HC Deb 25 November 1969 vol 792 cc201-10
The Minister of Posts and Telecommunications (Mr. John Stonehouse)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, and that of the House, I will now make a statement about the development of local radio.

I have authorised the B.B.C. to establish local radio stations at Birmingham, Blackburn, Bristol, Chatham—to serve the Medway towns—Derby, Hull—to serve Humberside—London, Manchester, Middlesbrough—to serve Tees-side— Newcastle—to serve Tyneside—Oxford and Southampton—to serve the area surrounding the Solent.

The B.B.C. estimates that the 12 new stations, together with the eight already in existence, will by 1971 have brought about 70 per cent. of the population of England within the range of local radio.

As the House knows, 20 more stations, including stations in Scotland and Wales, bringing the total to 40, will follow over the subsequent four years. Locations for these stations have not yet been chosen, but I will inform the House as soon as I decide on the next stage in this development.

The service will, like the other operations of the B.B.C, be financed essentially from the licence income, the net increase of which from April, 1971, will enable the B.B.C. to meet this and its further commitments.

Mr. Bryan

How does the Minister defend the position in which a shortage of funds is driving the B.B.C. to cut its serious programme output and to cut out regional broadcasting whilst millions of pounds are to be spent on local radio stations which could be provided by commercial means? Is he aware that the Director-General of the B.B.C. categorically stated that the Government made the increase in the licence fee conditional on the B.B.C.'s taking on local radio? Is not blackmail of this sort a gross infringement of the independence of the B.B.C.?

Mr. Stonehouse

The House will be aware that the local radio experiment with the eight existing stations has been regarded as a general success. I have been in touch with the hon. Members representing the constituencies concerned, and their overwhelming view was that these stations had meant a very great addition to the community activities in those towns. The request for the local radio development came from the B.B.C, which wished it to be extended because of that success. There is no question of its being imposed upon the B.B.C.

As regards the development of commercial radio, the House knows only too well the oft expressed view of the hon. Gentleman, but his view that commercial radio financed by advertising would be a valuable development of broadcasting in Britain is not shared by the overwhelming majority of the public.

Mr. James Johnson

I thank my right hon. Friend warmly for coming to the House today 24 hours after our tetchy exchanges yesterday, and including Hum-berside and Hull in his list of 12. Will he confirm that the station will be powerful enough to include in its range Grimsby and Immingham, because we wish to unite both banks of the Humber?

Mr. Stonehouse

I am in touch with the B.B.C. about the range to be established in Hull, and I am sure that the corporation will take note of that request.

Dr. Winstanley

Does not the right hon. Gentleman realise that this premature and expensive announcement closes the door on other interesting possibilities and pre-empts decisions in other aspects of broadcasting policy which are at present the subject of controversy? Would it not have been better to have allowed the House to debate this whole matter before telling us what had been decided?

Mr. Stonehouse

The House debated this subject in July. I purposely did not make decisions until that debate had taken place and I had had a chance to gauge the view of the House. Decisions must be made at some time, and it is clear that there is an overwhelming desire that local radio should be developed. I think that the time to get on with it is now and that all the hon. Members whose constituencies are being affected by this development will welcome it as well as their constituents.

Mrs. Renée Short

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there is very great concern on both sides of the House, outside the House, and among the staffs of the B.B.C, particularly in the regions, about the proposals that he is putting forward? Is he aware that his proposals fall far short of the recommendations of the Pilkington Committee and that on this side at least there is very great opposition to his suggestion that licence fees should be increased until he has done the job of collecting the money that is already due? Therefore, will he give the House an opportunity at the earliest possible date to debate all these problems before any further action is taken?

Mr. Speaker

Order. Every long question cuts out another question.

Mr. Stonehouse

I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will take note of the request for a debate. I would welcome a chance to debate this question.

The counter-evasion campaign has got off to a very good start and there is no doubt that the number of evaders is being reduced.

I am aware that sections of the staff of the B.B.C. have been concerned about the revised plans, and I am satisfied that as the B.B.C. goes out to explain the plans in more detail, particularly in relation to the announcement I have made today, many of the fears which have been expressed will subside.

Mr. Kershaw

What will be the range of these stations, in particular that of the station at Bristol?

Mr. Stonehouse

The B.B.C. is now examining the question of the range in each case. I would not wish to give the exact range off the cuff.

Mr. Edward Lyons

I welcome the decentralisation involved in the extension of local radio, but is my right hon. Friend aware that in the West Riding and in Bradford there will be deep disappointment that there is no proposal either for the setting up of a station in Bradford or for an increase in the Radio Leeds network to cover the West Riding? When does my right hon. Friend propose to make a decision on either of these questions?

