HC Deb 15 December 1959 vol 615 cc1345-50

8.28 p.m.

The Assistant Postmaster-General (Miss Mervyn Pike)

I beg to move, That the Agreement, dated 30th November, 1959, between Her Majesty's Postmaster-General, the Danish General Directorate of Posts and Telegraphs, the Icelandic General Directorate of Posts and Telegraphs, and the Great Northern Telegraph Company Limited, for the provision and maintenance of a submarine telecommunications cable system between the United Kingdom and Iceland by way of the Faroe Islands, a copy of which was laid before this House on 3rd December, be approved. The purpose of this Agreement is to define the arrangements for the construction and maintenance of a new submarine cable system known as "Scotice", linking the United Kingdom with the Faroes and Iceland. It is planned to complete the project before the end of 1961. The new cable will provide 24 channels for telephone conversations, each of which can be broken down by technical means so as to give 24 telegraph circuits. The cable will meet the foreseeable needs for telephone and telegraph communication between the United Kingdom, the Faroes and Iceland for many years to come.

At Iceland, the cable system will join up with another new cable linking Iceland with Greenland and Newfoundland. That cable system is planned for the end of 1962, and will be provided by the Great Northern Telegraph Company of Denmark, the Icelandic General Directorate of Posts and Telegraphs, and the Canadian Overseas Telecommunication Corporation. As well as meeting communication needs generally, the complete cable system will be of particular value to the civil aviation authorities.

I would like to mention just three points in regard to the provisions of the Agreement now before the House. First, under the Agreement, we will have a 50 per cent. share in the section of the cable between the United Kingdom and the Faroes, and will own the cable station at Gairloch in Scotland. As Members will be aware. this half ownership in the section as far as the first foreign landing point follows general practice.

Second, as the major partner in terms of ownership, the Great Northern Tele- graph Company will, under the Agreement, have primary responsibility for the construction of the cable. The Agreement provides however, for all specifications and contracts to be approved by the Postmaster-General, who will also have joint responsibility with the other partners for inspection and acceptance of the equipment. The House will be glad to know that it is the intention that both the cable and the repeaters should be manufactured in the United Kingdom, and that the cable system should be laid by our cable-ship "Monarch".

Third, the Great Northern Telegraph Company will also have a co-ordinating responsibility for maintenance, but the maintenance arrangements for the United Kingdom-Faroes section will require the agreement of the Postmaster-General. Maintenance costs will be borne among the partners in accordance with their respective shares in the ownership.

Hon. Members will appreciate that the Scotice cable is the latest example of the rapid progress now being made in the provision of modern telephone and telegraph communication by means of submarine cables, a field in which this country is making a striking contribution.

I hope that the House will approve this Agreement, which represents a notable example of international cooperation in the provision of communications.

8.32 p.m.

Mr. Roy Mason (Barnsley)

First, I think that I am in order in congratulating the hon. Lady and her right hon. Friend on not making the same mistake as her right hon Friend's predecessor did a few months ago when, introducing a similar Agreement, he contravened Standing Orders 87 and 88. He then said: What I have done … is to start a searching inquiry into why we, or perhaps I should say I, made this mistake, and I am trying to create machinery so that we shall not make the same mistake again."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 14th July, 1959; Vol. 609, c. 300.] No doubt the hon. Lady remembers the then Postmaster-General, now Minister of Transport, apologising to the House for contravening those two Standing Orders. It is essential that we should be fully conversant with why that happened, and should know to what extent we can be assured that it will not happen again.

The House has been asked to recognise and approve two Agreements within five months. There is an intensive drive going ahead. More cables are being laid, and new devices are being added and installed with a view to increasing the number of speech channels even in the present cables. Round-the-world communication, including, particularly, a Commonwealth cable, is more urgently required than ever before, and, indeed, much of it is already planned.

Coaxial cables, with new channel equipment invented by our own Post Office engineers, are in great demand, and when we think of the future, and especially of the requirements of television channels, we realise that this telecommunications section of Post Office activity will be increasingly busy. We must, therefore, be assured this evening that no further contraventions of Standing Orders 87 and 88—dealing with telegraphic contracts—will be made and, indeed, that any gap has already been plugged.

This is, of course, an agreed Measure, and I doubt if there is anyone here this evening who would wish to postpone the operative date of the Agreement. However, there are a few questions which I must ask in order that we may be more fully conversant with the contents of it. First of all, what is the type of cable? Do we start in this effort with a cable similar to that used in the Atlantic, made in the United Kingdom but with additional technical equipment to enable full capacity to be reached at a later date? For example, the Atlantic cable was initially designed to take 29 speech channels, but, with added shore-based technical equipment, we are now to have 74 speech channels. Briefly, is the cable to be laid with a set number of speech channels, either with or without added shore-based equipment, which cannot be increased, or will there be available reserve capacity to be used later if demand requires it?

