HC Deb 06 December 1979 vol 975 cc761-74

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

10 pm

Mr. Patrick Wall (Haltemprice)

I shall start by explaining the principles of citizens band radio. It is a small, hand- held wireless set, which is a two-way communication over a short distance of about 10 to 15 miles. The cost of a set in this country is approximately £80 to £120.

Citizens band radio started in the United States in 1973. There are now over10 million sets in the United States. The sets are fitted largely to lorries and motor cars, and a special language is developed. I think, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that you will have heard of Smokey Bear. That phrase means traffic cops. I doubt, Mr. Deputy Speaker, whether you have heard of the expression "Check the seat covers", which means "Look out for pretty girls".

When citizens band radio started in the United States, it was opposed by the police. They thought it was a bad idea for many reasons. Now they are wholeheartedly in favour of it. Citizens band radio is now legal in 19 countries of the world, including 13 European countries.

We have a lesson to learn from Australia, which was forced to legalise oitizens band radio because there were a large number of illegal sets operating in that country on the frequency of 27 mHz, which, as I shall point out later, is a bad frequency. I hope that that is not allowed to happen here.

In 1977–78 the National Electronics Council set up a working party on CB radio. It reported in 1978. I quote briefly from its report:

  1. "1. High Quality for the citizens band radio service should be introduced in the United Kingdom.
  2. 2. The service should operate on a specially allocated frequency band, somewhere between 100 and 500 mHz.
  3. 3. Frequencies close to 27 mHz used in many other countries who operate citizens band radio have serious problems, and therefore should not be used.
  4. 4. All equipment should be subject to tight approval and an adequate technical standard set, with the aim of avoiding interference from other services or domestic electronic equipment.
  5. 5.Licensing procedures should be as simple as possible, consistent with the need to avoid abuse of the service."
That is the type of service that we believe should be legalised in Great Britain. I understand that the British Radio Equipment Manufacturers Association reached the same conclusion.

Hon. Members on both sides of the House raised questions on the matter in the previous Parliament. I did so, and it was made clear by the previous Government that they would not approve citizens band radio. After the general election a Government who believe in freedom of the air, provided that it does not interfere with other people's freedom, came to power. An all-party parliamentary committee was formed. I was elected as chairman of that committee. The hon. Member for Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) is vice-chairman, and my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South-West (Mr. Butcher) is its secretary. Mr. Town of the GLC is our technical adviser.

We met my hon. Friend the Minister of State in July of this year and put certain points to him.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend—and to his staff—because he received us in July and, when we went to see him again in November, clearly the Home Office had done a great deal of work on this matter. I am sure that he will allow me to say that, in the first instance, he was sympathetic. He pointed out that no legislation was required—that is important—but that there were administrative problems regarding regulations, frequencies and interference.

When we met the Minister the second time, in November, he had come to the same conclusion as we had, namely, that 27 mHz was the wrong frequency for a number of reasons. He said that there were no insuperable technical difficulties, which I felt was important. The main problem, as I understood it, as far as the Minister and the Home Office were concerned, was that any legislation of CB radio would need an increase of civil servants at a time when the Government were cutting the number of civil servants.

Mr. John Butcher (Coventry, South-West)

I agree with my hon. Friend that the Minister is rightly concerned that we should not increase public expenditure or exacerbate the problem with increasing bureaucracy. I bear in mind an unhappy experience with the driving and vehicle licensing centre at Swansea. If we have two problems to cope with to get citizens band radio legalised, and if those two problems are licensing and consequently monitoring illegal operators, could not the Government ask for tenders from a number of outside private computer bureaux and issue a specification for a licensing requirement? Could my hon. Friend help the Department by producing a specification such that the money raised could be paid to the GPO for a random monitoring service?

Mr. Wall

My hon. Friend has made an excellent suggestion. Computerisation would serve to cut down the number of civil servants. We have not yet been told how many would be required. I gather that it is difficult to estimate that at present. However, our guess—it is purely a guess—is 30 or 40. We are attempting to convince the Home Office that public pressure, which I shall show exists, and the creation of what will be a multi-million pound industry should be balanced against a possible addition of 30 or 40 civil servants. Indeed, the number could be reduced even further if my hon. Friend's suggestion of computerisation were put into effect. I shall bring up the question of finance later.

