HC Deb 14 May 1957 vol 570 cc366-76

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

10.59 p.m.

Mr. J. Grimond (Orkney and Shetland)

I want to begin by saying how sorry I am that Mr. Dinwiddie is leaving the Scottish B .B .C. His great services to Scotland in the B. B.C. will be recorded in due course. I only want to thank him for his courtesy and kindness in carrying out those services. I must say that he has not always had a very easy task, and in our humble way we have, even in Orkney and Shetland, from time to time done our best to make his life a burden to him because we have continually complained about the bad wireless reception from which we have suffered. We know that if he could have helped us he certainly would have done so, and I am sure that if the Assistant Postmaster-General has tonight any good news to give us no one will be more delighted than Mr. Dinwiddie. I should like to say that we welcome his successor, who will, I have no doubt, continue the excellent work which Mr. Dinwiddie has done.

In Orkney and Shetland, we have never had good reception, and the same is true. I am told, of other areas in the north and west of Scotland. We realise the difficulties of the B. B. C., but once again I must put on record, as has often been put on record before, that our feeling is that the B.B.C. has not been able to meet what we take to have been its obligations. In the Charter, it is laid down that the Corporation is to provide as public services, broadcasting services of wireless telegraphy by the method of telephony for general reception in sound, and by the methods of television and telephony in combination for general reception in visual images with sound, in Our United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. the Channel Islands, and the Isle of Man and the territorial waters thereof, and on hoard ships and aircraft… We may be off the coasts of Great Britain, but if the Corporation has an obligation to provide these services for ships, we feel that we are entitled to have them too.

I need not go over again in detail the ways in which our reception is bad. The B. B. C. has kindly sent its engineers to visit us several times in Orkney and Shetland, and I think they agree that it is unsatisfactory. We were at one time told that if we had more modern sets and larger aerials we might get on better, 'but it is now admitted, I think, that even with normal, good sets, reception is not what it ought to be.

One point I particularly want to bring to the attention of the Assistant Postmaster-General. The Third Programme is generally inaudible in Orkney and Shetland, unless one has a very large and special aerial. In various parts of the islands, particularly at dawn and dusk, there is bad interference with the Light and Home Services. That is partly due, I believe, to international difficulties, but once again we wish to express our hope that the Government are doing their best to resolve them.

In many islands, and, indeed, in many mainland districts of Scotland and the Highlands, wireless is by far the most important source of entertainment and instruction, and is generally the method people use to keep in touch with what goes on. To take my own constituency of Orkney and Shetland, we certainly, have very good cinemas in the towns of Kirkwall and Lerwick, and we have occasional visits from touring companies. But in the outlying islands there is no form of general entertainment other than what we provide ourselves, and although this is, we think, very good, we are very much more dependent on the wireless than is a southern town or even agricultural district.

I am told that the Scottish Department of Education has lately been circularising local authorities to inquire what they 'are doing about what I believe arc called, visual aids to education through television. To send this inquiry to the Shetland County Council is really to add 'insult to injury. We feel that if television 'is to play an important part in education, 'as I think it is, our children have as much 'right to take advantage of this development as any others.

It will be generally agreed, therefore, that if any area in Great Britain needs 'broadcasting services, it is the Islands and Highlands of Scotland. Apart from these 'old bogeys of bad reception, we have lately faced a new bogey, the possibility of deterioration of sound broadcasting before the onset of television. My first 'question to the Government, therefore, is this. What are their intentions about sound broadcasting? Have they, on the 'one hand, plans for improving reception in the North and West of Scotland? Will v. h. f., for instance, be of any help? May we have some assurance that the standard of programmes will be maintained, at least for so long as we are outside the area of normal television reception? If the Third Programme is to go on, have we any chance of ever receiving it?

The second part of my speech I wish to devote to television. In one of my capacities, as Member for Orkney, I feel a certain amount of encouragement about this. I trust that I have not been misled when I detected, as I think, a more optimistic undertone in some of the Government answers to my Questions about when television is going to reach the far North. It is no secret that we have had engineers—in fact, I think they are there now—in Orkney. They are there, I believe, examining how far it will be possible to relay television from the masts at Netherbutton. That is most encouraging, and it has aroused a great deal of interest in my constituency, I very much hope that the Assistant Postmaster-General will be able to tell us something about it, and something good.

