HC Deb 09 February 1981 vol 998 cc715-22

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr. Berry).

11.42 pm
Mr. Patrick Wall (Haltemprice)

I know that citizens band radio is normally associated with the motor car. It is, in fact, a hand-held telephone with no wires. It has many uses other than installation in motor vehicles.

I first raised the question of the legalisation of this system in the House during the time of the previous Government, but they were clearly unwilling even to consider the matter. After the 1979 general election, the Conservative Government agreed in principle to freedom of the air, although they sensibly entered the caveat that this freedom should not interfere with other people's freedom.

As a result, the parliamentary CB committee was formed under my chairmanship and also a National Committee for the Legalisation of CB Radio to co-ordinate numerous CB clubs and associations which represent over 100,000 CB enthusiasts. Councillor Yard was the first chairman of the national committee. He has been succeeded by Councillor Town.

At this stage, I should like to pay tribute to the Minister of State, who has met both committees whenever we wanted to see him and who has been most helpful and frank about the difficulties he faces in legalising a CB system. However, I cannot understand why he insists upon calling it Open Channel when the general public, brought up on American films and television, always refer to it as CB radio.

There is a strong impression among those interested in CB radio that the officials have opposed its introduction and have been fighting a rearguard action to prevent its legalisation—

Mrs. Peggy Fenner (Rochester and Chatham)

And how!

Mr. Wall

—and have sought, if it is legalised, to emasculate it as far as possible. This view is illustrated by a discussion document that was made available last year. Incidentally, it was not obtainable from the the Stationery Office, which seems rather strange. The document was studiously vague, except in advocating a frequency of 928 MHz.

The view is further illustrated by a meeting with Home Office officials on 18 December. I have here a copy of the minutes of that meeting, which was called for a time when it was known that the chairman of the national committee would be out of the country, as would its secretary, but the secretary managed to change his arrangements and attend the meeting. The object of the meeting is laid down in the minutes: The meeting had been arranged in response to a request made by Mr. Raison, Minister of State, Home Office, on the 11th December by a delegation from the National Committee for the legalisation of CB Radio, for a discussion meeting with Home Office engineers on the technical merits of the delegation's proposals. The basis for the discussion was the National Committee's paper 'CB Independence'", a voluminous document, which I have here.

The meeting made little progress in discussing the national committee's proposals, which had been submitted in detail to the Minister. It was confronted with a barrage of reasons why the 41 MHz band, which it had suggested, should not be legalised. If my hon. Friend the Minister studies the committee's proposals carefully, he will see that in fact we proposed a frequency of 42.608 to 43 MHz, with 16 channels, and 43.694 to 44 MHz, with 20 channels. We know that the frequency tested by his officials—41.5 MHz—causes interference, but we claim that on the frequencies to which I have just referred the interference is minimal. It is clear from the minutes that these frequencies were never tested by his officials.

Perhaps I should say here that the law is very muddled. As it stands, one can purchase a CB set, but one cannot install it, use it or import it. One hopes that these rules will be changed in the very near future.

In view of the statements made in the House last week, I am bound to say that some officials of the Post Office searching for CB radios have adopted what amount to near-Gestapo tactics, by demanding entry at 2 am and virtually pulling a house apart in search of an illegal set. I have statements to the effect that the attitudes adopted might have been suitable for a search for an enemy spy transmitter during the last war.

Mr. John Golding (Newcastle-under-Lyme)

Radio investigation officers, members of the Post Office Engineering Union, will bitterly resent the charge of using near-Gestapo methods, when they have to enforce a law that has not yet been changed, after representations from hospitals, fire services and other users. They have been put in an intolerable position, because they have to enforce the law. Conservative Members who would have law and order should do nothing other than to try to persuade the Minister of State to change the law to make it easier for them.

Mr. Wall

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman intervened, because it was he that I had in mind. Of course he is right in saying that officials have to uphold the law. What I am saying is that the way in which they do it is not always in conformity with the normal practice. There are two sides to every question. I shall leave it at that. My hon. Friend the Minister will, quite rightly, defend his officials, but it is only right that he and the House should know that those interested in CB radio have strong feelings on the matter—as undoubtedly do the officials that the hon. Gentleman represents in his trade union.

With that background, I come to the two basic questions that we have to consider tonight. The first is the frequency to be allotted, and the second is the timing of the legislation—or, rather, the legalisation, because legislation is not required.

There are three possible frequencies—928 MHz, favoured by the Home Office, 42.8 to 44 MHz, favoured by the national committee, and 27 MHz favoured by the large mass of at present illegal operators.

