HC Deb 06 December 1972 vol 847 cc1335-63

5.7 p.m.

Mr. Tom King (Bridgwater)

I welcome this opportunity to raise a matter of the greatest concern not only to my constituents but to the constituents of many of my hon. Friends in the West Country. This is the very vexed question of the BBC changing its regional broadcasts from medimum wave to VHF.

My right hon. Friend the Minister of Posts and Telecommunications is no stranger to this problem. We all appreciate the great concern and interest that he has taken over this difficult matter. But it is a measure of the concern that we have and that our constituents throughout the West Country share. I would particularly associate in these expressions of concern my right hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann), who is unfortunately unable to be here today, but who asked me particularly to associate him with this concern.

May I invite the Minister to put himself in the position of our constituents? They, in the West Country, have enjoyed for many years regional broadcasts by the BBC. I know that it is possible—the BBC itself has done it—to criticise the scope and width of their regional broadcasts, as in the famous remark about "from Bexhill to Bodmin". But at the same time, this is preferable to a purely national service, and within that very wide regional area, nevertheless local flavour is injected into a considerable number of programmes.

I am thinking not just of the regional news or the weather forecast, or the farming programmes, or "The West at Westminster", which we know well, or "Today in the South and West". They managed in a very clever way, considering width of the area which they were covering, to make people feel that the programme concerned them and their community.

Now the situation has changed. Suddenly, at a time when they thought that all was progress and for better services, people find that the regional programmes have disappeared; they are left searching their wavebands to see how they can recapture the programmes they enjoyed. They find to their surprise that they no longer exist on the medium wave. It is fair to say that they no longer exist on the radio that they own. They are told that these are now supplanted by local radio broadcasts on medium wave which emanate entirely from the major conurbations.

We would all recognise that this is a great improvement for those who live in the conurbations. This is not intended as any criticism of the local radio stations that are in existence. Indeed, I pay tribute to Radio Bristol, which is providing a much better and obviously more local service than was ever possible under regional radio. But the problem is that far too few people are able to receive it. Fortunately, I am able to receive it and it is from personal experience that I pay tribute to the quality of the broadcasting it is now doing.

But on the present transmitter that Radio Bristol has available, which I understand is on a temporary site, far too few people are able to receive it. So, quite naturally, they complain. Something has been taken away which they valued and, for them, nothing has been put in its place. To that understandable complaint, what reply do they receive?

The first thing is that they find themselves caught in a crossfire between the BBC and the Ministry. The BBC says that it is all the Government's fault and that if it had been allowed to proceed with its 40 local radio stations, all would have been well. With respect to the BBC, that argument is unsustainable, because the only effect of the 40 radio stations which would have been felt in the West Country was the establishment of one station at Plymouth with the outside possibility of one at Exeter as well. That would have been small comfort to a considerable number of my constituents.

On the Ministry side, the Government point to the problems that exist on medium wave, and are likely to increase after the Copenhagen Convention, and the difficulties of retaining for this country the same share of medium wave frequencies we enjoy at present. The Government say that it is in the interests of all concerned to move to VHF. That is hardly advice of much comfort to a considerable number of my constituents and those of my hon. Friends.

It is difficult to be precise about this, but there seems to be evidence to suggest that the percentage of VHF sets in the West Country is lower than anywhere else in the country, and considering that a very substantial number of the people who particularly value these broadcasts are pensioners and low wage earners, it is of small comfort to say that they must buy a new radio which will receive VHF. Even that advice is not total because there is considerable doubt whether even VHF offers adequate coverage, with the problems of geography we have in the West Country.

There is an important question that needs to be answered by my right hon. Friend. I plead some background knowledge on this matter. We know why it was necessary for these frequencies to be changed. We knew that ultimately they would be changed. But what is a great disappointment to even those of us who were very closely concerned is the considerable hiatus that exists. If we had switched from a situation in which the regional programmes had been supplanted by an adequate service of local broadcasting, that would have been one thing; but the frequencies have been removed and, over a great part of the country, nothing has been put in their place.

Moreover, I am more fortunate than many of my hon. Friends in that part of my constituency can receive Radio Bristol. But Radio Bristol has switched to medium wave on a temporary transmitter. We are sure that reception will better when Radio Bristol is able to obtain a new site and to get a new transmitter installed. It was most unfortunate that this switch was made before proper facilities were ready not only for the Bristol transmitter but for the more ample coverage of local radio stations that is envisaged in the Sound Broadcasting Act.

I appreciate that now we move on to very difficult ground because, as those of us who worked in Committee on that Act will recall, there is a serious difficulty for us, as laymen, to present detailed arguments on this very complicated matter of frequency planning. We are very much at the mercy of the experts in the Ministry and the BBC and IBA. Therefore, this is an extremely difficult matter on which to put forward suggestions that do not appear amateur. But it is a measure of our concern over the matter that we are anxious to try any avenue that may help in this problem.

I understand that the answer has been given that it was necessary to re-allocate these frequencies well ahead of the time of their use so that all the technical preparation work could be done and the stations would be able to start up at the approved time. But is it necessary for these frequencies to be totally used at all times throughout the intervening period? Is not there some possibility that they could be shared with the engineers in some way? The regional programmes are regional opt-outs from a national broadcasting service and occur only at certain times. There are plenty of times during the day when the national service broadcasts on the national wavelength are perfectly adequate. Is there not some way in which these frequencies could be shared in the interim period? Is there not also a possibility of some more flexible system?

A further possibility, which would greatly ease the problem in my constituency although perhaps not in my hon. Friends is if Radio Bristol could be extended more widely. Is it practical to envisage some form of mobile repeater stations which could be established economically, one or two of which could make a dramatic difference to the reception range and would enable Radio Bristol more than to supplant anything regional radio was ever able to do?