As far as my inquiries go—and I must say that they do not go very far because I am no technical expert in this matter —there should be no great difficulty in picking up television at Netherbutton and relaying the programme if it can be boosted on its way north. There are still at that station two masts which I think are about 360 feet high, and from these apparently it should be possible to broadcast television not only to Orkney but to a considerable area on the north mainland of Scotland.

As I say, I imagine the trouble may possibly be that the signals from Old Meldrum, which I understand is the nearest television station at present, may be weak and may have to be relayed on their way. I should perhaps say that so far as I am told, if Netherbutton for any reason proves unsatisfactory, there are other possibilities. There are a great many stations in Orkney left over from the war, and there appears to be a lot of equipment on the top of Wideford Hill. There are a number of people in Orkney who already, being television enthusiasts, have sets and pick up a certain number of programmes, and I am told that there is now a set on Wideford Hill which is achieving very good results.

Therefore, I ask the Assistant Postmaster-General to say that if there is trouble over Netherbutton he will have a look at Wideford Hill. I imagine that part of the reason for choosing this means of giving television to the north of Scotland is that it is easier to rebroadcast backwards, so to speak, from Orkney south than to attempt to broadcast over the hills to the north. On the other hand, I am told that if it is successful, this will be a new departure because so far no pick-up has been attempted over distances anything like those between Old Meldrum and Orkney.

This raises a point about which I should like to ask the Assistant Postmaster-General. Is it true that the Post Office charge for relaying is £500 per mile per year? That may be untrue. but that is the figure that I have been given. I must say that on the face of it, that seems to be an inordinately large sum. If that is the real charge, one cannot altogether blame the B. B. C. for saying that one of the great difficulties about providing service in remote areas is the charge made by the Post Office. I should like the Assistant Postmaster-General to give us some hope that if that is the correct sum, in cases like this it might possibly be reduced, because it seems to be almost a prohibitive charge to lay on the B. B. C. I hope that if the only question is the distance between Old Meldrum and Orkney, we shall not be denied television because of the heavy charge for relaying.

Another point that I should like to ask about is this. If it proves reasonably satisfactory to relay television in this way, is there a chance of extending that relay system to other areas? One would think that there must now be round the coast a considerable network of radar installations, with these big masts, and that it should be possible to carry out a similar relay of television to other remote areas. Incidentally. I have a cutting from the "Wireless World" which points out that today in Italy there are 98 television stations and that some of them are serving comparatively small and remote communities in alpine valleys. It seems that the Italians have developed a series of satellite stations which can rebroadcast with practically no human attention and do that comparatively cheaply and fairly satisfactorily.

We appreciate that the B. B. C. sets itself very high standards in these matters. Naturally, having pressed for better radio reception, it may be odd to say that we would be content with something less than perfection in television, but it is nevertheless true. We hope that if it proves possible to give us a reasonably high standard of reception, we shall not be denied the chance of television at all because the B. B. C. cannot quite make it 100 per cent. perfect.

There is also a rumour that some enterprising private firms have been experimenting in the north of Scotland with the possibility of "piped" television. We are grateful for that, but it would not be the same thing as a general service from the B. B. C. It would cover only comparatively small areas and it would be a different matter altogether. There is no doubt that what we want is a television coverage particularly for the more remote islands.

So much for the position in Orkney, but what gives me more concern is the position in Shetland. I am told that though there may be spasmodic reception from a station in Orkney, it will not be able to cover Shetland. I want to press the Assistant Postmaster-General about this. If the experiment in Orkney succeeds, will he do his best to see that a similar arrangement is made for Shetland? The islanders are very dependent, as I have said, on radio and television nowadays for a great many services, including education, entertainment, and general information.

We have a suspicion that one factor which might have hastened the experiments in Orkney is the influx of an inductrial population at Dounreay. Naturally, if it will give us television, we do not in the least object to that, but a moment's reflection will show that fundamentally the native islanders have a much better case for the service of this sort than even Dounreay. After all, at Dounreay one is on the mainland and can get to the cinema and to all the normal mainland facilities. On the island of Unst, or Yell, Whalsey or Skerries, that is not possible.