In answer to a question last Thursday, the Minister said: we have been reviewing the possibility of introducing a service on a lower frequency, in addition to one around 930 MHz."—[Official Report, 5 February 1981; Vol. 998, c. 394.] I take it that that presupposes that either 42.8 MHz to 44 MHz or 27 MHz will be legalised. I cannot see any other meaning in that answer.

With regard to 928 MHz, the Minister has admitted that the overwhelming number of replies to his consultative document were opposed to this frequency, largely because of the short range in built-up areas and the expense of UHF sets. I understand that the Europeans are studying an international automatic car telephone around that frequency, but it will obviously be some time before the study is completed. France recently rejected that frequency completely.

That leaves us with 41 MHz and 27 MHz. We are still in favour of the 41 MHz band. We have submitted evidence to show that, if properly tested, it causes minimal interference and no danger to health. Damage to health is possible on the 938 MHz band, using 25 watts, compared with 8 watts on the lower band. We need a range of about 10 miles, or, 15 kilometres, and an automatic identification device. It would clearly be of advantage to the manufacturers if the new frequency was legalised.

In 1973, it was estimated that CB radio could provide work for 2,500 people and would cover a market of about £45 million a year. The Minister's main objection to the 41 MHz frequency, other than interference, is that it would have to wait until black and white television is phased out in three years. That is not our understanding. We understand that the BBC could almost immediately transmit black and white television on four of its transmitters, leaving the fifth available for CB users. That would also be in accord with international agreements.

However, it may now be too late. Eighteen months ago, the Minister was warned that there were an estimated 30,000 illegal sets in this country, operating on 27 MHz. From the study of sales of aerials and other accessories, we believe that that figure has now reached 250,000. The Minister warned that the Governments of Australia and the Netherlands were opposed to that frequency but were forced to legalise it because of the large number of sets operating in those countries. That is most unsatisfactory, and I fear that the same situation will develop here.

We backed the Minister in opposing 27 MHz, but we warned him that if action was not taken rapidly he would be forced to legalise that frequency. The police and the Post Office regulatory department have rightly—I emphasise rightly—increased the pressure against illegal operators, and many police forces have now given up as demands on their manpower have been too great. I understand that police constables have been issued orders to that effect.

This is an unsatisfactory situation, but we must face facts. The question now to be asked with regard to 27 MHz is whether AM or FM should be legalised. Many illegal sets that are operating in this country today come from Japan or America, and they operate on 27 MHz AM. Although AM causes television interference, it is clear that some sets will continue to operate illegally whatever decision we reach. That is one of the reasons why the Citizens Band Association now favours AM.

However, 27 MHz FM or CEPT PR 27 FM has now become virtually the official European standard. West Germany has legalised AM and FM. France, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg have legalised 27 FM. I understand that Ireland is waiting for our decision. Although it will be a great disappointment to many CB users, the 27 FM frequency is virtually the European standard, and it should therefore be legalised in this country as soon as possible. Those who have bought illegal sets can hardly grumble if this is done.

One of the objections to 27 MHz was that it would affect model aircraft seriously. I understand that they have now switched to 37 MHz, so that objection is out of the way. Should the Government decide to legalise 27 MHz, I believe that they should keep the 41 MHz band as a possible European standard for the future. Users will switch relatively easily from 27 MHz to 41 MHz, but they are unlikely to switch to ultra-high frequency such as 928.

My final comment concerns the timing. The question is when. Pressure grows every day. There have been demonstrations. More and more sets are being imported illegally, and more and more sets are being used illegally. The position can only get worse unless the Government act at once. On Thursday, the Minister said: We hope to be able to announce our conclusions shortly."— [Official Report, 5 February 1981; Vol. 998, c. 394.] I hope that "shortly" means within the next three months. This can only be in the Government's and the country's interest.

As regards the administration of a legal system, I am authorised to say that the national committee, the CB Association and the clubs will give the Government every possible assistance in adminstration. But let us have a final decision before the second anniversary of the 1979 general election.

11.56 pm
Mr. Tim Rathbone (Lewes)

I am grateful, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for being allowed to support my hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice (Mr. Wall). I add my own thanks to the Minister for his consideration of the whole question of citizens band radio, which is in stark contrast to the attitude of his Labour predecessor, who greeted every request for consideration of this subject with a negative response.

The Minister only has to think about the number of hon. Members present to listen to this debate—an unprecedented number for an Adjournment debate—to understand the importance which is attached to it, and this is matched by the numbers of people outside the House physically this evening and outside the House at other times during the rest of the year.

I fear that the Minister has to do battle with his officials in the Home Office, who have taken too negative an attitude over the years to the allocation of a citizens band radio wave length. The law against citizens band has been flouted for too long. When any law is challenged in the way that this law is challenged, a Government have seriously to consider changing it.

