HC Deb 31 July 1953 vol 518 cc1769-80

3.59 p.m.

Mr. C. R. Hobson (Keighley)

I want to reiterate what I said——

It being Four o'clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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

Mr. Hobson

I wish to reiterate what I said yesterday, that we welcome the fact that Her Majesty's Government are accepting the recommendations of the Terrington Report. We consider that by so doing they will go a long way to bringing about complete reconciliation between these break-away unions and those unions affiliated to the Trades Union Congress.

I wish to deal with the allocations of very high frequency and ultra-high frequency broadcasting——

Mr. Charles Pannell (Leeds, West)

On a point of order. Is there any precedent, Mr. Speaker—I speak with respect of one who is my hon. Friend—for going from one speech to another? Is there any means by which hon. Members on this side of the House may be safeguarded in a matter which has become a private dog-fight between hon. Members on the other side of the House?

Mr. Speaker

Order. There is nothing to protest against. The Question before the House is, "That this House do now adjourn." That has always been the Question, and any speech which is in order on that Motion should be heard. As to the other point, the matter was raised by hon. Members on the other side of the House.

Mr. Pannell

Yes, in three speeches.

Mr. Hobson

I would say, at the outset, that I shall not raise the controversial issues for and against sponsored television. I hope I shall not weary the House by what is bound to be a somewhat technical discussion, but an endeavour must be made from this side to discover first, whether it is technically possible to have sponsored television without infringing the frequencies allotted to the B.B.C. for television and for very high frequency audio - broadcasting; secondly, whether sponsored television can be obtained on existing frequencies allocated to Great Britain without renewal or alteration of existing international agreements; and, thirdly, whether it can be obtained without considerable expense to those who already hold licences should their frequency allocation be changed as the result of the recommendations of the Television Advisory Committee.

I know that there are some frequencies allocated to defence. The hon. Gentleman need only give the slightest hint about that and I shall not pursue the matter. I wish especially to deal with Band I, the 41–68 megacycles band which, I understand, is the existing B.B.C. band to cover London, Birmingham, Holm Moss, Kirk o'Shotts and Wenvoe and five low-powered stations already planned. Would it be possible for the B.B.C. using Band I as they do now for the purposes of television, to complete the national coverage for television? Would it cover Norwich, for example? There have been Questions asked in the House about the absence of television from East Anglia. There is at present no station which can cover that area and I shall be grateful if the hon. Gentleman would say whether if Norwich can be accommodated on Band I.

Band II, the 75–100 megacycle band, is obviously a too narrow band. The characteristics of television require a broader band. It would appear, though we should like confirmation, that the B.B.C. intend some time in the future to use Band II for the purposes of V.H.F. audio-broadcasting. What is on Band II at the moment is difficult to ascertain. So far as I know there is the B.B.C. Experimental Station, at Wrotham, the Automobile Association, some police and some newspapers.

In fact, I am told that there is a complaint from the "Daily Mail" and the "News Chronicle" that they are overhearing each other's communications. Goodness knows what would happen if "Tribune" got on the same wavelength as the Kemsley Press. The consequences are too dire to contemplate. I fear that writs would be flying about like confetti at a wedding. It is obvious that there are difficulties already about Band II.

Band III has been referred to as the thorn in the flesh. It is the band about which there is the most argument—the 174/216 megacycle band. I thank the Assistant Postmaster-General for at last giving us information about Band III last Wednesday in answer to a Parliamentary Question. On this band there are mobile communications. We should like to know, and I ask the hon. Gentleman to give us a direct answer, whether this is in any way a contravention of our international agreements.

The protocol to the Stockholm Conference leads us to believe that the Post Office, as the responsible authority, were in order in allocating the frequencies for the purpose of air navigational services, taxi-cabs and public utilities.

Mr. Charles Ian Orr-Ewing (Hen don, North)

Does not the hon. Gentleman agree that many of these allocations were made before the Stockholm Conference—between the Atlantic City Conference and the Stockholm Conference?