Why do we want citizens band radio? We want it, first, because the present law is stupid. For example, if a farmer has a couple of tractors and wants to be able to communicate with the driver of one because the other has broken down, or to direct him in a different direction, what does he do? With citizens band radio being legalised, he spends £70 to £90 on two sets and he can then talk to his two tractor drivers. But that today is illegal.

I understand that he has an alternative. He applies for local mobile equipment. That will cost about £900 and take six months to obtain a licence, which will cost £28. But once he gets it he cannot use it for commercial purposes. Therefore, it is of no use for his farm.

He has another alternative. He can apply for a licence for commercial use. The instrumentation will cost another £900. But there are too few bands, so it is unlikely that he will get it. If he does, he can speak only from fixed to mobile, so he cannot communicate from tractor to tractor. Therefore that is not satisfactory.

There is yet another alternative in the law as it stands today. He can hire a mobile telephone from the GPO for £25. But I understand that the GPO has run out of numbers. I am told that the waiting time in London is two years for a number for a radio telephone of the kind that one sees in expensive motor cars. Therefore, that will not be of much use to my farmer friend. Not only that, but one has to speak on a radio telephone from mobile to fixed to mobile. That means that there will be two calls each time at 34p each call. The cost of such equipment is about £1,000. Therefore, the farmer cannot do anything about it. In other words, there is no cheap, rapid form of legal communication in this country today. I submit that in the modern world that is essential.

We believe that the whole scheme could be self-financing. The estimate for the market in this country is between 6 million and 8 million sets. Even if we take 6 million sets at about £75 each, if my arithmetic is right, that is £450 million. VAT on that sum would be £76½ million. A £5 licence fee for a set with a net life of three years is a further £30 million. I hope that the Minister will tell the Chancellor of the Exchequer that that is a way of obtaining revenue of well over £500 million each year, and that that will make him realise that there is something in the proposal.

There are uses for citizens band radio other than those that I have mentioned for cars and lorries. Cars and lorries are important. Anyone who has had a breakdown on the M1 knows how long it takes to get to a telephone and for a van to come out. In America, a motorist who has broken down can talk to a passing vehicle on his CB radio and get help immediately.

More importantly, however, last year in Scotland people were buried in snow and died of exposure, and if they had had CB radios that would not have happened. They could have communicated with someone within a range of 10 to 15 miles to summon a helicopter, the police or another rescue device.

Mr. Allan Stewart (Renfrewshire, East)

Is my hon. Friend aware that in Scotland there is immense concern on that score and that the proposal to legalise CB radio has immense support?

Mr. Wall

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Safety regulations, not only in Scotland but for mountaineering rescue teams, for example, in Wales, would be helped enormously by the introduction of CB radio. In the United States it is claimed that 7,000 lives have already been saved through CB radios.

Last and not least, it is fun. Why should we not enjoy ourselves in this country today? To put the matter more seriously, why should people in this country be denied freedom of the air? That restriction is totally unnecessary, and the monopoly exercised by the Post Office and the Home Office cannot be justified any longer.

There are two major CB organisations in this country—the CB Association and the United Kingdom CB Campaign. There are also many CB clubs. Last Sunday I had the privilege of attending a meeting in Birmingham of about 120 CB enthusiasts. The clubs were asked to tell us their membership. The total representation there was 8,000, and that was in one rapidly summoned meeting, which illustrates that there is a great deal of public interest.

Unfortunately, I am also told that there are about 30,000 to 70,000 illegal CB sets—because CB radios are illegal in this country. I cannot prove that number, but when I asked my hon. Friend how many prosecutions there had been he told me in a written answer that there were four in 1977, three in 1978 and this year, to date, plus those pending, the figure is 134, which shows that the police have been busy and that the number of CB users is increasing, even though the practice is illegal. I do not condone illegal operation, particularly on 27 mHz, which, as I said, is a bad frequency, but this situation could rapidly get out of hand. I do not like laws to be broken, but, if the law is silly, that sometimes happens. It is a bad thing, but let us remember what happened in Australia.

