HC Deb 02 June 1964 vol 695 cc933-8
The Postmaster-General (Mr. Reginald Bevins)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement about pirate radio ships and local sound broadcasting.

In order to ensure good reception both here and on the Continent, broadcasting frequencies are agreed by the International Telecommunication Union. Pirate radio ships select their own frequencies. This is an infringement of international agreements.

If no action is taken against pirate radio, such transmissions from ships outside territorial waters may increase, with the result that radio communications with ships and aeroplanes would be interfered with and human life endangered. Also, such transmissions could well lead to massive interference with the reception of existing radio programmes both in Britain and Europe. As it is, protests of interference Lave already been received from Belgium and France.

The Council of Europe has been study-nig this problem and a draft Convention is now in an advanced stage of preparation. What is required to deal with the problem is concerted international action. The Government, therefore, propose to await the conclusion of this Convention and then to consider legislating on lines proposed by the Convention.

The Government cannot accept the establishment of pirate radio ships as a reason for making precipitate decisions on local sound broadcasting in this country. To legislate for a national service of local sound broadcasting and to establish the necessary machinery for supervision during the remaining months of this Parliament is, clearly, not practicable. In the next Parliament the Government will undertake the review of the situation foreshadowed in the White Paper on Broadcasting published in 1962 (Cmnd. 1893).

Mr. Mason

While agreeing wholeheartedly with the latter part of the right hon. Gentleman's statement, may I ask whether he is aware that we view with some apprehension the delayed action against the offshore radio stations? Is he not aware that meanwhile these law breakers appear as champions? It conveys the impression that the right hon. Gentleman is bowing before the pressure of the commercial lobbyists, and in addition, in spite of his appeal, advertisers are already feeding these offshore radio stations.

Is the right hon. Gentleman not aware that five other countries have already legislated quite effectively against these radio stations and have banned them from their shores? He appeared to have this intention in mind on 5th May. Why, therefore, the delay?

Mr. Bevins

The position is that the Convention of the Council of Europe will probably be signed towards the end of the year and legislation will then be considered. The hon. Gentleman has asked the pointed question: why, if it is possible for certain other European countries to legislate, is it not possible for us to do so? It is perfectly true that some of the Scandinavian countries and Belgium have already legislated against this sort of thing, but we take the view that concerted legislation is the only effective way of getting rid of this sort of thing.

It is the only effective way, because until legislation is concerted it would still be possible for other European sources to provide support, by way of finance, advertising, and so forth, to these ships. It is because the deliberations of the Council of Europe are now at an advanced stage that we think it right to await the final Convention so that legislation, when it comes, will be effective and will cover all loopholes.

Mr. Lipton

Does not the right hon. Gentleman realise that by awaiting the decision of the Council of Europe he is creating the impression that the Government are somewhat cowardly in their approach to tackling this problem of the pirate ships? Is there any reason why, in order to deal with this menace, emergency legislation should not be passed through this House before the House rises for the Summer Recess, following the example of Sweden, which has tackled the problem very successfully? If, after that, some further action is required in the light of the decision of the Council of Europe, we could take it later.

Does the right hon. Gentleman realise that by allowing the situation to drift as he is, he is playing right into the hands of the very powerful commercial radio lobby on the benches opposite?

Mr. Bevins

That is, of course, a matter of opinion, but the Government's view here, quite firmly held, is that it would be wrong to introduce legislation at this stage when it could be evaded because of the absence of corresponding legislation in other European countries.

Mr. B. Harrison

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the fact that he is not to take precipitate action will be welcomed by those people who listen to and enjoy these programmes? Will he ensure that if any action is taken some form of continuous music programme will be available for those who want to listen to it?

Mr. Bevins

I realise as much as my hon. Friend what the demand is in certain parts of the country for continuous music of a certain kind. I have, of course, discussed this with the B.B.C. The question of an all-music service, whether it be wholly "pop" or not wholly "pop", raises questions which are not confined to East Anglia, and probably the most efficient way to transmit an all-music programme would be on the long-wave nationally.