Those are merely two suggestions of possible areas for investigation. But the difficulty which we as backbenchers face, which is faced by our constituents, is to argue what are highly technical matters. What we look for here is a feeling that from my right hon. Friend and right through the Ministry, the BBC and the IBA, there is demonstrated a concern for the problems these changes have caused. At present the West Country is a little punch drunk from what is happening to its reception and the services it receives.

I have limited my remarks exclusively to radio, but I had an exchange with my right hon. Friend at Question Time last week about television. I asked for some protection for the West Country from the over-burden of Welsh programmes which seem to creep into every transmission to which one switches. We receive them on television and on radio. At present, many of our constituents are unable to receive programmes which are designed for them from the Mendip transmitter and are forced to receive programmes from Wenvoe. It is adding insult to injury when the programme they receive is inadequate and, when they receive it, is in the Welsh language. In this situation some of our constituents think that they are moving into a very mad world indeed.

I know that my right hon. Friend has spent many hours and clays attempting to find an adequate solution. I have not tried to gloss over the difficulties which changes of frequency of this kind entail. From previous experience, I know the difficulties which the Government now face and which the country will face with the problem of medium wavelengths. The right answer is for everyone to buy VHF sets. That is no doubt the logical answer in the long run. But it is not a practical proposition in the short term for pensioners and people on low wages.

It is very much as a layman that I plead with my right hon. Friend, on behalf of a considerable number of people in the West Country who have lost something they valued and who are not getting anything in its place, to consider whether there is not some way in which a compromise can be reached which, in the medium term at least, could restore programmes to our constituents which are now being transmitted solely on VHF.

5.21 p.m.

Mr. Robert Hicks (Bodmin)

I welcome this opportunity—thanks to the industry of my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Tom King)—to raise again a problem which has undoubtedly been a source of much irritation and disappointment in the West Country, namely the withdrawal of regional programmes on the Radio 4 medium wave network and the confining of them to VHF only. This subject has prompted as large a number of letters and representations to me as any single regional or local issue since I came to this House.

I fully recognise that the decision was taken following the proposals first outlined in the BBC's publication, "Broadcasting in the Seventies". The BBC intended then to establish about 40 local radio stations which would transmit on both the medium network and VHF. In the West Country it was thought that one of these stations would go to Plymouth and that we would have one other. In reality, largely for financial reasons, this strategy has been abandoned and the BBC operates instead just 20 local stations. In addition, the country is now to have a local commercial radio system of possibly 60 stations, administered by the IBA. One of these local commercial stations will be based at Plymouth—or so we are led to believe. This may or may not be acceptable to urban areas, like the Plymouth catchment area—I speak largely from the point of view of my constituents in Cornwall, a rural area, where it is not acceptable.

I make no apology for reminding my right hon. Friend—I mentioned this point at Question time last week—that I represent a low-income area with an above-average number of persons living on retirement or some kind of fixed income. As my hon. Friend has said the region has a distinctive character and identity. I believe that sound radio and local newspapers still play a very meaningful rôle as news media in the South-West. There is a degree of dependence on sound radio possibly equalled only in other similar rural areas. Thus, an important service has been taken away as a result of this decision.

I appreciate that it is difficult to quantify, but I think that it is true to say that a below-average proportion of listeners in the South-West have VHF. Indeed, I did a little exercise a few weeks ago, looking into the costs of purchasing VHF sets to anyone listening in Liskeard, the geographical centre of my constituency. For the ordinary small portable set, capable of receiving VHF, the lowest possible price from the local dealer was £14.95. If one went to Plymouth, about 15 miles away, and purchased it there at a larger store, the price would be reduced to about £8.95. For the ordinary table model radio the comparative figures were £35.85 in the local Liskeard shop and £25.90 in the Plymouth store. So a significant amount of money is involved.

For these reasons, someone—the Government, the BBC or the IBA—has an obligation to persons living in rural areas such as my colleagues and I attempt to serve. We are told that it is a question of wavelengths. Like my hon. Friend I am but a layman, but in this technical age it should be possible to find a solution, if only to cover the transitional period. If that could be done I assure my right hon. Friend that it would give genuine satisfaction to listeners in the South-West.

I also want to refer to the quality of television reception. Because of the nature of the terrain there are certain pockets throughout the region in which television reception is lacking, to say the least. The requirement here is to evolve as quickly as possible the proposed network of UHF relay stations. In my constituency it is intended at some stage that three should be established, one to serve Gunnislake and the Tamar Valley, another to serve Looe and the adjacent coastal area and the third to serve Bodmin itself. It would be helpful to viewers in that part of the country if my right hon. Friend could ask, or use his influence with, the BBC and the IBA to set a firm time scale as to their intentions to establish these relay stations. It is a permanent source of dissatisfaction when one pays a national fee, and so on, but in return does not get the quality of service which people in other parts of the country enjoy.

I hope that my right hon. Friend will bear these two aspects in mind.

5.30 p.m.

Mr. John Hannam (Exeter)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Tom King) for raising this matter, which is causing a great deal of distress in the South-West. Whatever the rights or wrongs of the original decision to plan "Broadcasting for the Seventies" on the assumption that most people by now would have changed to VHF receivers, it is clear that the withdrawal of medium wave regional broadcasting in September was bitterly resented by large numbers of listeners in Devon, Cornwall and other parts of the region. I confirm what my hon. Friends have said about the large number of representations made to us by people from all over the region. I have here a typical letter, from a doctor who has been involved in caring for disabled and elderly people. He writes: I am a retired surgeon but at present I am working for the Department of Health carrying out examinations of disabled people. Several of these people have complained bitterly to me this week saying that they miss their little hit of news and local gossip. Most of them cannot afford to send out and buy expensive VHF sets and they feel cut off from what is going on around them. I assure you that these people are mostly confined either to their house or to their bed. I am sure that my right lion. Friend will also have received large numbers of protest letters from individuals, and organisations, from local authorities and social service committees, all concerned at the deprivation from some 70–80 per cent. of our population of local news and broadcasting. Indeed, even those who have VHF sets are often unable to get good reception. In this modern technological era we seem unable to continue what, up to now in the South-West peninsula, has been an excellent and worthwhile regional radio system.

