HC Deb 25 November 1968 vol 774 cc192-202

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

11.18 p.m.

Mr. Michael Heseltine (Tavistock)

Mr. Speaker, I know—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. Will hon. Members who do not wish to stay to the debate leave the Chamber, please? They are cutting into an hon. Member's Adjournment time.

Mr. Heseltine

I know that my constituents will be extremely grateful that I have been able to catch your eye, Mr. Speaker, on this question of the reception of television in the Holsworthy area. Many hon. Members will, I know, sympathise with the situation in which my constituents find themselves.

The background to the situation in the Holsworthy area is a long-established problem in the West Country, and it has been aired in letters to Ministers and to the local Press. Many local organisations have been in consultation with the Ministry and their Members of Parliament on this subject. Over the months and years there have been certain improvements in parts of Devon and Cornwall. However, there remains a pocket in the north of my constituency, in the Holsworthy area, where the problems are as real today as they ever have been. I am delighted that I have the chance to raise these problems, and I hope that I shall have a more satisfactory answer than has been given so far.

I suppose that the burst of criticism and protest that has come from my constituents recently has been in no small measure sparked off by the proposal to increase the licence fee once again. This has highlighted the dilemma with which my constituents are faced, because repeatedly the level of the fee goes up while the level of the service remains the same; indeed, the value for money that my constituents obtain is increasingly reduced as time goes on.

In January of this year the Devon Association of Parish Councils pleaded a general case, with which the Assistant Postmaster-General will be familiar. The problem which worries us now is that, as the spread and improvement of reception increases throughout the country as a result of the building and investment programme, so the emphasis within that programme upon making available B.B.C.-2. U.H.F. stations and colour television will divert from my constituents the attention which they feel they merit, but which can be satisfied only if there is continued investment in the provision of services receivable by V.H.F. and 405-line stations.

Anybody speaking to people from the Holsworthy area cannot but sympathise with the case they plead, when all around the newspapers refer to the advantages of colour television and the benefit of being able to switch to a second B.B.C. channel, and when all that my constituents know is that when they turn on their sets they get either no picture or a very inferior picture, or ghost signals, or continued interruption or Continental interference of one sort or another, or the hold is not satisfactory; no matter how they tinker with the set they are unable to improve reception.

The desperation of some people in the West Country must be known to the Assistant Postmaster-General. One of the extreme cases to which people were forced consisted of a private enterprise organisation setting up a view line system whereby. for the annual fee of £9, they were able to hook into a 50 ft. aerial, which did something to improve the service. The monstrous thing about the situation is that the people who paid that extra £9 were compelled to pay £5 of it to the B.B.C. for the right to use the Post Office aerial as a booster.

We know that the B.B.C. is aware that problems of this sort exist in some parts of the country, and the booklet it produced on the subject describes the difficulties of the situation far more graphically than I need do. People find that their sets have 'ghosts', or multiple images, due to reflections of the television signal from hills, steel towers, gas holders, and the like. That is the situation in my constituency. We want to hear from the hon. Gentleman what can be done about these problems. It is not enough for him to tell us that my constituents should adjust their sets or call in somebody to do a special service, or something of that sort, because all these obvious expedients have long since been tried and have failed. The Assistant Postmaster-General and his colleagues are fully aware that no normal human adjustment can put right these problems.

That is why I wrote to the Postmaster-General in the middle of the year. I received from him a letter which gave rise to my request for this Adjournment debate. The reply was dated 22nd August, and is evasive and totally to be regretted. It says: Holsworthy will be served by the B.B.C.-2 station at Caradon Hill which the B.B.C. hope will be open by the spring of next year. Eventually the duplicated service of B.B.C.-1 and I.T.A. on U.H.F. or the 625 line standard will also be broadcast from this station … Now that of course, on the face of it, is a slightly more attractive offer; it is something of a carrot before the donkey, and yet once any investigation of that offer is made one sees that it is no offer at all. Caradon Hill is going to offer a service which the vast majority of my constituents, with their 425 line sets, will not be able to receive. They do not want an improved B.B.C. service. They want to get the existing service—for which they pay—and so this offer of the Postmaster-General is wholly unsatisfactory.