I hope that the Minister will be able to give the House some reassurance that that change in the law is being considered by the Government right now.

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

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice (Mr. Wall) on raising this topic. I acknowledge the leadership that he has given in this matter.

As my hon. Friend said, it is just over a year since we last had a similar short debate on this subject, and a good deal has happened in that time. In it, the Government have moved from a position of examining the issues to one of support in principle; we have issued a discussion document on our views, and seen an extremely heavy public response to it; and we are now close to reaching our final decisions. Thus, while my hon. Friends will not be surprised if I say that I cannot tell them what those decisions are tonight, I can say that they will not be long delayed.

There is, of course, no legal open channel service now, but there will be one, and I think that it will be noted that it is a Conservative Government who will be taking this step.

Mr. Dennis Canavan (West Stirlingshire)


Mr. Raison

I do not think that my hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice will expect me to accept his strictures on my officials. I do not myself accept them. They have worked extremely hard under our policy, and I have no grounds for reproaching them.

I have always thought that some of the arguments about the advantages and disadvantages of open channel or citizens band radio are sterile, or overstated. I believe that a new service can and will be helpful and enjoyable to many people, just as I am certain that it will cause problems and difficulties to others. But personal freedom matters, and that is the argument that we, as a Government, have always found strongest.

I should like to explain some of the reasons why our decision is particularly difficult and has inevitably taken time. Radio regulation is an extremely complicated business. World conferences reach, by consensus, broad planning agreements designed to provide as much protection as possible to services of various kinds, and all administrations have to work within these in their national planning.

The range of services to be protected is enormous—not just broadcasting or land mobile radio, of which open channel is one form, but radar, maritime and aircraft communications satellites, radio astronomy, radio links for passing digital or analogue information, and hundreds of other applications.

We must remember that radio transmissions can be a source of interference to other radio services. The assignment of a frequency to a new service therefore requires the most careful consideration.

I think, therefore, that it becomes clear that anyone who simply operates outside this carefully planned framework, however desirable his activities might appear to be, is likely to cause chaos. The present illicit 27 MHz transmissions are, unfortunately, a very clear example of this.

I told the House a year ago that illicit users of CB could cause inconvenience and even risk to their fellow-citizens. One of the real difficulties about this is that a CB user generally has no idea of his effect on others. He may therefore think that we are simply crying wolf. But it is my Department that takes the overall responsibility for dealing with complaints of interference, and it therefore monitors closely what is going on.

At present, in a year we expect to have about 35,000 complaints of interference from all sources to radio services. Over 90 per cent. of these relate to broadcasting services. In the last four months of 1980 there were more than 2,700 complaints, which were traced to illicit CB 27 MHz transmissions; in other words, a rise of nearly 25 per cent. in the total number of complaints. Nearly 2,000 of these were cases of interference to television reception, and nearly 600 to radio or hi-fi equipment. Police, fire, ambulance and hospital paging services were also affected. Our warnings of potential risks are therefore being borne out in practice in a way that can only cause concern. Such interference is expensive. It has to be paid for by the television viewer, the licensed user of radio, or the taxpayer. Moreover, it may cause friction between neighbours.

This interference from 27 MHz equipment comes largely from one of two sources—first, from unsuitable basic equipment; and secondly, from the use of powerful linear amplifers designed to boost the power output of the equipment many times over. Offending users have been traced, who have been using power outputs of 1 kW or even more—in other words, perhaps twice as much as the power of a local broadcasting station. I remain of the view that open channel must be a short-range personal radio service.

The next significant thing about open channel is that it has to be a countrywide service. The user in the north of England will use the same frequency as his counterpart in the south of England. There are very few radio services of which one can say that. There are different channels for television in different areas. Private mobile radio frequencies are issued individually so that they can be interleaved geographically. A frequency that would interfere with, for example, a particular television channel is not used in the relevant area. But open channel, being countrywide, has to be able to live with and not to harm any other radio service throughout the United Kingdom and in neighbouring countries, such as France and the Republic of Ireland.

Interference can have many causes. It is not simply a matter of one set of radio equipment interfering with another because they are operating on the same frequency. Any equipment when transmitting also emits potentially interfering, spurious signals. Of these, the harmonics or multiples of the tuned and basic frequency are generally most harmful. The fundamental or the harmonic signal may interact with the tuned frequency, with the intermediate frequency or with the frequency change oscillator in a radio or television receiver. Finally, interference may be caused simply because a transmitter is used too near the receiver of another service.