As has been said, we have been told by the BBC and its chairman that it is mainly the Government's fault for stopping the further 20 BBC local radio stations which were planned and instead creating a further 60 commercial stations. That argument or excuse does not hold water. Regional opt-out programmes were planned to go by the BBC, and by the mid-1970s it would probably have provided only a limited-range station at Plymouth for medium wave local broadcasts. Major parts of Devon and Cornwall and all car-drivers would still have been unable to receive local news, sports, weather and agricultural programmes.

In July, we were told by BBC Bristol that even the VHF regional opt-out programmes would continue only until April 1973. Following the rumpus kicked up by people in the West Country it has been announced that a daily breakfast-time magazine programme will, however, be provided on VHF from Plymouth. So the few of our listeners who get good enough reception can listen to about 50 minutes of local material between 6.50 a.m. and 9 a.m., but will miss "Today in the South-West", the "Mid-day Parade" ¾-hour programme. Gone will be these valuable weekly farming and—dare I say it?—political commentaries from Westminster. It is a sad and sorry state of affairs.

Things will, of course, eventually improve. Eventually we shall have local commercial and BBC radio programmes from Plymouth and possibly other stations in Devon and Cornwall. Our main concern is the immediate future. We fully appreciate the technical difficulties facing my right hon. Friend in trying to find a way out of the dilemma. We know that he desperately wants to help us. The medium wavelengths available are oversubscribed, and are being used for the second overseas channel to Europe and as back-up to the 20 BBC local stations, and for the commercial network of 60 stations, yet between now and 1976—the year we might begin to receive our new local stations—something has to be done to help the elderly and disabled people who are so dependent on radio for their local news. We have put suggestions to my right hon. Friend, which he has kindly agreed to examine. May I repeat them and add a further idea for him to consider?

First, as an interim measure for two or three years, could we not have the use, during one or two hours in the daylight period when interference is at its minimum, of either of the existing Scottish or Northern Ireland frequencies. A lunchtime hour, say, would probably not interfere with those remote stations and would tide us over for local news broadcasting on the medium wavelength until 1975 or 1976. That would tide us over, for local news broadcasting on the medium wavelength, until 1975 or 1976.

Another alternative which we have put forward and which I should like to be considered is the use of the commercial frequencies until the commercial stations in our region need them. I and many others connected with the broadcasting problem in the South-West believe that a short-term solution can be found if the Government and the BBC engineers and experts put their mind to it. Meantime, the change to VHF sets will continue.

The BBC was wrong in basing its original "Broadcasting in the 1970s" strategy on the assumption that everyone would fall into place and would purchase VHF sets by 1972. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bodmin (Mr. Hicks) said, many people cannot afford them. They are extremely expensive in the remoter areas. Many areas do not receive VHF well enough. Retailers in my constituency have informed me that a good set can be purchased for £10 to £12. Perhaps the BBC will consider encouraging elderly pensioners to use some of their Christmas bonus to purchase VHF sets. If they are to have local news only on VHF, information this Christmas on the price and availability of receivers will perhaps be of help.

I ask the Minister to continue his efforts to find a solution to this problem. It is a real and human problem for many thousands of West Country men and women.

5.37 p.m.

Mr. Robert Boscawen (Wells)

I endorse and underline everything which my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Tom King) has said.

The BBC has badly miscalculated, for a number of reasons. It miscalculated the strength of feeling in the West Country about the regional programme. I do not agree that bceause the area covered stretched from Bexhill to Penzance it was not a truly regional programme. It was a regional programme; it was liked and enjoyed, and it was useful. I cite what happened in and around Somerset, particularly in my constituency, last weekend, when there was a great deal of flooding. We should have liked to hear where the flooding was and to know which areas were worst hit, and whether special measures were needed. That is the sort of thing which we learned in the past from the local BBC medium-wave news.

The programme is badly missed, particularly by elderly people. Communications in the West Country are not good. People do not get around very much. They do not often go into the towns. They depend for their local news not only on the weekly local newspaper but particularly on the daily medium-wave programmes.

The BBC also miscalculated because it should have realised that it would take much longer for elderly people and people on low incomes to invest in VHF sets. Many people have written to me saying, "We have a perfectly good set. Why should we be forced to spend what for us is a lot of money on a new set in order to get the new programme?" The excuses which have been given are not nearly good enough. Explanations such as "Listeners generally will get more radio broadcasting, and, what is more important, most of them will be able to choose to listen to an alternative radio voice" are not much comfort to some old age pensioners because it will be a long time before they will be able to make such a choice. Also, it will be expensive for them.

I know that the BBC and the Ministry are faced with a dilemma, but they must find a way out. They must not simply throw up their hands in horror and say that nothing can be done because the wavelengths are wanted elsewhere. There is a gap for the new station to come in and they must try to fill it.

5.40 p.m.

Mr. R. J. Maxwell-Hyslop (Tiverton)

The question of responsibility has been muddied in recent months. Therefore, it is desirable to re-state it. The responsibility for what is contained in a given programme broadcast on a given frequency is that of the BBC; it is not that of the Minister. Therefore, criticisms aimed at what is or is not broadcast on a given frequency should be directed to the BBC, however great may be the smoke screen put up by the BBC in an endeavour to deflect the lightning on to other conductors.

