HC Deb 08 April 1959 vol 603 cc333-42

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

10.1 p.m.

Mr. William Ainsley (Durham, North-West)

I make no apology to the House for returning to the problems of the North-East and that part of the country beyond the Midlands which seems to be neglected and forgotten by the Government, whether it be in industry, roads, employment or other social services.

It is exactly two years since I spoke against the proposed increase in the annual licence fee for television sets from £3 to £4 per annum. I did so under two headings. One, that we in the North-East had long suffered under the shared sound waveband with Northern Ireland. With due respect to Northern Ireland, we have nothing in common, except that Northern Ireland and we in the North-East have continually protested about this sharing, but it seems that all our protests have been lost in the mush area " of the Irish Sea.

My second point then was about poor television reception and the electrical interference. As long ago as 1956, the Weardale Rural District Council raised in correspondence with the B.B.C. the difficulties encountered in reception from the Holme Moss station. Later, a station was opened at Newcastle with its mast at Pontop Pike. As television sets increased in number, some of the older sets were tuned to the Holme Moss waveband and others to the Pontop Pike mast. That seemed to raise a problem for the engineers, who pointed out that in many of these villages difficulty arose because of the conflicting beams and the sets being attuned to two wavebands.

The villagers themselves sought to rectify that problem at their own expense by having their sets tuned to the Pontop Pike beam. Pontop Pike is only 14 or 15 miles from the Wear Valley area. The Post Office engineers said that because of the lie of the land, reception of weakened signal was more susceptible to interference. That was stated in the corre- spondence which I have had with the Assistant Postmaster-General over the last two years. As the hon. Gentleman knows, I have had correspondence from individuals, from village associations, and from the Clerk of the Weardale Rural District Council. Since it was learned that I was to have the Adjournment debate tonight, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Dalton) has had correspondence from some of his constituents, his constituency being contiguous to the area with which I am now concerned.

The Clerk of the Weardale Rural District Council secured from the head postmaster of Bishop Auckland information about the number of licences issued in some of the villages. In Frosterley, there are 162; in Stanhope, there are 280; in Rookhope there are 48; in St. John's Chapel there are 38, and in Wearhead there are 32. In that area, therefore, there is a total of 560-odd licences now in force, apart from those in other villages such as Westgate, Eastgate, Daddry Shield, Cowshill, Ireshopeburn and Lanehead. These are all in the Wear Valley area.

On the 19th February, the Assistant Postmaster-General informed me that he had asked the B.B.C. about the suggestion of a static deflector, which does not " involve the use of another channel but may worsen some reception for some viewers." This is where I come to the irony of the situation. In the reply I have received from the Assistant Postmaster-General, he says: In the circumstances, I really think that the villagers of Stanhope are to be congratulated on tackling and solving the problem for themselves. I want the House to realise the nature of the problem in this area. One letter I have received says: Weardale has no train service, no cinemas, a poor bus service, and, fact, very few amenities enjoyed by townspeople. Therefore, television is about the only form of contact for news and amusement. Yet, as a result of the weak signal strength, even this cannot be enjoyed. The North-East Industrial Association was approached. It is suggesting that the area should be made a tourist area. How can we attract tourists if we cannot provide them with even a reasonable television reception for the evenings, for maintaining some contact with the rest of of the country and the world, and for amusement and news?

I come now to a more serious and challenging factor. In three villages, Rookhope, Stanhope and Frosterley, private contractors have linked up 35, 117 and 33 receivers respectively through the erection of a simple pick-up. Through this pick-up they have wired the sets in the homes of the villagers and the service is received on payment of £2 and a guarantee for 12 months that 2s. a week will be paid. That is the condition which has to be satisfied in order to have normal television viewing in that area. In another village, the cost is 2s. 6d. a week on condition that the person obtains his set through a certain dealer, who will then link it with the static deflector or pickup as the case may be.

That is the irony of the situation. If a private dealer can meet the problem and find a solution which seems to contradict all that the Assistant Posmaster-General has stated in his letter, it is a challenge to the Postmaster-General and his technical staff. The B.B.C. staff have claimed in the correspondence that 98 per cent, of the population are now linked up. Private enterprise has got to step in to supplement the work of the Postmaster-General by erecting satellites or translators which the B.B.C. and Post Office engineers suggest are possible.

This is a challenge to the Postmaster-General. I go to my telephone, pick up my receiver and a voice says, " Good evening; can I help you?" I reply, " Yes, Mr. Postmaster-General, will you please accept this challenge, remove this anomaly, and give justice and fair play to these village people in the remote area of Weardale".

10.11 p.m.

Mr. Charles Grey (Durham)

It is a tribute to our Parliamentary system that we can debate the important issue of the Budget and then for the latter part of the day raise constituency issues in order to help those whom we represent. My hon. Friend the Member for Durham, North-West (Mr. Ainsley) was very fortunate in obtaining this Adjournment debate in order to express the grievances of his constituents concerning reception in the Weardale area.