A special point arises concerning the position of people like doctors, schoolmasters, etc. who have to keep abreast of modern developments and who cannot get away easily for holidays and visits. They are dependent on wireless and television in a way which people living in, say, London, do not always appreciate. These services are today their great contact with the outside world. Newspapers are late in arriving, cinemas do not exist, theatre companies do not come, and even books take some time to reach them. They have a very strong claim indeed.

I hope that the Assistant Postmaster-General will be able to tell us whether the B. B. C. can improve our sound reception and that he can give a reassurance that sound programmes will not be relegated to a lower position because, on the whole, television is now the popular form of radio in most of Britain. I hope that he will be able to say a little about the future in Orkney, even if the experiments are not complete and this may be somewhat premature.

I hope the hon Gentleman will bear in mind that satisfactory as it will be, I hope, to have television in Orkney and on the north coast of Scotland, in Caithness and Sutherland, there will still remain areas such as Shetland and, I believe, parts of the west coast which will not be covered and where there is, I think it is generally agreed, a particular need for this form of service.

11.15 p.m.

The Assistant Postmaster-General (Mr. Kenneth Thompson)

May I first join with the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond) in the tribute which he has paid to Mr. Dinwiddie, who is about to retire from the position of Controller in Scotland, a post which he has held since 1933 with great distinction to himself and, I think, satisfaction to all those who have been served by the work which he has done. We all, I think, hope that he will carry into retirement a sense of achievement, and we wish that his successor may have a similarly happy and fruitful career in the work which he is about to undertake.

The hon. Gentleman has made out what I am sure the House will recognise to be a powerful case for the interests of his constituents. That is a duty which falls upon all hon. Members and which most of them discharge very effectively but which, nevertheless, leaves the hon. Member making the case, and the Minister who has to reply, aware that much of what is said in relation to a specific constituency can be found to apply with equal force to other constituencies in other parts of the country. Scotland has never been slack in presenting its case for the extension of B. B. C. sound and television services, and both the Government and the B. B. C. are aware of the need for the extension of those services; and also of the very strong feeling with which the Scots put their case.

Indeed, a very long series of representations has been made to the Government and the B. B.C. on the point which has been so ably covered by the hon. Gentleman tonight. Hon. Members on both sides of this House have brought forward claims for those areas not receiving B. B. C. programmes, and local authorities, separately or together, have put their case. Private individuals who have felt the need for those services have made their representations. The Advisory Panel for the Highlands and Islands has been very active on this matter, and the representations made by them all are known and recognised by the B. B. C. The Secretary of State for Scotland has also been in correspondence with the Postmaster-General on this matter. So there is no lack of representation on behalf of those parts of Scotland which at present have no B. B. C. sound or television programmes. As the House would expect, those representations have been equalled in their number by the forthrightness with which they have been put forward.

We have every sympathy with what the hon. Gentleman has said about the desirability of extending the B. B. C. services to those remote parts, and the advantages which would accrue to the people receiving those services. We know and share the views which he has expressed about sound and television programmes for rural communities, which are often denied the more normal forms of pleasure and entertainment upon which other communities in more populous areas have come to rely.

It has been said that although those remote areas have not had these services in the past, in today's climate they feel the need for them, and we recognise that there is a real social value in being able to provide those services in remote rural districts. It may well be that if those services were readily available in those areas there might be a tendency to slow down, or even stop, the drift to areas where more active social life is possible. As the hon. Gentleman reminded the House, a very real educational use can be made of wireless broadcasting of every kind.

I hope that the House will not get the impression that Scotland has been completely neglected in this matter. The hon. Gentleman did not say that it had, and I am grateful to him for that. I had visions of being assailed by Scots from every side and of going on to defend the position, which is quite defensible, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows. A great deal has been done for Scotland. Before I finish speaking tonight I hope to be able to satisfy the hon. Gentleman, at least in part, as to what is planned for the areas to which he has referred.

There are very real practical and technical difficulties in dealing with this seemingly simple problem. It is true that many of the present services of the B. B. C. suffer from interference from other broadcasting stations. There is a station in Spain the interference from which is, I understand, worst in the Highlands and Islands. Representations have frequently been made to the Spanish authority about the matter, and those representations are being maintained. I am pleased to be able to inform the House that there has been some improvement during the last few days as a result of combined representations made by the Government and the B. B. C.