On the other hand, the question of the allocation of frequencies properly rests with the Minister, and I do not doubt that it lies within his power to say to the BBC, "You are not using the frequencies which you have abandoned. Neither are the commercial companies which have not yet taken them up. You will therefore continue to provide services on these frequencies for the people who are used to listening to them until there is a replacement commercial service". That is crystal clear, and it has not been done. It should be done and it must be done. I look forward to hearing my right hon. Friend the Minister say that it will be done.

I do not want to lend my name to the encouragement of people to spend money which they cannot afford on buying VHF receiving sets incapable of receiving programmes that they do not want to receive. The smoke screen put up by the BBC and, to some extent, by the Department, that all will be well if people buy VHF sets, may lead people into buying sets and then discovering that they cannot receive the programmes and that, even if they can receive them, they are not the programmes which they want to receive. We must guard against that.

Let us come down to earth. Who should do what? My right hon. Friend the Minister should be adamant that the BBC should continue to provide for at least two years more the service expected by its customers who pay for their licences. There is no reason why it should not do that except its own unwillingness. The wavelengths are not being used by commercial broadcasters and it is wrong for the BBC to try to hide behind the proposition that they are. If they were being used, people would be able to pick up the alternative service. The people's complaint is not that they do not like the alternative service but that there is no service at all.

When the commercial companies are operating it will still lamentably be the case that with the low-powered transmission from Plymouth there will be many areas which could receive the BBC broadcasts if it were still making them—and it is not making them, but not because of the Government—but which will not be able to receive them because the volume will not be sufficient. They will be of too short a range. Therefore, we need either more commercial stations to fill the gaps or an instruction to be given to the replacement commercial services that the broadcasts will be of such intensity that it will be possible for areas to pick them up which before could receive BBC programmes. Therefore, people will at least have another service in place of the one which they have lost.

I have emphasised this matter because quite untruthful statements and misleading smoke screens have been issued about what can or cannot be done and where the responsibility lies. It is true that in a couple of years there will be an international reallocation of the medium wave band. It is also true that broadcasting does not stop at national frontiers and we cannot therefore put an electrical cordon sanitaire round the United Kingdom which prevents us from being interfered with by broadcasters on our wavelength or on what we would wish to be our wavelength emanating from other countries. Therefore, agreement must be reached.

In the 1940s, in the dislocation following the last war, a very generous allocation of medium wavelengths was achieved. If one were a gambler one would gamble that however fiercely the Minister fights to retain the medium waveband for Britain he will not be completely successful in retaining it. But none of us wishes to weaken his hand in the negotiations by predicting that he will not be able to keep most of what he has already. The more steel he shows towards the BBC in fulfilling the responsibilities which it still has and which it still has the capacity to honour the more seriously will the negotiators he has to meet in 1974 regard his representations.

5.46 p.m.

Mr. David Mudd (Falmouth and Camborne)

I agree with most of what my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop) has said, but I must take issue with him and with my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr. John Hannam) about their suggestion that the BBC should be instructed to use the medium wave frequencies which will ultimately go to local commercial radio until local commercial radio takes over. It is totally improper to suggest that the BBC should be told that at some point it will lose the wavelengths anyway but must keep the hot-water bottle in the bed until the next occupant moves in. The BBC must think of providing an alternative service rather than a caretaker service.

I am sorry to see my right hon. Friend the Minister on the Front Bench, because only 14 months ago he went to Cornwall, where he was regarded as the great hope of our industrial future. Today, in Cornish eyes he is the hatchet man of our leisure and pleasure. We cannot accept the arrogant philosophy of his Department and the BBC "Let them eat cake", because there is a moral responsibility to the old people and to people on low incomes who, as recently as six months ago, purchased medium wave sets under the impression that they would satisfy their demands for eight or nine years. I regard the events of the six months subsequent to the sale of those sets as being similar to the dubious morality of the gipsy tinker who goes round the country selling galvanised buckets knowing that he is about to throw stones down every well. There is therefore a moral responsibility on the BBC and on the Government to ensure that Cornwall has a full and good medium wave service.

It is not sufficient for the statisticians and engineers to look at their dials and say that it is not possible to use Start Point at reduced power to take on some of the Northern Ireland and Scottish frequencies without interfering with their reception, without carrying out physical tests. I understand that such tests have not been carried out. As someone who has had the misfortune to act as a reporter in the vicinity of Start Point, I can say that time and again we have been assured by the BBC engineers that there can be no leakage of sound. Yet we have wasted hours on wet and windy days trying to get rid of the sound of Radio 2 through our headphones as a result of some mysterious leakage which defies the knowledge of the engineers.

I therefore ask my right hon. Friend the Minister to assure us that a practical test will be carried out to assess the reality of our proposition. I hope that he will serve our interests and, even at this late stage, will find some salvation for the medium wave listeners in the West Region.

5.50 p.m.

Dr. David Owen (Plymouth, Sutton)

The trouble is that this debate is taking place months too late. The hon. Member for Cornwall, North (Mr. Pardoe) and I put down an Early Day Motion on this subject in July before a decision was made to try to generate pressure on the then Minister to say to the BBC that the decision should not go ahead and that a fresh look should be taken at the peculiar problems of the South-West.

The first and most important thing to recognise is that the regional broadcasts are continuing in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The essential point which must be made is that we in the South-West consider that we have many of the characteristics which those nations possess. I realise that Northern Ireland is only a province. We consider that we have a culture and a heritage which is very different from the central parts of England.

It seems that there is an inability on the part of the Government and the BBC to recognise the real problems that occur in the South-West. We consider that we are a different region. We are obviously a different region in geographical terms. That is one of the central problems. That is why it is difficult, because of the distances, to ensure that we get the coverage that we think is necessary.