All the emphasis is on providing the new service, but what my constituents want is an improvement in the service already provided which is totally unsatisfactory in this area. I hope that tonight we shall not hear again about Caradon Hill; and yet, while speaking of it, could I ask if Caradon Hill is, in fact, going to be open by the spring of 1969? That would be of some interest to some of my constituents who will be providing themselves with the more expensive sets which this service will need to have; but that is not a matter for the vast majority of my constituents. What can the Postmaster-General hold out for them?

There is one answer, perhaps, for it has already been applied elsewhere, and that is to establish small transmitter or relay stations in the area. My constituents are, in fact, surrounded by these small transmitter booster stations which have led to an improvement in reception at Barnstaple, Bodmin, Bude, and Okehampton, and I have investigated this. In the Okehampton area, at Hawk Farm, a booster has been established in the last twelve months and there has been a considerable improvement. At Stratton, near Bude, a relay station was opened last year and has also brought an improvement.

I know that the cost of such an installation can vary between £5,000 and £20,000 and one has to see what is the cost likely to be incurred in each case, but could we have an assurance that the Postmaster-General will arrange for the Post Office engineers to make a survey to establish beyond doubt that the complaints which have been received are legitimate and genuine? Or is it because people do not get their sets properly adjusted? I would say that even an arbitrary survey would show that these complaints are fully justified and that my constituents who are affected in the way which I have described are no more belligerent in their claims than those people who are served by these booster stations.

If this is proved to be the case, then I hope that tonight we can have an assurance that we shall have a booster station, for that is what we should have in this area.

11.30 p.m.

The Assistant Postmaster-General (Mr. Joseph Slater)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Tavistock (Mr. Michael Heseltine) for raising this evening the question of poor television reception in the Holsworthy area; for although his concern in this is to represent especially the interests of his constituents—this is not the first time that I have replied to such a debate—in the nature of the case, I have in replying, to take a wider view. Reception in Holsworthy, or anywhere else, requires that the uses of frequencies for television should be carefully planned —first internationally, and then nationally. I shall revert to this theme later.

But perhaps first I should ask the House to recognise the achievement of the two national broadcasting organisations in extending the coverage attained by their services so very widely throughout the United Kingdom. The B.B.C.-1 service is available to 99.5 per cent. of the population and the various I.T.A. services reach 98 per cent. Nearly the whole population can now receive both programmes. Television reception is now taken so much for granted that, when we get complaints we tend to overlook the achievement.

This achievement compares very favourably with what has been done in other countries in Europe. Both the B.B.C. and the I.T.A. have developed an extensive network of television transmitting stations, around 150 in total, spread throughout the United Kingdom.

But the number of frequencies which they can use is limited. As I have explained before, it is in the light of this shortage of frequencies that one must consider requests to extend television coverage and to improve reception. Each frequency has to be used more than once—in fact many times over. Each station has to be widely separated from all others using the same frequency.

If they are built too close together, they will interfere with each other. We are, in the United Kingdom, coming hard up against the limit of the practical use that can be made of the very high frequency bands I and III which are used for B.B.C.-1 and the Independent Television Authority's services.

Now let us look at the case of Holsworthy. The transmissions of B.B.C.-1 reach Holsworthy on Channel 2 in the VHF Band I from the B.B.C. station at North Hessary Tor. Independent television can be received in Holsworthy from two stations.

There is a transmission from Caradon Hill on Channel 12; and from Huntshaw Cross—which opened earlier in the year—on Channel 11. Both the B.B.C. and the I.T.A. tell me that the strength of the signals in the Holsworthy area from these stations is good

Mr. Heseltine

Would the hon. Gentleman accept from my constituents that that is not the case?

Mr. Slater

That may be the point of view expressed by the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Heseltine

It is my constituents' view.

Mr. Slater

I will not dispute the views of his constituents in this regard. I can only give the position as it is given to me by the B.B.C. They should know.

People living there should generally be able to receive the services satisfactorily provided they have efficient sets and aerials.