I have already authorised extended hours for the B.B.C. Light Programme to enable the Corporation to provide more light music, but to do this it needs permission to broadcast more gramophone discs and so far it has not been successful in getting this permission. It is at a very early date taking this matter to the Performing Right Tribunal. This is an important matter and I shall certainly bear in mind what my hon. Friend has said.

Mr. W. Hamilton

Is the Postmaster-General aware that he has not answered, as he said he would, Question No. 12, which asks specifically what representations he has had from the pressure groups which are now agitating for commercial radio? Is he aware that this greedy, money-grabbing lobby is exactly the same kind of lobby to which the Government succumbed in the case of commercial television? Is it not a fact that the right hon. Gentleman himself promised legislation against pirate radio ships and that many people think that the reason why the Government are now retreating from that position is that they hope to give that same lobby much richer pickings later on?

Mr. Bevins

No, Sir. What I and my hon. Friend said in the House was that the Government were considering the desirability of early legislation. We have come to the conclusion which I have stated. In reply to the hon. Member's particular point, I think that I have received just under 50 letters from people who wish to have commercial local sound broadcasting in this country, and fewer than half of those letters are from people interested in setting up stations.

I think that the hon. Gentleman and, for that matter, some of his hon. Friends are very unwise to take a doctrinal stand on this sort of subject. After all, some of the hon. Gentleman's predecessors took the very same line against commercial television and later had to eat their own words.

Mr. Boyden

Why does the right hon. Gentleman leave out of account the possibility that he can provide of the B.B.C. setting up four or five experimental local sound stations? There are certain areas where no interference would take place with other broadcasting and reception. Why does he not pay attention to this and let us have one or two, or four or five, local sound broadcasting stations with a very heavy local and educational content?

Mr. Bevins

The case for B.B.C. local sound broadcasting will be considered in the review which takes place towards the end of the year, but I should like to say to the hon. Gentleman and to the House generally that there are some very serious questions which must be resolved before we embark either on experiments or on a national service. I do not want to detain the House, but there are, for example, questions of programme standards, advertising controls and, perhaps most important of all, the influence of local sound broadcasting on newspapers, both national and provincial, and the participation of national and local newspapers in this possible medium. Until we have settled these questions, we should really be most unwise to rush into early decisions.

Mr. Ian Gilmour

Is my right hon. Friend aware that a poll was taken among the people who can hear Radio Caroline as to whether they would approve Government action against pirate ships? Fourteen per cent. said that they would approve Government action and 74 per cent. said that they would not. Should not my right hon. Friend pay more attention to the opinion of the people affected than to the ideological prejudices of the party opposite?

Mr. Bevins

I do not know who took the poll, but I am not disposed to quarrel with my hon. Friend. The important thing that a poll of that sort illustrates is undoubtedly the fairly widespread demand, not only in East Anglia, but in other parts of the country, for more music on sound radio.

Mr. Callaghan

May I ask a question about safety of life at sea? Can the right hon. Gentleman give us any information about how close to the frequencies of Trinity House pilotage service some of these stations are operating? Has he made any inquiry as to whether of the five frequencies on which Trinity House operates one of them is being interfered with or at least is very close to the band on which some of these stations are operating? Will he inquire how far this is affecting questions of safety of life, including communication between ship and shore and pilotage, before he comes to any conclusions along the lines suggested by the hon. Member for Norfolk, Central (Mr. Ian Gilmour)?

Mr. Bevins

As I think the hon. Member knows, in the main, the frequencies used for radio communication with ships are, to put it very simply, at the end of the medium wave band, and at least two of the pirate ships are using frequencies which are comparatively close to the ships' frequencies.

At the same time, I think that it is only fair to say that, while there was a little interference with ships' radio communications—it was not serious—during the early days of the Caroline venture, there has not subsequently been any complaint of interference with ships at sea. But I entirely agree that the medium band, especially in this sector, is very congested. If there were any evidence that life at sea was being imperilled, the Government would not hesitate to review the position.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. We cannot debate this matter without a Question before the House.

  1. NEW MEMBERS 47 words
Forward to