Mr. Stonehouse

I am well aware that there are other parts of the country where there are requests for facilities to be established. I hope to be able to make announcements about the location of the further 20 stations in due course.

Mr. Hugh Fraser

The Minister will be aware that I have written him a long letter saying that we are all very proud of Radio Stoke, but that we cannot hear it, because the number of sets being bought which make it audible is not increasing. The technical point of the availability of the programme should be discussed by the House. Though people like the station, they do not get it, so they do not listen to it.

Mr. Stonehouse

I presume that the reference is to the question of local radio being broadcast on V.H.F. I am considering whether medium-range frequencies can be used.

Mr. Hugh Jenkins

Is my right hon. Friend aware that he is to be congratulated on making his announcement by way of a statement rather than confusing the whole issue in an answer to a Written Question? There is, however, little else in his statement on which I can congratulate him. Most of us on this side of the House who have no time for commercial radio view with grave alarm the current reduction in the quality of B.B.C. programmes. Would my right hon. Friend therefore reaffirm that he is ready to have a debate on Motion 42 on the Order Paper, which calls for a Select Committee on broadcasting before a further reduction takes place?

Mr. Stonehouse

As I said earlier, I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House notes these requests. I am satisfied that the B.B.C. has amended its future plans in the light of the debates on its proposals since they were put out in July.

Mr. Peyton

The Minister will have informed himself of the cost. Will he now inform the House?

Mr. Stonehouse

The cost of developing these particular stations will be £750,000—[HON. MEMBERS: "Each."] No—for the 12. It will cost about £60,000 each to establish them and the annual running cost will be up to £100,000 each.

Mr. Eadie

Is my right hon. Friend aware that what he has made today is an announcement about local radio, unlike hon. Gentlemen opposite with their policy which makes a threat towards local radio? Would he agree that many local newspaper proprietors all over the country will welcome his announcement in that it removes a threat to local newspapers?

Mr. Stonehouse

I am sure—and this is borne out in a poll conducted by the Daily Express some weeks ago—that people do not want advertising on sound radio and, therefore, will welcome the fact that their local community radio will be run on the lines which I have announced.

Mr. Monro

Would the right hon. Gentleman ensure that the whole of Scotland and North-West England can receive B.B.C.2 before money is spent on local radio?

Mr. Stonehouse

The extension of B.B.C. 2 is going on apace; but I do not think that we should get that subject confused with this one.

Mr. Mayhew

Is my right hon. Friend aware that in his defence and development of public service broadcasting he is widely supported on this side of the House and by public opinion, especially if he continues to resist a campaign directed against public broadcasting and the B.B.C. which is widely supported by vested interests and by politicians who should know better?

Mr. Stonehouse

I am grateful for that expression of view. I am sure that it represents the overwhelming view outside the House. People are very appreciative of the service which the B.B.C. has provided and want their local radio stations to be run in the same way and not to be sold out to commercial interests who undoubtedly would reduce standards.

Mr. Heath

Is the Postmaster-General aware that he has not answered the basic question? The prime responsibility of the B.B.C. is its national programmes of the highest possible standard and its regional programmes. In this country we have a double system—a public system, which should be of the highest quality, and a commercial system. Both have inspired each to higher qualities. Why is the B.B.C. being allowed to damage its prime responsibilities in order to go into this other field which can perfectly well be satisfied by commercial radio?

Mr. Stonehouse

May I point out gently to the right hon. Gentleman that the Postmaster-General disappeared on 1st October last?

With regard to the question of advertising on commercial radio, I think that it is agreed that if we had commercial radio developed on these lines it would have an unfortunate effect on the Press in those localities and would tend to reduce standards. There is absolutely no reason why the B.B.C. should not be able to take on this responsibility as well as all the other programmes which it broadcasts. The experiment conducted in the eight stations has, I think, shown that the B.B.C. is the best authority to continue this development.

Mr. Wallace

Would my right hon. Friend give an assurance that adequate V.H.F. frequencies are available and that there will be no interference whatever with amateur radio wavebands?

Mr. Stonehouse

I can give that assurance.

Mr. Ian Gilmour

Would not the right hon. Gentleman agree that the poll to which he has referred also showed that the majority of people wanted local radio to be run by commercial interests? Does not his statement show an arrogant disregard of the concern expressed inside and outside the B.B.C. about the Corporation's future plans?

Mr. Stonehouse

I know that some concern has been expressed, particularly by some of the staffs involved, and I have had representations made to me. But I am satisfied that the overwhelming view will be that, as the B.B.C. explains its plans, this is the best way for the B.B.C. to continue its public service responsibilities within the means of finance made available for it.