Secondly, if new shore-based equipment, such as that put into use recently in the last Agreement, is to be used—I refer particularly to the equipment called the new channel equipment which our Post Office engineers developed and which was responsible for boosting the old cables by 33⅓ per cent.—what arrangements are being made with Iceland if she wishes to use that device?

The Americans have in this work surpassed even our invention because they managed with a technical device to boost the existing cables by 50 per cent. Can the Minister tell us whether we are to benefit from that invention? I know that our new channel equipment which was invented to boost the speech channels by 33⅓ per cent. cost only £35,000 whereas the American equipment, which is known as T.A.S.I.—Time Assignment Speech Interpolation—cost £500,000 in order to boost the present speech channels by 50 per cent. Nevertheless, even though the American invention is relatively costly, are we contemplating any agreement with the United States of America to avail ourselves of this advanced technique? If not, can we be assured that we are pressing ahead with this type of invention and that Post Office engineers will not be skimped on finance so as to slow down their progress in research?

Is any provision being made in this cable between Scotland and Iceland for a television channel? This is only the first, and we are to have one from Iceland to Canada. What arrangements have been made? I do not know whether it is possible for shore-based equipment to help in this respect, but, if my information is correct, it would be necessary for a repeater to be put in the cable every six miles before we could have a television channel. I should think that it would have been economic and wise to insert the repeaters at the outset rather than have virtually to relay the cable later on to put in the repeaters.

I am informed that a new type of cable has been developed which is sheathed with polythene and not, as the old cables were, with wires. This, obviously, will lead to substantial reductions in cost. The cable will be lighter to handle and easier to use. It will, indeed, be a boon to the cable ship crews. I should like to know whether this cable we are to lay from Scotland to Iceland is of the new type.

No doubt the hon. Lady knows that a new cable ship is urgently required. "Monarch" seems to be overworked. I am very pleased that the Minister said that "Monarch" would be used to lay this cable, too. I understand that there is a new vessel on the stocks, but it does not seem to be coming along quite on schedule. Perhaps the hon. Lady could give us some indication about progress there and say whether we can expect it to come into service next year.

I have posed several rather technical questions. Nevertheless, they are important and, in view of the number of agreements which will come before the House, there is a need to have a fuller understanding about this type of agreement. I hope that the hon. Lady will be able to give a full reply.

8.39 p.m.

Miss Pike

I can assure the hon. Member for Barnsley (Mr. Mason) that we have now ensured that arrangements are such in the Department that we shall not in future make the mistake which we made on a previous occasion. We have, I believe, kept all the rules magnificently on this occasion, and we intend to continue in that way.

The hon. Gentleman asked me about the type of cable which will be in use. I will answer him as fully as I can. The cable we are using is similar to the present type used in the Atlantic cable. It is initially equipped for 24 channels, but an increase in capacity could later be arranged if required. I understand that it is a cable of the armoured type. The polythene covered cable which was developed by the Post Office is not suitable for this particular journey because it is more suitable for use in deep water. In fact, it is used only in deep water.

For the cable between this country and Iceland, the armoured type is more suitable. It is the repeatered type. It will incorporate amplifying devices known technically as repeaters. I do not need to explain the technicalities to the hon. Member for Barnsley, but for the benefit of other hon. Members I would say that these repeaters are placed at intervals along the length of the cable and are necessary to boost the speech. The design is such as to allow communications in both directions over a single cable. The cable if used only for telephony would provide for 24 conversations to be held simultaneously. In practice, part of the available capacity will be used to provide telegraph services.

The third question asked was about the design of the equipment used by the Americans. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we are leading to some extent in this field and pressing ahead with our research. We do not wish to duplicate research in any way, and we are working in very close co-operation with all the other people concerned in the laying of the cable. It think it will be found in this instance that we have gained the confidence of everyone, and they are, in fact, our cables and repeaters which are being used.

With regard to television, there will be no television channel. It would be perfectly feasible to design the cable to carry television programmes between the United Kingdom and Iceland, but at a greatly increased cost. It would be possible, should there be a demand for a service of this kind, to transmit films of important events within a few hours of their happening. This system has been used on the transatlantic telephone cable, notably on the occasion of the Queen's visit to Canada.

I was asked about the progress being made with the new cable-laying ship. The "Monarch" is doing great work at the present time and we are pressing ahead with a new cable-laying ship. The order for the ship has been placed and progress so far suggests that it should be possible to improve on the estimated date of mid-1961 for completion.

I hope that I have covered the points raised by the hon. Gentleman and that the House will give the Agreement its approval.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Agreement, dated 30th November, 1959, between Her Majesty's Postmaster General, the Danish General Directorate of Posts and Telegraphs, the Icelandic General Directorate of Posts and Telegraphs, and the Great Northern Telegraph Company Limited, for the provision and maintenance of a submarine telecommunication cable system between the United Kingdom and Iceland by way of the Faroe Islands, a copy of which was laid before this House on 3rd December, be approved.