There are difficulties in the way, and there are always two sides to a story. Let me put the other side. It is said that American and Japanese sets will flood the country. America and Japan allow broadcasting on 27 mHz and all their sets would be on that frequency, which is illegal here and, I hope, will remain so. That frequency gives poor reception, sometimes interferes with television and has a longer range than the 10 or 15 miles that we need. It also brings controlled model aircraft crashing to the ground, and we have committed ourselves to the model aircraft enthusiasts to keep well clear of that frequency. The market is not likely to be flooded with Japanese sets if we keep off that frequency.

What is the market? The National Electronics Council estimates the requirement at about 8 million sets. Even if we take 6 million to 8 million sets, the scheme will be self-financing. I have referred already to the income to the Exchequer from licence fees and VAT. We are therefore considering the question of bodies and not pounds.

Another argument is that CB radios could, be used illegally, for instance by burglars, but if I am right that there are a large number of illegal sets already, they can do so now. There is one important safeguard. When the CB radio is legalised, as I hope that it will be, an electronic device will be built into each set to identify it. Those monitoring can therefore check any illegal operation and check those who have not paid their licences. They can probably check those licences rather more easily than they can those for television sets. That difficulty can be overcome quite easily.

Radio hams, or amateurs, are worried that their numbers will decrease because of citizens band radio. I think that they are wrong and that the opposite will be true. Most people want citizens band radio as a rapid and cheap means of communication, but some will want to go further and will take the examinations. They will become amateur radio enthusiasts. That will be a good thing for them and for Britain. Public opinion is much stronger than the Home Office thinks. The Minister has told me that he has received 3,300 letters on this subject since May. That will be a drop in the ocean compared to the number of letters that he will receive during the next few months. There is strong feeling about citizens band radio.

The reason that has been given for keeping citizens band radio illegal is an administrative one. I accept that, because the Government have announced today that they are cutting down numbers in the Civil Service. It is therefore difficult to say that we must have more manpower for this purpose. However, public demand must be satisfied. The creation of a multi-million pound industry should be balanced against the need for a rela- tively small number of civil servants. I realise that the Minister cannot give a definite reply tonight, but I hope that he can make a statement in principle on the legalisation of citizens band radio in the very near future.

10.18 pm
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Timothy Raison)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice (Mr. Wall) for raising this issue and for his kind words about me. There is a body of opinion that is in favour of some form of citizens band radio. However, I do not know whether it is as massive as my hon. Friend has indicated.

The issues and implications are not yet well understood by the general public, and I therefore welcome the opportunity to discuss this subject tonight. At the same time—as I think that my hon. Friend has realised—I cannot announce today any Government decision on citizens band. As I told my hon. Friend on 30 November, a decision has not yet been taken. A great deal of useful work has been done within my Department to crystallise the issue.

We can begin to balance the undoubted attractions of citizens band against the inevitable penalties. I am not sure whether the estimate of 6 million or 8 million citizens band radio sets was realistic, but I recognise that the subject is worthy of debate. Tonight's debate will be helpful, and I am sorry that there has not been time for me to allow others of my hon. Friends to participate. It is important that I say a few words.

My hon. Friend has already defined citizens band. Like my hon. Friend, I emphasise that the true concept of citizens band is a short-range service, since in some circumstances 27 mHz signals can be reflected from the ionosphere. It is possible using such equipment—commonly used in other countries for citizens band—to establish communication over long distances, and even internationally. I do not believe that such effects are any part of a personal radio service. An individual who wishes to use sophisticated equipment to communicate over long ranges and with international contacts can become a licensed radio amateur. Most of the claimed social uses of citizens band fall well outside that category. Most advocates of citizens band would, I think, accept that a range of a few miles in a flat rural environment would be adequate, though naturally lower ranges would be obtained using mobile equipment or hand-portable equipment or in a crowded urban environment. Essentially, of course, citizens band offers a two-way personal communication system and not a potential broadcasting service.