The proviso is important. It is a fact that many cases of complaint arise because of the shortcomings of the equipment that is being used by the viewers. It cannot be assumed that the reason for poor reception is always to be found at the transmitting end; it is frequently at the receiving end that the trouble lies. Sometimes sets and aerials are old; and sometimes badly maintained. In particular there is wide scope for the use of more efficient outside aerials mounted as high as possible and properly aligned to receive the desired programme.

There is plenty of scope for improvement; and both the B.B.C. and local radio dealers can, and do, give advice on the ways of improving the efficiency of viewers' equipment. The interference is with us and we are not likely to see it end. Hon. Members might ask why the international frequency plan was not such as to preclude it.

It might be thought that viewers in Holsworthy have special ground for dissatisfaction because they do not yet have B.B.C.-2. It would be nice if a new service could be called into being everywhere at once. But the coverage attained by a new television service has to be extended step by step. This is part of the service, part of B.B.C.

BBC-2, with its programmes in colour, is due to start in the South West in the early months of 1969, with the opening at Caradon Hill of a station to serve 390,000 people over a wide area of East Cornwall and West Devon. The B.B.C. have already issued a map which shows the area that will be served from this station.

Holsworthy is well within the area served by the new station. To receive this new service, people will of course need sets capable of receiving programmes on ultra high frequency and on 625-line definition; and they will have to get new aerials properly aligned on the transmitter.

At a later date, probably in early 1971, BBC-1 and independent television will be transmitted from Caradon Hill also on ultra high frequency and on 625-line definition.

Sets and aerials which can receive B.B.C.-2 will also be able to receive the other two programmes, and all three programmes will be in colour. A further advantage is that the U.H.F. transmissions are free from the sporadic E interference which sometimes affects the reception of the transmission in V.H.F. Band I of B.B.C.-1. We know this to be so both from correspondence and from what the hon. Gentleman has said.

It has been represented that residents in the area should not have to pay the additional licence fee—that is, the increase from £5 to £6 due to take effect on 1st January next for the combined monochrome television and sound radio licence, because the reception from the one and only available programme is so terrible, while people in other parts of the country could get B.B.C.-2, with its colour programmes. The answer to the detail of the complaint is contained in what I have said already; but it may be helpful if I summarise.

The B.B.C. tells me that Holsworthy gets a good B.B.C.-1 signal, so that reception of the 405-line transmission on Channel 2 of the V.H.F. Band I should he satisfactory generally, provided—I emphasise the proviso—that efficient sets and aerials are used. Even so, viewers in the Holsworthy area will sometimes find their viewing spoiled by sporadic E interference. But they are by no means unique in this. Holsworthy does not get only one television service at present. It gets two, B.B.C.-1 and independent television. B.B.C.-2 is due to arrive there in the early months of 1969. The 625-line versions of B.B.C.-1 and independent television, broadcast in U.H.F. and so not liable to sporadic E interference will be coming to Holsworthy a couple of years or so later.

The general proposition—that the licence fee should vary with the number of services receivable or with the quality of reception—is not new.

Mr. Heseltine

Will the hon. Gentleman reply to the points I made, rather than read the brief with which he came armed to the House?

Mr. Slater

I am coming to the points the hon. Gentleman made, in addition to the points made in correspondence to my right hon. Friend about the situation and licence fees. Does he want me to ignore these points? In any event, I do not intend to do so. I have answered debates in the House and Questions on this subject of the general proposition. This proposition has been raised many times; but on examination it simply does not stand up. It might help if I restate the objections.

The legal position is that a broadcast receiving licence confers merely the right to install and use a receiver. [Interruption.] I cannot think what the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Peter Walker) finds amusing in this. This is not a laughing matter. But what the viewers, or listeners can receive is something else entirely. The distinction is founded on compelling practical considerations. If one adopted the idea of a licence fee which varied with the number of programmes receivable, it would have to be open to anyone who genuinely believed that he could not get one or more of the programmes transmitted.