The South-West is as one on this matter. If Plymouth gets commercial radio or in the long term gets BBC local radio, I will still urge that something should be done about Cornwall and Devon. I believe that the identity of the regions will be maintained only if we marry the urban and the rural areas. The cities too have a responsibility to ensure that the people in a remote farm, who cannot afford VHF facilities, should be given the facilities of regional radio.

There has been a certain amount of of argument over the allocation of blame, but I think that the blame lies on both the BBC and the present Government. It has been pretended that it is all the fault of the BBC. But the problem has been strongly exacerbated by the decision to have commercial radio. The commercial radio debate was dogmatic. I can still be convinced of the need to have advertising for local radio. I am not necessarily against it in principle. But the way that the Bill was pushed through the House and the way the Government voted for it was on a commercial free doctrine, that there has to be advertising and free enterprise in radio. That was always questionable, particularly in terms of regional radio.

Now the chickens have come home to roost. We are now facing the consequences of the Sound Broadcasting Act. It is, however, not that there were no faults before. The first fault was the BBC's document "Broadcasting in the Seventies".

Mr. Tom King

Allow me to put the record straight on the Sound Broadcasting Act. I had a closer acquaintance with it than the hon. Gentleman. I sat throughout the Committee stage. The object of the Act was to establish in this country a system of local broadcasting financed by advertising, thus making it possible to introduce 60 stations in addition to the twenty which the BBC were proposing to establish. In other words, 80 local radio stations were to be introduced, making a service that would otherwise not have been possible. It was to be an expansion of the radio service without a substantial increase in the licence fee.

Dr. Owen

I have read the hon. Gentleman's speeches. I will quote from a letter which I received from Lord Hill, dated 3rd August, which says: The BBC proposed to replace its regional radio services in England with about 40 local radio stations, which would cover the entire country on medium wave and VHF. I am not denying that the BBC has also tried to make the Government a scapegoat, but the consequence of introducing commercial radio was to alter the frequencies. The frequencies were changed so that the patchwork which we have now does not cover the entire country. That must be accepted. There are great chunks in the South-West which will not be covered. All the other parts of central England will by and large get ample coverage when commercial radio starts.

Before I was interrupted, I was saying that my main criticism was the BBC's attitude in setting up forty stations. I think that was wrong. It must be remembered that the BBC's regional staff in Bristol fought hard against the proposals. They pointed out that the BBC's Western region had its own identity. They were strongly critical. We were all aware of the well-argued cases put forward by the BBC employees. They put up vigorous opposition. I always hoped that the last Government would insist that there was some regional broadcasting in the South-West. We then had the commitment of the new Government to commercial radio and their interruptions of the frequencies.

The frequency problem, which the hon. Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop) rightly pointed out, is a Government responsibility. There is no question but that the Government are sitting on a whole range of wavelengths at the top end of the scale, and there is no sufficient justification for not releasing them. There are lots of vague questions about emergency frequencies that must be retained for the police. I should like to hear from the Government whether they are prepared to examine some of the emergency frequencies and see whether they can be made available.

I now return to the essential issue, which is what can be done now. The South-West expects to be treated in the same way as Scotland, Wales and Ireland. That is the basic issue. We want to have regional broadcasting, whatever is done elsewhere. If local stations are set up, that is all right. But our region has a separate identity. My argument is that the Government have an overall responsibility for ensuring, under the corporation's statutory set-up, that certain basic factors are observed. For instance, it would be impossible for the BBC to withdraw Scottish broadcasting without the House insisting that it had the right to tell the BBC, through the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications, that that was not to be done. The South-West happens to be a smaller and poorer region but it has the same problems as the other areas.

This debate demonstrates that we are united in our belief that the South-West regional broadcasting system must be reinstated. Of course, it no longer exists. How the Minister will do that, with all the frequencies for commercial radio, I do not know. It is an extremely difficult problem. I have already indicated to him that there are spare frequencies available, and we need to look at them.

Some frequencies are reserved for NATO. I have long experience that the Ministry of Defence will always say that everything is inviolate. However, I suggest that there is ample room for us to look at a few of its frequencies.

The Minister will be destroying his own case if he does not admit that in part the present situation has been affected by the decision to go for commercial radio. The Minister knows that. His other responsibility is to pin some responsibility on the BBC's policy of splitting up broadcasting into 40 regions. That is wrong. It should have kept eight regions, as with television. The BBC should at least now listen to the comments that have been expressed throughout the South-West peninsula.

It is important that the BBC should look at the long-term situation. I agree with the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Mr. Mudd), that we should not advocate what might be called a caretaker situation. The BBC must not take on a frequency band for some limited time and then, when an entrepreneur fixes up a commercial radio station lose it. It must be offered a more long-term situation than that. It must be offered the possiblity of reinstating South-West regional broadcasting on a regional basis. That is what we are asking the Minister to do today.

I must confess that I had a very disappointing reply from the Chairman of the BBC. I asked whether there was a possibility of setting up a local broadcasting station in Plymouth, without increasing the licence fee, and he said that there was not. We have got to face the fact that if we want good broadcasting we may have to pay for it. The BBC has celebrated 50 years of broadcasting with a great fanfare of trumpets. I think we have learned from the past 30 years of broadcasting that if we want good broadcasting we have got to pay for it.

Then there is the problem of the old-age pensioners. I suggest that the £10 bonus for pensioners should become permanent and that an element of choice should be introduced to enable those who do not want to receive television or radio programmes to keep the money. The payment of this bonus would be a much better scheme than requiring old-age pensioners to claim a separate deduction. This would be a method of reducing the burden which falls on old-age pensioners each year in meeting their licence fees.

