House before he saw the people who had written to him in the first instance. Therefore, right throughout the correspondence, on several occasions, my noble Friend asks the hon. Member and his Friends if they are prepared to come to this meeting.
My noble Friend goes on to say—and it will be sufficient if I quote from the last letter on the subject:… if they prefer to meet me separately, to arrange a mutually convenient date.That offer is still open and I hope that as a result of this somewhat turbulent discussion today the hon. Member will get in touch with my noble Friend or myself and let us have a meeting at the earliest possible moment to discuss this or any other question.
§ Mr. Speaker
Unless the Minister at the Box gives way, I cannot allow the hon. Member to remain standing.
§ Mr. Ewart
I really must protest. The hon. Gentleman read out a statement from his noble Friend that he would meet us separately. But that offer was accepted by us. The meeting was 3042 arranged for 7th February, but owing to the King's death, we mutually agreed to defer it. Will the hon. Gentleman tell us why his noble Friend refuses to give us another date?
§ Mr. Gammans
It is not a question of refusing at all. If it had not been for the death of His late Majesty, I presume that we would have had that meeting and that this debate would never have taken place. My noble Friend is perfectly happy to meet the hon. Member and his friends and, I hope, the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Easington (Mr. Shinwell), who started this argument and who has now left the Chamber. I hope that the hon. Member and his friends will accept from me the assurance that my noble Friend has not the slightest intention of being discourteous to hon. Members or in any way to impair their rights as Members of the House.
It is a great pity that party politics have to bedevil every side of civic life. Is there no civic activity that cannot be looked at except from the party angle? One of the tragedies of civic life is that party politics have to get into everything. It is a tragedy that the politics of Westminster ever invaded the town hall. For heaven's sake let us not look at this matter entirely from the party angle.
What the North-East wants is not that either side of the House should secure an advantage, but that the North-East should have television and a better radio service. Surely that is all that matters. I believe that when the constituents of hon. Members from either side of the House read in HANSARD an account of this debate, they will think we have been suffering from too many late nights and that we have got on each other's nerves and lost sight of the things that really matter.
Let me try to deal with the things that matter. I have nothing new to say on the technical side, but we should realise, first, that we cannot divorce television for the North-East Coast from the provision of better radio. On the television side my predecessor in office was faced last year with this very unfortunate set of circumstances which compelled him most reluctantly to say that the station at Pontop Pike could not be finished. If it had been possible I think television would have been provided there by now.
3043 When we came into office we very reluctantly had to accept the same position. But my noble Friend has given a pledge that the North-East Coast will be the first to have television when the capital situation permits it. To my mind, it is right that that area should be the first, because there are there 2,500,000 people who would benefit from television whereas of the other areas which would have been provided with stations the nearest in numbers is the South of England with one million and Northern Ireland with 750,000. It is therefore right that the north-east coast should have television first.
There is also a technical reason as well; and that is that the radio links go through near Pontop Pike and it is only a question of setting up a transmitting station on that site. This matter was raised in the House yesterday and I hope I have made it clear. But it is not only a question of a transmitter. If it were we could use one of the low-power transmitters now being used at Kirk o'Shotts, Wenvoe and Holme Moss. It is a question of masts, buildings and roads and also whether we could release at the moment scarce labour and materials to provide the television sets themselves.
That is the situation in the case of television and I hope hon. Members opposite will agree that if they have not received all that their constituents want, at any rate they have a pledge. I can say categorically that that pledge will be honoured. As soon as I can come to this Box and say that we can do it nothing will give me greater pleasure.
§ Major Legge-Bourke
My hon. Friend has argued that the reason for deciding to give this area the first of the new stations is that the new station would be serving 2,500,000 people. Would he bear in mind that, if that is the main burden of the argument, East Anglia should also have been asking for a separate programme for its population of up to 5 million?
§ Mr. Gammans
That is not the only consideration. I should like to do something for East Anglia and, indeed, for any area in the country.
§ Mr. Gammans
On the radio side, I agree that there is no question that reception in the North-East Coast area is bad. Fortunately it does not affect the Light Programme or the Third Programme; but there is the fact that Northern Ireland and the North-East Coast have to share the same wavelength for 9½ hours a week out of a total of 114. It is actually rather worse than that, because that happens to be at peak listening hours. And what is interesting is that though the North-East Coast has a grievance Northern Ireland has one as well. Nothing would give me greater pleasure than to preside over the radio divorce between these two areas.
I think the House knows the reason, but there is no harm in my repeating it. Before the war we had 10 medium wavelength stations for the regional services. Now we have only eight. The reason is that there is now the Third Programme and the Overseas Service, which we did not have before the war. The North-East coast needs, and did have before the war, two transmitters at Stagshawe and Moorside Edge. Moorside Edge does not share its wavelength with Northern Ireland, but that does not help the hon. Gentleman's constituents. It is the Stagshawe transmitter which is linked up with and married, unhappily, to Northern Ireland.
One hon. Member asked why we could not arrange it differently by two other stations sharing. The trouble would be a curious area known as a "mush" area, and the mush area would come in Durham. The mush area now comes in the middle of the Irish Sea, where, luckily, none of us have any constituents.
§ Mr. Gammans
The main mush area is in the middle of the Irish Sea. This is an unsatisfactory arrangement and I wish we could get round it.
There is another factor which affects all of us, and that is an increase in foreign interference at night, which is particularly bad. What with mush areas and Northern Ireland chipping into North-East England, and North-East England chipping into Northern Ireland, it is undoubtedly an unsatisfactory state of affairs. The only real solution is the 3045 employment of very high frequency. There is no hope whatever of getting another medium wavelength—no hope at all—unless we rob the Third Programme or the overseas broadcasts.
My hon. Friend the Member for Tyne-mouth (Miss Ward) raised the question of Stagshawe before the war and the alleged pledge which was given. The pledge was not given by the Post Office, and I am sure my hon. Friend would agree, on second thoughts, that that is not a matter that she can hold against anybody occupying this office—
§ Mr. Gammans
When hon. Members have finished their private conversation, perhaps I can continue.
This wavelength of 267 metres—the pre-war Stagshawe wavelength—no longer exists; it was done away with at the Copenhagen conference. The only solution is to have very high frequency. Here, again, this is something which is not too difficult technically if the country is prepared to face up to the capital expenditure. It means not only a transmitter, but also the release of sufficient capital expenditure to make new radio sets—because, as the hon. Gentleman will realise, the present sets cannot work on V.H.F. without the use of adaptors.
The last Government felt—and I think rightly—that it would not be justified at a time of re-armament in doing that. I would point out also that the Pontop Pike television station will be combined with the Pontop Pike very high frequency, and that is the reason, as I have already explained, why we cannot discuss these two questions in isolation. That is the technical reason.
I do hope that I have convinced the hon. Gentleman that perhaps he may have misunderstood my noble Friend; I can assure him that the last thing that we wanted to do was to use a technical dodge to keep the delegations separate. On behalf of my noble Friend and myself, I hope that it will fall to my lot before very long to come to this Box and say that we can provide the North-East Coast 3046 and other parts of the country with television and a better radio service. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that when that happy moment comes we shall not be influenced by who originally asked for it, and that from no angle whatsoever will party politics enter into the matter.