Mr. Hobson

I understand that. The Atlantic City Conference dealt with the world and the one at Stockholm dealt with Europe. In that respect, until there had been a European Conference I consider that the Post Office were right. We shall have confirmation when the Minister replies. He is more up-to-date on these matters than I could possibly be. There are a host of commercial services on Band III, but there are two channels available for television. I want to know whether both these channels are required for complete coverage by a single programme of the B.B.C., or whether they need only one for Norwich to cover the whole of East Anglia, leaving only one channel which could be used for sponsored television.

I appreciate that on Band III—because the higher the frequency the shorter the wavelength and, therefore, the lower the coverage—the coverage is only 40 miles against 50 or 60 miles on Band I. It would appear that whatever channel is used on Band III—either of the two available—there would be coverage only for London or Birmingham. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will tell us. If this band is cleared, and it is a long-term policy, it will put people who are already on Band III—the mobile services—to very great expense. Where is it proposed, and on what wavelength or frequency, that they should be accommodated? Are they to be put into Band II, or what? Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will tell us.

Is the correct conclusion to draw from the allocation of these bands that it is only possible, without depriving the B.B.C. of their existing services or denying them the right to complete the coverage of the whole of Great Britain, to have one band available for sponsored television on that frequency?

I want to mention Band IV and Band V—the ultra-high frequencies. No television sets have yet been made in this country which can take any transmission on these frequencies. These are the frequencies used for the Services. There certainly would not be the valves available in quantity to put into the sets should transmission take place on these frequencies, and there is also the point that the cost of conversion of existing sets would be very heavy. We should like to know what is the proposed future use of these ultra-high frequencies.

Is it proposed to give the industry carte blanche to go ahead with the development of television on high frequencies? There has been a suggestion mooted in certain circles, to which I am not very close, that it is possible to accommodate quite a number of television transmissions by going either up or down the scale, and having a Band IIA or a Band IIIA. I am informed that it could be done. It would be a narrow band, the area covered would be small and the expense of the transmission would not be too great, but the real question that I want to ask is whether we could have television transmission on Band IIA or Band IIIA without having to have another international conference for the allocation of wavelength frequencies. It is very important that we should get an answer to that question, because of the controversy and the argument that is now taking place.

I want to raise another matter, of which I gave the hon. Gentleman notice. Has a decision been made by the Post Office and the B.B.C. as to whether we are to have frequency modulator or amplitude modulator for very high frequency broadcasting? It is time a decision was made, because I would recollect that, when I was in the Department, in 1948, this question was being taken up in the Post Office, and we should be very interested to hear if some agreement has been reached between the B.B.C. and the Post Office on whether there is to be frequency modulator or amplitude modulator for such broadcasts. The industry is interested in this, because there is the question of getting converters made for existing sets, and there is also the question of the export market. There is not the slightest doubt that some European countries have very high frequency broadcasts, with many stations, and this is developing, and it is of paramount importance that the export trade should know the decision.

There is even another reason much nearer at home. We have had many Questions over the last four or five years about the annoyance caused to people on the North-East Coast and in Northern Ireland because of the sharing of the wavelength which has to take place. This sharing of the wavelength between these two parts of Great Britain could be avoided if there were very high frequency broadcasts. I know the dilemma; there is nobody who can be held responsible for it. It is not a political, but a technical, dilemma. The fact is that, under the Copenhagen Plan, we were allocated only 13 frequencies, one long and 12 medium, and it is utterly impossible satisfactorily to cover the whole of Great Britain with broadcasts, but, with very high frequencies, we could get complete coverage.

I gave notice to the hon. Gentleman about a few general questions. First, when is the new station to be ready at Pontop Pike for the Newcastle area? Next, can we have a settlement of this controversy, which seems to be continually raised at Question time, as to where the B.B.C. are to put the Plymouth station? I am not as well acquainted with the topography of Cornwall and Devon as with that of my native Yorkshire, but I think it is time that the Plymouth controversy was settled and that we knew where the station will be.

Finally, I am very interested in the pressure questions which we get from various parts of the country about the need for television stations, and it has been passing through my mind that, now that we have stations in England, Scotland and Wales, perhaps the figures could be given of the number of television sets per 1,000 of the population for each of the three countries.

It would be very illuminating to know what interest the people in those three countries take in television, and we might learn something about each others characteristics even from the dull statistics which, I hope, the hon. Gentleman can give us. I know that I have asked quite a number of questions, and I hope that I have asked quite directly. I also hope that the hon. Gentleman can give us the answers, particularly with regard to the controversy about Band III.