I support the hon. Gentleman's claim that something ought to be done. I do not know how it can be done, but something ought to be done even if it is only to reduce the licence fee that these people pay.

The hon. Gentleman said that we did have quite an issue with him on the question of shared wavelengths. This went on for a considerable time. We now have the palliative of very high frequency, but in order to get reception on the very high frequency range one must either adjust one's set or buy another one. That adds force to the argument that people in the North-East should not pay the same as people in the rest of the country.

About two years ago in the Finance Bill we did put in an Amendment—it was not called as it was out of order—to the effect that people should not pay the increased licence fee because they did not receive the kind of service that the rest of the country did. I do not know what contact the hon. Gentleman had with the Treasury before this Budget was presented, but perhaps even at this late stage he may be able to have a talk with the Chancellor of the Exchequer and in the Committee stage insert an Amendment to reduce the amount of television licence fees for £4 to £3 in areas that do not get the kind of reception that the rest of the country does.

In the Weardale area two private firms, I understand, have been able to erect a form of transmission which I think my hon. Friend called a static deflector. No one is complaining that these people have a right to link their homes to these deflectors, but to do it they have to pay, in the case of one firm, an extra 2s. a week, I understand. In the case of the other firm, they have to pay 2s. 6d. a week and have to buy their sets from that firm. I do not know how that stands in law, but it certainly sounds pretty unfair, and I hope that the Assistant Postmaster-General will give his mind to this issue and, if it is right that this should be done, perhaps he may be good enough to take the line that as these people have paid that much to the private firms they should have at least that much taken off their licence fee.

Mr. Speaker

This would seem to involve legislation.

Mr. Grey

In conclusion, Mr. Speaker, I give full support to my hon. Friend, and I hope that the Assistant Postmaster-General will give his mind to this issue in order that the people in that area may in future be satisfied with the reception they get.

10.16 p.m.

Mr. Edward Short (Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Central)

I want to raise one small point. I do not expect the Assistant Postmaster-General to be able to reply to it now, but perhaps he will look into it. It is precisely the same point as the one my hon. Friend the Member for Durham, North-West (Mr. Ainsley) has been making, though it relates to the Lake District.

That is an area which is supposed to be covered by television, but the reception in some parts there is extremely bad. I have associations with the Ullswater Valley, and I know the reception at the head of the valley, in the villages of Glenridding and Patterdale—which. I see, the Assistant Postmaster-General knows. Really, television sets there are of very little use, for the picture is extremely bad and the people really do not get fair value for their licence fee. There are very few amenities for the people there. The Assistant Postmaster-General knows this valley. There was a cinema there, but that has now closed, and the nearest cinema is some fifteen miles away at Penrith. Transport is extremely bad, especially in the winter months. The people in the remote villages and on the farms and in the hills are quite shut off and ought to be given some special consideration.

I understand that there is a technical way out of this difficulty without very much expense. It does not affect all the valleys in the Lake District, but it does affect some. I understand it has something to do with the way in which the hills lie. I ask the Assistant PostmasterGeneral—and I apologies for not having been here when my hon. Friend started his speech—if he will look into the question of reception in the villages of Glen-ridding and Patterdale at the head of Ullswater to see whether anything can be done to assist the people there.

10.18 p.m.

The Assistant Postmaster-General (Mr. Kenneth Thompson)

I think 1 should assure the hon. Member for Durham, North-West (Mr. Ainsley) and his hon. Friends that he does both himself and them a good deal less than justice in suggesting that the North-East is forgotten either by this Government or by this House. No Minister, however unimportant he may be, could possibly labour under any illusions about the correct degree of importance to attach to the North-East after he has listened to the advice given him by hon. Members representing constituencies there. Certainly no Post Office Minister could possibly be faulted for not having a real awareness of the importance and significance of these areas.

I hope that the House will allow me to say on behalf of the British Broadcasting Corporation and the Independent Television Authority that they, too, as important public bodies, are aware of the needs and the difficulties of the areas to which hon. Members have referred. The truth of the matter is that it is a very difficult problem. Many difficulties are presented by what may seem to be a fairly simple organisational problem of getting television programmes to cover pretty well the whole country. The House is aware that the B.B.C. has taken its television coverage to about 95 to 98 per cent. of the population of the country and before long will have reached its optimum figure of about 99 per cent. The Independent Television Authority has taken its coverage so far to 85 per cent. of the population and is going on with further plans which will raise it nearer and nearer to the total achieved by the B.B.C., which is also its target. Nevertheless, by the nature of the problem we are dealing with, there are bound to be areas which either come very late in the queue or may not be covered at all by the normal provision of broadcasting stations as planned by the two Authorities.