Those who argue in favour of a citizens band usually do so on two general grounds. First, there is the argument based on grounds of personal freedom—that any citizen should have a right of access to the radio frequency spectrum unless there are good reasons otherwise. Secondly, it is often claimed that citizens band would fulfil a useful function—not least in emergency conditions. These latter arguments are seldom clear cut. Some of the benefits claimed elsewhere in the world are obtained in areas of very different geographical characteristics, such as the United States, and, as I have already suggested, by the use of a frequency band and amplification which in themselves add greatly to the problems of control and to the difficulties of other spectrum users.

In addition, the benefits often also carry drawbacks. As an example, it is argued that citizens band could be used to exchange information on motoring hazards, such as traffic congestion and fog, and would therefore make motoring safer. On the other hand, it could also be used to pass warnings of police activity such as speed checks. It is true that broadcast warnings of a radar trap might help road safety by reducing speeds for a longer period and over a wider area than might otherwise be the case, but the point remains—the Home Office must take note of this—that CB would be being used to co-ordinate illegal activity. It can be used for good or ill, and experience in other countries demonstrates clearly both sides of the picture.

The argument based on personal freedom is the really strong one. It is valid to suggest that citizens should have the right to the facility unless there are very strong reasons why not. As a Government, we find this argument highly persuasive and one which should be disregarded only if wider considerations of the public good outweigh it.

If the argument of personal freedom is in general terms attractive to us as a Government, what are the other considerations that we have to balance against this? First, there is the question of a suitable frequency. What certainly is very clear from the thorough studies which have already been carried out is that the 27 mHz frequency band would not be appropriate if we decided to introduce a new facility. My hon. Friend made that clear. I have already stressed that the ranges obtainable by the use of this band, particularly when linear amplifiers are also used, do not seem to me to be in principle what a CB facility should be seeking. In practical terms, too, the increased range brings difficulties. Interference is spread over much wider areas. Channels become cluttered and virtually unusable, particularly in the large urban areas. Finally, the use of this band in the United Kingdom for this purpose operates directly against other law-abiding users of the spectrum.

There is illicit use of the 27 mHz band at present, although I would regard my hon. Friend's estimate of this as pretty much on the high side. I think that my hon. Friend will be interested to know that a recent routine monitoring exercise covering the whole country on a busy weekend identified about 1,350 illegal transmitters spread fairly evenly throughout the United Kingdom. Clearly the use of this band directly threatens the users of hospital paging systems and the activities of model control enthusiasts. The harmonics of such transmissions can also interfere with broadcasting, the emergency services, old people's alarm systems, and aircraft operation.

Those who use 27 mHz equipment illicitly are thus not campaigners for freedom. They are quite selfishly putting their fellow citizens at risk, and I can assure the House that action will continue to be taken against those who behave in this way. The importation and use of this equipment is already illegal, and we shall also consider very seriously whether we should take powers to ban its sale or advertising.

There are other considerations to be borne in mind, too. The world administrative radio conference in Geneva has just finished its work. This conference was not concerned with citizens band as such, but it has been establishing the pattern of radio use for the next 20 years. Until we know its outcome and have studied some of its implications, it could be unwise to settle on a particular frequency.

I am not suggesting that a part of the spectrum could not be made available, but it would have to be the right part. The choice of frequency would be crucial to the success of any new service, and it is neither as quick nor as simple as some of the advocates of CB would have us believe.

Mr. Wall

What about the old black and white television 405 frequency?

Mr. Raison

There are considerable problems of almost a political nature about that. I do not want to go into that in any detail. We have not reached the stage when it would be a simple matter to abandon that frequency.

These considerations lead us naturally to the question of interference. Of course, CB could not be allowed to prejudice the activities of other authorised and, in general, more important users of the spectrum. Some of the bands which we have examined would give rise to serious problems. Their effects, given countryside use, on, for example, broadcasting activities would be unacceptable.