If we want good broadcasting in the South-West we are prepared, if necessary, to pay an increased fee. I hope that the Minister, if he cannot produce definite proposals at the moment, will bear in mind that the South-West region is very different from the East Anglian or North-East regions. Many people say that this is not so and that it will be possible to set up a commercial radio service with a range which will cover the whole area. We in the South-West cannot have such a service, even if we had local radio, in Plymouth, Taunton, Exeter or even Truro. There are still areas which can- not be covered. We want a separate system, and we want part of the medium wavelength.

6.3 p.m.

Mr. Ray Mawby (Totnes)

I apologise for not being here for the early part of the debate; my Select Committee has been sitting and so I have not had an opportunity of hearing the whole debate. No doubt other hon. Members have introduced many of the points that I had intended to raise and, indeed, the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Dr. David Owen) has mentioned many of the issues which have been exercising the minds of Members who represent the West County.

It is obvious that the BBC believes that the VHF band gives better fidelity than do the medium or long wavelengths. The BBC goes even further and says that it knows what is best for people, that they ought to listen to VHF and that if they want programmes with a local flavour they will have to buy VHF sets in order to receive such programmes. I think the matter is as simple as that.

One cannot absolve my right hon. Friend's Department from the excuse about which I have complained for many years. The Department usually makes a technical excuse. Yet when one talks to the experts from other parts of the world they express the opinion that there is no reason at all why, with sophisticated aerial structures, with directional aerials and by restricting the output, the medium wavelength could not be dupli- cated in various parts of the country, radiating different programmes, and yet, because of the set-up, not causing interference one with the other. The BBC does this with a number of wavelengths. Therefore, the technical excuse is overused.

When the BBC originally expressed the belief that it could force people to listen only on VHF, particularly for local radio programmes, it soon found that it had a small listening public and these programmes had to be reinforced by the use of the medium wavelength. If the BBC has found from experience that it can get an adequate listening public only by duplicating on the medium waveband, it must also accept that there are many parts of the West Country where people cannot afford to buy a VHF set in order to receive the service. If the BBC would drop the technical excuses and consider the matter seriously, I am sure there is no reason why we in the West Country should not continue to enjoy a regional programme on both VHF and the medium wavelength.

Most of us have constituents who cannot get BBC2 television. There are many areas where it is extremely difficult to get BBC1. I know that there are programmes in the pipeline to provide more transmitters and so on, but at the moment many people in the West Country ask themselves what they are receiving for the licence fee which they have to pay.

Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop

In order to avoid confusion, may I point out to my hon. Friend that there is now no fee payable for sound broadcasting? The only fee payable is for television broadcasting. The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Dr. David Owen) did not seem to know this when he spoke of increasing the fee for sound broadcasting.

Mr. Mawby

We are now getting on to the financial side of the matter. All the services operated by the BBC, whether radio or television, have to be paid for out of the licence fee that we pay. There are parts of the country which receive a greatly reduced television and radio service, and this is nobody's fault. There are difficulties of terrain and so forth. But instead of the BBC spending £5 million-plus a year on local radio, which I believe could be done adequately by commercial radio, that money could be spent on what I believe to be a more valuable service, namely a regional service.

I do not think anybody would want to go back to pre-"Broadcasting in the Seventies". The BBC obviously has very good reasons for moving away from regional services and regional administration. What we ask, however, is that those services which are so valuable to our constituents should continue and that they should be available on the wavelengths that our constituents' radio sets are capable of receiving.

6.9 p.m.

Mr. Jerry Wiggin (Weston-super-Mare)

I apologise for my inability to be present at the beginning of the debate. I hope I shall be forgiven if I say a brief word about television services on my side of the Bristol Channel, which, surprisingly enough, come to us in Welsh. My hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Tom King) apprised me of what he was going to say on the subject of the medium wave local programmes, and I support him in his endeavours.

In the north of Somerset we are in a particularly special difficulty. My right hon. Friend the Minister is aware of the problem which has been put to him on many occasions in this House and elsewhere. The mast at Cardiff. by the very nature of the geography, broadcasts a stronger and better signal to north Somerset than does the mast at Penn on the Mendips for West Country programmes from Bristol.

It has been said many times that this is a political matter to be resolved by the Secretary of State for Wales, who should decide whether or not Welsh programmes should be broadcast. I suggest that this is not wholly the case. The Welsh programmes are transmitted from Cardiff on a slightly different frequency. It should be possible to put both the BBC and ITV programmes on to one frequency. That would require a special arrangement whereby the two channels shared a Welsh programme. When one considers that only 25 per cent. of the Welsh people speak Welsh, that proposal should achieve a considerable amount of support in Wales as well.

There are substantial technical reasons why the creation of booster stations is delayed on our side of the Channel. I understand that there is a chain reaction. As each transmitter comes into service, trials have to be carried out to see how the region is affected.

I make two suggestions. The first is that the question of putting both Welsh channels on one frequency from the Cardiff transmitter should be investigated. I have it on good authority that it is technically possible, but that it would require a special agreement between the IBA and the BBC. Secondly, priority should be given to setting up booster stations in north Somerset.

6.12 p.m.

The Minister of Posts and Telecommunications (Sir John Eden)

Hon. Members representing the West Country who have spoken in this debate have left me in no doubt about the strength of feeling of their constituents. I was in any case already substantially well aware of it. Not only has this been a matter which they have pressed on me in the House on other occasions, but I have the advantage of living in the West Country. I recognise how concerned people are that they have lost part of the regional opt-out programmes of the BBC to which they have become so fully accustomed.

Hon. Members substantially understand the complexities of frequency allocation. I find it extremely difficult to follow. I suspect there are people outside the House who equally find it a somewhat confusing subject. I ask for the tolerance of hon. Members if I take a little trouble to give some of the background leading up to the present situation.