I think that the House knows that a television broadcast covers an area, varying according to the power output of the station, of from a few miles to about 40 or 50 miles. In the case of the B.B.C. it operates on one of five channels in Band I, and there is similarly restricted freedom for the I.T.A. No two stations using the same channel can be so near to one another that their broadcasts within this distance limit which I have described would impinge one on another. If that happened, we should have in television broadcasts the very problem which we have had to discuss on several occasions with hon. Members representing the North-East in connection with sound broadcasts—the creation of mush areas in which everyone's programme would be, spoiled. Thus, the planning of a large number of television stations by either of the Authorities over the whole country and to cover the largest possible percentage of the population is a highly complicated and highly technical operation calling for the greatest degree of skill and care.

Mr. Ainsley

Is it correct that it is possible to have a stronger beam broadcasting north and south of the station than broadcasting west of the station? That is the information which I have received.

Mr. Thompson

That may well be so. To some extent broadcasts can be directional, according to the needs of the area to be served and the danger in certain directions of impinging on the broadcasts of another station. In coastal areas on the South Coast it is necessary to avoid impinging not only on our own stations but also on some Continental stations which are only a short distance away and which might come within areas of broadcasts from British stations—or vice versa.

If I may take that point, since it is clear what is in the hon. Member's mind, the power of the broadcasts from either the I.T.A. station at Burnhope or the B.B.C. station at Pontop Pike is not a limiting factor in making television reception so unsatisfactory to the residents of the villages in Weardale. Here the B.B.C. is facing what in the end will be its great residual problem of how to cover the final I per cent. or 2 per cent. of the population and how to get programmes from broadcasting stations down into the coastal villages, the valleys and the hamlets on the coast below the cliffs away from the normal line of sight along which television signals normally travel. The problem in the Weardale villages in the valley to which the hon. Member referred is not a problem of the power at which the programmes are sent out from the stations. It is a problem produced by the screening of the programme by the hills intervening between the station and the aerials which the owners of the sets provide.

I was rather sorry that the hon. Member scorned my comments of praise for those villages which have managed to help themselves. I see nothing wrong in people helping themselves, and I am sure that on reflection the hon. Member will not feel that either. Here is a case where, with the best will in the world, neither the B.B.C. nor the I.T.A. could within reasonable time at reasonable cost and in the light of all their multifarious commitments over the whole country and over a large number of similar areas have got their programmes to these villages easily or quickly. And so the villages—

Mr. Ainsley

I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will realise that a lot of these are old people's homes. How can they afford to pay the additional 2s. and 2s. 6d. a week in addition to the fees that they are called upon to pay annually? That is the problem for the majority of them.

Mr. Thompson

Yes, indeed. I am not blind to it. I am coming to the question of the licence fee that is charged. Nevertheless, where these problems exist and where they cannot easily or quickly be solved by the resources of the public authorities, there is nothing whatever wrong in people setting about helping themselves, even though there are some who find it difficult to make their contribution to that solution. Do not, therefore, let as scorn the efforts of those who help themselves. Indeed, I repeat, for it is worthy of repetition, my admiration of those, both in Rookhope and in Stanhope and in St. John's Chapel, who have set about solving the problems for themselves. Great praise is due to them.

The question has been raised whether it is appropriate that the people who do not get the broadcast direct from the public station but have to use a means which they themselves provide to intervene between the station and their sets to make sure that the picture they get is a good one, should be called upon to pay the same licence fee that is paid by the television user elsewhere who gets his signal direct from the broadcasting station.

This is a difficult matter and not easy to solve. It raises a number of important and complicated questions. If we accept, which, 1 am sorry to say, I cannot, that there could be cases where special exceptions should be made to abate either the licence fee itself or the Excise duty which forms part of the £4, in cases of hardship of one kind or another, who is to define the point at which hardship becomes qualified for relief? I doubt whether Members of this House would gladly set about the debates that would follow the moment that principle were accepted. The House has, in fact, discussed the matter on a number of occasions and each time it has decided that it simply could not face the task.

That, however, is not the real point. The licence fee is not charged either for the quality of reception or for the amount of reception that the payer of the licence fee enjoys. The licence fee is for a licence which permits or authorises the individual to install the set. It is no more than that. He need not use it. He may abuse those who provide the programmes and decide not to look at them. Indeed, a good many people take that view. Even so, however, he is not absolved from having to pay the fee to give himself the authority to install the set.

That applies not only in cases such as this, where the reception is admittedly unsatisfactory. It applies in areas where the reception is very good but the viewer nevertheless chooses to use a relay service rather than rely on his own set. There are many such areas in the country. There are many better claims, I would have thought, for relief, if relief of any kind were to be given anywhere, rather than for those who are referred to in the remarks made tonight by the hon. Member.

I am sorry indeed that it is not possible for me to be more encouraging to the hon. Member and his constituents. I believe that a solution is available to them. They can, if they wish, combine together to provide themselves with the means of receiving television broadcasts with good and satisfactory results to themselves and at what is, in the light of the kind of benefit they are getting, not a very great cost. Certainly, my Department will do what it can to help with advice if the villagers in these areas decide to set about helping themselves and I will give them all the encouragement I can.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Ten o'clock.