This last category can never be eliminated, and it highlights clearly the difficulties that will be caused by open channel because of its mode and scale of use. Open channel will be a social thing. It will therefore be used widely in residential areas and in buildings such as blocks of flats, where it will be far nearer than transmitters of other services to home entertainment equipment such as radio, television, and hi-fi. This gives yet another twist to the interference risks inherent in such a service, and the scale of likely use presents problems of administration and enforcement never encountered in this form before.

Finally, the radio frequency spectrum is finite and heavily used. There is no bottomless bucket of frequencies that we are hiding for our own purposes.

Mr. Eric Ogden (Liverpool, West Derby)

Does the Minister accept that almost all his arguments about the difficulties are the same as the arguments used by Departments and services against local radio? Those difficulties were overcome. It should not be beyond the wit of man to overcome these difficulties.

Mr. Raison

I think that the hon. Member will understand that we are committed to overcoming difficulties in the way of open channel or CB. [HON. MEMBERS: "He has said it."] I have said "CB" several times. It is no good pretending that there are not serious problems, and it is my duty to explain to the House what those problems are. I shall now come on to the question of how we will approach the matter.

What I have said was the background to our discussion document on open channel. It drew a heavy response, which I found heartening, not because it supported our initial views, for it did not, but because it represented a real exercise in consultation, and a reaction that the Government are taking fully into account. It is perhaps not surprising that we did not reach the much larger part of the population who will not use open channel but may be affected by it, and we had to think of those people as well.

Most individuals who responded strongly favoured a frequency of 27MHz for open channel. On the other hand, all the organisations that commented, other than user organisations, opposed this, but without having any common view of what they would prefer. Little public support was given to our proposal for a service at around 930 MHz. Nevertheless, we still see such a service as viable. It will give not only a better service than is generally realised, particularly in urban areas, but a better quality service. If it were as poor as has been alleged, it is strange that both North America and many countries in Europe are planning to introduce it, thus creating the prospect of a new and large international market. Nevertheless, it was the strong public reaction which caused my right hon. Friend in his answer to a question on 18 December, to undertake to look further at the possibility of introducing a service on a frequency lower than 900 MHz. Further studies have been made and these are now virtually complete. We have consulted widely on a technical basis with user representatives, manufacturing interests, and organisations such as the broadcasting authorities and emergency services.

We agree that the need is pressing, and that there can be no question of waiting for frequencies which might be available only in a few years. Nor can we put our agreements with our neighbours at risk. Most important of all, we cannot select a frequency which, almost irrespective of the quality of the equipment used, can be guaranteed to cause widespread interference. I emphasise that our findings have been made widely available to those concerned, and no one has challenged on any scientific basis our assessment of the interference risks.

Unfortunately, all the alternative suggestions that have been put to us fall foul of one or other, and frequently all three, of the constraints I have just mentioned. The 41.5 MHz frequency band—part of the band used for transmission of the 405 line black and white television programmes—is a classic example. Our tests have shown that the interference risks to television reception would be higher than with any form of 27 MHz service, and indeed much higher than with one using frequency modulation. Frequencies a little higher than 41.5 MHz would reduce but not eliminate the problems, while the other difficulties would continue to apply.

We also have to recognise that the world has already made its choice; 27 MHz in one form or another is widely used, and, as I mentioned earlier, North America and Europe are planning to introduce a service at around 930 MHz. Any other choice would be a one-off British one which no other country in the world would permit. Thus, one of the wishes of the enthusiast—to be able to take his equipment abroad—would not be met.

One can develop that a little further. The equipment at present illegally used in this country is amplitude modulated equipment on the American pattern, although even then, some of it is obsolete and no longer permitted in America, and has quite simply been dumped here. Few enthusiasts want to take their cars or trucks to the United States, but that AM equipment is not generally acceptable on the Continent. France, Holland and Germany operate 27 MHz FM services, because their investigations and their experience have proved that the performance and the cost are similar, and the interference problems much less.

Our task, therefore, is to make available a service which conforms as far as possible to the aspirations of the large number of potential users and to encourage them to use equipment which does least harm to the even larger number of other radio users. Supporters of open channel have stressed to me their willingness and ability to act responsibly, and they will certainly have to justify that. Before long they should have in their hands a service for their pleasure, and a powerful tool for good or evil. I mentioned personal freedom at the beginning of my speech. Personal responsibility is the reverse of that coin.

I have commented tonight on the factors that have to be borne in mind in making a judgment. We are quite commonly accused of opposing a personal two-way radio service. That is quite unjust and my hon. Friend acknowledged that. We have not taken sides against it. We have decided to introduce a service, and we have carried out very wide consultations both to explore the difficulties and to hear suggestions. But radio regulation seeks the greatest good for the greatest number and that is what we have to continue to seek until we reach our final answer.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at ten minutes past Twelve o'clock.