HC Deb 08 February 1966 vol 724 cc359-70

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

10.33 p.m.

Mr. Desmond Donnelly (Pembroke)

I wish to draw attention to the subject of colour television, and let me say at once that I have to declare an interest in so far as I am associated with one of the main electronic companies in this country.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I know that the hon. Member has a cold, but I hope that he will endeavour to speak up.

Mr. Donnelly

Certainly, Sir. I apologise for my cold. I was about to say that my inaudibility was due not to the rosy hue of exuberance, but more to the hectic flush of fever.

First, I should like to say a word about the general position in the world and the situation in this country. As the House knows, we in this country were among the first in the field of sound radio and we were also the first to introduce a public television service in black and white, before the war. We led at one stage. Since then things have changed. The United States of America have gone through some teething troubles, but they have now established a very widespread public colour television service and there are now over 5 million sets in that country. The initial difficulties have been overcome.

Japan, also, has a public colour television service. It is true that it is limited to a relatively small number of people and is on view in public buildings such as hotels and among the better-off sections of the community. In the Soviet Union it is proposed to introduce a public colour television service next October to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the 1917 Revolution. West Germany, too, is proposing to introduce a colour television service next year, and in France there is greater interest in colour television than there is in this country.

It is in this country that we are running into difficulties because of the need to take a number of decisions. If we do not take them it may land our various radio com- ponent manufacturing industries in serious trouble. I should like to give an example of this. While we were first in the field with black and white television, unless we compete effectively in colour and get on the same starting point as our European competitors we shall lose ground. Only the other day one of our largest component manufacturers had to turn down a dollar order of about £2 million simply because they were not able to foresee beyond that order the necessity to institute the large capital investment necessary to make the colour television tubes.

I appreciate the Assistant Postmaster-General's difficulties. What are they? First, there is the difficulty of the various competing systems—the American system to which we first adhered, the German PAL system and the French SECAM. There has been a good deal of debate about these systems and I shall come to that topic shortly.

The second of the difficulties is the question of money and the various competing claims that exist. After the statements by various Government spokesmen in the last 48 hours we are under no illusion about that problem. As for the capital investment side, I can see the difficulty of establishing a new major network and an ultra-high frequency transmitting station. The consumer side is a different matter.

There are also the competing claims in the Post Office budget. For instance, there is one for the "University of the Air". This is a completely separate issue because what we are discussing here is a new technology and whether this country will participate in it or is to be left behind, and whether other people will start in front of us and cut their production costs, because essentially in a thing like television it is a question of volume production engineering. It is a question whether other countries will be more competitive because they are several years ahead of us, and the central issue for us is whether our European competitors will be ahead of us. This has serious implications for the thousands of people employed in our television industry and for the general export facet of our eletcronic industry.

What are the possible solutions? I can see some of the difficulties. The ideal, probably, would be to accept Sir Hugh Greene's suggestion and allow the B.B.C. to provide a colour television service. But if he were to do this on his own I can see the political problem and the great outcry which would arise if the independents were not allowed to participate. We therefore come immediately against the independent companies. Some are in favour. Some are more complacent because they are able to get by on their existing capital investment. But in terms of practical politics I can see the necessity for allowing the independents to take part.

We already have the 625 line U.H.F. service on B.B.C.2. We know the financial difficulties of the B.B.C., which the Government have not faced up to. We know the difficulties encountered in launching B.B.C.2. It has cost about £40 million in capital investment but, on the B.B.C. 's own published statements, it could provide a colour service for about £3 million more in capital investment. So for a fractional proportion of the existing capital cost we could have a colour television service comparatively easily, except for the consumer side of it, where I can at once see the difficulties.

We could do something soon if we had the will. Taking the non-dogmatic, non-political view, despite all the outcries that might arise in various quarters, there is a very strong case, in getting colour television started, to share the existing B.B.C.2 channel. Perhaps in one week the B.B.C. could have four days and the independents three, while in the following week the independents could have four and the B.B.C. three.