4.15 p.m.

The Assistant Postmaster-General (Mr. David Gammans)

I am glad that the hon. Member for Keighley (Mr. Hobson) has raised this matter, because it gives me the opportunity to express publicly, on behalf of my noble Friend and the Government, the debt we owe to the Television Advisory Committee, and, in particular, to its Chairman. Sir Charles Daniel, for the valuable Report they have produced at such very short notice.

I shall deal, first, with the last point raised by the hon. Gentleman, the distribution of television licences throughout the country. Curiously enough, it is somewhat uneven, although I do not want to draw any deep deductions from that fact. Taking the number of television licences per 1,000 potential viewers in England, Scotland and Wales covered by the five main stations, England, where the stations have been opened longest, has the highest figure of 66 per 1,000; Scotland, where the fourth Station was opened, has the lowest of 21 per 1,000; while Wales, which was opened after that in Scotland, has 32 per 1,000. I do not know what deductions we should draw from all that, but they are the figures for which the hon. Gentleman asked.

The hon. Gentleman asked me three questions. The first was, can the B.B.C. complete their programme, and can we have competitive television at the same time? We must agree on what we mean by the completion of the B.B.C. programme. At first, there were to be the five high-power and the five medium-power stations, and until only about a month ago that was regarded by this Government, as it was by the last Government, as the completion of the B.B.C.'s first programme coverage. They can all be accommodated in Band I.

But since that time we have added two more stations, the Isle of Wight and the Isle of Man. Those also can be accommodated under Band I. The B.B.C. have recently published a programme of development, and while the Government do not disapprove of it, they are in no way committed to it. That programme envisages, first of all, a second programme of television, but it also envisages fitting in some of the odd spots all over the country some further low-power stations in the first programme.

I am glad to be able to tell the hon. Gentleman that the B.B.C. now believe that they can accommodate these low-power stations also in Band I without impinging in any way on Band III. As I told the House the other day, the Government are in no way committed to giving the B.B.C. facilities for a second television programme before they have provided their rivals with a first television programme. What it really means is that the stations envisaged, apart from those for the second television programme of the B.B.C, can all go in Band I. I cannot give a better idea of how quickly this great science changes than by saying that not even the Television Advisory Committee believed that that would be feasible. But the B.B.C. now believe that they can do it.

The second question asked by the hon. Gentleman was about international agreements. He asked whether it would be possible to do what we propose without breaking international agreements. The information at my disposal suggests that it would be possible. It might be necessary for us to make agreements with any neighbouring countries who could conceivably be affected, but it would not be necessary to call a second conference, and we should certainly not. if we had those agreements with neighbouring countries, be breaking any international agreements.

The third question asked by the hon. Gentleman referred to what is called the clearing of Band III. In that band there are now a number of services which are not television services, and the Television Advisory Committee recommended that if possible the band should gradually be cleared. Will it cost money? Yes, of course it will. Will it cost a lot of money? It depends. A complete clearance would cost a lot of money, but if we envisage, as we do, a gradual clearing of one service after another over a period of years, there is no reason why any considerable amount of money should be at stake.

In any case, it is for the Government to decide which is the best use—whether it is better used for the services by which it is now used or whether it is better used for television. In so far as taxi-cab companies and other commercial users have a frequency in this band, it is on a licence which can be cancelled at comparatively short notice.

Mr. Hobson

There may be difficulties. I can best illustrate this by analogy. We had this difficulty about who was to pay for the alterations in the electricity supply industry. There was argument about who was to pay for the conversion from direct to alternating current. Who would be responsible in this case?

Mr. Gammans

According to the terms the Government are not responsible for any compensation.

The clearance of Band III is a slow and gradual process, but, in the meantime, two frequencies are available in Band III and neither is required by the B.B.C. for their first coverage in this country, even up to the 95 per cent. coverage. These two frequencies are, therefore, available for whatever purpose the Government may decide, and that is a matter which will be mentioned in the White Paper in the autumn.

Mr. C. I. Orr-Ewing

In the meantime, while we are waiting to clear this band, is my hon. Friend issuing any further licences on Band III?