A proper specification and good frequency planning could minimise the risks of interference but could never entirely eliminate it. Even where there is no relationship between the frequencies concerned, so-called break-in would affect, to some extent or another, such things as television receivers or hi-fi equipment, either through inadequacies in receivers or because of the sheer proximity of equipment, especially since a CB service would operate much more widely in residential areas, blocks of flats and so forth than existing private mobile radio services. Such interference can generally be dealt with by fitting filters to the equipment being interfered with; even so, a number of citizens would be put to inconvenience and personal expense by the activities of others. Complaints of interference would increase; the work load of the Post Office's radio interference service, which acts as our agent in the field, would increase; and thus the costs of that service, which fall upon public funds, would also rise.

The question of resource and staff costs is crucial to our consideration of the issue. Were we to decide to introduce CB, its regulation should be as simple and as free from bureaucratic shackles as can be devised. We can be certain that abuses would occur within any new allocated band. These might include the use of the frequency for anti-social purposes, obscene language, and deliberate jamming of frequencies, all of which are well documented occurrences in other countries. But my own view is that we could not set out to try to regulate this. A small army of officials would be required to make any impact upon the problem. I believe that users would have to live with these difficulties themselves. This is the obverse of the personal freedom coin.

On the other hand, we could not opt out of regulation and control altogether. We would have to ensure that a new service did not cause unacceptable interference to other users, we would have to ensure that proper equipment was used and we might wish to retain some sanction against the user who deliberately behaves improperly or causes risk to other services. We therefore see a need for a licensing system, backed up by some form of technical control, and it is only fair to say that, virtually without exception, those who have argued for CB in this country have assumed that such a system would operate. I accept that simplicity would be vital. Anything else would run counter to the concept of freedom implicit in the idea of citizens band.

But however simple the system, there would be a requirement for staff to carry out the administrative and regulatory functions. We would probably be talking of tens of civil servants rather than individuals or hundreds, but even that requirement carries great difficulties in present circumstances. As a Government, we know that the public sector is too big. It would therefore be a most serious undertaking to expand it, in however small a degree, in order to operate a new facility which, however desirable, is not essential.

Mr. Tim Rathbone(Lewis) rose

Mr. Raison

I heard my hon. Friend's comment about this. I was interested in what he said. It is worth thinking about, although I have some doubts about it.

Mr. Rathbone

May I put one brief suggestion to the Minister? Could not he use an agency which already exists both to collect the finance—the licensing—and also to administer it? That might be the IBA.

Mr. Raison

As we go into this, clearly we are looking at the various possibilities. I am interested in my hon. Friend's suggestion.

May I briefly sum up? I believe that experience in other parts of the world points up very clearly the sharply increased work load both in the regulatory and the monitoring and enforcement fields when a CB service has been introduced. This, then, is the area which must concern us greatly in the present economic climate. Nevertheless, I emphasise once more that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and I have reached no final decision. We shall continue to try to reduce the difficulties I have outlined tonight. I believe that, although this has been a short debate, it has been useful to us in pursuing our objective.

10.28 pm
Mr. Tim Rathbone (Lewes)

I should like to add one postscript in the few remaining minutes of the debate. Free communication between well-behaved citizens should be not only allowed but encouraged by a Conservative Government as long as it does not hurt other citizens. That is what my hon. Friends, others and I have been arguing for a long time.

In addition, I should like to point out how free communications seems to be a point of prime consideration for those on the well-filled Government Benches, although not one of any of the Opposition parties is present to take any interest in the subject. I think that it is as well to note that in the record.

10.29 pm
Mr. Michael Colvin (Bristol, North-West)

When my hon. Friend the Minister of State pointed out the pros and cons of citizens band radio, he omitted to say that it might well be a net revenue earner to the Government. As we are concerned to reduce the public sector borrowing requirement, it could be of benefit to the Exchequer at this time. At the same time, the Minister overlooked the fact that, if manufacturing industry in this country accepted the challenge of citizens band radio, it would make a difference of 5,000 or 10,000 jobs in manufacturing industry in Britain today.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Ten o'clock.

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