The question is, first, whether we want a colour television service. But it will happen, so the second question is whether we are to have it early and take part in the technology and the export potential, or whether we are to allow it to pass us by and thus find ourselves having to buy the technology at a higher cost at a later date. That is the central problem for the Government, who must face up to it and determine their attitude.

I appreciate that my hon. Friend the Assistant Postmaster-General will say that we must await the Government's White Paper. When will that be? Will it resolve this difficulty? If it does not resolve it, is my hon. Friend aware of the profound implications for this Indus- try and the culpability that will rest upon the Post Office for refusing to take a decision up to this point? A decision must be made as soon as possible to resolve the industry's difficulties.

10.43 p.m.

Sir Ian Orr-Ewing (Hendon, North)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Pembroke (Mr. Donnelly) on introducing this debate at an appropriate moment. We know that the Post Office is thinking about this matter very deeply. Three months ago the Television Advisory Committee recommended, after mature consideration, that we should accept the PAL system. The B.B.C. has been giving very convincing demonstrations of both the NTSC and PAL, but, also, has been experimenting with SECAM and the Russian version of it, NIR/SECAM.

I hope that the Government will make up their mind. Modifications will, of necessity, go on in the technology of colour television and in no case is it truer to say that "The best is the enemy of the good". The world is going ahead. Are we to be left out?

Britain pioneered the first public television service in the world 30 years ago. I was honoured to be associated with it. My instinct is that we cannot afford to be left out now; not because of the export potential of receivers. This is small. But transmission equipment exports have a very valuable potential. This is a form of technology from which we should not be left out for the rest of this century.

It would be a pity to exclude the I.T.A from taking part. I recognise the problem of finance for the B.B.C.I suggest, like the hon. Member for Pembroke, that perhaps the B.B.C.2 network could be shared equally, on some acceptable compromise, between the I.T.A. and the B.B.C. This would help to spread the cost and help to solve the problem of the B.B.C. 's finances.

If the B.B.C. is short of money surely priority should be given to colour television rather than local broadcasting. This seems to be a service which could well be provided by other means, whereas the B.B.C. has dedicated a great deal of effort, time and expert engineering effort, to examining the whole colour problem. The B.B.C. should get on with that and the I.T.A. should be allowed to participate.

We have heard about the manner in which the capital goods side of the electronics industry has been greatly disrupted over the last year by the cancellation of the great aeronautical programme the TSR2 and other ventures, and, equally, only today we have heard of the way in which the consumer side of the industry has been disrupted by tighter hire-purchase controls. It is significant that in the last seven years sales in the consumer side of the electronics industry, radio and television, have expanded by less than 1 per cent. The consumer side is, therefore, in a desperately difficult position. We must have a decision from the Government.

This is an appropriate moment. I hope that we shall hear from the Assistant Postmaster-General that a decision is about to be reached and that he will bear in mind the very useful and constructive suggestions which have been made from both sides of the House.

10.46 p.m.

The Assistant Postmaster-General (Mr. Joseph Slater)

We are all grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Pembroke (Mr. Donnelly) for giving us the chance to discuss colour television tonight. Let me say at once that my right hon. Friend is very well aware of the desire, felt widely although not everywhere, for an urgent decision. I say "not everywhere" because some have wondered whether the country should at this point in time afford any priority to a development which, desirable though they no doubt recognise it to be, should not in their view be regarded as a necessity.

Mr. Sidney Bernstein has publicly urged us not to start a colour service yet. Others—among them the B.B.C. and the industry—hold quite the other view. They believe that the time has come to make a start. They remind us that, after a slow start, colour television is booming in the United States; that Japan has colour television; and that Western Germany, France and the U.S.S.R. have announced their intention to start. It would, the advocates of colour television say, be a great pity if the United Kingdom, which has led the way in many aspects of broadcasting, should be left behind now. They ask why the United Kingdom must wait and say, "Let us have a decision."