Mr. Roebuck

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the Conservative proposals for commercial radio would have more than an unfortunate effect on local Press —that they would destroy many local weekly newspapers which are essential forums for local democracy? Can he give a positive assurance that he will remain firm in his opposition to such proposals? Is he aware that his announcement today will be greeted with great applause by newspapermen throughout the land?

Mr. Stonehouse

My hon. Friend, on this question, is, of course, absolutely right. I can give him the assurance that, having examined this question very carefully during the last 12 months and consulted all those who have been concerned with it, I am satisfied that the decision at which we have arrived is best.

Mr. Tom Boardman

Is it not premature to make this statement before a decision has been reached about whether V.H.F. alone or also medium wave will be used? Will not this decision have a great impact on the cost and the coverage?

Mr. Stonehouse

The medium wave frequency question is complicated, particularly as medium waves used at night time can cause interference with reception in Europe generally. This is something which must be handled with care. We are now examining it to see how many of the stations can be put on medium wave as well as on V.H.F.

Mr. Ron Lewis

As Cumberland is not included in these proposals, and since it will be some time before we get B.B.C.2 and colour television, would my right hon. Friend consider reducing the licence fee for my constituents?

Mr. Stonehouse

That problem is often raised with me by Members who represent constituencies in, for instance, Scotland, which cannot receive all the programmes put out on television. I do not think that it would be appropriate to attempt to reduce the fee in the way suggested. Cumberland will, of course, be among those considered in the next batch of stations.

Sir W. Bromley-Davenport

Why does not the Minister consider compromising over this matter? Why not hand over the erection of half of these stations to commercial undertakings? Then, instead of having a monopoly, there would be competition and, as a result, better programmes.

Mr. Stonehouse

I would not have said that competition in this field would improve programmes. What I am axious to achieve is the setting up in each of the towns I have referred to of local community stations which will give an opportunity to local groups to broadcast and for local news to be broadcast. I am not satisfied that if these stations were given to commercial interests these opportunities would arise, because the interest of commercial broadcasters would be to maximise broadcasting at the lowest cost rather than to provide a community service. I am sure that this is the best way to do it.

Mr. Golding

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the extension of local radio will be very welcome to some of us? Is he also aware that economies could be made by putting radio transmission under the control of one authority, namely, the Post Office Corporation, rather than having it divided as at present between the B.B.C. and the Post Office?

Mr. Stonehouse

No, Sir, I am satisfied that co-operation between the Post Office and the B.B.C, with control within the B.B.C, is the best way to approach this problem.

Mr. Noble

Will the Minister tell me how I am to explain to my constituents that the B.B.C. has this money to spend elsewhere but has no money to spend on my constituents, many of whom get no television and practically no radio reception?

Mr. Stonehouse

I recognise that there is a problem in the remoter parts of Scotland and in Wales. The regional programmes for Scotland will, of course, continue, and there will be an opportunity for local radio stations to be established there in the next batch that I will announce in due course.

Mr. English

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, however they might otherwise differ, most hon. Members will welcome an extension of local radio and his consideration of the use of medum-wave frequencies for such local radio? Does my right hon. Friend agree that the present system of regions in the B.B.C, with the Midland Region stretching from the borders of Wales to the coast of East Anglia, is totally indefensible?

Mr. Stonehouse

I think that this is right. The regions of the B.B.C. have been related not to community interests, but: to the range of the transmitters, and I believe that the B.B.C. is sensible in changing its approach.

Mr. Bryan

Will the Minister say how deeply his local radio plans for 40 stations will put the B.B.C. into debt by the time the licence fee goes up in 1971?

Mr. Stonehouse

We have worked out all the finances of this with the B.B.C. with very great care, and are satisfied that the increase in the fee in April, 1971, together with the counter-evasion campaign that I am now conducting, will provide the B.B.C. with sufficient income to meet all its commitments.

Mr. Heath

May I press the Minister further? Is he giving the House an assurance that in 1971, when the licence fee goes up, the B.B.C. will in no way be in debt?

Mr. Stonehouse

I cannot give that assurance, because it depends partly on the success of the counter-evasion campaign. We are considering here a very marginal question within 1 or 2 per cent. of the £100 million or so that the B.B.C. receives each year.

Mr. Emery

On a point of order. As the Prime Minister, in answering his last Question today, refused to answer my question about the B.B.C. in the South-West and suggested that I put it to the Minister of Posts and Telecommunications, might I ask your indulgence, Mr. Speaker, to put that question now?

Mr. Speaker

Even the Prime Minister cannot persuade Mr. Speaker that someone will catch his eye for a supplementary Question.