Hon. Members are aware of the international situation. My hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Tom King), who opened this short debate, referred to it. The provision of broadcasting services depends on the availability of frequencies. Frequencies are scarce. They are needed not only for broadcasting but for a host of other services, some of which were instanced by the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Dr. David Owen). They are needed for aeronautical and navigational services, ship-to-shore and satellite communications, for the armed forces and police, and for ambulance and taxi services. The emergency services use the VHF band rather than the medium wave band.

It is essential that frequencies should be allocated in an orderly way, both nationally and internationally, to obtain maximum use and to prevent services causing interference to others. That is why one has to build up this complex frequency plan. Interference, if unchecked, would soon make all frequencies useless. International co-operation is necessary and, as regards the use of frequencies, is on the whole very good. Once international agreement has been reached on the frequency bands which should be used for broadcasting further agreements may be necessary to assign particular frequency channels to individual countries. In Europe, with so many densely populated countries in a comparatively small area, there is fierce coin-petition for the available frequencies and particular care is needed to ensure that services do not cause interference to others.

In the United Kingdom we use the broadcasting frequencies allocated to us as intensely as possible. First, we must decide what sort of broadcasting services we want in this country. Then we must draw up frequency plans for the country as a whole to provide coverage for the greatest possible number of people. The provision of broadcasting services in any area cannot be considered in isolation. The situation in one part of the country is, in terms of frequency planning, very much bound up with the total plan for the country as a whole. In this country we have at our disposal no fewer than four separate national radio services transmitted on medium or low frequencies, three of which are duplicated on VHF. There has been skilful deployment of medium frequencies. As a result, the BBC was able to provide at different times of the day regional variations, which are sometimes called opt-outs, in different parts of the country on Radio 4. That led to the provision of the regional programme for the South and West to which my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater referred, the famous Bexhill to Bodmin service. There was also one service especially for the South-West which originated in Plymouth. That was transmitted only on VHF.

With the advent of local radio it was clear that a new frequency plan was needed. If local radio was to be readily received it had to be available on medium frequencies as well as on VHF. In the circumstances something had to go. The BBC in its publication "Broadcasting in the Seventies" pointed out that the regional divisions for radio in England were based not on any community of interests such as that which has been so well described in relation to the South and West during the course of this debate. They were based on technical considerations. It was the corporation's view that if something had to go it should be regional variations. Thus a new medium frequency plan was drawn up. Frequencies previously used to transmit Radio 4 were diverted to local radio while at the same time improvements were made to the BBC external services.

The proposal concerning the external services was made by the BBC and accepted by the previous Government. It was considered extremely important that this should come forward, particularly at this juncture in our international relationships. That was one of the reasons for redeployment. Another reason—I do not burke it—was the policy in our White Paper on an alternative service on radio broadcasting to introduce local commercial radio. My hon. Friends have described the increasing value which will come to people as this service spreads throughout the country.

Mr. John Pardoe (Cornwall, North)

In Cornwall?

Sir J. Eden

In various parts of the country. I think that the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton gave the impression that the BBC's 40 stations, if it had gone ahead with the 40, would have covered the whole country. But that is not so. They would have served only about 80 per cent. of the population. There would still have been large gaps in the coverage of some rural areas, and even when the commercial local radio programme is completed, together with the BBC's 20 local radio stations, there will still be gaps in the total coverage.

Dr. David Owen

The BBC's position was put to me clearly in a letter from the chairman in which he used these words, … would cover the entire country on medium wave and VHF". I notice that there was that difference in the briefing which the Minister put out, so I hope that the right hon. Gentleman is certain that what he now says is absolutely correct.

Sir J. Eden

I am as certain as can be but, now that I hear the hon. Member quote from a letter, I shall look at the matter again. My information—I have no reason to doubt it—is that if the plan for the 40 stations had been carried through, it would have served about 80 per cent. of the population. Either way, however, one has to recognise that there would still have been substantial gaps in the rural areas, and that is really the force of the point I am making.

We decided to go ahead with the new frequency plan and, in consequence, the regional variations on Radio 4, such as they are, are now transmitted only on VHF.

This is obviously not the whole story. My hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater referred to BBC Bristol. This station is at present served, as he said, by a transmitter on a temporary site, and it may well be that it could become even better in the future. Already a large number of listeners are served or are able to receive BBC broadcasts in the Bristol area. Probably about 700,000 are able to receive BBC Bristol on medium frequency, and it is transmitted also on VHF. Already, therefore, it goes quite far afield.

My hon. Friend suggested that it might be possible to extend the coverage still further by means of mobile repeater stations or transmitters. I am advised that this would require more frequencies and it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible. to find them for this purpose. However, I note the suggestion which my hon. Friend has put to me, and I shall have it looked at more closely. My initial reaction is to say that it is unlikely to prove a possible solution, but I shall, if I may, let him have the information as soon as I have checked back on it more thoroughly.

The IBA also has plans to open its own local radio stations at Bristol and at Plymouth. The station in Plymouth is high on its list of priorities. I realise that these local radio stations, as they come forward, will by no means cover the whole of the area, but very many people, those concentrated within the conurbations or within the close vicinity, will be able to listen to them. I recognise never- theless that that does not meet the case put to me today on behalf of those who live in the rural areas. I think that it will be virtually impossible to meet that particular requirement by means of the developing pattern of local radio on VHF. However, I am looking at a number of possibilities and I shall now indicate what they are.