Now, if there is one thing which my hon. Friend knows that I cannot announce tonight it is a decision on colour television. As my right hon. Friend has told the House more than once, he expects to announce the Government's decision on colour television when their comprehensive review of broadcasting policy is completed. What I can do, however, is to outline the main considerations which the Government have to take into account in their examination of the issue. The first I have already touched upon; the question of priorities. This is, of course, a constant factor present whenever any development for which necessity cannot be claimed comes before the Government. So I need say no more now than that the question of priorities has to be weighed.

What are the other main considerations? It would, I think, be convenient if I referred to them under two broad headings. First, there is the choice of transmission system. Secondly, there is the timing of the introduction of a service.

The choice of system poses a question not only for us, but for Europe generally. There are, of course, the three main systems: The American NTSC; the German PAL; and the French SECAM. More recently the Russians have devised another variant, embodying features of both PAL and SECAM, which has still to be fully evaluated.

Now obviously, in making a choice the first question one asks is: what is the best system, technically.

If the answer to this question is so clear as to be by itself decisive, that should be an end to the matter. But if it is not, then a second question is bound to arise; the question of trying to reconcile the varying preferences of different countries in Europe. For, the exchange of programmes between European countries makes it important to secure, so far as is possible, a common European system.

At the Vienna conference, last spring, of the international body concerned, the International Radio Consultative Committee, the United Kingdom advocated the adoption in Europe of the American NTSC system. But, as things turned out, agreement on a common system for the whole of Europe proved impossible. Further, the chance of getting a wide enough consensus in favour of NTSC was remote.

In this situation, my right hon. Friend thought it right to ask his Television Advisory Committee—on which are represented both broadcasting organisations and the industry—to reconsider the question of the choice of system in the light of the various views and opinions expressed by other countries at Vienna. As my right hon. Friend told the House in December, in the result the T.A.C. recommended that colour television should be introduced on 625-lines only, using the PAL transmission system. This is the recommendation that the Government now has before them.

I turn now to the question of the start of a service. Industry has represented its view on more than one occasion in recent months that a great deal of money and effort have already gone into preparations for a colour television service; that the manufacturers cannot continue with an outlay on this scale without an assurance that there is to be a colour service within the next few years; and that unless there is an early Government announcement on the start of a colour service they will be obliged to disperse their research and development teams. In other words we cannot afford to be left behind in this technical field.

My right hon. Friend has a great deal of sympathy for these views. The view has also been represented that any delay in the earliest possible introduction of a colour service would result in our missing the boat on the export of studio equipment, colour cameras, receivers, colour tubes and other components.

We must take into account, too, the prospects for exporting television programmes in colour, whether in the form of video-tape or film, prospects which would depend largely on our having a colour service of our own.

But to these arguments any responsible Government must bring what I have called "the constant factor"—the question of priorities. We must consider the demand on national resources to which a colour service would give rise over the next few years. Here, it is necessary to take account not only the additional cost to the broadcasters of mounting and transmitting television programmes in colour, and consumer expenditure on colour receivers, but also the demands that would arise for the technical manpower needed primarily for the design and manufacture of receivers.

Finally, the particular problems of colour television have to be set in the general context of broadcasting policy. My hon. Friend has raised this particular problem; and some of those who are anxious that we should start a colour television service soon have asked why a decision must wait upon the outcome of the Government's general review of broadcasting policy. Why cannot the issue of colour television be considered in isolation, and on its own merits? I can well understand this point of view. But, on general grounds, there is a lot to be said for the comprehensive review, for seeing the front as a whole and not as a series of separate sectors. What we plan in one sector must be consistent with what we plan in the others.

When the Television Advisory Committee reaffirmed, as it did in its recommendation last December, that colour should be introduced on 625 lines only, that recommendation had important implications, as my hon. Friend has pointed out. It would mean that, for the time being at least, only B.B.C. 2 would be able to broadcast colour programmes. So, too, would the fourth television service, when it is started. But B.B.C. 1 and independent television would be confined to black and white services until a method of changing them over from the 405-line standard to the 625-line standard had been settled upon. In summary, a decision to start colour television, as I think is appreciated by both hon. Gentlemen who have raised these matters, carries implications for other aspects of broadcasting policy; and it is better, therefore, that a decision should be presented as part of a comprehensive policy.