One of the difficulties that stand in the way of being able to circumvent interference of that kind is that there is, technically, a limit to the number of wavelengths that can be made available for broadcasting, and it is just not possible for the B. B. C. to switch from one which is suffering from interference to another which is clearer.

There is the further difficulty, when we move on from the question of the use of medium and long waves into the world of v. h. f. and short waves, that waves of that kind do not carry very well in mountainous and difficult country. The north and west of Scotland will need to have a number of such stations to satisfy the needs of the various communities, which, apart from being sparse on the ground, where they become collective units are also very scattered one from another.

Those who are to provide the services to which we are now referring will be faced with the necessity for meeting very high capital costs in the setting up of such stations and for meeting the very high costs of getting programmes from the point of origin to the stations for broadcasting to the people affected. So, clearly, however willing the providers of programmes may be, I think I should warn the House that there is no quick and easy solution to the problem to which the hon. Gentleman referred.

Let me say a few words about the Post Office charges which cause the hon. Gentleman not improper concern. The Post Office is faced with a physical and geographical problem of providing a link which stretches over long distances and over, very often, difficult country. It can provide that link only by investing very large capital sums and can maintain it only at very considerable cost. The Post Office, it seems to me, is under an obligation to fix its Charges so that capital investment and maintenance costs are reasonably met. It may very well be that there are cases where the cost might run to about the £500 per annum per mile to which the hon. Member referred. If that is so, I find it difficult to see on what grounds the Post Office could be advised to reduce its charges to an unreal or uneconomic level.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not mind my saying that there are compensating advantages in living in some parts of the country which are remote from some of the less desirable places. If a disadvantage is the cost of running cables for long distances over this beautiful country. then I am afraid the cost must be met by those who enjoy the benefits of the service. In this connection I might remind the House of the words of the Broadcasting Council for Scotland in its Report of last year. It says: It is obvious that the mountainous nature of the Highlands… and this applies equally, of course, to Orkney and Shetland makes the penetration of glens and straths and small fishing posts, sheltered by high cliffs "— picturesque and beautiful language of a picturesque and beautiful country— a very difficult proposition. The big centres of population must have priority in the provision of satisfactory reception but the Council will not rest content until the whole country can receive its programmes at good strength.

Mr. Grimond

Of course, from the mainland of Scotland. Shetland is directly across almost flat sea—or relatively flat sea—and Orkney itself is not a mountainous place.

Mr. Thompson

The House is obliged for the hon. Gentleman's description of how to get to his constituency—in fair weather.

These are the practical difficulties and, of course, as the hon. Gentleman knows, there are very special practical and technical difficulties in getting television programmes across that stretch of water. Scotland is not alone in that kind of trouble. There are parts of England and even larger parts of Wales where similar, if not precisely the same problems are met in getting television and v. h. f. programmes to the people.

Nevertheless, by the end of the year 98 per cent. of the population of the United Kingdom will be able to receive B. B. C. television programmes—provided that they have television sets—and already 90 per cent. of Scotland's population is within the range of B. B. C. television. In addition, three v. h. f. sound stations have been approved for Scotland. They are the one to which the hon. Member referred, which I think he called Old Meldrum and which I intended to call Meldrum, which is already in operation: at Kirk o'Shotts, which will be completed this year, and at Rosemarkie, which will be completed in 1958. In addition, a new station approved for Carlisle will, when it is completed in 1958, help the Scots who live near to the Border. By that time 96 per cent. of the population of the United Kingdom will be able to receive v. h. f. programmes.

Scotland already has two television stations, one at Kirk o'Shotts and the other at Meldrum. In the summer of this year the television station at Rosemarkie will be completed, all being well, and an I. T .A. station will be operating, all being well, this summer at Blackhill in Lanarkshire. The programme is going on with what I think can justly be claimed to be reasonable speed. The B. B. C. has just been making a review of its sound services in the North of Scotland. I understand that the review is completed and is now being studied. As a result of this I am happy to be able to inform the hon. Gentleman that the B. B .C. intends to seek approval for a v. h. f. and a television station in the Orkneys—

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

Adjourned at twenty-nine minutes past Eleven o'clock.