The concession could not be confined to specific and sharply defined areas. It would have to be allowed to anyone who asserted with reasonable credibility that he could not get this or that service, or could not get it satisfactorily. Reception, however, is not constant in quality. It can vary from place to place. Within one place, it can vary from street to street, and even from house to house. It can vary from time to time. I am aware of this from experience in my area. Then, as I emphasised earlier, one cannot assume that the trouble lies at the transmitting end. Much more often than is recognised receivers are faulty or inadequate.

Mr. Peter Walker (Worcester) rose

Mr. Slater

I am explaining the position as a result of information given to me. I will not give way in view of the shortness of time.

Reception varies with the quality of the receiver purchased, and with the state of its maintenance. To sum up, it could be contended from places all over the country, even though they were within the service area of this or that transmitter, that the transmission could not be received satisfactorily, or at all.

In any given case, the contention might, or might not, be true. If it were true, it might or might not have anything to do with the transmission of the service.

At present, there are more than 18 million licences in force. For the sake of fair and equitable administration. claims that a service was not receivable—or not satisfactorily receivable—would need to be verified. Hon. Members will, I think, accept that it would be utterly impossible to work a system on this basis.

There is another consideration, too. Once it is admitted that the licence fee might vary according to the services available, it is open to question whether it might vary for other reasons. And the thought that comes at once to mind is that it costs much more to bring services to people in some areas than it does to those in others.

In the densely populated areas the cost is small. In the remoter areas, it often costs many times as much. The following comparisons bring the picture into sharp focus. The U.H.F. station at Caradon Hill, due to open early next year, and transmitting at a power of 500 kilowatts, will serve 390,000 people. The Crystal Palace U.H.F. station transmitting at the same power, serves ten million. Then again, the first sixteen main stations in the U.H.F. network, with their attendant relay stations, reach 70 per cent. of the population. It will take another sixteen stations, again with their relay stations, to bring the coverage up to 85 per cent.; and a further thirty-two stations—and their relay stations—to achieve virtually complete coverage. This is an index of the greatly increased effort required to serve people in the remoter parts.

If one were to allow the principle of a licence fee varying with the services received, or with the quality of reception, would this not prompt the thought that it should vary also with the cost of provision? We should recognise that the licence fee system is a by-and-large system which is fair to everyone concerned. It does work out pretty fairly.

According to the information I have received from the I.T.A. and the B.B.C., they are satisfied with their signals in this area. I shall go back through my Department to the B.B.C. and point out to it the statements made by the hon. Gentleman about his constituents. I hope that he will now be able to agree that, set in the overall picture, the provision of television services in the Holsworthy area is not really open to reasonable criticism.

Mr. Peter Mills (Torrington)

The Assistant Postmaster-General's reply is unsatisfactory. I have here a letter from Holsworthy Rural District Council which says that the reception of the only available programme is so terrible that people cannot see it.

I live in that area. My hon. Friend the Member for Tavistock (Mr. Michael Heseltine) is my Member of Parliament. I know what kind of television reception there is there. The Assistant Postmaster-General really must look at this matter again. It is quite unfair that the people of the district should go on without getting a proper televison reception. The hon. Gentleman is wrong in his answer and the B.B.C. is making a terrible mistake.

Mr. Heseltine

Will my hon. Friend also ask the Assistant Postmaster-General whether we can have an independent survey to establish the facts?

Mr. Mills

That is what is needed. A responsible body like the rural district council would not write in these terms if it were not as it states. I know that what has been said about bad reception is true, because I live there. There are black spots in the area. It is not just a question of poor reception but of some people having no reception at all. With great respect to the Assistant Postmaster-General, I must tell him that what he has said about colour television and B.B.C.2 is of no interest to us. We want B.B.C.1. I hope that he will look at this matter again because it is a serious problem. Even if the area is only thinly populated, the people there should be able to get at least one channel and be able to see it properly.

I hope that the Assistant Postmaster-General will take this very seriously and have a full inquiry so that we can determine the facts and put the matter right.

And the Debate having been concluded the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed without Question put.

Mr. SPEAKER suspended the sitting at a quarter to Twelve o'clock till Ten o'clock Tomorrow.