My hon. Friend the Member for Pembroke will, I think, recognise that, anxious though he is and as we all are to get an answer on colour television, there are these other and important considerations which must be taken into account when forming a line of approach.

10.56 p.m.

Mr. John Hay (Henley)

I must confess that the last thing that I expected to do when I came into the Chamber to listen to the debate was to intervene. But the reply that we have had from the Assistant Postmaster-General is depressing in the extreme, and I felt that I must get up from this side and say that the sort of excuses that he has given for the continued delay in coming to a very important decision which is long overdue just will not do.

Listening to the beginning of the hon. Gentleman's speech, I was afraid that we were going to be back on the order of priorities being the language of Socialism. One would imagine that we were living in some kind of siege economy, where we had to weigh carefully whether we could afford this sort of thing as a nation. But that is not the situation at all. We are a prosperous country, despite the last 13 or 14 months.

Mr. Joseph Slater

What about the last 13 years?

Mr. Hay

Exactly; as a result of the last 13 years.

If anyone were to say that he was in favour of our making the best use that we could of advances in technological matters, it should be the Prime Minister, who largely relies on speeches of that kind for the position that he now occupies.

Then again, we had the excuse that we must wait for international agreement. If we wait for international agreement, we may wait for another 20 years. Sooner or later, someone has to take a decision about the matter, and I urge the Assistant Postmaster-General to represent to his Minister that it is about time that he took the T.A.C. by the scruff of the neck and got some advice from it.

We do not want to hear any more of the excuse that we have to review the whole of broadcasting policy before a decision can be announced. The Government have now been in office a pretty long time—some of us would say too long. Surely they have had time to decide what they want to do about broadcasting policy. To my knowledge, for the past six months we have had speeches from the Postmaster-General and from the hon. Gentleman saying that they have to take their decisions on broadcasting policy and that sooner or later they will publish a White Paper. In the meantime, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, North (Sir Ian Orr-Ewing) pointed out, all kinds of technological developments are being held up.

I confess that I have an interest in a somewhat similar way to that of the hon. Member for Pembroke (Mr. Donnelly), in that I am concerned with television from a business point of view. But I can tell the hon. Gentleman that if the delay goes on much longer he will find a long queue of people outside the doors of the General Post Office clamouring for the blood of the Postmaster-General, although I do not think that they will call for the blood of the hon. Gentleman himself. As we are now living in this rather grey world of Socialism, I hope that something will be done as quickly as possible to bring a little colour into our lives.

11.0 p.m.

Mr. Ray Mawby (Totnes)

The hon. Gentleman referred to the question of trying to get compatibility with the nations of the world. This has always been the aim. Three years ago I addressed the London conference of the body which on another occasion met in Vienna and suggested that we ought to get down to business, but no decision was taken.

The Television Advisory Committee has said that colour ought to be transmitted on 625 lines, and our first step, therefore, ought to be to say that as early as possible all television transmissions in this country will be on 625 lines. This would allow our manufacturers of television equipment to have one assembly line for both home and overseas production. It would be the first step towards getting compatability in line standard.

The hon. Gentleman may say that this would cause all sorts of difficulties, and would involve a certain amount of extra capital expenditure, and so on, but it would put Independent Television on the same footing as the B.B.C., and it would put B.B.C. 2 on the same footing as B.B.C. 1.

Having decided that all transmissions are to be on 625 lines rather than 405 lines, we must then duplicate the service until people have worn out their 405 line sets. Once that has happened, we must get down to making a decision on the PAL system. If the Television Advisory Committee says that this is the right system to adopt, we should accept its advice.

At the last international conference political considerations were more important than technical ones, and I think that we ought to consider this matter on a technical basis, rather than on a political one. Why should we, against our better technical judgment, be moved towards accepting a system such as SECAM? After all, our technicians still lead the world, and I would much rather accept their technical advice than accept the political advice which has been given in international circles.

If we made the set and said that—

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

Adjourned at four minutes past Eleven o'clock.