Obviously, it would suit everybody if there were an inexhaustible reservoir of radio frequencies so that as many services could be provided as were required. My hon. Friends the Members for Bridgwater and for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop) asked why it was not possible to borrow some of the frequencies which are being planned for local radio stations. This has already been considered. Again, however, there are great difficulties. The only possible frequency for such a purpose would be the one required for the IBA local radio station for London. This is a frequency released by BBC.

It might conceivably be possible to use that frequency temporarily at high power in the West Country, for example at Start Point, but, obviously it could not be used when the IBA London station needs it for its own purposes. Moreover, since there is a considerable amount of planning and preparation to be done in the development of a programme of this kind, as is now beginning in relation to the pattern of commercial local radio stations, the period during which it could be made available, if it were decided to do so, would probably be rather restricted.

However, this is a matter which I shall follow up urgently immediately after the debate to see whether it offers a sensible solution, though I hasten to emphasise that, if it would fill in for only a few months—I take the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Mr. Mudd) and by the hon. Member for Sutton—it would not be worth while doing it on that basis.

As I say, frequencies are extremely scarce and it is essential that we use them so as to provide the widest choice of service for the greatest number of people. There is no denying that in the future we shall have to rely more and more on VHF reception. I think this is well recognised. It is certainly identified in the substantial number of VHF sets now being sold. The number goes up each year.

I realise that that is a totally inadequate answer to people with limited means who not only have a set to which, perhaps, they have become closely attached but who cannot afford to buy a VHF set. I understand that very well, especially as there are so many people of limited means in the rural areas of the West Country. But I am sure that the point made by the hon. Member for Sutton, though he did not quite put it this way, indicates the right approach, namely, to deal with the problem of elderly people on retirement incomes or of others with limited means by the methods which we usually adopt in the form of cash benefits rather than by seeking to give particular benefits in kind.

Mr. Phillip Whitehead (Derby, North)

Before the right hon. Gentleman leaves the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Dr. David Owen) will he take up the question my hon. Friend raised about frequencies at present used for other public services in the VHF spectrum? I believe that they are in the band between 97 and 104MHz, and they are in what is normally recognised as the European public service broadcasting frequencies. Could they not be allocated to some local radio stations on VHV? There would be a considerable gain there, would there not?

Sir J. Eden

I did refer to that, though admittedly only in passing. One difficulty here is that I am pressed to make medium frequency rather than VHF broadcasts available. Second, I am looking at the availability of VHF frequencies, but even with the best will in the world, which I certainly bring to the consideration of this whole problem, any improvements in that direction are unlikely to benefit more than a comparatively small number of people or areas in relation to the totality of the South-West region.

Within a few years the international conference will be held on medium frequency allocation and it will draw up a new frequency plan for Europe. I cannot forecast the result of that conference except to say that it seems probable that in the United Kingdom we shall have to rely to a greater extent than we do now for our radio reception on VHF transmission.

1 now turn to the question of television which was raised by my hon. Friends the Members for Bridgwater and Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin). I understand very well the complaints of those who live on the Somerset coast of the Bristol Channel and who get their colour television from Wales. Obviously they would prefer to see the programmes intended for their own area as the majority of the 2 million people in the South-West do. BBC2 was fairly late in coming to that area but I think that recently the two broadcasting authorities have on the whole done fairly well by the South-West.

The provision of BBC2 has been followed very quickly by the other two programmes in colour. To provide colour television to 2 million people in the South-West, high-power stations have been opened at five places. By comparison the first four high-power stations to provide a colour service served more than 20 million people. There is, however, considerable difficulty here because an area like the South-West, with its hills and long coastlines of cliffs, is full of natural objects which can block off television signals. This is what happens on the north coast where the Mendip hills lie between the transmitter and the people living on the coast. As a result they get all their services across the water, because there are no barriers to signals from the transmitters at Wenvoe in Wales, and some of the programmes are in the Welsh language.

Obviously people would prefer to get the English programmes from Mendip or elsewhere. Some of these people will certainly benefit when the sixth high-power transmitter is opened at Huntshaw Cross near Barnstaple in about a year's time. Others, however, will probably have to wait a little longer. This is one of the difficulties of trying to work through, in as sensible a way as possible, a national programme for the development of UHF colour. In the end it is necessary to adopt some order of priorities. The provision of television services on UHF is in itself a major engineering project of considerable complexity. It is undertaken jointly by the two broadcasting authorities and it involves building more than 50 high-power stations and over 400 low-power stations with separate transmitters at each of the stations for each of the three existing services.

About 5 million to 6 million people in this country—10 per cent. of the population—do not now receive colour television. Eighteen additional high-power stations and 400 additional low-power stations will have to be built to provide these services to them. Hon. Members have asked whether in the order of priorities the claims of certain parts of the South-West to have more than one service should be put ahead of claims from other parts of the country where there is no form of service. This is a dilemma with which I am frequently confronted not only from the South-West but from East Anglia and other parts of the country too.

This has been a valuable debate and it has emphasised the strength of feeling of the people in the South-West who have lost in particular the regional opt-outs on medium frequency radio. I can assure all hon. Members who have taken part in the debate that I shall look carefully again at what has been said and at the technical suggestions to see whether there is some way in which we can relieve the situation.

Mr. Tom King

Will my right hon. Friend assure us that when he is examining these technical points he will bear in mind that because of the undulating character of the West Country he will not be dealing with an exact science in considering how frequencies will work and how good reception will be? Will he undertake to carry out experiments before suggestions are definitely rejected?

Sir J. Eden

I expect that my hon. Friend is referring to his suggestion of mobile transmitters and I shall look at that closely. If it is clear that there is some possibility of making provision in this direction I should wish to gauge the extent of what could be a quite sizeable investment programme by having some experiments on a more limited basis.

Mr. Pardoe


Mr. Speaker

Order. There are 20 debates down for discussion. Mr. Hamling.