Mr. Gammans

Licences are being issued on Band III, but the people to whom they are being issued understand perfectly clearly what may be the Government's plans for the future of that band.

I was asked about Band II and who is in it. The police are in a large part of it, but I am informed that the remainder of that band will be sufficient for the development of V.H.F. I was asked which form of modulation would be used. That matter is now before the Television Advisory Committee, and the hon. Member knows as well as I do what tremendous controversy there is and what strong views are held by the protagonists on each side. We hope that the Television Advisory Committee will report in the autumn.

At the Stockholm Conference, in 1952, we reserved the whole of Band III for television and we submitted a plan whereby this band could be used, if it were all available, for no fewer than 28 television stations of varying range and power; but we made it quite clear that we were using that band in the meantime for other purposes, too, and such use is in no way a contravention of the agreement which we reached at Stockholm. I do not want to go through the whole of the use of that band, because I gave the hon. Member the information in answer to a Question a few days ago.

The hon. Member also asked me about Bands IV and V. To a certain extent these are experimental, although both Bands IV and V are being used in the United States. I am told that the difficulty is one of valves, but when that difficulty has been overcome—and I have no doubt that it will be overcome before very long—we shall go into a large part of the spectrum where there is almost unlimited scope for frequencies, and I think that this not much sought-after slice of the frequency spectrum could take as many stations as the most ardent television fan could ever wish for.

The hon. Member asked for an explanation about Band III and whether it would be necessary to have a conference on it. I am informed that probably it would not be necessary, provided we had agreement with any countries who possibly could be affected by our going outside the band.

Pontop Pike and North Hessary Tor are two names of which probably most hon. Members have never heard except in connection with television. Pontop Pike is working on a temporary basis. After next year it will be on a permanent basis and then its power will be increased and its range extended and it will cover the whole of Durham and parts of Northumberland, and the North Riding of Yorkshire.

As I informed the House yesterday, a public inquiry is to be held into whether the North Hessary Tor site is to be used. The B.B.C. regard it as the most suitaable and, from their point of view, the cheapest site, but aesthetic considerations come in and so the Minister of Housing and Local Government has ordered a local inquiry. I warn the House that the holding of that inquiry will certainly hold up the erection of some kind of aerial in that part of the world and the provision of television in the Plymouth district.

I hope that I have dealt with all the questions that the hon. Member raised. This is a very technical matter of limited interest, but of very great importance in the television development of this country.

4.27 p.m.

Mr. Charles Ian Orr-Ewing (Hendon, North)

I am glad to have two or three minutes in which to address the House and I hope that my hon. Friend will consider some of the points that I want to raise.

I do not want to go into the question of why we gave away, at the bottom of Band III, some 10 megacycles for mobile radio purposes, but it seems to me that it was unfortunate because it has meant that our industry is manufacturing equipment which no other country in the world is manufacturing for the same frequency. It is extremely important that if we are to hold our own in the export market our exports should be based on similar home products. I would ask, therefore, whether, on the Inter-Departmental Committee which decided upon this allocation of Band III, the Board of Trade should not now be represented. As a temporary measure that might allow export needs to be borne in mind.

Secondly, to avoid a mistake like this occurring in future, ought we not to set up in this country something similar to the Federal Communications Commission? I realise that that Commission does not look after Service requirements and that the Services tend to be a little greedy in their needs, but if we had a civilian controlling authority looking after in particular export needs and civilian needs and the Services co-ordinated in a second committee the two requirements could come together at Cabinet level.

Mr. Hobson

How about the public interest?

Mr. Orr-Ewing

Surely that is represented by Ministers in this House.

It is important that these two sides should come together at Cabinet level. A mistake has been made and we have been left in an unusual position. We want to avoid making a similar mistake in the future, and I humbly suggest that this is one way in which it could be done.

Lieut-Colonel Marcus Lipton (Brixton)

The Minister said that there are two free frequencies in Band III. In those circumstances, why is it necessary to push all the other users operating in Band III off the band?

Mr. Gammans

There is no question of pushing them off Band III. It is a question of clearing Band III and making better use of it for television.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-nine Minutes past Four o'Clock, till Tuesday, 20th October, pursuant to the Resolution of the House yesterday.